Seven Tips for Choosing Your College Application Essay Topic

college essay topic

There’s normal writer’s block, and then there’s looking at blank Word document, trying to write your college essay writer’s block… and oh man, the second one is intense. It feels like SO MUCH is riding on the quality of your college essay, so it’s no surprise that choosing a topic is one of the trickiest things you’ll do in the entire application process. Thankfully, we’ve helped quite a few high schoolers write their essays and have the tips and tricks to show for it. Here are seven things to keep in mind when choosing your college application essay topic.


It’s a personal experience.

You might read this first tip and think, “Well, duh!” but you might be surprised at how many essays I’ve read that aren’t actually about someone’s personal, lived experience. I have read countless essays in which the author relays a friend or relative’s experience or an interaction they witnessed as a bystander. Brainstorm topics regarding events, experiences, and situations in which YOU were the main character. And before you respond, “But nothing [interesting/lifechanging/entertaining] has ever happened to me!” – don’t. You don’t need to write about a topic so exciting or tragic that it could carry a major motion picture. I once read a fantastic essay that the applicant had written about his favorite t-shirt. I promise, you’ve got a fascinating story in you.


It shows something about you that the rest of your application doesn’t.

On your application, you’ve highlighted so many of your academic strengths. You’ve detailed your awards, honors, and organizations. Now, it’s time to tell a story that shows another side of you. What is something that many people can’t tell by looking at you? What is something that has changed who you are as a person? What was a defining moment in your life? What makes you an ideal person to have on their campus? This is your chance to show them something that could never be conveyed via scores, grades, titles, or awards.


It illustrates a lesson you learned or a positive way you changed.

If you’re sharing a sad story, you should also share a lesson you learned from it or a way that it impacted you positively. In short, there should always be a silver lining. I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for sob stories – but in a college essay, there HAS to be something good, or beneficial, that came out of it. When you’re writing your essay, ask yourself these questions: Why am I sharing this story? What does it convey about me? At the end, your answer should sound more like, “It shows my resilience and my ability to overcome challenges,” and less like, “It shows how hard my life is.”


It’s not overly broad and complicated.

One of the biggest mistakes an applicant can make is trying to do too much. You don’t need to share your life story. You don’t need to share 100 different anecdotes about your resourcefulness or patience or whatever else you’re trying to highlight. In my experience, I’ve found that the very best essays actually focus on an isolated moment or brief time in your history. It focuses on an event, moment, or situation, and then details the ripple effect that has had. When it comes to choosing your college essay topic, less truly can be more.


It’s genuine, honest, and written in YOUR voice.

I understand the temptation to write an essay as if you are the most well-read, wise, disciplined, perfect applicant of all time, but those essays often come off sounding phony and cold. As a writer myself, I find myself constantly thinking of a quote from John Steinbeck when I’m writing personal essays. He wrote, “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” Don’t worry about creating the façade of flawlessness. That’s not real. Instead, be authentic. Share what is true to you. That’s when they’ll see that you’re good.


It’s interesting and/or entertaining!

Can you imagine reading college essay after essay after essay? That’s what admissions counselors do all day long. And, at the end of the day, they’re humans and they get bored. Like I said earlier, you don’t have to share a tale worthy of the Oscar for best screenplay but try your best to make it interesting. Draw them in with a set-up that makes them curious and excited to read more. Be descriptive and creative. Tell them a story they’ll remember. Add your own flair. Entertain them!


Make sure that no one else could write the same essay.

You are a wonderfully unique individual and your essay should reflect that. Your story should be one that no one else could tell. If you’re sharing a story about a Model UN experience, could someone else on your team write the same thing? If you’re sharing a family story, could your sister write the same one? The answer should be a resounding no, no, no. This is your chance to tell an honest, distinctive, and one-of-a-kind story. Take it!


It’s hard to pick a topic for your college essay. We get it. That’s why a big focus of our Enrichery College Workshop is coming up with the ideal topic ­– then working together to figure out exactly how you should tell the story. Plus, we’ll finish your supplemental essays and the rest of your application, all before the school year starts! We’ve got a few spots left for this summer, so book your spot ASAP. We’ll help you write an essay that checks all of the boxes above, and then some.