Yes, I promise, you can write your college essay topic about your grandmother, or your torn ACL. I know you heard opposite advice basically everywhere. So let me explain what I mean.
I have read (and been moved to tears and laughed my water out my nose because of) college essays about
- torn ACL’s
You just can’t write about it in the same way everyone else does. This means:
- It’s not really “about” your grandmother.
- It’s not really “about” your torn ACL.
So what is your college essay about then?
- It’s about the way you approach your topic.
- It’s about what your topic shows us about you.
The grandmother college essay topic
A beloved student of mine wrote a beautiful essay about his tough-as-anything-but-nails grandmother (who even read it before she died). But it wasn’t really about her: it was about how she’d taught him to be patient with his dyslexia, and then, when she muscled through aggressive cancer treatment, to buck up under hard circumstances and keep enjoying sandwiches.
She was a vehicle for a lesson. He turned her into a character we felt like we’d met before. We too wanted to go to her house and have a chicken-salad sandwich. But we could also feel how she had created a framework for his sense of self.
The ACL college essay topic
A beloved student of mine wrote about his torn ACL. OH NO NOT THE ACL essay. YES. Basketball was his everything (as is true for many ACL-essay writers). It was, among other things, supposed to be his college ticket. But I didn’t have to spend time reading about the POP of the tendon, or about self-pity, and depression, though surely (and understandably) those things were part of anyone’s initial response to significant injury.
He wrote instead about how he taught himself to write music and made original compositions during this dragged out recovery time. That is, his ACL injury, which took a long time to heal and sucked, was an opportunity to write about choices he made, some skill and traits he grew in himself, that would not have happened otherwise. He was writing about him as auto-didactic, his self-motivation, and his passion for music. We were in the basement with him, trying out melodies on the computer software.
The college essay is about the writer, not the topic
I could go on and on. You were told not to write about an illness or tragedy or divorce? Not true, you just can’t write about it in a predictable way. You can choose anything as your topic so long as it is a vehicle for us to learn about you, i.e. it is not exactly like anyone else’s essay on their grandmother, their ACL, their grandmother’s ACL (OK, no one has tried this yet!), their illness, their loss.
I repeat: in the college essay genre, your admissions reader is here to learn about the writer, NOT THE WRITER’S TOPIC.
Sounds counterintuitive, I know. We’re used to being informational, or maybe analytical in our writing. We’re used to disappearing from behind our English or History essays, trying to make our topic the focus, not our thinking.
For the college essays, we change gears. You can write about anything so long it is a unique window into you, and not a paint-by-numbers cliche.
How do I know what my college essay topic is really “about”?
You could ask your grandma, if your grandma is a trained writer. 🙂
If you’re not sure you’re doing that other thing, you probably need someone to check-in with. “Hey, is this essay I wrote about my grandmother, my ACL, also about anything else? What else would you say you learn ABOUT ME besides that 1) I have a grandmother and 2) I have a knee?”
Not sure? Check in with me.
Book a session or send along your essay for electronic feedback.
I’ll tell you what I think and also:
- Help you evaluate if you can find “that other thing” and shift the framework.
- Help you find a new non-cliche topic if needed.
- Share successful essays that have handled grandmothers, knees, and personal tragedy.
- Build your confidence in your topic choices.
- Help you write an essay that would make a grandmother proud, and hopefully bring a grandmother, or an admissions officer, to her knees.