Coming up with a good topic for your college essays can feel like the ultimate form of writer’s block. After all, what could you possibly write about that will represent you in 500 words or less? The creative process definitely isn’t easy, but these tips and tricks from people who have been through the process should help you get your thoughts flowing and ideas moving.
1. Focus on a moment
One of the easiest ways to think of a college essay topic is to focus on a specific instance that changed you or that represents something about your character. As Madie, a Brandeis University student, puts it, “You don’t need to tell a long and complicated story to have a good college essay. All you need is a moment. Start with a moment, and work out from there. Then come back to that moment at the end of your essay.” In Madie’s Common Application essay, she wrote about the mantra she said to herself every day before she got out of her car to go to school. While that may seem like a rather simple topic to write about, for Madie, that everyday occurrence defined her. So ask yourself: what is a moment in your life that defined you?
Whether it is the time you ate a weird-looking fruit, the peculiar way you brush your teeth, or the time you went skydiving, it doesn’t matter. The moment itself is not important. What that moment says about you is.
Related:Which Common Application Essay Prompt is Right for You?
2. Stand out
It’s true: the college admission process is tougher than ever. Basically every student you will be up against has done some sort of community service. Everyone has some sport or musical instrument or other extracurricular they excel at. Tons of kids work a part-time job in addition to all their other responsibilities. It’s hard to find something you did in high school that will make you unique in an applicant pool. This is not to discount the work you have done; it is just to say that everyone is writing similar essays about similar things.
You want to write about something that will make you stand out. Write about something that the poor admission officer reading all these essays hasn’t read before. So take a second to think: what’s something you’ve done that your classmates haven’t? Was it meaningful to you? If so, get writing.
3. When disaster strikes . . . write about it!
In the college admission process, it can be easy to get caught up in trying to come off as the “perfect” candidate. You have worked so hard to get perfect grades, perfect SAT or ACT scores, perfect extracurricular activities—you get the picture. However, here is a little-known secret about college applications: perfect is boring. The people in admission offices reading your essays read about “perfect” all day. Your essay is the time to spice up your application. Show them a time in your life where maybe everything didn’t go so perfectly. For instance, Jackson, a Division III student-athlete, wrote about the time he injured his ankle in tennis, only to go through extensive and excruciatingly painful rehab to finally get back on the court, where, on his first day back, he injured his other ankle. While revealing any imperfection in a college essay may seem contradictory to the goal of convincing a college to admit you, it often showcases your best qualities. For example, the fact that Jackson was able to stick with tennis and rehab after all of these trials shows that he is persistent and strong. As he put it, “My college essay wasn’t about making myself seem amazing. It was more about reflecting on my past experiences and seeing where they got me today.”
4. Be genuine
Rachel, a student at James Madison University, recalls her Common Application essay with pride, because she was true to herself in everything she wrote. In fact, she says her essay was “the most genuine thing she has ever written.” When Rachel’s prompt asked her what her favorite place was, she knew she shouldn’t pick her bedroom or the beach she went to as a child, because those are everyone’s favorite places. She wanted her favorite place to be her own. So Rachel wrote about swing sets. “Swings are everywhere,” she says, so it was a relatable topic while still being unique to her own personality. Additionally, using swings as her favorite place gave her a lot of imagery to work with in her essay, because she could literally describe what being on the swings felt like. The important lesson to take away here is that if you are truthful and genuine in your essay, it will be easy to write about.
5. Write about your childhood
Your entire college application talks about who you were in high school. Admission officers see what activities you did in high school, what classes you took in high school, and what scores you got—you guessed it—in high school. While these things are important, so much of your personality forms as a child too. My friend Caroline, who was accepted to schools such as George Mason University, Wittenberg University, and Seattle University, wrote about how interest in exploration started as a child. She wrote a narrative about pushing boundaries. As a child, Caroline always rode her bike just a little bit farther than her parents allowed her to. Eventually she ended up riding all the way into the forest and exploring nature, where she developed her passion for saving the environment. By writing about how her interests, tendencies, and passions came from her childhood, Caroline was able to give admission officers a more complete picture of who she is. Think about what you did as a child that says something about your personality now. Write about what makes you, you!
Keep calm and happy writing everyone!
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Students prepare for applying to selective colleges by taking rigorous courses, participating in extracurricular activities, studying for standardized tests, and more. All of this preparation, however, can distract attention from one of the most notorious sections of the college application: the essays.
The essay is both the most and the least visible part of the competitive admissions process. Everyone knows that the essay is critical, but few actually get to see what “successful” essays look like. Some online resources, like The College Board, post examples of college application essays, but they often lack the necessary context for a reader to truly assess how accurately that essay conveys a student’s personality and interests.
When choosing a topic for an essay, students need to consider what the essay prompt is asking, the universities to which they’re applying, their goals, and, ultimately, what the essay says about them as a student and as a person.
Why the Essay Matters
Before you can choose a compelling essay topic, you first need to understand why there’s an essay in the first place. When evaluating college applications, most colleges use a “reading rubric” to evaluate the different components of each application. Aside from the “hard factors,” like grades, GPA, and test scores, colleges also look at the “soft factors,” such as extracurriculars, recommendation letters, demonstrated interests, and essays. The point of evaluating all these factors is to enable colleges to holistically build a well-rounded class of specialists. The essay (or essays) is a great way to learn more about an applicant, her motivations, life experiences, and how she can contribute to the campus community.
According to NACAC, 83 percent of colleges assign some level of importance to the application essay, and it’s usually the most important “soft factor” that colleges consider. The essay is important because it gives students the chance to showcase their writing and tell the college something new. It also allows admissions officers to learn more about students and gain insight into their experiences that other parts of the application do not provide. Just like any other admissions factor, a stellar essay isn’t going to guarantee admission, but students do need to craft compelling and thoughtful essays in order to avoid the “no” pile.
Related: How a Great College Essay Can Make You Stand Out
Types of Essays
Let’s talk about the different types of essays that a college may require applicants to submit. Over 500 colleges and universities use the Common Application, which has one required essay, called the personal statement. There are five new prompts to choose from, and this essay can be used for multiple colleges.
Related: Why I Love the New Common Application Essay Prompts
Beyond the Common Application essay, many colleges also have supplements that ask additional, university-specific questions which applicants must respond to with shorter-form essays. While topics vary from supplement to supplement, there are a few standard essay formats that many colleges use:
This is the most common essay and is used for the main Common Application essay. In this essay, the applicant talks about a meaningful life experience that helped shape who she is today. The book “Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting into College” has a great section on the personal statement and how students can craft effective essays.
“Why This College?” Essay
Many colleges, including Columbia University and Duke University, use the supplement to ask applicants to explain why they have chosen to apply to this particular college. In this essay, students need to be detailed and offer specific examples for wanting to attend this school. Not only does it help students reiterate their passions, it also serves as a gauge for demonstrated interest and a vehicle for students to better articulate how they will contribute to the campus environment.
In this essay, students write about an extracurricular activity or community service project that was especially meaningful to them. This essay was previously on the standard Common Application, but was removed starting in the 2014–15 application season. Instead, some colleges, like Georgetown University, choose to include a variation of this essay among their supplements by asking students to discuss an activity and its significance to their life or course of study. In this essay, students should choose an activity they’re most passionate about and include details about how they expect to continue this activity at the particular college.
Related: Using Your High School Internship as Inspiration for Your College Essay
In an effort to challenge students to think creatively, some colleges include short, “quick take” prompts that require only a few words or sentences for the response. Some examples include University of Southern California’s “What’s the greatest invention of all time?” and University of Maryland’s sentence completion prompts like “My favorite thing about last Wednesday…”
What NOT to Write About
In order to stand out, it’s important to realize that there are a number of essay topics that are cliché and overused. Avoid writing about things like scoring the winning goal, topics of public consciousness like natural disasters, or something that happened to you in middle school. Also, avoid gimmicks like writing in a different language, presenting your essay as a poem, or anything else that is stylistically “out of the box.” Your focus should be on the message rather than the presentation.
It’s also important to avoid inappropriate or uncomfortable topics. Some students choose to write about things like sex or romantic relationships in order to stand out; yet, these topics fail to add substance or depth to an application. There’s a fine line between interesting and trite — don’t stand out for the wrong reasons.
Successful Essay Topics
A successful essay will reveal something about you that the admissions reader may not have already known, and will show how you interact with family and friends and demonstrate your beliefs or explore your passions. This doesn’t mean you have to regurgitate your resume — in fact, you definitely shouldn’t.
For example, a student whose number one extracurricular activity is swimming should not write an essay about “the big meet.” Instead, she could explore a more personal topic, such as something she is learning in class that conflicts with her religious beliefs. She can discuss the intersection of religion and education in her life and how she reconciled the differences — or didn’t.
A great essay also provides readers with a vivid picture. When crafting an essay, think of it as offering admissions readers a window into a certain event or story. Focus on the most meaningful moments, not the irrelevant background details.
For example, a student once wrote an essay about feeling out of place culturally during an internship. Instead of giving a general description of the internship and his conflicts, he opened the essay with a vivid description of what he saw when he first arrived, and used this scene to frame the feelings of alienation he underwent — giving the reader a striking image of his experience in great detail.
Remember, your college application essay is about you. There’s a lot of pressure to be “unique” and “interesting,” but at the end of the day, the key to standing out is to just be yourself. Admissions officers can tell when students are embellishing or being insincere in their essays, so it’s best to keep it simple and tell a story about you and the person you are today. In the end, with careful planning, research, and a thoughtful essay, you’ll get into the best-fit college for you!
For further guidance and examples, check out Noodle's collection of expert advice about college essays.