"Deciding what to write. That's what got me," said Jordyn as he showed me his college essays. He's not alone. For years students have told me that the toughest part of writing a college admission essay is finding a topic. The subject, of course, is already clear — your life, your ideas, your personality. But the topic! Who knows.

Not me, certainly. But somewhere inside you lies the topic, in fact, tons of topics, each just waiting to be explored and turned into a great essay. This personal inventory is designed to unearth those topics from your memory bank. (And if you decide to skip college, you can always send it to a dating service.)

Don't be discouraged by the number of questions listed here. You don't have to answer all of them, and you don't have to answer any of them in detail. Work your way through the categories that seem most appealing, jotting down a phrase or two — just enough to remind you of the answer. If you're inspired by any particular question, grab a sheet of scrap paper or turn on the computer and write everything that occurs to you.

Some of these questions dig fairly deeply into your personal life. Don't feel obliged to share the most private parts of your life in your admission essay. The admissions committee wants to get to know you, but they should be treated as strangers to whom you've just been introduced, not friends in whom you confide. So if secrets surface as you fill out this questionnaire, keep them!


"No man is an island," wrote poet John Donne. (No woman is either, I might add, feminist that I am.) You live in a community, a country, and increasingly, in a global village. These questions are designed to clarify your thoughts about your role in those three contexts. Answers here might apply to essays asking about (surprise, surprise) your community, but they are also relevant to questions about your values. The "write about an issue you care about" question is a natural for this section.

The locals

Describe your local community. What makes it unique? When you think about the community, how do you fit in? How does the community see you?

Have you contributed to your community? In what way? How did that experience affect you?

If you could change one thing about your community, what would it be? Why? Realistically, can you change your community?

Which values of your community do you share? What makes you different from others in your community?

What issues face your community? Think about the environment, social interactions, government, the economy, and so forth. Which issue is most important to you? Why?

Do you still live in the community of your birth? If not, why did you move? What was the experience of moving like for you and for your family? What does your community of origin mean to you, now that you no longer live there?

Your country

Think about your country. What does it mean to you? What do you appreciate about your country?

What aspect of your country would you like to change? Why? What would you substitute? How would you go about making a change?

What sort of contribution do you see yourself making to your country now or in the future?

Which values of your country do you share? Which do you reject? Why?

Do you still live in the country of your birth? If not, why did you move? What was the experience of moving like for you and for your family? What does your country of origin mean to you, now that you no longer live there?

Global village

How connected do you feel to events happening in other countries? Which events concern you the most? The least? Why?

When you think about your future, do you see yourself as participating in diplomatic or governmental relations? What will be or could be your role?

What responsibility do citizens of your country have towards citizens of other countries? How should those responsibilities be met?

What draws people from many countries together? What separates people? What should be changed about the way people relate to their own nations and to other nations?

Which issues are of global importance? Think about the environment, diplomacy, the economy, health, nutrition, war, terrorism, and so on. Which issue is most important to you? Why? What can you do about the issue?