college application essay

Photo by n0nick

College Application Essays

Five Places to Start

After helping students discover their own unique topics over the last five or so years, I can spot a great topic the minute a student mentions one.

And I suspect it’s no different for the college  admissions people who read zillions of these.

Like most written pieces, you know after the first sentence or two if it’s going to be engaging or a drag (boring, trying to hard to impress, too general).

I can almost hear their conversations as they decide which essay to neatly stack in the “Yes” pile and those to toss over into the growing “No” pile:

“What do you think about the kid who got stuck in the tree?”

“Loved him!”

“How about the guy who went to Italy and took a class over summer studying architecture.”

“Lucky him. But I didn’t really get any feel about what he’s all about. Pass.”

“How about the football player who loved baking cakes?”

“OMG! Love. Love. Love!”

college application essay

“How about the kid who won five cross country races in a row.”

“Yawn. How many times do I have to read about sports contests?”

“How about the girl who was obsessed with karaoke?”

“That was so cool! And wasn’t she really into her high school music program? So interesting she chose to write about karaoke instead of her starring roles in the school plays.”

“What about that kid who lost his Speedo during a race?”

“That guy was great!”

Can you hear this imaginary conversation?

How would a college admissions counselor refer to your essay?

Would you be “that kid?”

If so, how would they describe you after reading your essay: “What about that kid who XXX XX XXXXX.” In a way, this is your “hook” or even a type of personal branding (if you consider these essays marketing pieces.)

When you hear or read good essays with snappy topics written by other students, they sound so simple and obvious.

You get it! So why does it feel nearly impossible to come up with your own?

Well, I know you, too, have a fantastic topic or two to write about.

Here are five places to start to find your own topic search:

1. Start with a defining quality (curious, self-disciplined, creative), and then look for “times” or examples of when you either demonstrated this quality, had this quality challenged or developed this quality.

Click HERE to find my Jumpstart Guide to help you with that approach.

Don’t know your defining qualities? Find them in a flash with THIS POST.

2. Try to find something “unexpected” to write about, either something that happened to you that no one would expect to happen to someone like you (you love knot-tying but got stuck in a tree because you used the wrong knot); or something you love or pursue that no one would ever expect of you (a football player who loves to bake cakes.); or some personal trait or characteristic that no one would guess has affected you (you are not even 5-feet-tall but wear a size 9 shoe.)

Click HERE and HERE to read more about that.

3. Troll your past for “mundane” or everyday topics as opposed to ones you think might be impressive. Examples: The Day I Washed Dishes at My Dad’s Restaurant; People Think I’m Mean Because I Weigh 300 Pounds; How I Grew to Love Public Busses; I’m a Formal Guy Even Though I Live in Surf City. Click HERE for more posts on the power of mundane topics.

4. Read sample essays. If you are stuck, it’s so worth the little bit of time to get your hands on a cheap collection and skim through them. First, you will see the range of topics that other students have used, and chances are it will trigger your own ideas.

Secondly, you will get a feel for the looser, narrative style and structure of these essays, which will help you write yours. Click HERE for books of sample essays.

5. Go down memory lane and try to remember “times” when you faced a problem. If you can find a problem, you will find a story. (Problems come in many different shapes and sizes: challenges, change, mistakes, obstacles, phobias, fears, bad luck, physical traits, etc.)

If you have a little story (also called an anecdote), chances are you can write an engaging essay. Click HERE to learn more about how this works.

So no more complaining that you are so normal and boring and have nothing interesting to write about. It’s not true. You just need to know where to look–and what you are looking for!

Help with College Admissions Essays at