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Last updated March 17, 2023

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How to Write a College Essay About Photography

Key Takeaway

There's no way around it: photography essays are really common in college admissions. To write a strong personal statement about photography, you're going to need the right approach. In this post, we give you two helpful strategies.

Whether you're starting to dive into your personal statement or taking a bit out of extracurriculars, you're probably wondering which topics are OK to draw from in your essays.

Some topics are obviously valuable, while others are a bit more dubious. However, there's a third category: essay topics that may be overused to the point that they lose their potency and enter into the territory of cliché.

One topic that our students ask about a lot is essays about photography. Photography, being a fairly common extracurricular, is a writing area that many students explore every year on both personal and supplemental essays.

So that begs the question: Given the popularity of the topic, is it a good idea to craft your college essay around a photography topic? And if you do, what are some good ways to approach a photo essay that put the topic in its best light.

Warning: Overused extracurricular essays are hard to do well.

We won't sugar-coat it: an essay about a very common extracurricular may be set up to do less well than one about an extracurricular that's less common or in which you've performed EXTREMELY well.

A lot of students have taken an intro to photography class, borrowed a DLSR or film camera, and traipsed around their neighborhood shooting black-and-white stills of popular landmarks or landscapes.

Photography Essay Challenges

So, if photography resembles this kind of passing or casual hobby for you, you run into two problems right away.

1. The first is that you may not be choosing an essay topic that comes from a great source of personal meaning to you. Sure, you might enjoy photography. But enjoyment alone isn't typically enough to fuel an amazing essay. (This is certainly true for personal statements, which require you to dig deep and find a truly meaningful, even "vulnerable" topic to discuss.)

I recommend honing in on a topic that has deeper meaning. It's the surest way to give admissions officers a clear and honest picture of who YOU are in a way that stands out from other students.

However, photography may be that topic for you. Just do some soul-searching before you commit to writing an essay about photographyask yourself if it's REALLY a meaningful topic, or merely something you enjoy.

2. The other possible challenge is that photography is a very, very common extracurricular. I would guess that up to 15% of all student applicants list photography on their resumes, and a fair share of those probably choose to write something about it, even if just in an extracurricular essay.

Now, I really don't encourage students to plan their essays around novelty, novelty, novelty. Because novelty for its own sake is never a good solution. However, you should try to avoid the most commonly-used essay topics or at least be CERTAIN that you have a meaningful way to approach them.

For a photography essay, for example, I would want to be sure that you've achieved something pretty significantly impressive as a photographermaybe you've won a national championship or your work has been featured in National Geographic. Okay, or maybe you’ve contributed or received recognition on a more local level, but the point still stands.

If that's the case, or something like it, you might be in a great position to start writing a photography college essay that stands out from the crowd. So give it a go.

OK, warning over. Let's talk about some strategies for writing an effective college essay about photography.

Ways to approach a college essay about photography

I want to provide two possible ways to write an essay about photography, the "snapshot" approach and the "lens on the world" approach. Keep in mind that these are just two ideas to get your brain jogging about the possibilities. Always try to be creative!

Essay Framework #1: Snapshot structure

The "snapshot" structure is a way of structuring your narrative into a series of "snapshot" moments that take the writer through a journey.

A "snapshot" approach to an essay about photography might work really well. Each frame could be a literal snapshota meaningful picture that represents something about your life or your journey through photography.

You could write this essay as a series of short "vignettes," little episodes that add up to a powerful story about what photography has meant to you since you started.

Essay Framework #2: Lens to see the world

This framework shares some similarities to the snapshot structure. Here, you would show the reader how you see the world from behind the lens of your camera.

When I was shooting more often (I, too, saved up to buy a refurbished DSLR in high school and fancied myself a photographer for a few years), I remember how sharpened my ability to see details became. I was way more perceptive and observant of the world around me. And when I was actually behind the lens, I saw the world in a different waybound by rules of composition, light sources, and quiet but eloquent moments worth capturing.

In this essay framework (which is not quite as structured as the snapshot frame) you could take the reader behind the lens and show them how the world transforms or opens up for you when you're shooting.

In both cases, what's key is that the narrative clearly shows an admission committee that photography isn't just an idle pastime or hobby. Instead, they should understand that photography is one of the key ways that you interact with and understand the world.

If you don't feel like your participation with photography meets this high bar, then you might want to go hunting for different themes to anchor your essay. In all of your essays, writing about meaningful experiences that have deep roots in your life is the way to go.

Please, please: Do NOT write an essay about photography because you think it diversifies your narrative even though you don't really care too much about it. Admissions officers will sniff that out and not smile favorably on the tactic.

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