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Choosing a College Essay Topic

By Tom Nicholas

August 28, 2013

Updated: July 10, 2020

Writing your college essays can be one of the most daunting tasks you face in your high school years. It certainly was for me; I can distinctly recall sitting in front of a blank computer screen for what felt like an eternity, with absolutely no idea what to do. Much of the stress, in my experience, centered around selecting the subject for my essays.

I sometimes worry that we in the admission profession, in trying to talk about what will stand out in an essay, give the impression that it’s your choice of topic that will set your essay apart. I’ve often heard admission counselors exhort students to avoid particular topics, such as a high school sport or a meaningful grandparent or community service, because students choose those topics so frequently. If you want to stand out, the reasoning goes, write about something different. Write about something no one else is writing about.

This concerns me deeply – in part because, every year, I read many excellent essays on some very “ordinary” topics like sports and grandparents. I also fear that it leads students to focus on the wrong thing (finding a unique topic) and not the right thing (writing an excellent essay). As we’re about to discuss, it’s very difficult to find an essay topic that is truly unique.

It has also given rise to what I call The Common Uncommon Essay Topics. These are subjects that students select because, following the aforementioned reasoning, they believe them to be unique or differentiating. And, often, they are unique – at least, in the context of your peer group or high school. The trouble is, not all of our applicants come from your school; they come from schools across the country, and any other students that have had a similar experience may also be inclined to write about the same thing, since they too look around and find it unique within their context. As a result, we’ve seen essay topics that used to be few and far between become commonplace reading. (Some typical examples would be attending a special conference or program, going on a service trip, studying abroad, moving or changing schools, working with special needs children, or dealing with a significant hardship or illness in one’s family; these are all experiences that few people you know have probably had and which are often life-shaping events.)

And let me be clear: just like with sports or community service, there’s nothing wrong with writing about any of these things. They are all perfectly fit to be college essay topics, provided they were meaningful or shaping experiences for you. The key is this: don’t rely on your topic to carry your essay. If you think the experience you had was unique, chances are it wasn’t really, when you take the entire college-bound population of the U.S. as a sample. With sports and grandparents and the “common” topics, students are aware that they’re writing about something more commonplace, so they tend to focus more on their approach and composition; when students believe their topic to be one-of-a-kind, I have found, they tend to trust that the subject will stand out and not worry as much about the delivery.

One exercise I encourage you to undertake is the following: when writing and editing your essay, assume that the person reviewing your application will read it immediately after ten other essays on the exact same topic. The subject itself won’t stand out. What will differentiate yours from the others?

The answer – quite literally – is you. You are the differentiating factor. Whether you’re writing about something that millions of students have experienced (like high school sports) or something that only a few hundred have (like a special conference you attended), your personal experience of that event is the only thing that’s truly and completely unique to you.

One way of bringing out the you in the essay is to make sure you don’t just cover the “what,” but the “why” and “how” of your topic. In other words, don’t just describe an event or narrate what happened; explain why this was significant to you, how it impacted or changed you. That’s how you make it a personal essay. That’s how you make it different from anyone else’s, even those who were there or who experienced something similar. That’s how you share what we really want to know.

Students writing on topics they believe to be uncommon are prone to spending a lot of time explaining and narrating about the subject rather than sharing about themselves. Some background and explanation may be needed – you don’t want to leave your reviewer completely in the dark, if they’re not familiar with the type of experience you’re describing – but even if we’re not familiar with the topic, we’d much rather spend most of our time reading why it was important and how it changed you. Keep the background explanation and story-telling to a minimum. I don’t want to finish an essay thinking, “Wow, that sounds like a really neat conference,” or “What a cool trip/grandparent/story” – I want to finish every essay thinking “What a neat applicant!”

Note that I’m not encouraging you to find some super-out-of-the-box way of writing. Be careful with getting too creative – it takes a very rare mind to effectively pull off something novel. Having read (by my estimation) close to 10,000 college essays in my career, I’ve only seen one student accomplish an effective poem essay (though I have seen several dozen try). I’ve read a handful of interesting essays written in the third person, but far more have fallen flat and come across as contrived. If creativity in writing isn’t your strong suit – which it isn’t, for most people – don’t try to write in an overly creative fashion. Stick to the basics, and look to your perceptions, your growth, and your individual experience to differentiate your essay.

Despite what admission professionals often imply, the reality is that in the long run we don’t remember most of the essays we read. (I can distinctly recall, at most, 70 or 80 of the 10,000 essays I’ve read.) A handful will make that kind of impression, true, but we admit far more than a handful of students each year. Your goal in writing an essay shouldn’t be to join that handful of the most memorable; your goal should be to write a solid and meaningful personal essay, because that’s what most of the students we admit have done. A well-written, thoughtful, intentional, personal essay – whatever the topic, however common or uncommon the content – can be a huge asset to your application. In the midst of a highly competitive, highly holistic admission process, it can help your application rise toward the top.

Tags: Application Process Admission Tips

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Tom NicholasTom Nicholas
Associate Director of Admission 

A Richmond alumnus (Class of 2007), Tom has been working and blogging for the Office of Admission since he graduated. He loves his alma mater and the city that shares its name.

Learn more about Tom

Beth Anne SpachtBeth Anne Spacht
Senior Assistant Director of Admission

Beth Anne was a double major at Richmond (English and Latin American & Iberian Studies) and now enjoys helping prospective students discover the best of her alma mater.

Learn more about Beth Anne

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