A Sample Essay for Common Application Option #7: Topic of Your Choice

Alexis writes about her love of Harpo Marx for her Common Application essay

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The "topic of your choice" gives you unlimited freedom as you craft your Common Application essay. Image Source/Getty Images

Alexis chose option #7 for her Common Application essay. This is the popular "topic of your choice" option that had been cut from the application in 2013 but was reintroduced for the 2017-18 application cycle. The question asks,

Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

The other six essay options on the Common Application give applicants so much flexibility that it is rare for a topic not fit elsewhere, but in some cases the "topic of your choice" is indeed the best choice.

This is true for Alexis's essay below.

Sample Essay on the "Topic of Your Choice" Option

My Hero Harpo

In middle school, I took part in an essay competition where we had to write about one of our strongest role models—who they were, what they did, and how they had influenced us. Other students wrote about Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, George Washington, etc. I, the youngest of five sisters and one of the quietest people in the school, chose Harpo Marx.

I did not win the competition—to be honest, my essay wasn’t very good, and I knew that, even at the time. I had bigger, better things to worry about, though. I was taking swimming lessons, and was terrified of discovering a shark in the deep end. I was making little hats for my dog Alexa, which she did not appreciate. I was busy working on a clay chess set in art class, and learning how to garden with my grandmother. I’m getting off-topic, but my point is: I didn’t need to win a competition or write an essay to feel validated. I was learning who I was, and what was important in my life. Which brings me back to the Marx Brothers.

My great-uncle was a big old-movie buff. We’d go over to his house most mornings during summer vacation, and watch Philadelphia Story, The Thin Man, or  His Girl Friday. My favorites, though, were the Marx Brothers’ films. Duck Soup. A Night at the Opera (my personal favorite). Animal Crackers. I can’t logically explain why I found these particular movies so hilarious and entertaining—there was something about them that not only made me laugh, but made me happy. Now, of course, watching those movies again, I’m reminded of those summer mornings, and of being surrounded by the people I loved, unconcerned with the world outside, that adds another layer of appreciation and joy.

The brothers each brought their own unique humor to the pictures, but Harpo—he was perfect. The hair. The wide ties and crazy trench coats. The way he doesn’t have to say anything to be funny. His facial expressions. How he offers people his leg when they try to shake his hand. The way you can see the change in him when he sits down at the piano or the harp. The subtle shift from comedian to musician—not a complete shift, of course, but in that moment, you know just how talented and hard-working he must have been. I love that rather than being a full-time, professional musician, which he certainly could have done, Harpo (known as Adolph off-screen) instead devoted his time and energy to entertain, to make people laugh, to be a big goof with a bicycle horn and a killer whistle. I identified with him—and still do. Harpo was quiet, funny-looking, not the most outgoing or famous performers, silly, and still insanely dedicated and a serious artist.

I don’t plan on going into show business. I mean, never say never and all that, but I don’t see myself as ever really getting bitten by that particular acting or performing bug. But the lessons I’ve learned from Harpo (and Groucho, Chico, Zeppo, etc.) are the kind that can transcend careers. It’s ok to fall down (a lot.) Learn to laugh at yourself. Learn to laugh at your family. Making faces is a perfectly good way to express yourself. Wear the weird clothes. Don’t be afraid to show off your talents when given the chance. Be kind to children. Have a cigar, if you want. Make up a silly song, or a goofy dance. Work hard at what you love. Work hard at what you don’t love, but what is still necessary. Don’t shy away from being the strangest, brightest, wildest, wackiest, passionate you you can be. And also carry a bicycle horn with you, just in case.

A Critique of Alexis's "Topic of Your Choice" Essay

With the "topic of your choice" essay option, one of the first issues to consider is whether or not the essay should have been presented under one of the more focused Common Application prompts. It's easy to be lazy and simply choose "topic of your choice" to avoid thinking too hard about the most appropriate fit for an essay.

For Alexis's essay "My Hero Harpo," the "topic of your choice" option does, in fact, work well. The essay could potentially fall under Common Application essay option #5 on a "realization that sparked a period of personal growth." Alexis's experiences watching Marx Brother movies did lead to an understanding of personal identity and life balances. That said, an essay on comedic actors doesn't quite fit the general seriousness of the option #5 prompt.

Now let's breakdown some of the important elements of Alexis's essay:

  • The topic. Harpo Marx is a rather unusual focus for an admissions essay. This can be a good thing, for Alexis's essay won't be a clone of other essays the admissions office receives. At the same time, one could argue that Harpo's slapstick comedy is a rather superficial focus for an application essay. This certainly could be true if the subject matter were handled poorly, but Alexis manages to turn an essay focused on Harpo Marx into an essay that is really about much more than Marx. Alexis identifies with Harpo, and she explains why she identifies with him. In the end, the essay is as much about Alexis as it is Harpo. It is an essay that reveals Alexis's self-awareness, analytical skills, and sense of humor.
  • The tone. Many applicants wrongly assume that an application essay needs to shine a bright light on a writer's accomplishments while hiding any warts. The reality, however, is that we're all quirky, flawed, complex people. Revealing an awareness of this fact is a sign of maturity, and it will often play well in an admissions essay. Alexis succeeds admirably on this front. The overall tone here is conversational and slightly self-deprecating. Alexis identifies with Harpo's goofiness and his decision to focus on bringing happiness to others rather than personal prestige. We finish Alexis's essay with a sense that she is reserved, silly, able to laugh at herself, yet quietly confident. The overall impression is certainly a positive one. 
  • The writing. Alexis's language is clear and engaging, and she avoids common stylistic errors. The essay has a strong voice and personality. The essay does, in fact, have several sentence fragments, but these are clearly used deliberately for rhetorical punch, not because Alexis is a grammatically inept writer. 
  • The impact. It's always important to step back from an application essay and consider the big picture: what will a reader take away from the essay? Alexis's essay doesn't present any remarkable accomplishment or impressive talent. It does, however, present a student who is thoughtful, self-aware, generous, talented, and quietly ambitious. Does Alexis come across as someone who the admissions folks would want to join their campus community? Yes.

Make Your Essay as Strong as Possible

If a college requires you to submit an essay with the Common Application, it is because the school has holistic admissions—the admissions folks want to get to know you as a whole person, not as a simple compilation of numerical data such as grades and standardized test scores. Along with extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and in some cases an interview, the essay can plan an important role in the admissions process. Make sure yours is as strong as possible.

As you write your own essay, be sure to avoid the bad essay topics, and follow these tips for a winning essay. Most of all, make sure that your essay makes a good impression. Does it present a dimension of your personality and interests that isn't obvious from other parts of your application? Does it present you as someone who will contribute to the campus community in a meaningful way? If "yes," your essay is performing its purpose well.

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Your Citation
Grove, Allen. "A Sample Essay for Common Application Option #7: Topic of Your Choice." ThoughtCo, Aug. 21, 2017, thoughtco.com/sample-essay-topic-choice-4148269. Grove, Allen. (2017, August 21). A Sample Essay for Common Application Option #7: Topic of Your Choice. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sample-essay-topic-choice-4148269 Grove, Allen. "A Sample Essay for Common Application Option #7: Topic of Your Choice." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sample-essay-topic-choice-4148269 (accessed March 22, 2018).