Overwhelmed by the many college essay topics you can write about? Don’t be. We’ll show you potential topics you can choose for your college essay.
As discussed in the post about How to Choose an Essay Topic, don’t start with the Common App, Coalition App, or other college application essay prompts. Instead, begin writing your essay and go back and choose the prompt it answers best later.
Table of Contents
What is the College Essay?
The college essay is the piece of writing in your college application where you tell admission officers:
- Who you are
- What value you’d bring to the campus community
- Why they should accept you.
The college essay brings color to your file and can give “aha” moments to highlight or bring clarity about why you’re a good candidate for the college. Your college essay is so important that a great essay can push you over the edge if it’s between you and another candidate. A bad college essay will likely lead to a decision to decline your application. College essay topics set the tone of the entire essay.
While we never know the exact impact of the college essay on admissions, before COVID-19, 75% of admissions officers responded that they found the college essay to be a factor in their decisions. This shows that the college essay is important. The essay you write is guided by the college essay topics you choose. With so many things happening in your life, how do you choose which to write about?
This post digs into the most compelling topics of the 2021 college application season. The examples presented here will get you started on writing an essay that is unique to you and makes the case for your admissions.
Something you're afraid of
Fear is a great topic to explore in your college essay. It’s one of the most primal of all human emotions. Fear keeps us from making decisions that can hurt us. But more often than not, fear also holds us back from doing things that will help us grow. With a key objective in your essay to show growth, writing your essay about something that keeps you up at night is sure to be a winner.
Some examples can include the fear of loneliness, fear of failure, or the fear of success. I had a former student write an essay about his fear of heights and how he overcame that fear and worked his way up to riding the Tower of Terror at Hollywood Studios. Here’s an excerpt from the student’s essay:
Something you're grateful for
This topic perfectly aligns with the Common Apps new 2021-2022 essay prompt that says:
Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
The motivation for this question update is that so much has happened in 2020 and 2021. After the COVID-19 pandemic, the world will never be the same. We have lost so many lives. Also, there is social unrest, economic decline, and lots of uncertainty. Some people liken what’s happening to the early 20th century, ironically in the same 20s decade. If you’re alive, breathing, and have had good fortunes this year, this may be an excellent topic for you to dig into further.
Someone who has inspired you
For this essay topic, you’d write about a real person in your life. Avoid choosing a celebrity, popular politician or pubic figure, out of the risk of being too cliché. The person you choose should have a direct or indirect influence on the person you have become.
This could be someone like your mom or dad, a grandparent, aunt or uncle, cousin, friend, teacher, coach, or anyone else who you can speak vividly and candidly about lessons they have taught you. This person can be living or may have passed on. The essay you write will illustrate what insights and learnings you can apply to your life because of the influence they have had on you.
Here’s an excerpt from a sample student who wrote about her late father:
Something you're fighting for
2020 is arguably the year of the most protests in your lifetime (and my lifetime!). Mashable featured a great article about the 15 protests of 2020 that you’ll tell your children about. Why wait? Your college essay is a great place to start, especially if you’ve been part of any of the protests. Nothing explains who you are and what you stand for than sharing causes that you care about.
Something you're sacrificing for
One of the most incredible moves you can make in your life is sacrificing something in your life for the greater good. For example, maybe you’re an aspiring teen entrepreneur and next founder or creator. You’re building a business, like a few of my students.
One has a jewelry company and sells her products on Etsy. Another is buying and selling cryptocurrency on an exchange. Running a business comes with sacrifices, such as missing out on having fun with friends. Or perhaps your grades. Many of my entrepreneurial students have less than stellar grades or limited extracurricular involvement because they’ve spent more time building their businesses.
This essay would serve a dual purpose of explaining why their grades aren’t perfect (addressing something that admissions officers would want to know) and showing their passion for something worth sacrificing the time and energy they’d spend elsewhere that wasn’t as significant.
Something or someone you value
A classic topic, you can use it as your general essay. Some schools, like Stanford University, use this topic as a supplemental essay. At its core, motivation, and passion lead to action. In this essay, you can show admissions officers what type of person you are, how you show up in the world, and your plans for the future – for yourself, the campus community, and society.
To be sure, this is a BIG essay to write. If you select this topic, be sure to focus on one thing (as opposed to ten) that is meaningful and most important to you. Avoid repeating anything you have said in another part of your application. A great example of this essay is a student who wrote about a memory box where she keeps her most precious treasures. She speaks about each treasure, a book from her mom and a pair of gold hoop earrings, and the significance they’ve had in her life. Here’s an excerpt:
Here’s a college essay excerpt from a student who wrote about a box for her most precious treasures:
Something you're passionate about
This essay topic is a great way to show your curiosity and hunger for knowledge or mastering a skill. You wouldn’t want to write this essay about anything already in your college application, like why you enjoy biology or why you joined your school’s video club. Instead, you’d write about something that shows your interest in something that would not fit anywhere else. You enjoy something so unique that your application would not be complete unless they knew this about you.
Interests you can write about like:
- Podcasting and video blogging
- Bitcoin and cryptocurrency
- Real estate investing
- Running your own business or nonprofit
- Spoken word poetry
- Knitting, scrapbooking, or other creative arts
- Social media and being an influencer
These are a few examples, and you likely have your own examples of interests you’re passionate about that you do on your own and outside of school. Speaking about your hobbies and interests can give insight into what else you’ve been up to during your high school years. Often for students, these interests may lead to career options or influence how you’ll engage in the campus community, both of which admissions officers are very interested in learning about you.
Your cultural roots and background
If you’re a newcomer to the United States or a first-generation American with parents who migrated to our country, this may be a good topic for you to explore. You have a unique voice and perspective that college admissions officers highly value. You can speak about so many things — experiences, culture, food — what meaning these things have had in your life, how you’re balancing with ideals in American culture.
You can speak about it directly, such as telling the reader about your journey as a newcomer or first-generation American student. Or you can talk about it indirectly, as one of my students from last year did. The student wrote about his joy in making empanadas. He shares his grandmother’s recipe and what it’s like making them with her and ties it to his cultural ties to Equador and being of Italian heritage. Here’s an excerpt from his essay:
Here’s a college essay excerpt from a student who wrote about his joy of cooking empanadas for his family:
7 Summer Activities that Impress Colleges
Don't sit around this summer. Read this article for ways to stay busy doing activities that impress colleges. I discuss 7 things you can do this summer.
How to Choose High School Classes
High school classes that you take and how well you perform in them is the greatest indicator of college success. Learn how to choose wisely.
The Strange College Admissions Scandal, privilege, and other college news.
Sketchy college admissions consultant involved in scandal and how me and colleagues react to the news that rocked the college admissions world.
How to Ask for a College Recommendation Letter
This is a step-by-step guide for high school students for help asking teachers and counselors for a college recommendation letter.
How the Admissions Committee Works
A look into admissions committee evaluation of students for college admissions.Gain insights on how you can better prepare your student.
Accepted to Cornell: How She Got In
How she got accepted to Cornell. This post reviews the key steps that helped with her college application to Cornell.