How to choose the perfect college essay topic

According to some studies, the quality of your college admissions essay accounts for 25% of your overall application. That means getting it right could be the difference between an acceptance letter and a rejection.

Relative importance of application components for top 250 schools—from College Vine
Source: College Vine

Writing the perfect college essay starts with choosing the perfect essay topic. Not only will the topic you choose play a large role in how your audience (the admissions officers) react to your essay; choosing the right topic from the jump will also make the essay easier to write. Taking the extra time to carefully select your topic will save you headaches, rounds of revision, and potential rejection letters down the road.

Follow these three steps to choose the topic that will make your college essay acceptance-worthy:

  1. Understand your audience—What do they want to see?
  2. Study the prompt—What is it trying to elicit?
  3. Reflect on yourself—What do you—and uniquely you—have to offer in response to this prompt?

Step 1: Understand your audience

At the end of the day, admissions officers use the college admissions essay as a tool to get to know you without meeting you. Reading up on what college admissions officers want to see is key to understanding who you are writing for. Once you get to know your audience, the easier it will be to write for them. In interviews (source 1 and 2), admissions officers make it clear that they look for a few things most of all:

  • Solid academic performance (i.e. good grades in challenging classes)
  • Creativity
  • Intelligence
  • Ambition
  • A unique perspective
  • Common decency

It is the admissions officer’s job to fill the campus with amazing people. The college admissions essay is one crucial way that they screen for these “amazing people.” Think about the traits you would want in your roommate, your classmate, the president of your club—and then think about how you can demonstrate those traits on the page.

Step 2: Study the prompt

When we say “study the prompt,” we don’t mean, “read it over.” We mean study it. Consider the intent behind the prompt. What traits—like those listed in Step 1—is this prompt meant to screen for?

When trying to choose a college essay topic, we recommend making two lists: one list of viable topics, and one list of “trap” topics.

What is a “trap” college essay topic?

A “trap” essay topic is one that sounds good on the surface—but fails to actually satisfy the intent of the prompt.

There are thousands of potential trap topics when it comes to admissions essays. For instance, choosing a topic where you simply brag about your achievements might serve to present you as cocky or lacking humility.

Similarly, there are trap topics that don’t present you in a bad light, but instead steer the rest of your paper away from the prompt.

Step 3: Reflect on yourself

Okay, so now you know what they want to see.

How are you going to show it to them?

Looking at your list of “Characteristics to demonstrate, create a big long list of all the possible experiences you could write about. Get it all out on the page—don’t hold back! Once you’ve exhausted all of your ideas—say, 5 minutes of no-distraction brainstorming—make a table with two columns. On the left, list out all the topics which lend themselves to exemplifying the characteristics you identified in Step 2. On the right, list out all the topics that won’t let you prove you possess these traits.

Note: Post-it notes are a great way to organize this list. You can write the potential topics on Post-its and organize them in the two columns later.

Once you have your list of “viable topics” (I.e. the topics where your positive characteristics can shine through), prioritize them. Put the one which will best allow you to answer the “questions within the question” at the top of your list—and viola! You’ve chosen your college admissions essay topic!

Real World Example: Picking your college admissions essay topic—a step-by-step explainer

Let’s go through an example.

One of the 2021-2022 Common App prompts is:

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Let’s walk through how we would pick a topic for this prompt.

1: Understanding your audience: Do your research.

You’ve ready interviews with admissions officers. You’ve scoured the Applicants section of your target school’s website. You know your audience. You know they want to see intelligence and creativity, but also positive personal traits, including empathy, resilience, and humility.

2: Studying the prompt: List out what they want to see

Next, you must study the prompt and determine what it is trying to learn about you. When reviewing the prompt above, it seems like they’re trying to see a few characteristics in applicants.

To start, you should make a list of the characteristics that you think the prompt is trying to uncover in you.

  • Humility—the ability to learn and change
  • Resilience—the ability to move forward through hardship
  • Passion for learning—the ability to see setbacks as an opportunity to grow

As we move forward with selecting a prompt, we will cross out anything that doesn’t allow us to demonstrate these traits.

3: Reflecting on yourself: List out your relevant experiences (i.e. potential topics)

After some reflection, you should be able to come up with a list of experiences which could work for this prompt. Here, that old adage, “There are no bad ideas in brainstorming,” definitely applies. Just build a list. You can cut the irrelevant stuff later.

Here is a list of a few potential situations that I made up (some more relevant than others—and that’s okay!):

  • Breaking both my arms in a bike accident
  • Getting caught stealing from the gas station
  • Having to retake my driver’s test because I failed it once
  • Not making the varsity baseball team
  • My middle school crush rejecting me in front of my whole class.
  • Getting rejected from the private school of my dreams

Okay, so now we have a list. Let’s separate them into viable topics and unviable (AKA trap) topics.

Viable TopicsUnviable AKA trap topics (and reason it won’t work)
Getting rejected from the private school of my dreamsGetting caught stealing from the gas station (reflects poorly on me)
Not making the varsity baseball teamHaving to retake my driver’s test because I failed it once (Lots of people do this. It isn’t unique.)
My middle school crush rejecting me in front of my whole class. (While heartbreaking, the growth here wouldn’t necessarily apply to college/academics.)
Breaking both my arms in a bike accident (What does it prove about how I will behave as a college student? More on this below.)

Ignore the trap topics

A trap topic is one that seems relevant on the surface, because it satisfied the prompt on a surface level, but fails to answer the underlying questions hidden within the prompt.

One potential trap in responding to this topic would be to choose a particularly complex challenge. You may, for example, want to discuss something big and dramatic, like the time you broke both arms falling off a bike.

This is certainly a major setback. Describing the event in all its gory detail would be compelling; there’s no doubt about that.

But to focus solely on the accident and the ensuing pain would be to ignore what this prompt is really asking for:

This prompt seeks to better understand how you grow as a person when faced with adversity. They want to see what happened inside your head and heart after the challenge.

Sure, maybe you learned about perseverance and hard work during your recovery from your injury—but you had to one way or another, didn’t you? You didn’t face an obstacle and choose self-improvement. You simply did what the doctor told you.

Let’s imagine another setback—say, when you were rejected from the private high school of your dreams, and your parents (who met at this private school) were crushed. Here, you can discuss the lows you experienced, the feeling of letting your family down, the self-doubt as you pondered whether this rejection meant you weren’t as smart as you thought.

And then you can discuss your choice to pick yourself up from your bootstraps, to reflect on yourself and realize that maybe there were some things you could improve on, and that while the rejection meant short-term self-doubt, it was really an opportunity for long-term growth. With this prompt, you get to brag about the choices you made and the characteristics you demonstrated, rather than lingering on the situation which was out of your control.

By making these three lists (characteristics, potential topics, and unsatisfactory topics), you can discipline yourself to focus on what the admissions officers want to see and ignore the “shiny objects”—i.e. topics that are dramatic or easy to write about, but are ultimately proving the wrong point.

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