Coming Up with a Great College Essay Topic
Writing your college essays can be very daunting. This is the area where you have the greatest chance of standing out from all the other applications in the pile. And while a stellar college essay won’t save an otherwise lackluster application—you still need the grades and test scores a school is looking for—a dull essay could be the reason your application gets cast aside. In short, you want your essay to shine.
But college essays are a type of writing you’ve probably never done before, so how do you even know where to begin?
First, unlike an academic paper, your college essay should have a more casual tone. It should be written in the first person, and most importantly, it should show—rather than tell—something important about who you are.
That’s why often, it’s best to focus on a specific moment in your life that was meaningful to you. The moment itself doesn’t have to be particularly amazing. Just because you haven’t been on American Idol or climbed to the top of Mount Everest, doesn’t mean your life is boring. We all have unique experiences and unique stories to tell – your job is to get in touch with your personal perspective on that experience so you can use it to reveal something about yourself.
However, just detailing a specific moment in your life isn’t enough. The essay also needs to demonstrate your self-awareness about why that moment was important. That’s why it’s best to include a reflection on how the experiences described in your essay impacted or changed you in some way.
To begin writing your college essay, read the prompts from each school you’re applying to and choose which one you’ll answer. Although any essay you write could potentially fit with a lot of different prompts, it’s still a good idea to dissect the prompt so you don’t leave out any elements the school is asking for. Since the majority of schools use the Common App, those prompts are good place to start. Here are the Common App’s essay options for the 2020-21 school year.
Once you’ve chosen a prompt, it’s time to choose a topic. Here are four tricks for brainstorming a college essay topic:
- Think about what subjects you know the most about.
One good way to generate an idea for your college essay is to think about areas where you have deep knowledge or long-term experience. What do you spend your free time doing? What are you passionate about? For example, let’s say you’ve been playing basketball since the fifth grade. You might ask yourself questions such as:
- Why did I get involved in basketball?
- What has been my most memorable moment in basketball?
- Has basketball changed me? How?
- “What have I learned about myself or about life from basketball?
- Think about one of your most vivid memories
Again, the college admissions people want to learn more about who you are and what makes you tick – writing about one of your most vivid memories is a great way of bringing that to life. When generating ideas about an important memory, bring the scene to life with the sights, sounds and smells of the moment. Also try to capture the thoughts and feelings you had and the details of how you interacted with other people or with the environment. When deciding what memory to write about, consider:
- The five key events in your autobiography
- A time when you failed miserably
- A time when you were a fantastic success
- A time when you changed your mind about something or someone
- A time when you made a mistake but learned something from it
- Think about current events that matter to you
Another way to approach a college essay is with a current events topic you’re passionate about. If possible, try to think of something that directly relates to your life or your own experience. For example, perhaps you’re from a family of immigrants, and you are passionate about immigration reform. Or maybe you have experienced racism and want to make the world a more equitable place. Whatever topic you pick, see if you can demonstrate why it’s meaningful to you.
- Think about your less attractive character traits
A common myth about college essays is that you have to make yourself sound like an accomplished, perfect person. But often you’ll come across as much more human and authentic when you share the ways in which you’re a little bit quirky or just plain weird. To try this approach, consider writing about:
- A habit of yours that really annoys people around you
- Your most unusual character trait
- A personal possession to which you’ve grown irrationally attached
- A time you had a really humorous, awkward moment in a social situation
If you have a lively sense of humor, this approach could also be a chance to let that trait shine. However, don’t try too hard to be funny if that’s not who you are.
Other tips for writing a college essay
Brainstorming and choosing the best topic is important, but it’s only half the battle. Here are some key strategies to keep in mind once you start writing the actual essay:
- Show, don’t tell. Remember, try to use the most vivid language possible. Details and examples make it interesting!
- End with a short, impactful sentence. Don’t conclude by repeating ideas found elsewhere in the essay.
- Write more than one draft. Your essay won’t be perfect the first time. Give yourself enough time to write a few drafts and get feedback from people you respect. And don’t write your draft directly in the application window. Polish the essay in a separate document and then paste it into the application when it’s ready.
- Keep it your own. Getting feedback is great, but don’t include anything that doesn’t sound like something you would write.
- Proofread a hard copy. When you’ve been staring at the same words on a computer screen for hours, it’s easy to miss typos and other errors. Print a hard copy to review for correct spelling and grammar. Ask someone else to proofread if you don’t trust yourself to catch errors.
Want to get more help writing a great college essay? Complete the College Essays 101 interest form, and we’ll let you know when our next workshop opens for registration. Or get connected with a writing tutor for one-to-one essay coaching.