Creative College Application Essay Prompts

So the regular decision application deadline is looming and you still haven’t landed on a topic for your Common Application essay /Coalition Application essay. Your parents are thinking you may never get it done, and you’re beginning to wonder too.

But fear not! It’s not difficult to come up with a topic, at least once you know what admissions officers are looking for.

Colleges are looking for evidence of maturity and likeability in application essays

In general, colleges want to know that you can handle the many pressures that you’ll face at college, and they want to know that you’ll be an asset to the community. Specifically, college admissions officers are looking for evidence of

  1. College admissions officers want to make sure that you will thrive when faced with the independence of college life and work.
  2. College admissions officers want to make sure that they want to live with you for four years.

What shows maturity? Often, it’s the insight about yourself that you show through your willingness to share some vulnerabilities or defining experiences. Creative problem solving, in other words, the ability to be flexible in the face of challenges, also shows maturity.

What shows likeability? Often, wit especially self-effacing kind. Creativity? Yes. Intellectual curiosity? Yup. Empathy? You bet.

In other words, a great topic, one that is going to market you successfully and show your maturity and likeability, is based in an event from your past that you can narrate, draw conclusions from, explain the effect of, and write about with a bit of verve and, hopefully, wit.

To find such a topic, make a list of moments in your life when things didn’t go as expected. Try asking yourself these questions:

 – When were you out of your comfort zone? What happened? What did you do?

 – Think of a moment in your life where you had to decide between taking a risk or playing it safe. Which choice did you make? What was the outcome of your choice? How did you deal with the consequences of your decision?

 – If you were given the ability to change one moment in your life, would you do so? Why or why not? If so, what moment would you change and why?

 – What do you consider to be the best advice you ever received? Who gave you that advice and did you follow that advice or not?

 – What was the most embarrassing moment of your life? Explain what you learned from that experience and how it has made you a more thoughtful person today.

 – Think about a dilemma you’ve faced. Specifically, think about a time when you didn’t know what the right thing was to do. What was the dilemma? What did you do? How have you thought about your choice since?

If you’re still stuck, here are some quirkier ideas that might help you get started on your essay:

 – Consider why you love your intended major. Then write your essay as a love letter to your intended major.

 – Think about a song/piece of music that reflects who you are and write about why the admissions officers should listen to that piece of music while reading your application essay.

 – If you were a legendary or mythic character, who would it be? Prometheus? Medusa? Why?

 – Think about a skill you have (useless or useful) and what it says about you.

 – Pick a woman in history or fiction to converse with for an hour and explain your choice. What would you talk about?

 – Think about some of your creative pranks. Write an essay describing one and explaining what it says about you.

 – If you could be any animal which would you choose? Why?

 – If you were given the ability to travel back in time to any period in history, where would you head to and why?

If you’re still not certain about a topic, you might want to see if you can draw inspiration from University of Chicago’s  wonderfully quirky and challenging supplemental prompts. Two of my recent favorites include:

  • A hot dog might be a sandwich, and cereal might be a soup, but is a ______ a ______?
  • Little pigs, French hens, a family of bears. Blind mice, musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and describe why and how they fit together.

When deciding on a topic for your college admission essay, remember that there is no right way or wrong way. Just make sure that the topic you choose will provide you with an opportunity to show off your maturity and likeability. Have fun with it! Take risks!


Still can’t find a topic for your Common App essay? Call me!

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world via Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, phone, and Google docs to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized curriculum for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and college aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and win admission to the Ivy League and other competitive colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.