How Do You Choose the Right College Essay Topic?

Would you like to know a fool-proof way to pick the perfect college essay topic for you?

I’m going to let you in on a little secret.

When I work with college applicants, they often have several ideas for their Common Application essay, and they want to know which one they should pick.

My strategy for helping them decide is to have them talk about each topic. I ask questions like: What will this essay show about you? Why of all topics do you think this one is coming up? Can you describe what this experience was like for you? Which details about this memory stand out to you most?

My trick is that while I’m listening to the content of what the applicants are saying, I’m also listening for how he or she is speaking. When applicants talk about a topic that doesn’t interest them, their tone of voice gives it away. When they start talking about a topic that inspires them, they begin to speak more rapidly and energetically, and they have a lot to say. They remember the moment so vividly that it comes alive through their speaking.

Why is this important to notice? That tone transfers over to their writing.

If an applicant has an easy time talking about the topic and is excited by it, that comes across in her writing. 

On the other hand, if an applicant isn’t animated by her story, why would anyone reading it be?  

It's easy to fall into the trap of writing what you think an admissions officer wants to hear or telling the story your parents want you to write. But, there's a different energy that comes when you find a topic that you confidently state, "This is it." 

Picking a topic that doesn’t enliven you when you speak about it will be more challenging to write. It’s actually a waste of time. When I first started teaching the college essay, I had students who would work on an essay for a few weeks, declare they hated it, and ask if they could start over. Most of the time, it was because they went with one of the first ideas that came to them instead of waiting for one that felt right.

So, how do you do this without an essay advisor?

My best piece of advice is to spend less time worrying about finding your essay topic, and spend more time doing things you enjoy.

Yes, I just told you to relax.


I’ve noticed that when applicants feel stressed or overwhelmed, the topics they come up with are mediocre, and they end up feeling even more frustrated. Have you ever noticed that your best ideas come to you while you’re taking a long shower or right before you’re about to fall asleep? You're not resistant in those moments; you’re relaxed. From that state of mind, good ideas show up.

From my experience, the less effort or work the essay feels like, the better it will turn out. Once you have a topic that inspires you to write, the essay will flow through you. Get inspired, then write.

Happy Writing!

This blog was written by Jaclyn Corley, Founder of The College Essay Captain and digital course creator of College Essay Playbook

The College Essay Captain helps teens overcome their fears and limiting beliefs around writing college application essays, so they are free to authentically share their stories with admissions teams.