The college essay is tough. It’s not writing it that’s the hard part – it’s deciding what to write about that can be difficult. What’s most curious about the college essay is that many of the topics on this list (those that should be avoided) also happen to be some of the most commonly used topics out there.
But, why? Why are students writing about boring, tired out subjects?
A lack of creativity? Certainly not! Students know how to be creative.
A lack of gumption? Doubtful – many students even take it upon themselves to create their own version of an anti-essay (see number seven on the list).
For many students, the issue is the narrative, which begins at the essay’s focus: the topic.
A boring essay details a summary of Joe’s mission trip to Guatemala, where he volunteered at a local school with his family.
A great essay details Joe’s experience during his mission trip to Guatemala, where he volunteered at a local school with his family. It was there he met Anita, a local elderly woman who wanted to learn how to read but came from a poor family so she never had the opportunity. Joe and Anita developed a friendship…
See, you want to read more of the story, right? But, the first essay example didn’t make you want to continue reading on to learn any more details. That’s the difference.
You may think you know what you’re going to write your college admissions essay about but, before you do, read this list to learn what topics you should avoid and why.
1. A Summary of Your Accomplishments College essays are similar to life and, in life, nobody likes a braggart. These topics are broad, unfocused and make a boring read.
You may have accomplished a lot, but let your essay speak by allowing the reader to get to know you as a person through your experiences – not through you telling them how accomplished you are.
After reading your essay, a person should be able to come up with their own assessment of you – people don’t like to be told how to think.
2. Highly Polarized or Sensitive Topics The key topics to avoid here are the same as those at the Thanksgiving table: politics and religion.
Avoid preaching about sensitive topics, no matter how passionate you are about a particular one. You never know who is going to be reading your admissions essay and the goal at hand is to gain admission into college.
3. Sports The sports essay is predictable and should be avoided, if possible. Everyone knows how an athletic story will play out, regardless of the story or the sport. Find another topic that is unique and hasn’t been covered a million times over.
Admissions officers have heard enough about “the thrill of victory” and “the agony of defeat” in relation to high school athletics and they are sick and tired of pretending to care.
4. Humor Stop trying to be so funny. You may have a story in your essay that’s funny and that’s okay – but that’s different. Make sure you’re funny for a reason and not just funny because you’re attempting to be. If it comes out naturally in your essay, great. If it doesn’t, then don’t force it. Admissions officers will see the futile attempt – and likely not find it amusing.
5. Why You’re SO Lucky We get it. You’re privileged and you appreciate it, which is great. However, discussing it doesn’t make for a great essay. It’s actually super boring and, perhaps, may cause some eyes to roll.
Avoid this topic at all costs unless you’re starting with that followed up with some along the lines of, “…so I decided to leave my cushy private school to switch places at a public high school in Detroit with an inner-city teen and this is what happened.” Now THAT would make for an interesting essay.
6. Volunteer Experiences & Trips This may be one of the most popular essay topics out there…and it’s also one of the most boring clichés around. Nobody needs a summary of your vacation – people know what happens on mission trips and during volunteer hours.
While you should feel free to mention a great experience or trip, but your entire essay should not talk about your one experience volunteering during a mission trip in Costa Rica.
If you do want to bring up these topics, try to think of something interesting or unexpected that happened during your trip.
Did a particular person or experience have an impact on you? Specific happenings can make great topics – try to think of something unusual and craft your essay around that experience, instead. (See example within the opening of this article.)
So, you’re creative, smart and so over this whole essay thing. You’re not going to be put inside a box with a regular essay; you’re going to do your own thing. You’re going to whatever you feel like writing. Some of the best and brightest students do this: basically, they create the anti-essay.
Fine, but be prepared to write whatever you feel like writing from a college that may not be your first choice.
Whether it’s a poem, a random stream of thoughts, sarcasm, or some other form of writing in order to feel more creative, it’s not always the best idea. Before you do this, remember one thing: the sole purpose of your college essay is to get into college. You can show off later.
8. Illegal or Illicit Behavior Drug and alcohol use, sex, arrests and/or jail time are topics that you should steer clear of, even if they are life issues you’ve worked through.
You would not want your judgment to be called into question for the decisions you’ve made (even if they are in the past) or for making the decision to write about the decisions you’ve made. Either way, it’s risky business to go this route and is not recommended.
9. The Most Important [Person, Place, Thing] in My Life Read this aloud. Doesn’t this topic sound like an assignment that a second or third grader would write about? It really does and, if a child can handle it, it probably won’t gain you a lot of points with college admissions officers.
10. Tragedies Topics like death and divorce are cautionary because they can be extremely difficult to write about.
While these topics are tough, if you feel passionately that a particular tragedy impacted your life significantly and you do want to write about it, try to keep the essay’s focus on you.
Think about your feelings regarding the situation, how it affected you and what you learned from the experience rather than just simply recalling the situation or the person you lost.
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One of our counselors referred to his last year working in admissions at Caltech as the year of the blood drive essay. That year, an unusually high number of applicants told the same tale of how one on-campus blood drive changed their lives and made them appreciate the importance of serving humanity.
Writing such grandiose statements into your essays won’t help you stand out. The statements sound cliché. So here are the five most overused clichés I—and every admissions officer I’ve spoken with—see most often, and which you should avoid.
1. The aforementioned “blood drive essay” or “How community service taught me the importance of helping others”
Colleges appreciate students who are concerned about their communities. But one blood drive does not a humanitarian make. A claim to have learned how important it is to help people needs to be substantiated with evidence of a sincere, long-term commitment to helping people. Otherwise, your message loses some oomph.
If you had an experience during your community service that really meant a lot to you, say so. And be honest. Otherwise, consider doing a good deed for admissions officers and avoid the community service cliché.
2. “Hard work always pays off,” and other life lessons learned while playing sports
The problem with many sports essays is they explain what life is like for every athlete. You go to practice. You work hard. You compete.
Then the student makes it worse by saying sports taught him the importance of hard work and commitment, which is almost certainly not something he would say to his friends.
Be original. Tell your sports story that nobody else can tell. If you can’t find a story you own, just write about something else. The sport will still be listed on your application.
3. “How my trip to another country broadened my horizons”
This essay essentially says, “France is very difference from the United States—the food, the language, the customs. But I learned to appreciate the differences and to adapt to the ways of the French.”
Visiting a country and noticing that it is different is not a story that you own. The admissions office doesn’t want to read your travel journals. Instead, make yourself, not the country, the focus of the essay.
One of my students who had never previously ventured onto any sort of dance floor wrote that his trip to Spain was the first time he’d ever danced in front of other people. That wasn’t an essay about how Spain was different—it was an essay about how he was different in Spain.
4. “How I overcame a life challenge [that wasn’t really all that challenging]”
Essays can help admissions officers understand more about a student who has overcome legitimate hardship. But far too many other students misguidedly manufacture hardship in a college essay to try to gain sympathy or make excuses (e.g., for low grades). That won’t work.
If you’ve had a difficult hardship and you want to talk about it, you should. Otherwise, it’s probably better to choose a different topic. Note: The pet eulogy falls into this category. Lovely if you want to write one. Just don’t include it as part of your college essay.
5. Anything that doesn’t really sound like you
Your essays are supposed to give the readers a sense of your personality. So give your essays a sincerity test. Do they sound like you, or do they sound like you’re trying to impress someone?
Excerpted from my book: If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted
You can also find even more advice in our video, “How to Write Great College Essays.” It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download.
Filed Under: College essays