How to Choose Your College Admissions Essay Topic

The following piece was written by Rachel Korn. Rachel has been featured in our Admissions Expert series and is a former University of Pennsylvania admissions officer, as well as the founder of her own admissions consulting firm.


By the fall of senior year, much of your academic and extracurricular record is complete, so one of the only remaining elements of your college applications that you can still control is your major essay. Above all, the goal of the essay is to provide personal information about you. Thus, you will need to deeply reflect about what additional things the admissions committee should learn.

In general, the essay should be a thoughtful work showing your voice, so you will need to pick a topic for which you can write primarily about yourself. Simply narrating a story without any “so what?” analysis about what it means to you will not show who you are.

Consider working with the following ideas if they fit with your experience:

1. Talk about yourself in the context of your family, community, or culture. This can be a particularly insightful window into who you are because how you have been impacted by your environment is completely unique. Do your surroundings or situation at home strongly influence one of your principles or a path you have taken? The committee would be interested to know what drives your decision-making processes, the challenges you may face, or the abilities you have. Admissions officers know high schools and geographies globally, but they do not know how your community, culture, or family has specifically shaped you.

2. Show a passion. What is important to you? How do you love to spend your time? Could this be something vital to understanding who you are? If you can reveal a long-standing interest and pattern of activities that have shaped you – and can talk about how – then discussing a passion can be a good essay topic. This idea only tends not to work as well, or be as believable, if you cannot show true depth of time and commitment to your passion.

3. Describe an accomplishment. You may have a major achievement that is especially important and defining, and if so, it can shed light on your character as well as your talents. Just make sure in considering this direction that you can write about the accomplishment from a personal angle – about what you have personally gained from it or how you have changed from it – as much as focus on the achievement. Certainly you may want to brag a bit, but help the committee see why you worked toward this success and why it is interesting and significant to know about you.

4. Share a failure. Although you may think that you have to display perfection, demonstrating growth after falling down can be exceptionally interesting and mature. You must talk about a failure that is truly a failure, though, not just a disappointment. Getting a B instead of an A in a class, for example, is more of just a letdown and will probably not let you share an emotional exploration of how you face failure and what you do afterward. It is your analysis of the failure that will interest the committee – how you recover, how you adjust, and what new actions you take.

5. Discuss a time you challenged an idea. Questioning can be very positive, displaying strength, what you value, and your willingness to push or think beyond boundaries. If such a story has been essential in your development, contemplate writing about it. You do not want to be provocative just to be provocative, as childishly daring the admissions committee to like you can backfire. However, fairly presenting an idea about which you disagree – and thoroughly presenting your argument about why you disagree – can generate respect. You need not be a loud protester for this to work, by the way. You may just quietly and intellectually question something you have learned.

Although determining your essay subject matter is surely one of the most stressful parts of the application process, taking the time to honestly think about yourself and your experiences will yield the right topic. Don’t worry about what you think you should say. Just share your truth.

Visit Rachel’s Admissions Consulting site.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.