College Application Essays: Search For the Perfect Topic

It’s Closer Than You Think


I’ve learned a lot about what makes a great essay topic over the last six years I’ve helped students with their college application essays.

If you’re just starting the process of writing your essay, you might be surprised what I’ve discovered about the best topics:

They are not what you would expect.

1. The best topics do not include what might be considered your best accomplishments or achievements. In fact, the opposite is true.

2. They often are the very thing you think would never make a good topic.

3. Good ones can be right in front of your nose. In fact, they might be on your face.

When I sit down with students, we go through a brainstorming session to try to root out strong topics. We are usually trolling for compelling, real-life stories (which are condensed into anecdotes for these essays.)

Many students start by telling me they don’t have anything interesting to write about themselves, that they are just normal, boring kids from the suburbs or small towns, and that nothing very interesting has ever happened to them.

But year after year, they have always proven themselves dead wrong.

I have yet to meet a student who didn’t end up with a unique topic that worked well for showcasing who they were in a narrative essay.

So I seriously doubt you will be the first one to break the pattern.

During our brainstorming sessions, I walk them back through their lives, and poke around the past in search of moments or “the times” when interesting things happened.

They don’t have to be impressive, or momentous–just interesting, or odd, or unforgettable for whatever reason. Something they might go home and tell their parents about, or mention to a good friend.

“You wouldn’t believe what happened…” you would tell them.

“I found a turtle in the middle of the road.”

“I got stuck up in a tree.”

“I learned how to drive a backhoe.”

“I bought an ant farm.”

“I got lost in the woods.”

“I started a worm bin.”

“I met my real dad for the first time.”

“I babysat quadruplets.”

Every one of these simple stories has the potential to spin into an engaging essay. Really.

If you are fretting over finding that perfect topic, let me take you along for a little topic treasure hunt. First, let’s start with your interests and hobbies.

Name five.

Are any of them ones people might not expect of you?

How about your after-school or weekend activities? What did you do last Saturday?

How about last summer? Did you work?

I don’t care if it wasn’t an impressive internship or high-paying gig. What did you do?

Even ushering at the local theater, or selling shoes or babysitting can be a topic source–depending on what happened when you were doing those jobs. Remember, you are looking for little interesting moments.

Still nothing? Okay. Let’s move in a little closer.

Do you have car? What kind is it and what’s inside? How about your bedroom? What’s on the walls, or in those little boxes on your shelves? What books are on your shelves?

What do you collect? Anything under the bed? Do you have any scrapbooks or journals–it’s a good time to leaf through those.

Let’s wander out into the garage or basement. Scan the walls, floor  and shelves.

Remember that unicycle propped next to the door? What about that Halloween costume you made out of duct tape? What is the piano doing out here?

Don’t forget your backyard. It can contain or spark some interesting memories. Do a lap around your block. Any memories there? What were some of your typical routines in high school?

Did your mom drive you somewhere? Any interesting neighbors?

You can even search your social media closet.

Go through your photos albums on Facebook. Are you keeping a Tumblr blog? What’s your favorite Snapchat subject? With this search, you are looking for yourself, and at yourself, trying to find your unique passions, interests and activities to spark topic ideas.

You might have thought about an idea or two, but quickly dismissed it as too silly or unimpressive.

Don’t be so quick to disregard those ideas. Often “mundane” topics make the best topics. Read more about mundane topics HERE.

Read THIS POST to find more help on finding great topics.

Think you unearthed a strong topic? Check out my Jumpstart Guide to start writing!