Choosing Your Topic
Once you have a pool of essay topic ideas, it’s time to narrow them down and pick the topic about which you’re going to write — but if you have several promising topic ideas, how do you choose among them? Again, you shouldn’t pick one candidate simply because it seems to be the most exciting or unique option. Rather, you should choose your topic based primarily on what subject will allow you to write the best essay.
In this case, the “best” essay is the one that showcases your strong writing skills, demonstrates the personal qualities (thoughtfulness, curiosity, dedication, passion, and so on) that you want colleges to see in you, and allows colleges to get to know you better on a different level from the rest of your application.
The topic you initially like the most may not be the one that allows you to write the best possible essay. Of course, you’re likely to write a better essay on a topic in which you have a strong interest, but there is some strategy involved in choosing a topic as well.
A thoughtful and well-written essay on a topic that might initially seem more mundane will benefit you far more than a dull or poorly-written essay on a more exciting-sounding topic. Choosing an unusual experience you’ve had as your essay subject may even tempt you to let the experience itself do the legwork, rather than using that subject as a vehicle to tell colleges more about who you are as a person.
If you can find meaning and significance in a small incident, that can be incredibly compelling for your readers. Drawing from your ordinary experiences to illustrate a larger point will make your essay all the more personal and revealing. Remember, the value of your essay is much more in how you write about your experiences than what experiences you write about.
A final note on choosing your essay topic: You don’t necessarily need to be absolutely committed to a topic right away. If it becomes clear after you start outlining or writing that your chosen topic isn’t going to work as well as you would like, there’s nothing wrong with starting over with a new topic.
Feel free to go back to your brainstormed pool of topics, or even to come up with something new entirely. Just make sure that you have enough time left to develop and edit your new essay appropriately. This is all the more reason to start the essay writing process early — if your topic ends up not working out, you’ll still have time to try a different approach.
Making Your Topic Shine
Once you’ve selected a topic, you need to figure out how to develop an essay from it that is technically skillful, compelling to the reader, and true to the vision of yourself that you’re working to portray in your application.
If you’re worried that your essay topic is not interesting or exciting enough on its own, you may be extra concerned about how to build a strong essay upon that topic. In reality, however, everyone — no matter how interesting or exciting their choice of topic might seem — should take great care in planning how they’re going to develop their basic topic statement into a full-fledged essay.
To write a truly effective college essay, you’ll need to focus not on depicting and describing an event or issue in your life, but on expressing your personal experience or perspective in an interesting manner. The value of the experience and the point in writing about it lies not necessarily in what happened, but how it affected you, and in how you analyze and consider that effect.
Details are quite important here, as they’ll bring life and context to your story. Vivid and evocative details can turn an essay on a seemingly mundane topic into something truly fascinating. The details you choose to leave out are equally important; you’ll be working with a word-count limit, and it’s important that your essay be concise and readable rather than wordy and overwrought.
You’ll also need to make sure that your essay clearly develops the themes that you intend for it to develop. Relating an experience, ordinary or extraordinary, isn’t enough on its own; you have to be thoughtful about the experience and show why this experience is important enough to you to be worth inspiring your college essay.
The key to writing a strong college application essay is in your delivery. With skillful writing, powerful word choice, and a good sense of how to develop a fragment of an idea into a longer piece of writing, you can make any topic, no matter how “uninteresting” it may seem, into an exploration of issues important to you and a showcase of your skills as a communicator.
Will your essay make or break your college application?
It depends. You can take a look at our CollegeVine blog post How Important is the College Essay? for a more detailed discussion of the importance of the essay as compared to other parts of your application.
Briefly, however, a brilliant essay can’t make up for severe deficiencies in your academic qualifications, but it may have an impact otherwise, particularly at a smaller or more competitive school. If you’re on the borderline, a great essay may tip the balance toward admission. An essay that’s clearly carelessly written, inappropriate, or full of technical errors can hurt your chances of admission even if you do have great qualifications.
The bottom line is that, just as with every other part of your college application, colleges will need to see that you’ve taken the task seriously and put in your best effort. Managing your time properly is important, and you can’t work on one essay forever, but if you get started early, you should be able to put enough time into developing, writing, and editing your essay to make it a piece of writing of which you’re truly proud.
For more information about choosing and developing a college application essay topic, you can check out the CollegeVine blog for tips and tricks. Our Essay Breakdown posts about how to write the school-specific essays for various top schools contain a wealth of good ideas.
If you’re applying to colleges using the Common Application and need to complete one of its essay questions, CollegeVine has your back. Our admissions experts have analyzed each of the five Common Application essay prompts in the posts below, where you can find detailed advice on how to respond to each prompt.
If you’re applying using the Coalition Application (CAAS), we have you covered as well with our post How to Write the Coalition Application Essays 2016-2017.
CollegeVine’s admissions advisors can help you with all aspects of the application process, including developing and editing your college essay. With a fee structure that’s more affordable than those of most companies that offer college application assistance, we’re committed to helping a broader range of high school students access the resources they need to navigate the increasingly competitive world of college admissions.
Still have questions about filling out the Common Application? Check out our blog post How to Write the Common Application Essays 2017-2018.
As you may have seen in our last blog post, the prompts for all three ApplyTexas freshman application prompts have changed. We (the College Readiness team) challenged ourselves to think about how we’d answer these new prompts if we were still in high school. We started with Essay A, so this week we’ll talk about the prompt for Essay B. Happy writing!
Essay B:Some students have an identity, an interest, or a talent that defines them in an essential way. If you are one of these students, then tell us about yourself.
Kate: If I haven’t already written something similar for essay A, I might write about being from another country and how that has defined my identity and overall perspective (so this would answer the identity part of the prompt). Alternatively, I could write about how my identity and sense of self have been shaped through having a twin.
I was talented enough in dancing and singing to make Markettes and the varsity choir MHS, but I don’t think I considered either of these as talents that I excelled in (nor did I pursue either when I got to college). I held significant leadership positions through both activities, however, so I’m sure I could find a way to write about being a strong leader and my leadership abilities and/or why it was important to me to try out for those leadership positions..
Tips: If an interest or talent immediately comes to mind when you read this prompt, I think it would be a good idea to go with that. This prompt is asking you to talk about your passion and why you devote so much time to it. If you’re struggling to come up with anything to write about, consider your interests and the things that you make time for outside of school. What’s something that you started researching for fun that made you stay up way past your bedtime because you were so intrigued? How do you define yourself? If you’re struggling with this prompt, ask your family, friends, or whoever knows you best to help your brainstorm some ideas.
Something really neat about this particular prompt is that when you write this essay, you can probably use the exact same essay for the first prompt on the Common App (“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.”), which means one less essay you’d have to write if you’re going to be using both applications (yay!).
Alex: Again, there are two directions I personally would choose to take with this essay, based on my personal experiences. If I were to go the identity route, I would probably write my essay about my literal heritage: my father is from Czechoslovakia, and came to the United States when he was eleven, making me a first generation American on that side. Consequently, we’ve incorporated a lot of European traditions into our family household, and there were aspects of my childhood growing up that I never realized were uncommon in other homes. I would also probably incorporate the fact that my mother is from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and I was not born in Texas, and so I have never really felt anchored to or affiliated with any particular location/state/culture.
If I were to choose the interest/talent route, I would write my essay about playing the piano and how important this was to me as a high school student. I was definitely one of the “artsy” kids, and piano was a musical outlet for me in a very specific way: playing the piano was one hundred percent for my own personal enrichment and enjoyment, without any kind of pressure to compete or perform (outside of two yearly recitals) or to be completely perfect at it. I would practice for two hours every day (again, being homeschooled allowed me the time to devote to this particular activity), and for those two hours I could relax, unwind, and immerse myself in a craft that, to me, was a worthwhile pursuit and an excellent use of my time. As high school students, we typically apply ourselves to activities and school work because we are working for the pay-off (getting a full ride scholarship for our grades or for sports) – but I never had to worry about that with piano. It was the perfect example of art for art’s sake.
Tips: What’s helpful about this topic is the flexibility – you can pick an interest or talent or identity. Just like Essay A, pick ONE topic and stick to it! The more narrow your focus, the better your essay will be! This is also the kind of essay where generating a list of possibilities will come in handy. Even if you are the star of your lacrosse team, you may get two paragraphs in and you’ve said all you can say about that particular interest – but find yourself waxing poetic about that time your dad bought a completely junked Cadillac Coupe de Ville and you both spent all summer restoring it to its original 1950’s glory (and now you’re planning on majoring in business so that you can open a dealership that exclusively handles vintage car restoration and sales).
Eriel: My high school experience is split in two parts. In Part 1 (grades 9th and 10th), I am a socially-challenged, homeschooled genius, taking private singing lessons and film-acting courses because I was determined to be the star of the Boy Meets World reboot. In Part 2 (grades 11th and 12th), I am (still) a socially challenged theater actress and budding fiction writer crawling her way to the graduation podium so she could chuck a deuce and say sayonara to an army of teenagers she could hardly hold a conversation with. At the core of this duality, I disliked (note the past tense here) people and loved to create things. My time being homeschooled allowed me to invest my time where I wanted – performing, painting, writing, creating, etc. Though my parents’ professions aren’t in creative departments, each member of my family had some sort of artsy talent. My mom loves interior design, my dad’s a chef, my sister’s a dancer, my little brother has his music, and my baby brother has his sketches. So, I’m guessing high school me would’ve rolled with an interest in the creative arts and how they pair with personalities or how they translate from personality to medium. To further specify the essay, I’d hone in on storytelling and how that creative art wedged itself into several mediums (i.e. performance, writing, cooking).
Tip: I think a major struggle students will encounter with this prompt is specificity. Because the prompt asks for an identity, interest, or talent, students may feel the need to address all three pillars here. That certainly isn’t the case. This is a pick one and run kinda thing. When you do pick, however, pick wisely. It may take a couple of drafts and drills to find the sweet spot, so take your time choosing before sprinting away with the topic in hand. I believe students should have a two pronged approach to this prompt: 1) Show off your personality and your hobbies, and 2) Relate it to what you intend to do professionally. This will give you the opportunity to show who you are and what impact you intend to leave on the world.