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Choosing the Right Essay Topics

Like most students, you will likely be applying to around 10 colleges. Hopefully most of these will be on the Common Application, which will save you a lot of time. However, those schools will still have essays on their supplements and often allow you to choose between different topics. What should you be thinking about when making that choice?

Well, first of all, remember that what the admissions people really want to know about is “YOU”, so all of the questions are essentially pointing back to you. I have written in more than one of my other posts about the importance of articulating who you are and practising doing this to many different audiences. Also that it is more important to restrict your description to just a few areas, or at least to have some common thread that connects the areas that you describe. Before you go about the task of deciding on an essay choice, jot down some of the key differentiators that make you stand out. I often explain how the admissions process is not unlike a singing audition. You may be versed in singing many different styles, but you will stick to the one that you are best at and that best highlights your abilities. Same thing in the application process; you may have done tons of things in high school but you need to hone in on the things that are most important to you and that highlight your strengths.

Armed with that information, you can now look at the different essay choices. My advice is to create one document where all of your essays are available in one place. This allows you to see all of the work in front of you, but would also allow you to now decide where the things about yourself that you identified could most easily be discussed in a particular essay.

The next step is to “Have Fun”. Seriously, most students will then write very stale and formal essays that do not sound like the student. Bring your personality into your style of writing and perspective. If you have a good message about yourself, then find a “fun” vehicle (story) to deliver that message. While the admissions person will usually be most interested in the message about you, an entertaining and interesting essay will be what sticks in their brain.

Finally, I would like to discuss some common pitfalls:

  • Make sure that you answer the question! If nothing else, they want to see that the student can follow instructions. For example, there is an essay prompt in the Common Application about a failure that you experienced. Writing about how you failed in some mock exams and that made you work really hard and then get the highest marks in your real exams is not a story of failure!
  • You may have editors give you feedback, but don’t lose your personal voice in that process.
  • While not critical, it is a good idea to use US spellings if applying to US, and UK spellings if applying to the UK.
  • You should finalize your essays in a word document, but after you upload them to the application, make sure to read a print preview to make sure that it looks the way that you want it to and is not cut off.
  • Try not to make far-reaching or clichéd statements. For example: After helping the orphan children, I realized that they had given me far more than I could have ever given them! Or -The underprivileged children made me realize how much I took for granted in my own life. Or – When I was young I loved taking things apart and putting them back together again (engineering student cliché). Or -I want to use engineering to create an alternative fuel source that will save the environment. You get the idea. Keep it real!

If you can write authentic essays that express clearly your main elements, you will stand out. If there is only one piece of advice that you take from this, it should be to have fun! Of the thousands of essays that I have read, I can tell when a student had fun writing the essay, and those essays are always the best reads.


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Prab Singh heads CollegeSource (http://thecollegesource.net/), an organisation that provides life coaching to adolescents and support to their family through the process of deciding their higher education and career goals.

5 thoughts on “Choosing the Right Essay Topics

  1. Sudha Kumar

    Good tips Prab. Yes, one needs to make a conscious effort to strike a balance between getting the right ideas and implementing them right ( language, use of US English, formatting, avoiding cliches etc). We are just fresh from one such exercise at home and I can fully relate to your post.

  2. S Rangarajan

    Hi Prab,

    As you sign off on your post, you mention that you are able to identify the students who had fun writing the essays. Can you quote from such essays too so we know how to balance between fun / seriousness?


    1. Prab Singh

      Well, it is hard to take quotes out of context of the whole essay, but I will try:

      “Moving into the 8th floor in my new apartment in India in the middle of freshman year was an experience I likened to getting my teeth pulled without painkillers. It is probably no accident then that one of the tools that a dentist uses to extract teeth is called an elevator, as the elevator in my complex was the bane of my existence.” – Student goes on to describe a transition to loving the elevator and its slow functioning as it allows her to meet (and she describes well) many interesting people who live in her building.

      “I recognize now that the risk that I took was not to except the challenge of the tournament so close to my exams. The risk was that I might have given into to the concerns of those who questioned this choice. If I had, I would not have experienced the power of this relationship, the ability to direct intention to two disparate goals can increase your performance in both. As you can imagine, I am already considering the opportunities to expand this theory to more than two goals. Bring on the “naysayers”!” – This is the end of an essay where the student had talked about how he risked going for a martial arts competition right before a big exam, despite the many people telling him that this was crazy.

      “I also ventured beyond syllabi by undertaking intensive workshops with leading theatre practitioner Pranav Mukherjee (who celebrates Indian indigenous folk theatre) and a Japan based troupe Nose2Nose that amalgamates physical theatre with multi characterization and props. The latter taught me consistency in characterization while the former brought me closer to my roots and the socio-political dimensions of theatre. Theatre forces me out of my comfort zone, even allowing me to identify my singing abilities through the lead role of Fantine in Les Miserables. This epitomises the dynamic nature of the art-one that exposes me not only to the subject but also to myself. ” – This is a very short activity essay where the student successfully communicates not only her passion for theatre, but also her interests in society and how to learning about herself.

      Beginning of an essay: “Am I an alien? I suppose that most people would be fooled by my Earthly features. However, my younger brother would beg to differ. He is a “normal” person.
      He is quite the product of the MTV generation; listening to the latest music and updated about the lives of all the famous rock artists. But my suggestion that he could write music and lyrics…whoa! “That is way uncool”. Uncool is apparently the planet that I am from.”

      -The student then goes on to contrast some of his activities with his younger brother, a clever way of letting the admissions person know his key activities, and then ends with this:

      “Am I an alien? Perhaps. But on my last birthday, quite unexpectedly, my brother made an intergalactic act of friendship and diplomacy: “You might be strange bro, but I still love you.” This act gave him immediate honorary citizenship to planet Uncool, a fact he seemed to sense as he made a hasty exit.”

  3. best essay writing companies

    its better to brainstorming for ideas that you are interested in.that is a a well chosen topic allows you to flourish as you write. So you need to choose topics that you are interested in. That way, you will be more passionate about the informative essay topics that you will write on, and will write with more energy and vigor. This will show in your writing.


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