Two Ways to Choose a College Essay Topic


For many students, the hardest part about the whole dreaded college essay is choosing a topic. While it’s true that HOW you present your essay is important—that is, your writing style, mechanical correctness, personal voice are all formal qualities that generate the overall impression your essay makes—WHAT you say does matter.

In choosing your topic, consider the two most important substantive features (i.e., as opposed to the formal features noted above):

  • your story
  • your message

For some students, it’s easier to think of an anecdote or two they’d like to relate in their essay, some highly memorable or meaningful experience, a moment of passion or insight. Through the process of writing about the experience—and both the devil and the success are in the details—students will discover some important truth about themselves, the ultimate message their essay conveys to the admissions committee.

One CPE student, for example, knew she wanted to write about how, after years of playing soccer every fall, she decided in 10th grade to try a totally new sport: crew. For whatever reason, she clearly remembered the very moment she made that decision, so  describing that particular event became her central anecdote.

  • Note: Your anecdote does NOT have to be some overwhelmingly impressive event, like leading the team to the state championship, meeting President Obama, or finding a cure for cancer!
  • It just has to be a poignant moment from YOUR past.

In writing about this seemingly insignificant choice, this student discovered something really important about herself, that despite coming from a community characterized by routine, convention, peer pressure, etc., she found that she really likes to try new things, to have an open mind, to take risks without knowing in advance how things will turn out.

Another way to go is the exact reverse. That is, start with the message you want to send the committee, and then retro-engineer your essay to fit.

  • What is it about yourself you’d like the committee to know? your leadership skills? your sense of initiative? your passion about an idea or activity? your school spirit?

One CPE student, for example, wanted to convey his propensity for grappling with seemingly insoluble problems—he was drawn to problems in school that tend to perplex, paradoxes that are difficult to resolve, things like theodicy (which grapples with reconciling the existence of evil in the world with a caring and loving God). In writing about this idea, the student recalled that his parents frequently remind him that when he was a young boy, he refused to be constrained by child-safe devices—car seats, cribs and such. Telling stories of his childhood escape artistry became his central anecdote. He then discovered that his refusal to be PHYSICALLY constrained transformed as he grew older into a refusal to be INTELLECTUALLY constrained, which was the message he wanted to deliver to the committee.

Why not try it both ways and see which one works better for YOU? At CollegePrepExpress, we’re here to help, from brainstorming to polishing the final draft :-).

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The primary purpose of CollegePrepExpress, LLC is to help students get into their top secondary schools, colleges, and graduate schools and to reduce stress surrounding the entire admissions process.

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