Choosing Your Topic
Once you have a pool of essay topic ideas, it’s time to narrow them down and pick the topic about which you’re going to write — but if you have several promising topic ideas, how do you choose among them? Again, you shouldn’t pick one candidate simply because it seems to be the most exciting or unique option. Rather, you should choose your topic based primarily on what subject will allow you to write the best essay.
In this case, the “best” essay is the one that showcases your strong writing skills, demonstrates the personal qualities (thoughtfulness, curiosity, dedication, passion, and so on) that you want colleges to see in you, and allows colleges to get to know you better on a different level from the rest of your application.
The topic you initially like the most may not be the one that allows you to write the best possible essay. Of course, you’re likely to write a better essay on a topic in which you have a strong interest, but there is some strategy involved in choosing a topic as well.
A thoughtful and well-written essay on a topic that might initially seem more mundane will benefit you far more than a dull or poorly-written essay on a more exciting-sounding topic. Choosing an unusual experience you’ve had as your essay subject may even tempt you to let the experience itself do the legwork, rather than using that subject as a vehicle to tell colleges more about who you are as a person.
If you can find meaning and significance in a small incident, that can be incredibly compelling for your readers. Drawing from your ordinary experiences to illustrate a larger point will make your essay all the more personal and revealing. Remember, the value of your essay is much more in how you write about your experiences than what experiences you write about.
A final note on choosing your essay topic: You don’t necessarily need to be absolutely committed to a topic right away. If it becomes clear after you start outlining or writing that your chosen topic isn’t going to work as well as you would like, there’s nothing wrong with starting over with a new topic.
Feel free to go back to your brainstormed pool of topics, or even to come up with something new entirely. Just make sure that you have enough time left to develop and edit your new essay appropriately. This is all the more reason to start the essay writing process early — if your topic ends up not working out, you’ll still have time to try a different approach.
Making Your Topic Shine
Once you’ve selected a topic, you need to figure out how to develop an essay from it that is technically skillful, compelling to the reader, and true to the vision of yourself that you’re working to portray in your application.
If you’re worried that your essay topic is not interesting or exciting enough on its own, you may be extra concerned about how to build a strong essay upon that topic. In reality, however, everyone — no matter how interesting or exciting their choice of topic might seem — should take great care in planning how they’re going to develop their basic topic statement into a full-fledged essay.
To write a truly effective college essay, you’ll need to focus not on depicting and describing an event or issue in your life, but on expressing your personal experience or perspective in an interesting manner. The value of the experience and the point in writing about it lies not necessarily in what happened, but how it affected you, and in how you analyze and consider that effect.
Details are quite important here, as they’ll bring life and context to your story. Vivid and evocative details can turn an essay on a seemingly mundane topic into something truly fascinating. The details you choose to leave out are equally important; you’ll be working with a word-count limit, and it’s important that your essay be concise and readable rather than wordy and overwrought.
You’ll also need to make sure that your essay clearly develops the themes that you intend for it to develop. Relating an experience, ordinary or extraordinary, isn’t enough on its own; you have to be thoughtful about the experience and show why this experience is important enough to you to be worth inspiring your college essay.
The key to writing a strong college application essay is in your delivery. With skillful writing, powerful word choice, and a good sense of how to develop a fragment of an idea into a longer piece of writing, you can make any topic, no matter how “uninteresting” it may seem, into an exploration of issues important to you and a showcase of your skills as a communicator.
Will your essay make or break your college application?
It depends. You can take a look at our CollegeVine blog post How Important is the College Essay? for a more detailed discussion of the importance of the essay as compared to other parts of your application.
Briefly, however, a brilliant essay can’t make up for severe deficiencies in your academic qualifications, but it may have an impact otherwise, particularly at a smaller or more competitive school. If you’re on the borderline, a great essay may tip the balance toward admission. An essay that’s clearly carelessly written, inappropriate, or full of technical errors can hurt your chances of admission even if you do have great qualifications.
The bottom line is that, just as with every other part of your college application, colleges will need to see that you’ve taken the task seriously and put in your best effort. Managing your time properly is important, and you can’t work on one essay forever, but if you get started early, you should be able to put enough time into developing, writing, and editing your essay to make it a piece of writing of which you’re truly proud.
For more information about choosing and developing a college application essay topic, you can check out the CollegeVine blog for tips and tricks. Our Essay Breakdown posts about how to write the school-specific essays for various top schools contain a wealth of good ideas.
If you’re applying to colleges using the Common Application and need to complete one of its essay questions, CollegeVine has your back. Our admissions experts have analyzed each of the five Common Application essay prompts in the posts below, where you can find detailed advice on how to respond to each prompt.
If you’re applying using the Coalition Application (CAAS), we have you covered as well with our post How to Write the Coalition Application Essays 2016-2017.
CollegeVine’s admissions advisors can help you with all aspects of the application process, including developing and editing your college essay. With a fee structure that’s more affordable than those of most companies that offer college application assistance, we’re committed to helping a broader range of high school students access the resources they need to navigate the increasingly competitive world of college admissions.
Still have questions about filling out the Common Application? Check out our blog post How to Write the Common Application Essays 2017-2018.
Here’s a brutal truth about applying to college: On paper, most teenagers are not very unique. Some three million high school graduates send applications into universities every single year, and that’s just within the United States. Seasoned admissions officers—particularly at elite schools—know how to spot cookie-cutter applicants and toss them into the reject pile in seconds.
Luckily, you do get a modest chance to distinguish yourself. Universities in the US and across the world are increasingly looking away from test scores and grade point averages and toward one particularly unique component of students’ applications: the essay. If done exceptionally well, it’s a catapult to an acceptance offer. So what exactly is the best way to sell oneself to Harvard in a thousand words or fewer? Reporters and editors across Quartz’s newsroom have come together to offer some foolproof advice.
Forget “writing from the heart”
Parents and teachers will often tell students who are just starting out on their essays to “write sincerely,” “write about your feelings,” “write about what matters to you.” That advice, while well-intentioned, is not helpful. An essay can be completely heartfelt—and terrible.
Instead of starting from such a broad place, begin with the narrow strategy of researching the worst college-essay clichés; that way, even if you don’t have the faintest idea what to write about, you at least know what you have to avoid. Examples of hackneyed essay characteristics that immediately make admissions officers roll their eyes include:
- Dictionary definitions (“Webster’s defines ‘courage’ as…”)
- Epigraphs or references of famous writers (“It was the best of times…”)
- Sound effects (“Whizz! Snap! Whew! went the rocket that I built…”)
- Sentences that are just strings of SAT words (“The fortuitous phenomena that transpired on the fortnight of…”)
- Overused metaphors
- “Let me tell you a story”
- Repeating information from other parts of your application, i.e. re-listing all your extracurriculars
- Talking about the university instead of yourself
- Over-using passive tense, instead of telling an engaging story
- Sticking too close to the prompt (“A time I overcame an obstacle was when…”)
Don’t be interesting. Be interested
Now, what to write about? Essay prompts are intentionally open-ended, and there are several ways to go about choosing a topic. Here’s a nearly foolproof one: Write about a person, place, or idea that you genuinely—perhaps to the point of geeky, nervous-laughter embarrassment—love.
“Write about what you’re interested in, not what you think is interesting about you,” says Quartz lifestyle reporter Jenni Avins, who wrote about her part-time job in high school making crepes in a coffee shop: “I was really interested in the people who came into this creperie, and this little world. It was an observational piece about having this window on a community.”
But this doesn’t mean you should ramble on pointlessly for five paragraphs. Make sure your topic reveals something about yourself, or why you want to study and pursue the things you do. Jenni’s essay highlighted her curiosity toward others. Quartz science editor Elijah Wolfson wrote his essay about pizza joints in New York—but it was really a tale of moving across the country and coming to terms with loss.
Yale’s dean of admissions Jeremiah Quinlan told Quartz last year that the university is explicitly “looking for passion” in the kids it admits; you can bet that the admissions offices at Stanford, MIT, and other top-tier schools are hunting around for the exact same. Don’t worry about your topic sounding too boring or pretentious—the raw emotion underneath matters more.
Pull out unflattering memories
It can be instinctive to paint the best picture of yourself possible in your essay, but put aside vanity and pride for a moment. You’ve already spent the rest of your college application flourishing your immaculate GPA, club leadership, and volunteer work. Oftentimes, the most powerful essay topic is one that lets some of your imperfections seep through.
You can start by thinking of a time that you struggled, made a mistake, or were embarrassed. Quartz technology reporter Mike Murphy, for example, wrote his essay on being stranded at the bottom of the Grand Canyon as a kid. He begins by setting up the scene: “I’m sorry, but 3:30 a.m. is never the same as 4:00 a.m.” He goes on to explain how he and his relatives were accidentally separated on the trip, walking the reader through the challenges he faced on his way back to safety, and ending on a tone of humility and lesson-learning.
Good essays don’t all need to hype up an applicant’s superpowers: They can expose weaknesses, demonstrating subtlety and self-awareness.
Tell a story—however you want to
When it comes to the college essay, taking a risk—however small or big—is better than playing it safe. Try writing different versions of your essay, maybe in completely different formats, just to see if one of them resonates more than the others.
“Admissions officers have to read so many essays that physically look the same. An essay that stands out is simply more memorable,” says Quartz growth editor Jean-Luc Bouchard. “I wrote a series of thematically linked poems for my admissions essay, and even though the poems were probably pretty bad, I think I got points just for trying something different.”
You may recall the news this spring about Ziad Ahmed, a student who got into Stanford by writing “#BlackLivesMatter” a hundred times on one of his essay prompts. Such ventures may come off as gimmicky—and we certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone repeating this exact idea in a future year—but they’re effective at one thing: grabbing the reader’s attention. Ziad, who had interned for Hilary Clinton and was recognized by Barack Obama at a White House dinner in 2015, was already more than qualified. What his essay did was make admissions officers pause in their tracks for a moment, and peer a tad more closely at the rest of his application.
Tinker with your essay. Think of it not as an essay in the academic sense, but an unlined blank canvas you can use to present whatever you want. That said, no sound effects—please.
Run your essay through spellcheck. Ask a teacher, friend, parent, or counselor to read it over—then ask five more people to do the same. Admissions officers barrel through dozens of essays a day, and the rote tedium of it can cause them to be hyper-critical of even the smallest of typos and grammatical errors. Show them this small respect, and you’ve already beat out many others kids for that coveted acceptance letter.