College Essay topics

Seniors: A memorable essay? Might be family breakfasts, piano lessons, or raising pigs...

A couple of years ago, the New York Times published an article claiming students were cultivating summer experiences such as expensive internships or exotic travel experiences "with the goal of creating a standout personal statement." Quick, buy a ticket to Shanghai! NOT! Some form of this urban myth wanders through the hallways of high schools across the country during essay writing season.

This "strategy" couldn't be more wrong-headed. Or, as a former admission officer on Robin Mamlet's staff at Stanford put it -- more colorfully --in an email to us, "YUCK.  That should be YUCK in all caps, bold, italics, the works. With many, many exclamation marks."

Why Starting Your College Essay May Feel Like the Death Drop in Gymnastics

First, let me tell you what you already know: start the essay early. (Like, now.) Revise it often. Be open to topics and possibilities. Ask people you trust (parents, teachers, friends) for feedback.

I don’t have to tell you what’s at stake, because you already know that too. And you probably also know that starting what Anne Lamott calls the “#$%*& first draft” is hard too, and so is revising that @#$&* first draft. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it; it means try not to listen to the Greek chorus of prohibition and foreboding in your head. You know, the one that’s intoning “This is a stupid idea. Nobody cares. I can’t come up with anything except clichés. Nothing interesting ever happened to me. Thousands of people have already written about this topic.”

Thousands of people probably have written about this topic, and thousands more probably will. There are no new stories under the sun, but there are new ways of telling them. Let me tell you something else: there’s no “right” topic. You don’t have to write about leadership or persistence or overcoming adversity, unless you want to.  Write what you know, no matter how humble or unspectacular-seeming. You may find in so doing that the qualities you’re seeking to communicate in the essay (persistence, creativity, talent, passion, humor, kindness, curiosity) will announce themselves without fanfare between the lines.

Seniors: The Real Topic of your Essay is You

Still struggling with an essay topic? Remember, the real topic is you. Whatever the essay is about on the surface, colleges care what the essay says about you.

Here's one strategy to help you find a topic:

Put a microscope to your life. Take a look at the little things around you. Go to your room and look at what’s on the walls, what’s under the bed, the things you’ve kept since second grade, or what about the thing you threw away that you really miss now. Where in the house do you spend the most time? Look for inspiration right under your nose. Ask yourself some of these questions:

• How do I spend my time?

• What do I like to do?

• What do I think about most of the time?

• What are the things that truly matter to me?

• What is my family like? Do we have any interesting rituals about dinners or board games or TV shows?

• What would I say about myself if I had to omit any mention of my extracurricular activities?

• When I think about who I am or what I care about, is there a particular day, moment, or event that was important in shaping that?

• If I, like Tom Sawyer, had a chance to eavesdrop at my own funeral, what would people say about me?

• What do I like best about my school?

• If I had a day to do anything I wanted— no school, no work, no homework, no chores— what would I do?

• What do I want this college to know about me?