Your application essay's title is the first thing the admissions folks will read. Although there are many ways to approach the title, you'll want those words at the top of the page to make the proper impression.
Why a Title?
Let's start with the basics: Is your essay about something? Do you want your reader to know what it's about? If so, your essay needs a title.
Ask yourself which work you'd be more excited to read: "The Casque of Amontillado" or "Some Random Story by Edgar Allan Poe That's About Something that You'll Figure Out After You Read It." If you don't provide a title, you don't give your reader any reason to be interested in beginning your essay other than a sense of duty. Make sure the college admissions folks are motivated to read your essay by curiosity, not by the necessity of their assigned drudge work.
Picture a newspaper in which every article lacks a title. What article do you want to read? Which one's sound interesting? Clearly a newspaper without titles would be ridiculous. Application essays aren't that different. Your reader wants to know what it is that he or she is going to read.
The Purpose of an Application Essay Title
We've established that you need a title. But what makes a title effective? First off, think about the purpose of a title:
- A good title should grab your reader's attention.
- Related to #1, a title should make your reader want to read your essay.
- The title should provide a sense of what your essay is about.
When it comes to #3, realize that you don't need to be too detailed. Academic essays often have titles that look like this: "Julia Cameron's Photography: A Study of the Use of Long Shutter Speeds to Create Spiritual Effects." For an application essay, such a title would come across as over-written, pompous, and ridiculous. Consider how a reader would react to an essay with the title, "The Author's Trip to Costa Rica and How It Changed His Attitude Towards Biodiversity and Sustainability." After reading such a long and belabored title, the admissions folks wouldn't feel like they need to read the actual essay.
Sample Good Essay Titles
In general, there are no concrete rules for titles. Good titles can take a variety of forms:
- A good title can be clever or play with words. See, for example, "Porkopolis" by Felicity or "Buck Up" by Jill. "Porkopolis" is a nonsense word, but it works well for an essay on becoming a vegetarian in a meat-centric world, and "Buck Up" employs both a literal and figurative meaning of the phrase. As you'll read below, however, you don't necessarily want to try to be too clever. Such efforts can backfire.
- A title can be provocative. As an example, a student who wrote about encountering new foods while abroad titled her essay "Eating Eyeballs." If your essay focuses on a humorous, shocking or embarrassing moment in your life, it's often easy to write an attention-grabbing title. Titles such as "Puking on the President," "Romeo's Ripped Tights," and "The Wrong Goal" are sure to peek your reader's interest.
- An essay title can be concise and straight-forward. Don't feel that you need great wit and alliteration in your title. Simple and direct language can be quite effective. Consider, for example, "The Job I Should Have Quit" by Drew, "Wallflower" by Eileen, and "Striking Out" by Richard. These titles don't play with words or reveal great wit, but they accomplish their purpose perfectly well.
In all of these cases, the title has provided at least a partial sense of the essay's subject matter, and each has motivated the reader to continue reading. What the heck does "Porkopolis" mean? Why did you eat eyeballs? Why should you have quit your job?
Avoid These Title Mistakes
There are some common missteps that applicants make when it comes to titles. Be aware of these pitfalls:
- Vague language. You'll be off to a remarkably bland start if your essay is titled "Three Things That Matter to Me" or "A Bad Experience." "Bad" (or "good" or "evil or "nice") is a painfully subjective and meaningless word, and the word "things" might have worked well in Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," but it rarely adds anything of value to your essay. Be precise, not vague.
- Broad, overly general language. This is a continuation of the vague language problem. Some titles try to cover far too much. You don't want to call your essay "My Life Story" or "My Personal Growth" or "An Eventful Upbringing." Such titles suggest that you are going to attempt to narrate years of your life in a few hundred words. Any such effort is doomed to failure, and your reader will be doubting your essay before beginning the first paragraph.
- Overblown vocabulary. The best essays use clear and accessible language. When a writer attempts to sound intelligent by adding unnecessary syllables to every word, the reading experience is often torturous. When an essay's title is "My Utilization of Erroneous Rationalizations During My Pupilage," the reader's immediate response is going to be pure dread. No one wants to read 600 words of that garbage.
- Strained cleverness. Be careful if you're relying on wordplay in your title. Not all readers are fans of puns, and a title may sound ridiculous if the reader doesn't understand a supposedly clever allusion. Cleverness is a good thing, but test out your title on your acquaintances to make sure it works.
- Clichés. If your title relies on a cliché, you're suggesting that the experience that you are narrating is unremarkable and commonplace. You don't want the first impression of your essay to be that you have nothing original to say. So if you find yourself writing "When the Cat Got My Tongue" or "Burning the Midnight Oil," stop yourself and reevaluate your title.
- Misspellings. Finally, nothing is more embarrassing than a misspelled title. There, at the top of the page in bold letters, you've used the word "it's" instead of "its," or you wrote about "patients" instead of "patience." We all make these mistakes, but take extra care with your application essay. An error in the title is a sure way to eliminate any confidence your reader has in your writing ability.
A Final Word About Application Essay Titles
Many writers-both novices and experts-have a difficult time coming up with a title that works well. Don't hesitate to write your essay first and then, once your ideas have truly taken shape, go back and craft the title. Also, don't hesitate to seek help with your title. A brainstorming session with friends can often generate far better titles than a solitary session of pounding your head on your keyboard. You do want to get your title right-it's going to make an immediate impression on the admissions folks who read your essay, and you clearly want them to enter your essay in a curious and eager state of mind.
Finally, if you're writing your essay for the Common Application, keep in mind that your title will go in the text box with the rest of the essay, and the title will count toward your essays overall word count.