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College Essay Topic Ideas to Highlight Your Authentic Voice

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Whether you’re a high school junior embarking on the summer before senior year or an underclassman, you’ve likely heard about the stress of writing your college admissions essay. Many seniors wait until the fall of 12th grade to start their essays, worried about how to write a “good” college essay that will help them stand out in the admissions process. 

In reality, there is no “best” college admission essay topic– admissions officers are most interested in reading an essay that tells your unique, authentic story in a way that feels natural to you. Of course, you should care about the overarching ideas that your essay conveys, such as self-reflection, positive characteristics, and strong writing skills. 

But when it comes to choosing your essay topic, it’s important to select something you enjoy writing about and feel comfortable sharing. Remember: your college entrance essay is a chance to bring your voice and perspective to your application, and while it may feel stressful at times, it should also feel fun.

Best college essays written from Common App prompts

Check out the Common App essay prompts below if you're looking for inspiration. Below, I’ve shared engaging essay topics I have seen using the prompts over the past 10 years that I’ve spent working in high schools. 

Perhaps these college essay topics will spark an idea from your life that will make your application stand out!

Prompt: Background or identity

“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.”

Example essay topics:

  1. Family dinners at grandma’s house that highlight the importance of tradition and family.
  2. An interest in studying law [or any other major], including pre-college program details and mock trial club experiences, as it relates to a passion for helping the wrongfully accused.
  3. A student’s family’s tamale business and their experience working there each summer.  

Prompt: Life lessons

“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?”

Example essay topic:

  1. A student’s experience with an injury from a car accident and how it impacted them negatively at the moment but ended up being positive in the future.

Note: do not feel required to write about your most challenging moment in life unless you want to. If your challenge was private, or something that could be triggering for you, honor your mental health and reflect on whether you want to tell this story or not.

Prompt: Questioned a belief

“Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”

Example essay topic:

  1. A student’s experience transitioning from a public to a private religious school made them reconsider their belief system.

Prompt: Something you’re thankful for

“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?”

Example essay topic:

  1. A stranger’s compliment motivated a student to pursue their art and confidently tell their story through painting.

Note: this topic can be tricky, as many students write essays about someone else instead of themselves. Remember that it is YOUR essay, so the focus should be on YOU after you tell the impactful moment that someone else had on you.

Prompt: Accomplishment

“Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”

Example essay topic:

  1. Fixing old cars as it relates to a student’s learning style.

Prompt: A hobby you’re passionate about

“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?”

Example essay topic:

  1. A student council president’s essay on how salsa dancing helped them slow down time and focus on the moment in his busy world.

Prompt: Free choice topic

“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.”

Example essay topic:

  1. Most of the time, your essay topic will fit into one of the other prompt categories. If you feel inclined to choose this prompt, make sure to run the idea by your school counselor or college advisor to ensure it highlights the story you are trying to convey. 

Narrowing down your college essay topic ideas

Now that we have shared some of the best college admission essay topics I’ve ever seen, let’s discuss narrowing down your essay ideas when you have a few of them. 

Try personal statement prompt speed dating

One activity to begin generating college essay topic ideas is through “personal statement prompt speed dating.” Starting with the Common App essay prompt list, spend 2-3 minutes writing down all (literally, all) ideas or moments from your life that fit each prompt. 

A common misconception about the college essay is that it has to be the most important moment or challenge in your life. Sometimes, the most impactful college essays are developed from the small moments in our lives. 

Identify your personal characteristics

It can be helpful to think about a characteristic you want to share first and then consider the story from your life that best demonstrates it. 


For example, if you want to highlight your perseverance, choose a story about a challenge from your life that shows adversity. 

Creativity or artistic talent

If you want to narrate your creativity, consider choosing an art project you’ve completed and tell the story behind the artistic concept.

If you want to try this method, first, think of a positive adjective that describes you as a person. Then, write down the moments in your life that would lead an admissions officer to describe you with this word after reading your college essay.  

Ask for feedback and insight

If you start your college essay planning early, you may also have time to ask others – your peers, family members, teachers, counselors, or co-workers–  what characteristics you should highlight about yourself or a specific story to tell. It’s not only informative but also fun to interview others and ask them about their favorite stories about you. 

You can even give them a few of the Common App prompts and have them brainstorm unique and positive moments from your relationship. Regardless of when you begin choosing your college essay topic, make sure to share it with a teacher, counselor, or other school staff member to get feedback.

Know which topics to avoid 

It’s also important to avoid certain essay topics that many other applicants may write about, or that could negatively portray who you are. For example, since 2020, many students have chosen to write about COVID-19 and the impact it had on their academic and personal lives. 

However, because so many students write about COVID-19, it’s difficult to differentiate yourself from others when writing on this topic. This doesn’t mean that the impact COVID-19 had on students isn’t important, but you should only write about COVID if your story is unique to you and you believe other students couldn’t write the same story. 

Many admissions officers give the same advice to students who are considering writing about sports. Many high school students are student-athletes, so admissions officers read many essays on the same topic, and this doesn’t help you stand out when they only have a few minutes to review your essay. 

The exception to this rule would be a specific and unique aspect of your athletic career that other athletes wouldn’t be able to write about. For example, one of my student-athletes leads a basketball camp for youth athletes, and this story highlighted her authentic leadership. 

Another former basketball player wrote an essay focused on the negative comments that an opposing team’s coach shared in the media about her teammates and how she used this as motivation to achieve higher. 

Avoid redundancy

Additionally, there is no need to re-share information about your GPA, transcript, or academic history that can be found elsewhere in your application – maximize your 650 words to add depth and perspective instead of repeating information. 

Keep a journal of potential topic ideas

Whether you’re a freshman or a rising senior, it’s never too early to start brainstorming college essay ideas! Keep a journal of experiences (think: Google Doc, so it always saves!), topics, and life moments, big and small, that give insight into your character, how you will make an impact on your college campus, and most importantly, how you will impact your community and world. 

If you’re a senior, make sure to save your ideas and drafts, as you can often use or repurpose ideas for supplemental and scholarship essays. 

Making your college application essay matter

With careful planning and attention to detail, you can write a college essay highlighting your strengths and enhancing your chances of admission to the colleges you choose. But it's important to be strategic about where you apply, which is where building a balanced college list comes in. 

Using our chances calculator tool, you can save time and stress building your college list. Calculate the chances of admission into any college using your academic information, like GPA, test scores, and any applicable extracurriculars. 

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