How to Choose a College Application Essay Topic

College Admissions

College application essays are your opportunity to show admissions committees who you are as a person beyond your GPA and SAT scores. They’re also an opportunity to make your application leap to the top of the pile or get lost in the middle of the stack. To make sure your essays get you noticed in a good way, you need to start with a good topic, keeping in mind this advice from Harvard: “Write about what matters to you.”

What's the best way to write an effective college admissions essay?

Some schools ask specific questions, some give broad prompts, and some provide no topic. Generally, though, you have a lot of leeway and a lot of room for creativity, even if you do have to answer a particular question. 

To start your brainstorming, try these questions:

  • What do you care about, and why?
  • What do you do? Why do you do it? What have you learned from it?
  • What do you want to do, and why? How do you plan to get there?
  • Who inspires you, and why?
  • What risks have you taken? What happened?
  • What challenges have you faced? How have you met them? 

General College Application Essay Do's and Don'ts

When you’re thinking about these questions, focus on the answers that are unique to you. Remember that you’re trying to stand out from other applicants. Write about your personal experience. Be specific about what you think, how you feel, and why your subject matters to you.

Avoid generalizations and platitudes, and don’t try to write what you think the admissions officers want to read. The University of Texas at Austin warns that approach is likely to backfire: Students who try to anticipate their readers’ expectations tend to write essays that all sound the same and are more likely to be overlooked. (Find more good tips from UT here.)

You’ll probably need some time to consider potential topics and how you could develop them before you choose. Making an outline of your essay can help you figure out before you start writing whether your topic will hold up. If you struggle to develop your point in an outline, or even if you get halfway through your essay and decide it’s not working, don’t be afraid to change your topic. Just make sure you start early enough that you have time to write a strong essay.