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College Essays

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Writing the college application essay is a tough gig. You've got to be charming, personal, memorable, and insightful--all in under two pages! But I'm going to tell you a secret: half of a great personal essay is a great topic idea. If you're passionate about what you're writing, and if you're truly documenting something meaningful and serious about yourself and your life, then that passion and meaning will come alive on the page and in the mind of your reader.

So how do you come up with an essay idea? The best way is to brainstorm your way to an event from your life that reveals a core truth about you. In this article, I will help you do just that. Keep reading to find 35 jumping off points that touch on every possible memory you could harness, as well as advice on how to use your brainstorming session to fully realize your idea for an essay topic.

What Makes an Essay Topic Great?

What does your application tell admissions officers about you? Mostly it's just numbers and facts: your name, your high school, your grades and SAT scores. These stats would be enough if colleges were looking to build a robot army, but they aren't.

So how do they get to see a slice of the real you? How can they get a feel for the personality, character, and feelings that make you the person that you are? It's through your college essay. The essay is a way to introduce yourself to colleges in a way that displays your maturity. This is important because admissions officers want to make sure that you will thrive in the independence of college life and work.

This is why finding a great college essay topic is so hugely important: because it will allow you to demonstrate the maturity level admissions teams are looking for. This is best expressed through the ability to have insight about what has made you into you, through the ability to share some vulnerabilities or defining experiences, and through the ability to be a creative thinker and problem solver.

In other words, a great topic is an event from your past that you can narrate, draw conclusions from, explain the effect of. Most importantly, you should be able to describe how it has changed you from the kind of person you were to the better person that you are now. If you can do all that, you are well ahead of the essay game.

How Do You Know If Your College Essay Topic Is Great?

Eric Maloof, the Director of International Admission at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas has a great checklist for figuring out whether you're on the right track with your essay topic . He says, if you can answer "yes" to these two questions, then you've got the makings of a great essay:

  • Is the topic of my essay important to me?
  • Am I the only person who could have written this essay?

So how do you translate this checklist into essay topic action items?

Make it personal. Write about something personal, deeply felt, and authentic to the real you (but which is not an overshare). Take a narrow slice of your life: one event, one influential person, one meaningful experience—and then you expand out from that slice into a broader explanation of yourself.

Always think about your reader. In this case, your reader is an admission officer who is slogging through hundreds of college essays. You don't want to bore that person, and you don't want to offend that person. Instead, you want to come across as likable and memorable.

Put the reader in the experience with you by making your narrow slice of life feel alive. This means that your writing needs to be chock-full of specific details, sensory descriptions, words that describe emotions, and maybe even dialog. This is why it's very important to make the essay topic personal and deeply felt. Readers can tell when a writer isn't really connected to whatever he is writing about. And the reverse is true as well: deep emotion shows through your writing.

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Coming Up With Great College Essay Ideas

Some people know right off the bat that they have to write about that one specific defining moment of their lives. But if you're reading this, chances are you aren't one of these people. Don't worry—I wasn't one of them either! What this means is that you—like me—will have to put in a little work to come up with the perfect idea by first doing some brainstorming.

I've come up with about 35 different brainstorming jumping off points that ask questions about your life and your experiences. The idea here is to jog your memory about the key life events that have shaped you and affected you deeply.

I recommend you spend at least two minutes on each question, coming up with and writing down at least one answer—or as many answers as you can think of. Seriously—time yourself. Two minutes is longer than you think! I would also recommend doing this over several sittings to get your maximum memory retrieval going—even if it takes a couple of days, it'll be worth it.

Then, we will use this list of experiences and thoughts to narrow your choices down to the one topic idea that you will use for your college essay.

Brainstorming Technique 1: Think About Defining Moments in Your Life

  • What is your happiest memory? Why? What was good about it? Who and what was around you then? What did it mean to you?
  • What is your saddest memory? Would you change the thing that happened or did you learn something crucial from the experience?
  • What is the most important decision you've had to make? What was hard about the choice? What was easy? Were the consequences of your decision what you had imagined before making it? Did you plan and game out your choices, or did you follow gut instinct?
  • What decision did you not have any say in, but would have wanted to? Why were you powerless to participate in this decision? How did the choice made affect you? What do you think would have happened if a different choice had been made?
  • What the most dangerous or scary thing that you've lived through? What was threatened? What were the stakes? How did you survive/overcome it? How did you cope emotionally with the fallout?
  • When did you first feel like you were no longer a child? Who and what was around you then? What had you just done or seen? What was the difference between your childhood self and your more adult self?
  • What are you most proud of about yourself? Is it a talent or skill? A personality trait or quality? An accomplishment? Why is this the thing that makes you proud?

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Brainstorming Technique 2: Remember Influential People

  • Which of your parents (or parental figures) are you most like in personality and character? Which of their traits do you see in yourself? Which do you not? Do you wish you were more like this parent or less?
  • Which of your grandparents, great-grandparents, or other older relatives has had the most influence on your life? Is it a positive influence, where you want to follow in their footsteps in some way? A negative influence, where you want to avoid becoming like them in some way? How is the world they come from like your world? How is it different?
  • Which teacher has challenged you the most? What has that challenge been? How did you respond?
  • What is something that someone once said to you that has stuck with you? When and where did they say it? Why do you think it's lodged in your memory?
  • Which of your friends would you trade places with for a day? Why?
  • If you could intern for a week or a month with anyone—living or dead, historical or fictional—who would it be? What would you want that person to teach you? How did you first encounter this person or character? How do you think this person would react to you?
  • Of the people you know personally, whose life is harder than yours? What makes it that way—their external circumstances? Their inner state? Have you ever tried to help this person? If yes, did it work? If no, how would you help them if you could?
  • Of the people you know personally, whose life is easier than yours? Are you jealous? Why or why not?

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Brainstorming Technique 3: Recreate Important Times or Places

  • When is the last time you felt so immersed in what you were doing that you lost all track of time or anything else from the outside world? What were you doing? Why do you think this activity got you into this near-zen state?
  • Where do you most often tend to daydream? Why do you think this place has this effect on you? Do you seek it out? Avoid it? Why?
  • What is the best time of day? The worst? Why?
  • What is your favorite corner of, or space in, the place where you live? What do you like about it? When do you go there, and what do you use it for?
  • What is your least favorite corner of, or space in, the place where you live? Why do you dislike it? What do you associate it with?
  • If you had to repeat a day over and over, like the movie Groundhog Day , what day would it be? If you'd pick a day from your life that has already happened, why would you want to be stuck it in? To relive something great? To fix mistakes? If you'd pick a day that hasn't yet occurred, what would the day you were stuck in be like?
  • If you could go back in time to give yourself advice, when would you go back to? What advice would you give? Why? What effect would you want your advice to have?

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Brainstorming Technique 4: Answer Thought-Provoking Questions

  • If you could take a Mulligan and do over one thing in your life, what would it be? Would you change what you did the first time around? Why?
  • Or, if you could take another crack at doing something again, what would you pick? Something positive—having another shot at repeating a good experience? Something negative—getting the chance to try another tactic to avoid a bad experience?
  • Which piece of yourself could you never change while remaining the same person? Your race? Ethnicity? Intellect? Height? Freckles? Loyalty? Sense of humor? Why is that the thing that you'd cling to as the thing that makes you who you are?
  • Which of your beliefs, ideas, or tastes puts you in the minority? Why do you think/believe/like this thing when no one else seems to?
  • What are you most frightened of? What are you not frightened enough of? Why?
  • What is your most treasured possession? What would you grab before running out of the house during a fire? What is this object's story and why is it so valuable to you?
  • What skill or talent that you don't have now would you most like to have? Is it an extension of something you already do? Something you've never had the guts to try doing? Something you plan on learning in the future?
  • Which traditions that you grew up with will you pass on? Which will you ignore? Why?

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Brainstorming Technique 5: Find a Trait or Characteristic and Trace It Back

  • What are three adjectives you'd use to describe yourself? Why these three? Which of these is the one you're most proud of? Least proud of? When did you last exhibit this trait? What were you doing?
  • How would your best friend describe you? What about your parents? How are the adjectives they'd come up with different from the ones you'd use? When have they seen this quality or trait in you?
  • What everyday thing are you the world's greatest at? Who taught you how to do it? What memories do you have associated with this activity? Which aspects of it have you perfected?
  • Imagine that it's the future and that you've become well known. What will you become famous for? Is it for something creative or a performance? For the way you will have helped others? For your business accomplishments? For your athletic prowess? When you make a speech about this fame, whom will you thank for putting you where you are?
  • What do you most like about yourself? This is different from the thing you're most proud of—this is the thing that you know about yourself that makes you smile. Can you describe a time when this thing was useful or effective in some way?

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How to Turn Your Brainstorming List Into an Essay Topic

Now that you have a cornucopia of daydreams, memories, thoughts, and ambitions, it's time to thin the herd, prune the dead branches, and whatever other mixed metaphors about separating the wheat from the chaff you can think of.

So how do you narrow down your many ideas into one?

Use the magic power of time. One of the best things you can do with your stack of college essay topics is to forget about them. Put them away for a couple of days so that you create a little mental space. When you come back to everything you wrote after a day or two, you will get the chance to read it with fresh eyes.

Let the cream rise to the top. When you reread your topics after having let them sit, do two things:

  • Cross out any ideas that don't speak to you in some way. If something doesn't ring true, if it doesn't spark your interest, or if it doesn't connect with an emotion, then consider reject it.
  • Circle or highlight any topics that pop out at you. If it feels engaging, if you get excited at the prospect of talking about it, if it resonates with a feeling, then put it at the top of the idea pile.

Rinse and repeat. Go through the process of letting a few days pass and then rereading your ideas at least one more time. This time, don't bother looking at the topics you've already rejected. Instead, concentrate on those you highlighted earlier and maybe some of the ones that were neither circled nor thrown away.

Trust your gut instinct (but verify). Now that you've gone through and culled your ideas several times based on whether or not they really truly appeal to you, you should have a list of your top choices—all the ones you've circled or highlighted along the way. Now is the moment of truth. Imagine yourself telling the story of each of these experiences to someone who wants to get to know you. Rank your possible topics in order of how excited you are to share this story. Really listen to your intuition here. If you're squeamish, shy, unexcited, or otherwise not happy at the thought of having to tell someone about the experience, it will make a terrible essay topic.

Develop your top two to four choices to see which is best. Unless you feel very strongly about one of your top choices, the only way to really know which of your best ideas is the perfect one is to try actually making them into essays. For each one, go through the steps listed in the next section of the article under "Find Your Idea's Narrative." Then, use your best judgment (and maybe that of your parents, teachers, or school counselor) to figure out which one to draft into your personal statement.

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How to Make Your Idea Into a College Essay

Now, let's talk about what to do in order to flesh out your topic concept into a great college essay. First, I'll give you some pointers on expanding your idea into an essay-worthy story, and then talk a bit about how to draft and polish your personal statement.

Find Your Topic's Narrative

All great college essays have the same foundation as good short stories or enjoyable movies—an involving story. Let's go through what features make for a story that you don't want to put down:

A compelling character with an arc. Think about the experience that you want to write about. What were you like before it happened? What did you learn, feel, or think about during it? What happened afterwards? What do you now know about yourself that you didn't before?

Sensory details that create a "you are there!" experience for the reader. When you're writing about your experience, focus on trying to really make the situation come alive. Where were you? Who else was there? What did it look like? What did it sound like? Were there memorable textures, smells, tastes? Does it compare to anything else? When you're writing about the people you interacted with, give them a small snippet of dialog to say so the reader can "hear" that person's voice. When you are writing about yourself, make sure to include words that explain the emotions you are feeling at different parts of the story.

An insightful ending. Your essay should end with an uplifting, personal, and interesting revelation about the kind of person you are today, and how the story you have just described has made and shaped you.

Draft and Revise

The key to great writing is rewriting. So work out a draft, and then put it aside and give yourself a few days to forget what you've written. When you come back to look at it again look for places where you slow down your reading, where something seems out of place or awkward. Can you fix this by changing around the order of your essay? By explaining further? By adding details? Experiment.

Get advice. Colleges expect your essay to be your work, but most recommend having someone else cast a fresh eye over it. A good way to get a teacher or a parent involved is to ask them whether your story is clear and specific, and whether your insight about yourself flows logically from the story you tell.

Execute flawlessly. Dot every i, cross every t, delicately place every comma where it needs to go. Grammar mistakes, misspellings, and awkward sentence structure don't just make your writing look bad—they take the reader out of the story you're telling. And that makes you memorable, but in a bad way.

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The Bottom Line

  • Your college essay topic needs to come from the fact that essays are a way for colleges to get to know the real you , a you that is separate from your grades and scores.
  • A great way to come up with topics is to wholeheartedly dive into a brainstorming exercise. The more ideas about your life that tumble out of your memory and onto the page, the better chance you have of finding the perfect college essay topic.
  • Answer my brainstorming questions without editing yourself at first. Instead, simply write down as many things that pop into your head as you can—even if you end up going off topic.
  • After you've generated a list of possible topics, leave it alone for a few days and then come back to pick out the ones that seem the most promising.
  • Flesh out your top few ideas into full-blown narratives , to understand which reveals the most interesting thing about you as a person.
  • Don't shy away from asking for help. At each stage of the writing process get a parent or teacher to look over what you're working on, not to do your work for you but to hopefully gently steer you in a better direction if you're running into trouble.

What's Next?

Ready to start working on your essay? Check out our explanation of the point of the personal essay and the role it plays on your applications .

For more detailed advice on writing a great college essay, read our guide to the Common Application essay prompts and get advice on how to pick the Common App prompt that's right for you .

Thinking of taking the SAT again before submitting your applications? We have put together the ultimate guide to studying for the SAT to give you the ins and outs of the best ways to study.

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points?   We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download them for free now:

Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

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11 Cliché College Essay Topics + How to Fix Them

←11 Stellar Common App Essay Examples

5 Awesome College Essay Topics→

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What makes a good college essay? It’s a question many high school seniors ask while going through the application process. A winning college essay engages admissions officers and shares with them the student’s identity and personality, painting a picture that goes beyond grades and test scores—compelling the reader to become an advocate for the student’s admission. 

The Four Core Questions are at the heart of college essays and answering them is critical. Those questions are: 

  • Why am I here?
  • What is unique about me?
  • What matters to me? 

By answering these questions, a student is able to share information that is otherwise hard to ascertain with admissions officials—things like personality traits, personal journey, interests, skills, and ambitions. A well-conceived and well-written essay is a way for students to separate themselves from other applicants; conversely, an ineffective essay does nothing to distinguish a student, which is why it’s so important to avoid writing a cliché college essay. 

Cliché College Essay Topics to Avoid + How to Fix Them

1. résumé of your life and achievements.

Résumés are an effective method to demonstrate achievements, but they’re boring to read. This is why, in the professional world, résumés are often accompanied by a cover letter. A college application is essentially a student’s résumé—it contains their grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities—which makes an essay listing achievements redundant. 

A better strategy is for students to pick one experience that stands above the rest and write about how it shaped the person they are today. This is especially effective for any experiences that would benefit from further explanation, or those that have an interesting backstory. For example, maybe you participate in a unique extracurricular that most people aren’t familiar with, such as being on a Chinese yoyo/diabolo team. You might choose to focus on that aspect of your identity and what it means to you. Or, maybe you love math, but never had the chance to explain on your application that you used to hate math, until a tutor showed you a different way to appreciate it (and that’s one of the reasons you want to become a math teacher). This would be another strong topic.

You don’t necessarily have to focus on one specific event, but your essay should be cohesive. Another traditional essay structure is telling a narrative over an extended period of time. This structure incorporates a handful of different experiences that are joined by a common thread. If you have a story of growth, change, or development, this is the classic essay structure for you. An example of this might be a football player who was embarrassed to admit he liked writing and poetry, but how he eventually became a published author, and came to accept and own his identity as a poet.

2. Sports injury, challenge, or success

Coaches on every level are known for telling their athletes about how the lessons learned on the field/court/ice translate to life. Unfortunately, these lessons and stories have been told in numerous movies and books, along with countless college essays

To successfully write a college essay about sports, it’s important to steer clear of the common themes.

  • Overcoming adversity
  • Trusting teammates
  • Refusing to quit
  • The thrill of victory
  • The agony of defeat

For example, instead of an applicant talking about how their team trained and improved to beat their rivals or win a championship, they should write about a unique way that sports shaped who they are. For example, here’s an unexpected way to write about a sports injury: maybe tearing your ACL in a soccer game actually led you to start a podcast while you were recovering, which became one of your biggest passions. 

Along a similar line, a student could write about discovering their motivation for playing sports.  Maybe they always played basketball because they were good, or their parents expected them to play, but they realized they didn’t enjoy the competitive nature of the sport and wanted to gravitate toward less competitive activities like hiking or surfing. 

3. Immigrant story

The U.S. is a nation of immigrants and while not every student has an immigrant story, a lot of them do. Consequently, these immigrant themes are ones that every admissions officer has read before:

  • Learning a new language
  • Adapting to new customs
  • Adjusting to a new lifestyle
  • Struggling to fit in

Asian students, in particular, should avoid immigrant-themed essays, as they have a harder time getting into college due to demographics, and this topic only calls attention to their background. 

To make an immigration essay work (and avoid being another cliché college essay), a student needs to make it extremely unique or incredibly personal. One tactic is to write about a singular experience—moments of conflict are always an interesting topic. For example, a student might write about a time they were made to feel unwelcome in the U.S. and how they responded to that moment, such as volunteering at the community cultural center or creating a welcoming committee for new immigrants. 

Another essay opportunity is to write about an experience that is truly unique. Perhaps, when a student first came to the U.S., they didn’t have access to a vehicle or public transportation and needed to walk to school or their job. That student could use their college essay to focus on what they learned on their walks and the ambitions it sparked—such as tenacity to succeed against all odds, or a desire to found a program for immigrants in a similar position.  

4. Tragedy – death, divorce, abuse

Tragedies are formative experiences, which in theory make them a natural theme for a college essay; however, tragedies are often a universal experience. Furthermore, essays on this topic are too often centered on the tragedy itself, rather than the applicant.

It is possible to write a college essay about a tragedy that isn’t cliche, however. The key is to keep it focused on the applicant and highly personal. To start, avoid overused themes like “life is short” and “make every day count.” Instead, highlight how the tragedy affected the writer. For example, if you had a friend who passed away from substance abuse, an essay centered around your subsequent commitment to drug prevention programs and advocacy is an interesting angle. 

In the case of an applicant who had a parent pass away, writing about shifting family dynamics, new responsibilities, and increased challenges are all great themes. For example, a student went from worrying just about academics to becoming the other adult in the house—preparing meals for their siblings, sending them off to school, and helping them with their homework.

5. Working hard in a challenging class

Working hard in a challenging class doesn’t work as an essay topic for a handful of reasons. If you’re applying to a highly ranked institution, it’s likely that most of their applicants took tough classes and worked hard. They also likely faced challenging classes, struggled, and ultimately succeeded. Another reason to avoid this topic? The traits conveyed are likely covered by recommendation letters: 

  • Perseverance
  • Work ethic 
  • Intellectual ability

Instead of writing your essay about overcoming a tough class, think about the personality traits you want to highlight. If you feel that your determination is already covered in other aspects of your application, pick another trait to feature in your essay. Or maybe, you feel like your determination isn’t emphasized enough. Which other experiences highlight this trait?

Another idea is to make the essay less about the class and more about the writer. Instead of sharing how you struggled to understand Crime and Punishment in your advanced lit class, you might detail how the class inspired a desire to write, or how the works covered made you reflect on your own life. 

You could also pick a problem or research question you want to solve, as per the fourth Common App essay prompt. Just remember that while the topic is an intellectual problem, your essay should still highlight your personality, identity, and way you think about the world. Pick something that is deeply personal to you and your background. For instance, maybe you want to create a proposal to solve food deserts in your county. This would allow you to share your personal experiences growing up in a food desert, your passion for increasing access to healthy food, and your analytical abilities.

6. Someone you admire (a person you know or historical figure)

The primary pitfall of writing about an admired person is that the essay is often focused more on the other person than the applicant. Even if students steer the essay toward themselves, they usually find themselves covering familiar themes:

  • Learning something about themselves
  • Learning something about life
  • Learning something about the world

The key to keeping writing about another person from becoming another cliché college essay is to keep the focus on the applicant. A great way to do this is to highlight a specific moment where they exemplified an attribute or action that they commend in a person that they admire. For example, if an essay writer admires their father’s ethos of standing up for what is right, an excellent essay theme is the time they stood up for another student who was being bullied, even though they knew they risked losing popularity, or finding themselves in the crosshairs of the bully as the result. 

If the person they admire is historical, they can talk about how they are trying to live their life according to those ideals. For example, the aspiring writer can focus their essay on how they adopted Hemingway’s ritual of writing every morning as soon after first light as possible, and what they’ve learned from that process. 

7. Volunteer trip

Building a winning essay about a volunteer trip is tricky—at best, these essays come off as cliché; at their worst, they can make an applicant seem pretentious, condescending, and privileged. Like other topics, the key is for the writer to focus on themself, not the group they volunteered for or the place they went. 

One way to avoid the cliché volunteer essay is to write about a specific moment on your trip, rather than giving a chronological account of your time. Get really specific and bring the reader into the moment and share with them how it affected you. An attention-grabbing essay will show the reader how you changed, instead of telling them. 

Another trick for turning volunteer essays from cliché to eye-catching is focusing on an unusual experience that happened during the volunteer trip. For example, a delayed flight while travelling home that left you stranded in a foreign city all alone and how it’s a parable for stepping on campus for the first time.

8. Moving to a different part of the country 

Similar to the immigrant story, writing about moving to a new place is also an overly-done topic. Countless students move or switch schools each year. Many have trouble fitting in or adjusting to a new place, but eventually make new friends. 

If moving was really integral to your high school experience and identity, think about why that is. Did it push you to try new interests or become more outgoing? Focus your essay less on the move itself and your adjustment, and more on how exactly it changed your life. 

For instance, some more original ways of spinning this topic would be:

  • How moving led you to start an organization that picks up unwanted furniture for free, and resells or donates items in good condition. For items in bad condition, you find ways to repair and upcycle them. This was motivated by all the trash you saw your family produce during the move.
  • At your new school, you joined the gymnastics team because you were known as the uncoordinated, awkward girl at your old school, and you wanted to shed that image.
  • After moving, you decided to go by the proper pronunciation of your Spanish name, rather than the anglicized version. You could write your essay on why you made this decision, and how it impacted your experience in your new community.

9. Your religious institution or faith

Religion is generally a very tricky topic, and it’s difficult to cover it in an original way in your essay. Writing about your faith and reflecting on it critically can work, but basic religious essays about why your faith is important to you are a little more clich é . 

It’s important to also remember your audience. If you’re applying to a religious school, essays about your faith will likely be expected. If you’re applying to a super liberal school, you might want to avoid writing your essay about your conservative religious views.  

Regardless of your situation, if you decide to write an essay on religion, share your personal relationship with your faith. Anyone can write broadly about how much their faith means to them or how their life changed when they found religion, but only you can share your personal experiences, thoughts, and perspectives.

10. Romantic relationships and breakups

Your college essays should be personal, but romantic relationships and breakups are a little too personal. Remember that applying to college is kind of like applying to a job, and you want to present yourself in a professional light. This means that writing about your romantic life is a bad idea in general. 

Unlike the other clich é topics, there are not really any directly-relevant alternatives. If you wanted to write your essay on your relationship, think about what traits that story would’ve brought out. For a breakup, was it your ability to overcome a setback? For a happy relationship, is it being emotionally intelligent or finding a compromise during conflict? Think about how you could still write an essay that conveys the same aspect of your identity, without mentioning this cliché topic.

11. Family pressure to pursue a particular major or field

Many students unfortunately experience family pressure to do certain activities or choose specific career paths. If this is the case for you, you shouldn’t focus your essay on this topic—it will only make it look like you lack independence from your parents. This is not a good sign to admissions committees, as they want a campus full of students who have the autonomy to make their own decisions. 

That’s not to say that parental input isn’t valid—you may have very legitimate reasons to follow your parents’ advice to pursue a particular career, especially if your family is low-income and you need to provide for them. But there are absolutely better topics to share your identity and background, beyond parental pressure.

Some ways to make this topic more original are:

  • If you have strict parents, discussing how you became more independent from them, and an example of when you did something for your personal development that they might not have agreed with at the time.
  • For those whose background influenced their decision to choose a “practical” field, you might talk about your situation growing up and how that influences your perspective and choices. Of course, you should still try to show genuine interest in your plans, as you don’t want to make it seem like you’re being “forced” to do something. 

Wondering if your personal essay topic is cliché? You can ask for the advice of peers and experts in our free  Q&A forum . If you’re looking for feedback on your essay, you can also get your essay  peer-reviewed for free . Just  sign up for your free CollegeVine account  to get started!

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best college essay topics reddit

12 Unforgettable College Application Essays

best college essay topics reddit

It's been a long time since I penned my college application essays, but that doesn't mean I don't still appreciate them. On the contrary: I think memorable college admissions essays are to be applauded. Why? Because anyone who can make theirs interesting, thus bringing a modicum of relief to those who have to actually sit there and plow through them all, definitely deserves some acknowledgment for their work. And hey, wouldn't you know it? That's the subject of today's AskReddit thread: “ College admissions counselors of Reddit , what's the weirdest/worst/most memorable essay you've read?”

As is wont to happen in an AskReddit thread, many — possibly even the majority, although I haven't actually counted them, so do with that what you will — of the responses did not come from their intended source; in this case, we're talking about college admissions officers. Some of them were submitted by the people who wrote them; others by people who knew the writers in question; and still others have the “a friend of a friend who dated my cousin's best friend” level of remove that can sometimes bring their veracity into question. Either way, though, they're all good for a laugh — and a few of them might even teach you something. Full steam ahead for a wide variety of lessons in what to do while writing your college application essays — and what not to do, too.

Here are 12 of the most notable examples; head on over to AskReddit for more . Oh, and for anyone who's waiting on their acceptance letters? Good luck! I believe in you!

1. The Theory of Cat/Toast Equilibrium

best college essay topics reddit

But… what does happen? I must know!

While we're on the subject, the University of Chicago seems like they've mastered the art of making college applications not boring for the people who actually have to read them. Check out some of essay prompts from this year's app:

best college essay topics reddit

Not going to lie: I am considering writing answers for them just for the hell of it. Because you know what? It actually sounds — dare I say it? — fun.

2. Law and Order: College Application Essays Unit

best college essay topics reddit

I would imagine that would be a pretty terrifying read. Quick, teach her to use her powers for the forces of good!

3. The Legendary Hugh Gallagher Essay

best college essay topics reddit

You may already be familiar with this one, but for the curious, here's the story behind it: Humorist, writer, and musician Hugh Gallagher penned the glorious satiric creation excerpted here for Scholastic Press' national writing contest when he was in high school. Unsurprisingly, he won. For some years, there was confusion surrounding whether or not he actually used it as his college essay; in 1998, though, Gallagher emailed University of York comp sci professor Susan Stepney , who had posted the essay on her website, noting that he did in fact send it along with his applications. For the curious, he ultimately attended NYU. Here's the permalink for the full comment — it's worth just for the final line. Trust me.

4. The Power of the Mighty Trombone

best college essay topics reddit

I was unable to discern whether or not this one actually happened or whether it's just an urban legend — but I'm willing to bet it's the latter. Either way, though, I think it's a terrible way to try to teach the “think outside the box” lesson; I feel like it encourages laziness more than anything else. But maybe that's just me.

5. How to Get Into Yale

best college essay topics reddit

That, though? That's pretty funny. Well played.

6. The Key to Effective Multitasking

best college essay topics reddit

Here's the thing with writing humorous college application essays: They only work if you're actually… y'know… funny. I feel like maybe the right person might have been able to make this idea work, but the execution of the idea this time around just wasn't up to par. However, this also happened:

best college essay topics reddit

Small world, no?

7. Art History Is Best History

best college essay topics reddit

Either the admissions officers loved it, or they didn't actually read it. The jury's still out on which one it is.

8. We Are Gathered Here Today…

best college essay topics reddit

To be fair, I'm not totally sure what's to be gained by sending your own obituary as a college essay; unless the prompt was something like, “Write whatever you want, as long as it is at least 500 words long,” it doesn't seem like it would really answer any questions the admissions committee might be relying on the essay to fill them in about. At the same time, though, clearly someone could have used a little Journalism 101.

9. An Act of Valor

best college essay topics reddit

This one was copied from another thread and pasted in this one , but I think it's definitely a winner.

10. The Importance of Proofreading

best college essay topics reddit

Ouch. Just… ouch.

11. The Legacies

best college essay topics reddit

Oh, come on. I wouldn't blame these two for using their legacy to help them get a leg up — but relying solely on it like this? That's cheating. Also, shame on the school that let them get away with it.

12. Hardboiled Washington

best college essay topics reddit

I hope this Redditor is planning on studying creative writing. You've got a great future ahead of you, kid — even if you do need a little work with your punctuation and grammar.

Images: churl /Flickr; Giphy (2); Pandawhale

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What I’ve Learned From My Students’ College Essays

The genre is often maligned for being formulaic and melodramatic, but it’s more important than you think.

An illustration of a high school student with blue hair, dreaming of what to write in their college essay.

By Nell Freudenberger

Most high school seniors approach the college essay with dread. Either their upbringing hasn’t supplied them with several hundred words of adversity, or worse, they’re afraid that packaging the genuine trauma they’ve experienced is the only way to secure their future. The college counselor at the Brooklyn high school where I’m a writing tutor advises against trauma porn. “Keep it brief , ” she says, “and show how you rose above it.”

I started volunteering in New York City schools in my 20s, before I had kids of my own. At the time, I liked hanging out with teenagers, whom I sometimes had more interesting conversations with than I did my peers. Often I worked with students who spoke English as a second language or who used slang in their writing, and at first I was hung up on grammar. Should I correct any deviation from “standard English” to appeal to some Wizard of Oz behind the curtains of a college admissions office? Or should I encourage students to write the way they speak, in pursuit of an authentic voice, that most elusive of literary qualities?

In fact, I was missing the point. One of many lessons the students have taught me is to let the story dictate the voice of the essay. A few years ago, I worked with a boy who claimed to have nothing to write about. His life had been ordinary, he said; nothing had happened to him. I asked if he wanted to try writing about a family member, his favorite school subject, a summer job? He glanced at his phone, his posture and expression suggesting that he’d rather be anywhere but in front of a computer with me. “Hobbies?” I suggested, without much hope. He gave me a shy glance. “I like to box,” he said.

I’ve had this experience with reluctant writers again and again — when a topic clicks with a student, an essay can unfurl spontaneously. Of course the primary goal of a college essay is to help its author get an education that leads to a career. Changes in testing policies and financial aid have made applying to college more confusing than ever, but essays have remained basically the same. I would argue that they’re much more than an onerous task or rote exercise, and that unlike standardized tests they are infinitely variable and sometimes beautiful. College essays also provide an opportunity to learn precision, clarity and the process of working toward the truth through multiple revisions.

When a topic clicks with a student, an essay can unfurl spontaneously.

Even if writing doesn’t end up being fundamental to their future professions, students learn to choose language carefully and to be suspicious of the first words that come to mind. Especially now, as college students shoulder so much of the country’s ethical responsibility for war with their protest movement, essay writing teaches prospective students an increasingly urgent lesson: that choosing their own words over ready-made phrases is the only reliable way to ensure they’re thinking for themselves.

Teenagers are ideal writers for several reasons. They’re usually free of preconceptions about writing, and they tend not to use self-consciously ‘‘literary’’ language. They’re allergic to hypocrisy and are generally unfiltered: They overshare, ask personal questions and call you out for microaggressions as well as less egregious (but still mortifying) verbal errors, such as referring to weed as ‘‘pot.’’ Most important, they have yet to put down their best stories in a finished form.

I can imagine an essay taking a risk and distinguishing itself formally — a poem or a one-act play — but most kids use a more straightforward model: a hook followed by a narrative built around “small moments” that lead to a concluding lesson or aspiration for the future. I never get tired of working with students on these essays because each one is different, and the short, rigid form sometimes makes an emotional story even more powerful. Before I read Javier Zamora’s wrenching “Solito,” I worked with a student who had been transported by a coyote into the U.S. and was reunited with his mother in the parking lot of a big-box store. I don’t remember whether this essay focused on specific skills or coping mechanisms that he gained from his ordeal. I remember only the bliss of the parent-and-child reunion in that uninspiring setting. If I were making a case to an admissions officer, I would suggest that simply being able to convey that experience demonstrates the kind of resilience that any college should admire.

The essays that have stayed with me over the years don’t follow a pattern. There are some narratives on very predictable topics — living up to the expectations of immigrant parents, or suffering from depression in 2020 — that are moving because of the attention with which the student describes the experience. One girl determined to become an engineer while watching her father build furniture from scraps after work; a boy, grieving for his mother during lockdown, began taking pictures of the sky.

If, as Lorrie Moore said, “a short story is a love affair; a novel is a marriage,” what is a college essay? Every once in a while I sit down next to a student and start reading, and I have to suppress my excitement, because there on the Google Doc in front of me is a real writer’s voice. One of the first students I ever worked with wrote about falling in love with another girl in dance class, the absolute magic of watching her move and the terror in the conflict between her feelings and the instruction of her religious middle school. She made me think that college essays are less like love than limerence: one-sided, obsessive, idiosyncratic but profound, the first draft of the most personal story their writers will ever tell.

Nell Freudenberger’s novel “The Limits” was published by Knopf last month. She volunteers through the PEN America Writers in the Schools program.

Your Best College Essay

Maybe you love to write, or maybe you don’t. Either way, there’s a chance that the thought of writing your college essay is making you sweat. No need for nerves! We’re here to give you the important details on how to make the process as anxiety-free as possible.

student's hands typing on a laptop in class

What's the College Essay?

When we say “The College Essay” (capitalization for emphasis – say it out loud with the capitals and you’ll know what we mean) we’re talking about the 550-650 word essay required by most colleges and universities. Prompts for this essay can be found on the college’s website, the Common Application, or the Coalition Application. We’re not talking about the many smaller supplemental essays you might need to write in order to apply to college. Not all institutions require the essay, but most colleges and universities that are at least semi-selective do.

How do I get started?

Look for the prompts on whatever application you’re using to apply to schools (almost all of the time – with a few notable exceptions – this is the Common Application). If one of them calls out to you, awesome! You can jump right in and start to brainstorm. If none of them are giving you the right vibes, don’t worry. They’re so broad that almost anything you write can fit into one of the prompts after you’re done. Working backwards like this is totally fine and can be really useful!

What if I have writer's block?

You aren’t alone. Staring at a blank Google Doc and thinking about how this is the one chance to tell an admissions officer your story can make you freeze. Thinking about some of these questions might help you find the right topic:

  • What is something about you that people have pointed out as distinctive?
  • If you had to pick three words to describe yourself, what would they be? What are things you’ve done that demonstrate these qualities?
  • What’s something about you that has changed over your years in high school? How or why did it change?
  • What’s something you like most about yourself?
  • What’s something you love so much that you lose track of the rest of the world while you do it?

If you’re still stuck on a topic, ask your family members, friends, or other trusted adults: what’s something they always think about when they think about you? What’s something they think you should be proud of? They might help you find something about yourself that you wouldn’t have surfaced on your own.  

How do I grab my reader's attention?

It’s no secret that admissions officers are reading dozens – and sometimes hundreds – of essays every day. That can feel like a lot of pressure to stand out. But if you try to write the most unique essay in the world, it might end up seeming forced if it’s not genuinely you. So, what’s there to do? Our advice: start your essay with a story. Tell the reader about something you’ve done, complete with sensory details, and maybe even dialogue. Then, in the second paragraph, back up and tell us why this story is important and what it tells them about you and the theme of the essay.

THE WORD LIMIT IS SO LIMITING. HOW DO I TELL A COLLEGE MY WHOLE LIFE STORY IN 650 WORDS?

Don’t! Don’t try to tell an admissions officer about everything you’ve loved and done since you were a child. Instead, pick one or two things about yourself that you’re hoping to get across and stick to those. They’ll see the rest on the activities section of your application.

I'M STUCK ON THE CONCLUSION. HELP?

If you can’t think of another way to end the essay, talk about how the qualities you’ve discussed in your essays have prepared you for college. Try to wrap up with a sentence that refers back to the story you told in your first paragraph, if you took that route.

SHOULD I PROOFREAD MY ESSAY?

YES, proofread the essay, and have a trusted adult proofread it as well. Know that any suggestions they give you are coming from a good place, but make sure they aren’t writing your essay for you or putting it into their own voice. Admissions officers want to hear the voice of you, the applicant. Before you submit your essay anywhere, our number one advice is to read it out loud to yourself. When you read out loud you’ll catch small errors you may not have noticed before, and hear sentences that aren’t quite right.

ANY OTHER ADVICE?

Be yourself. If you’re not a naturally serious person, don’t force formality. If you’re the comedian in your friend group, go ahead and be funny. But ultimately, write as your authentic (and grammatically correct) self and trust the process.

And remember, thousands of other students your age are faced with this same essay writing task, right now. You can do it!

IMAGES

  1. 24 Greatest College Essay Examples

    best college essay topics reddit

  2. 21 College Essay Topics & Ideas That Worked

    best college essay topics reddit

  3. 150+ Captivating College Essay Topics To Deal With

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  4. 011 Best College Essay Topics Student Sample ~ Thatsnotus

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  5. 🏷️ Good college essay topics examples. College Essay Topics to Inspire

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  6. 24 Greatest College Essay Examples

    best college essay topics reddit

VIDEO

  1. How to Choose the BEST College Essay Topic (pt. 1)

  2. Finding the BEST College Essay Topics (pt. 2)

  3. AVOID These College Essay Topics

  4. 6 college essay ideas #collegeprep

  5. The WORST college essay topics

  6. Essay help college I The best college essay

COMMENTS

  1. My World-Ending Guide to the College Essay : r/ApplyingToCollege

    Generally, college essays fall into one of three categories - (1) the common application general essay, (2) the supplemental essay, and (3) various scholarship essays. (More on these different types in a moment.) No matter which type you're writing, though, college application essays tend to place you, the writer, in the spotlight.

  2. 21 College Essay Topics & Ideas That Worked

    Here's a list of essay topics and ideas that worked for my one-on-one students: Essay Topic: My Allergies Inspired Me. After nearly dying from anaphylactic shock at five years old, I began a journey healing my anxiety and understanding the PTSD around my allergies. This created a passion for medicine and immunology, and now I want to become ...

  3. 53 Stellar College Essay Topics to Inspire You

    Once you've chosen a general topic to write about, get out a piece of paper and get to work on creating a list of all the key details you could include in your essay. These could be things such as the following: Emotions you felt at the time. Names, places, and/or numbers. Dialogue, or what you or someone else said.

  4. Argumentative Essay Writing Guide: Crafting a Persuasive Argument

    Writing an argumentative essay can be a compelling and intellectually stimulating task. It allows you to present a well-reasoned case on a particular issue, persuading your readers to consider your perspective. However, crafting a compelling argumentative essay requires careful planning, research, and writing. This guide provides a step-by-step ...

  5. Choosing Your College Essay Topic

    Choosing Your College Essay Topic | Ideas & Examples. Published on October 25, 2021 by Kirsten Courault. Revised on July 3, 2023. A strong essay topic sets you up to write a unique, memorable college application essay. Your topic should be personal, original, and specific. Take time to brainstorm the right topic for you.

  6. 5 Awesome College Essay Topics + Sample Essays

    Awesome College Essay Topics + Sample Essays. The truth is that a "good" college essay topic varies by individual, as it really depends on your life experiences. That being said, there are some topics that should work well for most people, and they are: 1. A unique extracurricular activity or passion.

  7. 19 College Essay Topics and Prompts

    1. Be considerate with humor. Showing off your sense of humor lets your personality show through your words and can make reading the essay more entertaining. Try including a few sentences that you think will bring a smile to the reader's face, or use adjectives to insert some colorful comedy. 2.

  8. 177 College Essay Examples for 11 Schools + Expert Analysis

    Technique #1: humor. Notice Renner's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks their younger self's grand ambitions (this is different from the more sarcastic kind of humor used by Stephen in the first essay—you could never mistake one writer for the other). My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver.

  9. How to Come Up With Great College Essay Ideas

    Use the magic power of time. One of the best things you can do with your stack of college essay topics is to forget about them. Put them away for a couple of days so that you create a little mental space. When you come back to everything you wrote after a day or two, you will get the chance to read it with fresh eyes.

  10. What If I Don't Have Anything Interesting To Write About In My College

    Identifying an experience that exemplifies that value or fundamental truth. Writing a thoughtful essay that uses your "uninteresting" experience to say something interesting about yourself. 1. Get the Ball Rolling. There are many different practices you might find useful as you start brainstorming your college essay.

  11. 52 Argumentative Essay Ideas that are Actually Interesting

    Coming up with an essay topic can be the hardest part of the process. You have very likely encountered argumentative essay writing in high school and have been asked to write your own. If you're having trouble finding a topic, we've created a list of 52 essay ideas to help jumpstart your brainstorming process!

  12. College Essay Examples

    Essay 1: Sharing an identity or background through a montage. Essay 2: Overcoming a challenge, a sports injury narrative. Essay 3: Showing the influence of an important person or thing. Other interesting articles. Frequently asked questions about college application essays.

  13. 100 Best College Essay Topics & How to Pick the Perfect One!

    Here is a list of top persuasive essay topics for college: 1. The importance of arts education in schools. 2. Why volunteering should be part of the college curriculum. 3. The benefits of bilingual education. 4. The necessity of making public transport free.

  14. T50 US Cities With T50 Colleges : r/ApplyingToCollege

    Pittsburgh, PA #36: Carnegie Mellon (#24) Washington DC #44: Georgetown (#22) San Diego, CA #46: UCSD (#28) Nashville, TN #50: Vanderbilt (#18) Edit: Removed Raleigh, San Francisco, and South bend due to apparent subjectivity and consistency issues. In the spirit of objectivity every college in this list is now in their respective city limits.

  15. 11 Cliché College Essay Topics + How to Fix Them

    9. Your religious institution or faith. Religion is generally a very tricky topic, and it's difficult to cover it in an original way in your essay. Writing about your faith and reflecting on it critically can work, but basic religious essays about why your faith is important to you are a little more cliché.

  16. The Most Memorable College Admissions Essays Reddit Has Ever ...

    2. Law and Order: College Application Essays Unit. I would imagine that would be a pretty terrifying read. Quick, teach her to use her powers for the forces of good! 3. The Legendary Hugh ...

  17. What I've Learned From My Students' College Essays

    May 14, 2024. Most high school seniors approach the college essay with dread. Either their upbringing hasn't supplied them with several hundred words of adversity, or worse, they're afraid ...

  18. Your Best College Essay

    When we say "The College Essay" (capitalization for emphasis - say it out loud with the capitals and you'll know what we mean) we're talking about the 550-650 word essay required by most colleges and universities. Prompts for this essay can be found on the college's website, the Common Application, or the Coalition Application.

  19. Does It Really Matter Where You Go To College? Financially, It ...

    According to U.S. News & World Report, Ivy League graduates with approximately three years of professional experience earned a median annual salary of $86,025 in 2022, compared to graduates of ...