7 Essay Topics to Avoid and Why
The college essay is the most integral piece of the application in terms of showcasing a student’s unique attributes and experiences. It can be difficult to decide on a topic, so keep in mind that the essays you write will act as your voice, demonstrating who you really are as an applicant—beyond transcripts and other components of your file. This is why it’s important to tell a great story about who you are that admissions officers might not glean from your application otherwise.
Don’t worry about being the next Ernest Hemingway or Jane Austen; however, do avoid these common essay topics:
1. A Litany of Your Academic and/or Extracurricular Achievements
Assuming you have already listed and appropriately described these on your resume and in the Activities section of the Common App, you need not rehash every accolade you have received since 9th grade. In fact, doing this can be off-putting, as it is easily construed as boastful and not impressive as one might think. Not to mention, you’ll miss the opportunity to help the admission readers get a glimpse of your personality and what makes you tick.
2. Your Hero
A common mistake students make is to write too much about someone who inspires them, which defeats the purpose of the personal essay. Colleges want to know about you and your development as an individual and as a student. If you do go down this road, spend less time discussing your hero and more time on how that person has contributed to your growth or significantly impacted your life, and use specific examples.
3. Experimental or Creative Writing
Your college essay is not likely to be nominated for a PEN or Pulitzer award, so writing without punctuation or in a non-linear form as a matter of stylistic choice will not win you any points. Instead, opt for a clear voice and style that will engage your readers, not confuse them. Save your stream-of-consciousness narratives for your high school’s literary magazine.
4. A Sports-Related Challenge or Success
One of the most popular topics, we caution against writing about your golf team’s underdog story or the injury you thought would end your softball career, not because they aren’t important stories to tell, but because so many students write the same formulaic narrative. If you do choose to write about a sports-related endeavor or obstacle, make sure to keep it fresh by focusing less on what happened and more on how it affected you.
5. Service Trips
In an effort to demonstrate their altruism, many students feel compelled to write about volunteer experiences, especially those in developing countries. However, these essays can backfire if not articulated carefully. You never want to come off as pretentious, privileged, or tone-deaf. If you choose this topic, steer clear of a chronological retelling of your trip and focus on one aspect of it (e.g., the relationship you developed with your host mom or the one moment that gave you new insight). Offer readers an account of how the experience changed you and what action you took as a result.
The personal essay asks students to share their story—and often that story includes personal tragedy, whether it’s death, divorce, illness, or something else. These difficult topics may be central to your identity, but how you write about them will determine whether they are appropriate for a college essay. Whatever you do, do not pepper your essay with clichés such as, “I learned how precious life really is!” or “Everything happens for a reason.” Colleges are much more interested in what you did in the face of tragedy. How did you overcome it? What did you do in response? If you lost a loved one to cancer, did you organize fundraisers for cancer research? Keep the essay personal to you.
7. Controversial or Polarizing Subjects
While you may be quick to share your stance on gun control or reproductive rights, you cannot easily predict the opinions of your reader. For this reason, we urge you to steer clear of making a social or political issue the focal point of your essay unless you have a personal connection to the issue. If that is the case, briefly explain your personal connection and spend more time telling the reader how you have taken action.
One last piece of advice: to ensure adequate time for proofreads and revisions, start writing your essays sooner rather than later. If you’re a rising senior, the time to start is now.
-International College Counselors