College Application Essays: Search For the Perfect Topic
It’s Closer Than You Think
I’ve learned a lot about what makes a great essay topic over the last six years I’ve helped students with their college application essays.
If you’re just starting the process of writing your essay, you might be surprised what I’ve discovered about the best topics:
They are not what you would expect.
1. The best topics do not include what might be considered your best accomplishments or achievements. In fact, the opposite is true.
2. They often are the very thing you think would never make a good topic.
3. Good ones can be right in front of your nose. In fact, they might be on your face.
When I sit down with students, we go through a brainstorming session to try to root out strong topics. We are usually trolling for compelling, real-life stories (which are condensed into anecdotes for these essays.)
Many students start by telling me they don’t have anything interesting to write about themselves, that they are just normal, boring kids from the suburbs or small towns, and that nothing very interesting has ever happened to them.
But year after year, they have always proven themselves dead wrong.
I have yet to meet a student who didn’t end up with a unique topic that worked well for showcasing who they were in a narrative essay.
So I seriously doubt you will be the first one to break the pattern.
During our brainstorming sessions, I walk them back through their lives, and poke around the past in search of moments or “the times” when interesting things happened.
They don’t have to be impressive, or momentous–just interesting, or odd, or unforgettable for whatever reason. Something they might go home and tell their parents about, or mention to a good friend.
“You wouldn’t believe what happened…” you would tell them.
“I found a turtle in the middle of the road.”
“I got stuck up in a tree.”
“I learned how to drive a backhoe.”
“I bought an ant farm.”
“I got lost in the woods.”
“I started a worm bin.”
“I met my real dad for the first time.”
“I babysat quadruplets.”
Every one of these simple stories has the potential to spin into an engaging essay. Really.
If you are fretting over finding that perfect topic, let me take you along for a little topic treasure hunt. First, let’s start with your interests and hobbies.
Are any of them ones people might not expect of you?
How about your after-school or weekend activities? What did you do last Saturday?
How about last summer? Did you work?
I don’t care if it wasn’t an impressive internship or high-paying gig. What did you do?
Even ushering at the local theater, or selling shoes or babysitting can be a topic source–depending on what happened when you were doing those jobs. Remember, you are looking for little interesting moments.
Still nothing? Okay. Let’s move in a little closer.
Do you have car? What kind is it and what’s inside? How about your bedroom? What’s on the walls, or in those little boxes on your shelves? What books are on your shelves?
What do you collect? Anything under the bed? Do you have any scrapbooks or journals–it’s a good time to leaf through those.
Let’s wander out into the garage or basement. Scan the walls, floor and shelves.
Remember that unicycle propped next to the door? What about that Halloween costume you made out of duct tape? What is the piano doing out here?
Don’t forget your backyard. It can contain or spark some interesting memories. Do a lap around your block. Any memories there? What were some of your typical routines in high school?
Did your mom drive you somewhere? Any interesting neighbors?
You can even search your social media closet.
Go through your photos albums on Facebook. Are you keeping a Tumblr blog? What’s your favorite Snapchat subject? With this search, you are looking for yourself, and at yourself, trying to find your unique passions, interests and activities to spark topic ideas.
You might have thought about an idea or two, but quickly dismissed it as too silly or unimpressive.
Don’t be so quick to disregard those ideas. Often “mundane” topics make the best topics. Read more about mundane topics HERE.
Read THIS POST to find more help on finding great topics.
Think you unearthed a strong topic? Check out my Jumpstart Guide to start writing!
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Get help writing your college application essays. Find this year's Common App writing prompts and popular essay questions used by individual colleges.
The college essay is your opportunity to show admissions officers who you are apart from your grades and test scores (and to distinguish yourself from the rest of a very talented applicant pool).
2018-19 Common App Essays
Nearly 700 colleges accept the The Common Application, which makes it easy to apply to multiple schools with just one form. If you are using the Common App to apply for college admission in 2017, you will have 250–650 words to respond to ONE of the following prompts:
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Tackling the Common App Essay Prompts
Prompt #1: Share your story.
Answer this prompt by reflecting on a hobby, facet of your personality, or experience that is genuinely meaningful and unique to you. Admissions officers want to feel connected to you and an honest, personal statement about who you are draws them in. Your love of superheroes, baking chops, or family history are all fair game if you can tie it back to who you are or what you believe in. Avoid a rehash of the accomplishments on your high school resume and choose something that the admissions committee will not discover when reading the rest of your application.
Prompt #2: Learning from obstacles.
You're trying to show colleges your best self, so it might seem counterintuitive to willingly acknowledge a time you struggled. But overcoming challenges demonstrates courage, grit, and perseverance! That’s why the last piece of this prompt is essential. The obstacle you write about can be large or small, but you must show the admissions committee how your perspective changed as a result.
Prompt #3: Challenging a belief.
Your answer to this question could focus on a time you stood up to others or an experience when your own preconceived view was challenged. Choose this prompt if you have a relevant—and specific!—experience to recount (and reflect on). A vague essay about a hot button issue doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything useful about YOU.
Prompt #4: Solving a problem.
This essay is designed to get at the heart of how you think and what makes you tick. Present a situation or quandary and show steps toward the solution. Admissions officers want insight into your thought process and the issues you grapple with, so explain how you became aware of the dilemma and how you tackled solving it. Don’t forget to explain why the problem is important to you!
Prompt #5: Personal growth.
Just like Prompt #2, the accomplishment or event you write about can be anything from a major milestone to a smaller "aha" moment. Describe the event or ccomplishment that shaped you but take care to also show what you learned or how you changed. Colleges are looking for a sense of maturity and introspection—pinpoint the transformation and demonstrate your personal growth.
Prompt #6: What captivates you?
This prompt is an invitation to write about something you care about. (So avoid the pitfall of writing about what you think will impress the admission office versus what truly matters to you). Colleges are looking for curious students, who are thoughtful about the world around them. The "what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more” bit isn't an afterthought—it's a key piece of the prompt. Make sure you explain how you pursue your interest, as well.
Prompt #7: Topic of your choice.
This question might be for you if you have a dynamo personal essay from English class to share or were really inspired by a question from another college’s application. You can even write your own question! Whatever topic you land on, the essentials of a standout college essay still stand: 1.) Show the admissions committee who you are beyond grades and test scores and 2.) Dig into your topic by asking yourself how and why. There isn’t a prompt to guide you, so you must ask yourself the questions that will get at the heart of the story you want to tell.
More College Essay Topics
Individual schools sometimes require supplemental essays. Here are a few popular application essay topics and some tips for how to approach them:
Describe a person you admire.
Avoid the urge to pen an ode to a beloved figure like Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln. The admissions committee doesn't need to be convinced they are influential people. Focus on yourself: Choose someone who has actually caused you to change your behavior or your worldview, and write about how this person influenced you .
Why do you want to attend this school?
Be honest and specific when you respond to this question. Avoid generalities like "to get a good liberal arts education” or “to develop career skills," and use details that show your interests: "I'm an aspiring doctor and your science department has a terrific reputation." Colleges are more likely to admit students who can articulate specific reasons why the school is a good fit for them beyond its reputation or ranking on any list. Use the college's website and literature to do your research about programs, professors, and other opportunities that appeal to you.
What is a book you love?
Your answer should not be a book report. Don't just summarize the plot; detail why you enjoyed this particular text and what it meant to you. What does your favorite book reveal about you? How do you identify with it, and how has it become personal to you?
Again, be honest in answering this question—don't choose a classic from your literature class or a piece of philosophy just because you think it will make you seem smarter. Writing fluently and passionately about a book close to you is always better than writing shakily or generally about a book that doesn't inspire you.
What is an extracurricular activity that has been meaningful to you?
Avoid slipping into clichés or generalities. Take this opportunity to really examine an experience that taught you something you didn't previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow. Sometimes it's better to write about something that was hard for you because you learned something than it is to write about something that was easy for you because you think it sounds admirable. As with all essay questions, the most important thing is to tell a great story: how you discovered this activity, what drew you to it, and what it's shown you about yourself.
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