written by
Kim Phan

Determining a college essay topic: Reflection exercises to try

Advisor Tips Admissions Tips 6 min read
Wooden pencil on blank spiral notebook
Photographer: Kelly Sikkema | Source: Unsplash

In the following article, CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expert Kim Phan (Harvard ‘21) shares tips on how to choose your college essay topic. For more guidance on the college applications process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.


Selecting a topic to write about for your college application essay can seem daunting at first. Where do you start? At some moments, you may be asking yourself, “There are so many things I could write about, which should I choose?” In the next moment, you may be thinking, “I have absolutely nothing to write about!”

The following exercises are designed to help you brainstorm college essay ideas and find topics that resonate for you. By practicing mindfulness and reflection, you can better understand what parts of your present, past, and future matter the most to you.

Determining a College Essay Topic — Strategy #1: Daily Journaling

Daily journaling can help you gain more awareness of your thoughts while also creating a record of your ideas. Over time, you can identify trends and common threads in your thinking that you may want to explore in an essay. To practice daily journaling, set aside at least five minutes every day to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How do you feel today?
  2. What was one thing that happened today that made you feel happy? Proud? Excited?
  3. What is one thing you could have done differently today?
  4. Who have you interacted with today? In what capacity and circumstances?
  5. What was one new thing that you learned today?

Strategy #2: Free-Writing

Journaling is not for everyone. If you struggle to maintain a journaling routine, free-writing can allow you to reflect and generate ideas for a college essay. Instead of—or in addition to—daily journaling, set aside a few moments every week to sit down and think about the questions below. Try to give yourself at least an hour to really contemplate and write down all of your thoughts, uninhibited by any worry about how the sentences sound, their grammatical correctness, or whether or not you're making sense.

Here are three sets of broad prompts that you might find helpful. Remember, these are all exercises to get the juices flowing and bring to light some potential topics. Note that the first set of these questions prompt you to both reflect on the past and think about how your past experiences have influenced your thoughts and perspectives in the present moment.

  1. What challenges have you overcome in your life?
  2. What’s your favorite memory? Least favorite memory?
  3. Who has been or is currently your greatest role model?
  4. What did you want to be (as a profession) when you were a young child? How did that change?
  5. What’s a new skill you’ve learned recently, either personally or professionally?
  6. What has allowed you to accomplish as much as you have in life?
  7. Write a letter to a childhood friend.
  8. What was your favorite pastime as a child? How did you play and have fun?
  9. What is your proudest accomplishment?
  10. Who has impacted your life the most? How has your relationship with this person changed over time?

This second set of questions prompts you to think more deeply about yourself in the present. These can operate as a gateway to considering your current interests, preferences, perspectives, and characteristics, and how they may have developed throughout your life.

  1. If you could have dinner with anyone–dead or alive–who would it be and what would you ask them?
  2. If someone else described you, what do you think they would say?
  3. If you had five minutes to address the whole world, what would you say?
  4. What is something you can do for hours and still feel engaged and interested?
  5. How do you handle conflict?
  6. What are the greatest characteristics that you believe you bring into the world?
  7. If you could teach a class on any topic, what topic would you choose?
  8. What are you most grateful for in your life?
  9. What do you believe is the most important quality in a friend?
  10. What/who are your favorite artists, genres, or influencers?

Finally, this third set of questions prompts you to think about the future. This can particularly set your mind to consider the role you would like college to play in your life and how you want to grow and change within your undergraduate career.

  1. Where do you see yourself five years from now? Ten years?
  2. What are your biggest challenges right now and how do you want to overcome them?
  3. If you could be or do anything you wanted, what would you be or do?
  4. When you’re telling your grandkids about your life, what do you want to tell them about?
  5. What would you do if you won the lottery tomorrow?

Strategy #3: Investigating Your Environment and Surroundings

Photographer: Jakob Owens | Source: Unsplash

Apart from journaling, simply investigating your environment and surroundings can inspire you to write a meaningful essay.

Try the following exercise: Take a walk around your house and look at old documents or items in various spaces, such as your childhood bedroom or your garage. What memories do these objects hold, and what significance do they have in your life?

Oftentimes, the artifacts that exist immediately around us can act as reminders of stories in the past and sources of inspiration. A set of used crayons, for instance, might set you off onto memory lane and prompt recollections about your love for drawing as a child, how you used to spend weekday afternoons doodling in the kitchen with your grandmother, or how you often colored your own personalized cards to give to friends and family during the holidays.

Strategy #4: Practice Mindfulness

Finally, a great way to brainstorm potential essay topics is to practice mindfulness.

If you don’t have experience with meditation or are unsure of what mindfulness consists of, try this: For a few moments throughout your day, unplug from all of your electronic devices and simply allow yourself to be with your own thoughts. Perhaps you just sit in your chair for five silent minutes or go on a ten minute walk without any stimuli.

Throughout this time, be vigilant of and focus your attention towards your own thoughts. For instance, if you’re on your walk around the neighborhood, take notice of how you perceive your surroundings: What do you see? What stands out to you in your environment or about your thoughts in response to your environment? What is your attention drawn to and what might these observations reveal about your personality, interests, or values?

Our daily lives can give us great insight into ourselves and what matters to us while also allowing us to reflect upon how our past experiences have shaped how we see the world in the present. Take a moment to be vigilant about the thoughts that enter your head. You may find that some interesting patterns arise.

Determining a College Essay Topic: Final Thoughts

The essay brainstorming process looks different for everyone. Some processes are more effective for one person than for another. So, the next time you feel the need for ideas or inspiration, try out some of these exercises! They’ll get your mind flowing and might point you in directions you don’t expect.


This informational essay was written by Kim Phan, Harvard University ‘21. If you want to get help with your college applications from Kim or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.

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