First a disclaimer: There is no such thing as a bad essay topic — only a bad writer. However, some subjects are so frequently used (and admission officials so tired of seeing them) that they should be tackled by only the most exceptional writers or could otherwise be a liability at decision time. Other topics, like your three “D's," will sometimes be appropriate but can potentially provide Too Much Information and must be handled with care ... if not avoided entirely.
“The Dean" will get to those three D's in a minute, but let me begin with the more pedestrian topics that you probably want to skip. As noted above, they're not strictly taboo but it could be hard to stand out in a hyper-competitive crowd if you make one of these clichéd choices:
- The Big Game (or any athletic essay): Essays about athletics are everywhere, and, if you're a sports standout, this will probably be crystal clear in your application anyway so you'd be wise to highlight some other interest, experience or strength in your main college essay. The best sports essays I've read myself were actually written by benchwarmers. Introspective pieces on “Why I stuck with field hockey even though I only played 22 minutes in four years" can be more eye-catching and informative than dramatic sagas about an overtime win.
- The Big Orchestra Recital (or Drama Debut, etc.): You'll need to work hard to be original here. The standard formula seems to go like this: “I was nervous; I didn't think I would do it; the curtain came up and suddenly all eyes were on me; And I did do it after all. So now I know I can accomplish whatever I set my sights on." (Athletics essays often follow this format as well.)
- Pet Death: Losing a beloved pet can be one of the hardest trials a teenager faces, but your grief — however understandable -- rarely translates into an effective essay. Admission officials tend to speak with forked tongues. They'll tell you to write on what you care about. But then when you do, they may scoff and call it callow. If you did lose a pet, you have my sympathies. “The Dean" knows that pain all too well ... but you probably don't want to write about it in your college essay.
- Breaking Up with a Significant Other: See “Pet Death" above.
- Religious epiphanies: These are 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 losing Fluffy, a brilliant white light blazed down on me and I could feel a strong force take my hand …" At application time, your personal faith should probably stay personal.
- Trials and Tribulations of Travel: It's nearly impossible to keep admission officials awake if you write about the Outward Bound/Experiment in International Living/Month on a Kibbutz (etc.) experience where you invariably learn that people are the same at heart wherever you go or that you're grateful to be an American — or both. (But see the Harry Bauld book I recommend below for an example of an original approach to this trite topic.)
- My Grandfather or Grandmother and What I've Learned From Their Old-Fashioned Values: If you're going to pick this shopworn subject, offer some specific and unique examples of what your grandparents have taught you. Admission folks tend to warm up to details about unfamiliar cultures. But be sure you're believable too. “Nonna and Nonno taught me that it's best to be in bed by nine and stay home with my parents on weekends" may not ring quite true.
- Achieving World Peace Through Mutual Understanding (and other oversimplified solutions to complex problems). There are certainly many global crises that cry out to be addressed, but taking a stab at them in a 600-word essay is probably going to come off as merely superficial.
As for your downer D's, I rarely tell students to bypass them entirely but I do advise them to proceed cautiously instead. Sometimes a transcript (with uneven grades or one really awful semester) or an erratic personal history (frequent absences, multiple schools or addresses) suggest that a student may have faced some difficulties. In such cases, it's usually wise to tell the admission committees what these difficulties are rather than have the college staff imagining options that might be worse than the truth. Likewise, if you battled a major physical or mental illness or endured serious strife at home, you may feel that this is such an integral part of who you are that it would be disingenuous to omit such information in your applications. But ... when that's the case ... I recommend that students discuss their problems in the “Additional Information" section of their applications (or in a separate unsolicited letter or essay) and then write their main essay on something else. This sends a message that implies, “Yes, I've endured challenges, but they don't define me."
Some students have even been led to believe that without an “adversity" essay to share, they'll actually be at a disadvantage in the admissions process. The upshot is that they produce prose about “hardships" that aren't going to seem terribly hard to adult adjudicators. So if you're going to write about overcoming obstacles, keep in mind that too many teens these days do face some really tough stuff, and if your own misfortunes were more along the lines of ACL surgery with three lacrosse games still left on the schedule, you might want to rethink your topic.
So ... with all of these essay ideas on the “Probably Off-Limits" list, what's left to write about? Well, when I reflect on the best essays I've read over the eons, many of the subjects might seem insignificant at first. One essay, for instance, was on a laundry mishap (it was more about the boundaries of friendship); one was about a summer job picking potatoes in Idaho, and one — which made me LOL each time I read it — was titled, “Why I Shop at Wal-Mart." (Humor can help an essay stand apart but never force it if it doesn't come naturally to you.) What these essays had in common was that they gave admission officials a glimpse of the candidate's values and beliefs as well as their everyday experiences.
If you're stuck for an idea, try reading a few of the sample essays in an oldie-but-goodie book called On Writing THE College Application Essay, by Harry Bauld. Pay particular attention to “Whole Sole" (the aforementioned atypical treatment of the overused travel-abroad topic) and “Mr. Somary" (about a favorite teacher ... and everyone must have one favorite teacher who might provide good essay fodder).
But note also that, toward the end of the book, Mr. Bauld (a former Brown admission officer, by the way) includes several student essays followed by admission-officer critiques. And what you'll observe (no surprise here!) is that the admission folks don't always agree. And I found this was true in real life as well. When I read applications at Smith College, I would receive folders that had “Great essay" scrawled across the front, and then I would read the essay eagerly ... and cringe! Or likewise, I'd love an essay that a colleague hated.
So the moral of the story is that, no matter how great your essay may be, some admission officers will like it while others are, at best, lukewarm. Thus, try to choose a topic that works for YOU ... something that you want to talk about and not something that you feel you should (or shouldn't talk about). The subject itself need not be unique; it's your approach to it that really counts.
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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