How to Choose a Topic for Your Common App

1. The Easy Way:

Picking a topic for your Common App essay is easy — but choosing the RIGHT topic for your Common App, as you probably know, as otherwise you wouldn’t be googling this question, is really very hard! The right topic is extremely important as the topic choice itself can make or break your entire application.  Literally.

As the Common App goes to all of your schools, instead of just one school, like your supplementals, mess this essay up and you can really hurt your overall chances.

No worries though, as I’m going to walk you through the process of how to choose a really strong topic for your Common App!

Brainstorming Common App Topics + Ideas

Make a list — on your phone, on a separate piece of paper, in a Word document, basically anywhere you keep a running “topic idea” list and refer back to it adding more ideas over the next few days as we think about this.  Number your list, say 1-5 to start, and just write one short sentence for each “idea” you have.

Don’t be afraid to write down BAD ideas, too. Just get 5 ideas down on paper.  Sometimes, as all good writers know, the bad ideas can lead to good ideas, which can lead to really good ideas down the road.  You need to let yourself get the bad ideas just out of your head.

Next, review your Common App idea list

Does it really suck?  What’s your best topic of the five?  Is there even one that stands out?  To help with brainstorming ideas, these are the things you should think about:

  • What makes you unique?  What’s something in your identity, your culture, your religion, your language, your family, your history that’s different than say the girl who sits next to you in class. In picking topics, look for those things that make you DIFFERENT
  • Do you have a talent or skill in a certain area that is unusual?
  • Do you have a story about something that happened to you that is unusual?
  • Do you play a sport or practice an art form that is unusual?

Let’s start with that.  You can see that the key word here is “unusual”.  Schools, especially the Ivy League, but this goes for all schools, like to see essays focused on what you think makes you different.  In other words, all of the schools are looking for personal identity, personal voice.

Start writing out your best Common App topic

Again, even if it’s BAD!  You just want to start getting something down on paper, because in writing you’ll start to see if you just “think” the topic is stupid (bad, horrible, boring) or if it truly, objectively doesn’t work as a topic.  If it doesn’t work as a Common App topic, continue reading….

Think of Metaphors:

Metaphors are things that can mean one thing on the surface and another underneath.  In other words, they are symbols.  The Ivy League schools in particular LOVE Common App essays that use metaphors.

So, for example, let’s say you have a love for boatbuilding (an unusual activity for a teenager, right?) and you spend every afternoon after school in your backyard teaching yourself how to build a boat.  This is interesting.  This already has gotten an admission reader’s attention.  Good job!

But, now let’s say that after talking about boat building in your essay, you also start using the boat as a metaphor, for say, building your own identity.  Each piece of wood represents a different part of yourself as you learn how to make all the pieces fit and create a beautiful vessel.

You then use the turning of the wood, the pressure that needs to be applied to make pieces of wet wood curve, as a way to talk about how the pressure in your own life, of adversity, or things you’ve might have gone through, have also now added to your own ability to be more malleable, and in better shape to go on to future things.

So, if you didn’t get a good Common App topic from the first 5 in your list of brainstorming ideas, now go back and do the list again, but this time think of 5 things you can use as metaphors.

That should set you on a good path to at least get started thinking about your Common App.  I also offer personalized help with choosing your Common App topic for anyone who wants to learn more about my services, and work with me on your application essays.

[I’m a former Harvard admissions interviewer and a Harvard grad, and run the Ivy League college admissions firm Contact me today for a free consultation and get into the school of your dreams!]

If you like this article, check out my other posts for great Ivy League college admissions tips and advice, including my recent post on Ivy League Early Decision!