5 College Application Essay Topics That Always Work

What should students write about in their college application essays? I get this question from student after student: What should I write about to get into college? What topics are admissions officers looking for?

Admissions officers are looking for three things in your admission essay: a unique perspective, strong writing, and an authentic voice. While there is no magic topic that will automatically ensure admission at the college of your dreams, there are experiences everyone has that you can use to find your strongest possible application essays.

But first, consider the word “topic.” It originally meant “subject suitable for debate.” So you don’t actually want to find a topic! Debatable topics rarely make great essays. Forget winning, forget convincing, and forget presenting yourself as somehow right or better than other people.

Admissions officers are people, and people love stories. Your stories are not debatable. You own them. The way to connect with other people is to tell your own story, honestly and authentically, as only you can tell it.

Here are 5 places to find great college essay topics your own life experience:

1. Memorable meals

Everyone eats! And when you read a story about food, most people warm up and start thinking about their own favorite foods and family gatherings. That’s why we start the Story To College Essay in a Day course with Memorable Meal stories.

The story of my junior year in high school could be told through three meals: The first night of Hanukkah, my mother was making latkes when my father sat down and announced, “I have cancer.” We dipped our Pepperidge Farm cookies in chamomile tea the night my mother whispered, “It doesn’t look like Daddy’s getting better. He wants to come home.” And the night before my father died, he propped himself up to eat a bowl of minestrone soup. “Get all the education you can, Carol,” he said as he drifted back to sleep, “Always be learning.”

Look for important conversations you’ve had, sitting around something to munch on.

2. Outdoor activities

The first time I ever advised a student on their college application essay, I worked with a quiet student, a guy who disappeared into the back of his classes. He wrote his essay about building a treehouse with his best friend. Jason’s story revealed the many facets of his character: his creativity, his expert planning, his love of nature and building, and the comical things that guys say to one another when they are just hanging out. That was the first time I saw how application essays can bring a student to life and help them outwit the college admissions numbers game.

Like Jason, look for activities where you’ve taken a creative approach or dealt with a challenge as you plan your Common Application essay.

3. Challenges

Speaking of challenges: one of the most moving essays I’ve ever read began, “It was the first day of ninth grade. I walked into the cafeteria. All of the black students were sitting on my left, talking to themselves. All of the white students were sitting on my right, talking to themselves. Where was I, with my cappuccino colored skin, where was I to sit for lunch on the first day of ninth grade?”

Every one of us has had those moments. Suddenly, you are in a completely new situation, and need to do something, but you have no idea what. Application essays about challenges reveal how you respond to difficulty to people who are very interested in how you will handle the next four years on your own.

4. Failure

The second Common App question asks, “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?”

It’s not a trick question. In fact, it’s the most complex and nuanced of the Common App prompts. It gives you the chance to reflect and show your ability to learn from your experiences. It takes time to find the type of mistakes you want to talk about, but I assure you: it works.

5. Commitment

What difference do you want to make in the world? Where specifically are you going with your life? These questions should inform your entire college application process.

Research on education shows that the strongest predictor of a student’s success is how detailed and specific their picture is of the future. This is the most important work we do, as individuals and communities. Explain your commitments, and you will be the kind of student colleges find immensely attractive.

You may have noticed that these ideas got harder to tell honestly as you worked down the list. When you write about difficult topics—mistakes, learning, making a difference—it is very tempting to start talking in clichés, or to end in a place where you are perfect.

Colleges are not looking for perfect people. They are looking for students who will make a difference in their classrooms, dorms, and communities. Where are the stories that reveal what you bring to the world? Your best essays grow out of those moments.

Download four essays that got students into Cornell, the University of Chicago, and Smith to see how Story To College teaches students to find their unique stories and develop their authentic voices.

At Story To College we teach how to find their most honest and authentic stories and shape them into powerful essays that admissions officers will remember. We provide college application essay courses and admissions courses to help all our students achieve their best results. We are excited to host our first application essay courses in Atlanta this summer, starting May 29th. Find the course that’s right for you at storytocollege.com/courses, or call us to talk to an expert at 646-503-4861.

 

Carol Barash, PhD, founder and CEO of Story To College and author of Write Out Loud, has taught over 10,000 students around the world–from first-generation college students to the children of bankers and CEOs–how to tell their stories and write essays that win admission and scholarships at selective colleges.


Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 202-558-5644 or info@applerouth.com.


  • Lori McGlone

    I love these ideas-every person could find a seed of an idea within these 4 prompts. They are deceptively simple, but certainly would lead to the most interesting types of essays. Thanks for sharing!

  • Mikky

    My first college essay was written by Senperfect com, and my college professor
    was more than satisfied!

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