I’ve read about 15,000 college essays, so believe me when I tell you I’ve seen every topic under the sun. There are the essays I wish I could unread, too crude to even mention here, and essays from my early days as an admissions counselor that still stick with me today. There have been hilarious anecdotes, emotional tell-alls, and countless stories about making the winning goal as the game clock expired. I always appreciated the essays that would transport me from my neverending application reading days to the blissful land of high school seniors on the verge of greatness. From smiles and tears to questions about judgement, college essays have the potential to resonate with college admission counselors and impact your admission decision.
No pressure, right?
Planning your essay and choosing the right topic may end up taking as long as writing the piece itself. It’s worth the time and energy to make sure colleges get a sense of who you are and understand your potential to impact their campuses. Unlike curriculum, grades, test scores, extracurriculars, and letters of recommendation, the college essay is your personal soapbox. What is that one thing that’s not covered in other parts of the application you want to make sure every college knows about you? Choosing your college essay topic is like the frequently asked interview question: “what is the one thing you were prepared to answer that we didn’t ask?”.
My advice is to choose the topic you want to write about before you choose an application essay prompt. In most instances, you can mold your essay so it ends up answering just about anything. The Common Application also makes it easy by offering a final, open-ended prompt: “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.” Start with the topic, and see how you can share your story with colleges while still answering the prompt.
But really, what should I write about?
There are certainly essay topics that are more common than others. These topics take up the lion’s share of the thousands (and thousands!) to come across my desk:
- Summer camp
- Realizing how fortunate you are compared to others
- The Big Game
- Another relative (Grandpa, Grandma, Mom, Dad, etc) instead of YOU
- Academics or Extracurriculars covered elsewhere in the application
It’s fine to choose one of these topics if it is so central to your identity you would be remiss to exclude it from your application. My word of warning is that you need to make the essay stand out for being so well-written and memorable the overused topics mentioned above fade into the background. Sure, you’re writing about making the winning shot, but it’s secondary to the story of how being part of a team has inspired your love of mentorship and drives you to make an impact, no matter how big or small, wherever you can.
So, let’s get started!
A quick exercise to get your brainstorming juices flowing is to:
- Take 10 minutes and write down literally everything that makes you unique: hobbies, interests, aspirations, goals, anything!
- Based on your gut (don’t overthink it!), narrow down that list to 5.
- Ask your best friend or someone else who knows you well what sounds the most like you.
- Then ask yourself if that is the one thing you want colleges to know.
The bottom line is that even if your mom wants you to write about topic X, if it doesn’t feel right, listen to your inner voice and choose something else.
Starting the college essay writing process by planning and choosing the right topic can make later steps in the process a relative breeze. You want your essay to be one admission counselors refer to as the gold standard during their campus information sessions or at least be one that sticks with them for the rest of their application reading days. But how good would it be if it stuck with them for the rest of their careers!
Ready to choose your college essay topic? There’s no time like the present.
Emily Nevinger is Allendale Columbia School’s College Advising Consultant, guiding students in the greater Rochester area and beyond on the college application process, financial aid, interview preparation, essay review, and more! Emily began working at the university level in 2003 and was a senior member of the admission committees for University of Miami, Emory University, and UNC Chapel Hill. Emily holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy from Duke University and a Master of Science in Higher Education Administration and Enrollment Management from the University of Miami. She will earn her College Access Counseling Certificate from Rice University in 2019.