For the past few years now, working as a college essay coach, I’ve been fantasizing about putting together a list of essays for all my students to read before starting their own. These wouldn’t be other students’ college essays (how constraining and competitive that would feel) but a list of “real” essays — reflections like David Sedaris’s “Santaland Diaries,” James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” or the opening chapter of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Last week, I entertained adding another piece to this list, and one that breaks from all the others—CityLab’s “A Global Review of Public Transit Seat Cover Designs.”
If you haven’t read it, give it a go. It’s not too long, and it does what I wish more college essays would do: it makes a lively discussion out of a seemingly bland, lifeless detail in our shared world. It talks about four main criteria that go into choosing the ideal subway seat cover — Memorability, Freshness, Intricacy, and Anti-Dazzle (i.e., it shouldn’t make you feel nauseous when you look at it) — and, through comparing designs around the world, weighs the pros and cons. But, more importantly, it shows how much thought goes into parts of the world precisely so that people like us don’t have to think about them.
In some ways, the more irrelevant the topic, the better. Especially if you’re applying to research universities or liberal arts colleges. Remember that these places are filled with people who spend their lifetimes poring through small details — be them in the humanities, social sciences, or STEM fields — in the name of knowledge production. Countless academic careers come down to discussions of small details.
If you’re hunting for a college essay topic, this approximates a good starting question: Is there anything you think about more than other people? What makes your mind keep returning to this thing?