How to choose the right college essay topic

college admissions strategy writing
By Emma L.

Statistical Mediation & Moderation in Psychological Research-4Choosing the right topic for your college application essay can feel daunting. How are you supposed to make yourself stand out from the crowd? What are you supposed to do if you’re just “normal”? How can you say anything meaningful about yourself in only 650 words?

Your fears about making the wrong choice or your insecurities about how you compare to others can blind you from noticing all of the excellent potential essay topics lurking just beneath the surface of your everyday life. Here are five tips to help you choose the best topic to make your application shine.

1. Mind map your life.

Mind mapping is sort of like brainstorming — you let yourself generate lots of ideas quickly without slowing down to second-guess them. Ideally, you should mind map on paper, not on your computer, so that your ideas can sprawl all over the place. In mind mapping, the second step is to start drawing connections between the different ideas. Some questions you can use to help guide your mind map are:

  • What are my values?
  • What are my personality traits?
  • What are my passions?
  • What am I really proud of?
  • What moments in my life have challenged me?

Your potential essay topics lie in the connections between these initial ideas you’ve jotted down. For example, you may have written “brave” as one of your personality traits, and you may have written “being bullied at school” as a time that challenged you. Was there something about being bullied that taught you to be brave? Or did being bullied teach you something important about the nature of bravery?

A college application essay is asking you to impose meaning or structure on the seemingly disconnected parts of your life, and mind mapping can help you find those connections.

2. Don’t pick a topic.

Well, don’t pick just one topic. Not at first. Start with a few ideas, and then try them out by writing outlines for each essay. This may seem like more work up front, but it can save you from spending weeks writing an essay only to get to the end and realize that it doesn’t quite work. Trust me, I’ve been there. Humans often have a bias towards the first idea we come up with, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best one.

You wouldn’t buy a car without test driving it. Test drive your essay topics.

3. An essay is not a resume.

One of the most common mistakes students make is to treat the essay as an expanded resume, explaining in more vivid detail all the different experiences they’ve had, the classes they’ve excelled in, and the clubs they’ve joined. But you’ve already submitted a resume! The essay is where you show who you are, not what you’ve done.

4. Focus especially on moments of transformation.

Nothing reveals our characters quite like moments of transformation or challenge. Are there times you stood up for something you believed in? Are there times that you realized something new about the world or yourself? Are there times when you changed because of something you did, saw, heard, or experienced? Have you tried new things? Have you pushed yourself outside of your comfort zone?

These don’t necessarily have to be dramatic moments, like the first time you jumped out of an airplane or the time you spoke up in a packed auditorium at a city council meeting. You might write about a new friend you made who comes from a different background from you, and what you’ve learned from that experience. You might write about a moment you decided to pass the ball to a teammate rather than score the winning goal yourself. Each of us has small moments every day that test us, teach us, and reveal our characters. Reflect on your moments of growth.

5. Be yourself.

I always hate it when people tell me “just be yourself.” I’m a complex person! Which part of my “self” am I supposed to be? And what if my self is sometimes a little lazy or selfish? Should I be that self?

But being true to yourself is important in choosing the right essay topic and writing a successful essay. Many college applications look pretty similar: lots of students have good grades, strong test scores, and flattering letters of recommendation. For admissions officers, those parts of the application can start to blur together. What really stands out is the essay. That’s where students start to seem like real people.

You might think you don’t have the most exciting life. You’ve never volunteered at a health clinic in Africa. You’ve never won any big debate tournaments. But the truth is, admissions officers aren’t looking for an action adventure story or even the next Mother Theresa. They are looking for people who seem like people, not dull, identical robots trying to say the right thing. It doesn’t matter so much what your passion is, just that you have one.

There are lots of ways to show character and personality. If the most exciting thing you’ve done this past year was spending time with your near-sighted lizard, Freddy, then write the story of you learning from Freddy about how to be a good creature in this world. It’s only when you write about something that you really care about that you’ll be able to show excitement, thoughtfulness, and engagement - ultimately, that’s what your essay should do.

Now go get mind mapping!

Emma is a JD candidate at Yale Law School. She holds an MPhil and DPhil in Social & Cultural Anthropology from Oxford, an MFA in Fiction from Southern New Hampshire University, and a BA in Sociology from Brown.


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