I did an essay workshop at a local high school today, at the end of which, a senior approached me a question. He was debating between two stories to write in his essays and wasn't sure which one was the best choice, so I asked him to describe both to me.
The first story was about being a troop leader in Boy Scouts, how at first the younger kids didn't respect him, he had to earn their trust, it taught him about how to be a leader, etc. etc. He didn't even seem to enjoy describing the story, so I couldn't imagine that he would enjoy writing it.
The second story was about the time he and his friends entered a talent show competition in which they reenacted a 1990s boy band act. Apparently, they spent hours watching videos to learn the dance moves, recreating the costumes, and perfecting their four-part harmony. Even as he described it, he was animated, and his personality was coming out just telling the story.
Neither of those topics is inherently good or bad. And whichever one he chooses, he'll need to tell an effective story that helps readers get to know more about him. But I can tell you this–every year, thousands and thousands of college applicants write stories about leadership, perseverance, commitment, and other supposed "valuable life lessons" that they learned Most of those kids didn't actually think those deep, reflective thoughts during and after those experiences. And most aren't excited about those stories; they're just relating what they think the admissions office wants to hear. Do you have any idea how many, "My trip to Europe broadened my horizons" and "Community service taught me the importance of helping others" admissions officers have to read every year?
The best college essays are about topics that make the writer tick, that give a glimpse into some part of your life (sometimes a big part, sometimes a small part). Those essays almost write themselves because you are so engaged in the story. It doesn't matter whether it's about a life-threatening illness or working a part-time job at a hamburger stand. It's the energy behind the topic that's contagious and can move an admissions officer.
This student was excited about his boy band story. So I told him to go with it. When in doubt, write what you want to write. Inject your personality. Write something that if your best friend read it, she would acknowledge that it sounds exactly like you.
It takes guts to write what you want to write, but that's a lot less risky than giving them what you think they want to hear.