How to Choose A College Application Essay Topic

After deciding which schools to apply to, choosing a college application essay topic can feel like one of the weightiest decisions in the college application process. But fear not! We’re here to make it a little less mysterious and stressful: You don’t need to feel worried about choosing an essay topic, because there are no “good” or “bad” topics. Any topic can turn into a strong essay. The best topic is one you feel excited to write about and one that demonstrates how you’ve grown over time.

Finding a topic that excites you

Free writing—or writing whatever comes to mind about a particular subject or question—can be a great way to brainstorm potential essay topics. Here are a few questions to get you thinking:

  • What food or recipe has been passed down through the generations in your family?
  • Whose voice do you hear in your head when you’re feeling scared or nervous?
  • What’s something you understand about your parent (or grandparent) now that you didn’t when you were a child?
  • What’s an object that represents a challenge that you faced?
  • Complete this sentence: “When I’m ___________, I feel most like me.”

We recommend setting a timer (try 10 or 15 minutes at first) and doing a quick free write in response to these questions. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or organizing your thoughts—just get whatever comes to mind onto the page. Then, see which questions inspired the most specific answers or left you feeling excited to write more. (And if you’d like more brainstorming questions and exercises to help you identify your essay topic, check out our Complete Your College Essay course.)

I have some topic ideas. Now what?

Your free writing probably led you to a list of ideas that could, with a little more brainstorming and organizing, turn into a college essay. Now it’s time to narrow those ideas down to one topic.

Almost any topic can be made to fit one of the Common Application essay prompts, so you don’t need to worry about whether your potential topics directly relate to one of the prompts. Instead, consider which topic will allow you to best demonstrate how you’ve changed over time–later, you can edit the essay to address whichever prompt you choose. Remember that an essay about something that feels like a minor element of your life can still open up into a larger reflection or shed significant light on who you are, so don’t abandon an idea just because it talks about something that feels small.

At the same time, keep in mind that the Common Application has an upper length limit for the essay of 650 words, and an essay that’s significantly shorter might not give the admissions committee enough information about you to help them make a decision. So consider whether you’ll have enough material to write a full essay about each of the potential topics on your list.

And while there are no bad topics, it may be harder to write an essay that connects with your reader when you’re writing about a controversial issue. An essay that lists your accomplishments without reflection on what those experiences meant to you might not convey much about who you would be on campus. And you’re not obligated to write about any experience that feels raw or unresolved—if you’re unsure whether to write about a particular personal experience, consider whether you’re prepared to reflect on it yet.

Getting started on the essay

Once you’ve chosen your topic, you may find that free writing again can help you generate material for the essay. This time, when you free write, try to think of specific examples or moments that best illustrate the topic you chose. Was there a specific experience you went through that sparked a change in you? Try digging into that experience by describing how your surroundings looked and felt and smelled. Take a look at our post on reflection in the college essay for more questions you could try to answer as you’re freewriting.

And remember: In your freewriting and first draft, try not to worry about the length limit, the application essay prompts, or whether all the material you’re drafting belongs in your essay. Later, you can revise the essay until it shines. And if you’d like further access to writing exercises and advisor feedback to help you with the rest of the essay process, check out our Complete Your College Essay online course.

Complete your College Essay

Conquer the Common Application Essay with confidence from the comfort of your home with our virtual on-demand course, providing videos, resources, prompts and weekly office hours to help you achieve success.

Students will walk away with a complete, authentic Personal Statement that they can be proud to submit to the colleges of their dreams.

About the Author:

Sara Polsky is a writer and editor based in New York City. She has a master’s in education degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and has worked as a journalist, editor, and college admissions application reader. As an Expert Advisor in our College Essay Program, Sara loves helping people share their stories.


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