Choosing the Right Topic for Your College Essay

college admission college applications college essay college planning Jun 07, 2024

3 Key Takeaways

  • Authenticity Over Cleverness: Focus on genuine experiences and personal growth rather than trying to impress with unique or dramatic stories.
  • Audience Awareness: Remember that admissions officers spend limited time on each application, so make your essay engaging from the start.
  • High School Focus: Concentrate on high school experiences that showcase your development and contributions, avoiding overly common or elementary school anecdotes.

When it comes to writing a college admission essay, many students fall into the trap of trying to guess what the admission readers want to hear. They try to be clever, dramatic, or overly unique, hoping to stand out from the crowd. However, the real key to a successful college essay lies in authenticity and self-reflection.

Why Authenticity Matters

The first piece of advice I give to students is: don't try to guess what admission readers are looking for. Instead, focus on what you learned from an experience, rather than how interesting or unique the experience itself is. Authenticity shines through in your writing and can make a far greater impact than any attempt to be overly clever or dramatic.

Think about experiences that truly matter to you and have helped you grow and develop your talents and strengths. It's not about finding the most unique story, but rather about how you convey personal growth and evolution. Before-and-after stories can be particularly powerful, even if the change is not immediately obvious.

Showcasing Growth and Evolution

Admissions officers want to see growth and self-reflection in your essay. Consider your high school experiences and think about how they have shaped you. What strengths have you developed? What talents have you honed?

"Focus on what you learned from an experience instead of how interesting the experience is or how unique it is," I always tell my students. This approach helps you create a narrative that is both authentically you and demonstrates your ability to reflect on your experiences.

Topics to Avoid

While there is a wealth of high school experiences to draw from, it's important to avoid certain topics that may be difficult to write about in a fresh and engaging way. Admissions officers, who spend an average of eight minutes on your entire application, often skim through essays, reading only the first and last sentences. Many of these readers are young, so keep your audience in mind.

We have found over the years that topics like learning differences, divorce, substance abuse, or severe mental health challenges can be challenging to write about effectively. This is not to say you should completely avoid these topics if they are central to your story but be sure to focus more on how you overcame these challenges and what you learned from them. "If you feel very strongly about a challenge that you have overcome, make sure that no more than one quarter of the essay deals with the problem and that three quarters of the essay deals with the solution," I advise.

Making Common Topics Unique

Sports, for example, is a common topic that can be hard to write about in a fresh way. Instead of focusing on the typical narrative of losing the game but learning to be a good team player, dive deeper. Journal about your experiences and reflect on the strengths you developed through leadership roles within your team, or the relationships you cultivated with your teammates and coaches.

"Explore in depth, do a little bit of journaling, and see which of your strengths you developed," I suggest. This can help you find a unique angle on a common topic.

High School Experiences Only

It's crucial that your essay focuses on experiences from high school. While you can mention childhood experiences in passing, the bulk of your essay should center on your high school years. This is similar to how you would structure a resume, where the most recent and relevant experiences take precedence.

"Make sure your topics take place primarily in high school, not in elementary or middle school," I remind students. This ensures that your essay is relevant and showcases the person you are now, not just who you were as a child.

Final Thoughts

The best college admission essays are those that are authentic, reflective, and focused on personal growth. Avoid trying to guess what admissions officers want to hear and instead, focus on what you have learned from your experiences. Avoid overused topics unless you can present them in a new and unique way, and always keep your high school experiences at the forefront.

Remember, your college admission essay is your chance to show who you are beyond your grades and test scores. Use it to highlight your strengths, your growth, and your potential contributions to the college community. By staying true to yourself and reflecting deeply on your experiences, you can craft an essay that truly stands out.


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Anjali Maazel

Anjali Maazel

Founder and CEO of Anja Education Consultants

At Anja Education Consultants, we pride ourselves on the exceptional expertise of our Founder and CEO, Anjali Maazel. With over 15 years of experience as an alumna interviewer for Princeton University, our team, led by Anjali, brings a wealth of knowledge in college admissions. Our interdisciplinary approach, which melds arts, international education, and public relations, allows us to provide unparalleled guidance in college planning. The cornerstone of our success is the proprietary Talent Development 3D Process™, a unique strategy that has achieved a remarkable 100% success rate in securing admissions for our clients to at least one of their top three preferred schools. As a respected Ted Talk speaker and a sought-after authority in college admissions, we are frequently invited by high schools across the globe to share our insights and strategies, empowering students to reach their full potential in the competitive world of college admissions.
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