Watermark Essay Ideas For College

The essay is easily one of the most difficult parts of the college application process. How can someone describe themselves in such a short amount of space, especially when all their accomplishments are listed on the page before and they don’t want to sound repetitive? There are a few clichés to avoid in the college essay world. Keep reading to find out what to avoid and what to approach in your college essay writing journey.

Related: Warning! These College Application Essay Ideas DON'T Work

Worst of the Worst

The sports game

A great college admission essay makes the reader say something along the lines of, “Wow, I’ve never heard of someone who did/experienced that before.” Know what nearly everyone has experienced before? Winning or losing. More specifically, almost everyone has either won or lost a sports game. Talking about your experience coping with your win or loss will pile you in with every other applicant that the admission officer reads about that day, aka the exact opposite of what you want to happen to you and your beloved essay.

The breakup

A lot like dating a bad boy, this essay tempts you. Think about it: talking about your love life seems deep. Maybe a breakup feels like the biggest hardship you have faced thus far, or perhaps you think the way you supported your 10th grade girlfriend during her science competition seems like a great metaphor for how you plan to support your university community. However, just like with any good piece of writing, you need to know your audience. And in this case, your audience does not think anything about your high school relationship sounds impressive. College admission officers have not been in high school for a very long time. They might have been through a divorce or had to support their spouse through the death of one of their parents or children. But they have a bit more perspective on relationships than the average high school senior, so they will probably not find the demise of your junior year relationship as poignant as you do. 

The mission trip

Everyone who has been to Togo/Haiti/Guatemala wants to write about the time they saw real Third World poverty for the first time and extrapolate on how their lives were never the same after said experience. And while that experience may have really affected your life, it affects the lives of thousands of upper–middle class students around America in the exact same way, and they are all writing the same essay about it as we speak. If your time in Sierra Leone really feels like what you need to tell your dream school about, talk about a specific experience, like a conversation you had with someone who lived there. The cliché service trip essay often sounds incredibly vague, so if you must write about your experience, make sure you tell a very specific story that brings the reader into a certain moment with you (more on that later). 

The “different” essay

I once had a friend show me an essay he wrote in which he had to describe the best day of his life. Naturally, he wrote about the time he slept until five in the evening, ate some ice cream, then went back to sleep. However, he was not a lazy kid at all. He was really into piano and lacrosse, but he wanted his essay to sound off the beaten path and unique. So rather than talking about one of his passions, he decided to write about something he knew no one else would try…the time he slept all day. Unfortunately, there is a really good reason no one else wrote that essay. The same goes for trying to be creative and responding with one word, one sentence, or a poem. Although those are very different responses from what admission officers reads, this does not mean they are good responses. There are other ways to stand out without compromising your intelligence. 

Better essay ideas

The ridiculous way you grew up (and how it affects you now)

The first time I went to Harvard to hang out with friends, I met a student who was raised by wolves. Yes, you read that right; she actually grew up in a wolf rehabilitation community. Sure, she was also a model and an Economics major, but the whole raised by wolves thing was definitely more memorable than anything else about her. If you grew up in a unique way that affects who you are now, it might be worth writing about in a college essay to make your application more memorable. 

Focusing on a moment

If you decide you have to talk about one of the cliché essay topics mentioned above, a good way to tell a more common story is to focus on one specific moment and build from there. For instance, if I were only interested in field hockey and felt I absolutely had to write about the sport in my essay, I would not write about some vague game and how good it felt when my team won. I would write about the sound the ball makes hitting the back of the goal, how my adrenaline changes in that moment, how all the sounds around me slowly rush into my ears afterwards. Then, most importantly, after describing the moment, I would write about its significance by connecting it to some larger idea or meaning or characteristic about myself. Focusing on a moment that changed your life—such as the time you broke your back as a kid in a car crash, or the time your dad told you the family was moving to a different country—can also function well in your college essay. 

Personality pic

A good friend of mine in high school had to answer an interesting question for the school where he ended up enrolling. The university’s supplemental application asked him to describe one of his quirks. I distinctly recall reading my friend’s essay about him being a storyteller above all else and visibly grinning as my eyes passed over each line, because the essay was just so genuine and true. He was a storyteller; he told all of us tales of his fly-fishing summer job in the Adirondacks, spun yarns about wolves that spoke to him while he was camping, and talked about his skydiving uncle like he was a superhero in a comic book. The storyteller anecdote never would have come through in the rest of his Common Application, but it was truly one of his most significant personality traits. So, lesson learned, read over your Common Application, and at the end, ask yourself, “What’s missing?” Who knows—the answer to that question might be the basis for your admission essay.

Lust for literature

If you have a friend or family member who reads a lot of books in their free time, I bet you think they’re pretty intelligent. Fortunately, colleges will think the same thing about you if you decide to incorporate your love of literature into your essay. Maybe you have a book in which you strongly relate to one of the characters. Perhaps a philosophical text really elucidates your current paradigm. Or maybe you strive to write like a certain author one day. Whatever the case, you really cannot go wrong writing about the literature you love, as your passion for it will shine through the pages.

What did you write your admission essay about? Did it work? Let us know in the comments! And find even more college essay advice in our Application Essay Clinic.

Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »

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I had a friend when I was a kid who had Japanese fighting fish. One night, during a sleepover party at her house, one of them devoured the other. I remember staring at them for a long time before hitting the sack—their fancy, elaborate blue fins like diaphanous curtains swaying this way and that in the clear, illuminated water of the fish tank. We went to sleep and they were fine. We woke up and remnants of blue were floating in the murky water of the tank.

Apparently, Japanese fighting fish will devour each other if left to their own devices, but will die of loneliness if made to live in total isolation. To keep Japanese fighting fish, you must put up a glass barrier so that they can see each other, but will not eat each other alive.

So it is with The Creator and The Critic. If you let them near each other, the critic will always win. It will, in fact, devour that small, still voice within. The Creator’s voice, in most of us anyway, is elusive, even fragile. It must be cultivated and protected. Don't let The Critic near it, especially when writing something as important and "critical" as the college essay.

So how might you encourage that voice while resisting the nagging voice of The Critic? How can you come up with the basis for a standout college application essay when you have no idea where to start?

Free write.

Just let it all out. Write about whatever comes to mind. Don’t restrict yourself, and—whatever you do—don’t edit as you go. After all, in a free write, there's no need for structure or organization. You don't need to spell things correctly. You don't need a beginning or a conclusion. You don't even need to know what you're talking about. All you have to do is write your little heart out—just make sure it’s in full sentences. Think of this as focused stream-of-consciousness writing. That is, you write as much as you can, as fast as you can, without attention to organization or grammar, but you write it on the subject you have identified.

What happens after the free write is an extremely important, often overlooked, part of the process. Once you’ve completed your free write, you are no longer staring at a blank page—you have something to work with! Even if it’s just shy of pure drivel, it’s very helpful in moving forward.

At this point, you can (and should) take a break. Eat a sandwich. Check your e-mail. You’ve crossed a bigger hurdle than you realize! Then, when you’re done with your break and have had a chance to gain some perspective on the story you’re trying to tell, it’s a good idea to call in the W’s.

  • When did this happen?
  • Where were you?
  • Who were you with?
  • What were you doing?
  • What was it like?
  • Why do you think you remember it?
  • Why is it important?
  • What were your feelings about this event or moment?

Answering these questions will bring you to what I call the expanded free write. This is a filled-out version of your free write with details, dialogue, and description added to flesh out what you have already written. It is often at this stage in the process that I speak to my students about the four modes of writing in the college essay:

  1. Showing
  2. Telling
  3. Describing
  4. Reflecting

Anyone who’s anyone will tell you the rule-of-thumb when it comes to writing college essays: show, don’t tell. And it’s absolutely true that admission counselors want you to paint a picture using the engaging details of your life. But this is only part of the story. In fact, you must show and tell in order to write a dynamic, original, vivid essay.

You must describe what you have seen and experienced for the reader. And you must reflect on the experience and why you’ve taken the time to tell it. It needs to come from the heart, which is what you need to do to tip the admission scales in your favor.

Your college essay must express the essence of who you, so that you come alive on the page in front of the admissions committee; this is no small feat.

It’s not enough to say you’re good at chess. You must show you’re good at it, how you got to be good, what it means to you, what you do when you lose, and how you come back from those losses to be someone XYZ University wants to accept into their school.

Let me give you an example. Imagine your free write starts with a story about the time you found a goat stuck in the mud while traveling in Botswana. It might go like this:

My host brother and I decided to go to the lake. On our way there, the ground started getting muddy. Halfway to the lake, we found a goat stuck in the mud. We struggled for a long time to get it out. Finally we did it.

Adding description you could say:

My host brother, Mtumbe, who was wearing shorts and no shirt and white tennis shoes that were too big for him, had one gold tooth that sometimes glistened in the sun when he smiled.

And dialogue:

“Come to the lake,” he said. “Not far. Down the hill.”

And reflection:

I was scared. I had only arrived the day before to this village of 1,200 people on the southernmost tip of Botswana. But Mtumbe was always smiling and it seemed like whatever he did, he was happy, which made me feel that everything would be okay.

And then continue the action:

The cracked earth began to get muddy as we got nearer to the lake. Soon our shoes were sucked down into the mud. At one point, Mtumbe lost one of his white sneakers. That’s when we spotted the goat, struggling to free itself from the same mud that was pulling us down.

This is a true story, by the way, told to me in the form of a free write by a real student. She and her host brother finally got the goat out. They brought it to safety and covered it with a blanket. The next day, they went back to check on it, and sadly, it had died. From that single instance, her story materialized and flowed out easily when engaging in a free write. And, indeed, you have to start with a moment.

Without a free write, there would be nothing to fill out, bring to life, upon which to elaborate. You must call on all four modes of writing to produce an essay that will shine: showing, telling, describing, and reflecting.

But there’s no getting around the free write as a place to start. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. When you do get good, don't get seduced into thinking you can skip this step. Instead, let the free write take your ideas and turn them into living stories.

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