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When you think about a topic for a compelling college admissions essay, what comes to mind? It might seem like you need to write about something exceptionally interesting and impressive, like your backpacking trip in the Amazon or that time you won the national championship in underwater basket weaving.

 

You’re not alone if you feel that the events in your everyday life are too boring or clichéd to be fodder for a really good essay. College applicants are told that, in order to be attractive to admissions committees, they need to stand out — but how can you stand out when you live a pretty ordinary life?

 

Don’t worry! You don’t need to have had a particularly extraordinary experience to write a compelling college application essay that shows off your writing skills and allows colleges to learn more about you personally. Read on for more tips on how to write a great college essay, even if you don’t feel you have anything interesting to write about.

 

Brainstorming College Essay Topics

First of all, set aside the idea that you need to write your essay about something dramatic and unusual. Even a topic that seems clichéd — for instance, a book you read, a friendship you made, or a memorable moment with your family — can make for an excellent essay topic that shows off your communication skills as well as the personal qualities that colleges like to see. The manner in which you write about your experience is much more important than the innate value of the experience itself.

 

Colleges also understand that not everyone has access to the same set of opportunities. Your geographic location, your socioeconomic status, your family connections, and many other factors have an impact on what you can do during your high school years. Admissions officers certainly aren’t going to penalize you if, for instance, you haven’t had the chance to travel the world, or you couldn’t afford to take part in certain activities.

 

While writing your essay on an unusual topic may make you stand out to some extent in the applicant pool, college admissions isn’t simply a contest where the person who has had the most exciting experiences wins. In fact, even if you have had an extraordinary experience, you may not want to make it the topic of your college essay if it doesn’t fit the prompt or reveal much of significance about you.

 

What makes an appropriate essay topic?

If your essay topic doesn’t have to be an unusual or exceptional experience you’ve had, then what can it be? The most general answer to that question is that your essay can be about almost anything, as long as it fits the prompt you’ve chosen or been given.

 

In some sense, it’s easier to say which topics you shouldn’t use for your college application essay. Obviously, you should avoid any statements that could be construed as being racist, sexist, classist, or otherwise prejudiced toward any group of people. Not only will statements like these reflect poorly on your character, but you also never know who will end up reading your application — they could be a member of the very group you’re speaking against.

 

You should also avoid essay topics that involve obscene language, illegal activities, violence, or graphic subjects. While writing a strong essay about one of these topics may be theoretically possible, it’s extremely difficult, and attempting to do so is generally not successful. If you’re considering writing about anything that could be considered controversial, keep in mind that the people reading your application may very well disagree with you completely, so don’t make personal attacks on or assumptions about those with different opinions.

 

In addition, you should be aware that under certain circumstances, colleges may be required to report certain crimes, such as child abuse, if they are divulged in an essay or elsewhere in the application. See our post on Notre Dame University for an example of one such policy.

 

Beyond these boundaries, however, the range of possible topics on which you could potentially write a great essay is extremely broad. Obviously, we at CollegeVine can’t describe every single possible topic; however, we can offer some advice on where to look for an essay topic that will allow you to write a compelling essay offering a window into your personality and life experiences.

 

As for any essay or paper, there are a variety of practices you might find useful when you start brainstorming about college application essay topics, including freewriting, listing, outlines, and many more. You may have learned about some of these in an English or writing class in the past, and your English teacher may be able to help you use them. (Take a look at the CollegeVine blog post Whom Should I Ask For Help With My College Essay? for more information about who might have useful input.)

 

Don’t feel restricted by the boundaries of brainstorming exercises; they’re meant to provide you with a broad pool of possible topics that you can refine later, so you can feel free to write down any ideas that spring to mind. In addition, check out the CollegeVine blog post Where to Begin? Three Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises for some specific suggestions on how to brainstorm for your college essay.

 

Here are some questions you might consider while you’re brainstorming:

 

  • What’s the last news story you read and found interesting? This question can help you identify an issue that you are passionate about or a cause that matters a lot to you.
  • What is your proudest accomplishment so far? What about it makes you feel proud? This question can reveal what you consider most important about yourself and what you want colleges to know about you.
  • When have you been the most nervous, and why were you nervous? What was the outcome of the situation? This could cover anything from an important performance to a big test to standing up for an issue you care about.
  • What’s the most recent topic you researched on your own just for fun or self-improvement? Have you found yourself in a downward spiral of reading Wikipedia articles recently? Colleges would love to know what you found so fascinating and why.
  • What have you learned from the community you grew up in? What do you value about that community? This topic can not only make for an interesting essay, but can also give colleges some valuable background information about you.
  • When have you most recently changed your mind about something important? This topic will not only allow you to talk about an issue about which you have strong feelings, but will also allow you to present a narrative of growth about how you became the person you are today.

 

 

You can also take a look at the school-specific supplemental essay questions presented by the colleges to which you’re not applying. One of these prompts might spark an idea in your mind that would also be appropriate for the colleges to which you are applying. Check out the Essay Breakdown posts on the CollegeVine blog for a convenient way to look at this year’s essay questions for many different competitive schools.

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Choosing Your Topic

Once you have a pool of essay topic ideas, it’s time to narrow them down and pick the topic about which you’re going to write — but if you have several promising topic ideas, how do you choose among them? Again, you shouldn’t pick one candidate simply because it seems to be the most exciting or unique option. Rather, you should choose your topic based primarily on what subject will allow you to write the best essay.

 

In this case, the “best” essay is the one that showcases your strong writing skills, demonstrates the personal qualities (thoughtfulness, curiosity, dedication, passion, and so on) that you want colleges to see in you, and allows colleges to get to know you better on a different level from the rest of your application.

 

The topic you initially like the most may not be the one that allows you to write the best possible essay. Of course, you’re likely to write a better essay on a topic in which you have a strong interest, but there is some strategy involved in choosing a topic as well.

 

A thoughtful and well-written essay on a topic that might initially seem more mundane will benefit you far more than a dull or poorly-written essay on a more exciting-sounding topic. Choosing an unusual experience you’ve had as your essay subject may even tempt you to let the experience itself do the legwork, rather than using that subject as a vehicle to tell colleges more about who you are as a person.

 

If you can find meaning and significance in a small incident, that can be incredibly compelling for your readers. Drawing from your ordinary experiences to illustrate a larger point will make your essay all the more personal and revealing. Remember, the value of your essay is much more in how you write about your experiences than what experiences you write about.

 

A final note on choosing your essay topic: You don’t necessarily need to be absolutely committed to a topic right away. If it becomes clear after you start outlining or writing that your chosen topic isn’t going to work as well as you would like, there’s nothing wrong with starting over with a new topic.

 

Feel free to go back to your brainstormed pool of topics, or even to come up with something new entirely. Just make sure that you have enough time left to develop and edit your new essay appropriately. This is all the more reason to start the essay writing process early — if your topic ends up not working out, you’ll still have time to try a different approach.

 

Making Your Topic Shine

Once you’ve selected a topic, you need to figure out how to develop an essay from it that is technically skillful, compelling to the reader, and true to the vision of yourself that you’re working to portray in your application.

 

If you’re worried that your essay topic is not interesting or exciting enough on its own, you may be extra concerned about how to build a strong essay upon that topic. In reality, however, everyone — no matter how interesting or exciting their choice of topic might seem — should take great care in planning how they’re going to develop their basic topic statement into a full-fledged essay.

 

To write a truly effective college essay, you’ll need to focus not on depicting and describing an event or issue in your life, but on expressing your personal experience or perspective in an interesting manner. The value of the experience and the point in writing about it lies not necessarily in what happened, but how it affected you, and in how you analyze and consider that effect.

 

Details are quite important here, as they’ll bring life and context to your story. Vivid and evocative details can turn an essay on a seemingly mundane topic into something truly fascinating. The details you choose to leave out are equally important; you’ll be working with a word-count limit, and it’s important that your essay be concise and readable rather than wordy and overwrought.

 

You’ll also need to make sure that your essay clearly develops the themes that you intend for it to develop. Relating an experience, ordinary or extraordinary, isn’t enough on its own; you have to be thoughtful about the experience and show why this experience is important enough to you to be worth inspiring your college essay.

 

The key to writing a strong college application essay is in your delivery. With skillful writing, powerful word choice, and a good sense of how to develop a fragment of an idea into a longer piece of writing, you can make any topic, no matter how “uninteresting” it may seem, into an exploration of issues important to you and a showcase of your skills as a communicator.

 

Will your essay make or break your college application?

It depends. You can take a look at our CollegeVine blog post How Important is the College Essay? for a more detailed discussion of the importance of the essay as compared to other parts of your application.

 

Briefly, however, a brilliant essay can’t make up for severe deficiencies in your academic qualifications, but it may have an impact otherwise, particularly at a smaller or more competitive school. If you’re on the borderline, a great essay may tip the balance toward admission. An essay that’s clearly carelessly written, inappropriate, or full of technical errors can hurt your chances of admission even if you do have great qualifications.

 

The bottom line is that, just as with every other part of your college application, colleges will need to see that you’ve taken the task seriously and put in your best effort. Managing your time properly is important, and you can’t work on one essay forever, but if you get started early, you should be able to put enough time into developing, writing, and editing your essay to make it a piece of writing of which you’re truly proud.

 

For more information about choosing and developing a college application essay topic, you can check out the CollegeVine blog for tips and tricks. Our Essay Breakdown posts about how to write the school-specific essays for various top schools contain a wealth of good ideas.

 

If you’re applying to colleges using the Common Application and need to complete one of its essay questions, CollegeVine has your back. Our admissions experts have analyzed each of the five Common Application essay prompts in the posts below, where you can find detailed advice on how to respond to each prompt.

 

 

If you’re applying using the Coalition Application (CAAS), we have you covered as well with our post How to Write the Coalition Application Essays 2016-2017.

 

CollegeVine’s admissions advisors can help you with all aspects of the application process, including developing and editing your college essay. With a fee structure that’s more affordable than those of most companies that offer college application assistance, we’re committed to helping a broader range of high school students access the resources they need to navigate the increasingly competitive world of college admissions.

 

Still have questions about filling out the Common Application? Check out our blog post How to Write the Common Application Essays 2017-2018.

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Monikah Schuschu

Monikah Schuschu

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.
Monikah Schuschu