Your application essay’s title is the first thing admissions officials will read. Although there are many ways to approach the title, it’s important that the words at the top of the page make the proper impression.
Importance of the Title
Ask yourself which work you’d be more excited to read: “Give Goth a Chance” or “Carrie’s Essay.” If you don’t provide a title, you don’t give your reader—in this case, busy admissions officials sorting through thousands of applications—any reason to be interested in reading your essay other than a sense of duty. Ensure that college admissions officers are motivated to read your essay due to curiosity rather than necessity.
Alternatively, imagine a newspaper in which every article lacks a title: You would be unlikely to pick up the paper and read anything. Clearly, a newspaper without titles would be confusing for readers. Application essays are similar in that way: Your readers want to know what it is that they are going to read.
The Purpose of an Application Essay Title
A well-crafted title should:
- Grab your reader’s attention
- Make your reader want to read your essay
- Provide a sense of what your essay is about
When it comes to the third item, realize that you don’t need to be too detailed. Academic essays often have titles that look like: “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 cumbersome and even pompous.
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 Toward Biodiversity and Sustainability.” After reading such a long and belabored title, admissions officials would have little motivation to read the essay.
Essay Title Examples
A good title can be clever or play with words, such as “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. However, don’t 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 pique your reader’s interest.
Simple and direct language can also 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 examples, the title provides at least a sense of the essay’s subject matter, and each motivates the reader to continue reading. After viewing such titles, even harried admissions officials are sure to ask: 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. Don’t 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 doubt 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. For example, if 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 on such a subject.
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 ensure that 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. If you find yourself writing “When the Cat Got My Tongue” or “Burning the Midnight Oil,” stop and reevaluate your title.
Misspellings. 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.” Take extra care to check the spelling of your essay title—and, indeed, your essay in general. An error in the title is sure to eliminate any confidence your reader has in your writing ability.
A Few Title Tips
Many writers—both novices and experts—have a difficult time coming up with a title that works well. Write your essay first and then, once your ideas have truly taken shape, go back and craft the title. Also, 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 want to get the title right so that the admissions officials read your essay in a curious and eager state of mind.
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 essay’s overall word count.