Choosing a Topic for Your College Admissions Essay

Picture this: a stack of college applications piled high on an admissions officer’s desk, each one filled with transcripts, test scores, and a laundry list of extracurricular activities. In this sea of numbers and achievements, how can you stand out and make a memorable impression? The answer lies in the often underestimated power of the college application essay.

In the world of college admissions, your essay is your voice, your story, and your opportunity to paint a vivid portrait of who you are beyond the numbers. Although most students don’t realize, it’s pretty much the most important part of your application.

In this article, we’ll explore the art of crafting a compelling college application essay. And all this starts with choosing a topic for your essay.

We’ll delve into the nuances of choosing the perfect topic, structuring your essay for maximum impact, and infusing it with your unique voice. By the way, that last one is THE most important thing you can do.

We’ll also discuss the critical editing and proofreading phase and how to avoid common pitfalls that can derail your essay.

So, whether you’re just starting your admissions essay or in the midst of revisions, let’s dive into the world of college application essays!

Choosing a Topic for Your Admissions Essay

The first step in writing a great admissions essay is selecting a topic that will captivate your readers, give them a glimpse into your world, and leave a lasting impression.

This part of the process is extremely important because it will what set you apart from the rest.

1. Reflect on Your Experiences:

Start by reflecting on your life experiences, both big and small. Consider moments that have shaped you, challenged you, or inspired you. These experiences could come from your academic life, personal life, or involvement in extracurricular activities. However, they should be unique to you.

If the experience you are thinking about could have happened to any other person, it’s no good.

Poor Experience Concept

A Summer at QuickBite

Last summer at QuickBite, a local fast-food joint, I not only mastered the cash register and burger assembly but also navigated the complexities of human interactions. From Mrs. Harris’s stories of her grandkids to handling mistaken orders with grace, I learned invaluable lessons in patience, teamwork, and adaptability. While the discounted meals were a perk, the true takeaway was the set of soft skills that I acquired, skills I believe will serve me well in college and beyond

In essence, while the concept has potential, it’s presented in a way that skims the surface and misses opportunities for deeper reflection, personal growth depiction, and a strong connection to future college aspirations.

While this experience may have been a valuable part of the student’s life, it’s not an ideal choice for a personal statement because it lacks uniqueness and depth. Here’s why:

  1. Superficial Depth: The essay briefly touches upon various experiences (like the cash register, burger assembly, interactions with Mrs. Harris, and handling orders), but doesn’t delve deeply into any specific instance. This makes the narrative seem rushed and lacks emotional connection.
  2. Generic Lessons: The skills mentioned (patience, teamwork, and adaptability) are indeed important, but without detailed examples or stories to back them up, they come across as generic and not tied to the specific experience at QuickBite.
  3. Lack of Personal Growth: While the essay mentions soft skills acquired, it doesn’t depict a journey of personal growth or a transformative experience that changed the applicant’s perspective or character.
  4. Unnecessary Focus: The mention of “discounted meals” as a perk, even in passing, detracts from the central message. It introduces a lighter, less significant detail which could have been replaced with a more impactful reflection or insight.
  5. Missing Connection to College Goals: The essay ends by stating the skills will be useful in college and beyond, but there’s no clear tie to the applicant’s future aspirations, academic interests, or how they plan to utilize or further develop these skills in a college setting.

Excellent Experience Concept

The Empty Parking Lot

In my neighborhood, a place often labeled a “food desert”, the lack of fresh, healthy food was distressingly evident. Determined to make a change, I decided to transform an empty lot into a blooming community garden. After delving into research to choose the right crops for our region, I reached out to local families, inviting them to join me in the planting and upkeep. To my delight, our garden not only began to yield fresh produce but also turned into a hub of community interaction. What started as a solution to a dietary problem soon became a beacon of unity, resilience, and proof of what grassroots initiatives can achieve.

  1. Community Engagement: The student’s initiative to establish a community garden demonstrates their active engagement with their local community. It shows a commitment to making a positive impact on the lives of others.
  2. Addressing a Critical Issue: Food deserts are a pressing issue in many communities, and the student’s project directly addresses this problem by providing a sustainable source of fresh produce.
  3. Leadership and Problem-Solving: Organizing and maintaining a community garden involves leadership, planning, and problem-solving skills. The student can showcase their ability to take initiative and drive meaningful change.
  4. Collaboration: Collaboration with community members, volunteers, and local organizations is often necessary for such projects. This experience can highlight the student’s ability to work effectively within a team and build partnerships.
  5. Passion and Values: The commitment to addressing food insecurity and promoting healthy eating reflects the student’s passion for social justice and their values of equity and community well-being.
  6. Impact and Results: The student can share the tangible results of their efforts, such as increased access to fresh produce, improved community health, or the empowerment of community members to take charge of their food security.

If you don’t have any experience that stands out in this way. What are your other options?

2) Present a Compelling Personal Narrative

A well-crafted personal story or narrative can make you memorable. It doesn’t have to be about volunteer work. It could be an experience, relationship, or moment that had a significant impact on your life and outlook. Just make sure it’s unique to you.

Poor Personal Narrative Concept

The A-grade Student

Throughout high school, I maintained a 4.0 GPA. Every grading period, I’d meticulously organize my schedule to ensure I studied enough for each subject. My routine was straightforward: attend classes, participate actively, complete assignments on time, review regularly, and prepare well in advance for tests. My parents were always proud to see my report card filled with A’s, and my teachers often praised my consistent performance.

I prided myself on my ability to stay on top of my work and avoid procrastination. My peers sometimes asked for my study tips, and I’d tell them it’s all about dedication and routine. By the end of high school, I had the satisfaction of knowing I’d given my academics my all.

Here are the issues with this type of approach:

  1. Lack of Depth & Reflection: While it’s impressive to maintain a 4.0 GPA, the narrative doesn’t delve into the deeper significance of this achievement. It doesn’t answer questions like: Why are grades so important to the student? What personal growth or realizations came from this pursuit?
  2. One-Dimensional: The narrative portrays the student as solely focused on grades, which can make them come across as one-dimensional. Colleges often look for well-rounded individuals who have passions outside of pure academics.
  3. Missed Opportunities: The story could have delved into a challenging subject, a project that ignited a passion, or a teacher who inspired a future career path, but it remains on the surface level.
  4. Doesn’t Highlight Unique Qualities: Many applicants will have strong academic records. Without a unique angle or deeper reflection, this story doesn’t differentiate the applicant from other high-achieving students.
  5. Doesn’t Connect to College Goals: The narrative doesn’t bridge the past with the future. It could be enhanced by connecting the student’s academic diligence to their aspirations in college or their intended major.

In a college application essay, even high-achieving students need to show self-awareness, growth, and a multi-dimensional personality. It’s essential to dig deeper than mere achievements and reflect on the journey, lessons learned, and how those experiences shape future aspirations.

Excellent Personal Narrative Concept

The Journey of Rediscovering Family Heritage Through an Ancestral Quest

Imagine a student writes their college application essay about their transformative journey of reconnecting with their family’s heritage. This is a compelling and distinctive concept because it allows the student to explore their cultural identity and heritage in a meaningful way. Here’s why it’s a great idea:

  1. Cultural Exploration: The student’s quest to discover their family’s roots involves traveling to their ancestral homeland, meeting distant relatives, and immersing themselves in the culture and traditions of their heritage. This experience offers a unique perspective on the student’s cultural identity.
  2. Personal Transformation: The journey may lead to profound personal transformation as the student grapples with questions of identity, belonging, and heritage. They can share how this exploration influenced their perspective on themselves and the world around them.
  3. Global Perspective: Engaging with a different culture can provide a broader global perspective. The student can reflect on how this experience expanded their horizons and deepened their understanding of diversity and inclusivity.
  4. Relevance to Academic and Personal Goals: The student can connect their journey to their academic and personal goals. For example, they may aspire to study international relations, cultural anthropology, or become involved in cross-cultural initiatives. This narrative demonstrates their commitment to these pursuits.
  5. Cross-Cultural Bridge: The student’s narrative can emphasize their role as a bridge between cultures, promoting understanding and appreciation between their heritage culture and their current community. They can share anecdotes and insights from their experiences in this role.
  6. Reflection and Growth: The personal narrative can include moments of reflection, vulnerability, and personal growth. The student might discuss challenges they faced during their journey and how they overcame them.
  7. Unique Perspective: This concept stands out because it’s a deeply personal exploration that showcases the student’s curiosity, open-mindedness, and willingness to step out of their comfort zone.

3. Focus on Your Future Contributions

So you haven’t exactly set the world alight with your philanthropic efforts in the past. But you can aim to contribute to the college community. Share your enthusiasm for participating in campus activities, clubs, or research projects that align with your interests.

Poor Future Contribution Concept

Giving Back to College

Once I join the university, I plan to give back in many ways. First and foremost, I promise to maintain top grades, proving that I deserve my spot. I also plan to join as many clubs as possible to show my active involvement in campus life. I’ve always been a friendly person, so I’ll ensure that I make friends with as many students as possible, making the community more connected. Additionally, I’ll be a regular at all campus events, showing my school spirit. Through these actions, I aim to make the university proud of admitting me.

This approach is problematic for a number of reasons:

  1. Vague and Generic: The mentioned contributions are generic actions that any student might do. There’s no specificity or depth in how the applicant plans to genuinely contribute to the college community.
  2. Misunderstanding of Contribution: Simply achieving top grades or attending events doesn’t necessarily translate to a meaningful contribution to the college community. Contribution is often seen in terms of leadership, initiative, service, or fostering unique conversations or collaborations.
  3. Superficial Engagement: The idea of joining “as many clubs as possible” suggests a lack of focus and could be seen as superficial involvement rather than genuine engagement.
  4. Friendships as a Metric: While being sociable is a good quality, presenting “making friends” as a tangible contribution to the college might come off as naive or missing the point of community building.
  5. Lacks Connection to Personal Strengths: The concept doesn’t tie back to the applicant’s unique strengths, experiences, or passions. It doesn’t give the admissions committee a clear picture of how the student’s unique qualities will add value to the college community.

Great Future Contribution Concept

Drawing inspiration from my experience launching a digital literacy program for seniors in my community, I aim to harness the power of technology to bridge generational gaps at the collegiate level. Recognizing that every student brings a unique set of tech skills, I envision creating a campus-wide mentorship initiative where tech-savvy students can partner with faculty and staff, fostering collaborative learning. This initiative will not only enhance technological proficiency across the campus but also foster deeper connections between students and faculty, promoting a shared understanding and respect for the diverse skill sets each generation brings. By integrating technology with interpersonal connection, I hope to make the university a model for tech-forward, intergenerational collaboration.

In essence, the future contribution concept suggests not just personal growth but also the potential to make a lasting, positive change in the college community and beyond.

  1. Built on Past Experience: The concept ties in a past initiative (digital literacy program) with a future vision, demonstrating consistency and commitment.
  2. Addresses a Relevant Issue: The evolving nature of technology often creates generational gaps, and addressing this is both timely and impactful.
  3. Promotes Community Building: The idea of pairing students with faculty goes beyond just tech skills; it’s about forging deeper connections within the academic community.
  4. Scalable Impact: The concept has the potential to be scaled up or adapted for other institutions, making the impact far-reaching.
  5. Integrates Multiple Skills: The initiative would require technological know-how, leadership, organizational skills, and interpersonal communication – showcasing the applicant’s multifaceted abilities.

Additional Tips for Writing Your College Application Essay

Avoid Common Clichés

Admissions officers have read countless essays about winning the big game, overcoming a fear of public speaking, or volunteering at a local charity. While these experiences can be meaningful, try to avoid overused clichés. If you do choose a common topic, find a fresh perspective or unique angle to make it your own.

Examples of clichés that could ruin your college application essay:

  1. The Big Game: “It was the final seconds of the game, and I learned the true meaning of perseverance.”
  2. The Trip Abroad: “Visiting [country] opened my eyes and changed my perspective on life.”
  3. The Tragedy: “The death of my [relative] taught me to cherish every moment.”
  4. The Definition: Starting with a dictionary definition like, “Webster’s defines ‘leadership’ as…”
  5. The Grand Proclamation: “Since the dawn of time, mankind has…”
  6. The Overused Quote: “As Gandhi once said, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.'”
  7. The Vague Dream: “I’ve always wanted to make a difference in the world.”
  8. The Comparison: “Much like Einstein/Jobs/Newton, I have always been curious about…”
  9. The Volunteer Experience: “Helping at the local soup kitchen taught me the true value of community.” (This isn’t inherently cliché, but it’s how it’s written that can make it feel overused.)
  10. The “Two Worlds”: “Living between two cultures, I’ve often felt torn between them.”
  11. The Sudden Realization: “It was at that moment I realized…”
  12. The Broad Statement: “In today’s society, we all need to…”
  13. The Superlative: “I had the best/worst day of my life when…”
  14. The Misfit: “I’ve always felt like a square peg in a round hole.”
  15. The Hero’s Journey: “I faced challenges, but they made me who I am today.”

Consider Your Audience

Think about the college admissions committee as your audience. What do they want to learn about you? How can your essay complement the rest of your application? Consider how your chosen topic aligns with the values and mission of the college you’re applying to.

The key to making these examples stand out is the depth of exploration, the unexpected angles, and the personal touch. An essay becomes memorable not necessarily due to its topic but due to its perspective, reflection, and the authentic voice of the writer.

Examples of how a student could align their story with the values of the school they are seeking admission to:

  1. Intersecting Passions with Campus Initiatives:
    • Example: If a college is known for its sustainability initiatives, a candidate might write about the summer they designed a rainwater harvesting system for their home after noticing wastage during the rainy season. They can highlight the blend of engineering innovation and a commitment to eco-friendliness, suggesting how they’d be excited to contribute to the college’s green projects.
  2. Incorporating Unconventional Learning Experiences:
    • Example: For a liberal arts college that values diverse intellectual pursuits, a student could discuss their love for philosophy cultivated not in the classroom but through late-night debates at a local coffee shop with a retired philosophy professor they befriended. This illustrates a genuine love for learning outside traditional settings.
  3. Unusual Extracurriculars Tied to College Culture:
    • Example: If applying to a college with a strong theater scene, instead of discussing just acting in school plays, an applicant could write about how they started a “street theater” group in their town to address social issues, gaining immediate feedback from passersby and learning to adapt their performances on the fly.
  4. Collaboration with Unlikely Groups:
    • Example: For schools emphasizing collaboration and community, a student might share their experience of starting a tech workshop where senior citizens were taught by local teens. This narrative could showcase the applicant’s leadership, bridge-building capabilities, and understanding of the wider community’s needs.
  5. Personal Growth through Unconventional Challenges:
    • Example: If a college values personal growth and resilience, an applicant might share the story of how they managed a small online store selling custom artwork during a family financial crisis. Instead of focusing solely on the crisis, they can emphasize the business lessons learned, customer interactions, and the blend of artistry with entrepreneurship.
  6. In-depth Exploration of a Singular Topic:
    • Example: Knowing a college appreciates deep dives into subjects, a student could write about their year-long project on studying the history and techniques of traditional pottery in their region. They can touch on their hands-on experiences, the cultural implications they uncovered, and how this singular focus gave them insights into the importance of preserving artisanal crafts.

Brainstorm and Freewrite

To uncover hidden gems of inspiration, brainstorm a list of potential essay topics. Don’t filter yourself at this stage; just jot down any ideas that come to mind. Once you have a list, try freewriting on a few of your favorite topics. Write without self-censorship for 10-15 minutes to see where your thoughts lead you.

Test Your Ideas

Share your potential topics with friends, family, or teachers and gather their feedback. They can offer valuable insights and help you identify which topics resonate most with others.

Choose What Excites You

Ultimately, choose a topic that excites you, one you feel passionate about exploring. When you’re genuinely enthusiastic about your subject matter, it will come through in your writing and make for a more engaging essay.

In the journey of selecting your topic for your college admissions essay, remember that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Your topic should be a reflection of who you are and what you want to convey to admissions officers.