College Admission Essays: 7 Topics To Avoid

guy studying with computer It is essay time for seniors. College admissions essays are challenging. I tell clients I would rather write a 100-page research paper than two pages about myself. It is challenging to write a unique personal statement without relying on generalizations or slipping into clichés. The goal is for each student to present his or her personal strengths and demonstrate effective communication and college-bound writing. Here are some over-done approaches that won’t help your application.

College admission essays give applicants a unique opportunity to tell admissions officers about their unique talents, experiences, and strengths.  At many competitive universities, an applicant’s essay can play a significant role in the admissions decision, so your choice of topic is important.  Here are topics students wanting to write quality essays should avoid.

Before you think you need to tear up your current essay and start again, let me stress that any of these topics could be done well. Your challenge is to write a unique and captivating essay that could only belong to you.

1.  Recreating the Winning Online Essay

You can find dozens of successful essays on the Internet.  These essays are well written and capture the writer’s unique qualities.  However, as soon as a student attempts to replicate one of these winning essays, it loses its uniqueness.  You would be better served by observing the topics, writing style, tone, and variety of successful essays they find online, then using these traits for reference, writing your own story in your own words.

2.  Cliché Sports Victory

“I made the winning basket as the buzzer rang.”  “I led my team from behind to victory.” “I dug deep and found the strength in the last mile to pass my opponent and win the race.” Many high school students participate in sports and can identify moments when they overcame obstacles to enjoy success.  However, college admissions officers have read so many essays with these themes that the sports essay can sound cliché. If you want to write about your sports experiences, do so with a fresh perspective. Make sure your essay couldn’t apply to every cross-country runner or every pitcher who has faced an injury.

3.  Whining About Personal Misfortunes

Some applicants have faced tremendous challenges; colleges want to know about students’ struggles and how they have handled adversity.  However, no one wants to read a two-page essay in which a student whines about his or her personal misfortunes. Essays that complain, seek sympathy, or present the writer as a victim with no ability to change his or her circumstances can backfire.  Students should focus on the positive and explain how they have learned to adapt and overcome challenges (without whining). Again, your essay must have a fresh take on the situation—one that is unique to you.

4.  Illegal Activities

Yes, high school students can get into trouble, learn from their mistake, and turn things around.  However, featuring one’s indiscretions in a college admissions essay is a bad idea.  Colleges don’t want to admit students who may be violent or unstable.  Prospective students should avoid writing about drug use, underage drinking, shoplifting, date rape, or other illegal activities.  Even if a student has learned his or her lesson and changed, an essay on one of these topics may raise red flags.

5.  How Seeing the Underprivileged Made Me Grateful

Many high school students participate in community service opportunities in which they help others and in the process learn how fortunate they themselves are.  While these may be genuinely life-changing moments, too many essays present a clichéd view. Students should take care not to sentimentalize the “less fortunate” and instead focus on their personal achievements. This doesn’t mean you can’t write about your recent mission trip. But ask yourself, “Could this essay apply to anyone else in my group? Anyone who has made a similar journey?” If the answer is yes, you need to make major edits.

5.  Pathetic Attempt Humor

Everyone knows a person who thinks he or she is funny, but isn’t.  Humor can work well in an admission essay, showing the applicant’s true personality.  However, humor in an essay just as easily can be dangerous:  What comes across well in person may sound like a pathetic attempt at humor (or even offensive) on paper.

6.  Sarcastic Take on the Essay

Some applicants want to show their ability to think outside the box, so instead of answering the question presented, they present a quirky response in the form of a sarcastic take on the college essay.  Describing one’s biggest challenge as “finding a topic for college essays,” highlighting oneself as the person “having the most significant impact,” or writing a meta-essay in stream-of-consciousness style is likely to come off as flippant or arrogant, rather than intellectual and unique.

7.  Activity List in Paragraph Form

There is nothing more boring than reading a list. College applications already ask students to list their activities and achievements in other parts of the application process.  Admissions officers don’t want to read the exact same list in paragraph form.  You could create a better, more thoughtful essay if you focus on one or two significant activities and achievements and write about them in depth.

There is no “best” topic for college admissions essays.  The goal is for each student to present his or her personal strengths and demonstrate effective communication and college-bound writing.  Most topics can be done well, but when overdone or poorly executed they become cliché or ineffective.  No one wants to write a forgettable essay that sounds like all of the others, so it behooves prospective college students to choose carefully what topic to write about and to concentrate on writing about their own real experiences and ideas.

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