Writing your college essays can be either a drudge or a wonderful time of self-reflection and creativity. Understanding what colleges are looking for is the key to your selection of topics, and the way to figure that out is two-fold – first, know yourself and what you are looking for and second, know the mission and ethos of the colleges and what kind of applicant they are seeking to join their campus community.
Unfortunately, many applicants do themselves a disservice by taking on topics that don’t resonate well with the admission readers, thus giving a false or incorrect impression of the writer. The focus, or topic, of the essay must engage the reader from the very first sentence, share a positive, optimistic, and truthful picture of the applicant, and allow the reader to feel confident that this particular applicant fits their profile. Here are some overused and unhelpful topics that students are encouraged to avoid.
A laundry list of accomplishments that sounds both arrogant and boastful and fails to share anything substantial about who you really are. Don’t exaggerate your achievements because it will probably show through in your writing and that lack of authenticity breaks all the requirements for a solid and original college essay.
Sports essays are far too frequent. The overused “I scored the winning goal and it changed my life” is a boring story that again fails to tell a personal story. Admission readers have read more than a lifetime of stories about the ‘thrill of victory and the agony of defeat’ – please don’t add to the list. Enough about how you value teamwork and hard work – it’s so overrated. Instead, tell more about some aspect of your sport that has given you a deeper insight into who you are and what you want. If you must write about sports, personalize your experiences.
Another dodgy subject to avoid is humor. If you are a truly funny person, tell a story that illustrates this about you, but trying to be funny just to amuse the reader is usually not going to work. Don’t tell off-color jokes or make fun of anyone; your reader wants to get to know you, not attend a comedy show. Take risks but don’t be risqué.
Given the current state of polarization in many parts of the world, it is best to avoid topics such as politics, abortion or religion; remember, you don’t know who is reading your essay. Again, know yourself and know your college. Be careful about being too controversial in your essay, and avoid any descriptions of illicit behaviors, profane language, drugs or alcohol. Don’t try to shock your reader as a way to be memorable; it will likely backfire horribly.
Many students participate in community service and, for those lucky enough to have significant resources, may complete international travel with a volunteer component. These essays can also prove to be a big snore to the reader because they fail to share anything personal about these wonderful opportunities. Don’t write another laundry list of ‘what I did in Costa Rica to save the green turtles’ – write about a local volunteer whom you connected with, someone doing work important to you, and from whom you learned an important life lesson. Keep the focus on what you learned about yourself, about the world around you, and how hard you worked.
The classic essay that is way too often brought into play is the one about someone else! That’s right, not about you but about your grandmother/father/ sister/neighbor/coach – you get the idea. This one always falls flat because, invariably, the reader comes away thinking that they would love to meet your grandmother, and not you!
Many students dig around for some kind of challenge they have had to overcome. Some are real, such as death and divorce, but others are manufactured and must be avoided. This might include the pain of an ingrown toenail or the fury at not being given a car for your 16th birthday! Yes, those are real topics chosen by applicants in recent years. Keep it real, and keep the focus on you, honestly.
COVID19—admission officers are already dreading this topic. You’ll want to talk about this only if your experience was unique.
Be honest, authentic, original and real. Take the time to brainstorm ideas for essays that don’t give you a specific prompt. Stay focused on one moment in time that had a significant impact on your life and stay away from clichés, exaggerated lists of events and achievements, and allow your true, best self to shine. Start with a strong opening and grow from there – make your admission readers smile, jump up from their chair and share your essay with colleagues. Let them know the real YOU!