College application essay writing can feel like a full-time job.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Not if you’ve developed a great system for writing personal narratives that are engaging and authentic, personal and unique.

The main purpose of a college application essay is to let your individuality stand out.

We want to share our tried-and-true five-step process for choosing a college essay topic with confidence.

Assess the Prompts

If you’re thinking that most of the college application essay prompts sound vague or open-ended, you’ve noticed something really important.

They are really broad—on purpose.

College application essay prompts want to leave you plenty of room to write about you. Personal narrative isn’t the same as other types of writing in which the topic has to be specific—just be sure to answer the prompt!

So, take a look at your options and see what grabs you.

If a prompt immediately makes you think of a topic, explore it. Something little can turn into a great essay when you connect it to something big.

Do Some Brainstorming

If nothing stands out right away, spend some time brainstorming significant events, people, and experiences in your life.

Huge Hint: Avoid writing about overly negative topics, such as illness, death, bullying, or culture shock, unless you have a strong positive spin.


  • Have you earned a distinguished recognition?
  • Have you traveled to or lived in other countries?
  • Is there something you have studied or practiced for most of your life?


  • Do you have a close relationship with a family member?
  • Is there a teacher or mentor who inspires you?
  • Are you a member or leader of a great team?


  • Is something about you unique?
  • Are your family dynamics unusual?
  • Do you have a life goal or passion?

Use these questions as jumping-off points. Basically, if there’s something you’re passionate about or want to share, you can write about it.

Introduce Yourself

Think about what you want a college to know about you.

You’ve already sent over your test scores, transcripts, and resume, so you don’t need to convince a college of your academic potential. The college application essay is special in that you actually get to talk to the college about what makes you yourself.

Honestly, the “tiny” topics can stand out more than the sweeping ones.

If you want to write about the after school program where you read with an underperforming first grader, start out by describing the first time you heard him laugh at a book.

If you want to write about your passion for clean energy, start out by explaining that you didn’t get to wash your hair for eight days in southeast Asia.

If you want the college to know that you’re a great friend, start out by showing how your lifelong friendship with Colleen began when you were the only one to hear her whisper.

It’s your chance to show the college not just what you know, but who you are. This might sound like a tall order, but you can do it!

Make It Personal

Personal narratives don’t require any research, because they’re about you. They should be told in a narrative style that, yes, shows not tells.

You should be writing about what you already know in a personal, narrative way.

Don’t say: I learned a lot more than just piano from my piano teacher.

Say: Ms. Ortiz positioned my fingers on the correct keys thousands of times without losing patience even once.

Here are two other things to note.

  1. Personal narrative is specific. It’s boring to say “my piano teacher.” It’s interesting to say “Ms. Ortiz.”
  2. Personal narrative is sensory. It’s boring to say you learned a lot. It’s interesting to imagine someone touching your hand to move your fingers.

At the end of the day, the personal narrative should be about you (no matter how great Ms. Ortiz is). Be sure to keep the main focus of the essay on yourself.

Take Risks

Write about when you weren’t perfect. (The college already knows you don’t have superhuman perfection.)

Be willing to identify an error you made, a consequence you experienced, or a time when you showed growth.

It’s okay to say that the first time you swung a baseball bat, you knocked out your sister’s tooth. That experience was a great lesson in the physical awareness that now makes you a member of an award-winning team.

You’ve failed on your first attempt at something, tried again, and learned something in the process. Everyone has.

But rather than highlighting the fact that you failed, writing a college application essay about failure and success shows that you are a person who learns, grows, evolves, matures, and thinks critically about her life.

That’s a pretty good message to send.

For more assistance with writing your college application essays from an experienced college counselor, check out our College Counseling programs.