How to Help Students Choose a College Admissions Essay Topic

Lindsay Rayner
Lindsay Rayner
Middle School Principal; MA in Educational Leadership

For high school seniors, the college admissions process is often a stressful one. On top of applications, they must write the often-dreaded college admissions essay, and choosing a topic can seem daunting. With these tips, though, you can help your students choose a great college admissions essay topic.

What is the Purpose of a College Admissions Essay?

College admissions essays provide an opportunity to show admissions officers a more personal side of your students. It is their opportunity to express the characteristics that make them different from other applicants. Remember, college admissions officers are often overwhelmed with applicants, so it is your job to help your students stand out in a positive way. It also showcases students writing skills and ability to communicate with others.

Tips on Helping Students Choose a Topic

To help students brainstorm topics, ask them to come up with a list of personal experiences that shaped who they are today. These should be experiences that directly impact the type of college student they envision themselves being. For example, a past experience with a great teacher may have influenced them to want to be a teacher, or a car accident may have spurred their desire to become a nurse.

Once students have tentatively chosen a topic, they should outline their essays. This does not need to be a formal outline but should be organized to include at least five paragraphs. This step is important, because it allows students to decide whether they have enough writing material to make their topics compelling to the reader.

If students are still struggling to choose a topic, showing them past samples of student work may be helpful. However, remind students that these essays should reflect their own unique experiences.

Who Will Be Reading the Essay

Typically, every essay is read by at least one person and sometimes as many as four. Remember, admissions counselors are human beings, not robots, so sincerity is essential. They are likely reading many similar stories, so injecting a little bit of humor or an interesting angle into the student’s story could go a long way.

Admissions officers often have a specialty that makes them uniquely suited to screen certain applications. For instance, maybe the reader has a specialty in health care or is from your students’ geographic region.

There is no way to know exactly who will be reading each essay, so just be sure that is well-written, free of grammatical errors, and makes a logical argument for the student’s admission. Essentially, ask yourself if you would admit this student based on this essay.

How to Make the Student Topic Stand Out From Other Essays

These are qualities that make essay topics stand out in a negative way:

  1. Focusing on one do-gooder experience. One time volunteering at a soup kitchen does not translate into a lifetime of good works. Organizing a soup kitchen is another story.
  2. Making a list of accomplishments. Those things are already covered in the application.
  3. Mentioning illegal activities. Even if it was a positive learning experience, it’s best to avoid this subject.
  4. Writing about the most important person in their lives. Everyone has important people in their lives, but that doesn’t necessarily make for an attention-grabbing essay.
  5. Making a video when asked for an essay. This is pretty self-explanatory — always follow directions.

These are qualities that make essays stand out in a positive way:

  1. Making the first paragraph an attention grabber. A quote, a question, or a bold statement can accomplish this.
  2. Being sincere!
  3. Inserting a little bit of humor.
  4. Knowing something specific about the school and tailoring their essays accordingly.
  5. Making the ending memorable, something the reader will be thinking about long after they have finished reading.
  6. Proofreading! Don’t distract the reader from a compelling story with silly grammatical or spelling mistakes.

In the end, students can’t go wrong with a sincere, well-written essay that shares the qualities that make them uniquely suited to the college to which they are applying. As educators, our job is not to micromanage the process, but to help students put their best foot forward.

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