General Education

Best and Worst Topics for Your College Essay

Best and Worst Topics for Your College Essay
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Dr. Kat Cohen February 8, 2019

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Students prepare for the college application process by taking rigorous courses, participating in extracurricular activities, studying for standardized tests, and more. However, all this preparation often leaves students ill-equipped to tackle the most notorious section of the college application: the essays.

The essay is both the most and the least visible part of the competitive admissions process. Everyone knows the essay is a huge part of the application, but few actually get to see what “successful” essays look like. Some online resources, like The College Board, post examples of college application essays, but they often lack the necessary context in order to see how accurately that essay conveys a student’s personality and interests.

When choosing a topic for an essay, students need to consider what the essay prompt is asking, the universities to which they’re applying, their goals, and, ultimately, what the essay says about them as a student and as a person.

Why the Essay Matters

Before you can choose an impactful essay topic, you first need to understand why there’s an essay in the first place. When evaluating college applications, most colleges use a “reading rubric” to evaluate the different components of each application. Aside from the “hard factors” (grades, GPA, test scores, etc.) colleges also look at the “soft factors,” (extracurriculars, recommendations, demonstrated interest, etc.), including essays. The point of evaluating all these factors is to holistically build a well-rounded class of specialists. The essay (or essays) is a great way to learn more about an applicant, his or her motivations, life experiences, and how he or she can contribute to the campus community.

According to NACAC, 83% of colleges assign some level of importance to the application essay, and it’s usually the most important “soft factor” that colleges consider. The essay is important because it gives students the chance to showcase their writing and tell the college something new. It also allows admissions officers to learn more about students and gain some insight into their experiences that they might not have learned from other parts of the application. Just like any other admissions factor, a stellar essay isn’t going to guarantee admission, but students do need to craft compelling and thoughtful essays in order to avoid the “no” pile.

Types of Essays

Let’s talk about the different types of essays that a college might require applicants to submit. Over 500 colleges and universities use the Common Application, which has one required essay, called the personal statement. There are five prompts to choose from, and that essay can be used for multiple colleges. In addition to the Common Application essay, many colleges also have supplements that ask additional, university-specific questions and often include more essays. While essay topics vary from supplement to supplement, there are a few standard essay formats that many colleges use:

  • Personal statement: This is the most common essay and is used for the main Common Application essay. In this essay, the applicant talks about a meaningful life experience that helped shape who he or she is today. The book Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting into College has a great section on the personal statement and how students can craft effective essays,
  • “Why this college?” essay: Many colleges, including Columbia University and Duke University, ask applicants to explain in the supplement why they have chosen to apply to this particular college. In this essay students need to be detailed and offer specific examples as to why they want to attend this school. Not only does it help students reiterate their passions and interests, it also serves as a gauge for demonstrated interest and helps students better articulate how they will contribute to the campus environment.
  • Activity essay: In this essay, students write about an extracurricular activity or community service project that is especially meaningful to them. This essay was previously on the standard Common Application, but was removed starting in the 2014-15 application season. Instead, some colleges like Georgetown University choose to include a variation of this essay on their supplements by asking students to discuss an activity and its significance to their life or course of study. In this essay students should choose an activity they’re most passionate about and include details about how they expect to continue this activity at that college.
  • Quick takes: In an effort to challenge students’ creativity some colleges include short “quick take” prompts that require only a few words or sentences for the response. Some examples include University of Southern California’s “What’s the greatest invention of all time?” and University of Maryland’s sentence completion prompts like “My favorite thing about last Wednesday…”

What NOT to Write About

In order to stand out, it’s important to realize that there are a number of essay topics that are very clichéd and overused. Avoid writing about things like scoring the winning goal, topics of public consciousness like natural disasters, or something that happened to you in middle school. Also avoid gimmicks like writing in a different language, presenting your essay as a poem, and anything else that is stylistically “out of the box.” Your focus should be on the message rather than the presentation.

It’s also important to avoid inappropriate or uncomfortable topics. Some students choose to write about things like sex or romantic relationships in order to stand out, however they often fail to add any substance to the application. There’s a fine line between interesting and trite. Don’t stand out for the wrong reasons.

Successful Essay Topics

A successful essay will reveal something about you that the admissions reader might not have already known, and will show how you interact with family and friends and how you demonstrate your beliefs or explore your passions. This doesn’t mean you have to regurgitate your resume – and you definitely shouldn’t.

For example, a student whose number one extracurricular activity is swimming shouldn’t write an essay about the big meet. Instead, he or she should explore a more personal topic. Maybe he or she is learning something in class that conflicts with his or her religious beliefs. That student can write about the intersection of religion and education in his or her life and how he or she resolved it – or didn’t.

A great essay also gives readers a vivid picture and is easy to follow. When crafting an essay, think of it as giving admissions readers a slice of a certain event or story. Focus on the most meaningful moments, not the irrelevant background details.

For example, a student once wrote an essay about feeling out of place culturally during an internship experience. Instead of giving a general description of the internship and the conflicts, he started the essay with a vivid description of what he saw when he first arrived, and used that to frame the essay around the events upon arrival – giving the reader a vivid image of the experience in great detail.

Remember, your college application essay is about you. There’s a lot of pressure to be “unique” and “interesting,” but at the end of the day the key to standing out is to just be yourself. Admissions officers can tell when students are embellishing or being insincere in their essays, so it’s best to keep it simple and just tell a story about you and the person you are today. In the end, with careful planning, research, and a thoughtful essay, you’ll get into the best-fit college for you!


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