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Question

Dear Mitch,

I'm starting to think about what I should write for my essay on my college application, and I'm thinking about the time last year when I made the winning play for our football team.  It was a very important game.  So do you think that it would make a good essay?

Frank G. 

Answer

Dear Frank G.,

First, you shouldn't think that any particular topic will "make a good essay" or "not make a good essay".  The quality of the essay depends upon how you write it.  In other words, the way you handle the football experience (to use your example), or the way you handle any other experience, such as the level of insight you use when reflecting upon the action, and the care you take in the words you select to describe what happened -- these are the things that matter. In fact, while many great books have been written about exciting events such as murder, there are also just as many great books written about ordinary event, or even quiet events such as the journey in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea.  

On the college application essay I would to be very careful to stay clear of an event that might come across as one you are using to portray yourself as some kind of "hero," even if you are only being a hero for an afternoon.  And, truthfully, the football essay you describe seems to me to be in danger of coming across as an essay of the heroic sort.  A better idea, I believe (and it has been borne out by my years of experience working with students through their college application process), is to select a quieter experience, preferably one in which you "failed," coupled with a later reflection that demonstrates to the reader how you have grown (or at least learned) from the setback.  After all, schools are seeking students who are good learners, and who are interested in learning, and one of the main ingredients in such a person is humility.  (It is hard to teach a person who beleives he/she knows everything already.)

On a final note, there is a metaphor which I have used a number of times over the years, which I think gives a good feeling for how a college application essay should read:  Think of a large sheet of paper rolled into a cone-shape, with a tiny opening at one end and a wide opening at the other.  If you look through the tiny opening you will see a pin-prick of light squeezing through it, yet if you get an eye close enough to that opening you will also be able to see a great deal of action going on in the room, or at least a patch of scenery.  Try to think of an experience you've had that is "small" (one that wasn't a matter of saving lives or cutting down the largest tree in your state), and use that experience to reflect or learn something that has a broader significance, some insight you will be able to apply to a whole area of your life in the future.

For example, you may have had an experience in which you misjudged someone and dismissed him, only to later regret not having given that person a fair chance to show his fine character.   From that experience might come the realization that you would benefit from working to avoid judging people before taking the time to know them beyond a quick first impression -- or something like that!

I hope this helps!  Good luck with your applications, and good luck with the admissions process.

-- Mitch