By Pat Berry
For Montclair Local


Pat Berry is a writer, editor, and college application essay coach. For more information, visit Pat’s website,, and follow her on Instagram via @college_essay_coach.

If you’re applying to college this fall, you may be stewing over the essay colleges ask for by way of The Common Application and other application platforms. It doesn’t matter that you’re no Joan Didion or Zadie Smith, or even that you know who those genius essayists are. Just know that the short commentary you compose about your — let’s face it — short life so far, should show that you can organize your thoughts, have a generally positive outlook on life and are ready for college.

You’re likely to accomplish those objectives if you land on a topic that resonates with you, a point that relates to the Harry Potter homage in my headline. Here is a handful of suggestions for getting started — in no particular order.

1. Don’t wait

Nothing produces panic like too little time. Start jotting ideas that might work for an essay topic, say, your curiosity for military history, the seashell collection that represents family travels or how your life would be incomplete without a bicycle. Keep in mind that in addition to a topic or the subject you want to write about; you’ll also need a thesis or the aspect of your essay that tells what your subject says about you. Set up a writing schedule that allows time to free write, compose, revise and finalize your essay well before early decision (around Nov. 1) and regular decision (around Jan. 1) deadlines.

2. Find a prompt you like

Another route to an essay is by way of a prompt. The Common App provides seven (, including Prompt #3: “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?” Then there’s Prompt #7, which conveniently invites you to write about the topic of your choice.

3. Feelings matter

Another topic-related point: when mining for an idea, don’t overlook the contented humming you do while drawing, how a mathematician’s memoir excited your mind or that time you got lost and the experience challenged your confidence. Ask yourself whether emotions have led to meaningful choices and/or events in your life, and tell your reader about them.

4. It’s your story — not your favorite uncle’s

You may be tempted to take on a topic where you aren’t the central figure in your essay, but do so with caution. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write about people who’ve had a positive influence on you. But think of your writing as a camera lens. Make sure the lens is on you, not someone else.

5. Just write.

As you’ve no doubt heard, writing is thinking. Consider the journeys your mind takes every minute. Free writing allows those reflections and insights to come to you, although not necessarily in an organized way. So don’t expect to put cursor to screen and “unidraft” 650 words of stellar creative nonfiction. Let your ideas flow. While you’re at, use placeholders with abandon. If you can’t think of the best way to describe something or someone, write “[adjective goes here],” and keep writing. No matter what the maximum word count an application allows — expect to write longer drafts. You can edit later.

6. Remember the reader.

Cut to the chase, stay on topic, and give context if your subject is somewhat unusual. You can count on your application reader being super intelligent but not necessarily up-to-date on the latest music trends or an event specific to your religion or region of the country. And aim for admissions readers to have an emotional reaction to your writing. Worried about your vocabulary or redundancy? Try plunking the text of your essay into a word cloud-maker (there’s a free tool at to see what words you might be overusing.

7. Add structure.

When it comes time to organize your essay, think old school: start with an intro and thesis paragraph, follow that with, say, three paragraphs that build your case, and then move to a conclusion. Don’t feel wedded to this construction, but use it as a fallback if no other obvious organization is coming to you. An outline or bullet-point list also may help with arranging your thoughts.

8. Keep in mind this isn’t an English paper.

The term “finding your voice” is thrown around a lot in the essay world. High schools aren’t known for teaching personal narrative, so this may be your first foray into first-person writing. Don’t worry if you have no idea what your voice “sounds” like. Write in a conversational tone, with liberal use of the I-word. Your voice will come.

9. A word about your conclusion.

Feel free to add a new-but-related thought at the end of your essay. A former client wrote about her love of engineering and concluded her essay by side stepping her topic slightly to describe her family’s tradition of sharing each day’s highlights at dinner. She described how, at one meal, she mentioned a mathematics discussion at school, neatly weaving in an image of her with her family, a moment an admissions reader wasn’t likely to forget.

10. It’s okay to be wild about Harry Potter (Sort of)

Some topics are so popular with applicants, admissions readers are bored by them. And trust me, “boring” is not the word you want ascribed to your essay. That said, if you have a high degree of confidence that your essay relating to the young wizard is unique, go for it. The key is to own the topic. Remember Item #4: Not only is this not your uncle’s essay it’s not Harry’s either. Make sure the camera is on you, and if it isn’t, move on to another subject. That said, by all means, if it makes you happy, bring your Harry Potter collection to college.

I guarantee you won’t be the only freshman with a fascination for Hogwarts.