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Five Tips for Generating College Essay Topics

The main college essay in the Common Application is often referred to as a personal statement. Why personal? Because the essay should help the reader gain insight into who the student is as a person. It’s an essay that should be introspective and reflect what is meaningful to you.

open notebook with pen

In preparation for essay writing, find time to reflect on your life and values.

Before you turn to the empty document on your computer screen to start writing, it is essential that you spend some time thinking—about your life, your values and the memories you hold dear. Keep in mind that colleges will know quite a bit about you from reading your application, so the essay is your opportunity to talk directly to the admissions readers. What do you want them to know about you that they won’t learn from reading your list of activities, your recommendations, and your family and school information?  Start by making a list of your best qualities. What distinguishes you? Then, think of a story or moment from your high school years to illustrate each quality.

Here are five steps to help you harvest some compelling stories to highlight your distinguishing qualities:

1. Write Your Autobiography: This need not be a piece of writing that anyone else sees, but writing six or seven pages about your life (with headers such as Memories, Places, Family, Friends, Interests, and Adventures) will help you reflect on moments that matter to you. Do you have a place that means a lot to you? One student wrote about the history of his family’s summer home and how generation after generation finds comfort and happiness there–and how those experiences shaped him as a person. Do you want colleges to know how much you care about other people? One student told the story of spending time with her ailing grandmother, bringing out details about her kind nature that were not obvious from looking at her application.

2. Look through Photo Albums: When was the last time you looked through your family photographs?  They might give you inspiration for how to highlight your best self. A photo of a student with his childhood friends wearing their Halloween costumes prompted him to write about the caring neighborhood in which he was raised and how everything there was not always perfect, but that his experiences in that community helped him grow and mature.

college essay guidebooks

Helpful guidebooks may provide support in the essay writing process.

3. Interview Family Members or Friends: Tell them what you are trying to convey about yourself and solicit their ideas for personal stories that you may have forgotten. Every family has stories they love to share that go something like this: Remember the time we stayed in the cottage in New Hampshire and we spent hours trying to get the bat out of the living room? That essay ended up being a reflection on the importance of extended family in this student’s life. Or what about the time a student’s running shoe fell off during a cross country meet—and he finished the race anyway, hobbling to the finish line? He was able to connect this to perseverance through difficulties in his life.

4. Think Simple, Not Exotic: We commonly hear students say, “I haven’t been to Africa or done anything really exciting, so what can I write about?” Your life is rich with stories, and the best essays are about everyday moments. One student spent a summer building a cottage in Maine with her family. The only way her family could afford a summer camp is if they built it themselves. She learned to saw, roof and lay bricks, showing her love of family, thriftiness, and willingness to work hard to build something meaningful. And she explained it in a way that made the reader feel as though they were right alongside her hammering away.

5. What’s Your Philosophy? What Are Your Values?: Taking an interesting and unexpected perspective that highlights your own views can make for a unique essay. One student wrote about why he hates music with lyrics, where another explained how practicing yoga helped her change her life priorities. A student who works with homeless women connected her essay to her belief in democracy and how freedom to her meant that every citizen has a responsibility to hold up an implied social contract that people should take care of each other. She connected this to learning about the New Deal and FDR in US History class.

The key to a successful essay is not just telling a good story, but one that conveys something meaningful about you. The “why it matters” is as essential to the essay as the story itself.

If you need more advice on the college admissions essay, contact us today.

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