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

Looking for some amazing college essay topics and ideas? We’ve got all the brainstorming exercises and sample topics to help you generate you write an amazing college application essay.

The Essence Objects Exercise - Video Walkthrough

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This is one of my favorite brainstorming activities. Why?

It’s one of the most efficient ways I know to help generate 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? Share it in the comments below and tell us what it represents to you.

Check out the one-hour guide to the personal statement for more brainstorming exercises.


CHECK OUT my course BELOW.


What America’s Got Talent Can Teach You About Your College Essay

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by Ethan Sawyer, College Essay Guy

Here’s something I’m a little ashamed to admit publicly: Over the past few weeks I’ve started watching YouTube clips of America’s Got Talent. Why? 


FYI: America’s Got Talent is a show in which contestants compete for four judges “yes” votes--get three out of four votes and you move on to the next round. But here’s the thing: each season, every judge has one chance to send a contestant to the Final Round AUTOMATICALLY by pressing The Golden Buzzer.

Cue the confetti and tears.

Cue the confetti and tears.

It’s a glorious moment, the kind of romantic comedy ending moment that makes me feel guilty for feeling emotional--in large part because of my awareness of how the music/sound/everything is choreographed to make me feel all the feelings.

Here’s how it all started: a few nights ago I’m watching hotel TV (the best kind) while at a conference and I happened to catch one of these Golden Buzzer moments. After watching it, I realized there is totally a personal statement-related lesson here. So, y’know I watched like ten of these videos and I found some more lessons.

So here we go: three Golden Buzzer moments and what each can teach you about your college essay.

1. Calysta Bevier: 16 Year-Old Cancer Survivor

Heads-up: Get your tissues ready.

(Once you’ve watched the video, keep reading.)

First of all, have you heard this song before? If you’ve not and you’re curious, here’s the original, by Rachel Platten. It’s a pretty song, but it has nowhere near the resonance (sorry Rachel) that Caly’s version has. Why? Listen to Caly’s revelation before she sings about why her hair is so short.

Spoiler alert: Caly is a Stage III ovarian cancer survivor.

Without this context, it’s a pretty song...

But with this piece of information, when Caly sings “THIS IS MY FIGHT SONG” it just might make your heart open wide open, as it did mine. 

Fun fact: It also happened for my friend Rizzo, when I sent him this video.

Here is my friend Rizzo

Here is my friend Rizzo

And here is the actual text that he sent me after I sent him this video: 



Lesson: Context is so (so) important.

Do you have a story to tell? Good. Ask yourself: is there a piece of information you’ve left out--a challenge you’ve overcome, a secret you’ve kept hidden--that could make us see your story in a totally different light?

Learn from Caly. Be brave like Caly. You just might make our hearts open wide open.

2. Calum Scott

Context is important for this one too: his sister performed right before him and got rejected, so he sings with that knowledge… and with his freshly-rejected, tearful sister offstage to his left. (Watch him glance over at her at 0:19 after the judge asks “You okay?”)

But my favorite moment happens at 2:08 when he takes his hand off the mic mid-song to show everyone that his hand is shaking--like, a lot. Watch the moment again, if you missed it, or pay attention if you haven’t yet. It’s an incredible display of vulnerability. And I love him for it. How can you not?

Lesson: Vulnerability magnetizes. 

Think about what he’s saying in that moment. Even though he is absolutely crushing it in the audition (listen to the audience), he takes a moment to say, “I’m kinda’ freaking out a little bit right now.” He shows he’s nervous, uncertain, in a word… human. 

Your personal statement is a wonderful opportunity to be vulnerable. 

And (pro tip) I believe vulnerability is especially important for high-flyers (read: students with amazing GPAs and test scores. For you, the goal of your personal statement isn’t to prove you’re hard-working, or smart--we get that, check it off your list--it’s to show us something that reveals you’re more than just a brilliant test-taker of tests and scorer of As. Show us something else. Show us your heart.

Speaking of showing her heart...

3. Grace VanderWaal: 12-Year-Old Ukulele Player

Okay, I maybe saved the best for last. This is young brilliance personified. Some prodigy stuff.

And no, I don’t mean these guys: 

Different Prodigy.

Different Prodigy.

But watch the moment at 1:35. 

(Click the video above if you haven’t yet. Really.)

See that? She messes up. She makes a mistake.


Lesson: Don’t obsess over the tiny stuff--especially as you begin the writing process.

Students and counselors concern themselves too much with grammar and spelling--especially at the beginning of the process. (Will those things ultimately need to be on point? Sure.) But that’s not the most important thing in your personal statement... especially at the beginning.

Instead: Sing your heart out on the first draft. Go all Grace VanderWaal on it. 

Then, sometime later, go back and ask these three questions: 

  1. Is the essay vulnerable?

  2. Can the reader name 4-5 of my core values?

  3. Have I included several moments of insight?

If not, you’ve got some work to do. 

Once you do that work, you’ll end up with an essay that is well-crafted.

And by the way, do you notice how, in her performance, Grace displays: 

  • vulnerability (by simply being there, first, but also by singing an original song)

  • core values (humility, authenticity, creativity)

  • insight (most of her friends don’t even know she’s there!)

  • craft (just listen her)?

And do you notice how, in this blog post, I have too? 


To learn how to write a personal statement that demonstrates core values, vulnerability, insight and craft, check out my book, or take a course. I’d love to share more with you. 

Stay curious.



CHECK OUT my course BELOW.


The "Everything I Want Colleges to Know About Me" List: A Brainstorm Exercise

This exercise is simple, but extremely effective.

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.

Another great brainstorming exercise: The 21 Detail Exercise

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.

For more tips, including how to develop your college list and save $3,480, go here


CHECK OUT my course BELOW.