College Admissions Essay Topics to Avoid

Make your admissions essay stand out by avoiding these topics that are overused on college applications.

Kathryn Knight Randolph

October 24, 2022

College Admissions Essay Topics to Avoid
The last thing you want your college essay to be is a cliché, so avoid the following.
Applying to college is a multi-pronged process that culminates with a component that high school seniors tend to both dread and procrastinate. Hint: it’s the college admissions essay. It’s true, you can save yourself some time and stress by simply reusing an essay that you wrote for school. However, with the pressure to position yourself uniquely and make a case for your admission, most students opt to write a completely new essay. Unfortunately, students gravitate toward cliched essay responses, and admissions officers spend hundreds – if not thousands – of hours reading essays that are the same. So, why? Why are students taking a boring, tired approach to the essay? Is it a lack of creativity? Or a lack of moxie? Certainly not!
Students know how to be creative. They have also shown that they can rise up to challenges in their lives and experience positive growth. Now, how can the college application essay reflect that? Here is an example: A boring essay is a summary of Joe’s mission trip to Guatemala, where he volunteered at a local school with his family. A great essay details Joe’s experience during his mission trip to Guatemala, where he volunteered at a local school with his family. It was there he met Anita, a local elderly woman who wanted to learn how to read. However, she came from a poor family, so she never had the opportunity. Joe and Anita developed a friendship…
See, you want to read more of the story, right? The first essay example reads like thousands of other essays, while the second tells a story that pulls you into the narrative. That’s the difference. You may think you know how you’ll craft your essay; but before you get started, check out this list of topics that you should avoid – and why.

College Admissions Essay Topics to Avoid:

  1. A Summary of Your Accomplishments If you haven’t learned this by now, you’ll need to learn it before you set foot on a college campus: nobody likes a braggart. Plus, you’ve already made the admissions committee aware of your achievements and accolades.
    They have seen your college application, read through your list of extracurricular activities, and heard how wonderful you are to have in class or on the team from your letters of recommendation. If you want to talk about what you have achieved so far in life, grab a moment that challenged or changed you. Speak to that experience.
  2. Highly Polarized or Sensitive Topics Pretend that the college admissions committee is gathered around your Thanksgiving table. What topics should you avoid? Politics and religion. Everyone comes to the table with bias, and even though admissions officers are discouraged from making admissions decisions on this, it happens. Especially if your college essay is polarizing. Ultimately, you are working to gain admission into that college, not convince people that you are right about your opinions or beliefs. So, apart from those applying to a religious institution, keep views that are personal to yourself; and in this case, opt for a safer topic.
  3. Sports Unless you’re playing Division 1, Big Ten football and have an arm like Tom Brady, the admissions committee does not care that being the high school quarterback was the defining experience of your life, thus far. Admissions officers have heard enough about “the thrill of victory” and “the agony of defeat” in relation to high school athletics. If they wanted to hear or see that story play out one more time, they could just watch Remember the Titans or Friday Night Lights or Hoosiers or Bend It like Beckham, etc., etc., etc. You get the picture.
  4. Humor The college admissions essay is not a joke, so stop trying to crack a few throughout your narrative. Unless you have a hilarious story or you’re a naturally funny person, joking throughout an essay can come off feeling forced. Admissions officers will see the futile attempt – and not find it amusing. Plus, if it’s a “typical funny experience of story,” they will likely read it several times over in other essays.
  5. You’re SO Lucky or #Blessed The last thing that admissions officers want to read about is a privileged life, no offense. We know that you know that you’re fortunate. If you want to discuss your privilege or blessings, discuss the time or experience that awakened you to your life circumstances. Talk about how it changed you – and not just a perspective shift. What did you DO in response to your awakening? And how can you speak to that without seeming to be a savior, of sorts.
  6. Volunteer Experiences & Trips Volunteer experiences in college essays can come off sounding a lot like #1 and/or #5 in this list. If you plan to talk about a volunteer experience or mission trip, don’t discuss what you brought to the table. Instead, take a moment from your experience, something interesting or unexpected, and write about how it impacted you. Talk about a person that you met that inspired you. If your trip incited a passion that has turned into your hopeful major and career path, discuss the instance that you found what you want to do with your life. Chances are, that moment won’t be about you – but the people and places you met and encountered.
  7. Self-Expression If you think your anti-essay is insanely creative and never-before-seen by the admissions committee, think again. Some of the best and brightest students fall into this trap, but nothing will get a bigger eye roll from admissions officers than a student who thinks they are above the college essay. While a poem, stream of conscious, satire, or video essay are definitely more creative, it’s not the best idea, unless you are specifically asked to do this with your essay by the college. The sole purpose of your college essay is to get into that college. Show the college how creative you are once you’re a student on campus.
  8. Illegal or Illicit Behavior Unless you are required to divulge arrests and/or jail time on your college application, avoid writing about illegal of illicit behavior at all costs. The admissions committee does not want to read about your underage drug and alcohol use or sexual exploits. In fact, that’s the fastest way to land yourself in the “Rejected” pile. You do 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. And while we’re on that topic, if your social media contains any posts related to the above, it’s time to delete them or make your account private. Admissions officers are searching for you on social media in order to get a realistic picture of who you are and how you would complement their student body.
  9. The Most Important [Person, Place, Thing] in My Life Third grade just called, and it wants its essay topic back. Admission officers have read countless essays about how Mom or Dad are so inspiring as well as high school teachers that really prompted a love for learning. As important as these people may be in your life, the college admissions essay should be about you and your experiences.
  10. Tragedies It is not easy to write about death, divorce, or similar tragedies. For one, it’s a very emotional experience for the writer, and it’s challenging to communicate feelings and thoughts without coming across as a cliché. You don’t have to avoid this topic, per say, but you should write about how this shaped you if you’re going to attempt it. What did you feel? How did it impact you? What is your unique experience to the tragedies that thousands of other high school students have lived?

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