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How to Find College Essay Ideas (with examples)

by Rebecca Acree, on Sep 4, 2020 12:00:00 PM

College essays are a crucial piece of the admissions puzzle. They’re your best — and sometimes, only — chance to tell admissions officers in your own words who you are, what you care about, and how you’ll contribute to their community as a student and as a person. 

If you’re like millions of other students, you might find yourself wondering what makes a good college essay. The reality is that there’s no right answer — and while that may sound intimidating, it’s actually a blessing in disguise. There are many paths to a great college essay, and that flexibility gives you the opportunity to to be your most authentic self! 

Most colleges provide some kind of prompt for their admissions essays, but these prompts are usually very broad. Again, this is a good thing, because you can write about pretty much anything you want! But that also means that you have to narrow down your topic yourself. Wondering where to begin? Read on for our tips on identifying a strong college essay topic! 

Dos and don’ts 

First, let’s review some dos and don’ts for choosing a topic. 

  • Do write about something that’s interesting, important, and/or unique to you. The best essays are those that allow the student’s passion to shine through. 
  • Don’t choose a topic simply because you think that’s what admissions officers want you to write about. There’s no single “right” topic! 
  • Do choose a topic that you can write about in a way that is generally upbeat and positive, and will give admissions readers reasons to believe in your future success. You don’t need to stay away from difficult topics, necessarily, but it’s important to find the “light at the end of the tunnel.” 
  • Don’t write about anything offensive or highly controversial, or anything that reflects you in a less-than-positive light. Remember that admissions readers are real people with their own opinions, perspectives, and backgrounds. 

Brainstorming ideas

The best college essays are those that show admissions readers the student’s authentic character based on what they’ve done. They don’t need to be grand, ambitious, or revelatory, epic in scale or focused on some incredible accomplishment. Simple, everyday aspects of your real life can actually be much more effective! 

So how can you identify those aspects? Start by asking yourself two simple questions: 

  • Who are you? This is the most important thing that college admissions officers want to know. In other words, what are the primary qualities of your character? What makes you unique? 
  • What do you care about? The things you care about are a powerful way to give admissions officers more insight into the person you are now and the person you’ll be in the future, as a college student and beyond. What are your passions, hobbies, and interests? 

Jot down some high-level ideas in response to those questions. Be as specific and detailed as possible! 

Next, consider some real-life experiences that show through action who you are and what you care about. Start by making a list of all experiences that come to mind, and then you can narrow down the list later to tailor the experiences to a specific essay prompt. 

Example essay topics 

At its core, all your essay needs to do is show readers who you are as a person. There are many different ways to do this! Here are a few example topic ideas to get you started:

  • A travel, volunteer, or leadership experience. For example, “My trip to rural Belize.” Hint: Go deeper than “it was fun to learn about different cultures.” What specifically did you learn about yourself?
  • A daily ritual or routine. For example, “Riding the M11 bus.” What do your daily rituals mean to you, and what can they tell readers about you as a person?
  • An object or activity of significance. For example, “What mole poblano means to me.” How do your prized possessions or favorite activities reflect what you care about? 
  • An important person in your life. For example, “My grandpa and his newspaper.” Hint: It doesn’t need to be someone that you know personally! What influences have shaped you? 

Want to see more examples of essay topics other students write about? Check out our guide to personal statements and scholarship essays!

Topics:college admissions