Topic of Your Choice: Common Application Essay Tips

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The 2020-21 Common Application gives you unlimited options for your essay thanks to the "Topic of Your Choice" option. This is the most popular of all essay options, and in last year's admissions cycle it was used by 24.1% of all essay writers. The guidelines are deceptively simple:

Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

With the addition of this prompt, you now have no restrictions on the topic you explore in your essay. Having so much freedom can be liberating, but it can also be a bit overwhelming to be confronted with unlimited possibilities. The tips below can help guide you if you choose to respond to the "topic of your choice" option:

Make Sure Options 1 Through 6 Aren't Appropriate

We've rarely seen an admissions essay that doesn't fit into one of the first six Common Application essay options. Those prompts already provide you with an incredible amount of latitude; you can write about your interests, an obstacle in your life, a problem you've solved, a time of personal growth, or an idea that captivates you. It's hard to imagine many topics that don't fit into any of those broad categories. That said, if you feel your essay fits best under option #7, don't hesitate to go for it. In truth, it probably doesn't matter much if you write your essay under option #7 when it could fit elsewhere (unless the fit with another option is blatantly obvious); it's the quality of the essay that most matters. No one is going to be rejected by a college for using option #7 when option #1 would have also worked.

Don't Try Too Hard To Be Clever

Some students make the mistake of assuming that "Topic of Your Choice" means that they can write about anything. Keep in mind that the admissions officers take the essay seriously, so you should too. This doesn't mean you can't be humorous, but you do need to make sure your essay has substance. If your essay focuses more on a good laugh than on revealing why you'd make a good college student, you should rethink your approach. If a college is requesting an essay, it is because the school has holistic admissions. In other words, the college will evaluate you as a whole person, not a mere matrix of grades and test score data. Make sure your essay gives the admissions folks a more complete picture of who you are.

Make Sure Your Essay Is An Essay

Every now and then a budding creative writer decides to submit a poem, play or other creative work for essay option #7. Don't do it. The Common Application allows for supplemental materials, so you should include your creative work there. The essay should be an essay; non-fiction prose that explores a topic and reveals something about you.

Reveal Yourself in Your Essay

Any topic is a possibility for option #7, but you want to make sure your writing fulfills the purpose of the admissions essay. The college admissions folks are looking for evidence that you'll make a good campus citizen. Your essay should reveal your character, values, personality, beliefs and (if appropriate) sense of humor. You want your reader to end your essay thinking, "Yes, this is someone who I want to live in my community."

Be Careful if Submitting an Essay "You've Already Written"

Prompt #7 gives you the option of submitting an essay "you've already written." If you have an appropriate essay, great. Don't hesitate to use it. However, the essay does need to be appropriate for the task at hand. That "A+" essay you wrote on Shakespeare's Hamlet is not a good choice for the Common Application, nor is your AP Biology lab report or Global History research paper. The Common Application essay is a personal statement. At its heart, the essay needs to be about you. It needs to reveal your passions, your approach to challenges, your personality, what it is that makes you tick. Most likely, that amazing paper you wrote for a class does not fulfill this purpose. Your grades and letters of recommendation reveal your success at writing essays for classes. The Common Application essay serves a different purpose.

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Grove, Allen. "Topic of Your Choice: Common Application Essay Tips." ThoughtCo, Dec. 9, 2020, Grove, Allen. (2020, December 9). Topic of Your Choice: Common Application Essay Tips. Retrieved from Grove, Allen. "Topic of Your Choice: Common Application Essay Tips." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).