Identifying Themes in Your Autobiography for Your College Admission Essay

The stories of your life are an important ingredient of the admission essay, but they're not the only ingredient. You also need to identify the themes that run through the information you present to the admissions committee. A theme is a general category or "big idea" that seems to apply to the most important memories of your past. Creative works have themes, too; in English or art class, you've probably had to identify the themes of novels or other artworks (poems, plays, musical compositions, paintings, and so on). How do you find the themes that are relevant to your essay? Read on.

Reviewing your life story

Your life has an objective reality: hours worked, food eaten, friends greeted, tasks accomplished, and so forth. But apart from that dry list of details, everyone also makes an internal movie, The Story of Me. In The Story of Me you are the star, the scriptwriter, and the director. You create the characters (the way you see yourself and others) and select events to film (decide which events are important to you). From time to time you project The Story of Me onto the screen of your mind, watching the events (that is, remembering them) and, in the process, weaving a set of random happenings into a plot that makes sense. To identify themes, turn yourself into a movie critic, interpreting and analyzing The Story of Me.

For example, your own personal film may revolve around compassion. When you peer into the past, you remember how you helped that little boy in kindergarten who dropped his glob of clay and how you sat for hours with an elderly neighbor as she regaled you with stories of her childhood in Hungary and her career as a cigar roller. Your inner review of The Story of Me proclaims, "This film is a moving account of a girl who never met anyone she wouldn't help! The main character is a model of compassion and concern for others."

Revealing significant themes

Identifying themes is crucial because you can't write about your life coherently unless you understand why particular events are significant to you. Moreover, if you identify a theme and express it clearly, the reader (that is, the admissions office) will understand how to interpret the information you're providing. And the more deeply the admissions or scholarship committee understands your character, the better off you are.

Here's a selection of themes that may apply to your life:

  • Identity: How do you define yourself? Think about gender, race, ethnicity, economic level, age, and all the other factors that contribute to your identity. Then think about times when you were particularly aware of those factors. Can you match any memories to these issues? If so, you may have an essay topic.
  • Challenges: What barriers have you overcome? What difficulties have you gone through? When have you almost lost courage? Think of challenges relating to family, school (both academic and social), and community. What incidents can you relate that illustrate how you have handled tough situations?
  • Curiosity: What would you like to know about the world? Whom would you like to meet? Where would you like to visit? Have any situations sparked a hunger inside you — not the "I'll faint if I don't get a lunch break" sort of hunger, but the kind that moves you to explore? Check your memory bank. What situations have provoked your curiosity?
  • Future: When reporters attend your 100th birthday party, what will they hear the speakers say about you? What will you have accomplished in that long life? If your imagination stalls before the century mark, concentrate on something simpler — your life 5, 10, or 15 years from now. What memories would you like to create as you move through your future?
  • Time: How do you spend your days? When does time fly for you or drag? Are you a planner, a seize-the-moment type, a nostalgia buff? Do any of your memories show how you relate to time?
  • Passion: No, not physical passion. Rather, think about what moves you intellectually, artistically, emotionally, politically, or spiritually. When you feel with intensity, what are you doing? Or, what do you want to be doing? The issues or situations that get you going are worth writing about.
  • Learning: How do you learn best? What types of activities or teaching styles match your learning style? Which assignments do you remember? Why those? Can you illustrate your identity as a student with one particular experience?
  • Failure: This doesn't mean that you should explain to the admissions committee why you're a total loser, because of course you're not a loser at all. But if you're human, your reach has occasionally exceeded your grasp, as the poet says, and you've failed. What did you learn from that failure? How did you change your methods or goals as a result? A memory of failure may become a great essay topic.
  • Context: Where do you fit in? How do you fit in — in your family, school, neighborhood, country, world, and universe? Or, how don't you fit in? See yourself as a small tile in a large mosaic. What is your role?
  • Personality: What kind of person are you? What qualities or traits are part of your personality? How do you deal with day-to-day life? Collect some descriptive terms, but don't stop there. Look for memories that illustrate those qualities in action. For example, if courage is one of your most important qualities, hunt for moments in which you had to be brave. One of those memories may turn into an essay.
  • Career: What do you want to be now that you're grown up? Why? How did you start on the path to your chosen job? How do you expect to spend your days? What rewards are you seeking? If you're applying to graduate school, you've probably got a good idea of what your post-school life will be. Your views of the working life provide great essay material.

The preceding list contains only some of the many themes that you may apply to your life as you "mine" it for topics. If others occur to you, jot them down in a computer file or in a notebook.

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