5 Guidelines for Finding a Good Essay Topic

In this post, I will share 5 application essay tips that my past students have found useful. Again, these are "guidelines," not "laws" or "rules" or "secrets." Use them if they make sense; otherwise, move on!

Guideline #1: A good essay topic says something new.

The application gives you space to list your activities and awards, so that is where you explain your achievements. The essay less about achievement and more about character. Specifically, a good essay topic shares an experience that reveals something new - something the reader would never know otherwise - about your character.

Guideline #2: A good essay topic has conflict.

Any movie, book, video game, or TV show you enjoy has conflict. Usually this conflict is between people. As Phil often reminds me, "The better the conflict, the better the story." Nothing draws a crowd faster than a fight, and that same idea applies to your writing. Who is your opponent? Consider where your conflict is.

Guideline #3: A good essay topic has desire.

This is an extension of the conflict idea. Desire spawns conflict. You and I want the same thing, or you and I want different things. My desire leads to conflict. If you're just writing down a bunch of facts about your life but can't identify any desire, that might be why your essay is boring.

Guideline #4: A good topic has sights and sounds.

Imagine someone following you around recording video and audio of everything you do. When you write about your topic, you're writing descriptions of that video and audio. The clips you select reveal your inner feelings. A good topic lives in the outside world where others can observe it, not in the inside world of your thoughts that no one else can see.

The biggest obstacle to students writing about sights and sounds is this: not writing about a specific moment in time. Say you love going to the beach. Most students would write, "I love going to the beach." The problem is that the reader doesn't know what sights and sounds "going to the beach" entails for you. By omitting a description of a specific moment at the beach, you lose control of your reader. The simple solution is to describe the sights and sounds of one particular outing to the beach. Talk about the cries of the sea gulls or the sea lions on the red buoy, or whatever. By talking about sights and sounds in a particular moment - and not just general sights and sounds - you give the reader the raw information that allows her see life from your perspective.

Guideline #5: A good topic explores doubt.

Students have spent years getting ready for college, so it's natural to feel a little anxiety. "Will the colleges appreciate everything I've done?" is a common feeling. And a common response is to say, "I'm awesome, and here's why."

You are, with 85% probability (based on my experience working with students), awesome. But a more convincing way to make this argument is often to say, "Here's what happened. I didn't know what to do or think at first. Then I figured it out, and I'm a better person now." In other words, you start by writing about your doubts. As Phil puts it, "Write about something you don't already know the answer to." This approach isn't, however, for the lazy or "I just want good enough" student, as self-reflection, it turns out, takes energy and time. But if you're in the other half of students, probing uncertainty should get you a better essay.

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.