How to choose your college essay topic

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.

Some topics are easier to make work than others, but it’s possible to write an exceptional essay from a common topic.

What makes a good topic?

Here are some guidelines for a good essay topic:

  • It’s focused on you and your experience
  • It shares something different from the rest of your application
  • It’s specific and original (not many students could write a similar essay)
  • It affords the opportunity to share your positive stories and qualities

In most cases, avoid topics that

  • Are cliché
  • Reflect poorly on your character and behavior
  • Deal with a challenge or traumatic experience without a lesson learned or positive outlook

Brainstorming questions to get started

Spend time reflecting on and writing out answers to the following questions. After doing this exercise, you should be able to identify a few strong topics for your college essay.

Topic category Reflection questions
Your background, identity, or talents
  • What makes you different from your classmates?
  • What makes you different from other applicants?
  • What are some objects that represent who you are, your relationships, your community, or your passions?
  • What food is important to you in some way? (This could be a family recipe, something special you enjoy on holidays, something you cook well, etc.)
  • What’s a piece of clothing that you wore to an important event or received in a special way?
Your challenges
  • What’s the biggest challenge or failure you’ve overcome? What lesson did you learn from it?
  • Is there an experience that made you think more or less of yourself or someone else?
  • What is an experience that made you “grow up”?
Your values and beliefs
  • What are your top five values? What stories demonstrate these values?
  • Have you ever changed a belief that you were previously very sure about? Who or what caused this shift?
  • When have you encountered someone with beliefs or values different from your own? How did that experience change or solidify your own beliefs?
Your role models
  • What three people have significantly impacted your life? How did they influence you?
  • Whom do you admire most? Why?
  • What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? How did you apply it to your life?
  • Who has challenged you to grow, get out of your comfort zone, and learn more?
  • What historical figure or famous person would you like to have dinner with, and why?
Your accomplishments and goals
  • What are some activities or accomplishments you’re proud of?
  • When have you demonstrated leadership at school, at home, or in your community?
  • When have you solved a difficult problem, and what was the outcome?
  • What’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you?
  • What are your goals for the future?
Your academic and personal interests
  • What’s a topic that you could give an hour-long lecture about?
  • What’s your favorite TV show or film? Why?
  • What books are special to you?
  • What are 10 things you’d take to a desert island?
  • If your life were a movie, what songs would be on the soundtrack, and why?
Your character and qualities
  • What adjectives would your friends and family use to describe you?
  • What objects do people think of when they think of you?
  • What is your real-life superpower and kryptonite?
  • What’s your “life motto”?
  • What are the top three things you want colleges to know about you?

Discover the best topic for you

Writing about yourself can be difficult. If you’re struggling to identify your topic, try these two strategies.

Start with your qualities

After identifying your positive qualities or values, brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities.

Qualities Stories
Loyalty and concern for others
  • Switching shirts with my best friend Holly in eighth grade when Tommy Harris intentionally spilled fruit punch on her during lunch
  • Taking care of my nonna on nights when she was sick from her chemo treatment
  • Walking my dog Pogo every morning and evening, rain or shine
Hard work and commitment
  • Waking up at 6:30 a.m. on Sundays to practice lines for the school musical
  • Giving up Friday nights to volunteer for the student council’s charity event
  • Working on stage sets during lunch breaks, after school, and even some weekends before opening night
Selflessness and sacrifice
  • Taking an after-school job and giving up soccer practice to help my parents pay the rent
  • Cooking and cleaning for my younger siblings while my mom worked night shifts at the restaurant
  • Giving away my weekly allowance in the church’s offering plate to help the local orphanage

Start with a story

If you already have some memorable stories in mind that you’d like to write about, think about which qualities and values you can demonstrate with those stories.

Stories Qualities
  • Doing triathlon training in mid-December
  • Overcoming the physical and emotional trauma of a car accident
  • Studying calculus despite a learning disability and finding the right support system to succeed
Resilience and growth
  • Waiting for 35 hours in JFK Airport without complaint, inventing games and stories to keep my brothers entertained
  • Remaining calm and collected while a customer yelled at me, listening to his concerns, and helping him get a refund without taking it personally
Patience and empathy
  • Learning new coding languages and coding a video game in my spare time
  • Organizing, filming, and producing Iron Chef America: Shadowbrook High Edition and getting my friends to participate in an episode where salmon was the secret ingredient
Creativity and initiative

Talk it through

To make sure you choose the right topic, ask for advice from trusted friends or family members who know you well. They can help you brainstorm ideas and remember stories, and they can give you feedback on your potential essay topics.

You can also work with a guidance counselor, teacher, or other mentor to discuss which ideas are most promising. If you plan ahead, you can even workshop multiple draft essays to see which topic works best.

How to make a common topic compelling

If you do choose a common topic, ensure you have the following to craft a unique essay:

Here are a few examples of how to craft strong essays from cliché topics.

Common topic Why it’s difficult How to make it work
Extracurricular activities Your application already lists your extracurriculars
  • Describe in vivid detail a specific, powerful moment while doing your activity. Reflect on how that experience changed your character, outlook, and goals.
  • Use the extracurricular as a backdrop for a challenging time. Show how your activity was an effective coping mechanism and taught you life lessons.
Your role model It’s not about you
  • Give a brief snapshot of your role model’s positive character and their influence on you.
  • Maintain focus throughout the rest of the essay, giving examples of your own new actions, outlook, and goals.
A traumatic experience or death in the family Negative and may seem like you’re trying to win sympathy points
  • Don’t dwell too much on the negative.
  • Spend most of the essay describing how you overcame this difficult experience, how it positively changed you, or how it taught you an important life lesson.
Struggling with new life situations (moving homes, parents’ divorce) Cliché narrative and insight
  • Choose a few specific changes that challenged you, and then detail how you adapted and thrived in the new environment.
  • Don’t fabricate a story, but search for an aspect of the event that deviates from a cliché storyline.
  • In your self-reflection, try to find a unique connection or creative insight to explain why you reacted the way you did.
Becoming a better person after community service, traveling, or summer camp Cliché narrative and insight
  • Instead of broadly writing about your entire experience, illustrate a specific person or event that impacted you.
  • Reflect on how your behavior, actions, and outlook have changed since then. Try to find a unique angle that avoids cliché insights.

Checklist

Here’s a checklist you can use to confirm that your college essay topic is right for you.

College essay topic checklist

0 / 6

Good topic!

It looks like your topic is a good choice. It's specific, it avoids clichés, and it reflects positively on you.

Frequently asked questions about college application essays

What makes a good college essay topic?

There are no foolproof college essay topics—whatever your topic, the key is to write about it effectively. However, a good topic

  • Is meaningful, specific, and personal to you
  • Focuses on you and your experiences
  • Reveals something beyond your test scores, grades, and extracurriculars
  • Is creative and original
Can I use a common topic for my college essay?

Yes—admissions officers don’t expect everyone to have a totally unique college essay topic. But you must differentiate your essay from others by having a surprising story arc, an interesting insight, and/or an advanced writing style.

How do I find my college essay topic?

To decide on a good college essay topic, spend time thoughtfully answering brainstorming questions. If you still have trouble identifying topics, try the following two strategies:

  • Identify your qualities → Brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities
  • Identify memorable stories → Connect your qualities to these stories

You can also ask family, friends, or mentors to help you brainstorm topics, give feedback on your potential essay topics, or recall key stories that showcase your qualities.

What topics should I avoid in a college essay?

Most topics are acceptable for college essays if you can use them to demonstrate personal growth or a lesson learned. However, there are a few difficult topics for college essays that should be avoided. Avoid topics that are:

  • Overly personal (e.g. graphic details of illness or injury, romantic or sexual relationships)
  • Not personal enough (e.g. broad solutions to world problems, inspiring people or things)
  • Too negative (e.g. an in-depth look at your flaws, put-downs of others, criticizing the need for a college essay)
  • Too boring (e.g. a resume of your academic achievements and extracurriculars)
  • Inappropriate for a college essay (e.g. illegal activities, offensive humor, false accounts of yourself, bragging about privilege)
    What are cliché college essay topics?

    Here’s a brief list of college essay topics that may be considered cliché:

    • Extracurriculars, especially sports
    • Role models
    • Dealing with a personal tragedy or death in the family
    • Struggling with new life situations (immigrant stories, moving homes, parents’ divorce)
    • Becoming a better person after community service, traveling, or summer camp
    • Overcoming a difficult class
    • Using a common object as an extended metaphor

    It’s easier to write a standout essay with a unique topic. However, it’s possible to make a common topic compelling with interesting story arcs, uncommon connections, and an advanced writing style.

    Is this article helpful?
    Kirsten Courault

    Kirsten studied political economy at U.C. Berkeley and has seven years of experience as a writer, editor, and English teacher. She cherishes helping students unearth their unique stories for college admissions essays.

    1 comment

    Kirsten Courault
    Kirsten Courault (Scribbr Team)
    October 25, 2021 at 12:21 PM

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