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College Application Essay Writing 101: Selecting a Topic

By Robin, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

Superman pajamas, summer road trips in an RV, driving a carriage, a Cuban grandfather. All seemingly disparate topics, yet these subjects happen to be from some of the most memorable college essays I read as an admissions counselor. Selecting a topic for your college application essay can be one of the most daunting tasks, and finding the right topic takes creativity and soul-searching.

If you Google “college essay,” 465 million results appear. With so many resources out there, it can be hard to know where to begin. The college essay is not like the analytical writing you’re used to doing in high school. You are free from the five-paragraph format (yes!), and you aren’t required to use textual evidence to support your claims. With this freedom, however, comes the challenge of identifying a topic that best captures you and your personality. As a former admissions counselor and high school English teacher, I’d like to share the following insights with rising seniors and younger students as they embark on their essay writing journey this summer and into the college admissions season this fall.

Generating Topics
With any piece of writing, it’s hard to know where to begin. Nothing can seem more unnerving than staring at a blank computer screen with the cursor blinking and awaiting your ideas to miraculously pour forth into the keyboard. Brainstorming is an essential part of the writing process, and for the personal statement, you simply need to start with what you already know a lot about – you!

The admissions staff wants to get to know you beyond what is already present in your application materials. This means that a seemingly mundane topic to you, like a weekly family dinner, might actually provide insight into what you value. The most memorable essays I read were the ones in which the student revealed a facet of their personality that either wasn’t present or was merely hinted at in other elements of the application. For many admissions officers, reading the essay is the highlight of the application review process – I know it was for me because that was how I became acquainted with the student and the student had the opportunity to emerge as more than just an applicant.

Take a look around you: I often give students the “room” assignment to help them begin the brainstorming process. I tell students to start with their immediate surroundings in their room and or a room in their home—what is on the walls? What is under the bed? The sofa? What is in the closet? What is in the refrigerator? What are common sites that come up in your Google search history? What song is in the heaviest rotation on your phone? Answers to these simple questions can often help you identify potential topics for your college essay.

How you tell your story matters: It’s not what you write about but rather how you write about it. The way in which you tell your story is how you reveal your personality. Don’t assume that your experience is unique. Colleges receive tens of thousands of applications, so the chances are that there are other applicants who may have experienced something similar. It’s hard to come up with an original topic when it comes to college essays. This means that how you go about telling your story is incredibly important.

Write about what you want to write about: One of the most common mistakes I saw students make with their college essay was in their topic choice. The topic would seem forced, causing the student’s voice to come across as stilted and unnatural. It seemed as if the student was trying to impress me by writing about what they thought I wanted to read. The topic you choose to write about needs to be important to you and pertain to your story, so write about what you want to write about, not what you think the admissions counselor wants to read.

Selecting a topic for your personal statement is the most critical part of the college application essay process. Take your time to brainstorm and bounce ideas off of your parents, teachers, and college counselor before settling on a topic. Once you have your topic you can start drafting your personal statement – preferably the summer before senior year so you can get the bulk of the writing out of the way before the school year starts again.

Ready to get started on your college application essays? IvyWise is here to help! Our expert team of former admissions officers can help you brainstorm and edit compelling college application essays that best highlight who you are as a student and person. Contact us today for more information on our college counseling services for rising high school seniors who need some help on applications this summer.