Whether you're just starting to think about possible topics for what you'll write or you are neck-deep in writing your main college essay, here's something to think about.

Imagine you're an admissions reader.

It's the week after the final submission deadline, and your office has just received thousands of applications to review. It's time to divide and conquer. You have only a few weeks to read through everything, and, as a committee, decide who is accepted, denied, and put onto the waitlist.

In order to get through everything on time, you have a quota to meet every day until the deadline. You will need to make it through a minimum of 50 applications each day -- more if you want to have a day off here and there.

You block out a couple of hours to get started, and you sit down with a pile of applications, reading one after the other. It is a lot to keep straight: grades, GPAs, activities, schools...and then the personal essays:

They're a real mixed bag. Some of them are written like five-paragraph academic papers or are simply a rehash of student resumes. Bleh.

Others just seem to bleed together -- a hodge-podge of "eye-opening" travel stories, volunteer experiences that revealed "how fortunate I have been," game-winning goals, nerve-racking moments on stage, the death of a beloved grandparent or pet. Ugh. 

But then, every so often, all of a sudden, a student's piece seems to jump off the page. It's energizing. Refreshing. Striking. 

Why? Because, as the reader, I got to join the writer on a little journey. I learned something about that person -- something that feels essential to understanding who that person really is. It stuck with me. Now, I feel connected to that person. I'm invested.

But I have other applications to read, and by the time I get through my 50+ applications for the day, I am spent. My brain feels a little mushy, and it's tough to remember any applicant with absolute clarity. But there were a few people who still stick in my mind.

So it goes for admissions counselors at peak season. For the students who want to be the ones who stick in their readers' minds, however, you have one central question to address:

What is the ONE thing I want my reader to know about who I am?

In other words, what's your headline

I like to differentiate a headline from a topic. Identifying the topic is simple: it's the noun that a writing piece centers around. For example, I had students last year who came into coaching wanting to write about these topics:

  • my love of reading
  • discovering writing
  • keeping secrets

Topics in themselves are too simple, however, to communicate something essential about you. In order to determine the headline, we're asking for HOW a verb relates you to the topic. It's your topic in action -- in other words, your story as it centers around that topic.

Here's how the topics above evolved into these students' headlines:

  • how rejecting the literary canon helped me rekindle my love of reading
  • how discovering empathy for others through writing characters gives me a sense of place in the world
  • how examining the secrets I was keeping enabled me to be more honest with myself and others.

Your task: name the thing that your personal statement is about, and then create your own headline, a statement about HOW you grew in regard to that topic. It's the surest way to make sure that you stick in your reader's mind.