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.
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!