College Admission Essays 2023: 7 Topics To Avoid
I wrote an original post on this topic in 2015: College Admission Essays: 7 Topics to Avoid. While I would give students similar advice today, there are some categories I would change– mostly by broadening the topics to avoid.
What Makes a Good Essay
Good essays are personal. They tell the unique story of a particular applicant. They paint a picture of the student both with the content the writer has chosen to share and with the way in which the essay is written.
Choice of topic gives the applicant the opportunity to tell admissions officers about his or her unique talents, experiences, and strengths. At many competitive universities, an applicant’s essay can play a significant role in the admissions decision, so choice of topic is important.
It is equally important that the ideas are effectively conveyed. Obviously, grammatical errors are a problem, but there is a wide range of writing that is technically correct. My fifth-grade niece can write a two-page personal narrative that is error free; I want my college-bound students to strive for essays with greater skill in word choice, sentence construction, etc.
Topics to Avoid
Let me start with a key point: any topic can make a good college essay.
I often hear from students and educators that they wish they could write about sports or extracurriculars or family challenges, but they have heard these are topics to avoid. That’s nonsense. Any topic CAN work; your challenge is to write in such a way that your essay focuses on your strengths and avoids some of the common pitfalls.
Here is my updated list of what doesn’t work:
1. Recreating the Winning Online Essay
You can find dozens of successful essays online. Every year popular ones circulate on the Internet. These essays are well written and capture the writer’s unique qualities.
The problem is those essays were successful because they were unique.
However, as soon as students attempt to replicate one of these winning essays, they lose their uniqueness. Add to that the thousands of other students searching the internet in the hopes of finding just the right topic and great essays become overdone.
You would be better served by observing the topics, writing style, tone, and variety of successful essays online, then using these traits for reference to write your own story in your own words. (Hint: if you have read more than 10 essays, stop reading and start writing.)
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. Many college essay prompts ask you to discuss a challenge you have overcome. Here’s the issue: 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. A good sports essay can work. It just takes effort.
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 misfortunes.
Essays that complain, seek sympathy, or present the writer as a victim with no ability to change his or her circumstances can backfire.
If you are going to tell a story about how you have overcome obstacles, keep your description of the problem brief (and avoid language that blames others.) Focus on the positive and explain how you 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. Poor Judgment
In my initial list, I labeled this “illegal activities.” I want to broaden this category to any topic that features poor judgement.
Yes, high school students can get into trouble, learn from their mistakes, and turn things around. Keep in mind, colleges don’t want to admit students who may be violent or unstable.
Since I wrote my original “things to avoid” list in 2015, we’ve seen a number of situations in which students have gotten into legal trouble while standing up for important causes. Colleges are often willing to overlook these situations as long as students can show good judgement (non-violent offenses, meaningful causes, etc.)
Additionally, colleges don’t want to admit students who don’t share their community values, so essays revealing hate speech, bigoted actions, or other factors that show poor judgment and a direct clash with campus culture, are problematic, even if the applicant’s actions are legal.
5. Lack of Perspective or “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.
If you want to write about this type of situation, take care not to sentimentalize the “less fortunate” and instead focus on how YOU have changed as a result. Your realization should not be the end of the story; it is just the beginning. What have you DONE since? HOW have you changed?
It is possible to use a mission trip or volunteer experience as part of your essay, but the body of the essay has to focus on YOU and your approach should demonstrate maturity and perspective.
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. This is where you want to seek the advice of a few trusted adults who can offer an honest opinion.
Sometimes the people who know you best aren’t the best judges of this because they know you, your sense of humor, and will likely read what you intended– even if that’s not the way most people will read it.
6. The “Trying Too Hard To Be Different” Essay
Some applicants want to show their ability to think outside the box. This could take the form of a sarcastic take on the college essay (my original topic to avoid) or it could simply come across as trying too hard to be different. You know you are guilty of this if either your content or form is driven primarily by the desire to stand out.
There is nothing wrong with being unique, but your “unique” should be genuine.
Last fall, one of my students texted me in a panic a week before her early decision application was due. Her friend had just shared an essay on how her life was like an ice cream cone. My client was desperate to top this. I reminded her of the outline she had for a great response that featured HER rather than some gimmick.
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. Striving for the most unique response often comes off as bizarre. Be yourself, not the person who looks like they are trying too hard.
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.
If you are struggling with what to write or how to write it, I am offering my College Essay & Resume Workshop again this year. Even if you can’t make the live event (in-person in Sugar Land, TX or on Zoom), you can get all the materials and the Zoom recordings. There are also options for you to add personalized extra help. More information is online HERE.