Finding an UNCommon College Application Essay Topic

Finding an uncommon college application essay topic is one of the biggest challenges facing high school seniors applying to college. And understandably so. Most high school seniors have a scope of experiences that is markedly similar. Interactions with family, friends, school, sports, and enrichment activities fill up the majority of their days. Essay topics, therefore, unless you happen to have spent your formative years in a tree house in the Burmese jungle…

tend to fall within a narrow range.

Yet there is no need for despair. There are many effective techniques that will help you find a unique application essay topic, and none of them require you to spend twenty four hours in a shark cage holding a bloody side of beef. Here are a few of them:

Go beyond your first, second, or even third idea. 

Too many high school seniors get a topic they like, rush to their computers and start typing. Unfortunately, that idea is often the same idea that another high school senior, somewhere, has also had, rushed to his or her computer and started writing. It’s important, therefore, to keep pushing beyond that first idea and, at the minimum, see what else might come up. You can always go back to that initial, second or third concept, but it’s nice to have choices.

Go small.

In the quest for an attention grabbing concept for their application essays, students sometimes take on huge subjects such as diversity or equality in our society. Those subjects then tend to dominate the essay, leaving less room for the student. I suggest, therefore, that students “go small,” meaning choose a topic that is intimate enough to reveal as much as possible about the student, in terms of perspective on life, level of maturity, deep thinking, and so on. (For more information please view my video on this concept – Keep in mind that when colleges say they use the essay to get to know the student, they mean it.

Choose a topic only you can write.

This tip is strongly connected to #2. Though high school seniors all have a lot in common, they also have individual experiences that only they have had. For example, several years ago I worked with a student who had a love for wiffle ball. He and his pals cleared a local field and formed a league, then got into a conflict with the town council over the use of public property. It was a singular experience and still small enough to reveal a lot about the student, and it made an outstanding essay. (I know you’re curious, so I am happy to report he got into his first choice school.)

Don’t focus on the events; focus on how you felt about them, and what you learned from them.

For the Common Application essay (, the 650 word limit goes quickly. So, wherever possible, don’t make the topic the event itself, make it your reactions to it. One effective way to accomplish this is to write the full description of the event as part of your first draft. Then, in subsequent drafts, cut that back to the minimum and replace it with the impact it had on you.

Go for the ticker. 

College Admissions Committee members are human beings and can be effected (positively!) by an essay topic that moves them emotionally. It is therefore in your best interest to choose topics that have emotional content. Instead of writing about your science fair project earning a second place ribbon, write about how your family cat died the night before your sister’s wedding, giving you a new perspective on appreciating the positive moments in life. If expressing emotions isn’t your style, you can even write about that, and how you are trying hard to get in touch with that side of yourself.


… the answer to finding an uncommon application essay topic boils down to three words. Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm (, and don’t give up until you find an essay topic that excites you. That’s usually the one that will excite someone else, too.

The Abridged Version… 

An uncommon essay topic is out there waiting for you, now go out and find it.



For more personal help with the college application essay, contact Craig Heller at 818-445-4697 or [email protected].

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