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Writing College Application Essays: How to Choose a Topic

June 14, 2011

I was speaking to the Joel Barlow High School PTSA in Redding today (thanks, PTSA!) about writing college application essays, and was asked a great question: Do I have any suggestions for the student who’s having trouble deciding what to write about? Yes!

Choosing a topic for a college application essay can be a daunting, if not downright intimidating experience. Many students think that because nothing big or dramatic has happened to them in their lives they don’t have anything to write about. Wrong!

You don’t have to be the best athlete, have won lots of awards, or had a big “moment of revelation” to write a great college application essay. Far from it. While big experiences can make good essays, the small things can be just as powerful, if not more so.

Remember, colleges look for 3 main things in a college application essay:

  • How well you write
  • How well you organize your thoughts
  • You. What makes you unique? What kind of person are you? What kind of choices do you make?

When you’re choosing a topic you want to find an experience — a story — that will reflect what’s unique about you. You never want 100 other students to be able to write the same essay you’re writing. It should only be able to come from you.

Here are 3 questions to ask yourself if you’re having trouble choosing a topic for your college application essay:

1. Is there a time in my life I’ve taken a risk?

2. Is there a time I’ve turned a failure into a success?

3. Has there been a difficult choice I’ve had to make, but am glad I made it?

Notice that these questions deal with a personal journey —  they ask you to discuss and reflect on some way that you’ve grown into the person you are.

Start with these questions. If you can’t think of an answer, ask your parents. Parents are excellent resources when you’re looking for college essay topics because they know you well, have seen you grow, and may remember something that you don’t.

Always remember that no matter what topic you choose, you want to represent yourself in a positive light. But that light can shine just as brightly on the small things as the big ones — as long as it reflects you.

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