The Best College Essay Topics for 2023-2024

Bonus Material: To check out 30 real examples of essays that worked to get students into schools like Princeton, click the link: Download 30 College Essays That Worked

If you’re getting started on your college application essays, you’re probably looking around for the perfect topic to write about. What isn’t cliche? What will make you stand out? What will get you into your dream school?

PrepMaven’s college essay coaches have helped countless students choose their topics and craft compelling personal statements for the college application process. While we love making our resources freely available on this blog, we always recommend getting personalized help from one of our essay experts

In this guide, we break down what you need to know about choosing a college essay topic, and we’ll also cover some topics that you might want to consider–and some you’ll likely want to avoid. 

Jump to section:
What makes a good college essay topic?
So, what kinds of topics work best for college essays?
Essay topics to avoid
Next steps


What makes a good college essay topic?

While it’s true that a really good writer can write a great essay about anything, it definitely helps to have an interesting and unique topic for college admissions essays. 

College admissions officers will read essays from thousands of other applicants. That means even if you write an incredible essay about a cliche topic, you’re going to risk losing the admissions committee’s attention before you can win them over with your great writing. 

So, how do you decide what makes a good college essay topic? While there’s no objective set of rules, there are guidelines that are backed up by years of experience working with all sorts of student essays. 

Below, check out our list of 7 Qualities of a Great College Essay Topic. 

The best college essay topics should: 

  1. Be unique enough that you can tell an interesting story about it.
    • This is always tricky. You don’t have to be a child prodigy to have something interesting to write about. What we really mean here is you should avoid an essay topic if you think it’s likely lots of other people have written about it in the same way. 
  1. Allow you to demonstrate a moment of growth or realization.
    • Remember: the point of this essay is to show how you’ve become the kind of mature, self-aware person who’s ready for college. The specific story you tell only matters insofar as it lets you show the admissions committee how you became that person. 
  1. Allow you to demonstrate a passion or interest.
    • Colleges want students who are passionate! Whatever you write about, it should be something that presents you to college admission officers as someone with interests, passions, and goals. 
  1. Be interesting to you.
    • Don’t overlook this! If you pick a topic just because it seems like what you should write about, odds are you’ll be bored by it. And if you’re bored by it, how could someone else find it interesting?
  1. Be about you as a person. 
    • People often forget about this, but there’s a reason college essays are also often called “personal essays” or “personal statements.” These essays aren’t meant to prove that you’re smart, or that you’re qualified for a particular job. They’re about what kind of person you are, how you view the world, and what kind of member you’d be of the college community. 
  1. Be about something recent (usually no more than three or four years in the past).
    • There are exceptions to this, but you should generally refrain from writing about something that happened in the distant past. The simple reason for that is that college admissions officers want to see who you are now, and most things that happened in early childhood won’t really help them do that. 
  1. Help show you in a positive light without just narrating your achievements and qualifications.
    • Naturally, you want to come off well! But students often try too hard to impress, listing their accomplishments or rattling off resume points. Remember that the colleges already have all that info–putting it in your essay will make it seem like you’re a little bit too obsessed with what you’ve already done. 

For our guide on how to brainstorm the best topic for you, check out our post on the Diamond Strategy here. 


So, what kinds of topics work best for college essays?

Because you’re unique, your best college application essay topic likely will be too. We’re not going to list out all the topics of the best essays we’ve seen, precisely because these topics are specific to the people who wrote about them. If you haven’t had to, say, renovate a home by yourself or invent a machine with your father, it won’t help you much to hear that other people wrote great essays on those topics. 

But there are certain kinds of topics that lend themselves much better to strong essays. Here, we’ll list a few of those, though of course you might come up with something totally different for yourself. 

So, what kinds of topics usually work best?

  • An aspect of your identity that is crucial to you, but only if you can point to concrete ways that identity has led to some greater personal understanding.
    • This can be a number of things. Many great essays have been written about the experiences of growing up a member of a marginalized or minority community. Others have been written about students’ familial or religious backgrounds. The key in either case: show how experiences linked to this identity have helped you understand some aspect of the world. 
  • An unusual hobby or activity you’ve dedicated time to.
    • Do you fly planes recreationally? Spend hours each week creating sculptures? Do research in a particular field? Anything of this sort makes for a great essay topic: it’s unusual and lets you explore how this activity helped shape who you are. 
  • A recent or formative obstacle you’ve overcome, especially if that obstacle might have impeded your education.
    • Experiences with discrimination, financial difficulties, and even some family problems can be really effective topics. The key: these must be serious problems that were not caused by you, and that you have made some progress in overcoming. Avoid anything that may pose a red flag for admissions committees. 
    • Note: there are lots of obstacles you shouldn’t write about We’ll include a list of these in the section on Internal Link to “Essay topics to avoid” 
  • A specific moment or instance in your life that changed how you thought about yourself or the world.
    • That’s a bit general, but it has to be, since this looks so different for everyone. But if there was an experience that truly, profoundly changed you for the better, it’s likely to be a great topic (so long as it isn’t in our list of Topics to avoid below). 

Below, we’ve linked a free collection of 30 college essays that worked to get students into schools like Princeton. Read through those, and note how the topics chosen by the students relate to the broad categories we’ve outlined above. 


Essay topics to avoid

While there’s likely a way to write about almost anything successfully, there are some topics that–generally–aren’t worth the risk. 

What makes a topic risky?

Well, think about it this way: your college admissions application is really an attempt to convince a room full of adults that you’ll not only be a good community member and student, but also that you won’t cause problems for the university. Problems can include anything from being someone who ignores rules to being someone who drops out or takes time off from school (remember that universities are always trying to keep their 4-year graduation rates high). 

But something else that can make a college essay topic risky is just that it’s boring! If you write about something cliche or typical, it’ll be much, much harder for you to say something original or interesting about it. And if you can’t say anything original or interesting, then your college admissions essay won’t help you get into that school.

With that in mind, here’s a list of college essay topics that should almost always be avoided:

  • Sports: winning the big game, recovering from an injury, the value of teamwork, getting cut or making the team, etc.
    • We know: this is a real bummer for any student athlete who’s really poured their heart into their game. But the reality of it is this: successful essays on sports are extremely rare. It’s just too hard to say anything original about something that so many people have written about. 
  • Your own struggles with mental health.
    • Another topic to avoid almost always. Why? While the attitudes around this are changing somewhat, revealing a mental health issue will raise a red flag for many admissions officers, who may view it as a risk to your ability to navigate college life. 
  • The “I realized how lucky I am” essay.
    • What we mean by this is any type of essay that recounts an experience you had with a less fortunate group of people–people in poorer countries or communities, people with disabilities, the homeless, etc.–just to say that seeing their struggles helped you understand “how lucky you are.” 
    • Exception: if you’ve actually done specific work in this kind of community and that has shaped how you view your future goals, your academic pursuits, or social issues, that’s different. The key is: did you actually do something meaningful to help this group, and/or will you continue to do so?
  • Social/relationship drama.
    • While heartbreak and fights with friends are a normal and often important part of life, they don’t make good college admissions essays. Not only will it come off as immature, but it’s also the kind of topic that’s cliche and boring. 
  • Meta-topics about writing the college essay.
    • It might seem clever at first, but writing the essay about how you’re writing the college essay, or directly addressing the admissions committee, or writing about how you don’t want to address one of the prompts–all of these have been done before, and are now almost guaranteed to annoy admissions committees. 
  • Any topic that presents you as someone angry, aggrieved, or antisocial.
    • Don’t write an angry essay, period. Did a coach unfairly ruin your chances of playing on the team? Did a teacher arbitrarily deduct points because he hated you? That’s a shame, but leave it out of your essay. 

While all the above are controversial topics you’re better off avoiding, some of them can be made to work with the right kind of essay. But the risks are high, and it’ll be much tougher to write a successful college essay on one of these topics. 

Though everyone would benefit from working with an essay expert, if you’re considering writing on a topic you think might be risky, you would especially benefit by getting a second opinion from a writing expert who’s helped many other students craft compelling essays. 

In the meantime, check out our collection of 30 successful college application essays and note what kinds of topics those students focused on as you prepare to write your own. 


Next Steps

After you review the sample essays we’ve provided here, start thinking about what personal experiences from your own life might work as a topic for your college application essay. 

As you get started with the college admissions process, check out our other linked posts below, which cover everything from brainstorming to proofreading!


Top College Essay Posts


Mike

Mike

Mike is a PhD candidate studying English literature at Duke University. Mike is an expert test prep tutor (SAT/ACT/LSAT) and college essay consultant. Nearly all of Mike’s SAT/ACT students score in the top 5% of test takers; many even score above 1500 on the SAT. His college essay students routinely earn admission into their top-choice schools, including Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth. And his LSAT students have been accepted In into the top law schools in the country, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Law.