In Search Of The Best College Essay Topic Ever

07/21/2016 01:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

If I could declare July, "National College Essay Topic Month," I would. Right now, there are millions of rising high school seniors wondering what they should write their college essay about. It's a nerve-wracking time for them, and it shows.

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Just this week at my kids' swim meet, I had a swimmer from another team come up and pitch me his essay topic. When I went to the mall to pick something up, a former student of mine working retail for the summer asked me what I thought of her essay idea. And, I have an inbox full of emails from students asking me the same thing: Is my essay topic good enough? Students understand intuitively that their college essay topic is just as important as how well-written it is.

When students are having trouble finding the perfect college essay topic, I have a series of questions I like to ask to get them started. They are often questions they know the answers to, but haven't thought about them enough to realize their importance. One of the best things about working with high school students is that they are a humble group; they don't realize the depth of their individual stories. My job is to tease the stories out of them one question at a time.

I still think like an admissions officer. I am innately curious about people's backgrounds and daily lives, and how that shapes who they are and what they accomplish. This information is rarely shared in detail in a college application, and that's usually the missing link for a competitive applicant.

The first thing I do in a brainstorming session with a student is have them tell me about both sides of their family, how their parents met, and how they ended up living where they do - both in terms of location and living environment. What ensues are usually elaborate stories of change, heartbreak, love, culture, and daily routines that make me want to root for them. And if a student only has one side of the family to talk about, that in and of itself is ripe for ideas.

This open-ended questioning doesn't always immediately lead a student to the perfect topic. But it gets them thinking about themselves in ways they haven't explored. This exercise leads them to consider their own story.

I then ask them questions with each nugget of information they share:

-You were born in Uganda? How did you end up here?

-Wait, you live on a farm? What's that like?

-You mean you take three forms of transportation every day just to get to school?

-Your parents work the night shift. What does that mean for you and your younger siblings?

It's these follow-up questions that often lead to the perfect essay topic. Students typically would have never thought of these ideas as anything more than "the usual" parts of their daily life and identity. But in these ideas lie "the good, the bad, and the silver lining" of their lives. And, every single essay that has moved me personally and professionally over the years, had this very quality woven throughout the essay. The best essay topics reveal the imperfections of life, and therein lies the beauty of the story.

So, if you think you've come across the ideal essay topic for your college applications, ask these two very important questions BEFORE you start writing a draft:

1. Is the topic something that is hidden beneath the surface? In other words, is it something that sums you up without already being reflected in the application already? The best essays transcend your application when you reveal something else about who you are. Try to avoid topics like extracurricular activities which will already be listed in their own section on the application.

2. Does the topic allow you to write about "the good, the bad (just a little), and the silver lining" of something in your life? A transcendental essay imparts a little bit of each of these qualities wrapped up in 650 words.

While there are students who already think they've got the ultimate topic in mind or may have the perfect essay written, there are many more still brainstorming right now. It's not too late. Between vacations, sports practice, and hours working a summer job, let there be moments of self-reflection. This inevitably leads to a deeper understanding of yourself and a moving essay that couldn't have been written by anyone else but you.