Essay Ideas for Prospective College Students

Monday, May 31, 2021

I’m about to catapault headfirst into the whirlwind of helping a child apply for colleges in the coming months. I’m not ready for this—but I’m not sure I’ll be ready for this by the time my second child begins the college application process two years from now, either. I am grateful we weren’t experiencing my daughter’s senior year in the 2020-21, when proms, end-of-year-celebrations and so many high school graduations were simply canceled as the world began shutting down and sheltering in place due to COVID-19.

About a month ago our school hosted a guest speaker discussing the current trends in writing college essays. My daughter had track practice so she wasn’t able to attend the webinar. Based on the text messages that began coming in later that evening from my daughter’s friends, they were a little confused by the presentation. The woman who led the seminar teaches AP Literature and Language and works as a college essay tutor, and she shared some examples of writing my daughter’s classmates found strange. Granted, they were intrigued. They were told to inject more personality in their essays, and write more descriptively, as if they were writing a piece for flash fiction or a digital story for Wattpad. 

Of course, this goes against the grain of everything I was taught about college essays back in the 1990s. But I couldn’t tell you what I wrote about in my own college admissions essays if my life depended on it. Things have changed.

We discussed the topic the other day and I told her that it’s fine to show personality in your writing and not to overthink what she creates as part of her Common Application Essay (250-650 words). We brainstormed a few topics she has already started working on: 

 • Lessons learned from an obstacle you faced. Having run on her school’s varsity cross country team since she was a freshman, she has plenty of stories on this topic, from running in heat so severe runners were passing and coming in first place, to competing in an invitational where a runner from another school suffered an epileptic seizure and the park wasn’t equipped to get medics to her quickly enough. Tragically, the young woman, who had traveled to our city from another part of the state, was taken off life support the next day. 

 • Personal growth. When she was in kindergarten, my daughter’s teacher suggested to us that we have her repeat the grade because she wasn’t “socially mature” enough. We knew our daughter was intelligent and were heartbroken. However, she has come to realize she was better off having that extra year to grow, and the fact that she had an undiagnosed sensory processing disorder and is most likely ambidextrous contributed to her teacher missing a huge piece of the puzzle of who she was as a student. She’s learned a lot from herself from this process. 

 • Challenging a belief. My daughter has always been a bit different from other girls her age, and it’s been hard for her socially. She has a core group of girlfriends who share a lot of the same interests, video gaming, anime, cosplay, etc., but in the world of ethical computer hacking, she’s a female in a predominately male world. There are times she tries to play online video games and gets belittled by players she doesn’t even know because “her voice sounds too girly.” She is determined to succeed in the world of cybersecurity and computers, but knows it will be an uphill battle. 

I personally can’t wait to read some of the essays she comes up with as part of her college admissions process and I hope others will enjoy learning more about her. She and I have had a lot of discussions about writing through your pain, and no matter what the current trends are in college essays, I believe if she speaks from her heart, the right school will find her. 

 Renee Roberson is an award-winning freelance writer, magazine editor and true crime podcaster. Learn more about her work at


Sioux Roslawski said...

Renee--Knowing just a little about your daughter, I think I can say: any college would be lucky to have her. When the path is too smooth and obstacle-free, it doesn't build character. Your daughter is fierce and has a wonderful personality. She will go far in life. (It doesn't hurt that she has an incredible mom--and dad.)

Jeanine DeHoney said...

Renee, wishing your daughter all the best. I'm sure she will write an awesome college essay. When my grandson was applying to colleges he wrote one about an obstacle he faced and overcame and that was what helped him get into one of the colleges he applied to.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Renee, those are fantastic essay ideas! I hope she writes all of them and enters them in some contests because those are excellent topics and show narrator growth. I particularly love the first and last ones. The first would be a visceral read with the heat, the body, mental and physical challenges. The last one because it's so her! I would add to that the topic of thwarting cyber criminals, and her work in that field would be a such an interesting topic. And leading with the heart is the way to go.
It's so different from when we were applying to college. I didn't know the rules had changed until I watched some teen Netflix series that I can't recall right now, and the teacher suggested telling a personal story for the college essay. I remember thinking that it went against the dry essays I remembered writing. Times have changed. Wonderful post, and I know she'll do awesome! :)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Can we write her essay for her? "Admit this girl. You need her. She rocks."
Okay, mine will obviously be . . . what's tinier than flash?

But her topics are so amazing. I'm with Ang. She needs to write these and get them out in the world even if she doesn't use them in her applications.

Renee Roberson said...

Sioux--Thank you for your sweet words. I definitely have some of my own essay ideas that have come out of this brainstorming!

Jeanine--I'm happy to hear the topic of overcoming obstacles worked out so well for your grandson!

Ang--It is so much different now. I don't remember my essays having a lot of personality, but she is actually looking forward to working on these. Im already encouraging her to put some words on paper so she can submit them other places, too. Her generation needs to be heard.

Sue--I can't believe the cap is 650 words on these essays. That's like an intro paragraph to the rest of us, ha ha!

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