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Sometimes, the simplest questions can be the most anxiety inducing. That’s never more true than when your child’s future is at stake. I’m talking, of course, about the dreaded essay topics of the Common Application, which over 750 colleges and universities, including TCU, use. Parents with kiddos in 12th grade are in the thick of college application chaos right now. I can’t assuage all of your uncertainties, but I do have tips you can use while guiding your teenager through the minefield that is the college admission essay.

First, let’s look at two of the essay prompts.

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea.

Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve.

The topics are intentionally bland: They are a coloring book waiting to be filled in with your child’s life experiences. Every college will have unique guidelines for what they are looking for, and we can’t predict what individual admissions directors will like. But we can safely assume that providing a unique, insightful story while articulating that narrative clearly will give your child the best chance of impressing the college admission officers who are tired of reading the same essay over and over again.

I’ll use a personal example. My piano student Cameron is a senior at Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts. She is academically high-achieving. She also has ambitious plans to attend top-tier colleges like The California Institute of Technology. I recently helped her with her essay for the Common Application. Her article was well written, describing her longtime interest in chemistry. We both noticed that the topic was fairly generic, though. So we began to brainstorm some new topics. We decided to write two more essays. I told her to have fun with one, and the second one could be more school-related.

Cameron likes to take long walks through her neighborhood. It’s a way for her to clear her head and nurture the creative part of her mind. There’s a neighborhood cat she greets every day. At first, she named the feline “cat.” Later, she began calling him Octavius, because it seemed a very un-cat-like moniker. When she asked the owners what the cat’s name is, it turn out to be, well, “cat.” The coincidence would make for a colorful ending to a story about her love of taking walks, I told her.

Cameron also developed a unique way of memorizing the Periodic Table of Elements. She turned each element into a fictitious character in her mind. Again, I told her that would make for a fun essay topic. It related to school and academics, but it was a unique story that I’m sure few college applicants would share.

My advice is to be authentic while standing out. Don’t be afraid to be original or even a bit quirky. The final draft needs to be solidly written. If you are lacking in the grammar department, reach out to friends and family or hire a writing tutor who can help edit your child’s essay and provide feedback.

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