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What Makes a Good Essay Topic?

As your junior year wraps up, it’s time to start thinking about something that can feel even more intimidating than AP tests: writing your college essays!

It can be tough to decide what to write about. Many students have a few essay topics that they’re considering, but aren’t sure which to choose.

Every good college admissions essay is different, but they do all have a few things in common! If you’re not sure whether your essay topic will work, read on. A good essay topic...

...shows who you really are

What do you like most about yourself? Not what you think colleges want from their students -- what do you value about yourself? That’s what you need to show in your essays. (It can be hard to figure this out! If you’re having trouble, ask some friends what your best traits are.)

The goal in your essay isn’t to try to prove you’re someone who colleges would want at their schools. The goal is to show them who you really are! Yes, you should show them the best side of who you are -- there’s no need to shine a spotlight on your flaws -- but it needs to be true to you. Admissions officers want to learn about who you are, and they’ll easily be able to spot a phony.

Just for one example, many students read example essays online (we’d recommend avoiding doing this too much!) and suddenly think they need to be funny in their essays. But that really depends on who you are. Are you the class clown, or the wit of your high school newspaper? If humor is one of your main assets, then by all means, show that in your essay (without offending anyone, of course!) But if you’re the more introspective, quiet type, then don’t try to force humor in your essay. Write in a way that’s true to you.

And just so we’re clear, that doesn’t mean writing about your grades or your resume! Colleges will see all of that information on other parts of your application. The essay is a chance to show them who you are as a person.

...demonstrates growth in some way

A lot of students seem to think that colleges want to see “perfect” students, people who have never made a mistake in their lives. That’s not true at all! It’s much more important to show that you’re able to learn and grow as a person.

That means you’re going to have to get vulnerable in your essay. It’s not easy to admit that you’ve made mistakes, but that’s sometimes necessary in order to show growth. Don’t get too negative about your past self, but it’s fine -- more than fine, really -- if your message is something like, for example, “I used to be a really shy and nervous person, but through my favorite extracurricular, I learned that putting myself out there more can lead to stronger relationships and bigger accomplishments.” You’re not saying that you were a bad person before you went through this transformation; you’re just saying that you learned and grew. interesting!

“Interesting” doesn’t have to mean that you have the wildest story the admissions officer has ever read. In fact, this has a lot to do with the idea of showing who you really are. Ideally, your essay will be something that nobody else could have written.

Sure, that’s easier if your family is in the circus and you grew up training lions. But it’s absolutely possible for anyone to write a compelling essay, no matter what your history is. You just have to get specific. Think about what you love, what your values are, what makes you unique, and try to capture that in your essay.

Let’s take that lion tamer example. An essay topic like “everyone in my family is a lion tamer, and I am also a lion tamer” would be intriguing at first due to its unique subject matter, but ultimately not that interesting. What does that say about our writer? That she just follows along paths that others create for her?

Now let’s say the topic is “everyone in my family is a lion tamer, but my passion is actually playing the cello.” This version has something new happening, so it’s a little more intriguing. We can see how the writer wants to distinguish herself from those around her.

Okay, let’s take it one more step and say the topic is “everyone in my family is a lion tamer, but my passion is actually playing the cello. It took a while for them to understand that I want to forge my own path, but eventually they saw that playing in front of hundreds of people can take just as much courage as sticking your head in a lion’s mouth!” Now there’s an essay that I’d like to read. It’s showing me not just that the student is passionate and brave, but that she’s able to see nuance, communicate with others, and facilitate growth.

No, you won’t be writing an essay about lion tamers and cellists. (Unless you are, in which case, please let us read it!) But you can absolutely craft your own essay that shows your own unique story. And as long as you’re being honest and writing about who you truly are, that’s going to be an essay worth reading.

Still not sure what to write about? We can help! Email us today at to schedule your free consultation.


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