Are you with me so far? Moving on.

You won’t know for sure which topic is your “best” topic as this process is more art than science. As I mentioned above, you’re looking for the topic that is most elastic (i.e. – fits several prompts). Here’s one way to do this:

Spend 10 minutes doing the Essence Objects exercise and ask yourself:

Could any of these objects or topics potentially connect to multiple themes?

For example: Maybe you wrote down “ballet slippers.” Maybe that makes you think of all of the time you’ve spent not only training, but also learning about the cultural origins of ballet… Not only that, but how might you track the intergenerational history of ballet dancers in your family?

See what we’re doing here? Trying to make those essence objects (and the topics they represent) more elastic to fit a greater range of prompts.

So try this quick exercise: go through your most meaningful essence objects hashtag them with as many values as you can think of.

Example: ballet slippers #hardwork #culture #family #nopainnogain #health

Another example: Paul Farmer’s Mountains Beyond Mountains #internship #inspiration #career #community #failure #humor

If you’re having trouble thinking of values, here’s a list to get you started.

Now do this: Look over each of your prompts and ask, “Could my favorite topic [whatever you’ve decided that is] work for this prompt… or this one… or that other one?”

For example, if you wrote solar panel software for a project in a water-scarce community in Libya, there might be connections to any prompt that has the word “culture” or “challenge” or, of course, “extracurricular” and voila: you can write one essay for all three (or four, or six) prompts.

Have fun with this! See how many you can make one topic work for. And spend as much time as you need to do this because this is what will save you the most time in your college essay process.

But wait.

You might be thinking:

What if I’m stretching too far?

What if the topic I’m choosing connects to the theme but, like, in a really weird way?

Fair point.

I believe that unusual connections are okay. But your connection to the prompt–to each prompt, in fact–has to be super clear. This may mean tweaking a sentence or two to clearly answer each different prompt. (Fun fact: usually those tweaks make the essay better anyway. That’s like the whole thing we’re doing here.) But make the tweaks so you’re clearly answering the prompt. If you can’t, your topic may not be elastic enough. So try another topic for that prompt; the goal here isn’t to find a single topic for every single prompt, but to find one that works for several.

An exception to this game is if the topic is extremely specific, as can sometimes be the case for college essay prompts that ask you to reflect on a quotation or questions like U Chicago’s supplemental essay prompts or Virginia’s “Describe one of your quirks and why it is part of who you are” (although that one can double with MIT or Caltech).

In short, making unusual connections will make your topic stand out, flex your creativity, and show multiple sides of you at once.