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“Gaming” the system: why mundane topics make for great Common App main essays

This past application season, I helped brainstorm Common App main essay topics with a student who introduced himself to me in a surprising way. Let’s call him Ben (alias).

Former educational consultant Amy Morrisett working at home

Despite his enthusiasm for various subjects, Ben told me he was worried that he “didn’t have enough interests”, which made him unsure of what he should write about for his main essay. I was saddened to hear him say this, because no person should feel like their interests are not enough!

The truth is, admissions officers are most interested in main essays that demonstrate your ability to reflect on your qualities, actions, and values, regardless of the essay’s topic. Unfortunately, many students — including me when I was applying to college — go into the process with the misconception that the essay is meant for us to display the most impressive things we’ve done.

Ben was no exception. However, as I talked through different possibilities for essay topics with him, we suddenly struck gold.

After I asked him what he liked to do in his free time, he explained that he loved being able to immerse himself in the video games he played. He then mentioned the name of a specific game and began to describe his experience playing it.

As he took me through the story, I could see him begin to relax and let go of some of his anxieties, bringing me with him into the world of the game. A smile spread across my face — this was it. I had a feeling this would end up being the topic he’d choose, although he himself didn’t yet know it.

To briefly summarize the story, Ben had begun playing this game only to find out that the text and dialogue were in a language he didn’t speak at all, with no option to switch to a language he was more familiar with. While many people would have simply given up in the situation, he worked diligently to translate the text into Mandarin using online translation tools, and looked up other information in order to gradually make his way through the game.

Upon first glance, this might not seem like an appropriate topic for a college application essay. It’s natural to think that leisure activities like playing video games are the opposite of what college admissions officers want to hear about. However, this topic was a perfect choice for Ben because it allowed him to demonstrate qualities and lessons that made him an excellent candidate while avoiding more commonly-used topics related to academics, competitions, and volunteering experiences.

So, as you’re considering topics for your main essay, don’t just think about what you do in school or the structured extracurricular activities you participate in. Take some time to reflect on your hobbies and daily routines, even the ones that might seem “un-academic”.

Have you had any funny, touching, or challenging experiences with these hobbies or routines? This can be a great jumping-off point for constructing a unique essay. Some examples of these topics could be:

  • A knitting project gone wrong, and a lesson you learned from the situation

  • Friends you like to chat with in your free time, and moments when you’ve learned something about yourself from chatting with them

  • Family traditions and the meaning they hold for you

These are just a few ideas to get your thoughts flowing. I hope that if you are like Ben and worry that you don’t have enough compelling interests to write about, this story has opened the door to possibilities you didn’t previously consider.

What I most hope you take away is this: no matter how many interests you have or what those interests are, your individual experiences and perspective are valuable and worth writing about.


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