How to Pick a Good College Essay Topic

To be accepted into the college of your choice, admission officers want to see a well-crafted essay that demonstrates your personality, strengths and writing skills. The key to writing a great essay, of course, is a great topic. Choosing the right one, however, is not always such an easy task.

These tips will help you nail down the best essay topic to tell your unique story, while also helping you avoid cliché or overdone subjects.

It's About Moments, Not Your Entire Past

It can be tempting to write a college essay as an autobiography. Instead, identify a specific moment or experience in your life that you can expand into an interesting read and that shows admission officers something important about who you are. Keep in mind, these don't have to be earth-shattering moments, but they do have to speak to your character and personality.

For example, say you want to major in Spanish communications. You don't need to win over the admission officers with an essay about your trip to Spain. Instead, you can explain how you used to watch telenovelas as a child to learn Spanish so you could eavesdrop on your grandma's phone calls. This funny memory helps explain why you now want to pursue Spanish studies to bridge language barriers in families where the older and younger generations can't communicate well.

Pick Something Unique

When you are only 16 or 17 years old, your life experience is limited. Don't let this discourage you. A lot of teens have part-time jobs or volunteer, so unless you have an especially unusual experience to share, try to find inspiration for your topic elsewhere.

  • Do you have any uncommon talents, such as playing the French horn, building robots or performing ventriloquism?
  • Do you compete in debate club, mathletes or martial arts tournaments?
  • Have you started your own business or a non-profit organization to help students in your area?

Once you have your list of experiences and hobbies, choose a memory that paints a picture of who you are. For example, if you compete in martial arts, you might start your essay like this: "Sweat dripped into my mouth while I tried to catch my breath. My blonde braid smacked my cheek as I landed a jump spinning roundhouse kick on my opponent's head. No matter what, I was not going to give up."

Such an essay could show your passion for the sport, your determination to succeed or even how you had to overcome a moment of defeat. The objective is to use a specific moment to illustrate who you are and what your goals are.

Show Your True Self

It's understandable that you want to look perfect in front of the school of your dreams, but college admissions officers want to see what makes you real. They aren't looking for robots. They want well-rounded and complex people that will enrich their campus.

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Write about what you learned from a challenge, risk or failure. You don't have to write on a tragic event; everyday challenges can be a great essay theme. For example, you can write how you overcame your fear of heights by bungee jumping or how you persevered despite a sport's injury. The point is to show yourself acting in a positive light, despite facing a negative circumstance. It is also important to tie the essay back to who you are and what you want to do in college.

Working with Set Topics

Some schools require assigned college application essay topics, which can sound generic. That doesn't mean you have to write a generic essay. The key to nailing these essays is to answer the prompt while weaving in your story.

For example, the question might be, "Write an essay about why you want to attend ABC University." Don't start by saying, "I want to go to ABC University because it is the best, and because my father went there and I want to follow in his footsteps." A better approach is to share a specific experience with your father that encouraged you to pursue the same college path as he did.

Torn between too many possible college essay topics? Write on two or three topics and see which essay communicates your message strongest. Then you can ask your family or high school college counselor which essay they find most interesting to read. Remember, you are more than grades and hobbies. You have a distinct story to share, so don't be afraid to write it.

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