The first step to writing a winning college application essay is to find that perfect topic.

This is the most important step, and often the hardest.

Once you land on one, you are ready to roll.

Things fall in place.

You map out a simple outline, sit down and crank.

One way to spot a killer topic is how it makes you feel.

If it’s spot on, you will be eager and almost excited to write about it.

Trying to write about a lackluster topic can be torture.

Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to give a tepid topic a run.

Every once in a while a topic that sounded just ok at first can develop into an awesome essay.

It’s far easier, and more fun, however, to spend time brainstorming one you can get fired up about.



In my writing guide, The Writing Survival Kit, I share “chunks” of advice on how to use narrative writing techniques, tips and strategies to craft “slice-of-life” essays.

Chapter One, called Packing the Basics, features my best ideas on finding a great topic.

In the next few days, I will share six “chunks” of information from this chapter to help you get going on your own essays. Here’s the first one:


Pick a Killer Topic

Finding a unique and compelling topic is perhaps the most important piece of an effective essay. It is worth spending time brainstorming. Start early!

There are entire blogs and books about this process, but here are some of the best tips to get you started:

  • Look for a “defining quality” or personal characteristic that you can showcase in your essay. Examples: logical, inquisitive, creative, competitive, leader…Find Your Defining Qualities and Characteristics
  • Mundane topics often work best: These are topics from everyday life: singing karaoke, dog sitting, designing T-shirts, riding busses, etc. Check out examples of mundane topics in the essays in Chapter 11: Being Slow; Dunkin Donuts; Christmas tree farm and Lucid Dreaming. More on mundane topics.
  • sample essaysDon’t try to impress: You don’t need to feature your greatest achievement, experience or talent.
  • Avoid laundry lists: Focus on making one main point about yourself thoroughly instead of listing accomplishments. How to Write Short Essays (Slideshare Tutorial)
  • Show your grit, which is your ability to confront daunting obstacles with raw determination. Look for topics that involved problems. Got Grit? Then Show It!
    These sample essays from Chapter 11 display grit: Sample Essays for College Applications


Hope you find these tips helpful! Stay tuned for the next “chunk” of advice on discovering your best topics!

Once you are ready to write, check out How to Write a Common Application Essay in 3 Steps.

Good luck!