May 21, 2020
Question: What essay topics do admission deans hate to read about?
Admission officials like to read any essay that's well crafted, so there's rarely a topic that requires a huge "Keep Out!" warning. But ... there are certainly those that could use at least a small "Caution" sign. These tend to fall under three headings. The first is "Overused Ideas"--the ones that would actually be pretty decent topics if most admission folks hadn't seen them a gazillion times already. This list includes:
The Big Game and/or learning all my important life lessons from athletics
The Big Orchestra Recital (or Drama Debut,etc.): "I was nervous but rose above my fear and the applause was deafening."
Pet Death: "I lost my best friend and thought I couldn't go on, but now I have a new pet I will love just as much."
Religious epiphanies: Often used in tandem with one of the other topics above, as in “It was as if God had given me the power and determination to cross the finish line ahead of Joel Fassbinder …” or “Just when I thought I would die myself from the pain of losing Fluffy, a brilliant white light blazed down on me and I could feel a strong force take my hand …”
Trials and Tribulations of Travel: The Outward Bound/Experiment in International Living/Month on a Kibbutz (etc.) experience. "I discovered that people everywhere are the same at heart and/or I learned to value the advantages I have at home and now I don't mind sharing my room with my brother so much since I only have one and not seven."
My Grandfather or Grandmother: Their old-fashioned values (that I don't personally share but respect--to some extent--as long as they don't keep trying to impose them on me) or How hard Meemaw and Peepaw worked to make a good life for their family after they came here from the old country (but I just wish they'd remember that they're not still in the old country and stop telling me how to dress).
Achieving World Peace Through Mutual Understanding (and other oversimplified solutions to complex problems)
The Kindly Homeless Man at the Soup Kitchen Where I Just Started Volunteering (who actually gave me more than I gave him)
Personally, I hate to suggest that such ideas should be avoided entirely because they often represent what is important in many teenagers' lives. Unless you've grown up in a homeless shelter or endured chemotherapy, you may feel that your biggest challenge to date really was defeating the Palisades Panthers in the divisional soccer final or spending a week in Salamanca with the school Spanish Club. I've actually read great essays on several of these subjects, but only the very best ones stand out in a crowd, so you might want to head in a more original direction.
The second area to avoid is the "Overcoming Obstacles" essay. Your "I'm making do with a Subaru" diatribe is going to sound pretty lame to the admission folks who have been up all night reading about the aforementioned homeless shelters and chemo treatments. So, unless you've surmounted something pretty daunting--or can write with uncommon wit and at least a dash of self-deprecation--then steer clear.
The final Caution category is the TMI (Too Much Information) essay. If you think you're going to impress admission committees by being the first applicant ever to tackle the joys of barfing or belching, think again. Not only have these topics been done (a lot), but also rarely will your fourth-grade humor make the impression that you're aiming for.
Sometimes an entire topic falls in TMI turf ("How Herpes Simplex 2 has made me a more careful person") and sometimes the topic itself is sound, but admission folks don't really need every detail of your cage-cleaning rotation the summer you interned at the zoo.
Also under the TMI rubric, don't use your college essay as a confessional. If you were suspended for sharing a beer under the basketball bleachers or busting into the biology teacher's file cabinet, then colleges will need an explanation of the incident and what you learned from it. But your primary essay is often not the best place for that. Write a supplementary essay or letter instead, and use the main one to point out that you actually have other interests and skills besides booze and burglary. And, by all means, don't use your essay to reveal a guilty conscience. If you never got caught for some lapse in judgment, this isn't the time to get it off your chest.
Finally, while it's sensible to ask about what admission deans might like to read--or not--do keep in mind that the best essays are usually those that aren't overly conscious of their audience. You shouldn't write merely what you think the admission committees should see or use those 50-cent words you found in the thesaurus. Read your essay draft to others who know you well (parents, siblings, friends, etc.) and ask them if your own voice is coming through loud and clear.