College Admissions Essays:

Finding topics in unlikely places


I would never have believed that writing about the Twilight series could be a super essay topic–not in a million years. But below, I’m going to share how one of my brightest students landed on Edward Cullen as the perfect topic during one of my recent “Jumpstart” tutoring sessions.  And how it’s going to be a brilliant essay!

As a little background, this particular student is fierce. She’s a top student, loves chemistry and also is an accomplished dancer. Her first college admissions essay (she needs to write 2 for the University of California app.) is going to show how she is a problem solver. But what about that second essay? I believe if you are writing more than one essay for an application,they should complement each other–that is, balance each other out.


This is when I really push for the idea of a “mundane” topic, one that is everyday, and often would be the last topic in the world you would even consider writing about.

EXAMPLES: The kid who realized he had leadership skills the night he had to wash dishes at his dad’s restaurant. The girl who starred in her school musicals but wrote about her passion for karaoke. The tiny dancer who came to terms with her size 9 feet. The football tackle who loved to bake cakes for his teammates. Notice that on the surface, none of these topics sounds “impressive.” But trust me, they end up as the most interesting and memorable essays–exactly what you want! The other quality all these topics share is they have an “unexpected” quality–you wouldn’t expect a football player to love baking, or a dancer to have big feet or to find a leader behind a stack of dirty dishes. (What’s something about you that no one would believe?)

Here’s how our conversation went as we brainstormed a mundane–and unexpected–college essay topic:

Me: So besides dance, what are you passionate about? Do you collect anything special? Have any hobbies or obsessions?

Fierce Girl (thinking): No, not really. I can’t think of anything…

Me (this is a little trick you, Reader, could try!): What’s on the walls of your bedroom?

Fierce Girl (blushing a bit): I can’t tell you. You wouldn’t believe it…Okay, it’s a giant poster of Edward Cullen.

Me: The guy from Twilight? Really, on your wall? (At first, I think, there’s no way she should write about that movie. Can you imagine how many girls have done that, and how predictable, sappy and just plain bad those essays must be?)

Fierce Girl: Yes, I love him. Don’t tell anyone. I’m really not like that. I’m not mainstream at all. I love all different kinds of alternative music, and all types of literature. I like off-beat and foreign movies.

Me (after an epiphany): You know what? I think this could be the perfect topic for you. It’s all how you write it. Start by showing us how you hide this “dirty little secret” of yours, and use that example to also show us how unusual and unique you are in every other way. Of course, you also would need to explore why you are drawn to the Twilight saga, but that could also be interesting. Obviously, there are some universal themes at work.

Fierce Girl (tentative at first, but quickly gets where I’m headed with this): I get it. I could start my essay by showing how when a friend comes over, how I pull down the giant poster, sweep off the Twilight books from my shelf and turn off my Edward Cullen screensaver. Then I talk about why I’m embarrassed of this obsession and try to hide it from my friends, but then explain why I’m anything but a mainstream teenage girl.

Me: Exactly! And although you don’t want to try to write a “funny” essay (since they usually fall flat), it’s fine if what you are describing happens to be funny. That introduction would be so engaging and entertaining. It’s kind of risky writing about such a cliche topic as Twilight, but it’s all how you do it and what you have to say.

What I love about this essay topic is that it will be the perfect foil, or compliment, to her other essay. It shows a whole other side to Fierce Girl–she’s a romantic and, like most of us, a sucker for a great story. And the slightly confessional quality also makes it endearing.

So, if you are still looking for a college application essay topic, what’s on your walls?

Now you can read Ava’s entire college app essay in Heavenly Essays: 50 Narrative College Application Essays That Worked.



If you want more help finding a unique topic and writing a compelling narrative essay, check out my new ebook guide, Escape Essay Hell!, that walks you through the process step by step.

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