My Expert Secret to Picking the Perfect College Essay Topic


When I coach applicants, I listen to their ideas and ask them to be more specific with their replies. 

Tell me more about that. Why do you think that idea came up for you? Can you go back into that moment? What was that like for you? 

Here’s my experience. Applicants all have a “go-to, this-is-what-I’m-supposed-to-say” response when I ask them to tell me their ideas. They get stuck in trying to look good. So, I ask questions to help them to dig past their surface response.

Then I listen.

This may surprise you, but I’m often not listening to the content as much as I’m listening for their tone and pace of speech. 

Here’s why.

When applicants talk about the topics they’re thinking about writing, there is usually one that they speak more fluently about.

There is a switch from intellectualizing their topic (thinking of how admissions teams will view it) to expressing how they really feel. 

Suddenly, they start to speak more quickly, and they use more details to describe what was going on. It starts to feel easy for them to talk about. Their enthusiasm kicks in.  

That’s their story. 

Even if a topic “sounds good,” I usually listen to hear if the applicant I’m coaching actually feels excited to tell me about it.

If there’s no emotion behind it, then the essay won’t be easy for them to write, and it likely won’t stand out. 

I’ve seen applicants try to push topics they weren’t inspired by because they intellectually thought it was a good topic. They often ended up getting frustrated, wrote and rewrote the same sentences, struggled with finding an angle, and ended up starting over. 

When an applicant has a lot to say, then they have a lot more to work with. It’s easier to cut an essay down and refocus it than it is to add to a topic that

In my experience, it’s not that teens aren’t motivated to write their essays or that they’re lazy, it’s really that they haven’t uncovered the topics that they feel inspired to sit down to write. 

When an applicant is excited to write, that excitement influences his tone to his word choice. It helps the reader be excited to read.

When a teen switches from, “Well, I could write about this or that” to “I have the best idea!” then take some time to look at the latter essay topic--it may just be your winner.

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.