Google “college essay topics” and you’ll find laundry lists of college essay topics to avoid, clichés, dos and don’ts (heavy on the don’ts), warnings, and other well-intentioned rules and advice. It’s enough to paralyze even the most competent writer with self-doubt and indecision: the precious time you have to devote to your college essays is spent staring down a blinking cursor. Or worse, weeks and months are wasted pressing out 650 words on a college essay topic that follows all the rules but barely holds your own interest—much less an admission reader’s. At Naked Essay, we have a different approach to college essay topics.
In our experience, the best guiding activities help students temporarily set aside the rules so that they can write freely, confidently, and productively.
As you begin the brainstorming process, try to welcome clichés and “bad” college essay topics. The key to effective brainstorming is, after all, the idea that there are no bad ideas. When we brainstorm, we don’t expect to come up with completely unique and fully-formed college essay topics right away. Only after building on the original ideas several times do we find ourselves with something fresh and imaginative.
For example, a Naked Essay student started with the idea of writing about a service project. There are some advisors who caution students against volunteer essays (“Let’s crown you for sainthood now. You’re amazing. And your essay is awful!” is one blog’s advice on the subject).
Before dismissing out of hand potential college essay topics that are meaningful to you, give the brainstorming process a chance to work its magic.
For our student writing about her service project, that meant narrowing the essay’s focus to an interaction she had when she danced with a nursing home resident named Ilene. (You can read the essay here.) Often all it takes to transform so-called clichéd college essay topics into unique, vivid pieces of writing is specificity. Bring a revealing moment or incident to life and your admissions readers will thank you!
What passions and personal qualities make you you? What memories, images, and anecdotes from your life illustrate those traits? Take five minutes, a day, a week—forget all the rules and let yourself write about something you truly care about!
According to the famously prolific Joyce Carol Oates, “When a writer finds his true subject rather than the usual false one, the writing should come easily.” Our true subjects—the ones we feel strongly about—often begin with platitudes or clichés. Embrace them! The real test of a good college essay topic is how quickly and enthusiastically your fingers are typing.