personal statement

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.


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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


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The Ten Types of Movie (and Personal Statement) Plots

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In Save the Cat, the very excellent screenwriting book by the late Blake Snyder, Mr. Snyder claims there are ten basic movie plots. It’s a rad concept and it just may help you figure out the plot (aka story) for your college essay.

Note: big props to Nived Ravikumar, the Statement Guru, for dreaming this post up with me. For his graduate school essay version, click here. (Also, Nived is awesome.)

Here are all 10 plots, with examples from both movies and college essays:


What it is: Our hero (male or female) is in a serious situation and needs to find a solution RIGHT. NOW.

Movie examples: From Brave to Braveheart, Finding Nemo to Finding Forrester, almost every film you’ve ever seen involves a hero trying solving a problem. In fact, try to name a major movie in which the main character does NOT have a problem to solve. (Spoiler: you can’t.)

Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: make sure The Problem—whatever it is—is clearly established by the end of the first paragraph. And make sure the problem is super clear. While your ending can have an element of ambiguity (i.e. - you choose not to clearly spell out whether the problem was ultimately solved or not), your set-up has to be crystal clear. Otherwise you may lose your audience.

For an example essay of a dude with a problem, check out the "Rock, Paper, Scissors" Essay. For an example of a non-dude with a problem, check out the “On Debate” or “Porcelain God” essays.


What it is: Our hero is on a quest to find or do something (aka a “golden fleece”). And note that the golden fleece can be either:

a. something specific and tangible (like the pirate treasure in Goonies)

b. something abstract (like Carl’s dream of fulfilling his promise to Ellie in Up), or

c. BOTH specific AND abstract (like Indiana Jones’s search for the Holy Grail, an object that is both a tangible thing and something that grants eternal life)

Also note that the “golden fleece” could either be ancient and epic (like Frodo’s journey across Middle Earth to destroy the ring and thereby destroy the forces of Evil) or more contemporary and mundane (like the four guys in American Pie who vow to lose their virginity by prom night).

Movie examples: All the ones I just mentioned.

Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: again, it’s important that the “golden fleece”—whatever it is in your story—is clearly set up by the end of the first paragraph.

Advanced tip: if you choose to have an ambiguous or what I like to call a “poetic” ending—in which you don’t clearly spell out whether you got what you were aiming for or not—make sure you give the reader a limited number of options. In other words, make sure the reader can guess—and even debate!—how things turned out once the credits were rolling. At the end of Inception, for example, the coin either stopped spinning or it didn’t.

For an example essay with a poetic ending, check out the “Dead Bird” essay, and note how this author weaves together not one by two “golden fleeces.” (See if you can spot them.)

Spoiler Alert: He finds the fleece.

Spoiler Alert: He finds the fleece.


What it is: any film that’s primarily about a relationship, including romantic comedies.

Movie examples: Monsters Inc., Ice Age, Shrek--and note that Shrek is both a romantic comedy AND a buddy movie. #AndinthemorningI'mmakin’WAFFLES!

Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: take the term “buddy” broadly—your essay could be about anyone you’ve connected with deeply or learned from. But make sure the essay is about YOU, and not the other person. After all, your grandmother isn’t the one applying to college. You are.

For an example essay, click the “Grandma’s Kimchi” essay.

Best buds.

Best buds.


What it is: a story about how a place, group or community has a huge impact on an individual, and how membership in that group benefits or costs that person.

Movie examples: Monsters Inc., GoodFellas, The Lego Movie

Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: you can write about a club, volunteer experience, or most any other community, but make sure the essay is less about the institution/community itself, and more about you, in particular what the costs and benefits of being in/out of that community have been.

For an example essay, click the “East Meets West” or the extracurricular “Yearbook” essay below.

Bam! Institutionalized.

Bam! Institutionalized.


What it is: our main character goes through a crucible to discover something really valuable about him or herself.

Movie examples: Star Wars, The Matrix, Stand By Me

Two tips for using this plot for your personal statement:

1.  Often the main character (in your essay that’s you) will work for the first half of the story to solve the problem in the wrong way (based on what s/he wants), at some point make an important realization, and then begin to do things in a better way (based on what s/he needs).

2. The “crucible” can be many things--a divorce, moving to a new country, or giving something up--but I’d recommend keeping it to major life changes and not small ones (like passing an academic test or making a sports team--unless of course you can explain why making the team was a rite of passage). Bonus tip: make sure the crucible is clearly set up early in the essay.

For an example essay, click the “Letting Go of Grandma” essay.

I'd say this counts as a "crucible" moment.

I'd say this counts as a "crucible" moment.


What it is: Whereas “Dude with a Problem” is about an ordinary person people in an extraordinary situation, “Superhero” films tend to be about extraordinary people coping with ordinary situations.  

Movie examples: Frozen, Twilight, Spiderman

Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: if you happen to be inordinately good at something, or several things, one way to bring up your “superpower(s)” in a way that won’t sound like you’re bragging is to use your accomplishments as a kind of straw man, essentially saying “I may be X, Y and Z, but all those things don’t truly describe who I am,” and then let the reader know who you are beyond the accomplishments.

Caution: this can feel gimmicky if not done with care.

For a great example, check out the “Punk Rock Philosopher” Essay.

Coping with an extraordinary situation.

Coping with an extraordinary situation.


What it is: someone makes a wish and ends up getting much more than s/he bargained for.

Movie examples: Aladdin, Groundhog Day, The Nutty Professor

Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: it’s important to note that this doesn’t have to be a “magical” something, but simply a catalyst. Think about it: was there a time when you wished for X, thinking it would solve your problems, but once you got X you realized that the problem wasn’t that you needed X, but actually you needed to realize Y (something completely different)? Or was there perhaps a time you embarked on an adventure thinking it would end up being kind of magical and fun, but ended up finding experiencing something completely unexpected?

For a college essay example of someone (in this case, a chicken) who wishes for one thing and ends up getting much more than he bargained for, check out one of my favorite essays, the “Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road” essay.

If you haven't yet seen Groundhog Day, please do so as soon as possible. And don't drive angry.

If you haven't yet seen Groundhog Day, please do so as soon as possible. And don't drive angry.


What it is: A mystery needs to be unraveled, but in this case the WHY is more important than the WHO. In other words the criminal’s motives are more important than his/her identity.

Movie examples: The Maze Runner Series (Why are we here?), The Harry Potter Series (Why did he do it?), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (Why did he do it?)

Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: consider setting up and even solving the mystery as your hook, to grab your reader’s attention. Then immediately after that raise a question about why it happened, as a kind of double-hook. This one’s tricky, and I’ve only seen it done once in college essay, but it just so happens to be my favorite essay ever.

To read that essay, click here.

Um, why are we here?

Um, why are we here?


What it is: there’s a “monster” (an evil someone or something) and a “house” (a confined space) and the main characters have to escape from or kill the monster, either literally or metaphorically.

Movie examples: Jaws, Jurassic Park, Goonies

Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: Broaden the notions of “monster” and “house” in your essay. For example:

  1. The “monster” in your essay could be a particularly undesirable trait (such as laziness, self-doubt or X), that the main character (you) discovered and then had to overcome.

  2. The “house” (or confined space) could be a time constraint. In other words, you had to “kill the monster” (find the “treasure” or overcome the obstacle) by a certain deadline. Note that in Goonies the “deadline” is the bad guys finding the kids. (Bonus tip: in screenwriting parlance, the technique of introducing a deadline is called a “ticking clock,” and raises the stakes.)

Here’s an example:

The FIRST Robotics Competition design deadline was two weeks away when my Chilean cousins came to visit me in St. Louis. I hadn’t seen Carmen or Alexia in three years, but they understood I was busy: spending afternoons with my team and nights in my room doing homework. I could hear them laughing downstairs, playing Monopoly late into the night, drinking leche con platano and eating empanadas. It wasn’t until Carmen’s mom got sick and they had to go back a week early that I started to feel very anxious. Was I nervous about our submission or feeling guilty? When we were dropping my cousins off at the airport, Alexia gave me a hug, a big smile, and genuinely wished me good luck, not once mentioning my absence. I wanted to cry. I chose my work over my family and blew off my cousins completely. On the car ride home, I begged my mom to let me go visit them during Spring Break, not caring about my previous plans to visit Silicon Valley. Not only did we become best friends that week, but I practically talk to them every week, thankful they forgave my selfishness.

Kill the monster.

Kill the monster.


What it is: the “unlikely hero” story in which a normal (or unqualified) person gets in over his or her head and ends up achieving something awesome.

Movie examples: Lego Movie, Elf, Wreck-it Ralph, Kung Fu Panda

Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: establish early in the essay how unqualified or underprepared you were for whatever you ended up ultimately achieving.

Examples: I’ve never actually had a student use this structure! Be the first, and email it to us.

Here's video that features Five College Essay Questions Counselors Should Be Able to Help Their Students Answer.  

Short attention span like Dory? 

Here's a YouTube playlist with 1-minute answers to questions I get asked all the time


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How to Write the Stanford Roommate Essay (Part 2 of 2)

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Look: more Stanford students doing Stanford things. Like eating. And wearing sweatshirts. #sosmart

Look: more Stanford students doing Stanford things. Like eating. And wearing sweatshirts. #sosmart

Here’s one way how to improve your Stanford (or any) roommate essay if you’ve already written a draft:

1. Count how many details in your essay reveal something deep and true about you. (I count 14 good details, in the example essay in Part 1 of this post.)

But which details reveal something deep and true? And what does a “deep and true” detail sound like? You decide.

Take a look at these details:

  • I don’t snore in my sleep.

  • I spent last summer at West Point and Annapolis, where I was told I’d be admitted if I applied. I decided not to so I could spend more time with my family.

  • I went to an LA Galaxy game with my friends two weeks ago.

  • I competed in rodeos for three years.

  • I love Justin Timberlake, NCIS, The Walking Dead, Avatar, and The Voice.

  • I have always been the girl who does the most push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups, but that’s probably because I’m usually the tiniest girl and have the least weight to deal with.

Which would you keep? Which could be cut?

Ultimately it’s a matter of personal preference, but here are two tips:

  • Notice when two or three details are communicating the same thing. Example: “Running relaxes me” and “I’m on the track team” aren’t clearly different. Cut one.

  • Specificity usually wins. Example: “I have a wide collection of crystals, American coins predating the 1940’s, and ammonite fossils in my closet” is better than “I collect things.”

And two personal preferences:

  • Keep pop culture references to a minimum. One or two is okay. Five is, I think, too many. Mix it up with some old school or classic stuff. Example: Jay-Z and Al Green (or) Wreck-it Ralph and Fellini’s 8 ½.  

  • Maybe don’t use exclamation points more than three times. Unless you’re being ironic.

Now look back at your own essay. Which are the good (keeper) details and which are kind of weak? Cut the weak ones. So much about you is interesting and beautiful and different. Don’t settle for boring details in this essay. Or in any essay. Or in life.

2. Once you’ve identified your specific, unique details, decide if you want to include MORE details and LESS explanation or the opposite.

Example of MORE details and LESS explanation:

In my room, a Korean ballad streams from American-made computer speakers, while a cold December wind wafts the smells of ramen and leftover pizza. On the wall in the far back, a Korean flag hangs besides a Led Zeppelin poster.

The author’s point is pretty clear, and though he doesn’t need to explain it, he does later:

...This mélange of cultures in my East-meets-West room embodies the diversity that characterizes my international student life.”

Those details could stand on their own, though, and the “show” requires little “tell.”

Example of a FEWER details and MORE explanation:

I love playing piano. I play it when I volunteer at the hospital, in senior resident homes, and at my Church. Every time, after I play at the designated location, both the elderly and the children smile contentedly, emanating a happiness that I have never seen elsewhere—a joy that everyone should be able to experience.

Which do you prefer? Again, it’s a matter of personal preference.

For my money, though, “show” is greater than “tell” for this kind of essay.

And most personal essays.

And life.


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How to Write the Stanford Roommate Essay (Part 1 of 2)

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Why are we so happy? Because we're at STANFORD. #wearethesixpercent

Why are we so happy? Because we're at STANFORD. #wearethesixpercent

Okay, this is not the ONLY way to write your Stanford (or any) roommate essay, but it is a GOOD way and it’s based on an essay that I think is GREAT. First, read the example essay, then we’ll talk about why it’s great and how she did it.

The prompt:

Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—know you better.

The essay:

Everybody has peculiarities that most people don’t know about. For example, I have a habit of pinching ear lobes. I also pour milk into my cereal, only to drain it out after soaking the cereal for a bit. Is that strange? Well, there’s more:

I have -2.75 vision but I hate wearing glasses because I feel confined and limited in my freedom to think. So you’ll see me squint quite often, trying to overcome my astigmatism--it’s not a death glare, I promise.

I’m also extremely tactile. I like to run my fingers over laser printing because I am amazed by my fingers’ ability to detect subtle impressions. This is why I hate wearing socks on carpet: my feet lose sensitivity. So I hope you don’t mind bare feet.

I have a fetish for things that smell nice, so I like to bury myself under fresh laundry just wheeled back from laundry room 8 (the one closest to our unit). I also alternate between three different shampoos just for the smell of it. So don’t be surprised if I ask to share our toiletry items; I’m just looking for variety.

Driving calms my nerves. Sometimes, my family and I go on midnight highway cruises during which we discuss weighty issues such as the reason people in our society can so adamantly advertise items like Snuggies. So I apologize if I keep you up late at night asking you to ponder the complex mysteries of our world.

Also, in my home, we have an open door policy--literally. Every door, excluding those of an occupied bathroom and the fridge, is always open. I hope you and I will be comfortable enough with each other--and with those around us--that we feel no need to hide behind bedroom doors.

Finally, I love shelves. They organize many different items under a unified structure and I find value in this kind of integrated diversity. And I love them as a metaphor: there is a place for everything, including even the quirkiest of our traits. That’s why no one should feel left out no matter how strange or odd they might think they are.

So, what are you like?

Why I like this essay:

I learn so much about the writer. I learn (in order, by paragraph) that she: is confident enough to admit she’s a little weird, values her freedom to think, is observant and sensitive to life’s small details, is great with wordplay, is ironic and self-deprecating even while pondering life’s mysteries, is willing to be emotionally open, values making order from chaos, (AND she’s smart enough to write an essay that actually creates order out of chaos--so her form matches her content).

How she wrote this essay:

1. She began with chaos. She brainstormed a list of 21 random details about herself using this exercise.

2. Then she created order. She organized the details into paragraphs by theme. She found, in other words, a way to connect the random facts--to put them on different “shelves” (each “shelf” = one paragraph).

3. Once she understood what she was doing, she cut some of the details that were less-revealing or extraneous and replaced them with better details that were more synecdochic. What’s a synecdoche? When a small part represents the whole. Kinda’ like an essence object. Look it up.

Remember: I'm not saying this is the only way to write your roommate essay, but it’s a pretty good way.

And if you want to get into Stanford, your roommate essay--like your main Common App essay--should demonstrate these three things:

1. Are you an interesting and intelligent person?

2. Will you bring something of value to the campus?

3. Can you write?

This student showed all three of those things and she got into Stanford.

(That along with her 2300 SAT and perfect grades. Plus she was first generation. #BTW.)

If you’ve already written a draft, read Part 2 of this post for a way to improve it.

Or just read Part 2 because it's smart, funny and well-written--like your essay will be. #thankmygrandmaformyconfidence