Where Might You Find an Essay Topic?

Earlier this year, a New York Times article mentioned a study conducted by psychologist Arthur Aron. One purpose of the study was to develop a procedure for creating closeness between two people. The mechanism the study used was to have two people take turns answering a series of 36 questions.

These questions -- at least some of them -- strike me as a great place to start for a student who is searching for an essay topic. I'm talking about the student who doesn't have a major turning point in his life and who doesn't have a defining passion, mission, or purpose. I'm talking about the student who feels a bit intimidated about choosing a topic because he has had a fairly normal life.

If that student might be you, start with the questions below. Some of these I've taken verbatim from the study, and others I've tweaked the wording. One I borrowed from the University of North Carolina application because I liked it. Without further ado, here are 20 questions to help you find a topic:

  1. Before making a phone call, do you ever rehearse what you're going to say? Why?
  2. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you choose?
  3. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
  4. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
  5. Tell your life story in as much detail as possible.
  6. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would it be?
  7. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
  8. Is there something that you've dreamt of doing for a long time? Why haven't you done it?
  9. You get one do-over of any moment in your life. What would you do over, and why?
  10. What is your most treasured memory?
  11. What is your most terrible memory?
  12. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
  13. Complete this sentence "I wish I had someone with whom I could share..."
  14. You meet your college roommate and decide you want to be close friends. Please share what would be important for him or her to know.
  15. Share an embarrassing moment in your life.
  16. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
  17. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
  18. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven't you told them yet?
  19. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
  20. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?

The Big Problem

Now stand in awe of my ability to read your mind. You're thinking three things:

  1. I read all those questions.
  2. I still don't have a topic.
  3. Therefore, these questions are useless.

Not so fast. Here's the thing. Reading the questions (or, let's be honest, skimming them in 10 seconds, yes?) is not the same as thinking about the questions. When Phil and I were talking the other day, he described a problem he observes with many of his SAT and ACT students. They do the practice tests or the homework, but not in a mindful way. As Phil put it, "I don't know what they're doing, but it's not thinking." It's the same issue with these 20 questions to help you find a topic. Skimming is not mindful. It's no surprise when a mindless approach fails to yield an essay topic.

2 Ways to Be Mindful

First, I give you the obvious solution: typing. You need to open up a Google doc or whatever other word processing program you use and start typing. Set the timer at 3 minutes. Type out everything you can about the first question. If you're not typing, you're not creating a record of your thoughts. That's no help. Your fingers should be moving.

Second, I give you a novel solution: speaking. Open up this link using Google Chrome, find a quiet place, click on the microphone button, and spend 3 minutes answering the first question. Then cut and paste the text of your response to a Google doc, and move to the next question. The transcription won't be perfect, but it doesn't have to be. You need to cycle through lots of possibilities rapidly, and speaking lets you do that faster than writing. If you keep at it, you'll generate some text that becomes the seed of a rough draft.

Try It for Yourself

If you're typing or speaking, you're really thinking. You're engaging. You're being mindful. Whether you type or speak, you'll have to invest about an hour. But it's an hour well spent if it pushes you to find a topic. The hardest part is starting. So get started!

As far as I know (but please correct me if I'm wrong so I can acknowledge the right person), Essaywise is the first college planning website to offer students an instantaneous speech-to-text tool to help them find essay topics. We might be using this tool for years to come, or we might discard it as another failed experiment. (If history is any judge, the wise money is on the latter.) Whatever the case, Phil and I are always looking for new ways to streamline the writing process for students.

Good luck writing!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.