16 Tips for Choosing the Right Admission Essay Topic

The application essay is your chance to show admission folks who you are, what you care about, and what you want out of college and life… No pressure. Ahem.

Luckily, it’s not as hard as it seems to write a great application essay. After all, you’re telling your story—and no one knows you better than you.

So how do you come up with stories from your life that also make great essay topics? These tips will help.

  • Focus on you. What aspects of your personality do you want to highlight to colleges? Brainstorm a list of those traits first. Then think about which stories from your life might best help you portray them.
  • Trust your gut. Read through your possible essay prompts. Pay attention if you get excited after reading one in particular—that’s probably your best bet.
  • Flip through your past. Whether it’s your Instagram feed, a scrapbook, your yearbook, a diary, or all of the above, look through mementos to see if they remind you of any good stories/essay topics.
  • Ask the people who know you best. Go to a few close friends, family members, and other people who know you well (coach, choir director, employer, mentor, etc.) and ask them for three to five words or qualities they think best describe you.
  • Follow your passion. If you truly care about your essay topic, that passion will shine through every single word you write. And passion is exactly what college admission officers want to see.
  • Think like a storyteller. Your application essay isn’t like the academic essays you write for school. So you need to stop thinking like a student and start thinking like a storyteller, ready to bring your readers along for a ride. Look for topics that allow you to write an essay with an engaging beginning, a cohesive middle, and a succinct, summarizing end.
  • Be unique. In all your essay brainstorming, focus on the ideas that are the most unique. College admission reps read a lot of essays, and you want to stand out.
  • Go for imagery. You want to make your essay readers feel like they’re right there with you in the moment. So prioritize anecdotes from your life that allow you to paint a vivid picture.
  • Be specific. Your application essay should be a snapshot of a specific moment in time. You want to explore that moment in detail and let it unfold. Along the way, it should reveal something important and meaningful about you.
  • Think about lessons you’ve learned. The best application essays tell a story that illustrates an insight you have gained. Look for topics that demonstrate your growth and maturity.
  • Create or update your résumé. Filling in your résumé with all your work experience, activities, and accomplishments can remind you of all the great stuff you do and help you come up with essay ideas.
  • Read, watch, or listen to something that inspires you. From revisiting your favorite author to putting on an inspiring movie soundtrack, dive into something that gets you pumped. Then sit down to brainstorm essay topics or write a first draft.
  • Read other application essays. Speaking of getting inspired, there are so, so many amazing real-world essay examples online. (Johns Hopkins University is great about sharing a few admitted students’ essays each year.) Spend some time reading them to get a sense of what works.
  • Take the college’s recommendations to heart. Double-check your applications and your colleges’ websites to see if they have any recommendations about writing the essay. Follow. That. Advice.
  • Let your subconscious do the work for you. Spend a few minutes thinking about your possible essay ideas. Then do something completely unrelated. (Coloring books, anyone?) You might be hit with a spark of inspiration while your brain is thinking about something else.
  • Don’t let anyone or anything steal your spotlight. Always remember: regardless of the prompt you pick, your college application essay ultimately needs to be about you—who you are, what you believe, what’s important to you, etc. If your essay reads like someone else’s biography or a story you’re only a bit player in, you need to go back and try again.

What other tips or tricks helped you come up with a brilliant college application essay topic? Feel free to share in the comments!
Jessica Tomer is the Editor-in-Chief for CollegeXpress, a free college and scholarship search site that guides students through the entire college journey—admissions, financial aid, majors, you name it. She is an education advocate, grammar nerd, news junkie, and bookworm. You can get in touch with her on Twitter: @CollegeXpress or @JessicaTomer.

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