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19 College Essay Topics and Prompts
Not sure what to write for your college essay? We've got you covered with a number of topics and prompts to help shape your unique story.
As part of your college application materials, you'll likely be asked to submit a college essay. These tend to be between 250 and 650 words , and are a unique opportunity to showcase your personality. Admissions panels are typically looking for students who will positively represent the school as a whole. In the end, your goal is to show them that you and the college are a good match.
When drafting your college essay, you may be expected to answer a prompt or come up with a topic on your own. In this article, we've rounded up several ideas to get you thinking—and writing.
19 college essay topics
Each school sets different requirements around the college essay, so it's important to review the expectations around every application you intend to submit. Some give you creative freedom, while others expect you to respond to a pre-developed prompt. Either way, a strong college essay conveys to the admissions team who you are, why you want to attend that particular school, and what matters to you. It's a way to personalize an application that often focuses on quantitative data, such as GPA and SAT scores.
If you're given the creative freedom to write about whatever you want, consider a college essay topic that allows you to be honest and original. We've compiled the following ideas to help you brainstorm:
What's an important issue you care about? How have you gotten involved?
Have you changed your mind about something in recent years? What was it and why?
What's a situation that caused you to grow?
Explain a time when you failed. What did you learn from that moment?
Share a surprising pastime or hobby and what interested you about it.
What extracurricular activity are you involved in that speaks to your personality?
Detail a meaningful volunteer experience.
Dive into a meaningful travel experience.
Who do you most admire and why?
If you have a unique background, share a bit about it. How did you get where you are?
What's the best advice you've ever received?
Was there ever a time when you had to stand up for something—or someone?
What's something you might change about the world to make it better?
What do you hope to accomplish by attending college?
Is there something you want to do after graduating college?
Have you ever made or created something? Talk about it.
Do you have a big idea that could potentially impact your community?
What is most valuable to you? Dive into your values and share an example.
What are you most passionate about? Why?
Pre-developed college essay prompts
Some colleges and universities will give you a series of prompts to choose from. These will vary from school to school, and can either be questions or statements. Here are a few examples of both.
Sample question prompts:
What excites your intellectual curiosity?
How has your upbringing shaped the person you are today?
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Sample statement prompts:
Talk about an unusual circumstance in your life
Share how you hope to use your college education
Discuss a list of books you have read in the last year
Common App essay prompts
Common App is an online platform designed to simplify the college application process. Over 900 colleges use Common App, making it possible for you to fill out one application that's then submitted to multiple schools.
If you choose to complete the Common App, you'll have a choice of several distinctive prompts that change every academic year. Here's a sample of the 2022-2023 essay prompts [ 1 ]:
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
Stick to the prompt.
No matter what type of prompt you receive, it's your job to stick to it. The admissions team has a lot of essays to read, so you'll have a better chance of standing out if you develop a cohesive response that stays on topic.
Start by identifying the prompt's main topic, then spend some time brainstorming to find the idea that resonates most with you. For many people, it's the topic that makes them feel some sort of emotion or reminds them of an entertaining story. Understanding what you're being asked to write about should make staying on topic throughout the entire composition easier.
5 additional college essay tips
Once you decide what you'd like to write, follow the tips below to craft a standout essay. You can also find more advice about college essays in our article College Essay Format: Writing and Editing Tips .
1. Be considerate with humor.
Showing off your sense of humor lets your personality show through your words and can make reading the essay more entertaining. Try including a few sentences that you think will bring a smile to the reader's face, or use adjectives to insert some colorful comedy.
2. Offer insight.
Beyond recounting an event, experience, or memory, a great essay shows insight aka an ability to highlight meaningful takeaways. For example, if you choose to write about your unique hobby, try to discuss what you've learned from that pastime—or how you've grown as a result of it.
3. Add details
Great essays also invite the reader to connect with the story on an emotional level. With that in mind, it can help to recount a specific memory rather than answer a prompt without those colorful details. More than discussing something on a surface level—or vaguely—you want to provide enough particulars to keep your readers engaged. For example, if you choose to write about the best advice you ever received, set the scene and take the reader back to that moment.
4. Have an editor.
Your essay should ideally be error-free. Ask a trusted friend or family member to review your essay and suggest edits. An editor can help you catch grammatical errors or points out ways to better develop your response.
Avoid passing your paper along to too many people, though, so you don't lose your own voice amid all of the edits and suggestions. The admissions team wants to get to know you through your writing and not your sister or best friend who edited your paper.
5. Revise your essay.
Your first draft is just that: a draft. Give yourself plenty of time to read and revise your first pass and make sure you fully developed your response, stayed on topic, and shared your personality.
When revising your essay, you may find it helpful to read it aloud so you hear the words as you're saying them. Some people prefer to print a copy on paper and write notes by hand. Both options give your brain a new way to process the information to catch details you may miss if you keep everything in your head and on the computer.
Watch to find out why the essay many admission counselor's favorite part of the application:
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12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay
College admission committees sift through thousands of college essays each year. Here’s how to make yours stand out.
When it comes to deciding who they will admit into their programs, colleges consider many criteria, including high school grades, extracurricular activities, and ACT and SAT scores. But in recent years, more colleges are no longer considering test scores.
Instead, many (including Harvard through 2026) are opting for “test-blind” admission policies that give more weight to other elements in a college application. This policy change is seen as fairer to students who don’t have the means or access to testing, or who suffer from test anxiety.
So, what does this mean for you?
Simply that your college essay, traditionally a requirement of any college application, is more important than ever.
A college essay is your unique opportunity to introduce yourself to admissions committees who must comb through thousands of applications each year. It is your chance to stand out as someone worthy of a seat in that classroom.
A well-written and thoughtful essay—reflecting who you are and what you believe—can go a long way to separating your application from the slew of forgettable ones that admissions officers read. Indeed, officers may rely on them even more now that many colleges are not considering test scores.
Below we’ll discuss a few strategies you can use to help your essay stand out from the pack. We’ll touch on how to start your essay, what you should write for your college essay, and elements that make for a great college essay.
More than any other consideration, you should choose a topic or point of view that is consistent with who you truly are.
Readers can sense when writers are inauthentic.
Inauthenticity could mean the use of overly flowery language that no one would ever use in conversation, or it could mean choosing an inconsequential topic that reveals very little about who you are.
Use your own voice, sense of humor, and a natural way of speaking.
Whatever subject you choose, make sure it’s something that’s genuinely important to you and not a subject you’ve chosen just to impress. You can write about a specific experience, hobby, or personality quirk that illustrates your strengths, but also feel free to write about your weaknesses.
Honesty about traits, situations, or a childhood background that you are working to improve may resonate with the reader more strongly than a glib victory speech.
Grab the Reader From the Start
You’ll be competing with so many other applicants for an admission officer’s attention.
Therefore, start your essay with an opening sentence or paragraph that immediately seizes the imagination. This might be a bold statement, a thoughtful quote, a question you pose, or a descriptive scene.
Starting your essay in a powerful way with a clear thesis statement can often help you along in the writing process. If your task is to tell a good story, a bold beginning can be a natural prelude to getting there, serving as a roadmap, engaging the reader from the start, and presenting the purpose of your writing.
Focus on Deeper Themes
Some essay writers think they will impress committees by loading an essay with facts, figures, and descriptions of activities, like wins in sports or descriptions of volunteer work. But that’s not the point.
College admissions officers are interested in learning more about who you are as a person and what makes you tick.
They want to know what has brought you to this stage in life. They want to read about realizations you may have come to through adversity as well as your successes, not just about how many games you won while on the soccer team or how many people you served at a soup kitchen.
Let the reader know how winning the soccer game helped you develop as a person, friend, family member, or leader. Make a connection with your soup kitchen volunteerism and how it may have inspired your educational journey and future aspirations. What did you discover about yourself?
Show Don’t Tell
As you expand on whatever theme you’ve decided to explore in your essay, remember to show, don’t tell.
The most engaging writing “shows” by setting scenes and providing anecdotes, rather than just providing a list of accomplishments and activities.
Reciting a list of activities is also boring. An admissions officer will want to know about the arc of your emotional journey too.
Try Doing Something Different
If you want your essay to stand out, think about approaching your subject from an entirely new perspective. While many students might choose to write about their wins, for instance, what if you wrote an essay about what you learned from all your losses?
If you are an especially talented writer, you might play with the element of surprise by crafting an essay that leaves the response to a question to the very last sentence.
You may want to stay away from well-worn themes entirely, like a sports-related obstacle or success, volunteer stories, immigration stories, moving, a summary of personal achievements or overcoming obstacles.
However, such themes are popular for a reason. They represent the totality of most people’s lives coming out of high school. Therefore, it may be less important to stay away from these topics than to take a fresh approach.
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Write With the Reader in Mind
Writing for the reader means building a clear and logical argument in which one thought flows naturally from another.
Use transitions between paragraphs.
Think about any information you may have left out that the reader may need to know. Are there ideas you have included that do not help illustrate your theme?
Be sure you can answer questions such as: Does what you have written make sense? Is the essay organized? Does the opening grab the reader? Is there a strong ending? Have you given enough background information? Is it wordy?
Write Several Drafts
Set your essay aside for a few days and come back to it after you’ve had some time to forget what you’ve written. Often, you’ll discover you have a whole new perspective that enhances your ability to make revisions.
Start writing months before your essay is due to give yourself enough time to write multiple drafts. A good time to start could be as early as the summer before your senior year when homework and extracurricular activities take up less time.
Read It Aloud
Writer’s tip : Reading your essay aloud can instantly uncover passages that sound clumsy, long-winded, or false.
If you’ve mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don’t repeat it again in your essay.
Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.
Also, be sure you’ve answered whatever question or prompt may have been posed to you at the outset.
Ask Others to Read Your Essay
Be sure the people you ask to read your essay represent different demographic groups—a teacher, a parent, even a younger sister or brother.
Ask each reader what they took from the essay and listen closely to what they have to say. If anyone expresses confusion, revise until the confusion is cleared up.
Pay Attention to Form
Although there are often no strict word limits for college essays, most essays are shorter rather than longer. Common App, which students can use to submit to multiple colleges, suggests that essays stay at about 650 words.
“While we won’t as a rule stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you’d hoped it would,” the Common App website states.
In reviewing other technical aspects of your essay, be sure that the font is readable, that the margins are properly spaced, that any dialogue is set off properly, and that there is enough spacing at the top. Your essay should look clean and inviting to readers.
End Your Essay With a “Kicker”
In journalism, a kicker is the last punchy line, paragraph, or section that brings everything together.
It provides a lasting impression that leaves the reader satisfied and impressed by the points you have artfully woven throughout your piece.
So, here’s our kicker: Be concise and coherent, engage in honest self-reflection, and include vivid details and anecdotes that deftly illustrate your point.
While writing a fantastic essay may not guarantee you get selected, it can tip the balance in your favor if admissions officers are considering a candidate with a similar GPA and background.
Write, revise, revise again, and good luck!
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15 college essay topics & ideas that worked.
Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University
College essays need to inspire the admissions teams and get them excited about the idea of you joining their community. The college essay is your opportunity to show why you’d be a good fit.
The college essay is the portion of your college application that best showcases who you are. College admissions officers are looking for the most authentic you; a good topic can showcase that.
The prompts for the essay change year-to-year, so the topics can be hard to prepare for. However, here is some advice for writing your college essay where you can display your authentic voice and some topic examples to help you apply this advice.
15 Topics That Worked
Below are some college essay topics that stand out. Using these prompts can help you start writing a college essay for a stellar application!
1. Write About A Time Where You Were Inspired
Where did you find your passion? Your inspiration for applying to a school or program is one of the main aspects of your application that admissions officers want to hear you express. Writing about these moments can make a great essay.
2. Write About A Time Where Your Opinion on Something Was Radically Altered
Writing about a radical change in your worldview can display authentic growth that showcases your thoughtfulness and ability to grow as a person. These two qualities can make a worthwhile addition to any college campus.
3. Write About Your Life Trajectory Through Your Parent or Guardians’ Perspective
Nobody will know your journey and the impact events in your life have had on you better than your parents. Writing about yourself from their perspective can give a great birds-eye-view of who you are as a person and why you’re applying for this particular program/school.
4. Write About One of Your Failures
Diving deep into a failure (whether personal, academic, professional, etc.) is one of the best ways to grow as a person. Writing about a failure, why you failed and how that failure changed you is a perfect topic because it displays growth, perseverance, and maturity.
5. Write About an Extracurricular Activity That Changed You
Extracurricular activities are an important part of college applications. Writing about your profound relationship with one or multiple extracurricular activities can give new depth to your application. It can also make you stand out against others with comparable extracurriculars.
Also, take time to discuss your summer activities. Ivy leagues look for summer activities , so make sure to highlight them! If you attended a summer program for high school students , colleges want to hear about it too.
6. Write About Your Goals for College
Writing about what you wish to achieve at college as your essay topic can help you put together a distinctive college admissions essay. If your goals align with the goals of the program/school (which they likely do, considering you’re applying there), then it can show admissions teams that you’ll fit well at the school.
7. Write About Embracing Mentorship
A mentorship transforms you through guidance and support. Delve into the impact of a mentor who shaped your journey and influenced your choice to apply to this college/program. Maybe you attended an internship for high school students , where you learned a lot.
By sharing how their insights moulded your goals, you highlight openness to learning and thriving under guidance. This narrative reflects unique qualities like collaboration and growth valued by colleges.
8. Write About Learning from Cultural Misunderstanding
A single cultural misunderstanding sparks a journey of self-discovery. Recount an experience where a misunderstanding prompted questioning assumptions, leading to personal growth and a broader perspective.
Show willingness to learn from challenges and embrace diversity. Through your narrative, show how empathy and understanding pave the way for connections and personal development.
9. Write About Embracing Unexpected Success
Success that takes you by surprise can change how you see yourself. Tell a story about a time you achieved something unexpectedly and how it made you rethink your abilities.
Explain how this success proved your adaptability and determination, showing how resilient you are and how you're open to new opportunities. This experience lines up with the ever-changing college life.
10. Write About Reflecting on Thought-Provoking Quotes
Quotes are powerful sources of inspiration and belief-shaping. Dive into a quote that really resonates with you, and talk about how it's impacted your way of seeing things and your dreams.
Dig into the details and effects to show how it reflects your introspective and critical thinking abilities. This highlights your curiosity and how your values align with the college/program.
11. Write About Driving Community Involvement
Getting involved in community service can be transformative. Talk about how you took part in a significant initiative that changed how you see social issues.
Reflect on how you contributed to positive change, which aligns with the college/program's values. Show your dedication to creating social impact and how you can contribute to the campus community.
12. Write About Embracing Change Through Adversity
Facing challenges can bring growth. Think of a tough time you overcame and how it made you stronger. Share the lessons, resilience, and positive changes you got from it. This shows you can handle tough situations and develop personally, qualities colleges like.
13. Write About Fostering Growth Through Cross-Cultural Friendships
Cross-cultural friendships broaden your perspective. Talk about how these friendships expanded your view of the world and influenced your educational goals.
Show your openness to learning from diverse viewpoints and your commitment to global understanding. Highlight how you aim to enrich the campus environment through your experiences.
14. Write About Turning Passion into Action
Transforming passion into action shows your drive and commitment. Explain how your passion motivated you to take real steps within your school or community. Describe the tangible results to emphasize your readiness for leadership and positive impact. This aligns perfectly with the college/program's focus on proactive engagement.
15. Write About a Personal Symbol or Object
Personal symbols carry deep meaning. When you explore their significance, you reveal how they reflect your values and aspirations. Describe how personal symbols shape your identity and provide insights into your character and ability to reflect. This highlights your potential to make a meaningful contribution to the college/program community.
It might also be helpful to search online for some existing topics from the specific school/program you’re applying to.
This way, you can understand what each specific school is looking for in the essay portion of the application. Whether you’re writing a supplemental essay , an optional essay , or a primary essay - it’s important to know what’s expected of you. It’s also important if you’re answering prompts from The Common Application -
What Is A Good Topic?
Unique college essay topics can be difficult to come by. It's essential to pinpoint the key influences that led you to this point to write a stand-out college essay .
Start by asking yourself 'Why?' Why are you passionate about this? Why does it relate to the program you're applying to? These questions help form your 'why' statement. Honing in on your ‘why’ and finding your purpose will make for a compelling essay.
Once you have your 'why,' delve into 'What?' Share past experiences and future goals that align with your 'why.' Think about challenges you've conquered, what interests you about the program, and what you aim to achieve. Connect these through a story that showcases your passion's evolution, challenges, and your program's role.
Authentic college application narratives start with genuine essay topics. Your topic should reflect your experiences and values, showcasing your authenticity and making your essay compelling to admissions officers.
Remember, there's no magic formula for an inspiring essay. A strong topic reveals your journey, how it transformed you, the problem you're addressing, and why it drives you. It might take time, as your passion is still evolving. What matters is not just the topic but where you stand on your journey. It’s also key to learn how to end your college essay .
Reviewing examples of amazing essays is an excellent way to spark your creative thinking. By seeing how others have crafted their essays, you can gain inspiration and insights into effective storytelling, helping you generate your own unique and compelling ideas.
Good University Admissions Essay Topics FAQs
Finding the perfect topic is a worthwhile journey of self-reflection. Below are some common FAQs to help you write about the best topic for you!
1. How Do I Find a Good Topic?
Think about significant moments in your life and how they’ve led you to this moment. If you can express why these moments are of significance to you and how they’ve changed you as a person, you’ve got a good topic.
2. What Are Good Topics to Avoid?
Some essay topics to avoid include but are not limited to highly personal stories, stories with controversial subject matter, stories boasting about accomplishments and accolades, humorous topics, and stories exemplifying your luck or privilege.
3. Can You Reuse Topics?
It might be possible to tweak a college essay you’ve already written if another school’s essay prompt is similar. However, you shouldn’t anchor yourself to an essay topic you’ve previously written about.
If there’s a prompt another college has offered you to write about and you feel that you can write a better essay with this prompt, then don’t be afraid to start from scratch!
4. How to Decide Between Topics?
If different topics compel you and are compatible with the prompt, it can be hard to figure out which one might be better to write about. It’s important to remember that your essay displays you as a person. You should give preference for whichever essay topic you believe best displays your qualifications for the college/program.
The essay portion of your college application gives admissions officers a deeper understanding of who you are and why you chose to apply to this school and program.
Make sure your essay topic is up to par in authenticity, as it can make a lasting impression on admissions teams. It’s also key to make sure it follows the college requirements .
In 2019 , over half of admissions counselors ranked the essay portion of a college application to be of moderate to considerable importance. This means that your essay is as essential an aspect of your application as any other, and has the potential to make or break your application.
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Most selective colleges require you to submit an essay or personal statement as part of your application.
It may sound like a chore, and it will certainly take a substantial amount of work. But it's also a unique opportunity that can make a difference at decision time. Admissions committees put the most weight on your high school grades and your test scores . However, selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities , to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.
Telling Your Story to Colleges
So what does set you apart?
You have a unique background, interests and personality. This is your chance to tell your story (or at least part of it). The best way to tell your story is to write a personal, thoughtful essay about something that has meaning for you. Be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.
Admissions officers have to read an unbelievable number of college essays, most of which are forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sounding like themselves. Others write about a subject that they don't care about, but that they think will impress admissions officers.
You don't need to have started your own business or have spent the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the first-year class.
Tips for a Stellar College Application Essay
1. write about something that's important to you..
It could be an experience, a person, a book—anything that has had an impact on your life.
2. Don't just recount—reflect!
Anyone can write about how they won the big game or the summer they spent in Rome. When recalling these events, you need to give more than the play-by-play or itinerary. Describe what you learned from the experience and how it changed you.
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3. Being funny is tough.
A student who can make an admissions officer laugh never gets lost in the shuffle. But beware. What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different. We caution against one-liners, limericks and anything off–color.
4. Start early and write several drafts.
Set it aside for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicant’s own voice?
5. No repeats.
What you write in your application essay or personal statement should not contradict any other part of your application–nor should it repeat it. This isn't the place to list your awards or discuss your grades or test scores.
6. Answer the question being asked.
Don't reuse an answer to a similar question from another application.
7. Have at least one other person edit your essay.
A teacher or college counselor is your best resource. And before you send it off, check, check again, and then triple check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.
Read More: 2018-2019 Common Application Essay Prompts (and How to Answer Them)
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What Should I Write My College Essay About?
People often tell us they don’t have anything to write their college essay about. Good stories, they think, involve Hollywood blockbuster experiences. If they haven’t saved a child from a burning building, fled war, or discovered the cure for some obscure disease, they think they might as well accept that they’ve lived a pretty mundane life and that there’s no way they’re going to college.
Here’s the thing: this isn’t true.
Sure, some people have written strong college essays about overcoming immense challenges , but others have written standout essays about everything from making kombucha to watching The Daily Show .
So if you’re asking yourself “what should I write my college essay about?”, rest assured that how you write about your topic can be as important as (and frequently more important than) what you write about. That said, there are some key considerations you should have in mind when choosing a topic for your application essay.
Read on for guidance on finding a college essay topic you feel truly confident about. At the end, we’ll go over a couple of strong college essay examples, which will show you how others have found great stories in day to day experiences.
What can I write my college essay about?
Almost anything you want—it’s an opportunity to show your authentic self to admissions readers in a way that your test scores, GPA, and activities list can’t. Rather than like the more formal literary analysis essays you may be used to writing in your English classes, think of the personal statement as a chance to show admissions readers who you are and what you value.
Some people greet that wide open canvas with relief, others with anxiety—the sheer volume of things you could write about can feel overwhelming. And if you’re looking for any help from the Common Application prompts , you’ll likely be disappointed. As we’ve said elsewhere, using the prompts to figure out your college essay topic probably isn’t the best way to go about brainstorming (more on that here ). The good news is that CEG offers a bunch of brainstorming exercises that can set you up for success.
How to brainstorm college essay topics
At College Essay Guy, we think of essays as generally being either Montages or Narratives . A Montage uses a guiding idea to tie examples together, and a Narrative tells the story of a single (or in some cases, a couple of) challenges the writer experienced. Which one makes the most sense for you? Ask yourself this question:
Have I experienced significant challenges in my life?
If the answer to that question is “yes” (and, importantly, you’re willing to write about those challenges … ‘cause you don’t have to, despite what many people think), you might try writing a Narrative.
If the answer to that question is ”no”, try writing a Montage.
But notice the word “significant” in that question above. To get a sense of what “significant” means in the context of college essays, think about a spectrum where getting cut from a sports team is on one end (the low end… sorry), and having your house destroyed in a flood is on the other.
To be clear, we’re not saying that getting cut from your sports team is an easy experience. But think about the admissions officer’s perspective: maybe, just before reading your essay about getting cut from a sports team, she read an essay about a kid who escaped from a warzone. By comparison, your challenges simply won’t seem as compelling. And while it is possible to write a strong essay about challenges that were not significant , it’s pretty hard to pull off.
Brainstorming a Narrative Essay
So let’s say that after some thinking you’ve realized, yes, you have experienced some significant challenges, and yes, you are willing to write about them. How should I brainstorm my college essay? you may be asking. Good question. We’d suggest you try out our Feelings and Needs exercise .
In short, this exercise asks you to brainstorm a bunch of challenges you’ve experienced in your life, then reflect on the following questions for each challenge:
What were the effects of the challenge?
What did I feel as a result of those effects?
What needs were created as a result of those feelings?
What did I do to meet (or try to meet) those needs?
What did I learn from all of this?
Working through this exercise has led students to write some very strong college essays . If you’re interested in giving it a try, you might check out this video walking through it.
Brainstorming a Montage Essay
If you haven’t experienced significant challenges, or you simply don’t want to write about them (again, totally fine not to), don’t worry—you can write a Montage Essay.
Brainstorming a Montage Essay is largely about identifying your guiding thread—the thematic idea that links together different examples from your life. There are many ways to find your thread. You might try the Five Things exercise , or the I Love exercise .
A lot of people find some traction with the Essence Objects exercise . In short, this exercise asks you to brainstorm different objects in your life that are particularly meaningful to you (Ethan likes to use his green pen as an example). If you need a bit more guidance, you might ask yourself these questions:
What’s hanging on the walls in my room?
What’s something I collect, like stickers on my laptop or water bottle?
What foods do I have strong memories of?
While you’re doing this exercise you might start thinking, how on earth am I going to write my college essay about this? Resist those thoughts. I promise, this exercise has helped people write very strong essays .
What to include in a college essay
Once you’ve done some high quality brainstorming and are ready to write, be sure to remember the goals of your personal statement. Whereas the purpose of an essay in your English class is to support a clearly stated argument with evidence, the goal of your personal statement is to show an admissions officer the values, insights, skills, qualities, and interests you’ll bring to a college campus (more on the difference between English class essays and personal statements here ). This means you can (and probably should ) do things you wouldn’t normally do in a literary analysis essay.
Yes, you can use “I” statements. The essay is about you , after all. Rather than revealing how X author uses Y literary device in a book, you’re revealing your core values .
You can be vulnerable. This can be scary, but it’s one of the most efficient ways to show a stranger (i.e., a college admissions officer) who you truly are. The admissions officer should have a clear sense of “you” after reading your essay, and vulnerability is a tried and true way of getting “you” to come off the page.
You can be more casual in your writing style. In a literary analysis paper, the writing might sound something like this:
Nathaniel Hawthorne uses several literary devices to show that shame can have physical consequences. For example, when Hester opens up the book on the table, she finds that… — — —
By contrast, a personal statement’s writing can sound more like this:
I have been pooped on many times. I mean this in the most literal sense possible. I have been pooped on by pigeons and possums, house finches and hawks, egrets and eastern grays… (read the rest of this essay here ) — — —
But don’t mistake a more casual tone for haphazard structure. If you read the rest of that “poop” essay, you’ll see that the writer successfully connects ideas logically, but in a way that’s not at all obvious or boring.
For more guidance on what to include in your college essay, check out our Great College Essay Test . Below, you’ll find two stand-out college essays accompanied by some tips and analysis of what makes them so great.
2 Example College Essays with Analysis
Example college essay 1.
“Bahraini & Turkish” (Identity montage)
Born to a Turkish father and a Bahraini mother, I was named Yusuf, a name with deep roots in both countries. That decision marked the beginning of my parents’ quest to connect me to Bahrain and Turkey. Looking back, I can see how each country shaped my personal development and character in distinct ways. Bahrain gives me a sense of belonging; it represents home. It’s where my family, friends, and school are. Fridays are particularly special—they are family days. Almost every Bahraini will tell you that. From noon until evening, my extended family meets at my grandparents’ house over lunch. But our gatherings are unique. My grandfather, who served as Bahrain’s first minister of commerce and agriculture, will discuss current domestic and regional events—from the viability of a value-added tax in Bahrain to the Qatar diplomatic crisis. Many conversations turn into an engaging debate between my family members, all Western-educated, offering different opinions. As one of my uncles advocates for cutting off diplomatic ties with Qatar, my mother will argue for restoring them. This exposure to varying views on social changes and political rifts ingrained in me a thirst for political and historical insights. My inquisitiveness fueled within me a strong interest in politics, something else I owe to my Bahraini roots. As I got older, I took the initiative to educate myself about regional issues to form my own opinion. I would research a variety of news outlets, from our regional Alarabiya station to the international BBC channel, using VPN to read blocked news websites, such as Al Jazeera, watch documentaries, and read history books in an attempt to understand both sides of each issue. I started thinking more freely and learned to acknowledge and respect other people’s stances, even if I disagree. While my Bahraini side helped shape my beliefs, my Turkish side has pushed me to stand up for them. I like telling people I am half Turkish, even if I’m not asked. It gives me a sense of pride. The political rift between Bahrain and Turkey has made politics personal, making me feel more Turkish than ever. I’ve watched my parents debate Erdogan’s expansionary policies and my friends bash Turkey because of the Bahraini government’s opposition to Turkey’s involvement in the Arab region. I give Bahrain credit if I agree with the stance, but I also defend Turkey in a society where the majority endorses the government’s views. I gained a sense of independence by standing up for Turkey and sticking with my convictions, knowing the risks of being alienated. Bahrain and Turkey have played different roles in my growth, but they have also combined to influence my benevolent side with their Islamic culture's strong emphasis on compassion. I once read that cockroaches cannot survive laying on their back, so if I find one in that position, I flip it. I made bead bracelets and sold them for charity. As I matured, my contributions to my community did too. From teaching English to underserved kids to arranging Iftar meals for expatriated laborers during the COVID-19 pandemic, my efforts to give back not only gave me a new perspective on my community, but they also proved to me that the humanitarian nature of my culture is stronger than temporary political feuds. My dual heritage is reflective of the diversity of my community—a trading hub founded by the influx of Arabs, Persians, and Indians, a region where Muslim Sunnis and Shias, Christians, Jews, and Hindus have coexisted for centuries. It has shaped my natural diplomatic tendencies, from negotiating disagreements between friends to learning four languages to respecting that each position has multiple stances, many of them valid. I am eager to further develop my diplomacy skills so I can one day return to Bahrain, serve in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and be able to do my part to influence the direction of an ever-changing, complex world. — — —
College Essay 1 Tips + analysis
The author shows different values clearly. It’s fairly easy to map a core value onto each body paragraph in this montage essay. This isn’t by accident—it’s the result of the author using clear examples to illustrate the “so what” in each of their paragraphs. They show us those lunch gatherings to reveal the origins of their inquisitiveness . They talk about righting an up-turned cockroach to show us their compassion . With a clearly defined guiding thread of their Turkish and Bahraini identities, they’re able to show us key aspects of themselves. The result is that we (and admissions officers) get a clear sense of who the writer really is as a person.
The author gets a little vulnerable. They do this in a few different ways. When it comes to discussing their political beliefs, they’re well aware of the “risks of being alienated.” And yet they show that they lean into that vulnerability in the interest of staying true to their “Turkish side.” But they also get vulnerable by explaining what might be perceived as a behavioral quirk: they say that, even when not asked, they “like telling people [they’re] half Turkish…” More than simply telling readers that they take pride in their Turkish roots, they use this specific admission to really show readers what those roots mean to them.
Example college essay 2
“Patellar Tendinitis…” (narrative)
The summer before junior year was pretty awful. At the beginning of summer, I was diagnosed with patellar tendinitis. Not only did I lose the experience of playing basketball, but I also lost the feeling that came with being part of a team. One month later, the only boy I could ever fully trust died: my dog, Max. His chubby stomach would no longer provide my head a pillow, I would never get to hear him bark ever again, and I had nothing to play with when I came home. And to top it off, two weeks later, my dad cheated on my mom. I didn’t tell anyone, not even my best friend, and feelings of resentment and anger were just bottled up inside me, making me feel alone. I felt lost. So I tried to cope in different ways. I began dieting, but realized I loved food too much to starve myself. So then I started binging. No, not on food, on TV. I forced myself to watch the worst shows of all time, and by the time I hit rock bottom, I had watched every season of the Kardashians. Yeah, I went there. But I realized that dieting and watching these shows didn’t make me feel any better, they actually made me feel worse. At that point, I felt not only lost but empty and utterly bored. Fast forward to the first day of Junior year. I needed one more visual arts credit, so I switched into the Film A class. The first assignment was to pitch three short film ideas to the class, and let them decide which we would work on for the semester. I pitched my three ideas, and the class picked the story of Nina, a young girl who investigates the murder of her dead stuffed animal. I worked on my little movie idea like there was no tomorrow. I struggled to learn how to white balance and to use Final Cut Pro. I worked on color correcting during my free periods, stayed up all night making new edits of my film and kept annoying my poor teacher by emailing every day with new questions. My DP, actors, and I worked together each day to create the best version of my film. I was constantly occupied, enough so that my mom didn’t even ask me to run errands for her anymore. Score. Once my film was completed, my teacher emailed to ask if she could screen my film at a school-wide assembly. I emailed her saying “Yes!!” (with two exclamation marks). But what I was really thinking was, “Dear God, why me? I don’t want to do this, people are going to hate it. Thanks a lot” (no exclamation mark). But at the screening a miracle happened. They smiled. They laughed. They even clapped! My lack of confidence was banished by the time my film ended. I had made something that not only made me happy, but made others happy too. A cheesy smile was plastered on my face for the next two weeks. But over the next couple weeks something else started to happen. People in my film class began asking how I came up with my film idea. At the time, my answer was, “I don’t know” or “Um, I like stuffed animals?” But then I showed my film to my sister. Once it ended, she started crying. She said, “I’m so sorry you had to go through these things. It’s too early.” At first, I didn’t really understand why my film made her say that. But then I realized that she saw something I originally hadn’t. On the surface, the film is about a teenager named Nina who loses her beloved stuffed animal, Jimmy, only to find out her mother stole it to teach Nina a lesson in growing up. But my sister saw my film as kind of a distorted life story. It wasn’t just about having weird connections with inanimate objects, it was about losing something/someone you love then losing the trust of a parent. I realized that the loss of Jimmy in the story represented the loss of my dog and that Nina’s mother stealing the stuffed animal, which led to a lack of trust, represented the loss of trust I felt after my dad cheated on my mom. I may have thought that I was over my resentment and anger toward my dad, but I wasn’t. And, if I’m being honest, I’m still not. But, that anger and resentment towards my dad that pushed me to come up with this film showed me that I wasn’t alone because my sister was feeling the same thing. Even though we are 19 years apart, we unbottled our resentment together and opened up to each other. Not only did this little movie idea lead me to this understanding, but I also had a realization about filmmaking. Even though my film was comedic, it showed a hidden side of my feelings, and ultimately gave me an outlet that allowed me to show my feelings in an indirect, but meaningful way. And that’s why I love comedy. It's not just about the laughs and slapstick jokes that makes the audience laugh, but it's also about the relief creating the story gives. If I created a dramatic film about the lose of a loved one, I would have given my film teacher the hesitant yes I gave her. I would have just straight out said no. The idea of having a hidden side to my film that no one would see because they would be too busy laughing, gave me comfort. — — —
College Essay 2 Tips + analysis
The author is intentional with their casual-ness. Consider when the author discusses “binging”. A more straightforward approach may have just said something like this: “I started watching a lot of TV.” But this author plays with our expectations in a tone that’s more conversational, saying “So then I started binging. No, not on food, on TV.” Later, when talking about their film being screened in front of the whole school, they show their anxiety by saying that there was “(no exclamation mark)” at the end of their hypothetical letter to God. They’re doing two things here that result in a more casual tone: they’re indirectly addressing the reader, and they’re being brief and quippy. The informality of the writing may cause you to glaze over the intention behind it, but make no mistake: this writer’s in control of their tone.
Another example of how to get vulnerable. This author writes about painful experiences with clarity. The toll her father’s infidelity took on her is clear, and yet there’s wisdom and control in the way she writes about that pain. She writes, “I may have thought that I was over my resentment and anger toward my dad, but I wasn’t. And, if I’m being honest, I’m still not”, then launches into how filmmaking allowed her to find communion with her sister. This shows us that she’s reflected deeply on an experience that was clearly quite hard for her, giving us a clear “ so what .” When it comes to reflecting on difficult experiences, you may find that you’re not quite ready or willing to write about them. That’s fine—you don’t have to. If you are ready, though, this author shows us what it can look like to work maturely and clearly with emotional pain in a college essay.
Special thanks to Nick Muccio for writing this blog post.
Rather than candy, Nick (he/him) went searching for people’s vacuum cleaners when trick or treating. He’s since found other ways to help people clean, usually involving their essays (though he has great ideas on carpet maintenance, too). He earned a degree in Psychology from Bates College, where he rowed boats and acted in plays. Teaching high schoolers English for seven years taught him about the importance of presence and knitting sweaters. He sweats a lot, usually on purpose, and usually involving running shoes, a bike, or a rock climbing harness. His greatest fear? Heights. His greatest joys? Numerous, though shared laughter is up there.
- Grades 6-12
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60+ College Essay Prompts From Actual 2023-2024 Applications
Ideas to inspire every college applicant.
Writing a college application essay can be a stressful task for a lot of students. The more practice they get in advance, the better! This roundup of college essay prompts gives applicants a chance to explore their thinking, polish their writing, and prepare to make the best possible impression on selection committees. Every one of these questions is taken from real college applications for the 2023-2024 season, so they’re meaningful and applicable to today’s high school seniors.
Common App 2023-2024 College Essay Prompts
2023-2024 coalition for college essay prompts, life experiences college essay prompts, personal college essay prompts, academics college essay prompts, creative college essay prompts.
Hundreds of colleges and universities use the Common App process . For many schools, this includes responding to one of several college essay topics, which can change each year. Here are the essay prompts for the current application cycle (check with your chosen school/s to see if an essay is required).
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
More than 150 colleges and universities use the Coalition for College process . Here are their essay prompts for 2023-2024.
- Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
- What interests or excites you? How does it shape who you are now or who you might become in the future?
- Describe a time when you had a positive impact on others. What were the challenges? What were the rewards?
- Has there been a time when an idea or belief of yours was questioned? How did you respond? What did you learn?
- What success have you achieved or obstacle have you faced? What advice would you give a sibling or friend going through a similar experience?
- Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.
Answer these questions by sharing specific examples from your own experience.
- Who is your favorite conversation partner? What do you discuss with that person?
- Discuss a time when reflection or introspection led to clarity or understanding of an issue that is important to you.
- Share an example of how you have used your own critical-thinking skills on a specific subject, project, idea, or interest.
- Describe a time when you were challenged by a perspective that differed from your own. How did you respond?
- What are the best words of advice you have received? Who shared them, and how have you applied them in your own life?
- Elaborate on an activity or experience you have had that made an impact on a community that is important to you.
- Using your personal, academic, or volunteer/work experiences, describe the topics or issues that you care about and why they are important to you.
- Who do you agree with on the big, important things, or who do you have your most interesting disagreements with? What are you agreeing or disagreeing about?
- Reflect on a personal experience where you intentionally expanded your cultural awareness.
- When was the last time you questioned something you had thought to be true?
- Discuss the significance to you of the school or summer activity in which you have been most involved.
- Reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.
- Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
- Describe a time you did not meet expectations and what impact the experience had on you.
These essay topics give schools a better sense of who you are, what you value, and the kind of student citizen you might be.
- What drives you to create, and what do you hope to make or have you made?
- Which book, character, song, monologue, or piece of work (fiction or nonfiction) seems made for you? Why?
- What would you want your future college roommate to know about you?
- How has your own background influenced the types of problems you want to solve, the people you want to work with, and the impact you hope your work can have?
- Describe any meaningful travel experiences you’ve had.
- What would you want to be different in your own country or community to further principles of equality, equity, or social justice?
- What strength or quality do you have that most people might not see or recognize?
- If you could live your life fighting for one cause, what would it be and why?
- What gives meaning to your life?
- If you wrote a letter to yourself to be opened in 20 years, what would it say?
- If you had the power to change the course of history in your community or the world, what would you do and why?
- Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.
- What is the greatest compliment you have ever been given? Why was it meaningful to you?
- Explain how a text you’ve read—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or literature of any kind—has helped you to understand the world’s complexity.
Topics like these show your academic interests and demonstrate your commitment to learning and discovery.
- What does it mean to you to be educated?
- What is your motivation for pursuing higher education?
- Describe your reasons for wanting to attend the specific school you’re applying to. Who or what factored into your decision?
- Academic inquiry starts with bold questions. What are some of the bold questions you have pondered that get you excited, and why do they interest you?
- What has been your best academic experience in the last two years, and what made it so good?
- If you decide to take a “gap year” between high school and college, what would you do during that time?
- Many schools place a high value on diverse student populations. How can you contribute to and support a diverse and inclusive student population at your chosen school?
- Imagine you were just awarded a research grant for a project of your choice. What are you researching and why?
- What do you love about the subject(s) you selected as potential major(s)? If undecided, share more about one of your academic passions.
- Describe a time when you’ve felt empowered or represented by an educator.
- Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
Use these college essay topics to show off your creativity and innovative thinking.
- You are tasked with creating a new category for the Nobel Prize. Explain what it would be, why you chose your specific category, and the criteria necessary to achieve this accomplishment.
- Pick one person—a historical figure, fictitious character, or modern individual—to converse with for an hour, and explain your choice.
- If you could witness a historic event (past, present, or future) firsthand, what would it be and why?
- If you could have a theme song, what would it be and why?
- Discuss a book that you would call a “great book.” What makes the book great in your view?
- If you could give any historical figure any piece of technology, who and what would it be, and why do you think they’d work so well together?
- If I could travel anywhere, I would go to …
- My favorite thing about last Tuesday was …
- Write a short thank-you note to someone you have not yet thanked and would like to acknowledge.
- If you had 10 minutes and the attention of a million people, what would your TED Talk be about?
- What are your three favorite words in the English language? Explain what they mean to you.
- Imagine that you could have one superpower. What would it be and how would you use it? What would be your kryptonite?
- Which Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor (real or imagined) best describes you?
- If you could create a college course that all students would take, what would it be about and why?
- What website is the internet missing?
How do you help your students prepare their college application essays? Come share your ideas and ask for advice in the We Are Teachers HELPLINE group on Facebook .
Plus, check out the ultimate guide to college scholarships.
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