How to Select a College Application Essay Topic


In this four-part series on the college application essay, we consider how to select a topic, some common topic pitfalls, the elements of a great essay, and the writing process in order to help students navigate this under-emphasized portion of the college application process. This is part one: How to Select a College Application Essay Topic.


Selecting the topic for your college admission essay is a major hurdle in the writing process. Though the General Application does provide prompts, the five questions are broad, precisely to cover most high school studentsexperiences. Selecting a topic is a matter of personal choice, but it must be done carefully since the essay is the one place, beside the interview, where a student can emerge as an individual from the bulk of high-achieving, athletically-talented, community-oriented student applications.

Picking a topic can not be done well simply by thinking about it. You have to start writing before you even know what to write about. A wise teacher once told me that there was no thinking outside of writing. This is true because writing takes the crystal clear thoughts inside your head and reveals how murky they are when shaped into concrete words.

One way to find a topic is to identify at least three answers to each prompt on the General Application. Try writing one sentence about each answer for each prompt. This is harder than it seems. Here are the 2015-16 General Application Essay Prompts:

PROMPT #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

PROMPT #2: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success.Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

PROMPT #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

PROMPT #4: Describe a problem youve solved or a problem youd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

PROMPT #5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Go ahead. Do it. Try to identify at least three things, major or silly, that you could discuss in reply to these prompts.

From that list, a few will seem like viable topics, but keep this original list because there may be good ideas that need to be rediscovered later. Once you have narrowed the list to a few potential topics, the writing can begin. In ten concentrated minutes, try to write 300-500 words about each of the potential topics. You wont know which ones have real potential until you see what you have to say about each one. Some seemingly great topics are summed in three sentences. Other less obvious ones will surprise with enormous detail and thought. At this point, there is usually one essay topic that glows with promise.

Take that essay topic and begin to write as much as possible. And, as your English teacher undoubtedly said at some point, show, dont tell. Dont tell us you were shocked, but describe the situation so that your reader will experience the shock. Dont tell us you were excited, sad, that you matured, became a leader, found a friend, discovered your career choice, etc. Describe the event in enormous detail. Describe the colors, the sounds, the temperature, the season, contrast it to where you were coming from or where you went next. You need as much detail as possible here. You should go well over 1000 words. You will edit it later, but for now you need to identify what elements of your experience can be used to show the feelings and thoughts you had.

You may list them. You may select a few to discuss in greater detail. What you do with this information will become how you develop and organize your essay. If your topic is focused on one of these statements then you havent done the work yet of understanding why: 1) my religion/education/race/family/passion made me who I am; 2) I changed the way I thought; 3) I changed X because it was the right thing to do; 4) Im going to do X because it needs to be fixed; 5) X changed me as a person.

The College Application Essay is a psychological experience. It asks you to ask why you are who you are, why you like what you do, why some memories and experiences have stayed with you and influenced you, while others havent. There are no easy answers. You cant fall back on cultural or moral values. You need to identify and explain your own values. Your essay uses an experience as the starting point for addressing what you think is important, not because someone else told you it was important but because you are a self-reflective person who is mature enough to use your critical thinking skills to better understand your motivations, your fears, your aspirationswho you are.

Thats your topic.

AUTHOR BIO: Charlotte Kent, PhD. lives and works in New York City, where she helps people of all ages improve their writing.

Have you or your kids struggled with this? If so, we'd love to hear about it and strategies you took to overcome it in the comments below!

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