Learn how to select college essay topics that stand out
Part 1: Introduction
If your child is applying to college now or in the future, you’re probably familiar with the Common App Essay, or personal statement, required by many colleges. You may have even heard of the “Costco essay” that earned one student an acceptance to several ivy league schools.
But first, let’s revisit the purpose of the Common App Essay. This essay is your child’s opportunity to showcase who they are beyond their ACT or SAT scores, grades, or extracurricular activities. And the Common App Essay prompts are broad enough that your child can write about any topic.
Many parents assume students should use the personal statement to brag about a noteworthy accomplishment or significant challenge they’ve overcome. We’ve assembled a guide to writing an amazing Common App Essay that addresses all of those questions and many more.
But here, we want to discuss one unique way to tackle the Common App Essay. Because as one high school applicant proved, a successful essay can also be about something as simple as their love for Costco.
In 2016, Brittany Stinson’s Costco essay, went viral after she was accepted into five Ivy League colleges—Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, University of Pennsylvania, and Cornell—along with Stanford and several other highly selective schools. People were especially intrigued when they learned about Stinson’s unusual essay topic: her experiences shopping at Costco over the years.
A year later, Carolina William’s “Yale pizza essay” also made the Internet rounds after she was accepted to Yale. The essay prompt was, “Write about something you love to do.” William chose to reflect on ordering pizza from Papa John’s.
In the wake of those essays, we’ve fielded tons of questions from parents about whether or not a successful personal statement needs to contain that level of quirk. The short answer is that trying to replicate the Costco essay or the Yale pizza essay isn’t going to do your child any good—but both can serve as models for writing outside-of-the-box personal statements.
What we love about these essays is that they proved something we’ve been telling our students for over fifteen years: that admissions officers want to see high schoolers expressing themselves, and that the way to get into a top college isn’t necessarily by bragging or boasting.
Our students have been accepted into their dream schools by writing about everything from their love of the New England Patriots to grilling meats, and we consider each of those topics their own Costco essay.
Personality, wit, and seemingly trivial habits can all serve as amazing routes to your child’s dream school.
In this post we will:
Discuss what works about the Costco essay
Show how your child can apply lessons from the Costco essay to their own essay
Explore how the Costco essay may not be a good model for your child
Part 2: What works about the Costco essay
Stinson’s essay succeeded in part because it’s a refreshing take on a common experience.
If you were Brittany Stinson’s parent and learned she was planning to write about Costco, you could be forgiven for worrying. You might assume that this would be a mundane subject. You might also assume that there is no way this topic could highlight your child’s intellect, or their academic or extracurricular achievements.
And you might wonder if this was a “personal” enough choice for a personal statement—while we might not all have Costco memberships, almost everyone has had the experience of going grocery shopping. So why choose this topic? How did it work for Stinson?
Stinson has explained that she zeroed in on Costco as one of her potential Common App Essay topics because of the running joke between her and her friends that she spent so much time at Costco that she practically lived there. Stinson wrote that she, “once read a quote that said something along these lines, ‘If your friend finds your essay on the ground and it has no name on it, they should be able to tell that it’s yours just by reading it.’”
While shopping at Costco might not be a suitable topic for everyone, it was the perfect choice for Stinson because she found those experiences personally significant.
It’s also worth noting that Costco wasn’t really the focal point of the essay, but rather the framework for it. She mentions many other interests, including scientific research, cross country, and dance—all of these could have made for a more typical college essay.
But Costco is an unexpected and humble route into those topics. While Stinson uses her essay to show off her intellectual curiosity and her writing ability, it is not centered around an event or experience that showcases how brilliant or accomplished she is. Instead, she simply wrote about something she genuinely loved to do, without worrying about the prestige of it.
Out of this authentic interest, Stinson managed to perform one of the great potential feats of personal essay writing—transforming what could be a broad, universal topic into a narrative that is specific to her own life.
Particularly if your child enjoys the humanities, you might encourage them to read great personal essays by writers like Joan Didion, Anne Fadiman, David Foster Wallace, or James Baldwin or essays published in outlets like The New Yorker or The New York Times, rather than browsing the many Common App essays posted online. These authors will inspire your high schooler to dig deeper and avoid sounding cliche.
Lastly, Stinson acknowledges the impossibility of articulating oneself in just 650 words. One of the biggest mistakes we see parents and students making when approaching the personal statement is the notion that this must be an autobiographical statement, or a story about a massive epiphany.
Stinson displays maturity by not trying to say everything.
While on the surface level Stinson’s essay is about Costco, she uses the topic to demonstrate her intellectual curiosity. One of the most memorable lines is, “I contemplated the philosophical: If there exists a thirty-three ounce of Nutella, do we really have free will?”
Within this sentence, Stinson takes a simple object, a jar of Nutella, and uses it to playfully ponder a philosophical question. These kinds of moves suggest that she is a thoughtful, curious person who will ask engaging questions inside and outside of the classroom. They also lead to the final turn of the essay, where Stinson opens up her topic in showing how her experiences in Costco inform who she is as a curious individual even when she’s not shopping for Nutella.
In the penultimate paragraph, Stinson explains that she has applied the kind of exploring she did at Costco to her other “intellectual endeavors.” She explains, “Just as I sampled buffalo chicken dip or chocolate truffles, I probed the realms of history, dance and biology, all in pursuit of the ideal cart-one overflowing with theoretical situations and notions both silly and serious. I sampled calculus, cross country running, scientific research…”
Later on in the paragraph she writes that she has also tried, “aerial yoga, learning how to chart blackbody radiation using astronomical software, or dancing in front of hundreds of people.” This paragraph makes Stinson’s love for Costco relevant to the rest of the life and helps create a narrative about who she is now and who she will be as a college student.
Not only does Stinson use shopping at Costco to illustrate her intellectual curiosity—in listing her interests and activities, Stinson also explicitly links her topic to the rest of her application. In this way, the essay helps to create an overarching narrative or story about who Stinson is, a story that admissions counselors likely remembered as they reviewed the rest of her materials and moved forward in the admissions process.
Quality of writing
This essay also serves as an excellent showcase for Stinson’s writing ability. She opens with a compelling anecdote, a hook, or what journalists call a “lede,” describing herself as a “ferocious two-year old rampaging through Costco.”
Once she moves on from that anecdote to the rest of the essay, her writing remains grounded in specific images and moments. Her essay manifests the age-old writing truism to show rather than tell. This technique draws the reader into the essay and helps keep them engaged.
The Costco essay is also filled with active language and dynamic word choices. Stinson’s churro is “jettisoned” instead of “dropped.” But Stinson also doesn’t resort to SAT words or academic language in every sentence. She asks simply, “Who needs three pounds of sour cream?” In using elevated as well as straightforward language, Stinson shows that she is comfortable with her own voice as a writer.
Stinson did share a final draft of her essay with an English teacher before submitting her applications. It’s a good idea for your child to share their essay with a trusted reader, advisor, or teacher; grammar or spelling errors leave a bad impression on admissions committees and a computer’s grammar/spell check may not catch every mistake.
Stinson writes in a fun, approachable tone. Humor permeates the piece, which has a conversational feel. In this way, the Costco essay hints at what she might be like to hang out with in the dining hall or after class, that is, it helps create a picture of her personality.
In this essay, Stinson seems like someone who might be likely to start long philosophical discussions in the residential hall or encourage her physics study group to take a fifteen-minute break for an impromptu dance party or, of course, corral her roommates for a weekend trip to Costco. In other words, her essay suggests that she will be a great addition to her college community.
However, Stinson does not fall into one of the traps of Common App Essay writing: sounding too casual. Her essay is filled with complex, well-crafted sentences and careful word choice. She doesn’t use slang or make grammatical errors.
The essay is neither too stiff nor too informal. This can seem like a difficult balance to strike, but Stinson’s essay models how it can be done.
Part 3: How your child can write their own “Costco essay”
Select a unique topic
This may seem obvious, but your child shouldn’t replicate the Costco essay by, say, writing about Costco, or Kroger, or Stop and Shop, or Safeway. (This goes for ordering from Papa Johns or another pizza place, too.) Stinson’s choice in topic worked because it was something truly specific and meaningful to her.
What your child can do is brainstorm possible essay topics that on the surface level might seem like they have little relevance to their academic or extracurricular life but are still important to them. They’re searching for anecdotes or images that will flow for them as they start to write.
Here are some additional prompts to help them zero in on their own “Costco.” (The Common App Essay prompts are broad enough that your child should be able to fit whatever they want to write about to one of them.)
What is your ideal way to spend a Saturday? Is there a weekend family activity or ritual you love? Or do you prefer to spend the day on some solo adventure? Walk us through one of these memorable days.
Is there a special meal you like to cook with a family member? What does this meal mean to you and your family? Do you remember the first time you helped to prepare the meal?
What is the one thing your friends make fun of you for obsessing over? Maybe it’s a sports team or favorite book or philosophical question.
Do you have a childhood memory that you constantly return to? How has that childhood experience shaped who you are today?
What is something that admissions officers would never guess about you based on the rest of your application that you (and maybe your friends and family) feel defines who you are?
Stinson called Costco a “kingdom.” What’s yours? In what unexpected place do you feel completely at home?
Is there a unique leadership role you’ve taken on in your family or school or social community? Maybe instead of serving as captain of the soccer team, you led your friends in an incredible water balloon fight or flash mob last spring. How have you helped bring your community together?
You can find more of these types of prompts in writing books that have nothing to do with the Common App Essay, like comic book artist Lynda Barry’s What It Is and Syllabus or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.
Connect the topic to unique personal qualities
Remember that your child needs to link whatever topic they choose to a larger idea about their worldview or who they are as an individual. Maybe they decide to write about how they feel at home in the hair salon where their aunt works.
The essay could start with a reflection on what makes a good haircut but could become about something larger. It could be a way for them to discuss your evolving relationship with their family, their ideas about what makes a community, or their own work ethic.
In Stinson’s essay, the paragraph that mentions many of her other extracurricular interests explicitly links her experiences at Costco to the rest of her application.
While your child does not need to so explicitly reference other parts of their application within the essay, they should think about how your essay does or doesn’t create context for the rest of the application.
Does the essay about cooking a big family meal with their dad every Sunday support the idea that they are a leader and engaged member of the community? Or does the essay about their love for a favorite band complicate the picture of them as a serious mathematician?
The essay does not need to do either of these things, but it is a good idea to consider how it fits into the story they are telling throughout the application.
Showcase excellent writing skills
While your child’s college essay is an opportunity to give admissions officers insight into who they are as a person, it’s also the best place within their application to showcase their writing ability. Writing skills are essential for success in college and admissions committees want to know that your child can communicate ideas effectively.
Have your child start by freewriting specific anecdotes or images related to the topic of the essay. It’s okay to initially write out more scenes than will make it into the final draft—this way they can pare down to the moments that tell your story best. And even when they’re not writing out an anecdote, they should still be as specific as possible.
Instead of writing that all the time sitting at the back of their aunt’s hair salon helped them to “improve your relationship with their extended family,” your child might write that while at the back of the hair salon they “engaged in lengthy discussions with my aunt and her customers about everything from hair color trends to the local mayoral election to the need for arts education.”
They’ll want to show admissions officers specifically how this experience or interest matters to them.
All this means your child needs space and time to come up with a creative topic. This means they should try to start working on their personal statement early (ideally over the summer before their senior year), and you shouldn’t expect them to immediately sit down in front of a computer screen to produce a first draft. That’s often a recipe for formulaic or stiff writing.
And it’s always a good idea to finish a draft of an essay in time to share it with a trusted teacher or reader. Your child can even tell this reader that, in addition to looking for grammatical errors or awkward phrasing, they want to know if their reader is able to envision the anecdotes or moments in the essay.
Your child can also ask if the reader understands the larger lesson that they are hoping their topic leads to. Does this move feel logical or forced to them?
Write in an authentic voice
Just as your child searched for a topic that feels true to who they are, they should strive to find a natural tone and voice. This doesn’t mean the essay should read like a transcript of them speaking to or texting their friends. But they also don’t want their essay to read as pretentious. Humor can be a great tool, but if it’s just not your child’s personality, don’t force it.
The truth is that writing or editing an essay so that it sounds “natural” can take a lot of effort. So, if it takes your child several tries to find the right tone, don’t panic!
Part 4: How the Costco essay may not be a good model for you
If your initial reaction to the Costco essay was one of uncertainty because you can never imagine your child writing an essay at all like it, don’t worry. We simply want to dispel the notion that your topic can only be a serious one.
That said, many successful Common App essays focus on slightly more “serious” topics. Every year, the New York Times shares standout college application essays that have “something to do with money.” Here are five essays from 2018 that deal with work, money, and social class, all heavier topics.
But, a word of caution: while it’s okay to browse personal statement examples, do so in moderation. Crowding your head with other people’s voices can prevent you from writing in your most authentic voice.
If your child is more likely to reflect on nights spent researching in a lab than hours spent perusing the aisles of Costco, they can still apply the lessons from Stinson’s essay. Anchoring the personal statement in specific details (e.g., including an anecdote about knocking over a graduated cylinder) and striking a balanced tone is a good strategy regardless of the topic.
The Costco essay serves as a reminder that your child’s college essay does not have to be a story about overcoming adversity or an in-depth account of your child’s path to an academic or extracurricular achievement. With careful execution, any topic can be used to help your child convince an admissions committee that they would be a great addition to the student body.