How to Choose a College Essay Topic

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: May 9, 2021
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Although only a week into the 2021-2022 college admissions cycle, you may already be thinking about what to write your college essay about. If you’re planning to apply to schools without submitting test scores, then the college essay will weigh heavily on your college decision. 

A strong college essay begins with a strong college essay topic. As you prepare to write your college essay, the prompts given by the Common App, Coalition App, or any other college application you choose is only a starting point. College application prompts create a box for you to write your college essay, but they are not college essay topics. The college essay topic you choose can be the life or death of your college application. The college essay topic you choose should lead to a fully developed essay that tells your unique story and supports your entire application.

This post will help you decide what college essay prompt to answer and how to choose a college essay topic that will showcase your qualities and fit for the colleges and universities you’re applying to.

2021-2022 Common App Prompts

The Common App does not refresh until early August 2021. However, you don’t have to wait until then to learn the next cycle’s essay prompts. In February, the Common App’s President Jenny Rickard announced that that organization would be keeping all prompts from the 2020-2021 cycle, with one exception. A new prompt about kindness and gratitude will replace a prompt about solving a problem (see number 4 below). Also, here to stay this year is the COVID-19 essay that you’ll find in the additional information section. Although that question is optional, I do advise that all students should respond to this prompt. You can find guidance on what to write here.

                                            Here is the complete set of prompts:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. 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?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your design.
college essay

2021-2022 Coalition Application Prompts

The Coalition Application is similar to the Common App, but fewer colleges and universities used the platform. The application requires one central message, and member institutions can add one school-specific supplement essay prompts. 

                                                Here are Coalition Application prompts:

  1. Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
  2. Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
  3. Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
  4. What is the hardest part of being a student now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
  5. Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

Now that you have 12 college essay options to choose from, how do you decide which one to write your college essay about?

How to Choose a College Essay Prompt

But, I have found that when helping my students work on essays, they felt stifled by the prompts. The way prompts are structured may not get your creative juices flowing and land you on the topic to depict your story. This approach to the writing process is counterproductive and can lead to significant writer’s block. 

Instead of enclosing your brain in a box, here’s what I advise: screw the prompts and proceed to tell your story unbound. In other words, move to brainstorm the topic you want to write about first. Then write and revise and polish your essay. After you finish the writing process, then go back and see which prompt it answers best.

girl student studying with her laptop in a library

How to Choose a College Essay Topic

Now that you’re free from the Common App essay prompts, you’re free to brainstorm a topic. After the most competitive application season ever, I’ve been reflecting on what I think worked well. Of course, you benefit from my students’ experiences because now I can advise you on what to do and not do next year. From what I’ve seen in the essays of my most successful students, here are the topics they wrote about:

Sensitive topics: Patrick wrote about being competitive with his sister. In the beginning of life, she beat him in everything. But as they grew older, his strength and power turned him into an elite swimmer that culminated in him having faster swim times. She hated that he won, and he hated how it made her feel. While he couldn’t change his physique, drive to succeed, he did make one promise: in all other instances in their lives, he’d honor, respect, and make his sister feel like she’s #1. Patrick will be attending the College of the Holy Cross next year.

Doing Hard Things: Annalyse wrote about doing hard things the average teen is afraid to do. In her New Jersey school district, she organized a campaign to bring a girls golf team to her school district. Rising to the challenge of a relentless Board of Education, her vision and leadership captured eloquently in her college essay, tells the story of how she changed her school for the better. Every time a girl signs up for the golf team, they’ll have her to thank.

Changing the World: Franchesca wrote about being overwhelmed by the poverty in Manila, Philippines. She takes this experience, coupled with and lets it inspire her commitment to making a difference in low-income communities by donating clothing and other essentials during the pandemic. Franchesca will be attending Cornell University next year.

Growing Up: Kaeli wrote about her obsession with being perfect for most of her life. But when she takes art, she learns to be imperfect, inspired by beauty and ambiguity. She lets go of her need to control everything and embraces a new interest. Kaeli will be attending Arizona State University next year.

The essays the students discussed above are a few examples of potential college topics you could choose. I hope these examples inspire ideas of what you could write your college essay about. As you think about your college essay and begin brainstorming college essay topics, keep these principles in mind:

Choose a topic that interests you and your reader. Remember, the objective of your essay is to make a case for your admissions. Some students make the mistake of only choosing a topic they would like to write about. Still, it doesn’t answer the questions the admissions officer needs to be answered, such as why you’re a good candidate and what contributions you will make to campus and the community.

Write about something that will encourage you to be honest with yourself about the person you are. The advice I give students when they ask me if they’ve selected the right topic, my response is, “if You have revealed something about yourself that is Secret, that you’ve never told even your best friend about, then you’ve stumbled upon a great college essay topic.”

Tell a story that shows you’re still learning and your journey is still evolving. There is a happy ending in Hollywood films, but you’re still telling your story in real life. The best college essays do not have an ending. They end with, “to be continued…”

Choose a relatable topic that’s time-relevant. I get asked all the time if it’s okay to choose a topic from earlier years in life. And while I believe you can highlight some of these moments in your essay. I think it’s more important to show how what’s happening now is shaping who you are as well—you’re coming of age in a pandemic. So much has occurred this year. An admissions officer at the University of Michigan said it best that if she saw an application that did not touch on Covid-19 or reference anything that was happening in the world from a social justice perspective, she passed over that student’s application. Her perception: those students were out of touch and tone death.

What College Essay Topics Not to Write About

There is no right or wrong topic. I cringe whenever I hear a counselor tell a student not to write about particular college essay topics. Their advice is terrible. No topic is off-limits. If it’s the story you have to share for your college application to be complete and authentic, then tell that story. At the same time, you need to know your audience. So if there is a topic that may put off an admissions officer based on what you learned about them and the school, maybe you would want to choose another topic. However, you should also be questioning if this school is the appropriate choice for you.

Conclusion + Next Steps

The college essay topic you choose to write about is an integral part of the college application process. Think deeply about the story you want to tell and choose a college essay topic that makes it easy for you to write it all down. As a next step, check out this post about How to Write the College Essay

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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.