Choosing Your College Essay Topic | Ideas & Examples
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 cliche
- 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||
|Your values and beliefs||
|Your role models||
|Your accomplishments and goals||
|Your academic and personal interests||
|Your character and qualities||
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.
|Loyalty and concern for others||
|Hard work and commitment||
|Selflessness and sacrifice||
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.
||Resilience and growth|
||Patience and empathy|
||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:
- Surprising or unexpected story arcs
- Interesting insight or connections
- An advanced writing style
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||
|Your role model||It’s not about you||
|A traumatic experience or death in the family||Negative and may seem like you’re trying to win sympathy points||
|Struggling with new life situations (moving homes, parents’ divorce)||Cliché narrative and insight||
|Becoming a better person after community service, traveling, or summer camp||Cliché narrative and insight||
Here’s a checklist you can use to confirm that your college essay topic is right for 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?
- 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
Want some extra inspiration?
During our livestream sessions, we invite students to submit their essay topics and receive live feedback from our essay coaches. Check out recordings of our past sessions: