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How to Identify a College Essay Topic that is Truly Unique

Almost any topic can be the seed of a powerful college application essay. Whether you are writing about a beloved family recipe, an injustice, or learning to swim, what matters is that you write with authenticity and self-awareness. And, of course, the essay should be unique. But how can the authenticity, self-awareness, and uniqueness be achieved on the page? If almost any topic is a possibility, then where should students begin?

Unique essays often come from asking yourself unique questions. Go ahead and jot down the accomplishments you are most proud of and goals for the future. Then ask questions such as these:

  • What makes you nostalgic?
  • What do you do that makes you feel the most free?
  • What’s your worst habit?
  • What is a moment when you realized that you had really changed your thinking about something?
  • What do you wish you would have done differently?
  • Feel free to ask parents about moments when they have observed personal growth. Their ideas may prompt you to see an event in a new light.

With a list of possibilities in hand, highlight the ideas that you feel most strongly about. Resist choosing a topic just because you think you “should.” Writing strong essays—on any topic—requires candidates to think deeply about experiences, personal growth, and identity. Genuine enthusiasm for this process will translate into more powerful and sincere writing. 

Review how your ideas correspond to application prompts. In 2016, approximately 47% of candidates completing the Common Application chose the following prompt for their essay: “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.” Choosing a road less traveled may distinguish your application. Nonetheless, it is possible to write a stand-out essay even in a commonly used category. Classic topics feel fresh when approached from unique angles and authentic when they reveal something meaningful about candidates.

When writing begins, recognize the core difference between personal essays and analytic writing. Throughout elementary and secondary education, the largest bulk of writing assignments emphasize how to craft and support a thesis statement based on research, expert sources, and independent thinking to connect the dots. Personal essays, however, are the unfolding of stories and the making of meaning from everyday life. They may include dialogue, action, symbolism, humor. Confident and effective use of such literary elements can set your essay apart from the crowd.

With these strategies, you can hone in on an essay topic that is so personal, that only you could write about this topic in this way. That is the college essay trifecta.

Deena Maerowitz advises students throughout the entire college admissions process. She works with students ranging from freshmen to seniors and is an expert in both undergraduate and graduate education. She is widely published and sought-after as a speaker on college planning. She can be reached at deena@thebertramgroup.com