A few years ago, some colleagues and I decided to tackle the Tufts supplement ourselves in order to (a) better understand the challenging task of capturing oneself in 600 words; and (b) give our applicants more examples of supplemental essays that work well. I don’t know that I really accomplished the second task, but I do know that I learned something important about brainstorming a topic. Initially, I had a tough time coming up with what to write. “What makes you happy?” I thought. Well, what makes me happy is my family, my friends, and the beach… none of this is groundbreaking stuff. Most people can say their family, friends, and the beach make them happy (if you don’t like the beach I will never understand you). So I have nothing to write about, everyone else is cooler than me, and I’ll never get into college….

Now, maybe (hopefully) you don’t make that same mental leap because you are sane and have perspective, but even so I imagine you may be facing a similar road block right about now. You’re looking for an essay topic – something that is both real and sets you apart – and you’re stuck. Maybe it’s your last supplemental essay and you’ve run out of ideas. Maybe there’s a topic you want to tackle and you just can’t think of the angle that makes it yours. Believe me, I’ve been there.

In my frustration I vented to my roommate, and in this moment I discovered something I wish to share with you. “Gah!” I shouted from behind my laptop. “I don’t know what makes me happy! It’s all the normal stuff that make everyone happy! Ali, what makes me happy?!” Without hesitation she rolled her eyes and said: “Ugh. Games.”

Famously this particular roommate hated games, hence the eye roll. I believed this to be a personal attack on my lifestyle, but I suppose that’s not important for this blog post. Immediately I had a topic I could run with. More than most, I turn everything into a game – I love organized fun, my mind relishes the opportunity to strategize when stakes are low, and I really enjoy getting to know people through collaborative efforts involving boards and cards and declarations of “Yahtzee!”

All of a sudden I was typing away. I had an idea that felt personal, I felt it was a true window into my life and the way I think, and most importantly I was having fun writing it.

My advice to you is this: Look up from your computer. Get out of your own head for a second. Ask a friend or a family member what they think of when they think of you. Their answer may surprise you or it may not, but it will definitely give you an option for an essay topic that’s better than the one you’ve been thinking about in circles for the last four hours while you stare at a blank Word document.

Talk to other people. Sometimes a conversation – out loud, face-to-face – shakes an idea loose that would otherwise remain crammed behind all the stress and doubt that this process often fosters.

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