Selecting a Topic for Your College Essays

College application essays in general, and the UC personal insight statements in particular, are a preview to the kind of writing most students will encounter in college and beyond.

Unknown Audience: You will be writing for a community of strangers.

Writer-Determined Topic: You will pick the topic for your response and attempt to make it as engaging and interesting as possible—in most cases using stories

Dig Deeper: Analysis and reflection are keys. Being able to arrive at a product that satisfies will likely take several versions, something many young writers tend to avoid.

Few high school students have dealt with this kind of writing before. You are now writing for strangers in some admissions office who are not only reading what it is you have written, but are judging you based upon what you’ve written. No one likes such scrutiny, especially when the stakes are so high. Plus there is one other uncertainty: you are now selecting the topic to use in the essay, and that’s a scary proposition.  

Keep one clear principle in mind, no matter whether the prompt is: Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?,’ (UC Personal Insight Statement #5) or the University of Chicago’s Extended Essay Question #1:’ What is square one, and can you actually go back to it?,’ the real topic is you.

Accept this and the rest of the writing process will more quickly come into focus. The essay is your vehicle for developing rapport with everyone and anyone in the admissions office. Developing rapport, by the way, is best done by showing, not telling, your audience who you are. You want to select topics that will help you do this, generally within an “And, But, Therefore” narrative form.

Common sense suggests certain topics should be avoided in your college essay. These include drug use, sexual experimentation, self-pity, criminal activity, strong religious beliefs, a travelogue…there is a more complete list at , Discussing shady activities, or superficial treatments of your one-week trip to the Great Wall, is hardly going to present you accurately.

A topic you are excited by will generally be your best choice. If it is rebuilding a Chevrolet 2.8 liter, V6 engine, then describe the process clearly and in detail, again, preferably around a story. Your enthusiasm will shine through if your interest is real. Even someone who does not know a bolt from a screw will pick up your enthusiasm and will enjoy. When your passion palpitates, it attracts.

If you cannot come up with a topic, it is always a good idea to start asking questions. Such probing stimulates your brain cells and opens up your thinking: What do I spend a lot of time doing?  In what activity do I lose track of time? Reading widely in poetry, novels, and, especially, other essays is an excellent way to get ideas.   

Free writing and free association is a good way to generate topics, but do it with a pen or pencil on paper. Recent studies from the University of Indiana indicate handwriting evokes strong mind response and idea generation.

The painful part of selecting a topic is getting started. Do not be intimidated by the process. Yes, you might go down some dead ends. What you write might not even come close to what it is you wanted to get across. These are all part of getting to where you want to go. Look at it from a different perspective. The pleasure of getting it right can bring incomparable rewards. You might even discover qualities about yourself within your essay that you may have never known you had. That, in itself, is the whole purpose of the enterprise in the first place: self-discovery. It’s just a question of getting it down on paper. Start now.