Admissions Officers Discuss 3 Common Essay Topics

A college essay topic doesn't have to be unique to be a good choice for applicants, experts say.

By Kelly Mae Ross, Reporter |July 9, 2018, at 10:12 a.m.

Admissions Officers Discuss 3 Common Essay Topics

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Admissions officers look at much more than the topic students select when assessing college essays. (Getty Images)

High school students may worry about not having an original topic for their college essay – that anything they write about will be something admissions officers have read countless times before.

But admissions deans and directors from several colleges told U.S. News it's OK if applicants write about a common subject.

"Overuse of a topic doesn't make it a bad topic," says Whitney Soule, dean of admissions and student aid at Bowdoin College in Maine.

How common an essay topic is matters less than a student's ability to express something about himself or herself.

[Read: How to Write a College Essay.]


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"It's not just about the topic, but why it's important to you and how you can showcase who you are as a student and an individual through that topic," says Jennifer Gayles, director of admission at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

Here are three examples of common college application essay topics that admissions officials say are fine for students to write about – as long as they do so thoughtfully.

The big game. Many high school students play sports, so it's understandable that athletics comes up fairly often in college essays.

One pitfall of a sports-focused essay is that students may spend too much time describing what happened in the game, meet or competition and less on how it affected them personally, experts say.

Laura Stratton, director of admission at Scripps College in California, says she remembers reading a well-written sports essay in which the author wrote about being benched. The student was a senior and had played throughout the season, but she found herself on the sideline during the final game.

"The self-awareness the student showed of being a good team member and showing up for her teammates and continuing to be positive even though it wasn't the personal experience that she wanted to have, it said a lot about her character and about the type of roommate she would be or classmate she would be," Stratton says, "and that landed really well with the readers."

[Read: Top College Officials Share Notes on Great Application Essays.]

It's also fairly common for students to write about a sports-related injury in response to a college essay prompt about overcoming a challenge or failure, says Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke University in North Carolina. One of the 2018-2019 essay prompts for The Common Application – an application platform that allows students to submit their materials, including the essay, to multiple colleges at once – focuses on overcoming challenges, according to the platform's website.

"If that's what has really mattered to the student, if that's something that has generated a lot of thought on their part, then I think it's a great essay topic," Guttentag says.

Service-based activities. College essays about service to others, either at home or abroad, can be moving to read but difficult to effectively write, given the short amount of space students are allotted for a college essay, experts say. The Common App essay is limited to 650 words, for example.

"The idea of other people who are less advantaged being used as the vehicle for someone’s increased self-awareness is how that can come across sometimes," Guttentag says, "and I think that can be difficult to pull off."

A student's motivation for choosing this topic also matters. If applicants choose to write about service, they should do so because their experience has led to thought and reflection, not because they feel like this is a topic admissions officers expect them to write about, Guttentag says.

[Read: Infographic: What Makes a Strong College Essay.]


An important relationship. Students don't have to write about a major turning point in their essay, Soule says. They can instead reflect on something from their day-to-day life that they find meaningful. For some students, this may mean writing about a relationship with a parent, grandparent or other key figure in their life.

"I think that those can be great essays if the student is keeping top of mind that at the end of the essay we should know something about them as a person and how that relationship has affected and shaped them," Stratton says, "not just the great things about their grandma."

For example, Soule says she remembers a strong essay in which a student wrote about being a sibling. The student talked about what his relationship with his younger brother was like at different points throughout his life.

There wasn't any big, dramatic moment that the story hinged on, Soule says. The essay just reflected on how the student and his brother had grown up and evolved in relation to one another.

"That was really personal," Soule says, "and it also demonstrated a person who could see himself in relationship to other people, which is a hugely important quality, particularly when we're building a community of people who are going to be living together and learning together."

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