Mr. Gelb is the author of “Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps.” He has written advice for The Choice on how to whittle your admissions essay and how juniors should prepare their essays during the summer before senior year.
For your college admissions essay, you will be asked to write 500 flawless words on a subject that is deeply personal under circumstances in which the stakes are very high. Now how could that not feel like a daunting task? This Tip Sheet offers some advice about the hardest part of the job: finding a topic.
There are a lot of strange theories about what constitutes a good topic. Some students are convinced that the personal statement has to be a “peanut butter” essay. (Apparently, that’s shorthand for any off-beat, attention-grabbing piece that focuses on why you love peanut butter … or smoked herring … or the Three Stooges.) I don’t subscribe to that theory. Your topic does not need to be a singular invention never encountered before.
For those who say that you’re not allowed to write about pets or grandparents or broken limbs (yes, I’ve heard such claims), I say bosh to that as well. As far as I’m concerned, the only taboo is shameless self-promotion. (As vice president of my class, I selflessly sought to install healthy foods in the cafeteria vending machines…)
Finding a good topic to write about can be a challenge, but let me try to help by offering these three suggestions:
- Understand the parameters of the assignment. The point of your college admissions essay is to connect you to the person who is reading it. In order to make such a connection, you’ll want to tell a compelling story that shows you as an authentic and caring human being, someone who merits a place in a college community. If you manage to do that, you’ll be in good shape.
- Acknowledge your constraints. You only have 500 words to work with — not a lot of space. You can’t tell us all about your summer building houses for Habitat. You can only tell a small piece of it. So what story is lurking within that larger story? Learning from an elderly volunteer how to correctly wield a hammer? That might be a good topic, showing you as a person who is open to learning from others. Through that focusing-down process, potential topics should start to appear and take shape.
- Ask yourself questions. Once you have a sense of the requirements and limitations connected to this assignment, you can start asking yourself exploratory questions that will help dredge up topics of some promise. What keeps me up at night? What in the world utterly fascinates me? Which of my relationships have I worked at the hardest? Make a list, answer them quickly, put them aside, come back to them, and see where you feel a magnetic pull. Those are the topics that are waiting to be written.
Remember: Everyone has a story to tell. It’s just a matter of discovering that story.
Do readers of The Choice have essay-writing advice of their own? Please share your expertise using the comment box below.
Coming up with a good topic for your college 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 less? The creative process definitely isn’t easy, but these tips and tricks from people who have been through the process should help you get your thoughts flowing and ideas moving.
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 is 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.
Related:Which Common Application Essay Prompt is Right for You?
2. Stand out
It’s true: the college admission process is tougher than ever. Basically every student you will be up against has done some sort of community service. Everyone has some sport or musical instrument or other extracurricular they excel at. Tons of kids work a part-time job in addition to all their other responsibilities. It’s hard to find something you did in high school that will make you unique in an applicant pool. This is not to discount the work you have done; it is just to say that everyone is writing similar essays about similar things.
You want to write about something that will make you stand out. Write about 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 have worked so hard to get perfect grades, perfect SAT or ACT scores, perfect extracurricular activities—you get the picture. However, here is 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 where 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 that 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.”
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 literally 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 in high school, what classes you took in high school, and what scores you got—you guessed it—in high school. While these things are important, so much of your personality forms as a child too. My friend Caroline, who was accepted to schools such as George Mason University, Wittenberg University, and Seattle University, wrote about how 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 more 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!
Keep calm and happy writing everyone!
Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »
essaysapplication essaysadmission adviceCommon Applicationcollege admissionwritingessay promptsadmissionessay advicepromptstips and tricksCommon Application essay