Unique college essay ideas (order an essay inexpensively)

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Unique college essay ideas

by Carol Barash on May 27, 2014 in Admissions

What should students write about in their college application essays? I get this question from student after student: What should I write about to get into college? What topics are admissions officers looking for?

Admissions officers are looking for three things in your admission essay: a unique perspective, strong writing, and an authentic voice. While there is no magic topic that will automatically ensure admission at the college of your dreams, there are experiences everyone has that you can use to find your strongest possible application essays.

But first, consider the word “topic.” It originally meant “subject suitable for debate.” So you don’t actually want to find a topic! Debatable topics rarely make great essays. Forget winning, forget convincing, and forget presenting yourself as somehow right or better than other people.

Admissions officers are people, and people love stories. Your stories are not debatable. You own them. The way to connect with other people is to tell your own story, honestly and authentically, as only you can tell it.

Here are 5 places to find great college essay topics your own life experience:

Everyone eats! And when you read a story about food, most people warm up and start thinking about their own favorite foods and family gatherings. That’s why we start the Story To College Essay in a Day course with Memorable Meal stories.

The story of my junior year in high school could be told through three meals: The first night of Hanukkah, my mother was making latkes when my father sat down and announced, “I have cancer.” We dipped our Pepperidge Farm cookies in chamomile tea the night my mother whispered, “It doesn’t look like Daddy’s getting better. He wants to come home.” And the night before my father died, he propped himself up to eat a bowl of minestrone soup. “Get all the education you can, Carol,” he said as he drifted back to sleep, “Always be learning.”

Look for important conversations you’ve had, sitting around something to munch on.

The first time I ever advised a student on their college application essay, I worked with a quiet student, a guy who disappeared into the back of his classes. He wrote his essay about building a treehouse with his best friend. Jason’s story revealed the many facets of his character: his creativity, his expert planning, his love of nature and building, and the comical things that guys say to one another when they are just hanging out. That was the first time I saw how application essays can bring a student to life and help them outwit the college admissions numbers game.

Like Jason, look for activities where you’ve taken a creative approach or dealt with a challenge as you plan your Common Application essay.

Speaking of challenges: one of the most moving essays I’ve ever read began, “It was the first day of ninth grade. I walked into the cafeteria. All of the black students were sitting on my left, talking to themselves. All of the white students were sitting on my right, talking to themselves. Where was I, with my cappuccino colored skin, where was I to sit for lunch on the first day of ninth grade?”

Every one of us has had those moments. Suddenly, you are in a completely new situation, and need to do something, but you have no idea what. Application essays about challenges reveal how you respond to difficulty to people who are very interested in how you will handle the next four years on your own.

The second Common App question asks, “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?”

It’s not a trick question. In fact, it’s the most complex and nuanced of the Common App prompts. It gives you the chance to reflect and show your ability to learn from your experiences. It takes time to find the type of mistakes you want to talk about, but I assure you: it works.

What difference do you want to make in the world? Where specifically are you going with your life? These questions should inform your entire college application process.

Research on education shows that the strongest predictor of a student’s success is how detailed and specific their picture is of the future. This is the most important work we do, as individuals and communities. Explain your commitments, and you will be the kind of student colleges find immensely attractive.

You may have noticed that these ideas got harder to tell honestly as you worked down the list. When you write about difficult topics—mistakes, learning, making a difference—it is very tempting to start talking in clichés, or to end in a place where you are perfect.

Colleges are not looking for perfect people. They are looking for students who will make a difference in their classrooms, dorms, and communities. Where are the stories that reveal what you bring to the world? Your best essays grow out of those moments.

Download four essays that got students into Cornell, the University of Chicago, and Smith to see how Story To College teaches students to find their unique stories and develop their authentic voices.

At Story To College we teach how to find their most honest and authentic stories and shape them into powerful essays that admissions officers will remember. We provide college application essay courses and admissions courses to help all our students achieve their best results. We are excited to host our first application essay courses in Atlanta this summer, starting May 29th. Find the course that’s right for you at storytocollege.com/courses, or call us to talk to an expert at 646-503-4861.

Carol Barash, PhD, founder and CEO of Story To College and author of Write Out Loud, has taught over 10,000 students around the world–from first-generation college students to the children of bankers and CEOs–how to tell their stories and write essays that win admission and scholarships at selective colleges.

Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 866-789-PREP (7737) or info@applerouth.com.

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I love these ideas-every person could find a seed of an idea within these 4 prompts. They are deceptively simple, but certainly would lead to the most interesting types of essays. Thanks for sharing!

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11 Offbeat College Essay Topics

Let’s take a look at some of the stranger questions those wacky admissions officers have asked.

1. How do you feel about Wednesday? (University of Chicago, 2002)

This topic was inspired by a student. However, it was optional. Students did not have to share their thoughts on Wednesday if they did not feel comfortable doing so.

2. What outrages you? (Wake Forest, 2009)

For most students? Questions like this one. We think admissions officers are looking for a particular answer, like “genocide.” Wake Forest claims they just want to know the real you, but honestly, they’re just being obnoxious.

3. Write a haiku, limerick, or short poem that best represents you. (NYU, 2009)

College essays are stressful

Don’t make me do this.

4. In the year 2050, a movie is being made of your life. Please tell us the name of your movie and briefly summarize the story line. (NYU, 2009)

College admissions officers like to throw in “fun” questions like this to relieve a bit of the stress high school seniors face while applying to college. I don’t think it’s working.

This question is one of several options for prospective Tufts students this year. I’m wondering how most people will interpret this one—I immediately thought of extraterrestrial life. In any case, I’m betting most students will pick a more generic essay that involves less thinking.

6. What is college for? (Hampshire College, 2009)

Small liberal arts colleges like to pose deceptively simple questions like this one. I’d probably come up with something cheesy about forming close personal bonds and broadening myself intellectually.

7. Please describe a daily routine or tradition of yours that may seem ordinary to others but holds special meaning for you. Why is this practice significant to you? (Barnard, 2009)

Yet another essay that lets you sneakily show how unique you are. Colleges want students to really open up, but I wonder how many essays like these have fabricated answers of what the students think will sound good, not reality.

8. Make a bold prediction about something in the year 2020 that no one else has made a bold prediction about. (University of Virginia, 1999)

UVa is another college that offers several interesting optional essays each year. Colleges claim they truly are optional and you won’t be penalized for not doing them”¦

9. Write a short story using one of the following titles: a.) House of Cards, b.)The Poor Sport, c.) Drama at the Prom, d.) Election Night, 2044, e.) The Getaway. (Tufts, 2009)

This is an unusual essay, as it’s asking for something fictional. But I’d imagine any prospective creative writing majors would be quite happy to pen a short story rather than a revealing nonfiction essay.

10. How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be.) (Chicago, 2009)

I had to include another UChicago one—they’re just so odd. This one is also inspired by a student (I’m curious to know the source of the inspiration.) This university likes to use offbeat questions because it draws in a different kind of student—a bit eclectic and intellectual—which is just what Chicago is looking for.

11. You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit Page 217. (UPenn, 2009)

This topic was popularized by UPenn in the ’80s, and many other colleges have adopted it since. I read one (possibly apocryphal) anecdote about a father who called an admissions officer to ask if his son could send his essay in late, as he wouldn’t have time to finish his 300 page autobiography before deadline.

Do you know of any other interesting essay topics? Tell us about them in the comments!

Guests visiting New York City’s Waldorf Astoria hotel in the 1930s enjoyed an amenity that was unheard of at the time: waiters delivering meals directly to their rooms. While the Astoria’s reputation for luxury has endured, room service is no longer exclusive to five-star stays. Roughly 22 percent of the country’s 54,000 hotels [PDF] are willing and able to bring breakfast, lunch, or dinner to people who prefer to eat while splayed out on a large and strange bed.

To get the scoop on what goes into getting food from the kitchen to your floor, Mental Floss spoke with Matt, a hospitality specialist who spent a total of 10 years working in and around room service for a major San Francisco hotel. Matt preferred not to use his last name; since his stories sometimes involved naked people, undercooked chicken, and Oprah, you can understand why. Below, check out a few things you should know before you dig into that tray.


When a room service delivery employee takes a tray from the kitchen to your room, it’s typically covered in a metal lid to retain heat and to prevent other guests from sneezing on it. The higher up you are, the longer it has to travel—and the more that lid traps steam, soaking your food in moisture. “Food sweats in there,” Matt says. “Instead of having crispy, toasted bread, you get wet toast. The longer it stays in there, the worse it gets.” If you want crunchy fries, you’d better be on the first couple of floors.


That lid is a nuisance in other ways. Because it traps heat, it’s effectively cooking your food in the time it takes to get from the chef’s hands to yours. “If you order a steak medium, it will probably be medium well by the time it gets to you,” Matt says. While you can try to outsmart the lid by requesting meat be cooked a notch lower than your preference, it’s not so easy to avoid overcooked fish—which will probably also stink up your room. Instead, stick with burgers, club sandwiches, or salads. According to Matt, it’s hard to mess any of them up.


Just because you see a menu in your room, it doesn’t mean the hotel has a kitchen or chef on-site. To cut costs, more hotels are opting to out-source their room service to local eateries. “It might be ‘presented’ by the hotel, but it’s from a restaurant down the street,” Matt says. Alternately, hotels might try to save money by eliminating an overnight chef and having food pre-prepped so a desk clerk or other employee can just heat it up. That’s more likely if sandwiches or salads are the only thing available after certain hours.


No, not for the reason you’re thinking. Because so many hotel guests are business travelers who are away from home for weeks or months at a time, some of them get tired of eating alone. When that happens, they turn to the first—and maybe only—person who could offer company: the room service waiter. “People are usually traveling alone, so they’ll offer you food,” Matt explains. Sometimes the traveler is a familiar face: According to Matt, he once sat down to eat with Oprah Winfrey, who was eating by herself despite her suite being filled with her own employees. He also says he had a bite with John F. Kennedy Junior, who wanted to finish watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High before heading for his limo.


Busy hotel kitchens aren’t always paying attention to whether the chicken wings they buy in bulk are frozen raw, frozen cooked, or somewhere in between. “Ask for them extra crispy,” Matt says. That way, they’ll be cooked thoroughly regardless of their freezer status. “I recommend that to everyone.”


Breakfast is undoubtedly the busiest time for room service, and those little cards that allow you to check off your menu items the night before are a huge help. “It’s great for everybody involved,” Matt says. “The kitchen can pace themselves and you can get your food on time.”


Yes, guests answer the door barely clothed. No, this is not optimal. “We don’t want to see it,” Matt says. “It’s something we dealt with numerous times.” While it’s likely your waiter will use discretion, any combination of genitalia, drugs, or illicit activity is best kept out of their sight.


That move where you stick your soggy fries outside your door? It can lead to some awkward encounters. Matt says he’s seen other guests stop, examine trays, and then pick up discarded food from them. Other times, people leave unimaginably gross items on the trays. “I’ve found condoms on there. Divorce paperwork. All kinds of things.”


Weird people aside, “We don’t really want it out there,” Matt says. “It stinks.” Instead, dial 0 for the front desk and let them know you’re done eating. They’ll dispatch someone to come and get it.


People pay out the nose for room service, with hotels adding surcharges for “service” and “in-room” dining that can turn a $5 club sandwich into a $15 expense. That’s not great news for guests, but it does mean you don’t need to feel bad about not offering a cash tip. Those service fees usually go straight to the employees who got your food to your room. “I never tip,” Matt says. “Most of the time, the service and delivery charges are given to the waiter or split between the people who answered the phone and pick up the tray. It’s better to leave it all on paper to make sure it gets divided up.”

If you’ve been desperately trying to plan a Batman movie marathon with your friends, you’d better make it happen quickly. As of April 1, Netflix will no longer be streaming Tim Burton’s stylish 1989 reimagining of the Caped Crusader. (They’ll be eliminating Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin, too—though you may not care as much about those latter two efforts.) In order to make room for the dozens of new movies, TV series, and specials making their way to Netflix in April, here’s everything that’s leaving the streaming giant’s library.

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective

Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

John Mulaney: New in Town

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The Men Who Stare at Goats

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The Shawshank Redemption

The Whole Nine Yards

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Happy Tree Friends

The Exorcism of Molly Hartley

Exit Through the Gift Shop

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The Perfect Topic: Right Under Your Nose

College Application Essays: Search For the Perfect Topic

It’s Closer Than You Think

I’ve learned a lot about what makes a great essay topic over the last six years I’ve helped students with their college application essays.

If you’re just starting the process of writing your essay, you might be surprised what I’ve discovered about the best topics:

They are not what you would expect.

1. The best topics do not include what might be considered your best accomplishments or achievements. In fact, the opposite is true.

2. They often are the very thing you think would never make a good topic.

3. Good ones can be right in front of your nose. In fact, they might be on your face.

When I sit down with students, we go through a brainstorming session to try to root out strong topics. We are usually trolling for compelling, real-life stories (which are condensed into anecdotes for these essays.)

Many students start by telling me they don’t have anything interesting to write about themselves, that they are just normal, boring kids from the suburbs or small towns, and that nothing very interesting has ever happened to them.

But year after year, they have always proven themselves dead wrong.

I have yet to meet a student who didn’t end up with a unique topic that worked well for showcasing who they were in a narrative essay.

So I seriously doubt you will be the first one to break the pattern.

During our brainstorming sessions, I walk them back through their lives, and poke around the past in search of moments or “the times” when interesting things happened.

They don’t have to be impressive, or momentous–just interesting, or odd, or unforgettable for whatever reason. Something they might go home and tell their parents about, or mention to a good friend.

“You wouldn’t believe what happened…” you would tell them.

“I found a turtle in the middle of the road.”

“I got stuck up in a tree.”

“I learned how to drive a backhoe.”

“I got lost in the woods.”

“I met my real dad for the first time.”

Every one of these simple stories has the potential to spin into an engaging essay. Really.

If you are fretting over finding that perfect topic, let me take you along for a little topic treasure hunt. First, let’s start with your interests and hobbies.

Are any of them ones people might not expect of you?

How about your after-school or weekend activities? What did you do last Saturday?

How about last summer? Did you work?

I don’t care if it wasn’t an impressive internship or high-paying gig. What did you do?

Even ushering at the local theater, or selling shoes or babysitting can be a topic source–depending on what happened when you were doing those jobs. Remember, you are looking for little interesting moments.

Still nothing? Okay. Let’s move in a little closer.

Do you have car? What kind is it and what’s inside? How about your bedroom? What’s on the walls, or in those little boxes on your shelves? What books are on your shelves?

What do you collect? Anything under the bed? Do you have any scrapbooks or journals–it’s a good time to leaf through those.

Let’s wander out into the garage or basement. Scan the walls, floor and shelves.

Remember that unicycle propped next to the door? What about that Halloween costume you made out of duct tape? What is the piano doing out here?

Don’t forget your backyard. It can contain or spark some interesting memories. Do a lap around your block. Any memories there? What were some of your typical routines in high school?

Did your mom drive you somewhere? Any interesting neighbors?

You can even search your social media closet.

Go through your photos albums on Facebook. Are you keeping a Tumblr blog? What’s your favorite Snapchat subject? With this search, you are looking for yourself, and at yourself, trying to find your unique passions, interests and activities to spark topic ideas.

You might have thought about an idea or two, but quickly dismissed it as too silly or unimpressive.

Don’t be so quick to disregard those ideas. Often “mundane” topics make the best topics. Read more about mundane topics HERE.

Read THIS POST to find more help on finding great topics.

Think you unearthed a strong topic? Check out my Jumpstart Guide to start writing!

Check Out These Related Posts!


You’re so right about the seemingly unimportant topics being interesting to more readers. Last week, I posted about how I’m aging. I received twice as many hits on my blog than before.

I’m struggling with a topic for Prompt #2 for UC schools. Do you think it would be acceptable if I were to write about a memory back in the fifth grade and talk about what it taught me? Or is that too far back?

i’m thinking about writing about my dog who i recently had to put down. As an only child, she was all i had , since i was 3 yrs old. I can’t remember my life before her. i look at growing up with her and losing her as a path from childhood into adulthood,etc…

You could give it a try, but pets and especially losing pets is high on cliche red-flagged topic list. JR

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List of the Most Creative College Essay Answers

The personal statement or essay can be one of the most intimidating parts of a college application. Don’t let anxiety give you writer’s block! Check out these often funny and always creative college essays for a little inspiration to help you get started.

1. Two Worlds

One of the best ways to make yourself stand out in college admissions is to draw on the experiences that make you unique. While your life may not be as unusual as this student’s – he’s a young Jordanian who completed high school in the U.S. – his essay might inspire you to identify the events in your own life that set you apart and offer you a springboard for honest, self-reflective analysis.

2. While the World Sleeps

Using first person can be an effective way to grab your reader’s attention and pull him or her into your story. If you’re a strong creative writer, consider following this student’s example and transform a short story into an engaging college admissions essay.

3. A Mother’s Influence

Many colleges ask applicants to discuss people who had a significant influence on their lives. While ‘my mom’ may not seem like a creative answer, it gave this writer an opportunity to discuss her own past while demonstrating the thoughtfulness and maturity that has led her to genuinely appreciate such an important person in her life.

Find schools that offer these popular programs

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4. Teenagers With Cell Phones

Connecticut College features a large selection of ‘essays that worked’ on their admissions website, including this one that begins with a critique of young people’s overuse of cell phones. The essay’s author uses this creative and, given his own age, surprising statement as an introduction to much more important themes in his life. It’s clever, engaging and serves an underlying informative purpose.

5. What’s the Matter with College?

This is technically an essay about college, rather than for college, which was printed in The New York Times Magazine’s college essay contest. However, this erudite and eloquent piece of writing demonstrates that by critiquing the practices of a system or institution you can actually demonstrate a deeper understanding of and commitment to its core values.

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      • Ph.D. in Literacy: Educational Leadership
      • Ph.D. in Literacy: Special Education
      • Ph.D. in Literacy: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)
      • Ph.D in Literacy: Literacy
  • Master
      • Master of Business Administration in Interdisciplinary Business
      • Master of Business Administration in Taxation
      • Master of Science in Accounting
      • Master of Science in Taxation
      • Master of Science in Library and Information Science
      • Master of Science in Library and Information Science: Academic Librarianship

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8 Herzing University

Minimum eligibility requirements:
  • Must be a high school graduate or have completed GED
School locations:
  • Online Learning
  • Master
      • Master of Business Administration
      • MBA Dual Concentration: HR & Project Mgmt.
      • MBA Dual Concentration: BS Mgmt. & HR
      • MBA Dual Concentration in Business Mgmt & Project Mgmt
      • MBA in Technology Management
      • MBA Dual Concentration in Accounting & Project Management
  • Bachelor
      • BS in Business Administration
      • BS in Entrepreneurial Studies
      • BS in Information Technology Security Technology
      • RN to BSN
      • BS in Health Care Management
      • BS in Accounting
  • Associate
      • AS in Business Administration
      • Associate of Science – Business Studies
      • AS in Health Information Management
      • AS in Healthcare Management
      • AS in Information Technology Administration and Management
      • Associate of Science – Accounting
  • Non-Degree
      • Diploma in Medical Office Administration
      • Diploma in Medical Assisting
      • Diploma in Bookkeeping and Payroll Accounting
      • Certificate in Networking Systems

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9 ECPI University

Minimum eligibility requirements:
  • Must be a high school graduate or have completed GED
School locations:
  • Online Learning
  • Bachelor
      • BS in Electronics Engineering Technology
      • Software Development – Bachelor’s
      • BS in Network Security
      • BS in Mechatronics
  • Associate
      • AS in Electronics Engineering Technology
      • AS in Network Security
  • Non-Degree
      • Web Design & Dev

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10 Purdue University

Minimum eligibility requirements:
  • Applicants must have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
School locations:
  • Online Learning
  • Master
      • Master of Science in Communication
      • Master of Science in Education in Special Education
      • Master of Science in Engineering Technology
      • Master of Science in Hospitality and Tourism Management
      • Master of Public Health
      • Master of Science in Education in Learning Design and Technology
  • Non-Degree
      • Graduate Certificate in Strategic Communication Management

Get Started with Purdue University

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