This May Sound Obscure, But Choosing The Topic For Your College Application Essay Before You Write It Isn’t A Good Idea

So if you are not going to choose the topic your essay is going to be about, then how do you know what to write?

Let me share an experience that will set the stage for this issue:

In sixth grade I sat across from two students glaring at me and who repeated, ‘I hate you.”  I was in for a miserable semester, I thought.

I’d started in a new school. I was nervous, and awkward. That day our teacher announced that each student would submit their preferred seating chart, and our then he would draw the winning chart at random.  That random winner thought it would be funny to put me directly across from the two students that despised me most.

That’s how I found myself sitting across from two students who were spitting angry that they were stuck sitting with me.

Then a strange thing happened. After a few hours we forgot that we disliked each other. Isolated in the corner of the classroom we quickly moved from dislike, to tolerance, and then – eventually – after days and weeks, we became close friends.  

Since that experience I’ve developed a theory that I’ve tested again and again – and it is this: disliking someone means I do not understand them.

I recognize this is not always true. There are hardened criminals and those without kindness in the world. However, I’ve found that these people are the exception. I’ve found that if I spend time getting to know someone, I will like that person – and fortunately, they like me.  In fact, among my closest friendships, several of them began in less-than-ideal circumstances.


Let’s pivot for a moment to one other stage setting concept because there is another factor to consider – and that is what I refer to as the first interview principle. If a hiring manager were able to truly gauge someone’s fitness for a position during an interview, then there would likely never be a need to fire anyone. Unfortunately for hiring managers, applicants can carefully prepare for interviews to skew things in their favor. They can adjust their resume to distort facts and make themselves appear like a great fit.  

Inevitably what happens is that decision makers choose the candidate they think has the best chance to succeed, and then they learn over the next weeks and months whether or not they made a good choice.  

What these decision makers want and need from those interviews is to get past the canned answers that distort the truth and make a candidate seem a little too good, and therefore, artificial. If they can work past that and actually identify how the applicant behaves under stress, or works under pressure, or how effectively they can listen to and work with others, then they have a far greater chance to choose the best candidate for the job.


Consider how you became close friends with those in your inner circle. Initially, you didn’t know each other – but somehow you became friends. You learned about them – how they thought, what they laughed about, and what they were like under pressure.   

Can you help the admissions committee learn about you in the same way?  If they can get to know you and move beyond the initial “canned” interview question and answer session, they just might run right into what they want to know about: you. What you’re really like.

How To Find Topics To Write About For Your College Application Essay

In a way, we’re going to set aside the prefab answers you’ve prepared for your interview.  Instead, write down the things that have been on your mind lately. Write down the things that you have been concerned about, or that scene replaying in your mind that made you laugh. What’s the last meaningful conversation you had with someone? Write it out, verbatim, as honestly as you can, with all its imperfections.

Getting Thoughts And Experiences Written Down Is The Start Writing Something That Will Set Your Applicaiton Apart

The famous author Ray Bradbury once wrote, “Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.”  Another well known writer, Cecil Murphey, said, “Write what you know. Write what you want to know more about. Write what you’re afraid to write about.” 

These are not calls for everyone to abandon rational thought and just start mumbling on paper (or through a keyboard). These are writers who’ve learned the craft and found out how to find thoughts and ideas worth writing about – and they know that they can’t be discovered in a first interview format.

Celebrated author Toni Morrison spoke of this truth when she wrote: “I always know the ending; that’s where I start.”  Whether you start at the end of a formal interview or start conversing with a friend where you left off last time you saw each other, get started putting those things down so that you can work with them.


Stop playing it safe for now and start just writing ideas down for a friend. Rest assured, you can always edit your drafts later. For now, get to work writing.