6 Tips for Choosing That Winning College Essay Topic

You’ve pored over examples of college essays that worked. You’ve asked yourself essential questions to guide your brainstorming process. Now how do you choose that winning college essay topic?

The “right” essay topic is the one most likely to result in a piece that will add significant value to your application, among other things.

Many students, however, also have to contend with supplemental essays. A lot of colleges are now requiring students to submit responses on top of the personal statement. How do you know which topics to reserve for supplementals, and which one to choose for your personal statement?

That’s what this post is all about. In this article, we define a “winning” college essay topic and provide specific tips for choosing one out of your brainstorming material.

After you’ve chosen your topic, you’ll be well on your way to the next steps of the college essay writing process: outlining and drafting.

Here’s what we cover:

A Winning College Essay Topic Defined

How do you know if you’ve chosen the “right” topic for your essay? In general, a solid essay topic will be

  • lucrative
  • exciting to you personally
  • and most likely to generate a “successful” essay

What do we mean by “lucrative”? A good essay topic must have the potential to generate a significant amount of self-reflection, introspection, and meaning.

Basically, students should feel that they have a lot to say about the topic they choose! If you feel as if you are grasping for material with a certain topic, it may not be the best for your personal statement.

The right topic might also be exciting to you personally. Richer topics are more likely to inspire this sense of excitement or interest, which can, in turn, ease the writing process and result in a more authentic piece aligned with your voice.

Lastly, the best college essay topic for you will put you in the position to write a “successful” piece. We define a successful college essay as

  1. Introspective and reflective
  2. Descriptive and engaging
  3. Honest
  4. Unconventional and distinct
  5. Full of a student’s voice
  6. Well-written
  7. Meaningful

Ask yourself: Will this topic allow me to be introspective and reflective? Will it result in an engaging, descriptive piece? Is it honest? Will it enable me to be unconventional, even in a small way? Is it in line with my voice? Does it have the potential to add substantial meaning to my application? Does it say more about who I am apart from my resume, test scores, and transcripts?

The following tips are designed to guide you further through the topic selection process.

6 Tips for Choosing the Right Topic

Once you’ve gathered a wide range of potential topics, use these tips to narrow down that list until you’ve landed on the “winning” one.

1. Identify supplemental essay prompts (if applicable)

Many colleges and universities now require students to submit additional essays as part of their application. For example, in 2019, Boston College required applicants to submit a 400-word response to one of the following 4 prompts:

Great art evokes a sense of wonder. It nourishes the mind and spirit. Is there a particular song, poem, speech, or novel from which you have drawn insight or inspiration?
When you choose a college, you will join a new community of people who have different backgrounds, experiences, and stories. What is it about your background, your experiences, or your story, that will enrich Boston College’s community?
Boston College strives to provide an undergraduate learning experience emphasizing the liberal arts, quality teaching, personal formation, and engagement of critical issues. If you had the opportunity to create your own college course, what enduring question or contemporary problem would you address and why?
Jesuit education considers the liberal arts a pathway to intellectual growth and character formation. What beliefs and values inform your decisions and actions today, and how will Boston College assist you in becoming a person who thinks and acts for the common good?

Some universities, like Stanford, might require a series of shorter-response supplemental essays with specific prompts. These prompts can range widely in subject, as you can see in the above Boston College prompts.

As more and more institutions add supplemental essays to their requirements, students should be mindful of these as they choose their personal statement topic. We strongly discourage students from writing about the same thing in their personal statements and supplementals!

If you can, find out which of the colleges on your list require supplemental essays. Create a spreadsheet of these prompts (with word lengths) and refer to these as you choose your college essay topic. You might even be able to select topics for those supplementals in the same process.

2. Put a star next to lucrative topics

Remember: a lucrative essay topic is one with the potential to generate a significant amount of self-reflection, introspection, and meaning.

Take a look at the topics you’ve assembled. Which ones do you have a lot to say about? Put a star next to these. If you find yourself unsure about a certain topic, ask yourself:

  • how much does this matter to me personally?
  • does it relate somehow to my perspective(s) of the world? If so, how?
  • what else could I say about this topic?
  • is it related to any other topics?
  • does it relate to my character, value(s), and/or voice?

Prioritize those topics that earn a lot of “yes”s and additional thoughts from these questions. The “lucrative” topics you don’t end up choosing can be excellent material for supplemental responses.

3. Consider the rest of your application

We encourage students to view their essays as an opportunity to add value to the rest of their application. This means choosing a topic that brings the admissions officer outside of your resume, transcripts, recommendation letters, and test scores.

As you narrow down topics, eliminate any that do not add significant dimension to your application, particularly from a character perspective.

Ask yourself: Does this topic say something that the rest of my application does not say? Does it give admissions officers deeper insight into who I am as a person? Is it just a reiteration of my resume or does it add meaning to my full application?

4. Identify what excites you

“Excite” might be a strong word. But time and again, our essay students have expressed some level of interest in the topic they choose to write about. Some even find an element of fun or enjoyment in a specific topic, especially if it allows them to express their individual voice.

Keep this in mind as you work through those topics you’ve already identified as “lucrative.” What interests you? What might you be eager to delve into further? What are you excited to share with admissions officers?

Some students like to “try out” certain topics before choosing them. This might involve short free-writes on competitive topics. If you do this, notice when the words start to flow. This can be a good indication that you’re inching closer to the winning topic.

5. Think about storytelling

Successful college essays tell some kind of story in an engaging fashion. We like to remind our students of this throughout the college essay writing process: they are storytellers first and foremost.

We can define a story as a narrative that engages a specific reader and works toward a certain point. Some stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. Successful stories give the reader an opportunity to become invested in what they are reading somehow.

Think about this as you narrow down your list of topics. A winning topic will allow you to tell a story completely and succinctly. It will also fit a clear, comfortable structure.

Some topics may be compelling, lucrative, and fascinating to you personally. However, they might not be suited for the college essay in terms of their storytelling potential. 

How can you tell if this is the case? A topic might be too “big,” for example, such as all of the international travel experiences you’ve had in five years. For these larger topics, it might be better to focus on one specific aspect, moment, or perspective of that broader situation, such as the story behind the blue suitcase you took with you on those travel experiences.

A topic could also be too linear, leaving little room for a student to discuss anything outside of facts and details. We’ve also seen students land on topics that might be interesting in and of themselves but aren’t actually stories!

Ask yourself: Will this topic allow me to tell a descriptive, engaging story? Will this story showcase my authentic voice and my honesty? Will I be able to follow a compelling structure in telling this story? Does it have the potential for rich detail?

6. Consider unconventionality

We classify many successful college essays as “unconventional.” This can be a relative term, but it’s worth mentioning here. 

Remember: many competitive colleges and universities receive thousands of applications for admission every year. For this reason, it’s essential to choose a topic that gives you every possibility to stand out from the crowd. That’s what the tips in this post are designed to help you do.

But if you’ve narrowed down your list of topics to a handful, scrutinize what’s left through the lens of convention.

Ask yourself: Which topic is more unexpected? Which encapsulates you (and only you)? How might a certain topic surprise admissions officers (in a good way)? Which is more honest?

You’ve Chosen Your College Essay Topic…What’s Next?

Once you’ve selected that winning college essay topic, it’s time to create an outline and a first draft. It’s also essential to set aside an appropriate amount of time for the drafting and revision process. Successful college essays take time, and it’s never too early to begin!

In the interim, we are excited to offer college essay writers a summer workshop and one-on-one mentoring programs. For more information, start a conversation with us today.

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.