College Essays: Choosing a Topic

The Basics:

- Don’t worry about the Common App prompts: all ask about challenges that required problem-solving

- Look small: powers of observation can be more meaningful than events that befell you

- Try to avoid family/sports/ service unless these are definitive parts of app

- Don’t talk about how an event impacted you but how you impacted an event

- Often it’s helpful to try to pair two types of essays together: one that’s more “external” (to show your outward behavior and how you interact with people and situations) and one that’s more internal (that shows how you think and question the world around you). Both, though, follow the same formula:

— Start by describing how a situation defined you —

— End by describing how you ultimately defined the situation —

Both parts of this basic formula are essential: the first part shows your understanding of the world around you and the ways it has shaped you; the second shows how you’re capable of shaping it — and yourself — in return.

Types of Essays:

- Extroverted: Show how you’ve confronted a challenge in a way unique to your personality

- Introspective: Show how your perspective and values were challenged or have changed.

Quick Tasks:

- Take notes on few stories from past few years.

- Use above narrative arcs as suggestions only if you want them

- Ask what qualities your recommendations will emphasize.

- Give yourself time: a good essay might only take a few hours to write, but often after months of brain-wracking frustration.

- The voice doesn’t need to sound smart or lyrical — it needs to sound like you.

Brainstorming Questions:

Story Prompts

1. What was a time you didn’t fit in? When was a time you couldn’t relate?

2. What’s the thing you most regret doing?

3. What’s the thing you most regret not doing?

4. When did you try to do something and fail?

5. When was the last time you cried?

6. What’s something you’re embarrassed to tell other people about yourself or interests?

7. What political issue is most important to you?

8. What has been the biggest challenge of the past year?

9. When did you fight an idea that people had about you?

10. What do you notice around you that other people don’t?

Framing Prompts

1. Why does a college need you — and can’t take someone else in your place?

2. What does a college lose if they don’t take you?

3. What would you offer the campus during your time at college?

4. What would you do post-college that would reflect well on it?

5. How would your interviewer and recommendations describe you?

6. What are the weaknesses of your application? Do you plan to address them?

7. What are your intellectual interests?

8. What social impact have you had?

9. What social impact do you want to have 10 years from now? 30 years from now?

10. How would your friends describe you? If they said you were the “_____ person,” what noun or adjective would they use?

Developing the Narrative

1. How did situation define you initially? How did you finally (re)define it?

2. What was the personal transformation? How did and didn’t you change?

3. What concrete details bring the scene alive? Gestures, furniture, etc…

4. What failures did you encounter along the way?


1. Does your essay frame your interests?

2. Is your essay memorable?

3. Is your essay personal?

4. Does your essay show how you defined a situation — instead of how a situation defined you?