The essay section of your college application can seem pretty intense, especially after filling in the easy stuff like your name, address, and test scores. Where do you begin? What should it sound like? Who can you ask for help? We asked the experts for some answers.
“Students say, ‘I don’t have anything to write about.’ Well, they do. They just don’t know where to look,” says Estelle Rankin, co-author of the book McGraw Hill’s Writing an Outstanding College Application Essay and an academic consultant for the College Board. She tells the story of one student who was totally convinced she had nothing interesting or worthwhile in her life to write about. But the student had been a dancer since she was three years old, and when she stopped to think about what was most important to her, she came up with this: tap, click, dash! She began her application essay with those words, the sounds of tap dancing, introducing her readers to her experience as a dancer, choreographer, instructor, and volunteer. “Find something small and unique,” Rankin says. “Give us some insight as to what’s important to you,” whether it’s your passion for zombie movies or the way you feel the first day of baseball season. Bottom line? Everybody’s got something!
A good way to start is to read through all the possible application essay questions, then go with the one that jumps out at you first. Focus on that prompt and forget about the others. (Some schools allow you to choose your own topic, but you can still follow these steps to generate ideas.) Try “interviewing” yourself to find the right life experience to pursue, suggests Rankin. Jot down your thoughts, and look for one particular thing or incident that will grab the reader’s attention—that’s your opening.
There are also plenty of suggestions for what not to write about, like why your Mom/Dad/sibling/coach/pastor is important to you. Why? Because certain subjects are commonplace and overused, and you want your application essay to stand out. That being said, if the need to address one of those topics is strong enough, or if you have an extremely unique experience, you should trust your instincts.
“I believe that even a trite or overused genre can have a new life if the student writes the essay from a different angle,” says Erika Jeffers, Senior Admission Counselor at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. “When using that experience in an admissions essay, students should broaden their scope and try to capture a moment that is rarely visible. Make it personal.”
From beginning to end
There is no tried-and-true formula for writing the perfect application essay, but there is one rule that all students should follow in their essays: be true to yourself. “They have to learn to trust themselves as a resource,” says Rankin. “They have the information within them, and they should go with that.” Basically, talk about what you know. If you are naturally funny, infuse some humor into your essay. If a fictional character has had a greater impact on your life than any real person, write about that character. Be genuine, and your personality will shine through the words on the page.
But before admission counselors can get to know you, the essay needs to grab their attention, drawing them into your story. “Find a clever opening,” says Rankin. “Make the reader want to meet you.” Some of her suggestions include dropping readers into the middle of a dialogue, quoting a favorite song, or issuing a bold statement. However, all of these openings hinge on your ability to relate them to the topic. “Focus on something important, something that gave you insight,” she says, and make sure you stick to it. Take that single idea and fill it out with details, personality, and passion.
You also need to remember that this is not an essay for your English class. It does not need to sound academic; the tone can be conversational or serious or somewhere in between. “Depending on the topic of the essay, it could go either way and either tone is acceptable,” says Jeffers. “Again, it’s about the student remaining true to themselves.” Also unlike academic essays, you do not necessarily need to provide a fully formed conclusion. Instead, end the essay with a strong closing statement. It can be ironic, humorous, or poignant—it just needs to lead back to the topic.
Finally, make sure you truly understand the application essay prompt. Read (and reread) it carefully. Why? Because you need to understand the question to answer it correctly! This may sound obvious, but many students write eloquent application essays that completely miss the mark, bypassing what the prompt was actually asking. For instance, “write about someone who has influenced you” does not mean you are to write that person’s biography. The essay is still about you.
Things to avoid
Not surprisingly, mistakes anywhere on your application hurt your chances of getting in. But they can be avoided by proofreading every page, particularly the essay. Rest assured, you’re going to make mistakes in your essay, but that’s what first, second, and third drafts are for. “Sometimes I don’t think students even take the time to go back and reread their writing,” says Ellen Furnari, Admission Counselor at Wells College in Aurora, New York. “Nothing kills a mood like reading a good essay and finding a horrible spelling mistake or a misplaced comma!”
Common errors include simple grammar mistakes, like the misuse of homonyms, as well as a lack of attention to detail. For example, if you’re going to send the same essay to multiple schools, edit to make sure any reference to College X doesn’t appear in the copy you send to University Y. “I have come across several admission essays which state the reasons why that student thinks they will be a great fit for another college,” says Jeffers.
Also, avoid using a thesaurus to fill your application essay with big, “smart-sounding” words. It’s easy to misuse those words, and that’s an immediate red flag to admission counselors. They also know when they’re reading an essay that has been written by someone else, like your parents or English teacher. However, it is okay to have your parents, teachers, or guidance counselor edit your essay. In fact, you should ask them, your siblings, your friends—anyone who knows you well—to read it before you send in the final copy. “The more eyes that see the essay the better,” says Jeffers. But, before passing it on to a trusted proofreader, read the essay aloud; it’s often easier to hear awkward phrasing than see it.
“Your essay should be a chance to let your writing skills shine,” says Furnari, so don’t waste the opportunity! Just remember that even the most ordinary topic can be approached in an extraordinary way. She recalls an application essay that described the student’s love of physics through his love of sledding as a child. Simple and sincere, it was the perfect window into that student’s life. “Ultimately, it’s not what you write about—it’s how you write it that’s important.”
What not to write
Think twice before using any of the following topics, say these experts. They are overused, and your essay may become lost in the crowd. Remember to write about something that is unique to you and no one else.
- The Dictionary Essay This essay opens with a word, followed by the applicant describing the word’s significance, and it always sounds contrived.
- Parents Writing about how admirable your parents are is hard to do without sounding generic.
- Sports Admission counselors have read every sport disaster and/or victory story out there. They also know you loved your coach.
- The Recipe “Two cups enthusiasm, one teaspoon determination, and a dash of dreams make the perfect student.” This is also the recipe for a boring essay.
- Controversies The death penalty, war, politics, etc.: people will always disagree about these things; plus, it’s easy to sound intolerant when discussing them.
- Tragedies Whether about personal or social tragedies, these essays make it hard for admission counselors to be objective, and they actually tend to reveal very little about the applicant.
- The Big Question In this essay, students attempt to answer a broad, profound, but ultimately impossible question, like “what is the meaning of life?”
- Shameless Groveling Don’t use your essay to applaud the school you’re applying to, which includes criticizing other colleges to make a comparison.
Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »
essay examplescollege admission essayshow tobrainstormingapplicationsapplication essaysadmissionadmission advice
More on CollegeXpress
Describe your whereabouts on the evening of the 18th.
Okay, this isn’t CSI, and you’re not under investigation, so this isn’t the type of description we’ll be learning about in this post.
Describe your summer vacation.
You’re not in third grade, either so no one is going to ask you to write a paper describing your family’s summer vacation (I hope!).
Write a 750 word essay describing a place, an object, an experience, or a process. Be creative!
Now this sounds like something you might be asked to write. Describing something sounds easy enough, right? But there are guidelines you should follow when writing a descriptive essay.
Being creative and descriptive can sometimes be a challenge. I’m sure you don’t want to write the seventh incarnation of your summer vacation essay, but you might be struggling to think of something a bit more original.
If you’re feeling less than creative and need some inspiration, then you’ve found the right place, as this post includes 20 fascinating and unusual descriptive essay topics.
Writing a Descriptive Essay: What You Need to Know
Yes, you’ll need to include descriptions in a descriptive essay, but there’s more to it than that.
Here are three key points should know before you write your paper.
Know why you’re writing the essay
Like any assignment, a descriptive essay has a specific purpose.
Is your purpose to simply describe something, or are you supposed include your feelings and comments about something? Not sure how to include either of these? Read more about objective and subjective description.
Know what details to include
Description is obviously important in a descriptive essay but don’t include details simply for the sake of including them. These unnecessary details slow down your writing and bog down your readers.
Here’s an example that includes too many unnecessary details.
I walked up the three steps on my front porch, put my key in my newly painted front door, and opened it casually. My jaw dropped to the floor when I opened the door. Eight of my best friends were packed tightly like sardines in the corner, each holding colorful Happy Birthday signs. They jumped out and yelled “Surprise! Happy Birthday!” as I walked in the room.
This paragraph provides too many irrelevant details. Do readers really need to know how many steps are on your front porch, or do they need to know your door was freshly painted? Of course not. These details aren’t important to your description of this event, so leave them out.
Warning: Avoid cliches! Expressions, such as “my jaw dropped to the floor” and “packed like sardines” are overused and not original or creative.
Know (and use) your senses
No, this doesn’t refer to common sense (though I do recommend you always use common sense). Here, senses literally refers to your 5 senses: sight, taste, touch, hearing, and smell.
It’s easy to include sight in description, but don’t forget the other senses. Including the other senses creates more vivid imagery. It will bring your descriptions to life and help your readers imagine what you’re describing.
Think about describing a bakery. Through your description, you can show readers an image of the physical space and describe the donuts, but if you can capture the sweet aroma of baked goods wafting through the air, you’ll create a much more effective description.
Now that you’re hungry for donuts, and now that you have a better understanding of how to write a descriptive essay, the fact remains that you still need something to write about.
Here are 20 topics to help spark your creativity.
20 Fascinating and Unusual Descriptive Essay Topics
Remember, you want to avoid topics that you’ve written about since the third grade and boring topics that are too obvious.
Try one of these topics, instead!
5 Fascinating and Unusual Descriptive Essay Topics about Places
Sure, you could describe your bedroom, your dorm room, or even a classroom, but that’s not very original, so write about something a little more unusual, like one of these 5 places.
- A construction site: Think of the sounds of machinery and smells of construction materials. You might even be able to describe conversations between workers.
- A waiting room: Consider the mood of the room and how people interact. How do strangers interact when placed in a quiet room together?
- A gas station restroom: I hate to ask, but is it possible to describe how this room might smell?
- A cemetery at dusk: The time of year, the weather, and the light will be important in your description of a cemetery. Is the mood somber or creepy?
- A line at an amusement park ride: Think about how the temperature and the length of the line might play an important role in your description. Does a 90 degree day and a 30 minute wait change the mood of the people in line?
5 Fascinating and Unusual Descriptive Essay Topics about Objects
Your first thought might be to describe your television, your couch, or anything else immediately in front of you, but really, how fascinating can a couch be? Why not write about something a bit more interesting, like one of these topics.
- The contents of your purse or wallet: Describe what the items look like, but also describe their importance or significance. Do you carry any sentimental items?
- A painting or picture: Describe the subject of the painting or photograph. Do the background images have any significance? What is the history behind the painting or picture?
- Your favorite toy from childhood: Can you describe to readers why the toy was your favorite? What is the toy made of? Is it soft and cuddly or made of plastic or steel?
- The street in front of your home: Paint a clear picture for your readers by describing the street itself, what surrounds the street, and who uses the street? What noises are associated with the street? Are there any distinctive smells or sights?
- A tattoo: Colors, lines, and concept will play an important role in describing a tattoo. If known, you might also include a description of the tattoo’s meaning.
5 Fascinating and Unusual Descriptive Essay Topics about Experiences
You’ve likely graduated from kindergarten, middle school, and maybe even high school. You might be tempted to write about this experience, but unless it was truly unique, consider skipping those boring ideas and go with a more unusual topic like one of the five listed here.
- A frightening, funny, or embarrassing subway ride: Describe how frightened you were when you were trapped in a dark subway car for hours. Perhaps describe how embarrassed you felt when you broke the heel of your shoe running to catch the train. Or, describe how a subway performer changed your day.
- Feeling alone in a room–not knowing anyone at the party, in a new school, or in a class: Think about the emotions you felt. How can you describe this to others so they, too, feel how you felt in that instant? Did the shape of the room or placement of the people contribute to your feelings?
- A visit to an emergency room: Describe the sounds of doctors, patients, and medical devices to your readers. Describe your thoughts and feelings. Consider how you might describe the chaos or calm in the ER at any given time.
- Getting lost in a strange new place (a city or even on your campus): Combine the panic you might feel along with a clear description of the sights and sounds around you to help readers understand your emotions and see your surroundings.
- Meeting up with a long-lost friend (or ex-boyfriend/girlfriend): Consider how you might describe the person. Does he or she look different than when you last met? How did you feel when you first saw your friend or ex? Does the place where you met play a role in your description?
5 Fascinating and Unusual Descriptive Essay Topics about Processes
Yes, making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich might be considered a process, but these types of how-to processes read more like directions, rather than a description of a process. Choose a topic (like one listed below) that allows for more discussion and description.
- How to survive your first year of college: Think about all of your experiences and try to narrow them down to a few key points that college students must know in order to survive. You might describe the best ways to study, how to meet new people, how to avoid feeling homesick, or even how to avoid the freshman 15.
- How to train for a marathon: This description not only involves the physical aspect, but also involves the mental aspects of training. Describe how you feel during each.
- How to study for an exam: Describe a few important study strategies. Consider how you learn best and how you might help others follow your same techniques.
- How to break up with your boyfriend/girlfriend: Is it ever okay to break up on Facebook, Twitter, or via text? What should you say to your soon-to-be ex?
- How to protect your privacy online: Describe a few key steps anyone can use to protect his or her privacy. Look for simple, low-cost solutions anyone can try.
From Descriptive Topic to Descriptive Essay
After you’ve chosen from the many possible descriptive essay topics for your paper, remember: know why you’re writing the essay, know what details to include, and use your 5 senses.
With these three tips in mind, it will be easy to turn your fascinating and unusual topic into a superb essay.
If you’re looking for extra help turning descriptive essay topics into an essay, here are a few resources to set you on the right path.
For help with basic essay structure, read How to Write a 5-Paragraph Essay Outline.
Read more tips on structuring your descriptive essay here.
Do you remember when teachers told you to show, not tell? They’re right! Click here to learn more about using this strategy in your own descriptive essay.
If you’ve written a killer descriptive essay but just can’t decide how to end it, read 12 Essay Conclusion Examples to Help You Finish Strong and How to Write a Killer Essay Conclusion.
When you’ve finished your essay, don’t forget to have one of our editors review your paper.
Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.