Tips for Selecting a College Essay Topic

Why Your College Essay is Important

The college admissions process requires campus administrators to evaluate thousands of applicants annually.  Transcripts, awards, community recognition and other tangible accomplishments go a long way; to make your case for admission, but most applications also include an essay requirement.  Personal essays give college officials a glimpse into the character of each applicant, and provide an opportunity for students to showcase their own ambitions, values and educational promise.

Review Writing the Application Essay for helpful input about making the most of your essay opportunity, and effectively branding yourself for college admission.  Each institution of higher education puts forth its own unique set of admissions standards, so pay close attention to specific essay instructions.  As important as it is to express your ideas clearly in the essay, it is all for naught if you don’t fulfill your school’s essay expectations precisely.

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selecting essay

The underlying mission of your composition is to sell yourself to the college, but it must be done deftly, and with a genuine voice.  Convey your own unique perspective by choosing an essay topic that relates to something important to you. Spark interest in your ideas by including personal details, with a mind toward concise presentation.  The quickest path to the rejection pile is a boring, impersonal submission that doesn’t really say anything about you.  On the other hand, you are speaking to an academic audience, so the central ideas of your essay should always reflect your educational ambitions.

Some schools, like the University of Wisconsin, offer assistance for students struggling with essay requirements.

A Well-Chosen Topic

In some instances, the topic of your admissions essay is pre-determined by the college or university you are applying to.  This approach often provides a choice of two or three suggestions that candidates select from.  Select your topic based on your own personal strengths and frame of reference, rather than trying to guess which one might be best received. To spark creativity, consider how your educational interests have evolved, and what direction you’ll be going in the future.

  • What hobbies and extracurricular activities have benefited you most, and why?
  • What events in your life spurred your interest in your intended field of study?
  • Did you overcome obstacles to get where you are today?
  • Do you have a unique perspective to contribute to your field?
  • Why do you feel higher education is important?

Inspiration comes from many places, so as you select your essay topics, tap memories and experiences that provide motivation and inspiration for higher education. You may not land where you’d expect to – topically, but the resulting essays will be more interesting as a result.

  • Maybe your educational inspiration is drawn from the accomplishments of someone else, like your father or grandfather.
  • Perhaps a volunteer group you work with has inspired you toward a particular career.
  • Does a teacher stand out as a critical component in your drive to succeed scholastically?
  • Maybe you are influenced by the struggles of a close friend or family member who used education to overcome adversity.
  • Does your world view include a strong commitment to helping others?

Whatever your passion, explore it for examples that support your educational pursuits.  Be honest and intelligent in your presentation, and use specific personal beliefs and achievements to play up your potential for success at the university level.

Essay success is achieved by standing out, rather than blending in, so topics need to help readers pay attention.  You are not going for shock value, but some degree of controversy in your piece stimulates thought and inspires essay evaluators to remember you.  Choosing your own subject matter is a luxury that allows you to expound on your passion, but what if the topic is out of your hands?

When Topics Are Assigned

Some colleges and universities compare apples to apples, by requiring every applicant to respond to the same essay topic.  While this takes away your burden of choice, it can actually be a more challenging assignment than selecting your own topic.  Generalizations will get you nowhere, so even if the assigned topic is not up your alley, it is important to spin your own personality into the essay.

Your mission remains the same, whether topics are assigned or chosen:  Sell your strengths to university admissions officials.  Use a genuine voice, write without slang or colloquial jargon, and vary the style of your piece to stimulate interest.  Before submitting final essays to your school, revise drafts frequently, and seek the assistance of trusted proofreaders.