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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These are some bad college application essay #FAILs waiting to happen.
You know you need to stand out in your college application essay—but it’s important that you stand out in a good way. While you might be convinced that your essay is sure to impress the admission committee for its...uh..unique approach, it may not go over as well as you think. In fact, it might be downright bad.
When it comes to inventive application essay topics (or formats, for that matter), you don't want to go too far. Remember, the purpose of the application essay is to convey who you are, what’s important to you, what you’ll contribute to your community, and your college readiness. The application essay ideas below are simply bad at achieving those goals.
Trust me: you can be genuine and creative without them.
The foreign language
Writing your application essay in a foreign language might seem like a standout way to show your passion for the subject. But even if you’re planning on majoring in that language, it’s still a bad call. Besides, the admission committee has enough to worry about without getting your essay translated for them.
Instead: Write about your trip to the Dominican Republic and how speaking only Spanish made you realize you want to teach the language.
A poem instead of an essay
Can get a little bit messy
Try as you might
They often sound trite
As well as contrived, I must say
(Okay, that’s not very good. But poetry’s hard. Hence, don't go this route for your application essay.)
Instead: Write about your tradition of writing a poem for your grandmother on her birthday.
The devil’s advocate
Being controversial for the sake of being controversial has never been a good way to win hearts or minds. Your future college is looking for thoughtful, passionate students, not shock jocks.
Instead: Write about your experience on the school’s debate team.
The edgy rebel
Expletives. Violence and gore. Hot-button issues. What you might see as showing your edgy, rebellious side might actually come across as disrespectful to the admission committee. And why would they admit you if they don’t think you would represent their school well?
Instead: Write about how you love words, their cadence and meaning, and how one of your favorites happens to be a swear—without actually using the naughty word.
If it’s related to bodily functions, it’s probably not an appropriate essay topic. Also, please, please do not talk about sexy times with your S.O. as part of your college essay. It’s not romantic; it’s awkward.
Instead: Write about how you were the only kid growing up who wasn’t grossed out when someone skinned their knee and how you found the coagulating blood fascinating, you future pathologist, you.
The arts-and-crafts project
Your application essay isn’t an extension of your art portfolio. Don’t submit a papier-mâché sculpture of the person who most influenced you. In fact, don’t send in anything the application doesn’t specifically ask for. It doesn’t help your case for admission, but it does make you look like you can’t follow directions.
Instead: Write about your penchant for knitting, how you use it to focus, and how the click-click of the needles helps you calm down when you’re stressed.
The big picture
Questions of great significance—Why are we here? Where are we going? What does it all mean?!?!—can lead to insightful writings and conversations, but they’re terrible application essay topics because they have little to do with who you are.
Instead: Write about your favorite summer camp memory: lying around the campfire, looking at the stars, and talking about philosophy with your friends.
The sob story
This is a tough one, because a personal (or even societal) tragedy can be hugely influential in your life. Even so, this is another essay topic admission counselors recommend avoiding, since it’s hard to get a sense of who you are as an applicant, however moving your story might be.
Instead: Write about how much you value being the person your friends turn to when they need a shoulder to cry on.
The Friday Night Lights
Have you ever watched a sports-related TV show or movie and thought, “This is really similar to that other sports-related TV show or movie I saw.” Well, it’s a lot like that with sports-related application essays, if you know what I’m sayin’.
Instead: Write about how you used your time on the bus rides to and from away games to sell homemade energy bars.
So, what does work?
Now that you know all these college application essay don’ts, what are the do’s? What should you write about and how? Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered:
And if you want to take a new, inventive approach to your application essay, why not try an application video? Lots of schools are accepting them now. More advice here.
Have you seen any other application essays that just didn't work? Are you tempted to use one of these "bad" ideas anyway? Tell us your story! Leave a comment or get in touch.
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