How to Mine Your Personal Experiences for Essay Topics


The college application essay can be one of the most nerve-wracking parts of the college admission process, but it can also be one of the most fun – and important – aspects of your overall admissions package.

Writing your college essay can help an admissions officer see your authentic self and get to know you better than they could with just a GPA or SAT score. Reading an essay is a glimpse into a student's life, allowing the decision-makers to determine if you would be a good fit and if you would be happy at their schools. It's important to take the college admission essay seriously, but don't forget that it is creative endeavor that you can enjoy as well.

Know Which Topic to Choose

Deciding what to write about in your essay is the key question that most students face. Because the essay is a personal story, of course, it should be about you. However, determining what to write about can be the challenge. You want the essay to be a reflection of your personality, so you should think about the things that are the most important to you in life.

Here are some questions to guide you to use your personal experiences to come up with the essay topic that is unique to you:

- What are you passionate about?

- What makes you want to be a better person?

- Which pivotal moments have changed your outlook on life?

- What challenges have you overcome?

- Which conflicts have happened in your life that you have resolved?

When you ask yourself these kinds of questions, one specific event or experience may seem like the one topic you should write about, or you may come up with several ideas. If you have several, you can write a list and then outline what you might write about on that topic to help you pinpoint the one that may be strongest. If you're still on the fence, you could ask your guidance counselor or high school English teacher which topic they think might be the best. You can brainstorm with them to determine how you would tell your story in narrative writing before you actually start typing your essay.

Ask Yourself Questions

“The best way to mine your life experiences and find good material for a personal statement is by asking yourself questions," says Alan Gelb, author of Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps. “What keeps you up at night? What has been your biggest challenge? Who has surprised you the most? There are many such questions in my book but students can make up — and answer — on their own."

Keep it personal: It's the personal aspect of college admission essays that make college applicants stand out from the crowd. Admissions officers can feel the emotion in a well-written essay, and you want to make sure yours comes through.

"Choose a topic you really want to write about. If the subject doesn't matter to you, it won't matter to the reader," advises Rachel Toor, author of Write Your Way In: Crafting an Unforgettable College Admissions Essay.

Remember — while you are writing your essay, try to have fun with it. There are not many opportunities in life where you get to tell the world a part of your life story and your audience is all ears. The college application essay is one of those chances. You can reveal your true self through writing your story, and it should be an activity you enjoy rather than one you dread.