Pen and ball of crumpled paper sitting on a notebook with lightbulb doodles

5 Good Options to Choose for Your College Essay Topic

Panicking over your college application essay? You won't be for long. Check out these five tips for choosing a topic to help you get started!

Coming up with a good topic for your college admission 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 fewer? The creative process definitely isn’t easy, but these tips and tricks from students who have been through the process should help you get your thoughts flowing and ideas moving. Check out these five tips for choosing an essay topic to help get you started. 

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's 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.

2. Try to stand out

It’s true: the college admission process is tougher than ever. Basically, every student you'll be up against has done some sort of community service. Everyone has some sport or musical instrument or other extracurricular in which they excel. Tons of kids work part-time jobs in addition to all their other responsibilities. It’s hard to find something you did in high school that will make you unique in a big applicant pool. This is not to discount the work you've done; it's just to say that everyone is writing similar essays about similar things. You want to write about something that will make you stand out, 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've worked so hard to get perfect grades, perfect SAT or ACT scores, perfect extracurricular activities—you get the picture. However, here's 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 when 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 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.”

Related: College Admission Essay Topics: Best and Worst

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 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, what classes you took, and what scores you got. While these things are important, so much of your personality forms as a child too. Caroline—who was accepted to schools such as George Mason University, Wittenberg University, and Seattle University—wrote about how her 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 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!

Related: An Essay About You: How to Tackle Your College Essay

So once you have a topic—what's next? Start brainstorming. Start outlining. Just start! You're inevitably going to have a rough draft that isn't your best work, but that's a great foundation to work from. A great essay is uncovered and formed as you go—it doesn't show up on the page perfectly on the first try. Take one of these topics and run with it. And if it's not working, you can always change your approach! 

Get the application essay writing process started with the articles and advice in our Application Essay Clinic.

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now

Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress
Leah Maciel

Leah Maciel

High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress has helped me with all aspects of applying for college. The website is extremely easy to navigate and gives access to so many resources. I was able to research all of the colleges I was interested in, find out any information I wished to know about, and keep them organized in a list. I've also been able to research scholarships and save them as resources for later. I've used many websites in my college and scholarship search, and CollegeXpress has by far been my favorite one to use.

Joycelyn

Joycelyn

High School Class of 2023

I’m currently a college freshman attending Towson University. My major is Information Technology, and I plan to minor in Electronic Media & Film to achieve my goal of becoming a production engineer. Upon graduating high school earlier this year, I was awarded a $5,000 scholarship from CollegeXpress, which greatly assisted in paying my tuition. Truthfully, this financial reward was the difference in affording my room and board and tuition, along with other expenses for school. My family and I haven’t stopped celebrating my award since it was bestowed on me. I will never forget this opportunity for allowing me to get my foot into my university financially.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell

Bell College Consulting

The college lists on CollegeXpress are indispensable for sussing out creative additions to a student’s list, and the college-specific pages provide terrific commentary and suggestions for related schools. CollegeXpress is among the most trusted sources I use for information for my students.

Jenna

Jenna

High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress has helped me greatly during my college search. I used their college search feature often and it helped in comparing schools I was looking at. Now that I’ve found a college the scholarship search feature is helping me find a way to find my college experience. CollegeXpress has many helpful features and resources for anyones college search, it truly is a wonderful tool for anyone entering college level!

Rose Kearsley

Rose Kearsley

High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress has seriously helped me out a lot, especially when it comes to scholarships and studying for tests like the ACT. I also really love the financial help. It’s a little harder to pay because I live with a family of eight, so any help is appreciated. Thanks for this opportunity!

College Matches
X

Colleges You May Be Interested In

Wagner College

Staten Island, NY

Wheaton College

Norton, MA

Manhattanville College

Purchase, NY