It’s important to use a college application essay to stand out from the crowd, but finding the perfect topic can be daunting. Your perfect topic needs to be simultaneously
creative – a dynamic story that interests your reader
unique – a story that only you could tell from your experience
authentic – a story that accurately the represents the best parts of you
To help you identify this holy trifecta of a topic, I’ve developed something that I call the 50 Words Activity. I’ve used this approach to write my undergraduate application essays, Ph.D. application essays, and even fellowship/scholarship essays, and I’ve used this activity to help several high school seniors write their college application essays.
The 50 Words Activity helps you find many answers to the question “Who Am I?” You can then identify 2-3 key qualities that you want your essay reader to know about you. To illustrate these parts of your personality in an essay format, you can select activities and life experiences that relate to the qualities.
If you’re using this activity to write a college essay, make sure you’re following the Five-Step Guide and are aware of all the essay prompts you will need to answer. This will be important for Part 4 of the activity.
Let’s get started!
50 Words Activity
Part 1: The Word List
It’s pretty simple: In 10 minutes, write 50 (or more) words or short phrases that describe you.
- Write each word on a separate line
- These words can be adjectives or nouns (“smart” and “leader” both work)
- Avoid synonyms (such as “hard-working” and “diligent”). These don’t add value to your list.
- Feel free to keep adding words to the list in the days after you start the activity.
When you create this list, the first 15 words or so will the low-hanging fruit – that is, they will probably be pretty generic and obvious words. The words towards the bottom of the list will be the most unique and creative since you have to work harder to think of them. Don’t stress about the quality of the words when you make the list – it’s important to get the full spectrum!
To show you how this really works, here’s an example of the list I might have created when I was in high school (abbreviated to 13 words for simplicity).
The first few words are pretty simple – they’re the words that I’ve always identified with and that anyone would agree with. “Dancer” and “musician” describe activities that I was involved with during that time period. Deeper into the list are the words that are more nuanced parts of me – the things that wouldn’t be obvious to everyone.
Coming up with these deeper words is as simple as breaking down the things that make you tick, the ideas that you’re most curious about, the activities that you spend the most time doing. For example, “I had Thai food last night” might be linked to “I love Thai food a lot and I’ve tried several restaurants in my area and taught myself to make several dishes”. That concept could then be distilled into “Thai food enthusiast”.
Part 2: Focusing Your Word List
Now that you have your list of 50 (or more!) words, take a few seconds to do the following:
- Circle the 5 words that you’re most proud of
- Box the 5 words that make you a strong applicant
- Star the 5 words that show a side of yourself that most people don’t see
The subset of words that you’ve marked will help you focus on the qualities that are both core to your authentic self but also important to gaining admission to the university.
Part 3: Adding Context to Your Word List
Next to each word, write an experience that you associate with that word. This will help inspire ideas for your essay. Choose experiences that are reflective of your emotional attachment to that word. For example, an experience for “bookworm” could easily be, “I have read over 50 books in the last year.” Instead, a more emotional attachment would be how I’ve prioritized my love of reading over other activities: “I used to skip recess to read Harry Potter books in the library.”
Also, think about the connections between words. Combining “dancer” and “storyteller” could lead to a story about how I prepared for my lead dance role by putting myself in the audience’s position and thinking about the emotions and expressions I needed to convey to make the character believable. This is a more complex and juicy story than simply talking about how much I practiced for the lead role.
Part 4: Choosing Essay Themes from Your Word List
Again, the goal of this activity is to identify key qualities and experiences that you can work into a creative, unique, and authentic essay. Cross-reference your word list with the list of essay prompts that you have.
Let’s do a practice round together. Let’s use this prompt from the 2021-2022 list of Common App Prompts to guide our efforts.
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
The term “personal growth” makes me think about how I came out of my shell in high school after enrolling in the band program as a flautist. This isn’t directly reflected in the experiences I’ve listed above, but that’s fine. I’m going to use the word list to identify words that resonate with that experience. Picking “musician” is obvious, but not deep enough. “Leader” is a good word because the associated experience of being flute section leader speaks to a key moment in my evolution in band, and it’s also an important quality for universities to see in me. Surprisingly, the word “dancer” also fits to this experience – dancing with my band friends at football games and school dances helped me overcome my shyness. Putting it all together, I have a pretty good story about how I enrolled in band to find a friend group and found that shared experiences of dancing together at events helped me become a bolder person. I was then well-equipped to lead the flute section for two years and help other freshmen flautists become more confident in themselves.
This, in fact, was a story that I turned into an essay and submitted to multiple universities, including UC Berkeley, which became my alma mater.
In summary, the 50 Words Activity can be a really great powerful tool to help you see the full spectrum of your experience and choose the best words and moments to tell your story. I hope you have a better idea of how you can express yourself in a creative, unique, and authentic way!
To learn more about me and my experiences in writing and editing personal statements (for college applications and beyond) check out my personal introduction post. Check out the other posts in this series for more help:
The College Application Essay Basics
The Five-Step Guide to the College Application Essay
Authentic and Unique Storytelling with the 50 Words Activity
Avoiding Cliches and Taking Risks for Your College Application Essay
Writing Rules for the College Application Essay
Writing a Concise, Intentional, and Powerful Personal Statement