Many things in life – but specifically the college application process – are easier for people who have a very strong sense of self and know exactly what they want. Unfortunately, there are very few people – especially 17-year-olds facing the college application process – who have a very strong sense of self and know exactly what they want.

Now, I actually think this “indecisiveness” is a good thing. It means you are flexible and well-rounded and would do well in many settings, and that’s awesome. Unfortunately, applying to college makes this a difficult trait to live with. When you begin looking at schools, for example, people ask you if you want big or small like it’s something you should inherently know; as if you’ve known how big you want your college class sizes to be as long as you’ve known your eye color. When you leave a campus tour, your parents ask you if you could “see yourself” on that campus. “Of course I can,” I used to tell my mom. “I was just there.” And when you look at supplemental essay questions, you’re asked “What makes you happy?” and “What are your dreams?” as if you only have one thing that makes you happy, or one dream for the future, and you should be pumped someone has finally asked you about it!

My point is: essay topics aren’t going to come easily to you if you don’t know exactly who you are and what you want. And that’s OK, because I can help. Here are five steps to finding the perfect supplemental essay topic. All it requires is a piece of paper, a pen, and some reflection:

  1. Write down five things you’ve learned in the last few years that you found fascinating. These could be things you learned in a history class, your favorite novel, or a podcast you listen to on your walk to school. They could even be topics you don’t know much about but really want to explore further.
  2. Write down five adjectives your friends would use to describe you. Think about the role you play in your group of friends and what words they would use to describe you if they were asked.
  3. Write down the five times in the last few years when you’ve been your happiest. Think of those moments when you cried laughing, or felt perfectly content, or felt you were in amazing company. Write down where they occurred, and why the made you so happy.
  4. Write down five things you’re excited to tackle in college. Have you been thinking about joining a climate action group in college and saving the environment? Do you get butterflies in your stomach when you think about studying abroad in Chile? Are you excited to push yourself out of your comfort zone with art classes or intramural sports?
  5. Take a highlighter to your lists. Highlight the items that feel the most important to you.  Which things made you smile as you wrote them? Which ones felt like “aha!” moments where a piece of your identity or priorities clicked for you? These highlighted items should create a little narrative of you; they should indicate important themes that should definitely be present in your essays. If a few things you wrote highlight your proclivity for social activism – poof! You’ve found a topic for one of your essays. Pull examples from these lists – a class project you found intellectually exciting, a trait your friends would use to describe you – and allow them to be present in your essays, because you’ve identified them as important. And focus on item #2 on this list in particular, because these adjectives should also inform how you write your essays. If your friends would describe you as “sarcastic,” for example, some hint of sarcasm should be present in one of your essays. Make sense?

Turns out a blank piece of paper and a pen can really clarify this process, even for those of you out there who can’t choose a restaurant, let alone an essay topic for the question: “What are your dreams?”

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