What should students write about in their college application essays? I get this question from student after student: What should I write about to get into college? What are admissions officers looking for?
While there is no magic topic that will automatically ensure admission at the college of your dreams, there are experiences everyone has had that make excellent application essays.
But first, consider the word "topic." It originally meant subject suitable for debate. You don’t actually want to find a "topic." Debatable topics rarely make great essays. Forget winning, forget convincing, and forget presenting yourself as somehow right or better than other people. Admissions officers are people, and people love stories. Your stories are not debatable. You own them. The way to connect with other people is to tell your own story, honestly and authentically, as only you can tell it.
Here are 5 places to find great college essay topics from your own life experience:
Everyone eats! And when you read a story about food, most people warm up and start thinking about their own favorite foods and family gatherings.
The story of my junior year in high school could be told through three meals: The first night of Hanukkah, my mother was making latkes when my father sat down and announced, “I have cancer." We dipped our Pepperidge Farm cookies in chamomile tea the night my mother whispered, “It doesn’t look like Daddy’s getting better. He wants to come home." And the night before my father died, he propped himself up to eat a bowl of minestrone soup. “Get all the education you can," he said as he drifted back to sleep, “Always be learning." Look for important conversations you’ve had, and use the meal and dialogue to ground the story.
The first time I ever tutored a student on their college application essay, I worked with a quiet student, a guy who disappeared into the back of his classes. He wrote his essay about building a treehouse with his best friend. Jason’s story revealed the many facets of his character: his creativity, his expert planning, his love of nature and building things, and the comical things that guys say to one another when they are just hanging out. That was the first time I saw how application essays can bring a student to life, and help them outwit the college admissions numbers game.
Like Jason, brainstorm activities where you’ve taken a creative approach, or dealt with a challenge as you’re planning your Common Application essay, for example.
Speaking of challenges: one of the most moving essays I’ve ever read began, “It was the first day of ninth grade, and I walked into the cafeteria. All of the black students were sitting on my left, talking to themselves. All of the white students were sitting on my right, talking to themselves. Where was I, with my cappuccino colored skin, where was I to sit for lunch on the first day of ninth grade?"
Every one of us has had those moments. Suddenly, you are in a completely new situation, and need to do something, but you have no idea what. Application essays about challenges reveal how you respond to difficulty, and are very powerful.
The second Common App question asks, “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?"
It’s not a trick question. In fact, it’s the most complex and nuanced of the Common App prompts. It gives you the chance to reflect and show your ability to learn from your experiences. It takes time to find the type of mistakes you want to talk about, but I assure you: it works.
What difference do you want to make in the world? Where specifically are you going with your life? These questions should inform your entire college application process. Education research shows that the strongest predictor of a student’s success is how detailed and specific their picture is of the future. This is difficult, but the most important work you can do, as individuals and part of your community.
Make a list of issues that are important to you. How have you been affected by them in your day to day life? What have you done in response? Tell those stories.
You may have noticed that these ideas got harder to tell honestly as you worked down the list. When you write about difficult topics—mistakes, learning, making a difference—it is very tempting to start talking in clichés, or to end in a place where you are perfect.
Colleges are not looking for perfect people. They are looking for students who will make a difference in their classrooms, dorms, and community. Where are the stories that reveal what you bring to the world? Your best essays grow out of those moments.