College Application Essays: Finding Your Best Topic & Writing It Well
Updated: Aug 10
2019 / 2020 School Year Version
After reading this article you will...
know what schools want to see (and don’t want to see) in a personal essay
have a brainstorming exercise to help you discover great topics
be in a strong place to start or enhance your first draft
Application season is upon us. I’m seeing a lot of posts written by students and parents concerned about the personal essay segment of college applications. It’s hard to tell positive stories about ourselves without sounding like a humble bragger or an egotist, but it is possible. The trick is to practice, and a first draft is an excellent starting place.
It’s okay for a first draft to be terrible. They often are! When you write yours, it’s helpful to remember that no one ever has to read this draft. It’s just where you’re starting.
If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, below is a list of questions I use to help my students brainstorm essay material. The idea is to read each prompt and jot down whatever comes to mind, then choose one or two ideas to develop for 15 minutes or so — each. It’s okay to skip a few where nothing is coming up for you.
This exercise takes from 1-30 minutes or so per prompt and can result in some excellent ideas you can use in your short and long application responses. I’ve designed these questions to be helpful to personal development and self-awareness, too, so writing about them can have a cathartic, journal-like feel that eases some of the stress and anxiety of college applications.
Tip: It's especially helpful to work on these questions by hand. Here's a printable PDF version with room to write.
When do you feel happiest? Why do you think that is?
What are the biggest obstacles in your path to your ideal future?
How would your closest friend describe you?
How do you deal with frustration? (Tip: It can be helpful to think of frustration as simply the idea that something different should be happening.)
Which intellectual areas can you benefit from developing?
Which emotional areas can you benefit from developing?
Describe a strong childhood memory. Why do you think it’s so vivid?
How do you respond to change?
What’s one specific way you’ve grown as a person in the past year?
What do you bring to your community
What physical place has importance to you? Why?
What is your favorite (kind of) game? What specifically do you appreciate about it?
What person close to you has had a significant, positive impact on who you are today? Why?
What is one of your best qualities? How do you use and develop it?
Who is someone you have helped or would like to help someday? How did or would you assist them?
What item in your room most catches your eye? What meaning does it hold for you?
What’s a topic you could talk about for hours? Why do you think you could talk so easily at length about it?
When you think of the word “punchable,” what or who comes to mind? Why do you think that is?
What’s something that’s true that very few people agree with you on?
What’s something that makes you feel proud?
What’s something that gives you satisfaction?
What are you afraid of? Is your fear blocking you from doing what you want? What do you think your fear(s) could be trying to signal you to learn?
When you get ready to write a full draft, keep these tips in mind:
remember that it’s a first draft ~ enjoy the process as much as possible
get to the point without being flowery
write something you'd be interested in reading
stay focused and relate everything you say to your thesis
include precise, related references/examples & analyze each carefully
use active voice
check your punctuation
be as clear and concise as possible
be consistent in your level of formality or casualness
draw the reader into your world and your way of seeing things
ask many peers and available adults to be your readers and editors
critique as you go ~ just keep going!
use jargon without clearly explaining it; usually simple words are stronger.
generalize (boring) or forget to include specific examples
list your extracurriculars or other information that is available elsewhere in your application
use passive voice or inconsistent tenses
include unnecessary, pretentious, or unrelated references
If you’d like professional, personalized editing, essay tutoring sessions are available here, in-person or online.
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Jessica Robinson is a test prep tutor in Manhattan. She has spent over a decade coaching students in standardized test-prep and anxiety-management.
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