College Essay Topics and Writing Tips

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Check out these writing tips for responding to college essay prompts before you tackle this important assignment.

[Featured image] A woman works on her college essay with a pen, notebook, and laptop computer.

The college essay is becoming increasingly important to many universities and colleges as part of the admissions process. While the essay may not carry the weight that your grade point average (GPA) and transcripts do, it allows you to let your personality shine through to distinguish yourself from other applicants. 

Follow a few basic tips to guide you as you choose what to write about or strategize on how to respond to an essay prompt.

Be prepared and have a plan.

Some colleges and universities give applicants the same prompt or selection of prompts for their essays. You may see questions like these:

  • What excites your intellectual curiosity?

  • How have the environments and experiences of 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?

Other schools provide a list of topics instead of questions. They may include directions like these:

  • Unusual circumstances in your life

  • How you hope to use your college education

  • A list of books you have read in the last year

Common App essay

The Common App is an online platform designed to simplify the college application process. Many students apply to more than one school, and this program makes it possible to fill out one application that goes to multiple schools. More than 900 colleges around the world accept this application.

If you choose to complete the Common App, many schools will still require you to write an essay. Each year, the application gives students a choice of several prompts. To understand the types of prompts they utilize, check out this select list of topics embedded in the 2021-2022 application prompts [1]:

  • Lessons from challenges, setbacks, or failure

  • Personal growth through an accomplishment

  • The effect of gratitude on your life

  • Topics that make you lose track of time

Whether you're responding to the prompt provided by the school or using the Common App, be prepared to spend some time working on the essay. Factor in time to adequately plan, draft, and edit the essay before turning it in.

Choosing a college essay topic.

A great college essay conveys to the admissions team who you are, why you want to attend the college, and what matters to you. But there are some things to consider when making your choice of topics.

It may be best to avoid controversial topics, like current political issues, which may be fun to discuss with your friends but may not be the best choice for a college admissions essay. You don't know who will be reading the essay, and it probably isn't worth the risk of offending them.

Also, you should skip stories about illegal or illicit behavior. No matter how long ago the events happened, they may raise questions about your judgment and decision-making abilities. Admissions panels are typically looking for students who will positively represent the student body and the school as a whole. In the end, your goal is to show the admissions team that you and the college are a good match. 

Stay positive, and optimistic with your topic choice. Look for one that allows you to be open and respond to it in an original way. Below are some examples:

  • Discuss a minor moment that made a significant impact on who you are today. Regale them with the story about the time your bike tire went flat while you were out and how the experience taught you that creativity is your superpower.

  • Tell them about a surprising interest or activity that you have. Show them that you're more than the courses on your transcript. A musician who likes to code or an athlete who writes poetry suggests a depth level that may catch the admissions team's attention.

  • Talk about a unique extracurricular activity that can make you stand out. Admissions teams read many essays about high school athletics and community service clubs. Telling them about your interest in an activity or subject they don't come across as often—think quilting or competitive video game playing—is catchy and shows off your personality.

Great essays show insight and invite the reader to connect with the story on an emotional level. Choose a topic that lets you do that and goes beyond cliches and traditional archetypes.

Stick to the prompt.

No matter what type of prompt you receive, it's your job to stick to it. The admissions team has plenty of essays to read, so help them out by staying on topic and answering its questions.

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.

Be considerate with humor.

A little humor goes a long way in a college essay. Showing off your sense of humor lets your personality show through your words and can make reading the essay more entertaining. However, cracking jokes throughout the entire essay may be a bad idea because it may look like you're not serious about your work. One specific type of humor—sarcasm—may not work well in your college essay because it can come across as insincere or, worse, mean.

If you want to use humor, try including a few sentences that you think will bring a smile to the reader's face. Aim for stories and commentary that relate to the topic, so you don't veer too far off as you write.

Be reflective and share your story.

One purpose of the college essay is to give the admissions team a glimpse of your personality and experience so they can determine whether or not the school is a good fit for you. It's not the only way they get to learn about who you are and what makes you tick, but it may be the only way they hear your voice.

It helps to spend some time thinking about what you value and how you developed those values through the people you admire and the experiences you've had. You may find it helpful to make a list of what interests you, including everything from your daily habits to hobbies and dreams. As you write, look for ways to weave your narrative into the story. It's okay to show off here as long it emphasizes who you are as a person.

For example, describing how great it felt to win the cross country track meet after putting in hours of practice in the months leading up to it emphasizes universal themes like perseverance and the value of hard work. Unfortunately, there are plenty of students from all over the world who have similar tales to tell. Detailing the event in a narrative form that describes how you made a wrong turn along the trail and got so lost you were sure everyone would be packed up and gone by the time you reached the finish line may be more interesting.

Have an editor.

To make certain your essay makes a good impression on its reader, be sure it contains no glaring grammar or syntax errors. Having one or two trusted friends or family members read through your copy and suggest edits can help with that. An editor can help you catch misspelled words, misplaced commas, and missing periods. Avoid passing your paper along to too many people, though, so you don't lose your own voice among 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.

Revise your essay.

Your first draft is just that, a draft. While composing the narrative, it's common for ideas to be disorganized and even out of order. You may even be missing context and details to connect your ideas.

Give yourself plenty of time to read and revise your draft to make sure you answered the question in the prompt, stayed on topic, and presented ideas in an orderly fashion.

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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The essay is you. It is the only piece of the application where an admission counselor gets to hear your voice, feel your personality, and learn about you from you.

Next steps: Apply with confidence

Learn to navigate the college admissions process in the United States like a pro by taking Applying to US Universities from the University of Pennsylvania. If you're considering applying to college, explore how an online degree from a top university could fit into your life.

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Article sources

1. Common App. "First-year essay prompts, https://www.commonapp.org/apply/essay-prompts." Accessed February 7, 2022.

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