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Crafting an Unforgettable College Essay

Most selective colleges require you to submit an essay or personal statement as part of your application.

It may sound like a chore, and it will certainly take a substantial amount of work. But it’s also a unique opportunity that can make a difference at decision time. Admissions committees put the most weight on your high school grades and your test scores. However, selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities, to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.

Telling Your Story to Colleges

So what does set you apart?

You have a unique background, interests and personality. This is your chance to tell your story (or at least part of it). The best way to tell your story is to write a personal, thoughtful essay about something that has meaning for you. Be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.

Admissions officers have to read an unbelievable number of college essays, most of which are forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sounding like themselves. Others write about a subject that they don’t care about, but that they think will impress admissions officers.

You don’t need to have started your own business or have spent the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the first-year class.

Tips for a Stellar College Application Essay

1. Write about something that’s important to you.

It could be an experience, a person, a book—anything that has had an impact on your life.

2. Don’t just recount—reflect!

Anyone can write about how they won the big game or the summer they spent in Rome. When recalling these events, you need to give more than the play-by-play or itinerary. Describe what you learned from the experience and how it changed you.

3. Being funny is tough.

A student who can make an admissions officer laugh never gets lost in the shuffle. But beware. What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different. We caution against one-liners, limericks and anything off–color.

4. Start early and write several drafts.

Set it aside for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicant’s own voice?

5. No repeats.

What you write in your application essay or personal statement should not contradict any other part of your application–nor should it repeat it. This isn’t the place to list your awards or discuss your grades or test scores.

6. Answer the question being asked.

Don’t reuse an answer to a similar question from another application.

7. Have at least one other person edit your essay.

A teacher or college counselor is your best resource. And before you send it off, check, check again, and then triple check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.

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Unique college essay

by Carol Barash on May 27, 2014 in Admissions

What should students write about in their college application essays? I get this question from student after student: What should I write about to get into college? What topics are admissions officers looking for?

Admissions officers are looking for three things in your admission essay: a unique perspective, strong writing, and an authentic voice. While there is no magic topic that will automatically ensure admission at the college of your dreams, there are experiences everyone has that you can use to find your strongest possible application essays.

But first, consider the word “topic.” It originally meant “subject suitable for debate.” So you don’t actually want to find a topic! Debatable topics rarely make great essays. Forget winning, forget convincing, and forget presenting yourself as somehow right or better than other people.

Admissions officers are people, and people love stories. Your stories are not debatable. You own them. The way to connect with other people is to tell your own story, honestly and authentically, as only you can tell it.

Here are 5 places to find great college essay topics your own life experience:

Everyone eats! And when you read a story about food, most people warm up and start thinking about their own favorite foods and family gatherings. That’s why we start the Story To College Essay in a Day course with Memorable Meal stories.

The story of my junior year in high school could be told through three meals: The first night of Hanukkah, my mother was making latkes when my father sat down and announced, “I have cancer.” We dipped our Pepperidge Farm cookies in chamomile tea the night my mother whispered, “It doesn’t look like Daddy’s getting better. He wants to come home.” And the night before my father died, he propped himself up to eat a bowl of minestrone soup. “Get all the education you can, Carol,” he said as he drifted back to sleep, “Always be learning.”

Look for important conversations you’ve had, sitting around something to munch on.

The first time I ever advised a student on their college application essay, I worked with a quiet student, a guy who disappeared into the back of his classes. He wrote his essay about building a treehouse with his best friend. Jason’s story revealed the many facets of his character: his creativity, his expert planning, his love of nature and building, and the comical things that guys say to one another when they are just hanging out. That was the first time I saw how application essays can bring a student to life and help them outwit the college admissions numbers game.

Like Jason, look for activities where you’ve taken a creative approach or dealt with a challenge as you plan your Common Application essay.

Speaking of challenges: one of the most moving essays I’ve ever read began, “It was the first day of ninth grade. I walked into the cafeteria. All of the black students were sitting on my left, talking to themselves. All of the white students were sitting on my right, talking to themselves. Where was I, with my cappuccino colored skin, where was I to sit for lunch on the first day of ninth grade?”

Every one of us has had those moments. Suddenly, you are in a completely new situation, and need to do something, but you have no idea what. Application essays about challenges reveal how you respond to difficulty to people who are very interested in how you will handle the next four years on your own.

The second Common App question asks, “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?”

It’s not a trick question. In fact, it’s the most complex and nuanced of the Common App prompts. It gives you the chance to reflect and show your ability to learn from your experiences. It takes time to find the type of mistakes you want to talk about, but I assure you: it works.

What difference do you want to make in the world? Where specifically are you going with your life? These questions should inform your entire college application process.

Research on education shows that the strongest predictor of a student’s success is how detailed and specific their picture is of the future. This is the most important work we do, as individuals and communities. Explain your commitments, and you will be the kind of student colleges find immensely attractive.

You may have noticed that these ideas got harder to tell honestly as you worked down the list. When you write about difficult topics—mistakes, learning, making a difference—it is very tempting to start talking in clichés, or to end in a place where you are perfect.

Colleges are not looking for perfect people. They are looking for students who will make a difference in their classrooms, dorms, and communities. Where are the stories that reveal what you bring to the world? Your best essays grow out of those moments.

Download four essays that got students into Cornell, the University of Chicago, and Smith to see how Story To College teaches students to find their unique stories and develop their authentic voices.

At Story To College we teach how to find their most honest and authentic stories and shape them into powerful essays that admissions officers will remember. We provide college application essay courses and admissions courses to help all our students achieve their best results. We are excited to host our first application essay courses in Atlanta this summer, starting May 29th. Find the course that’s right for you at storytocollege.com/courses, or call us to talk to an expert at 646-503-4861.

Carol Barash, PhD, founder and CEO of Story To College and author of Write Out Loud, has taught over 10,000 students around the world–from first-generation college students to the children of bankers and CEOs–how to tell their stories and write essays that win admission and scholarships at selective colleges.

Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 866-789-PREP (7737) or info@applerouth.com.

Next up in Admissions

I love these ideas-every person could find a seed of an idea within these 4 prompts. They are deceptively simple, but certainly would lead to the most interesting types of essays. Thanks for sharing!

My first college essay was written by Senperfect com, and my college professor

was more than satisfied!

Hey, I think you are going to write your paper by your own but do you have best essay topics to select among them. If your answer is no, then you are required to check the various online forums so that you can get an idea of what topic you should select. Also, you can ask from online writers to get best topics.

It would be better if you can get computer science help from online writers as they can provide you the best writing samples and best possible solution to your query. Second thing is that they can support you later with your queries if you have. You can get great marks with their help.

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11 Offbeat College Essay Topics

Let’s take a look at some of the stranger questions those wacky admissions officers have asked.

1. How do you feel about Wednesday? (University of Chicago, 2002)

This topic was inspired by a student. However, it was optional. Students did not have to share their thoughts on Wednesday if they did not feel comfortable doing so.

2. What outrages you? (Wake Forest, 2009)

For most students? Questions like this one. We think admissions officers are looking for a particular answer, like “genocide.” Wake Forest claims they just want to know the real you, but honestly, they’re just being obnoxious.

3. Write a haiku, limerick, or short poem that best represents you. (NYU, 2009)

College essays are stressful

Don’t make me do this.

4. In the year 2050, a movie is being made of your life. Please tell us the name of your movie and briefly summarize the story line. (NYU, 2009)

College admissions officers like to throw in “fun” questions like this to relieve a bit of the stress high school seniors face while applying to college. I don’t think it’s working.

This question is one of several options for prospective Tufts students this year. I’m wondering how most people will interpret this one—I immediately thought of extraterrestrial life. In any case, I’m betting most students will pick a more generic essay that involves less thinking.

6. What is college for? (Hampshire College, 2009)

Small liberal arts colleges like to pose deceptively simple questions like this one. I’d probably come up with something cheesy about forming close personal bonds and broadening myself intellectually.

7. Please describe a daily routine or tradition of yours that may seem ordinary to others but holds special meaning for you. Why is this practice significant to you? (Barnard, 2009)

Yet another essay that lets you sneakily show how unique you are. Colleges want students to really open up, but I wonder how many essays like these have fabricated answers of what the students think will sound good, not reality.

8. Make a bold prediction about something in the year 2020 that no one else has made a bold prediction about. (University of Virginia, 1999)

UVa is another college that offers several interesting optional essays each year. Colleges claim they truly are optional and you won’t be penalized for not doing them”¦

9. Write a short story using one of the following titles: a.) House of Cards, b.)The Poor Sport, c.) Drama at the Prom, d.) Election Night, 2044, e.) The Getaway. (Tufts, 2009)

This is an unusual essay, as it’s asking for something fictional. But I’d imagine any prospective creative writing majors would be quite happy to pen a short story rather than a revealing nonfiction essay.

10. How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be.) (Chicago, 2009)

I had to include another UChicago one—they’re just so odd. This one is also inspired by a student (I’m curious to know the source of the inspiration.) This university likes to use offbeat questions because it draws in a different kind of student—a bit eclectic and intellectual—which is just what Chicago is looking for.

11. You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit Page 217. (UPenn, 2009)

This topic was popularized by UPenn in the ’80s, and many other colleges have adopted it since. I read one (possibly apocryphal) anecdote about a father who called an admissions officer to ask if his son could send his essay in late, as he wouldn’t have time to finish his 300 page autobiography before deadline.

Do you know of any other interesting essay topics? Tell us about them in the comments!

Legendary Pictures took a gamble on Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 monster/robot slugfest. Since it wasn’t based on a preexisting franchise, it lacked a built-in fanbase. That can be a serious drawback in our current age of blockbuster remakes and reboots. The movie underperformed domestically; in America, it grossed just over $100 million against its $180 million budget. Yet Pacific Rim was a huge hit overseas and acquired enough fans to earn itself a sequel, Pacific Rim Uprising, which arrives in theaters this week. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the movie that started it all.

1. THE PREMISE CAME TO SCREENWRITER TRAVIS BEACHAM WHILE HE WAS TAKING A STROLL.

One foggy day in 2007, Beacham—who’d recently moved to California—was walking along Santa Monica Beach. As he looked out at the Ferris wheel on the city’s eponymous pier, he pictured a looming sea monster. Then he imagined an equally large robot gearing up to fight the beast. “They just sort of materialized out of the fog, these vast godlike things,” Beacham said. He decided to pursue the concept further after coming up with the idea of human co-pilots who’d need to operate their robot as a team, which added a new thematic dimension.

“I didn’t know I had something I wanted to write until I realized these robots are driven by two pilots, and what happens when one of those people dies? What happens to the leftovers? Then it became a story about loss, moving on after loss, and dealing with survivor’s guilt,” Beacham said. “That made the monsters scarier because now you care about the people who are in these robots.”

2. CONCEPT ARTISTS PUT TOGETHER “ABOUT A HUNDRED” DIFFERENT KAIJU AND JAEGER DESIGNS.

Pacific Rim was picked up by Legendary Pictures and handed over to director Guillermo del Toro. A huge fan of monster cinema, del Toro enthusiastically co-wrote the final screenplay with Beacham. Sixteen concept artists were hired to sketch original robot and creature designs for the film. “We would get together every day like kids and draw all day,” del Toro told the New York Daily News. “We designed about a hundred Kaijus and about a hundred Jaegers and every week we would do an American Idol and we would vote [some of] them out.”

3. CHARLIE DAY WAS CAST AFTER DEL TORO CAUGHT HIS PERFORMANCE IN AN EPISODE OF IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA.

In “Charlie Kelly: King of the Rats,” the tenth episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s sixth season, Charlie Day’s character gives us a darkly comedic monologue about rodent extermination. Little did the actor know that the performance would open a big opportunity for him. Impressed by the rat speech, del Toro offered Day the part of Dr. Newton Geizler, Pacific Rim’s socially-inept kaiju expert. “He said to himself, ‘That’s my guy. That guy should be in my next movie because if he killed rats, he can kill the monster,’” Day recalled during an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. On the movie set, del Toro often joked about how much he enjoys It’s Always Sunny. As a way of repaying his director, Day helped get del Toro a minor role in the series.

4. THEY BUILT A FOUR-STORY JAEGER HEAD.

Most of the film’s special effects were computer-generated, but not everything was digital. For the robot cockpit scenes, del Toro had his team build the interior of a full-scale Jaeger head. The finished product stood four stories tall and weighed 20 tons. And like a Tilt-A-Whirl from hell, it was designed to rock around violently on its platform via a network of hydraulics. Once inside, the actors were forced to don 40-pound suits of armor. Then the crew strapped their feet into an apparatus that Charlie Hunnam has compared to a high-resistance elliptical machine.

Certain shots also required del Toro to dump gallons of water all over his exhausted, physically-strained stars. So yeah, the experience wasn’t much fun. “We saw every one of the actors break down on that set except for the female lead actress Rinko Kikuchi,” del Toro said. “She’s the only actor that didn’t snap.”

5. GIPSY DANGER WALKS LIKE JOHN WAYNE.

Del Toro wanted Gipsy Danger, his ‘bot, to have the self-confident air of a wild west gunslinger. To that end, he and concept artist Oscar Chichoni developed a swaggering gait that was based on John Wayne’s signature hip movements. The Jaeger’s Art Deco-like design was influenced by the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.

6. RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE’S TOM MORELLO WORKED ON THE SOUNDTRACK.

Hailed as the “fortieth greatest guitarist of all time” by Rolling Stone, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello rocked the MTV generation with hits like “Bulls on Parade” and “Killing in the Name.” Pacific Rim bears his mark as well. The film’s lead composer was Ramin Djawadi, whose other works include the Game of Thrones theme. Wanting to add a “rock element” to the Pacific Rim soundtrack, he and del Toro reached out to Morello. The guitarist didn’t need much persuading.

“When they asked me to put some giant robot riffs and screaming underwater monster licks on the film score, I was all in,” Morello said. Djwadi was pleased with the rocker’s contributions to the project. As he told the press: “Tom’s unique style and sounds really defined our robots.”

7. ONE JOKE IN THE HONG KONG SCENE CALLED FOR A MINIATURE OFFICE SET.

A definite highlight of this movie is Gipsy Danger’s duel with the winged kaiju Otachi in downtown Hong Kong. Both characters were computer-generated, as were the majority of the streets, cars, and towers in this epic sequence. However, there is one moment which was at least partly realized with practical effects. Gipsy punches through the wall of an office building early in the fight. We see her fist rip through a series of cubicles and gradually decelerate until it lightly taps a chair with just enough force to set off a Newton’s Cradle desktop toy. For that shot, effects artists at 32Ten Studios constructed a miniature office building interior featuring 1/4-scale desks, cubicles, and padded chairs. The level of detail here was amazing: 32Ten’s staff adorned each individual workspace with lamps, computers, wastebaskets, and teeny, tiny Post-it notes.

8. THREE DIFFERENT ENDINGS WERE SHOT.

Audiences reacted strongly to Kikuchi’s character Mako Mori, who inspired an alternative to the famous Bechdel test. Some critics praised the culmination of her relationship with Raleigh Beckett (Hunnam). Although it’s common practice for the male and female leads in an action flick to end their movie with a smooch, Mori and Beckett share a platonic hug as Pacific Rim draws to a close. Del Toro revealed that he shot three different versions of that final scene. “We did one version where they kiss and it almost felt weird. They’re good friends, they’re pals, good colleagues,” del Toro said.

9. PACIFIC RIM WAS DEDICATED TO RAY HARRYHAUSEN AND ISHIRO HONDA.

At the end of the credits, there’s a tribute that reads: “This film is dedicated to the memories of monster masters Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda.” Harryhausen passed away on May 7, 2013—two months before Pacific Rim’s release. A great stop-motion animator, he breathed life into such creatures as the towering Rhedosaurus in 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

Ishiro Honda was another giant of the kaiju genre, having directed Rodan, War of the Gargantuas, and numerous Godzilla films. Del Toro has great respect for both men. When Harryhausen died, the director said, “I lost a member of my family today, a man who was as present in my childhood as any of my relatives.” He also adores the Japanese monster classics and says he’d love to see a Pacific RimGodzilla crossover someday. Maybe it’ll happen.

10. GUILLERMO DEL TORO LIKED ONE FAN-MADE TRAILER SO MUCH THAT HE INVITED ITS CREATORS TO THE MOVIE’S PREMIERE.

If you’re not familiar with the practice of “Sweding,” let us fill you in: The 2008 comedy Be Kind, Rewind is about two co-workers at a VHS rental store who accidentally erase every tape in stock. Hoping to save their skins, they create ultra low-budget remakes of all the films they’ve destroyed using cardboard sets and cheap costumes. It’s a process these guys call “Sweding” as a ploy to convince everyone that their (unintentionally hilarious) knockoffs were produced in Sweden. Since Be Kind, Rewind was released, Sweding has become a legitimate art form.

When Pacific Rim’s first trailer debuted in 2013, YouTubers Brian Harley and Brodie Mash created a shot-for-shot, Sweded duplicate of the preview. Instead of state-of-the-art CG effects, their version used toy helicopters, duct-tape monster masks, and an ocean of packing peanuts—and del Toro loved it. At WonderCon 2013, he praised the video, saying that it inspired the editing used in Pacific Rim’s third trailer. Harley and Mash happened to be at the same gathering. When del Toro met the comedic duo, he exclaimed “I loved it! My daughters loved it, we watched it a bunch of times!” Then he invited the Sweding duo to attend Pacific Rim’s premiere in Hollywood.

It’s easy to say what a sandwich is. Grilled cheese? Definitely a sandwich. Bacon, lettuce, and tomato? There’s no question. Things start to get messy when you specify what a sandwich isn’t. Is a hot dog a sandwich? What about a burrito, or an open-faced turkey melt?

The question of sandwich-hood sounds like something a monk might ponder on a mountaintop. But the answer has real-world implications. On several occasions, governments have ruled on the food industry’s right to use the delectable label. Now, Ruth Bader Ginsburg—pop culture icon, scrunchie connoisseur, and Supreme Court Justice—has weighed in on the matter.

When pressed on the hot-button issue as to whether a hot dog is a sandwich while appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Ginsburg proved her extreme judiciousness by throwing the question back at Colbert and asking for his definition of sandwich before making a ruling. Her summation? A hot dog fits Colbert’s definition of a sandwich, and therefore can be considered one.

While RBG’s ruling may not be an official one, it matches Merriam-Webster’s bold declaration that a hot dog is a sandwich (even if the Hot Dog Council disagrees). Officially, here’s where the law stands on the great sandwich debate.

1. CALIFORNIA: HOT DOGS ARE SANDWICHES

Hot dogs are often snagged in the center of the sandwich semantics drama. Despite fitting the description of a food product served on a bread-like product, many sandwich purists insist that hot dogs deserve their own category. California joins Merriam-Webster in declaring that a hot dog is a sandwich nonetheless. The bold word choice appears in the state’s tax law, which mentions “hot dog and hamburger sandwiches” served from “sandwich stands or booths.” Applying the sandwich label to burgers is less controversial, but it’s still worth debating.

2. MASSACHUSETTS COURT: A BURRITO IS NOT A SANDWICH

When Qdoba threatened to encroach on the territory of a Panera Bread in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, the owners of the bakery franchise fought back. They claimed the Mexican chain’s arrival would violate their lease agreement with the White City Shopping Center—specifically the clause that prohibits the strip mall from renting to other sandwich restaurants. “We were surprised at the suit because we think it’s common sense that a burrito is not a sandwich,” Jeff Ackerman, owner of the Qdoba franchise group, told The Boston Globe.

The Worcester County Superior Court agreed. When the issue went before the court in 2006, Cambridge chef and food writer Christopher Schlesinger testified against Panera [PDF], saying, “I know of no chef or culinary historian who would call a burrito a sandwich. Indeed, the notion would be absurd to any credible chef or culinary historian.”

Justice Jeffrey A. Locke ruled that Qdoba would be allowed to move into the shopping center citing an entry in Merriam-Webster as the most damning evidence against Panera’s case. “The New Webster Third International Dictionary describes a ‘sandwich’ as ‘two thin pieces of bread, usually buttered, with a thin layer (as of meat, cheese, or savory mixture) spread between them,’” he said. “Under this definition and as dictated by common sense, this court finds that the term ‘sandwich’ is not commonly understood to include burritos, tacos, and quesadillas.”

3. USDA: A SANDWICH IS MEAT BETWEEN TWO SLICES OF BREAD

If you want to know the definition of a certain dish, the officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are good people to ask. It’s their job to make sure that the nation’s supply of meat is correctly labeled. When it comes to sandwiches, the agency follows strict criteria. “A sandwich is a meat or poultry filling between two slices of bread, a bun, or a biscuit,” Mark Wheeler, who works in food and safety at the USDA, told NPR. His definition comes from the Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book used by the department (the USDA only covers the “labeling of meat, poultry, and egg products,” while the FDA handles everything else, which is why the USDA’s definition excludes things like grilled cheese). Not included under their umbrella of foodstuff served between bread are burritos, wraps, and hot dogs.

4. ALSO THE USDA: A BURRITO IS A “SANDWICH-LIKE PRODUCT”

The USDA’s definition may not be as simple and elegant as it seems. A sandwich is one thing, but a “sandwich-like product” is different territory. The same labeling policy book Mark Wheeler referred to when describing a sandwich lumps burritos into this vague category. Fajitas “may also be” a sandwich-like product, as long as the strips of meat in question come bundled in a tortilla. Another section of the book lists hot dogs and hamburgers as examples of sandwich-type products when laying out inspection policies for pre-packaged dinners. So is there an example of a meat-wrapped-in-carb dish that doesn’t belong to the sandwich family? Apparently strombolis are where the USDA draws the line. The Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book clearly states the product “is not considered a traditional sandwich” [PDF].

5. NEW YORK: IF IT’S SERVED ON SOMETHING REMOTELY BREAD-LIKE, IT’S A SANDWICH

When it comes to sandwiches, New York doesn’t discriminate. In a bulletin outlining the state’s tax policy, a description of what constitutes a sandwich warrants its own subhead. The article reads:

“Sandwiches include cold and hot sandwiches of every kind that are prepared and ready to be eaten, whether made on bread, on bagels, on rolls, in pitas, in wraps, or otherwise, and regardless of the filling or number of layers. A sandwich can be as simple as a buttered bagel or roll, or as elaborate as a six-foot, toasted submarine sandwich.”

It then moves on to examples of taxable sandwiches. The list includes items widely-believed to bear the label, like Reubens, paninis, club sandwiches, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Other entries, like burritos, gyros, open-faced sandwiches, and hot dogs, may cause confusion among diners.

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