Most Common College Essay Topics
Last updated October 8, 2021
You know how they say great minds think alike? When it comes to writing college application essays and personal statements, no statement is more true. According to the Common App, college applicants either chose to write about an accomplishment that sparked personal growth (24%) or selected a topic of their choice (22%). You can choose to follow the crowd and select the most popular essay topics, or you can be a little more obscure. The important thing for you to know is that you have options!
Your college essay and personal statement is an opportunity for you to shape your own narrative for the college admissions team. You want to write about a topic that is authentically you, honest, and entertaining. (You do want to stand out in your essay!)
Part of writing a good college essay is becoming familiar with the prompts. Check out the most common essay topics below.
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.
You want to select this option if you are connected to something that you would feel lost if you didn’t have it in your life. For instance, you might have a cultural or ethnic identity that drives your world view, outward expressions, and even academic interests. Or maybe you’re into a hobby or subculture like gaming or cosplay that fuels your confidence and connection to the world. If you feel strongly about it, write about it!
2. 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?
Many students are tempted to select this prompt despite not having any major setbacks or challenges. Failure is something we all face, but sharing your story about perseverance and grit is the key to this prompt. Have you overcome family trauma, an accident or illness, or natural disasters that helped build your resolve to succeed? Or another instance where you displayed your resilience?
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Today’s high school students are faced with all kinds of social issues that threaten their sense of safety and security. Whether through school walk outs or sit ins, community marches, or social media campaigns, students are speaking up and speaking out. But, those protests aren’t always met with open arms from those in charge. If you have used your voice to challenge the status quo, this essay topic is perfect for you.
4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
Most of us like to think of ourselves as problem-solvers, but some people are really gifted in the ability to see a challenge and develop a solution to address it. If you are one of those people, your college essay is the perfect time to showcase it. This type of essay can show your critical thinking and analytical skills, as well as how well you reason and process big ideas.
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
High school can be a time of extreme personal growth and self-awareness. A lot can happen between your freshman year and senior year. Sharing how experiences or accomplishments have fueled your personal development can demonstrate maturity and the ability to handle change to admissions counselors. Personal growth and how you respond is definitely one of the most common college essay topics you'll encounter.
6. 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?
This essay topic is for the student who is borderline obsessed with a topic, idea, or concept. If you find yourself this passionate about something, it only makes sense to invite the college admissions team into this part of your world. It can really help them get to know what unique perspective you can add to the student body.
7. 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.
If none of the pre-selected essay topics jumps out at you or moves you, choose your own topic! This essay prompt allows the admissions team to see you as an independent thinker or someone who knows how to blaze their own trail. Just make sure you can deliver a solid, cohesive essay on whatever topic you choose if you go this route. Remember that this is your chance to tell your reader who you are academically & socially. Use this essay question as an opportunity to tell your reader anything that wasn't clear in your application or financial aid process.
8. Writing about COVID-19 (coronavirus)
If you feel you have a story to share, and want to share it, this can be the space to discuss the effect COVID had on your life (even if you did not suffer extreme consequences from the pandemic). Colleges want to read about your experience in a genuine and honest way. What did you learn? How did you pivot? Did you learn anything about yourself, your family, your community? Avoid talking about generalities of what you lost or missed, or that COVID affected you, it affected everyone. Think about: "Do I feel compelled to answer this?" and if yes, "What do you want to share and why? How do you feel about what's going on in the world during/because of the pandemic?"
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