How to Come Up With College Essay Ideas that Stand Out

Let’s say you’re a single person who’s looking for a significant other but can’t seem to find any normal people at school or at work, so you decide to try an online dating app.

You want your profile to stand out among potential dates, so you carefully select your best staged candid shots and choose your words carefully to describe your scintillating personality and dynamic sense of humor.

You’re well aware that how you construct your profile determines whether someone swipes right or swipes left.

Writing a college admission essay is kinda like creating a dating profile.

You need to carefully choose your essay topic, one that showcases your amazing self.

After all, the college admission essay could make all the difference in whether essay readers swipe right or swipe left to decide whether you’re in or out.

So let’s get those admission officers to swipe right and move you that much closer to being admitted to the college of your choice.

Keep reading to learn how to come up with college essay ideas that will make your essay stand out.

What Is a College Essay?

hand holding speech bubble with question mark

A college admission essay is part narrative essay and part reflective essay.

In a college essay, you need to tell a story (as you would in a narrative essay), and you need to reflect on your experiences (as you would in a reflective essay).

A college essay, however, is slightly different than those essay types because you need to keep two key points in mind:

  1. Purpose. The purpose of a college essay is to showcase yourself as a mature, hardworking, responsible, and involved individual. The purpose of the essay is to help you get into a college. Thus, an essay that reflects on why it wasn’t the best idea to binge-watch your favorite series all night instead of studying for your chemistry exam isn’t the best topic choice for this essay.
  1. Audience. College admission officers (and possibly college faculty) will be reading your essay. Your audience is made up of professionals who are looking for professionalism in your essay, so things like academic voice and proper grammar and punctuation really do matter (perhaps even more so than in essays written for a class).

Looking for the finer points of what goes into a college essay? Read these posts:

How to Come Up With College Essay Ideas That Stand Out

single lightbulb lit in a row of dim bulbs

Remember, your audience reads volumes worth of college essays every year, so you don’t want to write a bland essay about a boring topic. You want your essay to stand out. You want it to showcase your individuality and convince readers that you belong at the college.

One of the best ways to come up with a college essay idea is to spend lots of time brainstorming ideas until you finally find one that works for you.

Keep in mind that this brainstorming activity isn’t one that you can complete in five minutes. You’ll need at least a day or two to contemplate ideas and form your thoughts.

With that in mind, let’s come up with a topic idea that stands out.

To find the perfect topic for your essay, read through the list below, and jot down potential ideas.

College essay ideas about characters, animals, and people in your life

Celebrities and fictional characters

  • Did you idolize a celebrity or fictional character in your childhood? Have you tried to model your life after her/him at any point in your life?
  • Did you try to learn from her/him and avoid mistakes she/he has made?
  • How have the actions or words of a celebrity or fictional character shaped some aspect of your personality?

Animals

  • Did you have a pet as child? What did you learn from your pet?
  • Did owning a pet alter your relationships with other people?
  • Would you consider your pet your best friend? Why might you consider an animal a better friend than a person?
  • Has your service animal or emotional support animal changed your life?

german shepherd service dog lying down

Family

  • Think about your mom, dad, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. How has one of your family members influenced you?
  • Did she/he teach you a specific valuable lesson or shape your character in some way?
  • Did she/he teach you important life skills?
  • Do you wish you wouldn’t have listened to someone’s advice?
  • Did you inherit your wicked sense of humor, empathetic nature, or love of music from a family member?
  • Have you tried to learn from the mistakes of your family members so that you won’t make the same mistakes or follow the same path?
  • What one piece of advice would you like to give your younger self?

Friends, significant others, teachers, and mentors

  • Did a friend help you through a difficult time or offer words of wisdom that you’ll never forget?
  • Did your so-called friend try to lead you in the wrong direction? How did you handle the situation?
  • Has a significant other helped you see the world from a new perspective?
  • Do you wish you had never met or dated a significant other? What did you learn from a negative dating experience?
  • Did a teacher encourage or challenge you in unexpected ways?
  • Did you have a mentor (such as a clergy member, Big Brother/Big Sister, or other mentor) who changed your attitude or changed your outlook on life?

What is one thing you wish one of these people knew about you? How does this aspect shape you and your perspectives, beliefs, and relationships with others?

College essay ideas about important experiences and moments in your life

young male and female hanging out outdoors with pug

Work and volunteer experiences

  • What’s the most important lesson you learned at your first job?
  • What one mistake did you make at a job that you’re happy you made?
  • How did volunteering change your relationship with others or with the community?
  • Do any of the people at work or at the places where you volunteer motivate or inspire you? What about in a previous job?
  • How has your current job prepared you for a career in your chosen field?

Emotional moments

  • What was the scariest, happiest, saddest, funniest, most embarrassing, or loneliest moment of your life?
  • How did this moment shape you?
  • What did you learn from this moment? Was it all positive, all negative, or both positive and negative?
  • How did you handle the situation, or how did you cope with the outcome?

Decision-making moments

  • Have you made spur-of-the-moment decisions that have impacted your life (either positively or negatively)?
  • Have you made reasoned, well thought-out decisions? What was the outcome?
  • Do you regret any important decisions you’ve made?
  • Have you made seemingly insignificant decisions that made a big impact in your life?

Would you want to relive any of these moments? Would you like to relive them more than once? If you could change them, would you?

College essay ideas about the possessions in your life

Memories and mementos

  • Do you have one or more treasured possessions that help ground you or remind you of someone, some thing, or a special event?
  • Do you have any family heirlooms that speak to your family history?
  • Did you collect any souvenirs or mementos from an event or vacation that are important to you in some way?
  • Have you saved a letter written by a loved one? What meaning does the letter hold?
  • Do you have a special family photo (old or new) that you treasure? What does the picture mean to you?

scrapbook of old photographs

Personality and character

  • How do your clothing choices, hair style, or jewelry display your personality?
  • Do any of these objects have a deeper connection to your culture or heritage?
  • Do you have any tattoos that reflect a personal memory or that are dedicated to someone?

Why are these objects so important to you? How can an object influence who you are and who you become?

Turn Your Ideas Into a College Essay

Now that you’ve read through the list above and have a handful of potential ideas for your college essay, begin brainstorming the stories you could tell.

You might realize that what sounded like a great idea quickly falls flat, and you have very little to say about the topic. That’s okay. Set it aside, and work through the remaining ideas on your list.

When you reach the topic that you feel you could write pages and pages about, you know you’re moving in the right direction. When you reach the topic that moves you and realize it’s a story that only you can tell, you know you’ve found the perfect idea for your college essay.

Remember: You’re not just telling a story about someone or about what happened.

The goal is to reflect on what you’ve learned and how the person, object, or event shaped you. Don’t try to embellish or make up a story that you think sounds good. Be honest, thoughtful, and genuine in your reflection. Your sincerity will be evident in your writing, and you’ll end up with a more powerful essay.

Additional resources

Looking for a few additional tips? Use these resources to help shape your ideas into a college essay:

Looking for additional writing inspiration? Take a look at these example college essays:

Can’t come up with any more ideas? Feeling like your essay is falling short of the amazing essay you know it could be? We’ve been editing college essays since 2011—let us help.

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