21 College Essay Topics and Ideas That Worked (Guide + Examples)

College Essay Topics and Ideas

You think you’re looking for a giant list of college essay topics to choose from.

And that’s exactly what you’ll find at the bottom of this page.

But first:

Wouldn’t it be great if I gave you a giant list of brainstorming exercises to help you find your own college essay topic?

I’ll answer that rhetorical question: Yes.

And that’s what you’ll find at the top of this page.

How do I know these exercises work? Because over the years I’ve worked with thousands of students, many of whom (like you)...

  • Have decent grades and a pretty good but not perfect SAT score

  • Are afraid they don’t have outstanding extracurricular activities to write about

  • Feel like their essay could make a difference in their college application but aren’t sure where to start.

Sound familiar?

My hope is that, by going through these step-by-step brainstorming exercises, you’ll find a topic that’s elastic, which is to say stretchy enough to talk about lots of different parts of you.

Want to see an amazing brainstorming exercises page? Go here.

Pro Tip: Download your own blank template of that list and fill it in here.

 
 

All right, let’s do this.


The Values exercise

This exercise is useful for identifying both your core values and your aspirations by answering this question: WHAT DO I VALUE? Click here to see the full exercise.

The Essence Objects Exercise

This is one of my favorite brainstorming activities for generating college essay ideas. Why?

It’s one of the most efficient ways I know to help create a TON of content for your personal statement and also add texture to bring your essay to life.

Also, it’s just fun to do and a great way to reflect.

Ready to do it?

Click here for a list of questions to help you with the exercise.  Then, watch the video below.

What’s one of your essence objects?

 

The Feelings and Needs Exercise

Adapted from an exercise created by Nonviolent Communication Expert LaShelle Lowe-Chardé (http://www.wiseheartpdx.org).

This exercise helps you get to the heart of how you feel and think about your life. Knowing how you feel about your essay topic will help bring color and life to your essay.

The 21 Details Exercise

Here's another great way to generate college essay ideas. And it helps with awkward small-talk!

Make a list of 21 details from your life, interesting facts that describe some small, random part of who you are.

Here are 11 of my 21 details:

  1. We moved 20 times while I was growing up and I attended 13 schools.

  2. My biggest pet peeve is when the waiter takes my food before I’ve finished.

  3. I eat salad with my hands. And never with dressing.

  4. The worst feeling in the world is the dentist’s air suction tube sucking air over my teeth.

  5. I love popping bubble wrap.

  6. When I was young I used to use my finger to wipe off the top layer of toothpaste that I shared with my sister so I wouldn’t get her germs.

  7. I’ve never, ever seriously contemplated suicide.

  8. I find most people fascinating and can talk to just about anyone.

  9. I’ve won several awards in my life, but I’m most proud of these two: finishing second in the elementary school Spelling Bee when I was nine and being named MVP of the middle school floor hockey All-Star game when I was eleven.

  10. The most painful thing I ever experienced was breaking my kneecap in the 10th grade during a basketball game. The physical pain wasn’t the worst part, though: it was losing the rest of the season and watching my team go 0-18.

  11. My three younger brothers and I have never, as far as I can remember, ever had a fight.

See how each is a little tiny glimpse into my world? It’s impossible to capture all of who you are in 25 or even 500 words, but with a few, carefully chosen details, a portrait begins to emerge. Think of these 21 details as a collage.

Once you've written your 21 details, look for themes. Is there anything that comes up again and again? That may be a good theme for your essay.

Click here to learn how this can lead to a great Roommate essay.

The "Everything I want colleges to know about me" list

This exercise is simple, but extremely effective for generating college essay ideas.

Step 1: Make a list of all the things you want colleges to know about you.

How? You can do this either:

  • in a bulletpoint format (organized, easy to read)

  • on a blank sheet of paper (with drawings, get creative)

  • on a timeline (see drawing below)

Note: I don’t recommend a stream-of-consciousness free-write because this tends to get a little messy. By “messy” I mean that this tends to bring forth a lot of words but not a lot of specific, bullet-pointable qualities that will help you get into college.

And that’s the point of this list: to provide your counselor (or yourself) with a solid list of qualities, values and cool stuff that will help get you into college.

Reason #1 that this list is a good idea: It generates a list of details and possible topics for your personal statement, supplements, activities list and additional info section.

Tips for creating a great list:

  • Have fun. This doesn’t have to be a chore. It’s you basically making a list of everything that's awesome about who you are and what you've done, which can be pretty darn affirming.

  • Create the list with a parent or friend. Say to him/her: “Hey, I’m trying to make a list of all the reasons why any college should love me as much as you do—can you help?”

  • Back up general stuff with specific examples. If, for instance, you’re like, “I can motivate people!” or "I stick with things I'm passionate about!" provide a specific example that backs up your claim--or better yet, both claims! (Like the fact that you helped raise debate membership from 19 to 96 at your school over four years.)

Step 2: Once you’ve created your list:

  • If it’s a bullet-pointed list, upload it to a Google doc and…

  • If it’s a drawing or timeline, take a photo of it, email it to yourself, upload it to Google a doc and…

SHARE the Google doc with your friend/parent/counselor (whoever is helping you with your applications and ask that person: “Can you help me make sure that all this stuff makes it into my application?”

Wait, can I do this once my application is almost finished?
Absolutely. In fact, this will provide a checklist for making sure all the important parts of you are represented somewhere in the application.

Step 3: Decide with your counselor where the information should go in your application. 

Some options include your:

  1. Main Statement

  2. Activities List

  3. Additional Info section

  4. Extracurricular essay (required only for some schools)

  5. Another supplemental essay (required only for some schools)

Pop Quiz:
Which of the following details would you NOT include on your application? Which details would you DEFINITELY include? For those details you'd include, on which part of the application do you think each one should go?

  • I am half Filipino and half Egyptian

  • I travel a lot (have been to countless countries such as Egypt, the Philippines, Netherlands, Italy, Jamaica, Bahamas, Mexico, Guam, etc….)

  • I have played the violin for over 11 years and I LOVE IT

  • I can also play the piano

  • I do canoe paddling year round. We once saw dolphins swimming by us as we paddled out deep in the ocean.

  • I have an entrepreneurial mind. I made $300 in a week selling coffee at my dads office when I was 7. I named the booth the “Coffee Cafe” and had my own menu with various drinks as well as a bean grinder. I ended up donating all of the profits to my missionary friend Kate who was leaving for India. When I was 12 I made $70 selling online ebooks about basketball that I wrote. I painted curb address numbers for neighbors when I was 11 and made about $100 off of that.

  • I like weightlifting. I also sell supplements to my friends at school. I buy them in bulk online and mix some, for example, whey with creatine, and re-brand them (not FDA approved, uh-oh) and sell them for profit.

  • I tend to bypass the system (and get away with it a lot) such as sending money to paypal directly from VISA (even though they say it isn’t possible) or finding a way to get past the school’s online filter

  • I love reading (my bookshelf is stacked)

Note: there's no "right" answer for where each of these details should go. No magic formula. Just work with your counselor (or me) to make sure your application shows you off in the most complete way possible.

The Five contradictions Exercise

Humans are complex, contradictory, creatures. 

Contradictions can add texture and complexity to your essay.

I want you to make a list of five contradictory things about you.

Here are five contradictory things about me:

  1. I love beating my younger brother in chess, but afterwards I always feel guilty.

  2. In college I had no problem giving my girlfriend a kiss but would never drink from the same straw.

  3. I have thousands of used books lining the walls of my home but have read fewer than 25% of them cover-to-cover.

  4. I love BBQ sauce but can’t stand vinegar. (BBQ sauce is vinegar-based, btw.)

  5. I will turn off the faucet while brushing my teeth to save water but sometimes leave the shower running for minutes in order to heat up the water, wasting a whole lot more.

What does each detail reveal about me? You decide. The point is this: contradictions are fascinating because they represent a mystery, a puzzle. They’re what make a character in a story complex. Opposites make us want to know more. And your contradictory details will make your reader want to know more.

What's a contradiction or quirk you have?

100 Brave and Interesting Questions

I've spent years crafting my favorite list of brave and interesting questions. Why? Because the quality of our questions determines the quality of our lives.

These questions can be used to jump-start your brainstorming, find out what really matters to you, or even help you find that perfect college essay idea.

Here are just a few:

  • If you had two hours left on earth what would you do?

  • What did your father teach you?

  • What’s the best gift you’ve ever given?

  • What are you grateful for?

Pretty cool, right?

The Great College Essay Test

Find out what I think makes a great college essay with the Great College Essay Test and put your essay up to the test!


College Essay Topic Samples

Here’s a list of essay topics and ideas that worked for my one-on-one students:

Essay Topic: My Grandmother Passing

My grandmother is my source of inspiration. When she passed away I couldn’t help but reflect on my love of family, passion for education, and my volunteering experiences at a cancer treatment center.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: My Self-Proclaimed Identity

I love writing, philosophy, speech and debate... and punk rock music. But I am not any one of these things, because I am all of them. I call myself a “punk-rock philosopher.”

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: My Grandma’s Kimchi

I’ll always remember the passion and attention to detail my grandmother put into making kimchi. Watching my grandmother eventually lose her ability to make this important dish made me reflect on memory, death, and the importance of family. Now I’m the one who makes the kimchi.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: How Traveling Lead to My Love of Language

My experiences traveling around the world influenced my interest in  language and human connection. That interest is what I want to bring into my dual majors of foreign language and linguistics.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: A Girl Muses on a Dead Bird

One day, my cat attacked a bird in the front yard. In my vain attempt at saving its life, I was forced to reconcile with losing one of my best friends in a tragic accident years ago.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: I Shot My Brother

My lifelong jealousy towards my little brother erupted when I shot him with a bb gun. Haunted with guilt, I sought to treat my brother with newfound respect and love, and learned the importance of family.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: My Allergies Inspired Me

After nearly dying from anaphylactic shock at five years old, I began a journey healing my anxiety and understanding the PTSD around my allergies. This created a passion for medicine and immunology, and now I want to become an allergist so no other child will have to feel the same.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: My Foreign Exchange Experience

My 28 months in America living with five families helped me develop five values: open mindedness, spending quality time with family, understanding, discipline, and genuine appreciation.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic:  Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

I’ve created my own essay prompt: why did the chicken cross the road? In short, the chicken discovers that her idyllic world is not all it seems, and she must cross the road to discover her true purpose in life. She may come to realize that the world is more terrible and beautiful than she’s ever known.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: Faith Lost and Faith Found

I grew up repressing my Muslim heritage and choosing to excel in science instead. I formed my own faith through reconciling the two, one which centers on the conviction that the human soul is ultimately what endows us with our ethics and sense of worthiness.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: A Palestinian Hunger Strike Turns Into a Purpose

My experience supporting a hunger strike in my native land, and watching my fellow students slowly lose interest in the strike and my protest, taught me to be passionate about social justice and inspired the creation of my own ethical clothing company.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: Lessons From My Pilgrimage to Mecca

My pilgrimage to Mecca taught me that I am valuable and family is centrally important. Now, I'm proud of my heritage, passionate about languages, and excited to bring all of it to college.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: From Homeschool to the Football Field

Instead of my original plan of playing football in high school, I freed myself of my fear of social interactions and my age gap by discovering a love for coaching.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: My First Flight Failed, But My Love Was Born

While my attempt at flight when I was five years old ended in disaster, my passion only grew as I became older. My love of engineering has taught me collaboration, social justice, curiosity, and diligence.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: Poop, Animals, and the Environment

I don’t mind being pooped on, bitten or scratched because my passion for animals is bigger than all of that. I know the world is rife with environmental problems, and I’m ready to spend my life making a difference.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: A Word a Day, A Life of Imagination

The NYT word of the day reminds me of something: my own imagination. My curiosity has taught me to love playing basketball, the violin, and inventing new words.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: Where I’m Home

I find myself feeling at “home” wherever I am, whether it’s spending quality time eating chicken with my family, diligently working on my physics research in the lab, or expanding my world through my college electives at Governor's School East.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: Easter, Travel, and Dad

Despite my abusive father’s wishes, I took a trip abroad and discovered my independence. Now, I want to pursue international relations and women’s studies to help women around the world discover who they are.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: My Cosmetic Journey

Although I initially saw my interest in cosmetics as a superficial obsession, through research and advocacy I’m now a community leader and online advocate for ethical cosmetics testing and labeling.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: Transformers Are Not Just for Boys

Being punished for playing with transformers because they “aren’t for girls” didn’t stop me from becoming passionate about robotics, where I created and fought for an open source platform that educates children about robotics around the world.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: The Instagram Post

Being publicly shamed for my pro-choice stance taught me to be passionate about my point of view, and now I understand that, while dissent and social justice are sometimes painful, they are sometimes necessary.

To read the full essay, click here.


Need more Essay Help? Check out our Online course for writing the personal statement