This blog was originally featured on the parenting website, "Grown and Flown." 

“That’s weird.”

In conversation, some people might balk at that response. In college essay writing, “weird” can be a great start. People, especially socially conscious teenagers, try to avoid the label. However, unique interests, like playing the ukulele or collecting antique spoons, often reveal something significant, or at the very least, spark questions. That’s the key—inspiring your reader to want to know more. There are only so many ways to put a distinctive spin on winning the championship game or learning a lesson at overnight camp. But an essay about a wrestler who takes dance lessons? That will raise an admission’s officer’s eyebrows—in a good way.  

Identifying one’s most compelling quirks is a challenge. I often start brainstorming conversations with the question: what’s the strangest thing about you? However, it’s tough to look in the mirror and see beyond the familiar, especially when you’re feeling the pressure of application deadlines.  

Writers must dig deeper to uncover the real personal essay gems. One strategy is to literally, dig. Most teenagers’ rooms could qualify as archeological excavation sites, layered with relics, old papers, ticket stubs, etc. While this is annoying for parents, it can be ideal for brainstorming. Sifting through a random collection of stuff is a great exercise; teens might be surprised by what they find. Maybe it’s a trove of old sketches or a forgotten journal, or maybe, a receipt that reminds them of the snowy day they went searching for sleds and wound up on cookie sheets. Sometimes, our subconscious tells us to save things that seem trivial, but have a special meaning or memory tucked within.

Another trick is to turn the question around, asking family or friends, “What’s the strangest thing about me?” While this might turn a family dinner into a roast, especially if siblings are involved, people close to us can often see endearing quirks we can’t. I tell my students that many of the best essay topics involve paradoxes: things that seem absurd or contradictory but are somehow true. Perhaps, it’s a surfer who’s afraid of the ocean or a kid teaching a parent how to ride a bike. One of my favorite essay samples features a mom who creates artwork entirely out of garbage. The core theme of the essay is embracing differences and finding beauty in strange places. That’s step two of the process. After identifying “the weird,” colleges expect students to delve deeper—extrapolating a quirk or experience into a larger, more meaningful idea.

To parents beginning the college process: encourage your teenager to welcome the weird, the paradoxical, and the downright bizarre as possible essay topics. Writing about these things not only separates human beings from clichés, it shows a self-awareness that comes from genuine introspection.  In a sky-high pile of essays, it’s always refreshing for a reader to think, “I’ve never seen that before.”