Choosing a Topic for Your College Essay
Every year, an admissions officer reads hundreds, even thousands of application essays. After reading a plethora of essays about dreams, visions, academics and athletics, the content inevitably begins to sound redundant and painfully ordinary. If you want to stand out against the thousands of applicants with similar test scores and GPAs, writing a college essay that is memorable and proficient is the best way to do so. Usually an application will offer a very broad topic with which you can do almost anything, or they will allow you to write about whatever topic you would like. In this case, choosing your topic plays a pivotal part in the success of your essay.
Wrong the Wrongs So You Can Write the Right
Before you start writing your essay, here are a few topics you should avoid:
- Don’t be repetitive.
- If you have already included information in another area of the application, you do not need to relay this information again. Your admissions officer already knows you were president of the Beta Club, fed giraffes in a volunteer retreat and graduated tenth in your class. Your essay should not reiterate these accomplishments. If it does, your essay will sound redundant, uninteresting and leave little room for new information.
- Don’t be negative.
- Even if you have overcome some problems in your life such as drugs, alcohol, crime, abuse, or depression, your college essay may not be the best place to reveal your life’s roadblocks. If not handled well, it can result in an uncomfortable, emotional essay that may leave the admission officer questioning whether or not you are ready for college.
- Don’t be one-sided.
- Think about topics that are taboo at the dinner table: politics and religion. Though you can write a great article about subjects in these areas, many times they can come off as closed-minded and offensive to anyone who may hold a different belief, and you risk being perceived as arrogant. If you choose to write about a touchy or controversial subject, be mindful and careful when handling the essay.
- Don’t overestimate or underestimate your writing skills.
- Some people shy away from certain topics because they feel they will not be able to execute it. Other students feel that they can write a brilliant essay on a brilliant topic,and end up overstretching themselves. When brainstorming college essay topics, be honest with yourself about your writing style, your strengths and weaknesses, and the topics at which your writing capabilities can excel.
- Don’t forget to research your school.
- You will most likely be applying to more than one school, and if you are going to be writing separate essays on a similar topic for each application, do not forget to do some research on each school. This way, you can ensure that each essay is unique, and ties in the strengths of that particular university. Remember to proof-read; you do not want to make the mistake of writing a university’s name and then forgetting to change the name when applying for a different school, or applying for a college that you say has “small class sizes,” and then try to use the same essay for a college that has large class sizes. The school will know whether or not you took the time to understand the atmosphere, programs and faculty at the school before applying, and colleges love to see that students have a specific interest in their school. If you research the school first and include your research in a personal way, you will have a better chance of being accepted.
Potential College Essay Topics
Creativity, originality, and memorability are the most important aspects to keep in mind when choosing college essay topics. Before writing your college essay, you should take the time to plan, brainstorm and discover ways you can make your essay fresh and personal.
- Stories can be a spectacular way of letting your personality, beliefs and challenges show through while also keeping the admissions officer interested and engaged. To successfully write a college essay as a story, you need to be a strong writer with developed skills in storytelling. The essay should not simply be a story, but rather an outlook on life, a perspective of the future, something deeper hidden within the story that will help you stand out and get your point across in a delicate and appealing way
- For these topics, your essay should detail very specifically an experience, obstacle, achievement, or other life event that have changed you or your life in some way. You can incorporate elements from the storytelling genre of essay writing, including anecdotes, to inject more personality into your essay. If you have had any significant moment in your life that you feel you can effectively detail in your college essay, or if you have grown or matured in a way that you feel would be useful for the admissions officers to know, this topic may be the best for you
- This topic can be very broad, but also enlightening for admissions officers. What influences you to reach your goals, aspire to become more, or take a stand for something you believe in? It could be a cause, a person or an organization. Whatever it may be, these essays can be extremely personal, showing your compassion, vulnerability, and concerns. Keep in mind that although the focus on the essay is a cause, person or organization, the essay should still be about you and what you can offer to the school to which you are applying. Don’t get wrapped up in everything that the person, cause or organization has done, but instead write about how that affected you and what you have done to follow in those footsteps
- As an international student, you are already bringing diversity to the school. Highlighting your diversity farther can give the admissions officers an idea of what unique gifts you can bring to the school. Before you being writing an essay on this topic, make sure that you understand what diversity means to you. Diversity delves beyond that of race, and the more diverse a community is, the more it can come together and grow in unity, embracing the different strengths and weaknesses as gifts
Writing a college essay can be a daunting task at first, but understanding how different topics of college essays work may benefit you in the future. Know your writing style and what you are trying to communicate to the admissions officers. Your college essay is your first impression to the school to which you are applying. You want your first impression to be one of intelligence, endurance and motivation. Though there are plenty topics of college essays that many admissions officers tell students to avoid, as well as topics admissions officers will encourage students to write, it is a very personal and specific decision. If your college does not give you a certain topic for your admissions essay, get to know yourself and get to know your school. If you pair this knowledge with good writing skills, spell and grammar checks, peer reviews, and editing, you are sure to make a good impression with the school. Don’t lie and don’t exaggerate; just be yourself. The admissions officers will see that and admire your authenticity.
For more tips on writing a great scholarship essay, visit Eight Steps Towards a Better Scholarship Essay.
Every great essay begins with an idea. But finding this idea is no easy task. Often you have to search through your entire life's collection of experiences to find that one "thing" that will encapsulate who you are and do so in less than two pages. And if you're like most students, you have plenty to choose from; so the real question is how do you know one topic is better than another?
This guide is designed to help you sift through your ideas and find those gems that will turn into powerful admission essays. So get out a pad of paper or fire up your computers, and let's find a great essay topic.
Begin with a brain storm.
When we got our Australian cattle dog named Sushi, the first thing she learned (much to our dismay) was how to successfully coerce humans into giving her "people food". Her method was not elegant but very effective. Sushi simply tried every trick she knew—sit, jump, lick, crouch, whine, stare, bark—until she found the right combination that would entice each individual to do what she wanted. Instinctively she knew that the process of trial and error worked.
When it comes to finding the perfect topic, we can all learn something from Sushi. While it is not elegant and relies on trial and error, the best way to discover a great topic is brainstorming. To get off to a blustery start, first read all the questions in the colleges' application forms. You want to have these questions in the back of your mind as you evaluate possible topics. The key to successful brainstorming is to record every idea that pops into your head. Remember: No topic is too silly, complex or stupid (at least at first) to write down.
Test each idea for originality.
Once you have a list of ideas, you will need to narrow your choices. For each idea, spend a few minutes thinking about what an essay on that topic might look like. A key to writing a successful essay is that it must be original—unique—something that only you could write. Therefore, you need to eliminate any topics that would not yield an original essay. One of the best tests was told to us by an admissions officer who used what he called the "Rule of Thumb" test. Basically, if he can cover the name of the author with his thumb and insert the name of any other applicant, then the essay is not unique. You can perform a similar test on your topics. Think about each idea and what you would write about it. Then ask yourself if someone other than you could write this essay. If the answer is "yes", then the odds are that your take on that topic will not be different and unique.
Take an original approach.
If a topic fails the thumb test, see if you can find an original approach. For example, imagine that one of your topics is "Dad." Without a doubt, you already know that an essay on Dad is going to be a common topic. After all, most of us have been influenced by our parents. So already you see that the topic may not be original. But does this mean you should eliminate the idea? Not so fast. As you think about how your father has been a strong influence in your life, you might consider how every morning he wakes up to make your breakfast. You also realize that of his many breakfasts, his specialty is banana pancakes. In fact, he takes great pleasure in preparing this for you. You then think about what this act has taught you about dedication, commitment and not settling for anything but being the best. Now ask yourself if another student could write this essay. How many will focus on their dads' preparation of breakfast? How many will construct an essay around what they have learned from their dad through his perfection of banana pancakes? Even though dads are written about often, this approach is highly original. This topic may lead to a great essay after all.
Most students find that to be original they will have to find a unique approach to what is often an ordinary topic. You don't need to wrack your brain for an original topic. In many cases, you can be original in your approach to an ordinary topic.
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