Two Surprising College Essay Ideas that WORKED

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Female student writing in front of her laptop

Two Surprising College Essay Ideas that WORKED

College essays are an often-dreaded part of the application process for many reasons. Some students find the pressure of open-ended questions stressful while others aren’t confident in their writing chops. In an effort to write the best college essay possible, it’s important to first get a better understanding of their purpose. All Ivy League colleges – and most universities in the country for that matter – require applicants to complete a list of essay prompts in order to get a better understanding of students. While the standard application covers more static information about you, these college essay ideas that worked are personal and detailed.

Female student writing on a sofa.

In order to wow admissions staff and increase your chances of getting admitted to the university of your choice, you’ll need to write stellar college essays. This means understanding the prompts correctly, choosing the right topics, writing about them successfully, and conveying what’s unique about you. Of course, this is all easier said than done. And, with so much riding on these essays, many students don’t even know where to begin. Which topics are the most effective? Am I being too personal or not personal enough? What kind of stories are colleges looking for?

All of these questions – and many, many more – will most likely be floating around in your head as you prepare to complete your college essays. As a professional admissions coach, AdmissionSight knows exactly what admissions staff are looking for in these essay responses. We’ve seen the good, the bad, the ugly, and the exceptional in this area. Here, we’ll take a look at surprising college essay ideas that worked for students and some reasons why we like them so much to help you reduce application-related stress. These essay topic ideas can be used as a launching point to inspire your writing.

Two college essay ideas that worked

Before we dive into some tips for making your college essays stand out, let’s take a look at some successful college essay examples.


My eyes widen. “It’s all Greek to me,” I whisper under my breath. Sure enough, The Apology by Plato is in Greek.

My eyes dart across the page, looking for a word or phrase to grasp onto. Unable to find a familiar word, I take a deep breath. The Greek letters jumble into incoherent words and I am left to the mercy of an incomplete translation. I shake my head, unsure of what to do next. My eyes drag from one word to another, heavy with defeat. Upon the sixth word, however, they stop. My initial scan of the text left me negligent of a simple word meaning “number.” Passion overwhelms my senses. “Number” becomes the most important word of the clause, providing context to the adjacent words. I turn to the lexicon and search for words that fit into a coherent translation. With the last word, I feel satisfaction and pride. The whirlwind of emotions repeats Confusion, passion, satisfaction. Before the bell rings, I finish translating 20 lines of The Apology.

I was fifteen when I successfully translated The Apologyand soon after, I fell in love with translation. Through translation, I learned the value of perseverance and hard work; it even helped me convey ideas in different mediums such as figure skating.

On a bright January morning, the cold wind slapped against my face, chastising me for falling again. I stood up and brushed thin sheets of ice off of my knees. A shock of pain went through my body as I lightly touched a new bruise. I contemplated defeat. In the midst of choreographing my next program, I speculated on the translation of music into skating. I yearned to convey every pitch and emotion in visual performance, so I listened to Chopin once again and closed my eyes. Upon hearing the cadenza, I went back on the ice, picked up speed and turned my body. Leaping from the ground, I wrapped my arms around my torso and spun one, two, three times. My body descended and a sharp skid sounded the air. I smiled, waiting in anticipation for the next jump. That day, I translated every note into a jump until my body understood the music.

Translation has become my frame for viewing life and now I am using it to translate passion into activism.

In July 2018, part of my activism was conservation-focused. Recognized as a Discovery Guide Leader, I was chosen to lead a Mugwort removal cleanup at Meadow Lake. The tedious logistical process of scheduling a time, obtaining a permit, and learning the proper removal process made July a strenuous month. Still seeking to translate my plan into action, I persevered with the importance of conservation in mind.

Finally, the day came. Twenty pairs of eyes watched me as I pointed out Mugwort along the shore. The hot sun hit my back as I pushed the shovel deeper into the soil. The ground released its hold on the plant and I picked it up by the stem. I walked throughout the store and helped each person learn the proper removal technique. Together we were able to eliminate 4.2 pounds of Mugwort. I was proud of everyone and myself. I learned the benefits of conservation, translated that knowledge into a productive plan to remove an invasive species, and spread that knowledge by leading my eager group of volunteers.

Despite translating The Apology by Plato years ago, the lessons I learned from translation continue to thrive in my actions today. Just as I translated texts from Greek to English, I will convert more songs into programs, and I will change more plans into action. Although there are still many things in the world that is all Greek to me, I strive to learn and translate my knowledge into action that creates change.

Why it works:

  • The topic of this essay was unique and demonstrates how her excitement for translation is a vehicle for viewing her life’s values
  • The applicant focused on her interests in the Greek language, figure skating, and conversation by tying together a coherent theme.
  • The applicant demonstrates her intellectual curiosity, leadership, and teamwork by using translation as a metaphor for her values
  • It was authentic, honest, and highly introspective as we gain insight into how her thoughts influence her future aspirations

Chess, An Airplane Ticket, and A Toyota Camry

The first time I saw a chessboard, I stood—an unsmiling first-grader—spellbound by the curious horses and castles that the wizened fifth-graders shuffled confidently in my school cafeteria. Beneath the ornate wood surface of those pieces, I discovered a uniquely layered beauty.

My parents had split two years earlier. I remember Dad buying us two movie tickets to the new Spider-Man and a week later buying himself a plane ticket to China. Our apartment devolved from a cozy, lively home into a small, subdued residence. Mom mustered a brave smile and promised that Dad was just going back to visit his family.

There’s a pervasive yet hushed stigma surrounding divorce in Asian culture. Growing up, I struggled to comprehend why none of my Asian friends had single parents like myself. I would get into fights at school. When I invariably drew the ire of my teachers, Mom would drive down to school, hug me reassuringly, and take me to her office where I spent the remainder of the day. One of those evenings, I waited near her cubicle coloring carelessly on lily-white printer-paper while she typed diligently at her desktop. Suddenly, the familiar click-clack of the typing died, and I heard stuttered sobs sway the air. I froze, confused: I didn’t know Mom could cry. Mom was strong; she had warm, kind hands and she knew why the sky was blue and why Dad was visiting Grandpa and Grandma for so long. But now Mom sat shattered, back hunched over a shoddy wooden desk, warm hands clutching a damp face. I was scared so I cried with her.

Chess became an elaborate escape for me. During sleepless nights, I readily replaced opaque stares at the apartment ceiling with enchanting chess puzzles lit by a gentle desk light. When I sat at the chessboard, the deafening external din—my ineffable worries, Mom’s inexplicable tears, the fragile stillness of our quiet apartment—faded softly into the background. I crossed into the black-and-white jungle, that beautiful mosaic of sixty-four checkered squares, a diverse biosphere inhabited by my loyal pawns, gallant knights, and fearless rooks. And I, the king, was responsible for their livelihood, defending my kingdom against the opponent. Chess gave me a sense of control during a time when I felt I had none.

In my first year, I rose to the top of my elementary school club, and near the close of the school semester, I placed fourth at the national K-1 championships in Nashville, Tennessee. I remember the announcer calling my name and my six-year-old self bouncing up the stage to claim a comically colossal trophy. I remember Mom smiling because I was happy, and I was happy because she was smiling.

Through the years, my passion for the game strengthened as I accumulated more state championships and national titles. Chess became a staple in my life—it sharpened my critical thinking skills, and it trained me to creatively break down seemingly difficult situations. Although I had turned to chess to escape my problems, the black-and-white jungle slowly cajoled me to face them. Last year, I bought my own plane ticket to China and visited my father. We talked—laughed even—and he challenged me to a chess match. I let him win, but he doesn’t know that. He said he was proud of me. I didn’t know that.

Above all, chess taught me the power of resilience. Last summer, I qualified for the All-American team just two days before the deadline, successfully pulling together a month’s worth of training. Mom met me at the train station when I returned. Nearly a decade had passed since that first national championship in Tennessee, but her smile looked the same. As I drifted to sleep on the drive homeward, I embraced the elusive feeling of absolute safety like that I felt when I was a child, dozing peacefully in the backseat of my parents’ worn Toyota Camry.

Why it works:

  • The subject of this essay is highly personal to the applicant and unique. It touched upon the admissions officer’s emotions, causing them to take a greater interest and pay more attention to understand where this applicant was coming from
  • It wraps up everything the applicant wants to say in a well-written and intriguing story rather than having it said explicitly.
  • The applicant decided not to write something common or comfortable. This risk-taking is definitely noticed by the admissions staff. Better yet, he knocked it out of the park.
  • The story was introspective and thoughtful — chess was used as an escape, but also an avenue through which we could better understand the trials and tribulations of the applicant

How do I make my college essay stand out?

Focus on a singular experience.

One of the most effective ways to write a meaningful college essay is to focus on a singular moment or experience in your life that had a profound impact on your and your development. Mentioning a hundred different things can come across as scatter-brained and unpurposeful. In order to really capture the attention of admissions officers, you should find a particular event in your life that stands out and describe it in detail and use college essay ideas that worked for this kind of application.

A man working with his classmates on a library.

While you should definitely set the scene by describing what happened, it’s even more important to describe how you were impacted by it. Colleges want to know about who you are and what experiences in your life were instrumental in that developmental process. What happened isn’t as important as how it defined you.

Find a way to stand out.

Every year, college admissions staff sort through thousands and even tens of thousands of applications. After reading that many essays, you can rest assured that some topics overlap between applicants. One of the best ways to ensure your application gets put at the top of the accepted pile is to write something that stands out and use college essay ideas that worked for college applications.

Young woman using her tablet on a desk.

How do you do this? Well, generally speaking, any experience that might have affected the vast majority of high school students has the potential to come across as cliche as a topic for your essay. Everyone has a favorite subject in school they’re passionate about. Many high schoolers learn responsibility from part-time jobs. Think about your experiences – even seemingly insignificant ones – and see which stand out as unique.

Make vulnerability work for you.

When writing your college essays, it’s easy to get carried away with trying to be seen as the “ideal” applicant. You’ve spent all four years of high school working your hardest to take challenging courses, maintain high grades, perfect your standardized test scores, excel in extracurricular activities, and much, much more. On your essays, you might be tempted to continue pushing this image of the perfect student with no shortcomings in an attempt to “sell” your qualifications to the university.

View of a student studying in a desk.

However, there’s something you should know about the admissions process: perfection is boring. Ivy League schools attract some of the most talented and brightest applicants from across the country. As counterintuitive as it might sound, revealing imperfection is a great way to stand out and capture the attention of admissions staff.

Be open and honest.

Honesty is the best policy. You’ve heard it a hundred times before. But what about your college essays? As we’ve just mentioned, there’s a tendency for students to want to come across as more perfect than they are. While we’ve already discussed the downside of this tendency, it’s also important to note that admissions staff can spot a lie from a mile away.

They’ve been around the block countless times. Most of the college essay ideas that worked were genuine and honest. Good college essays show why an individual is unique. And the only way to accomplish this goal is to be open and a bit personal. Don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through. Not only will it be easier to set yourself apart from other applicants, but you’ll also find it easier to write about what you know. You’ll find your responses flowing more naturally.

Need help getting into top-tier colleges?

The college admissions process can seem daunting, confusing, and even utterly random at first. How do colleges decide who gets in and who doesn’t? Which parts of the application process are more important than others. There’s no doubt that both parents and children experience some uncertainty when entering into this exciting yet challenging transition. Fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone! AdmissionSight is a leading college entrance expert with years of proven experience guiding students towards success in their application process. We specialize in helping students just like you get into some of the country’s best universities.

As a result, our services are custom-tailored to these colleges, ensuring your application is primed for acceptance. We help students nail their college essays, find prestigious summer programs, essay writing service, prepare for college interviews, identify effective extracurricular activities, get impactful letters of recommendation, and much, much more. If you’re interested in learning more about what AdmissionSight has to offer and how you can benefit from it, feel free to reach out to us. We’ll set up a free consultation so you can ask any questions you might have. We look forward to working with you.






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