Writing the college application essay is a tough gig. You’ve got to be charming, personal, memorable, and insightful – all in under two pages! But I’m going to tell you a secret: half of a great personal essay is a great topic idea. If you’re passionate about what you’re writing, and if you’re truly documenting something meaningful and serious about yourself and your life, then that passion and meaning will come alive on the page and in the mind of your reader.
So how do you come up with an essay idea? The best way is to brainstorm your way to an event from your life that reveals a core truth about you. In this article, I will help you do just that. Keep reading to find 35 jumping off points that touch on every possible memory you could harness, as well as advice on how to use your brainstorming session to fully realize your idea for an essay topic.
What Makes a Great Essay Topic Great, Anyway?
What does your application tell admissions officers about you? Mostly it's just numbers and facts: your name, your high school, your grades and SAT scores. These stats would be enough if colleges were looking to build a robot army, but they aren't.
So how do they get to see a slice of the real you? How can they get a feel for the personality, character, and feelings that make you the person that you are? It's through your college essay. The essay is a way to introduce yourself to colleges in a way that displays your maturity. This is important because admissions officers want to make sure that you will thrive in the independence of college life and work.
This is why finding a great college essay topic is so hugely important: because it will allow you to demonstrate the maturity level admissions teams are looking for. This is best expressed through the ability to have insight about what has made you into you, through the ability to share some vulnerabilities or defining experiences, and through the ability to be a creative thinker and problem solver.
In other words, a great topic is an event from your past that you can narrate, draw conclusions from, explain the effect of. Most importantly, you should be able to describe how it has changed you from the kind of person you were to the better person that you are now. If you can do all that, you are well ahead of the essay game.
How Do You Know If Your College Essay Topic is Great?
Eric Maloof, the Director of International Admission at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas has a great checklist for figuring out whether you're on the right track with your essay topic. He says, if you can answer "yes" to these 2 questions, then you've got the makings of a great essay:
- Is the topic of my essay important to me?
- Am I the only person who could have written this essay?
So how do you translate this checklist into essay topic action items?
Make it personal. Write about something personal, deeply felt, and authentic to the real you (but which is not an overshare). Take a narrow slice of your life: one event, one influential person, one meaningful experience – and then you expand out from that slice into a broader explanation of yourself.
Always think about your reader. In this case, your reader is an admission officer who is slogging through hundreds of college essays. You don’t want to bore that person, and you don’t want to offend that person. Instead, you want to come across as likable and memorable.
Put the reader in the experience with you by making your narrow slice of life feel alive. This means that your writing needs to be chock-full of specific details, sensory descriptions, words that describe emotions, and maybe even dialog. This is why it’s very important to make the essay topic personal and deeply felt. Readers can tell when a writer isn’t really connected to whatever he is writing about. And the reverse is true as well: deep emotion shows through your writing.
Writing with deep emotion: because you can't just stick smileys all over your college essay.
Coming up With Great College Essay Ideas
Some people know right off the bat that they have to write about that one specific defining moment of their lives. But if you're reading this, chances are you aren't one of these people. Don't worry - I wasn't one of them either! What this means is that you - like me - will have to put in a little work to come up with the perfect idea by first doing some brainstorming.
I've come up with about 35 different brainstorming jumping off points that ask questions about your life and your experiences. The idea here is to jog your memory about the key life events that have shaped you and affected you deeply.
I recommend you spend at least 2 minutes on each question, coming up with and writing down at least 1 answer - or as many answers as you can think of. Seriously - time yourself. 2 minutes is longer than you think! I would also recommend doing this over several sittings to get your maximum memory retrieval going - even if it takes a couple of days, it'll be worth it.
Then, we will use this list of experiences and thoughts to narrow your choices down to the one topic idea that you will use for your college essay.
Brainstorming Technique #1: Think About Defining Moments in Your Life
- What is your happiest memory? Why? What was good about it? Who and what was around you then? What did it mean to you?
- What is your saddest memory? Would you change the thing that happened or did you learn something crucial from the experience?
- What is the most important decision you’ve had to make? What was hard about the choice? What was easy? Were the consequences of your decision what you had imagined before making it? Did you plan and game out your choices, or did you follow gut instinct?
- What decision did you not have any say in, but would have wanted to? Why were you powerless to participate in this decision? How did the choice made affect you? What do you think would have happened if a different choice had been made?
- What the most dangerous or scary thing that you’ve lived through? What was threatened? What were the stakes? How did you survive/overcome it? How did you cope emotionally with the fallout?
- When did you first feel like you were no longer a child? Who and what was around you then? What had you just done or seen? What was the difference between your childhood self and your more adult self?
- What are you most proud of about yourself? Is it a talent or skill? A personality trait or quality? An accomplishment? Why is this the thing that makes you proud?
Kevin was inordinately proud of his full and luxuriant head of feathers. He hated being called a bald eagle, always posting on his Facebook that the "bald" is short for "piebald," or multicolored.
Brainstorming Technique #2: Remember Influential People
- Which of your parents (or parental figures) are you most like in personality and character? Which of their traits do you see in yourself? Which do you not? Do you wish you were more like this parent or less?
- Which of your grandparents, great-grandparents, or other older relatives has had the most influence on your life? Is it a positive influence, where you want to follow in their footsteps in some way? A negative influence, where you want to avoid becoming like them in some way? How is the world they come from like your world? How is it different?
- Which teacher has challenged you the most? What has that challenge been? How did you respond?
- What is something that someone once said to you that has stuck with you? When and where did they say it? Why do you think it’s lodged in your memory?
- Which of your friends would you trade places with for a day? Why?
- If you could intern for a week or a month with anyone – living or dead, historical or fictional – who would it be? What would you want that person to teach you? How did you first encounter this person or character? How do you think this person would react to you?
- Of the people you know personally, whose life is harder than yours? What makes it that way – their external circumstances? Their inner state? Have you ever tried to help this person? If yes, did it work? If no, how would you help them if you could?
- Of the people you know personally, whose life is easier than yours? Are you jealous? Why or why not?
Svetlana was always jealous of climbers whose mountaineering careers weren't limited to flowers and small shrubbery.
Brainstorming Technique #3: Recreate Important Times or Places
- When is the last time you felt so immersed in what you were doing that you lost all track of time or anything else from the outside world? What were you doing? Why do you think this activity got you into this near-zen state?
- Where do you most often tend to daydream? Why do you think this place has this effect on you? Do you seek it out? Avoid it? Why?
- What is the best time of day? The worst? Why?
- What is your favorite corner of, or space in, the place where you live? What do you like about it? When do you go there, and what do you use it for?
- What is your least favorite corner of, or space in, the place where you live? Why do you dislike it? What do you associate it with?
- If you had to repeat a day over and over, like the movie Groundhog Day, what day would it be? If you'd pick a day from your life that has already happened, why would you want to be stuck it in? To relive something great? To fix mistakes? If you'd pick a day that hasn't yet occurred, what would the day you were stuck in be like?
- If you could go back in time to give yourself advice, when would you go back to? What advice would you give? Why? What effect would you want your advice to have?
For Matilda, the main challenge of time travel was packing. Just how do you fit one of those giant Elizabethan ruffle collars into a carry-on?
Brainstorming Technique #4: Answer Thought-Provoking Questions
- If you could take a Mulligan and do over one thing in your life, what would it be? Would you change what you did the first time around? Why?
- Or, if you could take another crack at doing something again, what would you pick? Something positive – having another shot at repeating a good experience? Something negative – getting the chance to try another tactic to avoid a bad experience?
- Which piece of yourself could you never change while still remaining the same person? Your race? Ethnicity? Intellect? Height? Freckles? Loyalty? Sense of humor? Why is that the thing that you’d cling to as the thing that makes you you?
- Which of your beliefs, ideas, or tastes puts you in the minority? Why do you think/believe/like this thing when no one else seems to?
- What are you most frightened of? What are you not frightened enough of? Why?
- What is your most treasured possession? What would you grab before running out of the house during a fire? What is this object’s story and why is it so valuable to you?
- What skill or talent that you don’t have now would you most like to have? Is it an extension of something you already do? Something you’ve never had the guts to try doing? Something you plan on learning in the future?
- Which traditions that you grew up with will you pass on? Which will you ignore? Why?
Finnigan couldn't wait to introduce his future children to his family's birthday tradition - lemons.
Brainstorming Technique #5: Find a Trait or Characteristic and Trace it Back
- What are three adjectives you’d use to describe yourself? Why these three? Which of these is the one you’re most proud of? Least proud of? When did you last exhibit this trait? What were you doing?
- How would your best friend describe you? What about your parents? How are the adjectives they’d come up with different from the ones you’d use? When have they seen this quality or trait in you?
- What everyday thing are you the world’s greatest at? Who taught you how to do it? What memories do you have associated with this activity? Which aspects of it have you yourself perfected?
- Imagine that it’s the future and that you’ve become well known. What will you become famous for? Is it for something creative or a performance? For the way you will have helped others? For your business accomplishments? For your athletic prowess? When you make a speech about this fame, whom will you thank for putting you where you are?
- What do you most like about yourself? This is different from the thing you’re most proud of – this is the thing that you know about yourself that makes you smile. Can you describe a time when this thing was useful or effective in some way?
Thinking about her punk crewcut always made Esme smile. That hair was made to rock.
How to Turn Your Brainstorming List Into an Essay Topic
Now that you have a cornucopia of daydreams, memories, thoughts, and ambitions, it's time to thin the herd, prune the dead branches, and whatever other mixed metaphors about separating the wheat from the chaff you can think of.
So how do you narrow down your many ideas into one?
Use the magic power of time. One of the best things you can do with your stack of college essay topics is to forget about them. Put them away for a couple of days so that you create a little mental space. When you come back to everything you wrote after a day or two, you will get the chance to read it with fresh eyes.
Let the cream rise to the top. When you reread your topics after having let them sit, do two things:
- Cross out any ideas that don't speak to you in some way. If something doesn't ring true, if it doesn't spark your interest, or if it doesn't connect with an emotion, then consider reject it.
- Circle or highlight any topics that pop out at you. If it feels engaging, if you get excited at the prospect of talking about it, if it resonates with a feeling, then put it at the top of the idea pile.
Rinse and repeat. Go through the process of letting a few days pass and then rereading your ideas at least one more time. This time, don't bother looking at the topics you've already rejected. Instead, concentrate on those you highlighted earlier and maybe some of the ones that were neither circled nor thrown away.
Trust your gut instinct (but verify). Now that you've gone through and culled your ideas several times based on whether or not they really truly appeal to you, you should have a list of your top choices - all the ones you've circled or highlighted along the way. Now is the moment of truth. Imagine yourself telling the story of each of these experiences to someone who wants to get to know you. Rank your possible topics in order of how excited you are to share this story. Really listen to your intuition here. If you're squeamish, shy, unexcited, or otherwise not happy at the thought of having to tell someone about the experience, it will make a terrible essay topic.
Develop your top 2 - 4 choices to see which is best. Unless you feel very strongly about one of your top choices, the only way to really know which of your best ideas is the perfect one is to try actually making them into essays. For each one, go through the steps listed in the next section of the article under "Find Your Idea's Narrative." Then, use your best judgment (and maybe that of your parents, teachers, or school counselor) to figure out which one to draft into your personal statement.
Handing out trophies to your top three ideas is entirely optional.
How to Make Your Idea into a College Essay
Now, let's talk about what to do in order to flesh out your topic concept into a great college essay. First, I'll give you some pointers on expanding your idea into an essay-worthy story, and then talk a bit about how to draft and polish your personal statement.
Find Your Topic's Narrative
All great college essays have the same foundation as good short stories or enjoyable movies – an involving story. Let's go through what features make for a story that you don’t want to put down:
A compelling character with an arc. Think about the experience that you want to write about. What were you like before it happened? What did you learn, feel, or think about during it? What happened afterwards? What do you now know about yourself that you didn’t before?
Sensory details that create a “you are there!” experience for the reader. When you’re writing about your experience, focus on trying to really make the situation come alive. Where were you? Who else was there? What did it look like? What did it sound like? Were there memorable textures, smells, tastes? Does it compare to anything else? When you’re writing about the people you interacted with, give them a small snippet of dialog to say so the reader can “hear” that person’s voice. When you are writing about yourself, make sure to include words that explain the emotions you are feeling at different parts of the story.
An insightful ending. Your essay should end with an uplifting, personal, and interesting revelation about the kind of person you are today, and how the story you have just described has made and shaped you.
Draft and Revise
The key to great writing is rewriting. So work out a draft, and then put it aside and give yourself a few days to forget what you’ve written. When you come back to look at it again look for places where you slow down your reading, where something seems out of place or awkward. Can you fix this by changing around the order of your essay? By explaining further? By adding details? Experiment.
Get advice. Colleges expect your essay to be your work, but most recommend having someone else cast a fresh eye over it. A good way to get a teacher or a parent involved is to ask them whether your story is clear and specific, and whether your insight about yourself flows logically from the story you tell.
Execute flawlessly. Dot every i, cross every t, delicately place every comma where it needs to go. Grammar mistakes, misspellings, and awkward sentence structure don’t just make your writing look bad – they take the reader out of the story you’re telling. And that makes you memorable, but in a bad way.
Hint: writing that's flawless definitely did not wake up like this.
The Bottom Line
- Your college essay topic needs to come from the fact that essays are a way for colleges to get to know the real you, a you that is separate from your grades and scores.
- A great way to come up with topics is to wholeheartedly dive into a brainstorming exercise. The more ideas about your life that tumble out of your memory and onto the page, the better chance you have of finding the perfect college essay topic.
- Answer my brainstorming questions without editing yourself at first. Instead, simply write down as many things that pop into your head as you can – even if you end up going off topic.
- After you've generated a list of possible topics, leave it alone for a few days and then come back to pick out the ones that seem the most promising.
- Flesh out your top few ideas into full-blown narratives, to understand which reveals the most interesting thing about you as a person.
- Don’t shy away from asking for help. At each stage of the writing process get a parent or teacher to look over what you’re working on, not to do your work for you but to hopefully gently steer you in a better direction if you’re running into trouble.
Ready to start working on your essay? Check out our explanation of the point of the personal essay and the role it plays on your applications.
For more detailed advice on writing a great college essay, read our guide to the Common Application essay prompts and get advice on how to pick the Common App prompt that’s right for you.
Thinking of taking the SAT again before submitting your applications? We have put together the ultimate guide to studying for the SAT to give you the ins and outs of the best ways to study.
Want to improve your SAT score by 240 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
Leslie Atkin leads a college essay workshop at Wheaton High School in Maryland on Oct. 17. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)
Find a telling anecdote about your 17 years on this planet. Examine your values, goals, achievements and perhaps even failures to gain insight into the essential you. Then weave it together in a punchy essay of 650 or fewer words that showcases your authentic teenage voice — not your mother’s or father’s — and helps you stand out among hordes of applicants to selective colleges.
That's not necessarily all. Be prepared to produce even more zippy prose for supplemental essays about your intellectual pursuits, personality quirks or compelling interest in a particular college that would be, without doubt, a perfect academic match.
Many high school seniors find essay writing the most agonizing step on the road to college, more stressful even than SAT or ACT testing. Pressure to excel in the verbal endgame of the college application process has intensified in recent years as students perceive that it’s tougher than ever to get into prestigious schools. Some well-off families, hungry for any edge, are willing to pay as much as $16,000 for essay-writing guidance in what one consultant pitches as a four-day “application boot camp.”
But most students are far more likely to rely on parents, teachers or counselors for free advice as hundreds of thousands nationwide race to meet a key deadline for college applications on Wednesday.
[College admissions edge for the wealthy: Early decision]
Malcolm Carter, 17, a senior who attended an essay workshop this month at Wheaton High School in Montgomery County, Md., said the process took him by surprise because it differs so much from analytical techniques learned over years as a student. The college essay, he learned, is nothing like the standard five-paragraph English class essay that analyzes a text.
“I thought I was a good writer at first,” Carter said. “I thought, ‘I got this.’ But it’s just not the same type of writing.”
Carter, who is thinking about engineering schools, said he started one draft but aborted it. “Didn’t think it was my best.” Then he got 200 words into another. “Deleted the whole thing.” Then he produced 500 words about a time when his father returned from a tour of Army duty in Iraq.
Will the latest draft stand? “I hope so,” he said with a grin.
Admission deans want applicants to do their best and make sure they get a second set of eyes on their words. But they also urge them to relax.
“Sometimes, the fear or the stress out there is that the student thinks the essay is passed around a table of imposing figures, and they read that essay and put it down and take a yea or nay vote, and that determines the student’s outcome,” said Tim Wolfe, associate provost for enrollment and dean of admission at the College of William & Mary. “That is not at all the case.”
Wolfe called the essay one more way to learn something about an applicant. “I’ve seen rough essays that still powerfully convey a student’s personality and experiences,” he said. “And on the flip side, I’ve seen pristine, polished essays that don’t communicate much about the students and are forgotten a minute or two after reading them.”
William & Mary, like many schools, assigns at least two readers for each application. Sometimes, essays get another look when an admissions committee is deliberating.
Most experts say a great essay cannot compensate for a mediocre academic record. But it can play a significant role in shaping perceptions of an applicant and might tip the balance in a borderline case.
[Top colleges put thousands of applicants in wait-list limbo]
Essays and essay excerpts from students who have won admission circulate widely on the Internet, but it’s impossible to know how much weight those words carried in the final decision. One student took a daring approach to a Stanford University essay this year. He wrote, simply, “#BlackLivesMatter” 100 times. And he got in.
Advice about essays abounds, some of it obvious: Show, don’t tell. Don’t rehash your résumé. Avoid cliches and pretentious words. Proofread. “That means actually having a living, breathing person — not just a spell-checker — actually read your essay,” Wolfe said.
But make sure that person doesn’t cross the line between useful feedback and meddlesome revision, or worse. (Looking at you, moms and dads.)
“It’s very obvious to us when an essay has been written by a 40-year-old and not a 17-year-old,” said Angel B. Pérez, vice president of enrollment and student success at Trinity College. “I’m not looking for a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece. And I get pretty skeptical when I see it.”
Some affluent parents buy help for their children from consultants who market their services through such brands as College Essay Guy, Essay Hell and Your Best College Essay.
Michele Hernández, co-founder of Top Tier Admissions, based in Vermont and Massachusetts, said her team charges $16,000 for a four-day boot camp in August to help clients develop all pieces of their applications, from essays to extracurricular activity lists. Or a family can pay $2,500 for five hours of one-on-one essay tutoring. Like other consultants, Hernández said she does pro-bono work. But she acknowledged there are troubling questions about the influence of wealth in college admissions.
“The equity problem is serious,” Hernández said. “College consultants are not the problem. It starts way lower down” — at kindergarten or earlier, she added.
Christopher Hunt, with a business in Colorado called College Essay Mentor, charges $3,000 for an “all-college-all-essays package” with as much guidance as clients want or need, from brainstorming to final drafts. He said the industry is growing because of a cycle rooted in anxiety. As the volume of applications grows, now topping 40,000 a year at Stanford and 100,000 at the University of California at Los Angeles , admission rates fall. That, in turn, fuels worries of prospective applicants from around the world.
[Stanford dean: Ultra-low admit rate not something to boast about]
“Most of my inquiries come from students,” Hunt said. “They are at ground zero of the college craze, aware of the competition, and know what they need to compete.”
At Wheaton High, it cost nothing for students to drop in on a college essay workshop offered during the lunch hour a couple of weeks before the Nov. 1 early application deadline. Cynthia Hammond Davis, the college and career information coordinator, provided pizza, and Leslie Atkin, an English composition assistant, provided tips in a room bedecked with college pennants.
Her first piece of advice: Don’t bore the reader. “It should be as much fun as telling your best friend a story,” she said. “You’re going to be animated about it.” Atkin also sketched a four-step framework for writing: Depict an event, discuss how that anecdote illuminates key character traits, define a pivotal moment and reflect on the outcome. “Wrap it up with a nice package and a bow,” she said. “They don’t have to be razzle-dazzle. But they need to say, ‘Read me!’ ”
As an example, Hammond Davis distributed an essay written by a 2017 Wheaton High graduate now at Rice University. In it, Anene “Daniel” Uwanamodo likened himself to a trampoline — a student leader who helps serve as a launchpad for others. “Regardless of race, gender or background, trampolines will offer their uplifting influence to any who request it,” he wrote.
Soaking this in were students aiming for the University of Maryland at College Park, Towson, Howard and Johns Hopkins universities, Virginia Tech, the University of Chicago and a special scholars program at Montgomery College. One planned to write about a terrifying car accident, another about her mother’s death and a third about how varsity basketball shaped him.
Sahil Sahni, 17, said his main essay responds to a prompt on the Common Application, an online portal to apply to hundreds of colleges: “Discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”
Sahni showed The Washington Post two drafts — his initial version in July, and his latest after feedback from Hammond Davis. (It’s probably best not to quote the essay before admission officers read it.) During the writing, he said, he often jotted phrases on sticky notes when inspiration occurred. If no notepads were handy, he would ink a keyword on his arm “to stimulate the ideas.”
Sahni summarized the essay as a meditation on the consequences of lost keys, “how the unknown is okay, and how you can overcome it.” He said composing three or four high-stakes essays also had a consequence: “Every day you learn something new about yourself.”
Senior Sahil Sahni with Cynthia Hammond Davis, the college and career information coordinator, at Wheaton High’s college essay workshop. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)