College Admissions Essays: Five Tips for the Perfect Topic
Still looking for a college application essay topic
that will set you apart from the pack?
Here are my Top Five Tips on finding compelling and memorable topics:
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? Click HERE to find them.
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. And HERE is a post with online 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.
Are you a visual learner? You might find How to Answer Common Application Prompt 4, a free video tutorial, a huge help!
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:
College Admissions Essays
How to Give Them More Punch: FOCUS!
A common challenge in writing these college admissions essays is making sure they go deep enough. That doesn’t mean you have to talk about the meaning of life, and allude to Shakespeare, Greek myths and Kafka, and try to sound profound. It usually just means that you need to explore what you are writing about more thoroughly. Here’s my advice: If your writing is too general, and your points and ideas are spread out all over the place, chances are they are shallow in nature. Picture a pool of water. The more spread out and wide it is, the shallower it gets. If you shore it up and make it smaller in total width, it gets deeper.
So how do you shore up your ideas and points in your essays? The best way is to get specific–which is, the opposite of general. Simple, right? If you can focus your topic (and main point you are going to make in your essay) from the beginning, the easier it will be to develop depth in what you have to say about it. (Read more about the power of “mundane topics” HERE.) When brainstorming topic ideas, it’s okay to start with broad ideas, but make sure to drill down before you start writing.
Here’s an example. Just last week, I helped a student brainstorm ideas for his personal statement for the Common App. It went like this:
College Admissions Essays
How to Write an Anecdote
For Your College Application Essay, Personal Statement or other Essays
If you can write an anecdote, you can write a powerful essay.
But a lot of students don’t know what an anecdote is, let alone how to write one.
It’s really just a weird word for a little story or animated description of something that happened.
Usually they are very short.
If done well, they make excellent introductions for all essays since they grab the reader’s attention.
In essays, an anecdote is an example of a point you want to make that uses a little story or animated description.
Example: You want to make the point in your essay that you are a creative person.
So you write an anecdote to illustrate your point: You could describe something creative that you made, or you could describe yourself making something interesting.
During a walk near my home, I found a long stick that looked like the letter “Y.” I smoothed the surface with sandpaper and covered it with blueberry blue paint I found in the garage, then wrapped it with twine and colored yarn. From my junk drawer, I tied seashells, a couple old keys and a bent fork to the ends and hung it in my room.
“What’s that?” my little sister asked.
“Art,” I said, even though I wasn’t even sure what I had made.
(Then background your interest in art, how you think about it, why you value it, how it has affected you, changed you, and what your plans are for it in the future…)
College Admissions Essays
How to Write About Your Sport–Or Think Again
If you are a serious athlete, and intend to play your sport in college, it’s hard to pick a topic for your college application essay that’s not related to your sport.
Chances are, this sport has consumed much of your life for at least the last four years.
Ironically, that is why you should do your best to find something else to write about in your college essay.
The goal of these essays is to show schools that you are a unique, multifaceted individual, and not just “a tennis player,” or “a swimmer” or “a football player.”
They want to know what else you care about, how you think and what you value–besides sports.
In your college application, it will be clear that you care deeply about your sport and excel at it.
So you really don’t need to focus on that any further.
The college essay is your chance to show your other sides, qualities, strengths and interests. Write about one of those. WARNING: Do not write about “The Big Win” or “How I Won the State Championship.”
You do not need to strut your stuff in these essays. Humility goes a long way.
For help finding other topic ideas, check out my topic brainstorm guide or my tips on summer jobs as topics or how to find a topic if you don’t think you have anything to write about.
However, if no other topic jumps out at you, and you keep coming back to your main sport as a topic, here are some ways to write about your sport and still show other parts of yourself:
Most of you will write one or two “core” essays for your college applications.
These essays will focus on revealing who you are and why you are unique.
But you will also write numerous supplemental (shorter) essays.
The good news is that many of these “supps” ask similar questions. So if you are smart, you will find ways to re-use parts of your answers and streamline the process.
At the same time, you also will hone, sharpen and improve your answers.
Here are some examples of typical sup questions that are looking for similar answers:
- Why do you want to go to OUR UNIVERSITY?
- Why are you a “good match” for OUR UNIVERSITY?
- What is it that you like the best about OUR UNIVERSITY?
- How will you contribute to OUR UNIVERSITY?
Basically, there are two parts to these prompts. One: Why YOU? Two: Why COLLEGE X? Your job is show how and why they fit together. Here is a short guide on how to do this:
ONE: State your main goal for your education at your target schools. To be an engineer? To get a liberal arts education? To play waterpolo? To become a filmmaker? To earn a pre-med degree? To figure out what you want to do in the future?
This fall, one of my tutoring students taught me a lesson about how cheating on these essays can backfire–even if you don’t get caught.
He wanted to write his essay for the Common App on a trip he took to Guatamala to work with poor children. At one point, he confessed that he had not gone on that trip, but that his father had gone.
When I looked at him as though I thought he was nuts, he told me, in his defense, “I helped him pack!”
What? Are you kidding me?
This student kept insisting that he had no other interesting experiences that he could write about. (If you have read anything on my blog, you know that everyone has umpteen topic possibilities, and that you don’t need to travel the globe to have them.)
I gave him a brief lecture about how this was completely unethical, but he only smiled and told me that “all my friends are doing this.” (If this situation weren’t more complicated than I’m describing here, I would have booted him out on the spot.)
College Admissions Essays:
Don’t Try to Impress!
I just read an interesting article in the New York Times about how high school students are seeking out exotic trips, usually to foreign countries, mainly so they will have an intriguing topic for their college application essays.
(Article copied below)
I think these trips can be amazing, and that students learn a lot about other places, cultures and themselves.
But if you are lucky enough to take one of these trips, the last thing I would do is plan it so you can write a snazzy college admissions essay.
I actually believe this approach can backfire.
An instant turn-off to essay readers is a student who is trying to impress them.
To avoid sounding over-privileged, students should look for essay topics that focus on everyday subjects, often called “mundane topics.”
Every time, the essay about a summer job where a student flipped pancakes at IHOP or washed dishes or sold shoes turned out so much better than the one where they went to Africa and lived in mud huts or helped farmers in Guatemala pull weeds.
For some reason, the more basic topics feel more authentic and are naturally more interesting.
And the writer comes across more humble, and likable, even.
That’s not to say that you can’t write a fine essay about a cool trip abroad.
My advice is that in your search for a topic, don’t consider the trip itself the topic. Instead, focus on one thing that happened on that trip.
Focus your essay on a specific experience, and just let the trip to the cool place be the background.
That way, the college folks see how adventuresome you are, but you can focus your essay on something more specific and meaningful. College admissions folks want to learn about how you think and what you value.
So it’s not so much where you were or did something, but what happened, how you handled it and what you learned in the process. That’s why scooping gelato, parking cars or walking dogs can make more interesting topics than your travels around Timbuktu.
Read my Jumpstart Guide to get started on your college admissions essay!
College Admissions Essays:
How to Answer the Supplemental “Short Answer” Prompt
The Common Application requires one long college admissions essay.
But it also has a short essay, a supplemental question that asks students to “briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences.”
And they mean brief, no more than 1, 000 characters (about 150 words).
That’s really short, about one long paragraph.
The tendency is to simply describe an activity or experience.
Trouble is that this description often ends up as a broad overview–BORING!
But how the heck do you give details when you can only use a few words? Here’s the trick: You have to pick something within that activity or work experience and focus on that.
Let’s say you want to pick your cross country running as the activity.
My advice is to pick something within cross country that means a lot to you, such as a quality you have learned. How about endurance? Or mental discipline.
Now just zero in on how you learned that quality while running cross country, and then give an example. The example is key. It will be like a little piece of a story or a specific moment.
“I developed mental discipline from the times I had to run when I had a cold, or when the last 500 feet of the race was straight uphill…I learned to use little mental games to distract myself from the physical pain and fight back the voice that told me to quit…” This will make your answer feel real and specific (and interesting), instead of general and vague (and boring.)
College Admissions Essays:
How to Start Your Core College Application Essay
If you are writing a college admissions essay that responds to a prompt that asks you to tell about yourself, or about “a time,” or describe a quality, background, interest, identity, talent, characteristic, experience or accomplishment (such as The Common App prompts or Prompt #2 for the UC app.), then your essay is also known as a personal statement.
The most effective personal statements are written as narrative essays, meaning they relate an experience using a story-telling style.
To share an incident or moment from your past, you only need two components to make a story: a character and a conflict.
So one magic way to create a personal narrative is to search your recent past for a conflict. (You are the “character.”)
Thinking back to English class, remember that conflicts can come from many different places—from within yourself (internal: you have a personal issue or hang-up that caused you pain or trouble) to outside yourself (external: something happened to you.)
To put it simply, a conflict is a problem.
Problems come in all shapes and sizes.
They do not need to be traumas or a crises, although those can work, too.
(HINT: Basic, everyday problems work best! Check out this post about “mundane” topics.)
Here are other words for a conflict or problem: challenge, failure, obstacle, mistake, hang-up, issue, a change, dilemma, fears, obsessions, etc.
Examples of conflicts or problems: you are shy, competitive, stubborn, were bullied, are obsessed with Twilight, didn’t make the team, got injured, have big feet, frizzy red hair, smile too much, someone quit at your work, don’t have own car, can’t spell, adhd, ocd, don’t eat meat, perfectionist, slob, lazy, drunk driving, have a mean grandparent, no money, etc…
Man, there are a lot of problems out there! But for the purposes of writing these dreaded essays, that’s a good thing for once!
Once you remember a juicy problem, follow these steps:
1. Describe the time you had a problem or describe a strong example of your problem.
(Include what happened and how it made you feel. Try to start at the moment it hit, or happened for the best impact! Include the 5Ws—who, what, when, where and why! Stick to one or two paragraphs.)
These mini-stories are also called anecdotes, and you can learn more by reading my post on how to write an anecdote.
RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One