Does Your College Essay Topic Really Matter?

Posted by Neal Schwartz on June 10, 2021

Essay picture with drafts

The college essay might just be the most important part of the college application. Many high school juniors start thinking about the essay towards the end of junior year and have help on it in school, but others are on their own. If you haven’t already started conceptualizing or drafting, the summer is the perfect time to start. Those who don’t feel themselves to be strong writers may find this process completely intimidating, asking themselves, How do I condense my character into 650 words? It’s a tall task, indeed. But we’re here to help you parse through your ideas to pick a winning topic.

Recent news has hinted to discrepancies in essay topics across socio-economic groups. And that makes total sense. Sometimes, but not always, values and experiences can be shaped by the privilege a student has. But this does not necessarily mean that admissions officers will be biased in any way. While a lot of students are concerned with picking the right topic, the more important aspect of the essay is how it’s written.

When it comes to writing, in fact, sometimes simpler is better. Students often get caught up with the idea of being “interesting” enough by choosing an interesting topic. But “interesting” does not equate to “spectacular” or “extravagant”. Being interesting is all about finding an angle on a story that you feel comfortable telling. Sometimes, the most modest stories end up being the most successful, because they’re real and poignant.

Finding the perfect story

College essays can have a few different layouts. It can start with an anecdote, an object, a person, an experience or a goal. In order to do this, make an inventory. Write a list of things that are important to you, and why. Focus on the idea of telling a story, not “explaining” something about yourself. When you shift into the pedantic or philosophical mode, this can lose admissions officers. Try to entertain them! They’re reading hundreds, if not, thousands of essays each application season, so don’t be too heavy-handed. Find something entertaining, and don’t douse it with too much “moral.” It’s not a fairy tale, but meant to show your character.

Working on your voice

 Even more important than the topic is the voice. A lot of students feel pigeon-holed by writing in the academic, formal style, but in a college essay, we can lose the feeling of personality. Remember, this is not an academic essay, but a personal essay. Think about how you would tell the story to a friend, and read it out loud, to make sure it sounds natural.

Structuring the essay

One structure that works very well for college essays is something we like to call the “frame story.” The frame story sandwiches the reflective meat of the essay. Here’s what that looks like:

  1. Hook the reader with the beginning of an anecdote.
  2. Cut off the anecdote at a cliffhanger.
  3. Go into background information.
  4. Finish the anecdote where you left off.
  5. Offer a small, thoughtful reflection at the end.

You could also stick with a traditional chronological structure, but that can sometimes read as a little bland. Other students like to include two anecdotes that relate to each other. Be careful with this, because you need enough space to develop both, and that’s difficult to do in 650 words. When in doubt, cut it out, and focus the most narrowly you can.


For more help with essay coaching, give us a call to schedule a free consultation today!  We are also offering College App Quickstart courses for students and parents, during the weeks of June 28th and July 12th.  Click here for more information. 

Best Regards,

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Neal Schwartz, Owner

College Planning of Westchester


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Topics: College Essays, College Applications, college preparation, college admissions, college counseling, high school senior, high school junior, college essay topics


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