How to Focus Your

College Application Essay!

I love all the comments students make about my posts. The most common ones ask about topics for the Common App or other core college application essays, including the University of California prompts. Students want to know what I think of their topic ideas.

I noticed the main problem with many of their ideas is that their topics are way to broad. WAY TOO BROAD! I think many ask my opinion because they suspect their topics are too general, but they don’t know how to focus them. And they are absolutely correct to worry about this. Essays about general topics are almost always dull and ineffective. (What good is an essay if no one wants to read it?)

I have written a lot about how to find topics that are not broad, and instead are engaging, meaningful and memorable. My best advice for students who worry that their topic is too broad would be to keep reading my blog posts! They all carry the same message—find a topic that is specific, zero in on real-life moments (anecdotes), brainstorm topics that are mundane (everyday) as opposed to impressive, pick one quality or characteristic to write about (as opposed to trying to cram in all the great things about yourself.) These are all ways to focus—or narrow down—your topics.

I know it’s challenging to be specific. You might feel as though you are limiting yourself, or forced to pick one thing when there are so many to talk about. But you must be decisive and choose! Even if there are many options and you have tons of great ideas, make yourself pick one. And go with that. Trust yourself!

If you still don’t quite get the concept of “focusing” your topic, here are some examples. These are some of the broad topics that students have asked me about in the comments sections, wondering if they would make a strong essay. I will follow their general topic with some possible ways to focus it down to something more specific and concrete. (HINT: As you narrow down your topic, try to steer toward the options that are more unusual or unique):

Travel (“I like to travel with my family a lot”): One country: one city: one experience: one moment (something that happened there). EXAMPLE: The time you spent 7 hours in an airport by yourself in Burma and hung out with a monk.

college application essay

Music (“I want to write about my musical world for UC Prompt 3”): One instrument: one performance: one song: one experience: one moment (something that happened). EXAMPLE: The time you had to fill in at the last minute for the flute player even though you play French horn.

college application essay

Literature (“I love to read all the time”): One writer: one book: one character: one quote he/she said(something that happened that connects you with that character). EXAMPLE: How you were shocked when you read Catcher in the Rye and realized you were the exact female version of Holden Caufield.

college application essay

Swimming (“Swimming is my life”): One meet: one race: one experience (something that happened). EXAMPLE: The time you kept swimming an extra lap even after the race was over, and didn’t realize you had lost.

college application essay

Cooking (“I love to cook with my grandmother from the Ukraine”): One meal: one dish: one ingredient: one experience (something that happened.) EXAMPLE: The time your Babushka grandma taught you to cook Borscht (beet dish) and you almost cut off your finger.

college application essay

After any of these “something that happened” moments, there’s a strong chance that it made an impression on you, that you had to deal with it and that in the process you learned something. Include all this in your essay! See, you will still have plenty to write about even if you pick a specific topic!

A great place to learn how students narrowed their topics is to read their comments (and my responses) at the end of posts here on my blog, especially those that are about picking topics.

It’s better to pick something specific that you aren’t sure will make a great essay than to write about a topic that is too general. Believe it or not, focused essays have more depth and meaning. So just pick something SPECIFIC and start writing!