Tips for Selecting a Topic for Your College Application Essay

college essay proof and polish

By Michele Turk, founder, A Bloc of Writers

One of the most intimidating aspects of the college application process is writing the admissions essay. Many students make the mistake of writing what they think admissions officers want to read; likewise, students sometimes become preoccupied with finding the “perfect” essay topic. As a result, their essays often end up being forced and inauthentic, especially if parents have a heavy hand in the process.

Nonetheless, when they first meet with our tutors, some students are convinced that they need to write about a life-changing adventure or an enormous personal challenge to impress college admission officers. But students don’t need to volunteer on a mission trip abroad or found a non- profit organization (the latest trend) to get into a competitive college, as New York Times columnist Frank Bruni pointed out in a recent op-ed titled, “To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti?”

Below are some tips for how to come up with compelling ideas for the Common App essay:

• Choose a topic or theme that you care about, and something the reader wouldn’t know about you by looking at the rest of your application.

• Think about something you want college admissions officers to know about you – what you value, character traits, how you think about or see the world – then look for a topic you can use that will showcase these attributes.

• Brainstorm with your parents or friends, look at photo albums, a diary or journal or create a timeline tracking key milestones in your life.

It’s true that admissions officers read thousands of essays so you want yours to stand out. But the goal of the college application essay is not simply to impress the admissions office; a thoughtful, well-written essay gives colleges insight into who you really are and what’s important to you.

I have visited a dozen colleges in the past year, and admissions officers from Maine to Washington, D.C. have echoed the same advice: write about something you are passionate about, and make sure your essay reveals something about you. As an admissions officer at one college said, “You are not going to make me care about something you don’t care about.”

So when you sit down to write your essay – and you need to start soon since ED and EA deadlines are five weeks away – remember that the most memorable essays are about mundane, everyday topics. In fact, you can find something to write about right in your hometown – or even in your own home.

Finally, keep in mind a piece of advice every aspiring writer has heard: “Write what you know.”

When it comes to the college essay, you probably know more than you realize.


Michele Turk

Michele Turk

Michele Turk is the founder of A Bloc of Writers, Inc., a Greenwich-based writing, editing and tutoring company. She has published articles in many national publications, among them BusinessWeek, Parents, Glamour, The Washington Post and USA Weekend.

She is the co-editor of “Ink Stained,” a collection of essays by members of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Class of 1992, and the author of “Blood, Sweat and Tears: An Oral History of the American Red Cross.” Michele has worked as an adjunct professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University and she took over as president of the Connecticut Press Club in 2015.

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