The College Admissions Essay: Coming up with a Topic

Summer may have just begun, but for rising seniors, there is plenty they can do during the break to prepare for college applications. While much of their academic and extracurricular records are complete, seniors still have complete control over their application essay.

The Common Application has announced its prompts for 2013-14. In addition to these, many schools will require supplemental essays – responses to specific questions and/or personal statements. There are many ideas circling about what an admissions essay should include. Some of the common ones we’ve heard are: a list of accomplishments, an explanation of part of your application, and a comedy routine. While we’re not going to get into what the essay should NOT include (ahem…none of the above), we are going to look at what it should aim to accomplish.

What Should a College Admissions Essay Include?

Abcollege admissions essayove all, the goal of the essay is to provide information about you that the admissions committee might not otherwise know. Therefore, the first step in writing the college essay is to deeply reflect on what additional things the admissions team should know about you.

The essay needs to show your individual voice, so the topic you choose needs to allow for you to write primarily about yourself. Narrating a story without going into the implications and effect on you will likely not leave a lasting impression.

College Essay Ideas

Consider the following ideas if they fit with your experience:

1. Talk about yourself in the context of your family, community, or culture. Have your surroundings or situation at home strongly influenced your beliefs or a path you have taken? Each of us has our own unique set of circumstances and surroundings that often have a profound influence in shaping our lives. The committee would be interested to know what drives your decision-making processes, the challenges you may face, or the abilities you have.

2. What is important to you? What are you passionate about? How do you like to spend your time? Could this be something vital to understanding who you are? If you can reveal a long-standing interest and pattern of activities that have shaped you, then discussing a passion can be a good route. This idea tends not to work as well, or be as believable, if you cannot show true depth of time and commitment.

3. Describe an accomplishment. You may have a major achievement that is especially important and defining. Just make sure in considering this direction that you can write about the accomplishment from a personal angle describing what you have gained from it or how you have changed from it. Help the committee see why you worked toward this success and why it is interesting and significant to know about you.

4. Share a failure. Demonstrating growth after falling down can be interesting. You must talk about a failure that is truly a failure, though, not just a disappointment. Getting a B instead of an A in a class, for example, is more of a letdown and will probably not let you share an emotional exploration of how you face setbacks and what you do afterward. It is your analysis of the failure that will interest the committee – how you recover, how you adjust, and what new actions you take.

5. Talk about a time you challenged an idea. Questioning can be very positive, displaying strength, what you value, and your willingness to push or think beyond boundaries. If such a story has been essential in your development, consider writing about it. You do not want to be provocative just to be provocative. However, fairly presenting an idea about which you disagree and thoroughly presenting your argument about why you disagree can generate intrigue. You do not need to be a loud protester for this to work. You may just quietly and intellectually question something you have learned.

When to Start the College Essay

Crafting a great college essay is a process that requires time. For some, selecting a topic proves to be the most time consuming part. Use the ideas above as starting points to see what you can come up with. Run your ideas by your family and friends who know you best – they’ll be able to give you valuable feedback on whether your ideas will truly paint an accurate picture of you to someone who you’ve never met.

Make sure you start sooner rather than later. Summer is the perfect time. Many of the best admissions essays are started well before fall and winter deadlines, allowing for review and reflection.

For more, check out Ann’s video about starting the college admissions essays in the summer before senior year.