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Articles / Applying to College / Application Essay Topics to Avoid

Application Essay Topics to Avoid

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Nov. 14, 2017

Thanksgiving will be here in 10 days, as of this writing. That means that the ominous January 1 college application deadline looms larger and larger.

In fact, many high schools require that college applications be completed and submitted to the counseling department before (sometimes well before) December's holiday break. Thus, the pressure is on if you haven't been working on your applications.

Essays. Yikes. They are probably the most despised part of the college process. Most high school seniors don't consider themselves adequate writers. If they do think they can write, many times they misunderstand what colleges are looking for in both the Common Application essay and their supplemental statements.

Yes, by "supplemental statements" I mean those irritating additional essays required by many colleges. It's a big enough challenge to produce a winning Common Application statement, which allows for up to 650 words. That's a lot of writing. However, when asked to add to that requirement an additional essay (or essays), sometimes in the 500-word realm, things can get mighty onerous.

So, what should you write about? Well, today, I want to talk about what not to write about -- topics to avoid. Since this will be your first time through the college process loop, you have no frame of reference regarding the impact of your writing on admissions officers. Trust me; they've seen it all and they're jaded veterans whose eyes can glaze over in a heartbeat when they see certain genres of essays cross their path. So, if you want some pertinent heads-up about how to avoid being a sleep aid for these folks, read on and learn.

Many seniors aren't very confident about their ability to assess an application's essay prompt and conjure a cogent, convincing response. I find it interesting that, more or less across the board, a majority of applicants seem to gravitate into one or more of those personal topics to avoid, such as:

- Sex

- Drugs or drunkenness

- Bad grades

- Crimes

- A mere description of why this college is perfect for you

- A news story or disaster that has no direct effect on you

- World peace

- The big game/sports triumph

- Deep confessions

I can't tell you how many drafts I've seen that begin something like, "I thought I would never make it to the finish line, but something deep inside me kept pushing me forward." I've also seen college professionals comment on what they don't want to see in essays. Here's a good caution from a Columbia University advisor:

Please do not start with the story about an epiphany, such as the day that you knew you wanted to study the subject [or specific area of concentration]. Especially if it involves a child in a poor country. In my opinion, this is mostly irrelevant and largely cliche.

That made me chuckle because I've seen more than a few essays begin exactly like that. When the above writer says, "largely cliche," s/he's also alluding to the topics-to-avoid list. How about this cliche opening: "Through wrestling, I have learned to solve problems and get to know people better."

Ha! Anyway, in doing some background research for this post, I discovered an interesting article that further echoes my cautions about positing these so-called poison points. Since its enlightenment reflects much of my own about this topic, I thought I would send some excerpts your way, starting with this:

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.

You've no doubt seen that thought expressed here across my many years of Admit This! posts. Fastweb writer Elizabeth Hoyt offers ten topic cautions. Below, I'll cite five. You can check out her article yourself to cover the other five.

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.

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.

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.

Now, you may be thinking, "Okay, Dave, I stand warned about what not to write about, but what should I write about?" That's a great question, and I have a great answer for that: Go to the search box in the upper-right corner of this page and type in the word "essays." What you'll get in return is a long list of my articles from across almost a decade of commenting on the art of essay writing.

You don't have to read all of those articles, naturally, but check the titles for inspiration. Sooner of later the light bulb in your brain will illuminate. Then, following my suggestions for a good start. Application essay writing isn't as hard as you may imagine. It just takes some planning and caution.

If you haven't already started to write, start now. The last thing you want to do is ruin a perfectly good holiday break by sitting in front of your computer with a blank look on your face. Use your imagination and Admit This! to help you write something that will open those college gates for you!


Be sure to check out all my articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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