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College Essay Topics for 2021

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: May 20, 2021

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.

Key Takeaways

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.

2020 is the first year that most colleges considered files without test scores. They placed more emphasis on the college essay. Things will be the same in 2020. The University of California and many other colleges have announced that 2021-2022 will also be test-optional.

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

girl covering her face with her blouse

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:

"I am scared of many things (needles, sharks, blood), but no fear has conquered me more than height fright. I spent a decade visiting Disney World with my mom, dad, and younger brother and never set foot on a thrill ride. I especially feared The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a Hollywood Studios headliner, engineered to drop at accelerated speeds while being struck by lightning bolts or what epitomized my waking nightmare. In August 2011, when my dad suggested we ride Terror, I profusely refused. His stone-cold face glared at me down when he said, "Logan, this ride isn't even scary!"

But I, arms crossed and standing my ground, wouldn't waver. Of course, I got my way, and he stayed back with me. Although relieved for the time being, upon returning to New York, I felt bad that I had burdened my family with my fear, which persisted for five more years. Then, last year, I rode Terror and haven't looked back since. Here's how I did it."

Student Writer

Something you're grateful for

girl on the bus laughing looking outside

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

Dad and daugther posing for picture studying in the library

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: 

"In his final days, I recall my father reclining on a plush black couch. His expressionless face was attached to a gas mask and oxygen tank. It still brings me to tears that the father I loved - the man who walked ten blocks every Sunday to Parisi's Bakery to buy his little girl strawberry-filled bread cookies - was losing his battle with lung cancer.

Even as his health started to deteriorate, my father proved himself to be a hero. Like a devout Muslim, he read his favorite Koran passages and prayed five times daily until the eleventh hour. Oblivious to his weakening condition, I sat by his side, asking questions about everything like spelling a word, the question to a Jeopardy answer, and what a fact means. Hoarse and out of breath, my father always gave me an answer. He was aware that this moment might be the last time we would have together. But I believed that he would pull through cancer and be around forever. After all, real heroes never die, right?

While difficult to be fully expressed in words, my father strived to be a good parent to my brothers and me. He made sure we got to school on time, taught us how to save for the future, and encouraged us to value our Muslim beliefs. Still, more importantly, he made us earn his approval. On those rare occasions, when I could get him to share a proud smile for something that I achieved, I felt like my world was complete. For example, my father walked with my brothers and me to Rainey Park on Saturdays, where he challenged us to a relay race. Of course, he always won. But during each race, he yelled at me to run faster, pull through the pain gushing through my legs, and pump harder and harder. After following his advice, on one particular Saturday afternoon, I beat him! And when I waited for his expression, his grave eyes finally gave me the approval I yearned for. On the way home, he stopped at the store to buy me red Baby Bottle Pop candy. It was the perfect day!"

Student Writer

Something you're fighting for

girl with afro hair protesting

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

boy studying in his computer

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

teenager boy opening a secret box

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: 

I am a collector. It started with a box. But my head is ingrained with the idea that every object worth saving has a story worth remembering. Peeking out from the edge of the box was Our Moon Has Blood Clots, a book my mom had given me two years ago to read. It vividly details Kashmir's purge of the Kashmiri Pandit community, a part of our history my mom felt was important to understand. But I avoided it. For me, it was too uncomfortable to face a past ridden with war, violence, rape, and exile. I didn't want to relive my parents escaping their homes with only a few documents, living in tents, and everything they worked for and knew was gone and forced to restart their lives from ground zero. Instead of reading it, I buried it, deep, in my memory box.

Although I was born 13 years later, I read in a PBS article that trauma is an inherited trait. And like so many victims of trauma, be it first-hand or through DNA, we hold on to things but put memories away. I am without a piece of myself. One day, I'll face the truth and accept how the mass exodus has shaped me. But today, I find solace in understanding that my parents' struggle gave rise to more opportunities I could hope for given their arrival as American refugees. By taking advantage of everything at my disposal, I am grateful for my education and relationships, all assets no one can ever take away."

Student Writer

Something you're passionate about

girl listening music in her earphone

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

girl having a snack in the kitchen

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: 

"I have become more comfortable with the recipe, and I am confident that I can make any empanada I want. I like making empanadas for several reasons. First, I can be very creative with them, changing the ingredients every time I make them. Over the years, I have made empanadas with all kinds of varieties of beef, chicken, cheese, and vegetables. But if I wanted to, I could fill it with tomato sauce and cheese to make a pizza empanada or American cheese and beef to make a cheeseburger empanada. From start to finish, no matter what you put inside, it takes half an hour, and you have yourself a meal.

Also, around the time that I made my first empanadas, it was not often that I would find a restaurant that sold them. I had to make them myself. However, as time has passed, I have seen more restaurants and food trucks that strictly serve empanadas open in my neighborhood, where there are few from my Ecuadorian culture living here. And like so many other things, empanadas have arrived in mainstream American culture, making their mark on the world, something so unique, diverse, and delicious.

But most importantly, empanadas represent a significant part of Ecuadorian culture, to which I've always felt connected through my grandma's stories. Growing up, I remember vivid stories about her life in Ecuador. She eventually moved to the United States at 18-years-old and was immersed in American culture as a young woman and immigrant. Learning to cook empanadas and staying true to her recipe has strengthened my relationship with my grandma. While I have never traveled to Quito, Ecuador's capital city, where she was born, the empanadas link me to my cultural roots."

Student Writer

Next Steps

Once you decide on a topic, then you can proceed to write your college essay. Start here with this post about Writing a College Essay. Also, you can check out an upcoming College Essay Workshop.

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Bethany Goldszer is top college admissions and financial aid expert. She's been featured in HuffPost, USA Today, Newsday, Queens Gazette, and Official Black Wall Street & voted Best of Long Island. Faced with the overwhelming stress of applying, getting admitted to and financing her University of Chicago education, she started Stand Out College Prep LLC in 2012 so that no student or parent would have to go through this process alone. Over the last 15 years, Bethany has worked with over 1,500 students, helping them and their parents get into their top choice colleges and secure more than $20M in financial aid and scholarships. And each year, she continues to help more students stand out in the college admissions process and their parents navigate financial aid and scholarships.