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.
Need Money to Pay for College?
Every semester, Fastweb helps thousands of students pay for school by matching them to scholarships, grants, and internships, for which they actually qualify. You'll find high value scholarships like VIP Voice's $5,000 Scholarship, and easy to enter scholarships like Niche $2,000 No Essay Scholarship, and internships with companies like Apple, Google, Dreamworks, and even NASA!
Join today to get matched to scholarships or internships for you!
So you learned the importance of teamwork, even though you lost the big game. That’s great. It’s just not a great essay topic.
Think you have a great, super-unique idea for an essay? You might want to think again. Of the thousands of essays I read when I was an admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania, very few were particularly distinctive. Of those, even fewer were distinctive in a positive way.
Curious as to which topics you would do well to avoid? Here are the top five.
#5: The most important moment in my life was the big game that my team won (or lost).
Yawn. This is a bad idea because it’s boring, and the lessons learned are typically the same regardless of who writes it. The importance of sportsmanship coupled with the joy of being part of a team. How much it meant to win or how much you enjoyed the experience even though you didn’t win.
One of the primary goals of the essay is to help your application stand out. Don’t blow it by writing about something so common. Either find a more interesting angle on athletics or find a new topic.
#4: Behold all of my successes, aka The List.
Most applications include a place where you will record all of your activities, honors and awards. The essay is not that place.
Instead of trying to cover everything you have ever accomplished within the confines of 500 words, pick one important achievement and focus on that. What sparked your interest in that activity? Why do you do it and what do you enjoy most about it? Does it relate to your future goals and, if so, in what way?
#3: One night I volunteered at a soup kitchen and it changed my life.
Otherwise known as the essay where you tell the admissions people what a great person you are. With three exceptions — yes, three — every single essay I have read about volunteer work came to one of the following conclusions: I never realized how much I had until I met people who didn’t have anything; I never realized anyone could be happy without the things I take for granted; or a combination of the previous two.
You might think that admissions officers want to hear about what a great person you are, but in reality they want to hear about the person you are. Writing about a passion or true interest will always result in a more genuine and impactful essay.
#2: I am a can of seltzer.
This topic probably seems much more unique than the soup kitchen essay. Not everyone is comparing themselves to a bottle of soda — I’m fizzy! — right? Well, there’s a good reason for that: It’s an awful idea.
Admissions officers respond to authenticity. Focus on what’s real rather than on a “creative” idea that amounts to a gimmick. If you can find a more personal story, one that shares something important about who you are, your readers will feel like they know you much better when they’re done.
#1: Here I am writing my college essay (which, did you know, is really hard?!), and there you are, reading it.
You may be under the impression that this topic will show off your intellectually witty side. It won’t. At best, you’ll look like you started to write the essay the night before it was due. At worst, you’ll come off as a self-involved showoff without anything interesting to say.
Showcase your wit and intellect by writing about an absorbing academic or thought provoking experience. Instead of seeming pretentious, you will come across as an engaged learner who will likely make the most of the college experience.
The essay is the primary chance you have in the application process to share something important about yourself. Make the most of the opportunity by spending as much time thinking about what to write as you do actually writing it.
Elizabeth Heaton is a senior director of educational consulting at College Coach, the nation’s leading provider of educational advisory services. Elizabeth began her admissions career at the University of Pennsylvania, where she chaired university selection committees, evaluated potential athletic recruits as one of the school’s athletics liaisons, and oversaw the university’s portfolio of admissions publications.
applications, college admissions, College Coach, Elizabeth Heaton, essays, University of Pennsylvania, COLLEGE CHOICE