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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The essay is easily one of the most difficult parts of the college application process. How can someone describe themselves in such a short amount of space, especially when all their accomplishments are listed on the page before and they don’t want to sound repetitive? There are a few clichés to avoid in the college essay world. Keep reading to find out what to avoid and what to approach in your college essay writing journey.
Related: Warning! These College Application Essay Ideas DON'T Work
Worst of the Worst
The sports game
A great college admission essay makes the reader say something along the lines of, “Wow, I’ve never heard of someone who did/experienced that before.” Know what nearly everyone has experienced before? Winning or losing. More specifically, almost everyone has either won or lost a sports game. Talking about your experience coping with your win or loss will pile you in with every other applicant that the admission officer reads about that day, aka the exact opposite of what you want to happen to you and your beloved essay.
A lot like dating a bad boy, this essay tempts you. Think about it: talking about your love life seems deep. Maybe a breakup feels like the biggest hardship you have faced thus far, or perhaps you think the way you supported your 10th grade girlfriend during her science competition seems like a great metaphor for how you plan to support your university community. However, just like with any good piece of writing, you need to know your audience. And in this case, your audience does not think anything about your high school relationship sounds impressive. College admission officers have not been in high school for a very long time. They might have been through a divorce or had to support their spouse through the death of one of their parents or children. But they have a bit more perspective on relationships than the average high school senior, so they will probably not find the demise of your junior year relationship as poignant as you do.
The mission trip
Everyone who has been to Togo/Haiti/Guatemala wants to write about the time they saw real Third World poverty for the first time and extrapolate on how their lives were never the same after said experience. And while that experience may have really affected your life, it affects the lives of thousands of upper–middle class students around America in the exact same way, and they are all writing the same essay about it as we speak. If your time in Sierra Leone really feels like what you need to tell your dream school about, talk about a specific experience, like a conversation you had with someone who lived there. The cliché service trip essay often sounds incredibly vague, so if you must write about your experience, make sure you tell a very specific story that brings the reader into a certain moment with you (more on that later).
The “different” essay
I once had a friend show me an essay he wrote in which he had to describe the best day of his life. Naturally, he wrote about the time he slept until five in the evening, ate some ice cream, then went back to sleep. However, he was not a lazy kid at all. He was really into piano and lacrosse, but he wanted his essay to sound off the beaten path and unique. So rather than talking about one of his passions, he decided to write about something he knew no one else would try…the time he slept all day. Unfortunately, there is a really good reason no one else wrote that essay. The same goes for trying to be creative and responding with one word, one sentence, or a poem. Although those are very different responses from what admission officers reads, this does not mean they are good responses. There are other ways to stand out without compromising your intelligence.
Better essay ideas
The ridiculous way you grew up (and how it affects you now)
The first time I went to Harvard to hang out with friends, I met a student who was raised by wolves. Yes, you read that right; she actually grew up in a wolf rehabilitation community. Sure, she was also a model and an Economics major, but the whole raised by wolves thing was definitely more memorable than anything else about her. If you grew up in a unique way that affects who you are now, it might be worth writing about in a college essay to make your application more memorable.
Focusing on a moment
If you decide you have to talk about one of the cliché essay topics mentioned above, a good way to tell a more common story is to focus on one specific moment and build from there. For instance, if I were only interested in field hockey and felt I absolutely had to write about the sport in my essay, I would not write about some vague game and how good it felt when my team won. I would write about the sound the ball makes hitting the back of the goal, how my adrenaline changes in that moment, how all the sounds around me slowly rush into my ears afterwards. Then, most importantly, after describing the moment, I would write about its significance by connecting it to some larger idea or meaning or characteristic about myself. Focusing on a moment that changed your life—such as the time you broke your back as a kid in a car crash, or the time your dad told you the family was moving to a different country—can also function well in your college essay.
A good friend of mine in high school had to answer an interesting question for the school where he ended up enrolling. The university’s supplemental application asked him to describe one of his quirks. I distinctly recall reading my friend’s essay about him being a storyteller above all else and visibly grinning as my eyes passed over each line, because the essay was just so genuine and true. He was a storyteller; he told all of us tales of his fly-fishing summer job in the Adirondacks, spun yarns about wolves that spoke to him while he was camping, and talked about his skydiving uncle like he was a superhero in a comic book. The storyteller anecdote never would have come through in the rest of his Common Application, but it was truly one of his most significant personality traits. So, lesson learned, read over your Common Application, and at the end, ask yourself, “What’s missing?” Who knows—the answer to that question might be the basis for your admission essay.
Lust for literature
If you have a friend or family member who reads a lot of books in their free time, I bet you think they’re pretty intelligent. Fortunately, colleges will think the same thing about you if you decide to incorporate your love of literature into your essay. Maybe you have a book in which you strongly relate to one of the characters. Perhaps a philosophical text really elucidates your current paradigm. Or maybe you strive to write like a certain author one day. Whatever the case, you really cannot go wrong writing about the literature you love, as your passion for it will shine through the pages.
What did you write your admission essay about? Did it work? Let us know in the comments! And find even more college essay advice in our Application Essay Clinic.
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