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Can you write your college essay about anything

What If I Don’t Have Anything Interesting To Write About In My College Essay?

Does your Common App essay actually stand out?

Your essay can be the difference between an acceptance and rejection — it allows you to stand out from the rest of applicants with similar profiles. Get a free peer review or review other students’ essays right now to understand the strength of your essay.

Does your Common App essay actually stand out?

Your essay can be the difference between an acceptance and rejection — it allows you to stand out from the rest of applicants with similar profiles. Get a free peer review or review other students’ essays right now to understand the strength of your essay.

When you think about a topic for a compelling college admissions essay, what comes to mind? It might seem like you need to write about something exceptionally interesting and impressive, like your backpacking trip in the Amazon or that time you won the national championship in underwater basket weaving.

You’re not alone if you feel that the events in your everyday life are too boring or clichéd to be fodder for a really good essay. College applicants are told that, in order to be attractive to admissions committees, they need to stand out — but how can you stand out when you live a pretty ordinary life?

Don’t worry! You don’t need to have had a particularly extraordinary experience to write a compelling college application essay that shows off your writing skills and allows colleges to learn more about you personally. Read on for more tips on how to write a great college essay, even if you don’t feel you have anything interesting to write about.

Brainstorming College Essay Topics

First of all, set aside the idea that you need to write your essay about something dramatic and unusual. Even a topic that seems clichéd — for instance, a book you read, a friendship you made, or a memorable moment with your family — can make for an excellent essay topic that shows off your communication skills as well as the personal qualities that colleges like to see. The manner in which you write about your experience is much more important than the innate value of the experience itself.

Colleges also understand that not everyone has access to the same set of opportunities. Your geographic location, your socioeconomic status, your family connections, and many other factors have an impact on what you can do during your high school years. Admissions officers certainly aren’t going to penalize you if, for instance, you haven’t had the chance to travel the world, or you couldn’t afford to take part in certain activities.

While writing your essay on an unusual topic may make you stand out to some extent in the applicant pool, college admissions isn’t simply a contest where the person who has had the most exciting experiences wins. In fact, even if you have had an extraordinary experience, you may not want to make it the topic of your college essay if it doesn’t fit the prompt or reveal something much of significance about you.

What makes an appropriate essay topic?

If your essay topic doesn’t have to be an unusual or exceptional experience you’ve had, then what can it be? The most general answer to that question is that your essay can be about almost anything, as long as it fits the prompt you’ve chosen or been given.

In some sense, it’s easier to say which topics you shouldn’t use for your college application essay. Obviously, you should avoid any statements that could be construed as being racist, sexist, classist, or otherwise prejudiced toward any group of people. Not only will statements like these reflect poorly on your character, but you also never know who will end up reading your application — they could be a member of the very group you’re speaking against.

You should also avoid essay topics that involve obscene language, illegal activities, violence, or graphic subjects. While writing a strong essay about one of these topics may be theoretically possible, it’s extremely difficult, and attempting to do so is generally not successful. If you’re considering writing about anything that could be considered controversial, keep in mind that the people reading your application may very well disagree with you completely, so don’t make personal attacks on or assumptions about those with different opinions.

In addition, you should be aware that under certain circumstances, colleges may be required to report certain crimes, such as child abuse, if they are divulged in an essay or elsewhere in the application. See our post on Notre Dame University for an example of one such policy.

Beyond these boundaries, however, the range of possible topics on which you could potentially write a great essay is extremely broad. Obviously, we at CollegeVine can’t describe every single possible topic; however, we can offer some advice on where to look for an essay topic that will allow you to write a compelling essay offering a window into your personality and life experiences.

As for any essay or paper, there are a variety of practices you might find useful when you start brainstorming about college application essay topics, including freewriting, listing, outlines, and many more. You may have learned about some of these in an English or writing class in the past, and your English teacher may be able to help you use them. (Take a look at the CollegeVine blog post Whom Should I Ask For Help With My College Essay? for more information about who might have useful input.)

Don’t feel restricted by the boundaries of brainstorming exercises; they’re meant to provide you with a broad pool of possible topics that you can refine later, so you can feel free to write down any ideas that spring to mind. In addition, check out the CollegeVine blog post Where to Begin? Three Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises for some specific suggestions on how to brainstorm for your college essay.

Here are some questions you might consider while you’re brainstorming:

  • What’s the last news story you read and found interesting? This question can help you identify an issue that you are passionate about or a cause that matters a lot to you.
  • What is your proudest accomplishment so far? What about it makes you feel proud? This question can reveal what you consider most important about yourself and what you want colleges to know about you.
  • When have you been the most nervous, and why were you nervous? What was the outcome of the situation? This could cover anything from an important performance to a big test to standing up for an issue you care about.
  • What’s the most recent topic you researched on your own just for fun or self-improvement? Have you found yourself in a downward spiral of reading Wikipedia articles recently? Colleges would love to know what you found so fascinating and why.
  • What have you learned from the community you grew up in? What do you value about that community? This topic can not only make for an interesting essay, but can also give colleges some valuable background information about you.
  • When have you most recently changed your mind about something important? This topic will not only allow you to talk about an issue about which you have strong feelings, but will also allow you to present a narrative of growth about how you became the person you are today.

You can also take a look at the school-specific supplemental essay questions presented by the colleges to which you’re not applying. One of these prompts might spark an idea in your mind that would also be appropriate for the colleges to which you are applying. Check out the Essay Breakdown posts on the CollegeVine blog for a convenient way to look at this year’s essay questions for many different competitive schools.

Choosing Your Topic

Once you have a pool of essay topic ideas, it’s time to narrow them down and pick the topic about which you’re going to write — but if you have several promising topic ideas, how do you choose among them? Again, you shouldn’t pick one candidate simply because it seems to be the most exciting or unique option. Rather, you should choose your topic based primarily on what subject will allow you to write the best essay.

In this case, the “best” essay is the one that showcases your strong writing skills, demonstrates the personal qualities (thoughtfulness, curiosity, dedication, passion, and so on) that you want colleges to see in you, and allows colleges to get to know you better on a different level from the rest of your application.

The topic you initially like the most may not be the one that allows you to write the best possible essay. Of course, you’re likely to write a better essay on a topic in which you have a strong interest, but there is some strategy involved in choosing a topic as well.

A thoughtful and well-written essay on a topic that might initially seem more mundane will benefit you far more than a dull or poorly-written essay on a more exciting-sounding topic. Choosing an unusual experience you’ve had as your essay subject may even tempt you to let the experience itself do the legwork, rather than using that subject as a vehicle to tell colleges more about who you are as a person.

If you can find meaning and significance in a small incident, that can be incredibly compelling for your readers. Drawing from your ordinary experiences to illustrate a larger point will make your essay all the more personal and revealing. Remember, the value of your essay is much more in how you write about your experiences than what experiences you write about.

A final note on choosing your essay topic: You don’t necessarily need to be absolutely committed to a topic right away. If it becomes clear after you start outlining or writing that your chosen topic isn’t going to work as well as you would like, there’s nothing wrong with starting over with a new topic.

Feel free to go back to your brainstormed pool of topics, or even to come up with something new entirely. Just make sure that you have enough time left to develop and edit your new essay appropriately. This is all the more reason to start the essay writing process early — if your topic ends up not working out, you’ll still have time to try a different approach.

Making Your Topic Shine

Once you’ve selected a topic, you need to figure out how to develop an essay from it that is technically skillful, compelling to the reader, and true to the vision of yourself that you’re working to portray in your application.

If you’re worried that your essay topic is not interesting or exciting enough on its own, you may be extra concerned about how to build a strong essay upon that topic. In reality, however, everyone — no matter how interesting or exciting their choice of topic might seem — should take great care in planning how they’re going to develop their basic topic statement into a full-fledged essay.

To write a truly effective college essay, you’ll need to focus not on depicting and describing an event or issue in your life, but on expressing your personal experience or perspective in an interesting manner. The value of the experience and the point in writing about it lies not necessarily in what happened, but how it affected you, and in how you analyze and consider that effect.

Details are quite important here, as they’ll bring life and context to your story. Vivid and evocative details can turn an essay on a seemingly mundane topic into something truly fascinating. The details you choose to leave out are equally important; you’ll be working with a word-count limit, and it’s important that your essay be concise and readable rather than wordy and overwrought.

You’ll also need to make sure that your essay clearly develops the themes that you intend for it to develop. Relating an experience, ordinary or extraordinary, isn’t enough on its own; you have to be thoughtful about the experience and show why this experience is important enough to you to be worth inspiring your college essay.

The key to writing a strong college application essay is in your delivery. With skillful writing, powerful word choice, and a good sense of how to develop a fragment of an idea into a longer piece of writing, you can make any topic, no matter how “uninteresting” it may seem, into an exploration of issues important to you and a showcase of your skills as a communicator.

Will your essay make or break your college application?

It depends. You can take a look at our CollegeVine blog post How Important is the College Essay? for a more detailed discussion of the importance of the essay as compared to other parts of your application.

Briefly, however, a brilliant essay can’t make up for severe deficiencies in your academic qualifications, but it may have an impact otherwise, particularly at a smaller or more competitive school. If you’re on the borderline, a great essay may tip the balance toward admission. An essay that’s clearly carelessly written, inappropriate, or full of technical errors can hurt your chances of admission even if you do have great qualifications.

The bottom line is that, just as with every other part of your college application, colleges will need to see that you’ve taken the task seriously and put in your best effort. Managing your time properly is important, and you can’t work on one essay forever, but if you get started early, you should be able to put enough time into developing, writing, and editing your essay to make it a piece of writing of which you’re truly proud.

For more information about choosing and developing a college application essay topic, you can check out the CollegeVine blog for tips and tricks. Our Essay Breakdown posts about how to write the school-specific essays for various top schools contain a wealth of good ideas.

If you’re applying via the Common App, check out our post How to Write the Common App Essays 2020-2021. If you’re applying using the Coalition Application (CAAS), we have you covered as well with our post How to Write the Coalition Application Essays 2019-2020 .

Crafting an Unforgettable College Essay

It may sound like a chore, and it will certainly take a substantial amount of work. But it’s also a unique opportunity that can make a difference at decision time. Admissions committees put the most weight on your high school grades and your test scores . However, selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities , to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.

Telling Your Story to Colleges

So what does set you apart?

You have a unique background, interests and personality. This is your chance to tell your story (or at least part of it). The best way to tell your story is to write a personal, thoughtful essay about something that has meaning for you. Be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.

Admissions officers have to read an unbelievable number of college essays, most of which are forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sounding like themselves. Others write about a subject that they don’t care about, but that they think will impress admissions officers.

You don’t need to have started your own business or have spent the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the first-year class.

Tips for a Stellar College Application Essay

1. Write about something that’s important to you.

It could be an experience, a person, a book—anything that has had an impact on your life.

2. Don’t just recount—reflect!

Anyone can write about how they won the big game or the summer they spent in Rome. When recalling these events, you need to give more than the play-by-play or itinerary. Describe what you learned from the experience and how it changed you.

3. Being funny is tough.

A student who can make an admissions officer laugh never gets lost in the shuffle. But beware. What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different. We caution against one-liners, limericks and anything off–color.

4. Start early and write several drafts.

Set it aside for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicant’s own voice?

5. No repeats.

What you write in your application essay or personal statement should not contradict any other part of your application–nor should it repeat it. This isn’t the place to list your awards or discuss your grades or test scores.

6. Answer the question being asked.

Don’t reuse an answer to a similar question from another application.

7. Have at least one other person edit your essay.

A teacher or college counselor is your best resource. And before you send it off, check, check again, and then triple check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.

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About Rob Franek

Rob Franek, Editor-in-Chief at The Princeton Review, is the company’s primary authority on higher education. Over his 26-year career, he has served as a college admissions administrator, test prep teacher, author, publisher, and lecturer. Read more and follow Rob on Twitter: @RobFranek.

How to Outline & Write Your College Essay

Just like how no two people are exactly alike, no two examples of a “good college essay” are alike. The key is finding a way to express who you are through good organizational structure, original story-telling, and self-reflection.

COVID-19 has dramatically impacted the 2022 college application cycle – your application essays, now more than ever, are a critical component in getting accepted to college. So take time, be careful, and be wary about the fact that every student in the US might be writing about their experience during COVID-19 (originality is important, you want to stand out!). Here’s our breakdown of what colleges look for in a great college essay. We also include how to outline and write your best college essay.

Showing off your personality in your writing helps your essay stand out.

Your response should tell a story and give the reader insight into your personality, what fascinates and excites you, what are you curious about intellectually, and more. Include an example of an experience or two that has shaped how you view life.

Use a 5-paragraph structure

For your standard 1.5 page college application essay or personal statement, it’s important to use an effective organizational structure. The 5-paragraph essay structure serves this purpose well. Here’s a quick outline of how it works:

  1. Intro paragraph (Your thesis statement) – your introductory paragraph addresses what prompt, question, or topic you’ll be discussing, and includes your thesis statement. A thesis statement is a declarative sentence wherein you’ll state the main point (or argument) of your essay, and outline the 3 main points or examples you’ll be discussing to support that point.
  2. Body Paragraph 1: Corresponds to the first example or point in your thesis statement. It includes specific examples that support this main point, and reflections that make it personal and show how you’ve grown.
  3. Body Paragraph 2: Corresponds to the second example or point in your thesis statement. It follows the same structure as body paragraph one – specific example/anecdote + reflections.
  4. Body Paragraph 3: Corresponds to the third example or point in your thesis statement. It follows the same structure as body paragraphs one and two.
  5. Conclusion: This is a place to wrap up the points and examples you’ve discussed, and potentially, show the reader what now lies ahead for you in the future in light of the information or reflections presented. You can talk about how you’ve grown, what you’ve learned, etc.

Keep your college essay focused

Your goal should be to answer the prompt you choose completely. You want your essay topic to be an inch wide and a mile deep. Focus on a specific event, experience, musing—anything that reflects who you are—and hone in on it. Make sure this response suits the essay question. You will need to respond to every part of the prompt.

Write about a topic that you find interesting

Choosing a topic that excites you is an amazing way to infuse energy and life into your essay. When you’re writing about something you’re hyped about, your personality will shine through naturally. This will help your essay stand out from the thousands many college admissions reviewers are reading. Remember, your essay really can be about anything as long as you fully address the question posed in the prompt!

Now that you know what goes into a great college essay, it’s time to start writing! When you finish, let us help! Send us your personal statement, college essay, or scholarship essay to review – all for free! We’ll have it back to you within a week.