First of all, there is no such thing as a perfect essay topic!
What we want you to think about is: What’s a good place to start?
It doesn’t matter at this early stage if you’re “getting it right.” You just need something to write about without focusing on how it will end up. Over and again, we see students start at one point, and in the process of writing and thinking, end up someplace very different.
People come up with places to start in different ways.
You may have a general place to start that covers a lot of ground. For example, you may love swimming. Do you write about being on the swim team, the friends who are fellow swimmers, the time you tried to teach a five-year-old to swim, or the experience of being in the ocean versus a pool? Our suggestion–quickly write about all of them and see what interesting things come out of your head.
As you’re exploring places to start, keep some things in mind:
- Keep track of all the ideas you come up with; you may think about them differently after you’ve pondered and written a bit.
- Don’t dismiss any idea just when you have it. It may not make sense at first, but after thinking a while it could be perfect. This happens frequently.
- The smallest topics often make for the best essays. You don’t have to find something profound or dramatic.
- Ideas may come to you when you’re least paying attention. That’s how our brains work: a lot of the pondering and thinking happens in the background.
You’re just finding stories, areas or ideas that you could write about. Don’t fall into the trap of, “I don’t know how I’d write that.” You don’t have to know yet! Great topics are hiding in all sorts of nooks and crannies of your life. Go on a treasure hunt in these areas and see what you find:
The Common Application and Coalition Application Prompts
Let’s start with the prompts for the Common and Coalition Applications. We’ve expanded on the general prompts and rewritten them a bit.
[toggle style=”toggle_box” status=”closed” title=”Big and Obvious Things”] [p]
There may be something obvious for you to write about. You might as well start here. (Be sure you don’t end here, though. It’s too early to tell what your final choice of a topic will be. For now, you’re still playing.)
First of all, what are you passionate about? What can you talk about with your friends or strangers forever? That thing may not turn out to be a great topic, or it may be perfect. It’s always easier to write about something if you have passion.
Check out these areas:
- A school or extracurricular activity
- A hobby
- A work experience
- A major illness or other life-changing event
- Anything else in your life that jumps out at you
If you choose any of these topics, be careful that you don’t write an essay that colleges have seen a thousand times! For example, the most important experience of your life may have been a volunteer trip or finally making the soccer team. It’s much harder to write an essay that stands out if it’s based in an experience many teenagers have had.
[toggle style=”toggle_box” status=”closed” title=”Failures, Disasters and Screw-Ups”] [p]Failures are all over the place, in school, personal life, ideas, physical activities, art projects, a job…there’s no end to our failures. They may have been public or private, funny or tragic. They help us learn, and make us human.
- What big, dramatic failures have you had?
- What small, subtle failures have you had?
In areas where you have a lot of success, what were some failures you encountered on the way? They could be big or small, one-time or repeated. [/p] [/toggle]
[toggle style=”toggle_box” status=”closed” title=”Growing Up”] [p] Discuss an accomplishment or event that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood.
- Did you go through a ceremony to initiate you into adulthood?
- Have you taken on new responsibilities?
- Was there a challenge you needed to handle?
- Did you accomplish something that showed your maturity, skill or perspective?
[toggle style=”toggle_box” status=”closed” title=”Making a Difference”] [p]Where have you made a difference, big or small? It could be for a person, a group of people, a place…any way in which you made the world a little bit (or a whole lot) better.
And where would you like to make a difference? Here, you can think really big—even globally if you want. Or you can keep it personal.
[toggle style=”toggle_box” status=”closed” title=”Being Bold, Standing Up”] [p]What was a time when you challenged a belief or an idea? What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- What intellectual ideas have you challenged in school, at home, at work, or someplace else?
- What religious, political, philosophical or ethical beliefs have you challenged?
- What actions, statements or policies have you challenged?
- When have you stood up to other people? This could be peers, parents, teachers, authority figures, strangers, etc.
[toggle style=”toggle_box” status=”closed” title=”Problem Solving”] [p]Describe a problem you’ve solved or would like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything you care about, no matter how big or small. Explain what it means to you and what you did or could do to find a solution.
- What do you care about in your own life, in your community, or in your world? Where are the problems, weaknesses or opportunities in that area?
- What are you most curious about?
- Imagine the future the way you’d like to see it. What’s in the way?
And keep on getting curious!
Don’t stop with the Common App and Coalition App prompts! Keep poking around with these questions to find even more places for you to get started.
[toggle style=”toggle_box” status=”closed” title=”Being a Jerk”] [p]
What? You? No, never!
Yeah, you! All of us are jerks sometimes. The funny thing is, when you know you were a jerk, you’re not a jerk. Ponder that for a moment…
If you can say that was kind of a jerk thing I did last Thursday…, it means you know right from wrong. It means you fundamentally aren’t a jerk. And that’s good news. Why? Because it shows your humanity and decency. It shows maturity. And it shows that you have the self-confidence to ‘fess up to being a jerk.
So where’ve you been a jerk? And what did you do to deal with the situation? Think back to Sawyer’s essay—he was kind of a jerk to Darius (at least after he peed in the girls’ cabin). But looking back, he understands why, and wishes he could have done something differently.
But you’ve got to be authentic here. No fake jerk incidents, and no fake feelings of remorse. Just tell it like it is.
[toggle style=”toggle_box” status=”closed” title=”Non-Teenager Activities”] [p]By definition most teenagers do the kinds of things teenagers do. If you do something even a little out of the ordinary, it can make for a unique and entertaining essay. Admissions officers read countless essays about soccer and volunteering. They don’t read many about jigsaw puzzles or training dogs.
- What do you do–big or small–that’s a little different?
- What do you do that your friends think is either cool or weird?
- Are there non-teenager-activities you do with a couple of friends or your family?
Do you cook or bake? This can be especially non-teenager-ish if you’re a guy. [/p] [/toggle]
[toggle style=”toggle_box” status=”closed” title=”Hiding in Plain Site”] [p]Some of the best essays come from the most unlikely topics. Spoons, jigsaw puzzles, killing a squirrel, playing Beowulf in English class and hanging out in a supermarket parking lot are some of our favorites. It took time for students to find some of these topics, and a couple came up by chance in conversations with their mentors. Here are questions to help you dig around where topics often hide:
- Who do you have close relationships with?
- What do you do with your family? These can be things at home, outside activities, annual outings…anything.
- Where have you traveled, and what happened when you were traveling? Have you been somewhere that sticks in your mind?
- What communities or groups or clubs do you belong to? [/p] [/toggle]
[toggle style=”toggle_box” status=”closed” title=”Being Proud”] [p]What are you proud of? It can be an accomplishment, a way of living, an attitude, your family, a community you belong to, a place…
[toggle style=”toggle_box” status=”closed” title=”Sticky Memories”] [p]We all have memories that matter to us—the things that happened that just stick in our minds. They may be the stories that you tell over and over again. They may be positive memories or they may be painful.
What do you remember?
[toggle style=”toggle_box” status=”closed” title=”Things that Matter”] [p]What do you care about? It could something personal and private. It could be an individual. It could be an idea, a place, or a cause.
Sometimes, you can discover what you care about by paying attention to what triggers strong emotions, whether they’re positive or negative.[/p] [/toggle]
[toggle style=”toggle_box” status=”closed” title=”Essays about Nothing”] [p]
Nothing? Like, nothing?
Yeah, every now and then someone writes a great essay about essentially nothing.
Like Ryan, who sits in a car with his friends at the supermarket parking lot.
Or Nick, who talks with his wrestling coach and his grandfather, and describes his bedroom.
What are the little everyday nothing incidents or things you do that could actually reveal something about your character?
[toggle style=”toggle_box” status=”closed” title=”Great Questions from Universities”] [p]
There are countless questions you can ask yourself to prompt new ideas. Here are some we’ve adapted from colleges and universities:
- Where have you been a leader? Maybe you didn’t have an official position or role, but you still
- influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
- Where are you creative? And we don’t mean artistic. Everyone has a creative side. Maybe yours is in solving problems, innovative thinking, imagining how the world could be…or doing something artistic.
- What gets you engaged intellectually? What subjects do you like in school? How do they show up outside of the classroom?
- What do you notice that other people don’t? How do you see or think about the world?