How Do I Choose College Essay Topics?

[fa icon="calendar"] 11/12/19 5:00 PM / by Farah Weheba

Farah Weheba

Wondering how to handle delicate college essay topics? You're not alone. College admissions officers get one good chance to understand you as a person through your essays. Deciding how to approach college essay topics like politics and mental health can be a challenge. While they're not easy areas to navigate, many students feel that their applications would not be complete without addressing some of their most polarizing opinions or life-changing experiences—however controversial. We're here to help.

Writing About Political Views

Here are some tips for college essay topics to avoid. 

 

Young lady standing and holding a yellow caution sign in front of her head
In an open-ended college essay prompt, it is still expected that the reader will hear about some transformative journey of yours. So if you write about a political topic, your essay should read like a personal story rather than like a political science essay or a news article.
If you want to highlight that you’ve grown and gained perspective about a nuanced political issue, then make the focus of your college essay how you’ve gained media literacy skills and learned to be critical of news sources. Perhaps you’ve gained an awareness of historical foreign affairs, military occupation, or the complexities of colonization or historical trauma. Perhaps you’ve gained an appreciation for consuming both American and international news sources in order to gain a more balanced worldview. Gaining an appreciation for the complexity of situations and hungering for further information shows maturity, growth, scholarship, and critical thinking skills to college admissions officers. But don't write them a political science classroom essay. 
 
A college admissions officer would want to hear more about your growth process, rather than an essay about current events.
Some guiding questions to consider when writing about political topics:
  • What prompted you to research this context?
  • Which media sources have you been reading?
  • What is your analytical process once you have read two opposing viewpoints on an issue?
  • Which personal shift has surprised you in yourself? What do you think prompted it?
  • You’re the hero of this story; how has the hero transformed?

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A college essay story about how you consume news and how you gather context around current events is much more interesting than the political details themselves; that’s a story about you.
For example, if you are writing a college essay topic about your views on headlines and how you feel they are often sensationalized, then in conclusion, what is your call to action? What are you urging journalists to do? What would you yourself do? How, theoretically, would headlines look if more neutral and informed by more perspectives? How would you yourself redesign that process and how would you behave differently? Is it the responsibility of media to present a balanced, historically representative view, or is it the responsibility of individual citizens to read many varied sources and historical texts and remain critical?
  • Do not spend your precious college essay word count informing your admissions offer about technical details of current events.
  • Contextualize the issue briefly, and then transition to your own relationship with these views and write about your transformative journey.
  • Research student groups or research labs on the university’s campus that might be doing similar work or advocating for similar causes as you.
  • Write about how you could join as a member of that group and the perspectives and experience you could lend that group of students on campus. 
  • Explain both your unique qualities and set of experience that you could bring to the group, and your excitement to learn from existing more senior members of the group. 

Culture fit

  • Are the college essay topics you are expressing in line with the target university’s values?
  • If views are not a fit, consider applying to universities that honor your personal values.
  • If your convictions and values contrast with the positions and culture of the university, you do not need to pander to the college, but rather, ask yourself why you are applying there in the first place. A university needs to represent and conduct itself by your own values. Unless...

Seeking a challenge

...Unless you are openly looking to have your perspectives challenged and recognize a need to broaden your exposure to oppositional ideas. Writing about such openness to grow and be challenged in the convictions you’ve been taught would demonstrate self-awareness and an analytical mind to an admissions officer in a college essay topic.
You would in that case need to acknowledge the marked difference between your currently held beliefs and the university’s, and explain why you are intentionally seeking this challenge in your college essay topic.
 
When Should I Choose A Different College Essay Topic? 
  • Are you expressing views that may marginalize, or advocate for the exclusion, of any groups? 
  • Are you undermining or minimizing any group of people or their potential? 
  • Are you dehumanizing or demeaning any groups or making sweeping generalizations? 
  • Are you positioning any groups as essentially flawed or less valuable than others? 
  • Does your essay flaunt economic privilege?
  • For example, are you discussing your expensive travel opportunities or lavish vacations that were not merit-based or service-based? 

    If you can answer yes to any of the above questions, your college essay topic may not read well to an admissions officer and may come off as attacking a minority group, or being unaware of your own privileges. Steer clear and choose another college essay topic altogether. 

 

Writing About Mental Health

If you are considering writing about mental health advocacy or personal experience, your college essay topic should detail why you are invested in this issue, how it has moved you, and how you are positioning yourself as a change agent. 
  • Your college essay topic should not simply discuss an injustice you are observing or a concern of yours, but should also detail how you actively are disrupting that system and how you plan to keep disrupting that system at the university level.
  • If you’ve observed someone struggle with mental health or if you’ve struggled with it yourself and would like to share your story of growth and overcoming obstacles, tell your story in a way that explains your initial observation of the problem, your call to action, and how you’ve stayed on mission to disrupt the problem.
  • If you would like to share your process of overcoming adversity and how the experience has shaped and bettered you, this could make for a successful rite of passage essay.
  • You may be wondering if admissions officers will judge you harshly for being vulnerable or revealing your personal struggle. Might volunteering this information put you at a disadvantage or make you appear to be a weaker or flawed candidate? The answer is no.
  • Everyone struggles with hurdles and obstacles of different natures, and if you would like to share a story about your growth and experiences, you certainly may without it impacting evaluation of your character negatively. Colleges look for a growth mindset: the belief that you can succeed with hard work, and by asking for help when needed. 
  • Research student groups or research labs on the university’s campus that might be doing similar work or advocating for similar positions as you. Write about how you could join as a member of this group and the perspectives and experience you could lend to that assembly.

    When Should I Choose A Different College Essay Topic? 
  • If you are struggling with mental health and are still in a formative part of that journey learning to manage it, and are not interested in working on mental health advocacy in college, then the college essay topic may not be the best choice for your application. 
  • If you’ve not yet taken any steps to advocate for these issues or disrupt the problem through leadership, volunteering, or academic work, then perhaps this is not yet a college essay topic. 
  • It doesn’t mean that your observations aren’t significant- it just means that the timing of your process may not be complete enough to write an essay on the matter with a complete story arc.
  • If your healing process is unresolved or very difficult for you to write about, you do not have to choose this topic to write about. I love the adage "don't hurt your own feelings." 
  • You don’t want your college essay to just read: “here are some things I’ve noticed are unfair or difficult. These are just my musings about this.’
  • What do you plan to do about those unfair difficult things? What have you already done? How will you continue in that vain at the university in question?

 

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Topics: College Applications, College Essays, College: Deciding Where to Apply & Attend

Farah Weheba

Written by Farah Weheba

Farah is a Brooklyn-based Community Director at Empowerly, a college counseling and essay editing company serving and supporting ambitious high school students. Farah has a BA in psychology from Stanford University, and a Master's in Education under the Stanford Learning, Design, and Technology discipline graduating in 2014.

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