New Heights Learning

What is the “best” Topic for a College Essay?

Have you not yet built a house for a family in Costa Rica? Are you not the president of five non-for-profits in your community? Have you not secured a grant for your church to build a children’s garden? That’s ok! You’re sixteen or seventeen years old. Teenagers are pretty fascinating, if they’d only scratch just beneath the surface. Unless you’ve done something extraordinary (like participated in stem-cell research and have something legitimate to say about it) search for the beauty in your everyday life, experiences and relationships.

An admission officer wants to know what sets you apart as a thinker who is experiencing and reflecting on this great big world we’re all walking through. How are you thoughtful, insightful, and curious? How are you empathetic and humble? There are so many smart kids out there who are very good at listing their accomplishments in essay form. When I read an essay that’s pretentious – and clearly manufactured to highlight a resume – I cringe a little. And I think to myself, how can I bring this person’s authentic self into their essay? How can we cut through the muck to what really makes this person tick?

You are a teenager. While that makes you as dynamic as a pinball sprung into a circuit maze, you do not have it all figured out. None of us do! So do not claim that you’ve conquered Everest, solved hunger in your local metropolitan area, or worse, overcome insurmountable odds.

Each person has a unique and valuable story to tell. We all walk through the world with so many thoughts and perceptions about everyday events. There is beauty in the sum of our basic human experiences. While our every-day lives don’t always feel riddled with value, in reflection, most things are poetic. And the sum of a sixteen or seventeen year old, with so many formative experiences, is complex enough. Believe me. The best essays emerge from a little messiness and a lot of truth.

Steer away from:


Ex. Building a hut for a one armed monk in Sri Lanka


Ex. Your 100 charitable experiences that have made you a better human being


Ex. Overcoming a learning disability/class/broken bone/broken home


Unless you have something legitimate to add, as in you’ve done the research, or been a real activist, don’t sound uninformed about topics that are over your head.


Stay away from essays about someone else. You have so few words to say something about the most important person…YOU.


  • Share a small but profound experience that has moved you/taught you/made you wonder.
  • Share why ‘a quirk’ of yours has informed your world-view.
  • Read a great book? How did it move you? Change the way you see others? Your own experience?
  • Done a cool experiment? Started an inspiring conversation, participated in something that has made you feel like “Hey, maybe this is who I am or who I want to be in the world.” Share it!
  • Walked in someone else’s shoes? Realized something new?
  • Been proven wrong about a conviction you held? How did being dead wrong teach you something about yourself or the world?

Are you starting to get a better idea? I say:

  • Start with a list – jot anything and everything down that you think might be remotely interesting to write about.
  • Circle your three favorite topics. (But don’t disregard the rest)
  • Write a paragraph about each.
  • Which one has the most potential?

You’ll feel it in your bones because trust me on this one, your intuition about yourself is better than that guidance counselor, parent or tutor’s.

You’ve got this.