Lily Fang 16 min read 12th Grade, Essay Tips

5 Awesome College Essay Topics + Sample Essays

Finding a great college essay topic is one of the most stressful parts of the essay writing process. How is it possible to accurately represent your life and personality in one essay? How can you tell if a topic will do your story justice, or if it’ll end up hurting your application?

 

While a good essay topic varies from one person to another, there are some general guidelines you should follow when picking a topic. In this post, we’ll go over the commonalities of a good college essay topic, and we’ll share five original topics and sample essays to inspire your writing.

 

What Makes a Good College Essay Topic?

 

College essays are meant to provide admissions officers with a better idea of who you are beyond your quantitative achievements. It’s your chance to share your voice, personality, and story.

 

A good essay topic will do the following:

 

Answers the 4 core questions. These questions are:

 

  1. “Who Am I?”
  2. “Why Am I Here?”
  3. “What is Unique About Me?”
  4. “What Matters to Me?”

 

At its core, your essay should show who you are, how you got there, and where you’re going. 

 

Is deeply personal. The best essay topics allow you to be raw and vulnerable. You don’t need to bare your soul and tell your deepest secrets, but you should share your thoughts and emotions in your essay. A good essay should make the reader feel something—whether that’s your joy, embarrassment, panic, defeat, confidence, or determination.

 

Is original, or approaches a common topic in an original way. Admissions officers read a lot of essays about the same old topics. Some of those cliches include: a sports injury, person you admire, tragedy, or working hard in a challenging class. While it’s possible to write a good essay on a common topic, it’s much harder to do so, and you may lose the admissions officer’s attention early on. 

 

Try to find a topic that goes beyond traditional archetypes to make yourself truly stand out. You could also take a cliche topic but develop it in a different way. For example, the standard storyline of the sports injury essay is that you got hurt, were upset you couldn’t participate, but then worked hard and overcame that injury. Instead, you could write about how you got injured, and used that time off to develop a new interest, such as coding. 

 

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 

 

Writing about an extracurricular activity is not a unique essay topic, and it’s actually a common supplemental essay prompt. If you have an unconventional activity, however, the essay is the perfect opportunity to showcase and elaborate upon that interest. Less common activities are less familiar to admissions officers, so some extra context can be helpful in understanding how that activity worked, and how much it meant to you.

 

For example, here’s a sample essay about a student who played competitive bridge, and what the activity taught them:

 

The room was silent except for the thoughts racing through my head. I led a spade from my hand and my opponent paused for a second, then played a heart. The numbers ran through my mind as I tried to consider every combination, calculating my next move. Finally, I played the ace of spades from the dummy and the rest of my clubs, securing the contract and 620 points when my partner ruffed at trick five. Next board.

 

It was the final of the 2015 United States Bridge Federation Under-26 Women’s Championship. The winning team would be selected to represent the United States in the world championship and my team was still in the running.

 

Contract bridge is a strategic and stochastic card game. Players from around the world gather at local clubs, regional events, and, in this case, national tournaments.

 

Going into the tournament, my team was excited; all the hours we had put into the game, from the lengthy midnight Skype sessions spent discussing boards to the coffee shop meetings spent memorizing conventions together, were about to pay off.

 

Halfway through, our spirits were still high, as we were only down by fourteen international match points which, out of the final total of about four hundred points, was virtually nothing and it was very feasible to catch up. Our excitement was short-lived, however, as sixty boards later, we found that we had lost the match and would not be chosen as the national team.

 

Initially, we were devastated. We had come so close and it seemed as if all the hours we had devoted to training had been utterly wasted. Yet as our team spent some time together reflecting upon the results, we gradually realized that the true value that we had gained wasn’t only the prospect of winning the national title, but also the time we had spent together exploring our shared passion. I chatted with the winning team and even befriended a few of them who offered us encouragement and advice.

 

Throughout my bridge career, although I’ve gained a respectable amount of masterpoints and awards, I’ve realized that the real reward comes from the extraordinary people I have met. I don’t need to travel cross-country to learn; every time I sit down at a table whether it be during a simple club game, a regional tournament or a national event, I find I’m always learning. 

 

I nod at the pair that’s always yelling at each other. They teach me the importance of sportsmanship and forgiveness.

 

I greet the legally blind man who can defeat most of the seeing players. He reminds me not to make excuses.

 

I chat with the friendly, elderly couple who, at ages ninety and ninety-two, have just gotten married two weeks ago. They teach me that it’s never too late to start anything.

 

I talk to the boy who’s attending Harvard and the girl who forewent college to start her own company. They show me that there is more than one path to success.

 

I congratulate the little kid running to his dad, excited to have won his very first masterpoints. He reminds me of the thrill of every first time and to never stop trying new things.

 

Just as much as I have benefitted from these life lessons, I aspire to give back to my bridge community as much as it has given me. I aspire to teach people how to play this complicated yet equally as exciting game. I aspire to never stop improving myself, both at and away from the bridge table.

 

Bridge has given me my roots and dared me to dream. What started as merely a hobby has become a community, a passion, a part of my identity. I aspire to live selflessly and help others reach their goals. I seek to take risks, embrace all results, even failure, and live unfettered from my own doubt.

 

2. An activity or interest that contrasts heavily with your profile

 

The essays are also a great way to highlight different aspects of who you are, and also explain any aspects of your profile that might not “make sense.” For instance, if your extracurriculars are heavily STEM-focused, but you have one theatre-related activity you care a lot about, you might want to write an essay on theatre to add an extra dimension to your application. Admissions officers actually love when students have a “contrast profile,” or well-developed interests in two disparate fields. This is because they see a lot of well-rounded and specialized students, so students with contrast profiles offer something refreshingly unique.

 

Here’s a sample essay written by an athlete who is also an accomplished poet. The piece focuses upon the student’s contrasting identities, and how they eventually come to feel proud of both identities.

 

When I was younger, I was adamant that no two foods on my plate touch. As a result, I often used a second plate to prevent such an atrocity. In many ways, I learned to separate different things this way from my older brothers, Nate and Rob. Growing up, I idolized both of them. Nate was a performer, and I insisted on arriving early to his shows to secure front row seats, refusing to budge during intermission for fear of missing anything. Rob was a three-sport athlete, and I attended his games religiously, waving worn-out foam cougar paws and cheering until my voice was hoarse. My brothers were my role models. However, while each was talented, neither was interested in the other’s passion. To me, they represented two contrasting ideals of what I could become: artist or athlete. I believed I had to choose.

 

And for a long time, I chose athlete. I played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse and viewed myself exclusively as an athlete, believing the arts were not for me. I conveniently overlooked that since the age of five, I had been composing stories for my family for Christmas, gifts that were as much for me as them, as I loved writing. So when in tenth grade, I had the option of taking a creative writing class, I was faced with a question: could I be an athlete and a writer? After much debate, I enrolled in the class, feeling both apprehensive and excited. When I arrived on the first day of school, my teacher, Ms. Jenkins, asked us to write down our expectations for the class. After a few minutes, eraser shavings stubbornly sunbathing on my now-smudged paper, I finally wrote, “I do not expect to become a published writer from this class. I just want this to be a place where I can write freely.”

 

Although the purpose of the class never changed for me, on the third “submission day,” – our time to submit writing to upcoming contests and literary magazines – I faced a predicament. For the first two submission days, I had passed the time editing earlier pieces, eventually (pretty quickly) resorting to screen snake when hopelessness made the words look like hieroglyphics. I must not have been as subtle as I thought, as on the third of these days, Ms. Jenkins approached me. After shifting from excuse to excuse as to why I did not submit my writing, I finally recognized the real reason I had withheld my work: I was scared. I did not want to be different, and I did not want to challenge not only others’ perceptions of me, but also my own. I yielded to Ms. Jenkin’s pleas and sent one of my pieces to an upcoming contest.

 

By the time the letter came, I had already forgotten about the contest. When the flimsy white envelope arrived in the mail, I was shocked and ecstatic to learn that I had received 2nd place in a nationwide writing competition. The next morning, however, I discovered Ms. Jenkins would make an announcement to the whole school exposing me as a poet. I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me. I have since seen more boys at my school identifying themselves as writers or artists.

 

I no longer see myself as an athlete and a poet independently, but rather I see these two aspects forming a single inseparable identity – me. Despite their apparent differences, these two disciplines are quite similar, as each requires creativity and devotion. I am still a poet when I am lacing up my cleats for soccer practice and still an athlete when I am building metaphors in the back of my mind – and I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.

3. A seemingly insignificant moment that speaks to larger themes within your life 

 

Writing an essay on a seemingly mundane moment is unexpected, so that should grab the attention of the reader in almost a backwards way. You’ll make them wonder where the essay is going, and why you chose to write about that moment. From there, you can use that moment as an avenue to discuss important elements of your identity. 

 

In this sample essay, a student details her experience failing to make a fire from sticks, and how it leads her to reflect on how her former passion (or “fire”) for the outdoors is now reflected in her current interests. 

 

Fire! 

 

Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the garb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears. As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire. 

 

Furiously I rubbed the twigs together—rubbed and rubbed until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers. No smoke. The twigs were too young, too sticky-green; I tossed them away with a shower of curses, and began tearing through the underbrush in search of a more flammable collection. My efforts were fruitless. Livid, I bit a rejected twig, determined to prove that the forest had spurned me, offering only young, wet bones that would never burn. But the wood cracked like carrots between my teeth—old, brittle, and bitter. Roaring and nursing my aching palms, I retreated to the tent, where I sulked and awaited the jeers of my family. 

 

Rattling their empty worm cans and reeking of fat fish, my brother and cousins swaggered into the campsite. Immediately, they noticed the minor stick massacre by the fire pit and called to me, their deep voices already sharp with contempt. 

 

“Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” they taunted. “Having some trouble?” They prodded me with the ends of the chewed branches and, with a few effortless scrapes of wood on rock, sparked a red and roaring flame. My face burned long after I left the fire pit. The camp stank of salmon and shame. 

 

In the tent, I pondered my failure. Was I so dainty? Was I that incapable? I thought of my hands, how calloused and capable they had been, how tender and smooth they had become. It had been years since I’d kneaded mud between my fingers; instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano, my hands softening into those of a musician—fleshy and sensitive. And I’d gotten glasses, having grown horrifically nearsighted; long nights of dim lighting and thick books had done this. I couldn’t remember the last time I had lain down on a hill, barefaced, and seen the stars without having to squint. Crawling along the edge of the tent, a spider confirmed my transformation—he disgusted me, and I felt an overwhelming urge to squash him. 

 

Yet, I realized I hadn’t really changed—I had only shifted perspective. I still eagerly explored new worlds, but through poems and prose rather than pastures and puddles. I’d grown to prefer the boom of a bass over that of a bullfrog, learned to coax a different kind of fire from wood, having developed a burn for writing rhymes and scrawling hypotheses. 

 

That night, I stayed up late with my journal and wrote about the spider I had decided not to kill. I had tolerated him just barely, only shrieking when he jumped—it helped to watch him decorate the corners of the tent with his delicate webs, knowing that he couldn’t start fires, either. When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.

 

4. Using an everyday experience or object as a metaphor to explore your life and personality 

 

Using an everyday experience as a vehicle to explore your identity is also intriguing in an unexpected way. You’d be surprised at how many everyday routines and objects naturally lend themselves to a unique glance into your life. Some of those things might be: a familiar drive, your running shoes, a recipe from your grandmother, walking to your guitar lesson.

 

This topic also is a strong choice if you have a descriptive, artful writing style. It allows you to get creative with the transitions from the everyday experience to larger reflections on your life.

 

Here’s an example of a student who chose to write about showers, all while showcasing their personality and unique aspects of their life. 

 

Scalding hot water cascades over me, crashing to the ground in a familiar, soothing rhythm. Steam rises to the ceiling as dried sweat and soap suds swirl down the drain. The water hisses as it hits my skin, far above the safe temperature for a shower. The pressure is perfect on my tired muscles, easing the aches and bruises from a rough bout of sparring and the tension from a long, stressful day. The noise from my overactive mind dies away, fading into music, lyrics floating through my head. Black streaks stripe the inside of my left arm, remnants of the penned reminders of homework, money owed and forms due. 

 

It lacks the same dynamism and controlled intensity of sparring on the mat at taekwondo or the warm tenderness of a tight hug from my father, but it’s still a cocoon of safety as the water washes away the day’s burdens. As long as the hot water is running, the rest of the world ceases to exist, shrinking to me, myself and I. The shower curtain closes me off from the hectic world spinning around me. 

 

Much like the baths of Blanche DuBois, my hot showers are a means of cleansing and purifying (though I’m mostly just ridding myself of the germs from children at work sneezing on me). In the midst of a hot shower, there is no impending exam to study for, no newspaper deadline to meet, no paycheck to deposit. It is simply complete and utter peace, a safe haven. The steam clears my mind even as it clouds my mirror. 

 

Creativity thrives in the tub, breathing life into tales of dragons and warrior princesses that evolve only in my head, never making their way to paper but appeasing the childlike dreamer and wannabe author in me all the same. That one calculus problem that has seemed unsolvable since second period clicks into place as I realize the obvious solution. The perfect concluding sentence to my literary analysis essay writes itself (causing me to abruptly end my shower in a mad dash to the computer before I forget it entirely).  

 

Ever since I was old enough to start taking showers unaided, I began hogging all the hot water in the house, a source of great frustration to my parents. Many of my early showers were rudely cut short by an unholy banging on the bathroom door and an order to “stop wasting water and come eat dinner before it gets cold.” After a decade of trudging up the stairs every evening to put an end to my water-wasting, my parents finally gave in, leaving me to my (expensive) showers. I imagine someday, when paying the water bill is in my hands, my showers will be shorter, but today is not that day (nor, hopefully, will the next four years be that day). 

 

Showers are better than any ibuprofen, the perfect panacea for life’s daily ailments. Headaches magically disappear as long as the water runs, though they typically return in full force afterward. The runny nose and itchy eyes courtesy of summertime allergies recede. Showers alleviate even the stomachache from a guacamole-induced lack of self-control. 

 

Honestly though, the best part about a hot shower is neither its medicinal abilities nor its blissful temporary isolation or even the heavenly warmth seeped deep into my bones. The best part is that these little moments of pure, uninhibited contentedness are a daily occurrence. No matter how stressful the day, showers ensure I always have something to look forward to. They are small moments, true, but important nonetheless, because it is the little things in life that matter; the big moments are too rare, too fleeting to make anyone truly happy. Wherever I am in the world, whatever fate chooses to throw at me, I know I can always find my peace at the end of the day behind the shower curtain. 

 

5. An in the moment narrative that tells the story of a important moment in your life

 

In the moment narrative is a powerful essay format, as your reader experiences the events, your thoughts, and your emotions with you. Students assume that your chosen moment needs to be extremely dramatic or life-altering, but the truth is that you can use this method to write about all kinds of events, from the everyday to the unexpected to the monumental. It doesn’t matter, as long as that moment was important to your development.

 

For example, this student wrote about a Model UN conference where they were asked to switch stances last minute. This might not seem like a huge moment, but this experience was meaningful to them because it showed them the importance of adaptability. 

 

The morning of the Model United Nation conference, I walked into Committee feeling confident about my research. We were simulating the Nuremberg Trials – a series of post-World War II proceedings for war crimes – and my portfolio was of the Soviet Judge Major General Iona Nikitchenko. Until that day, the infamous Nazi regime had only been a chapter in my history textbook; however, the conference’s unveiling of each defendant’s crimes brought those horrors to life. The previous night, I had organized my research, proofread my position paper and gone over Judge Nikitchenko’s pertinent statements. I aimed to find the perfect balance between his stance and my own.

 

As I walked into committee anticipating a battle of wits, my director abruptly called out to me. “I’m afraid we’ve received a late confirmation from another delegate who will be representing Judge Nikitchenko. You, on the other hand, are now the defense attorney, Otto Stahmer.” Everyone around me buzzed around the room in excitement, coordinating with their allies and developing strategies against their enemies, oblivious to the bomb that had just dropped on me. I felt frozen in my tracks, and it seemed that only rage against the careless delegate who had confirmed her presence so late could pull me out of my trance. After having spent a month painstakingly crafting my verdicts and gathering evidence against the Nazis, I now needed to reverse my stance only three hours before the first session.

 

Gradually, anger gave way to utter panic. My research was fundamental to my performance, and without it, I knew I could add little to the Trials. But confident in my ability, my director optimistically recommended constructing an impromptu defense. Nervously, I began my research anew. Despite feeling hopeless, as I read through the prosecution’s arguments, I uncovered substantial loopholes. I noticed a lack of conclusive evidence against the defendants and certain inconsistencies in testimonies. My discovery energized me, inspiring me to revisit the historical overview in my conference “Background Guide” and to search the web for other relevant articles. Some Nazi prisoners had been treated as “guilty” before their court dates. While I had brushed this information under the carpet while developing my position as a judge, it now became the focus of my defense. I began scratching out a new argument, centered on the premise that the allied countries had violated the fundamental rule that, a defendant was “not guilty” until proven otherwise.

 

At the end of the three hours, I felt better prepared. The first session began, and with bravado, I raised my placard to speak. Microphone in hand, I turned to face my audience. “Greetings delegates. I, Otto Stahmer would like to…….” I suddenly blanked. Utter dread permeated my body as I tried to recall my thoughts in vain. “Defence Attorney, Stahmer we’ll come back to you,” my Committee Director broke the silence as I tottered back to my seat, flushed with embarrassment. Despite my shame, I was undeterred. I needed to vindicate my director’s faith in me. I pulled out my notes, refocused, and began outlining my arguments in a more clear and direct manner. Thereafter, I spoke articulately, confidently putting forth my points. I was overjoyed when Secretariat members congratulated me on my fine performance.

 

Going into the conference, I believed that preparation was the key to success. I wouldn’t say I disagree with that statement now, but I believe adaptability is equally important. My ability to problem-solve in the face of an unforeseen challenge proved advantageous in the art of diplomacy. Not only did this experience transform me into a confident and eloquent delegate at that conference, but it also helped me become a more flexible and creative thinker in a variety of other capacities. Now that I know I can adapt under pressure, I look forward to engaging in activities that will push me to be even quicker on my feet.

 

Final Thoughts

 

We hope this gives you a better idea of what good essay topic looks like, and that you’re feeling inspired to write your own essay—maybe one of these topics can even apply to your own life!

 

For more guidance on your essays, see these posts:

 

How to Write the Common App Essay

What If I Don’t Have Anything Interesting to Write About in My College Essay?

Where to Begin? 6 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises

 

Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.

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Lily Fang
Blog Editor at CollegeVine
Short bio
Lily Fang is 2018 grad of Amherst College with a degree in math and French. She has called three countries “home”: the U.S., France, and England. In her spare time, she trains for marathons and writes for her travel and running blog.