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.
Got a Burning Question
About Your College Application Essay?
(Leave it in the Comments!)
After working with students like you for nearly a decade now, I’ve heard a lot of questions about these cursed essays.
And you are so smart to ask them.
How else can you figure out what is expected of you and how to write them?
Here’s a list of some of the most common ones I’ve heard over the years, and my answers.
I give both the short answer, and a link or explanation as well if you want to know more.
Please shoot me any questions you have that I missed in the comments section below, and I’m happy to answer it and include it in this list.
Here Are My Random Questions and Answers
In No Particular Order
Can you use “you” in the essay?
Of course you could, but please don’t.
In general, write your college application essay and supplemental essay using the first person: I, me, us, we…Avoid “you” (which is used in second-person point of view) as much as possible. This is my preference, and most editors I know. Save “you” for sales pitches, and blogs, ha ha. These essays are personal and casual in nature, but shifting into second-person moves too far into the reader’s personal space.
Click to learn more about essay basics.
Do you use the five-paragraph format for these essays?
This is one of the most important things to understand about college application essays: They are very different from the five-paragraph, formal, academic essays you wrote in English class.
Instead, most core college application essays (such as The Common Application essay) or personal statements are personal essays that use a narrative style, which means they share experiences and use stories to reveal something central about you to the reader. Your style and structure is more casual, you don’t start with a thesis statement and you don’t need to stick to a set number of paragraphs.
Click here to learn more about the style of college application essays.
What tense do you write these in?
The past. (I walked to the car. I wrote my essay. I won the race.)
Even when it seems like the present tense works, do your best to shift everything you write in these essays into the past tense. It almost always sounds better. Trust me on this.
Click to learn more about finding your essay voice.
Should you try to sound smart?
No, that always backfires. Avoid using long SAT words, and stick to common, everyday language. Write more like you talk. Just tell your story and share your ideas, explanations and insights using simple, direct language (in the past tense). These are not for your English teachers or grades. The point is to express yourself in an engaging and natural way.
Click to learn more about how to stay humble.
Is a narrative-style essay one long story?
No. In a narrative-style essay you share an experience or experiences to illustrate something about yourself, such as a defining quality, characteristic or core value. Yes, the best personal essays include short stories about moments or incidents, but MOST of your essay is where you explain what they meant to you and learned from them.
Click to learn the difference between a story and an anecdote.
How do you write about yourself and not come across as arrogant or full of yourself?
Carefully. Get out your stories and ideas, and then go back and read them to hear how you sound. If you start by sharing some type of problem you have faced, this will help you avoid crossing the line into sounding conceited or entitled. Problems are humbling. Also, have someone else read your essay to make sure you hit the right, humble tone.
Click to learn how to walk the line to hit the right tone in your essay.
Are there any topics to avoid no matter what?
But some topics require more effort than others to be unique and effective. You can write a phenomenal essay about almost anything, from your oversized thumb to your mom’s drinking problem. Be aware that overdone topics that many students write about a lot are more challenging to use to set yourself apart. Examples: mission trips, volunteering, tutoring, sports, injuries, etc. But it can be done—just takes more effort.
Click to learn more on topics to avoid.
Can you write about someone else?
Yes and No.
You must make the essay about you. Colleges don’t care about your grandfather, best friend or dog unless they have affected who you are in a big way.
You can include others in your essay, but it’s critical you make sure that essay and what you have to say is almost all about YOU.
Can you start with a question or quote?
There are no set rules, but in my opinion it’s best to avoid gimmicky first lines. Sometimes they can work, but I don’t remember the last time I saw a good one. And if you are using any dialogue in your essay (to craft your introductory anecdote, which I think work great!), try to work it into the paragraph and don’t have it as your first line. This is just a pet peeve of mine.
And steer clear of including quotes by famous people to support your points. Instead, make your own points, and support them with your ideas, insights and opinions. In these essays, what you think and why counts the most!
Click to learn how to start an essay with an anecdote.
How important is word count?
It’s huge! The school has told you what they expect of you by giving you a word requirement. There’s absolutely no reason you shouldn’t stick to it. In general, I think it’s best to try to take advantage of all the words you are allowed. Just don’t go over, or have an essay that’s so far under the word count it looked as though you couldn’t come up with enough to say.
Does it need a title?
I’ve never seen a college application essay prompt that asked for a title, so I don’t think they are necessary. In my opinion, they are nice to have if you can think of a snappy one. Otherwise, skip it.
Click to learn how to write a title for your essay.
When’s the best time to start?
Now! Get these done and out of your way, especially the core essays for The Common Application. You probably have a lot of shorter, supplemental essays to write as well. So get cranking! If possible, have these done before you start your senior year, which is going to super busy and fun!
Is it worth it to buy an essay or have someone else write it for you?
This may sound enticing, but you would be a fool to have someone else write your essay. No one can write an authentic essay about you than you, and colleges see right through generic essays written by companies. Not to mention it’s totally unethical. The point of these essays is to help colleges find students who are right for their schools. If someone else wrote your essay, that’s not going to work out very well for you.
Click to learn why you should always write your own essay.
Should you let others read your drafts or final essay?
I think it’s almost always a good idea to get another set of eyes on your essay. You can get invaluable feedback about whether your essay is engaging at the start, captures something about what sets your apart and is free of errors. Just be careful who you hand it over to, and let them know in advance what you want out of them.
Click to learn how to find help for your essays.
Do you like it when parents get involved in the essay writing?
Depends on the parents.
I believe parents who do their homework and spend some time understanding what makes a great essay these days (slice-of-life essays!), they can be invaluable. They can help you brainstorm your defining qualities/characteristics, and remember interesting and entertaining moments from your past like no one else.
However, if you have parents who want to effectively write your essay for you, then no, that is not helpful and actually can really hurt your end result. Also, beware of parents who want you to write only about your impressive accomplishments and feats, and make your writing more formal and academic. Many just don’t know any better. It’s up to you to fend them off with good information (point them to this blog!)
Click to learn how to manage your parents.
Do you need a personal tragedy to write a poignant, powerful essay?
But if you have had a challenging or even devastating experience in your past, it can’t help but have been defining of who you are, and shaped how you think, feel and value. Topics about illness, death, accidents, family crises have resulted in excellent essays.
However, you can write equally powerful and effective essays about almost any topic. So if you have an intense topic, consider writing about it. If not, keep brainstorming and you will find lots of other awesome ideas.
Click to learn how to find a topic for your essay.
Do you need to have done something no one else has done to have a great topic?
You don’t need to be super human to write a standout essay. You don’t need to be president of the school body, or scored a winning goal in the state soccer championship or been an Eagle Scout. In fact, these are great accomplishments, but they make yawner essays.
Mundane (everyday) topics are your best bet!
Click to learn more about mundane topics.
Do you ever use third-person point of view in a narrative-style college application essay?
Because narrative-style essays typically start with you sharing something that happened to you, most use the first person to relay that experience or moment (Example: I fell into the lake.) However, much of your essay will go onto explain what that experience meant to you and what you learned. When you share your ideas, insights and opinions, there are times your writing can shift into the third person to have more force.
First person: I believe helping others is the best way to learn life skills.
Third person: Helping others is the best way to learn life skills.
You can use “I believe” and “I think” statements, but if you want to sound more definite, shift into third person and state it as thought it was fact.
Remember, if you have a question I haven’t answered, please leave it in the comments and I will give it my best shot!