College Application Essay: Brainstorming The Perfect Topic

Like many students, you may feel like picking a topic is becoming the hardest part of writing your college application essays. You feel the pressure to write an impressive essay that will make you stand out to colleges but think you have nothing interesting or exciting enough to write about.

Not true!

No matter your background or life experiences, all students have memorable and personal experiences to share. It’s just a matter of finding the right topic.

At our annual College Info Session, expert college essay coach Elena Munoz shared some of the tips and strategies we use in our Application Essay Writing program to help  students brainstorm great topics.

And now, we’re going to share her tips with you!

College Application Essay Prompts

Before you can start picking a topic, you need to know what you can write about.

Here are the 2019-2020 Common Application Essay Prompts:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Notice that prompt #7 says you can write about any topic of your choice! That gives you a lot of freedom. However, you should also notice the underlying theme in all of these prompts: you.

Your response should be all about you!

Picking a Great Topic

Rather than a relief, often students find the freedom of the Common App prompts intimidating. Where to begin? How to choose? What do admission officers want to see in your essay?

Here are 3 tips for picking a great topic:

  • Important Experience: The topic you pick should be about a profound experience, activity, or interest for you. It doesn’t have to be dramatic, tragic, or long, but it should be something that you feel is significant. It should be an experience that has helped shape you into who you are today.
  • Reflection: Your topic should include a reflection on the life lesson or realization this experience has taught you. The best topics show personal growth – how you’ve matured and changed.
  • Identity: Your topic should present a clear sense of who you are and a notable character trait about you. Are you brave, compassionate, or resilient? Are you a leader, problem-solver, or giver?

Conquering Writer’s Block

Many students look at the above 3 criteria and feel immediate stuck by the first item. They can’t think of any experiences to write about.

Here’s some tips to for conquering writer’s block:

  • Two-Column List: Create a list with two columns. On one side write down your achievements and successes over the past few years. On the other side write down your failures and obstacles. These can be concrete achievements and failure such as winning or losing an award or competition or more personal successes and obstacles with habits, grades, family, community, fitness, finances, or causes.
  • Pick One: Focus on one experience from the list on either side.
  • Examine: Think about how this experience challenged you and analyze the outcome. What was hard or difficult about this experience? Why did you succeed? Why did you fail?
  • Reflect: Consider how this experience changed you or helped you develop some level of maturity.

Remember, you don’t have to have had a traumatic or over-the-top amazing experience to have a great topic. If the experience was significant to you, it will shine through in the essay. Your topic is just a small slice of your life that will reflect the bigger picture of who you are and what you care about.

Avoiding Cliches

Other students already have a topic in mind, but they’re not sure if it fits the above criteria for a great topic.

The trick is not to try and pick an experience that you think you should write about – your summer with Habitat for Humanity, your beloved dog’s death, or winning the regional science competition – and then mold it to hit the above 3 criteria. That is a great way to write a cliche essay admission officers have heard a million times before. Instead, you want to pick a topic that truly reflects who you are and what you care about.

In our Application Essay Writing program, we ask our student tons of questions. Serious questions. Silly Questions. Anything to help them start seeing a pattern in what matters most to them and what character trait they are most proud of.

Here are just a few examples:

  • What Harry Potter house would you be sorted into? Why?
  • What was the most stressful event you encountered in the past two years?
  • What motivates you to get out of the bed in the morning?
  • What world event from the past has had the most impact on your thinking?
  • What book, song, or movie is most important to you? Why?

We ask our students about 60 of these questions. In the end, they and their essay coach notice key experiences and ideas that repeatedly come up. They start to see what they are most passionate about.

Ask yourself reflective questions to pinpoint key experiences and insights into your identity and growth. This will help you shape a unique and compelling essay that will leave an admission officer feeling like he or she knows you better.

Case Study: Checkers & Charity

One of our students provides a great example of how small experiences that you care about can lead to a great, interesting essay!

Out of our many questions, we asked her these 3:

  • What are you most passionate about?
  • Do you feel a moral responsibility to those is your community?
  • What personal achievement are you most proud of?

Her answers:

  • She was passionate about playing checkers with her family, especially her grandfather.
  • She felt a strong responsibility to her community.
  • She was proud of working with Midnight  Run – a New York City charitable organization focused on giving and connecting with the city’s homeless citizens.

Checkers might not sound immediately important or exciting, but in fact, her experiences playing with her grandfather shaped how she viewed the world. She took these personal interests and crafted an amazing essay.

Here are some snippets:

Introduction: 

“The game is a simple one. The board is nothing more than a checkered slab of which 24 rounded beige and black chunks of wood slide…My sister and I slam our pieces down with each move. Never accepting defeat, we rattle the board with anger and ego. Smug smiles contrast our furrowed brows as we steal each other’s hard earned kings.

Playing with my grandfather, however, is much more calm…Jumping ahead, and taking two of my kings along the way, he says, “See, you always need to be careful.”

Middle:

“Later that night, no longer in Tanzania’s tropics, but instead in Manhattan’s concrete jungle, I find myself staring at a man in the dead of night on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The decaying pavement studded with hardened gum and cigarette butts is fraught with distrust and ruthlessness; this is the place he calls home. Hunched over, eyes shut, head dangling, he lay camouflaged on the unlit street corner. I am a Midnight Runner, a member of a charity organization, and my job is to care of the homeless of the city’s streets. As I carefully move towards the silent city-dweller, each step of mine is tinged with caution.”

Conclusion:

“Now when my grandfather and I play checkers again, I find the unassuming checkerboard to be more than just a fun pastime. Instead, the objectified game has become the anchor. As I leave the comforts of my grandfather’s living room and the binary, black-and-white, forward-and-backward checker board behind, I venture through the realities of the larger world, learning to navigate by finding simplicity – the unifying, underlying, and omnipresent…While my checkerboard may be black and white, our world is certainly more of a light-polluted-NYC-night gray.”

This essay deftly interweaves the two experiences of safely playing a simple game of checkers and boldly navigating the complex problem of homelessness to reveal her growth into a insightful, purposeful, and compassionate individual.

It is a perfect example of how focusing on experiences, activities, or memories that are highly important to you will give you great material for an outstanding essay.

Next Step

Want more help on creating an amazing college application essay? Check out our Application Essay Writing Program! Our expert coaches will walk you step-by-step through the writing process.

Call 855-346-1410 or contact us for a free consultation to get started today.

We can’t wait to hear from you!

Katie Weisman

Katie Weisman is a driven, dedicated English teacher at MEK Review, who leads group test prep classes, as well as one-on-one sessions with students. Her passion for teaching, in-depth knowledge of test content, and use of our systematic approach to test preparation helps her guide students to high test scores, strong writing skills and their full potential.

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