Myth: The Topic of My College Application Essay Doesn’t Matter so Long as it’s Well-Written

When applying for a college, standing out among the rest of the applicants is pretty important. Some people will do just about anything in order to make an impact on the admissions officers—and not always in a good way. Some people fabricate outlandish stories in their application essay in order to seem amazing, others drop names of important people they know, some even try to send baked goods as bribes. When it comes to college application essays, some ignore the application essay topic in order to tell the stories they want to tell. Some put faith in their writing skills rather than putting effort into picking the right topic. All of these things, you should try and avoid. They might end up hurting more than helping.

So let’s talk about essays—specifically, the college application essay topic. We’ve already written a lot about how to choose an essay topic, or how to brainstorm topic ideas, but for this post, we’ll highlight the importance of why you need to choose a good college application essay topic, and how having it just be well-written isn’t enough.

Good grammar, punctuation, and spelling is a must (and not only for college applications). If there are too many mistakes, your application won’t be taken as seriously. But the content matters just as much (if not more) than the presentation. This is a chance to personalize your application; to allow the readers to get to know the real you—not the test scores, GPA, or class rank, but the real you.

So let’s talk about what to do and what not to do when picking an essay topic.

Crumpled piece of paper on a black background.

Stick to the Prompts

Many applications will give you a prompt, or a few different prompts, to write about. For many students, a prompt is a blessing in disguise so they don’t have to brainstorm one of their own. But some feel restricted by a prompt—they might have a particular story they want to tell that wouldn’t fit in with any of the questions asked. Those who feel restricted sometimes try to “cheat” the prompt by writing a paragraph that answers the requirement and then the rest is about something else completely. Don’t do this.

The college gives you those prompts for a reason—that’s what they want to know about you. Oblige them and find a story or topic that fits the prompt. Going off-book can backfire quickly. This time, don’t color outside the lines.

Balance Pride with Ego

You’ve accomplished a lot in your lifetime by this point and overcome many challenges. Be proud! An application essay is your chance to brag a little, to showcase your accomplishments or talents. Note that we said “a little.” Some students go overboard and slip from being proud to being boastful. The admissions team might not want to accept a student who sounds too self-important, after all.

So how do you balance the two? It’s a fine line, to be sure, but one that you can traverse. First off (if you’re writing about an accomplishment or award of some kind), frame it to be “I’m proud of accomplishing XYZ because I overcame XYZ and I learned XYZ.” It’s not enough just to brag about what you’ve done—tell the reader what you learned from the experience, how it changed you, how it will affect you moving forward. Be reflective and think critically.

You Don’t Have to Write About a Major Life Event

Many think that they have to choose a huge event to write about—a baseball championship, their bat mitzvah, becoming an Eagle Scout—and while these are all certainly great topic ideas, you should also consider smaller life events. Everyday moments can have a big and lasting impact on a person. Maybe you saw a stray dog and it inspired you to volunteer at an animal shelter. Maybe you saw a homeless person on the street and you went on to create a donation drive for warm clothes.

Whatever the case may be, don’t only consider the mega-important stuff, spare a thought for the mundane as well. The essay is a reflection of who you are, how you look at the world—you don’t necessarily need a milestone moment for that. (And please, don’t read this as it’s bad to write about a huge event or anything like that: all we’re saying is to keep your options open).

Show, Don’t Tell, in Your Application Essay

This is a common phrase when it comes to fiction writing, but it can apply to non-fiction as well—especially in essays. You’ll want to display your desirable qualities within your application essay—qualities like leadership, responsibility, time management, dedication, patience, etc.—but you can do this without blatantly telling your reader outright.

Say you want to show off your leadership abilities. “I got everyone to help me organize this event, this makes me a good leader” is not nearly as strong as “I networked with my classmates and the staff at my school in order to organize an event in a short time period.” The second option allows the reader to draw their own conclusion, they see what you’re trying to say and you don’t have to hit them over the head with it. You didn’t tell them you were a good leader, you showed them you were. That’s more powerful.

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