Coming up with a good topic for your college essays can feel like the ultimate form of writer’s block. After all, what could you possibly write about that will represent you in 500 words or less? The creative process definitely isn’t easy, but these tips and tricks from people who have been through the process should help you get your thoughts flowing and ideas moving.
1. Focus on a moment
One of the easiest ways to think of a college essay topic is to focus on a specific instance that changed you or that represents something about your character. As Madie, a Brandeis University student, puts it, “You don’t need to tell a long and complicated story to have a good college essay. All you need is a moment. Start with a moment, and work out from there. Then come back to that moment at the end of your essay.” In Madie’s Common Application essay, she wrote about the mantra she said to herself every day before she got out of her car to go to school. While that may seem like a rather simple topic to write about, for Madie, that everyday occurrence defined her. So ask yourself: what is a moment in your life that defined you?
Whether it is the time you ate a weird-looking fruit, the peculiar way you brush your teeth, or the time you went skydiving, it doesn’t matter. The moment itself is not important. What that moment says about you is.
Related:Which Common Application Essay Prompt is Right for You?
2. Stand out
It’s true: the college admission process is tougher than ever. Basically every student you will be up against has done some sort of community service. Everyone has some sport or musical instrument or other extracurricular they excel at. Tons of kids work a part-time job in addition to all their other responsibilities. It’s hard to find something you did in high school that will make you unique in an applicant pool. This is not to discount the work you have done; it is just to say that everyone is writing similar essays about similar things.
You want to write about something that will make you stand out. Write about something that the poor admission officer reading all these essays hasn’t read before. So take a second to think: what’s something you’ve done that your classmates haven’t? Was it meaningful to you? If so, get writing.
3. When disaster strikes . . . write about it!
In the college admission process, it can be easy to get caught up in trying to come off as the “perfect” candidate. You have worked so hard to get perfect grades, perfect SAT or ACT scores, perfect extracurricular activities—you get the picture. However, here is a little-known secret about college applications: perfect is boring. The people in admission offices reading your essays read about “perfect” all day. Your essay is the time to spice up your application. Show them a time in your life where maybe everything didn’t go so perfectly. For instance, Jackson, a Division III student-athlete, wrote about the time he injured his ankle in tennis, only to go through extensive and excruciatingly painful rehab to finally get back on the court, where, on his first day back, he injured his other ankle. While revealing any imperfection in a college essay may seem contradictory to the goal of convincing a college to admit you, it often showcases your best qualities. For example, the fact that Jackson was able to stick with tennis and rehab after all of these trials shows that he is persistent and strong. As he put it, “My college essay wasn’t about making myself seem amazing. It was more about reflecting on my past experiences and seeing where they got me today.”
4. Be genuine
Rachel, a student at James Madison University, recalls her Common Application essay with pride, because she was true to herself in everything she wrote. In fact, she says her essay was “the most genuine thing she has ever written.” When Rachel’s prompt asked her what her favorite place was, she knew she shouldn’t pick her bedroom or the beach she went to as a child, because those are everyone’s favorite places. She wanted her favorite place to be her own. So Rachel wrote about swing sets. “Swings are everywhere,” she says, so it was a relatable topic while still being unique to her own personality. Additionally, using swings as her favorite place gave her a lot of imagery to work with in her essay, because she could literally describe what being on the swings felt like. The important lesson to take away here is that if you are truthful and genuine in your essay, it will be easy to write about.
5. Write about your childhood
Your entire college application talks about who you were in high school. Admission officers see what activities you did in high school, what classes you took in high school, and what scores you got—you guessed it—in high school. While these things are important, so much of your personality forms as a child too. My friend Caroline, who was accepted to schools such as George Mason University, Wittenberg University, and Seattle University, wrote about how interest in exploration started as a child. She wrote a narrative about pushing boundaries. As a child, Caroline always rode her bike just a little bit farther than her parents allowed her to. Eventually she ended up riding all the way into the forest and exploring nature, where she developed her passion for saving the environment. By writing about how her interests, tendencies, and passions came from her childhood, Caroline was able to give admission officers a more complete picture of who she is. Think about what you did as a child that says something about your personality now. Write about what makes you, you!
Keep calm and happy writing everyone!
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College application essays don’t have to be a drag – and these schools prove it. They’ve created some of the most outlandish, thought-provoking and original essay questions out there.
Here are the 15 schools that think outside the box, when it comes to admissions essay, with some examples of our favorite questions they’re asking on The Common Application this year.
Now, it’s up to you to impress admissions officers with a response that measures up.
Amongst the schools with the most create assortments were Lehigh University, Tufts University and Wake Forest, though we’ve decided to remain (sort of) impartial and list the schools with the most creatively candid questions in alphabetical order.
The following 15 schools had some of our favorite imaginative college admissions essay questions begging the question: how would you answer?
1. Brandeis University
“You are required to spend the next year of your life in either the past or the future. What year would you travel to and why?”
Leave it to the liberal arts colleges to come up with something thought-provoking. This private research university, located in Waltham, MA, is sure to get your creative juices flowing!
Learn more about Brandeis University.
2. Bucknell University
“Pick a movie or novel where the protagonist makes a difficult choice. Do you agree or disagree with the decision he or she made?”
Another private liberal arts university, Bucknell is located in the central part of Pennsylvania in the town of Lewisburg. If you’re looking to bring unique perspectives to a university, this may be the one for you.
Learn more about Bucknell University.
3. Hampshire College
“Create two questions that drive you.”
This private liberal arts school, located in Amherst, MA, is so outside of the box, they got rid of the box (i.e. questions) all together. If you’re up for the creative challenge, seize it!
Learn more about Hampshire College.
4. Kalamazoo College
“Let’s go back to a time when learning was pure joy. Please tell us your favorite childhood book and why.”
Also dubbed “K College” or “K,” this Kalamazoo, Michigan school produces more Peace Corp volunteers than any other U.S. academic institution!
Learn more about Kalamazoo College.
5. Lehigh University
“What is your favorite riddle and why?”
“Describe your favorite \”Bazinga\” moment.”
“You’ve just reached your one millionth hit on your YouTube video. What is the video about?”
“If your name were an acronym, what would it stand for and how would it reflect your strengths and pesonality?”
When it comes to originality, Lehigh definitely took the cake. Believe it or not, we had to narrow our choices down to the above questions! But this Bethlehem, PA, university is also known for academics and landed on the Top Party Schools list. Talk about well rounded!
Learn more about Lehigh University.
6. Stanford University
“What matters to you, and why?”
Stanford left the essay open to interpretation for the scholars applying to the university, which is considered to be one of the most prestigious in the United States and the world.
Learn more about Stanford University.
7. Texas Christian University
“Take a blank sheet of paper. Do with this page what you wish. Your only limitations are the boundaries of this page. You don’t have to submit anything, but we hope you will use your imagination.”
This optional “assignment” from the university, located in Forth Worth, TX, must leave a blank stare on students faces all the time. Who else wonders what types of submissions (and how many paper airplanes) they get?
Learn more about Texas Christian University.
8. Tufts University
“Celebrate your nerdy side.”
“What makes you happy?”
“What does #YOLO mean to you?”
Competing with Lehigh, Tufts University had quite the array of unique questions, so we had to pick favorites. Tufts is known as a Little Ivy and a “New Ivy,” so we imagine that those applying to this school, which ranks amongst the top in the nation, appreciate the chance to speak their minds via the college application essay. Learn more about Tufts University.
9. University of Chicago
“Winston Churchill believed ‘a joke is a very serious thing.’ Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it.”
“How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared?”
The University of Chicago cleverly takes essay questions suggested by students. So if you find the questions a little too peculiar, blame your peers. If you can take on the essays, you can join the nearly 15,00 students that attend the school – which is another ranked as one of the most prestigious, both nationally and worldwide.
Learn more about University of Chicago.
10. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
“What do you hope to find over the rainbow?”
This public research university is consistently ranked among the highest in the United States and is one of eight original Public Ivy schools. Perhaps the answer to the essay question should be: an Ivy League education with public university tuition prices?
Learn more about University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
11. University of Notre Dame
“By the end of the college application process, you will have probably written dozens of essays and responded to a multitude of questions. Use this opportunity to try something new.”
If you want to become one of the 8,000 undergraduates who identify as the Fighting Irish, you’ll need to plan and strategize to impress admissions officials at this private Catholic research university.
Learn more about University of Notre Dame.
12. University of Virginia
“To tweet or not to tweet?”
“What’s your favorite word and why?”
“Describe one of your quirks and why it is part of who you are.”
Located in Charlottesville, VA, this public university was conceived and designed by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. We cannot help but wonder, which side of the “tweet” or “not to tweet” spectrum do you think he’d land?
Learn more about University of Virginia.
13. Villanova University
“What sets your heart on fire?”
Founded in 1842, this private university is the oldest Catholic university in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It was named for Saint Thomas of Villanova, but we’d advise against answering in any way that may suggest he sets your heart ablaze. That’s just …awkward.
Learn more about Villanova University.
14. Wake Forest University
“Some say social media is superficial, with no room for expressing deep or complex ideas. We challenge you to defy these skeptics by describing yourself as fully and accurately as possible in the 140-character limit of a tweet.”
“Give us your top ten list.”
Wake Forest is a private university with its main campus located in Winston Salem, NC. The original location was in Wake Forest, hence the name. What would be on our top ten list? How about these school facts? The school has 93 percent retention rate and an 85 percent four-year graduation rate – not bad!
Learn more about Wake Forest University.
15. Yale University
“You have been granted a free weekend next month. How will you spend it?”
“What is something about which you have changed your mind in the last three years?”
You may have heard of Yale University – it’s a private Ivy League research university in Connecticut? It’s also the alma mater of five U.S. presidents, among countless other scholars. With a retention rate of 99 percent, we’re guessing most students don’t answer, “Going to Yale,” as what they’ve changed their minds about.
Perhaps which side of a legal issue you fall on would be a safer answer, especially since Yale Law School is the most selective within the United States.
Learn more about Yale University.
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