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College Admissions Essay Topics, Tips, and Tricks

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

A small, metal trash can sits on a grey wood floor. Inside is a balled up piece of yellow paper. Outside of the can on the floor are two more pieces of balled up yellow paper.

Summer is here, and with it not only comes lots of fun in the sun but also lots of planning and writing your college admissions essay!

It’s true that most of the weight of your application will be based on your academic achievements – GPA, test scores, etc. – however, when it comes to applying to highly competitive or more selective schools, there’s bound to be someone else with a similar academic record as you.

The college admissions essay is your chance to showcase who you are as a person and why you stand out. It’s the opportunity for you to share your story and how it’s helped shape you into the person you are today. 

Nothing is truly off-limits. It’s really up to your own comfort level of what you want to share with the admissions counselor who is looking over your application. However, there are a few topics that you might want to think twice about.

1. COVID-19

It is understandable that the pandemic has impacted millions of students and you might want to write about your experiences. However, keep in mind that admissions counselors are reading hundreds of essays a day, and this will most likely be a very common essay topic among applicants. 

If your essay is going to be centered around COVID, think about why you’re doing so. Do you have an experience that was impactful to you and others, such as being an essential worker during the pandemic? Or are you going to write about how difficult it was to not travel or hang out with your friends?

2. Summary of your Accomplishments

Everyone has something that they’re proud of. You’ve done a lot, and you want to show that you’re amazing!

On the other hand, it’s going to be difficult for the admissions counselor to read through your laundry list of bragging rights. Instead of telling your reader about your endless list of awards and accolades, try to focus on just one.

Explain how this award or experience relates to you as a person, such as an award for volunteerism and how it tied into your desire to give back to your community. By showing rather than telling, it’ll help the admissions counselor understand your personality and motivations more.

3. Someone Else

The whole premise of the college admissions essay is to showcase YOU! If you write about how important a celebrity, historical figure, or even a pet is to you, make sure you tie it back to you.

Did you work on a project that focused on a specific historical figure and it led you to want to major in history? Tell us that story! Perhaps you had a few pets growing up and your connection with animals led you to look into a career in veterinary sciences.

The point is to focus on how your experiences with these outside forces matter to your story and how these experiences impacted you as a person.

4. No Lessons Learned

Regardless of the topic you choose to write about, make sure you’ve learned something from those experiences. If you write a great essay about an ecology trip you were able to go on with your freshman year biology class to Bali, but only focus on how cool the trip was and the fact you got to go snorkeling, that’s an essay to share with your family and not the admissions counselor.

Why? It only highlights the trip itself, and not what you learned as a result of the trip. That essay would be complete if you then explained how you were able to learn about the different species of fish you encountered and how the trip made you realize the importance of preserving different ecosystems.

Maybe this trip made you think about wanting to study biology in college due to what you learned! Just make sure you demonstrate that you gained something from your experience, and that’ll showcase to admissions counselors that you are dedicated to diving deeper than the surface when it comes to impactful experiences.

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Of course, there have been topics that students have written about in the past that do work in showing admissions counselors the best version of you in the admissions process. 

Let’s highlight a few!

1. Your Passions

Are you an avid crocheter? Perhaps you have a knack for coding or hiking! Tell us about one of the passions that make you you.

How did your hobby or talent develop? Did your grandmother teach you how to crochet, or did you Google “how to code” one afternoon? Why did you choose to pursue this? Does it relate to what you want to do in college?

By answering some of these questions, you’ll be off to a great start in crafting an essay that centers around who you are and what makes you stand out.

2. Impactful Events & People

Did you move around a lot as a kid? Was there a specific place you lived in that taught you a lot about you as a person, or a particular person that inspired you to pursue a college degree?

By talking about an impactful moment or person in your life and how this challenged you, you’re not only showing college admissions counselors that you have the potential to grow but are also showcasing another aspect of who you are.

If your sophomore year English teacher inspired you to pursue a career in education because of how he helped you discover your strengths as a writer and a teacher by being a peer tutor, tell us about that experience! 

3. A Teachable Moment

We’re all human, and humans make mistakes. What was a moment in your life that taught you a lesson? How did you grow from this experience, what did you learn, and how can you take this lesson into your future endeavors?

This topic requires a bit of vulnerability because nobody likes to admit that they aren’t perfect, but that’s reality. No one is truly perfect, and by showing admissions counselors that you know this is really important in their decision on whether or not you’re the best fit for their institution.

Keep in mind that what you share will be read by at least one other person, so make sure that what moment you’re sharing is appropriate for your audience. 

How To Write A Killer Opening To Your Essay

Now that we’ve covered some topics that students have covered in the past, let’s shift into some general tips to think about when writing your essay!

1. Keep it Clean & Professional

This is still an essay, and while it’s definitely more relaxed than the typical essays you’d be writing in school, it is essential you keep it to many of the same standards as your academic work.

Utilize spell-check and grammar-check, and avoid using profanity. Make sure your essay makes sense with how it flows. Use paragraphs!

2. Take Breaks

It’s easy to get lost in your own work, or to get frustrated if it seems like you aren’t getting where you want to be with your writing. Remember to take breaks while writing.

I personally used the Pomodoro method! Take a step away from your essay for a little while, whether it’s a few days or even a week. That way you’ll be reading it with fresh eyes and have a clearer sense of what needs some edits and what needs more elaboration.

3. Give it to someone else before hitting submit

Print or share a draft of your essay with someone you trust to give it a read. You are your worst critic, so by giving it to a teacher or a friend to read over will help you get the feedback you need to put your best foot forward.

If you know your parents will give you meaningful feedback and edits, they can be an option for you. When I was writing my essay, I decided to avoid asking my parents to give feedback because I knew that they would only give me praise and not give any constructive criticism. You know your family best!

4. Pay Attention to Specific Requirements/Deadlines

Some schools have specific prompts for you to follow for their essay. In that case, pay attention to this and if your essay fits, put it in. Don’t hesitate to make edits to your original essay to help it fit the prompt.

Not only is this less work for you in the long run, it still conveys what you think is most important to who you are and what you want the admissions counselor to know about you as an applicant.

Also, make note of any deadlines that are specific to schools. If you’re applying Early Decision or Early Action anywhere, make it a priority to get your essay done prior to those deadlines. Your application won’t be complete without it!

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Author: Colette Rinker

I am a senior at Keene State College in Keene, NH! I am a communication major with a concentration in philosophy and a minor in professional writing. As a queer, first-generation, and low-income college student I am passionate about helping other students like myself in their college journey. By sharing my story and experiences, I hope I can help make the college admissions process just a little easier!