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What not to write in college essays if you want to make a great impression.

Sep 3, 2020 | Higher Education

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Your college essay offers an opportunity to make the right impression on the schools you want to attend, something that can help boost your chances of being accepted when you apply. But before plunging into the writing process, you’ll need to decide what topic to explore in your essay. This might not seem difficult, but it’s important to know which college essay topics to avoid. Certain topics could end up giving schools a bad first impression of you, while other topics might cause you to blend right in with other applicants instead of standing out from the competition.

College Essay Topics to Avoid

When you’re brainstorming ideas, you can narrow down your options right away by knowing what not to write in college essays. The following topics should go in your pile of discarded ideas for your college essay. Staying away from these 12 topics can give you a better chance at having your application considered instead of tossed aside.

1. Controversial Topics

Controversial topics, such as current political hot buttons, should be avoided at all costs. These topics might provide you with a subject you feel strongly about, but your college essay isn’t the time to focus on something that’s highly sensitive or polarizing. Keep in mind that you have no way to know whether or not the person who ends up reading your essay agrees with your views. Instead of impressing them with your writing skills and knowledge, you could alienate them and hurt your chance of being accepted. If you’re going to choose a topic that you’re passionate about, make sure it isn’t considered controversial or sensitive.

2. Highly Personal Topics

College essay topics to avoid also include anything that’s highly personal or a delicate subject. For example, avoid doing an essay that provides too much detail on an illness, disability, or injury, especially a severe one. You might want to write about this kind of experience in order to emphasize how you were able to deal with it or overcome challenges related to it. While you can still consider choosing a personal challenge as a topic, it’s better to avoid writing about anything graphic or too personal, such as going into detail about a serious injury.

3. Personal Achievements and Accomplishments

Your college application should have a list of your achievements and accomplishments, such as any honors or awards you’ve received. There’s no need to make these the focus of your college essay. Writing about what you’ve achieved might seem like a great way to impress the school you’re applying to, but it can have the opposite effect. The person who reads your essay might not find it engaging or informative enough. You might also come across as bragging or boasting about your achievements. Your college essay gives schools a chance to assess you based on your writing. Handing in what amounts to a list of your accomplishments doesn’t allow you to let your own voice and personality shine through your writing.

4. Most Important Place or a Role Model

If you’re thinking of writing about a place or person who has inspired you, this probably won’t work well as a college essay topic. When you choose to write about this kind of topic, you might end up focusing too much on that person or place and not enough on yourself. Schools use college essays to learn more about those who want to become students. Submitting an essay that mainly talks about a place you find inspiring or someone you consider a role model doesn’t tell the school enough about you as a person. If you do choose the inspirational route for your college essay, make sure you focus more on how this place or person had an impact on you.

5. Creative Writing

Creative writing is one of the most common examples of what not to write in college essays. Writing your essay in a stream of consciousness style or as a poem or play isn’t likely to win you any points for creativity with the school. While it’s understandable that you want your essay to stand out from the rest, adopting a creative style rather than sticking to straightforward prose isn’t the best way to do this. You can work on impressing the school by making sure you provide engaging content in a thoughtful and well-written essay.

6. Athletic Topics

Athletic topics, such as winning a championship game as the underdog team or training hard for a competition, shouldn’t be used as a college essay topic. Student athletes especially might be tempted to choose sports as the topic of their essay, since it’s something they know well. Sports is a common topic, though, which can make it much harder for you to stand apart from the competition. Even if this is your strongest area of interest, it’s better to choose a different topic.

7. Humorous Topics or Jokes

Topics to avoid in college essays also include jokes or humor. Writing your entire college essay in a humorous tone or including a few jokes might seem like a way to make sure it’s entertaining to read, but keep in mind that humor and jokes are highly subjective. The person reading your essay might not get your humor, or they might find attempts at jokes or humor inappropriate or unprofessional. Leave this kind of content out of your essay altogether and avoid trying to achieve a humorous or sarcastic tone. Doing so doesn’t mean your essay will automatically be boring or dry. The challenge is to create an essay that’s enjoyable and informative to read without relying on humor.

8. Tragic Events

Tragic events can provide an opportunity to explore personal growth, but they’re usually very hard to write about. This depends on your own comfort level in handling this type of topic, such as losing a loved one. If you do want to write about a tragic event in your life, make sure that you keep it focused mainly on yourself. For example, use the essay to explore how the event affected you or what your thoughts were when it occurred. Handling a tragic topic in this way helps the school learn more about you rather than just reading about the details of the event.

9. Travel Experience

If you’re a well-traveled person, you might want to write all about a vacation or even a volunteer trip you took. However, travel-related college essays are another common type that might not give you a good chance to be noticed. To make a travel topic really stand out, you would need to focus on a particular part of that vacation or trip, such as meeting someone who affected your life in some way or an unexpected event or challenge that occurred. Avoid focusing on writing about a trip in general terms, since this won’t make your essay a memorable read.

10. Privilege or Luck

If you’ve had a lot of luck or privilege in life, such as growing up in a wealthy community, avoid using this as a college essay topic. Writing about how much you’ve had the privilege of experiencing in life can easily create the impression that you’re boasting. This kind of essay topic also doesn’t tell schools enough about who you are as a person or what you’re capable of accomplishing through your own skills and talents.

11. Negative Aspects of the School

This might seem obvious, but it’s best to avoid writing about anything that portrays the school you’re applying to in a negative way. Some students might consider doing a negative topic as a way to stand out or get credit for taking a risk on their essay. However, the school isn’t likely to see it this way. Spending your college essay criticizing the school you’re applying to or focusing on negative aspects of it is a surefire way to make a bad impression. This could cost you the chance to have your application taken into serious consideration.

No matter what you end up choosing for your college essay, make sure you take your time writing it. Double-check when it’s due. Give yourself plenty of time to come up with a well-written essay that reflects who you are. Creating a high-quality college essay helps put you above the competition and improves your chance of getting noticed among a sea of essays.

Thank you for reading! The views and information provided in this post do not reflect Post University programs and/or outcomes directly. If you are interested in learning more about our programs, you can find a complete list of our programs on our website or reach out directly!  

Disclaimer:  Thank you for reading! The views and information provided in this post do not reflect Post University programs and/or outcomes directly. If you are interested in learning more about our programs, you can find a complete list of our programs on our website or reach out directly!

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What not to do in your college application essay: 10 things you should always avoid

by Carol Barash, PhD , on Jul 22, 2021 11:32:57 AM

What should you not write in a college essay?

When I read college application essays as a faculty advisor to the admissions committee at Douglass College, Rutgers, the great essays were few and far between, but I remember them to this day. They were authentic, well-crafted and told me an interesting story. 

Those successful essays also avoided a number of common pitfalls. Many essays included things that you should not do in your college admissions essay including: 

Keep reading to learn even more about the things that you should not write about in your college admissions essay. 

1. Never rehash your academic and extracurricular accomplishments.

Your school work and out-of-school work already show up in your transcript, lists of awards, and activities. Essays provide another dimension to your application. Who will you be as a classmate? As a roommate? As the leader of a campus activity?

2. Never write about a “topic.”

Students often come to our courses with a “topic” they think they should write about, as if they are writing an analytical essay in English class. Instead, you should explore specific moments that reveal your character in action.  

3. Never start with a preamble.

“This is an essay about my commitment to the environment.” Boring! You have one chance to get the reader’s attention, so draw them in with action right from the beginning. Set the scene, or jump right into dialogue, so they see it’s not just you in the story.

Learn from successful student essays with notes about how they worked and why! 

4. never end with a “happily ever after” conclusion..

“That was the day I learned how important it is to be kind to everyone.” You just stabbed me in the heart with stupor. Your reader is smart. If you have shown your learning, you don’t need to tell them what you learned.

5. Never pontificate.

Do not ever tell other people what they should think. Don’t plead your case. Don’t be right or make someone else wrong. It’s great to be engaged in activist work, but show yourself doing the work rather than using your essay as a platform to make your case.

6. Never retreat into your thoughts.

The worst essays are the ones where students are all caught in their own thoughts. The worst example: all the big, world-changing things you think about during yoga class. Write about what you did the next day instead.

7. Never hold back.

College essays should reveal the real you, the complicated you, the person who makes mistakes, not the goody-two-shoes you think you are supposed to be. Colleges admit real people, not perfect people.

8. Never give TMI.

But be careful: your essay is the first thing colleges know about you. No stories are off limits, but tell them in a way that draws people into your experience, not a way that shocks or scares them away.

9. Never show your essay to too many people.

Share prudently. Students often show their essays to teachers, counselors, parents, and friends. Each person has a different idea about what you “should” write, and before you know it, you’ve lost the heart of the essay.

10. Never over-edit your essay.

After showing their essay to everyone, students edit it again and again to make each reader happy -- and before you know it, their story has been ground down and their voice has vanished. Don't cut out your unique voice. Don't let yourself sound like everyone else.

Go to College Admission Essays Made Easy.

For more info about college admission and scholarship essays and interviews, sign up for self-paced courses and our award-winning StoryBuilder writing platform FREE .  Want to stay up to date on the latest tips and resources? Follow us @story2 on Instagram!

Carol Barash , PhD , is founder + CEO of Story2, a community of over a quarter-million storytellers across 4 continents. Carol innovates at the intersection of education, technology + community. A graduate of Yale, UVA, Princeton, Goldman Sachs 10KSB + Techstars, Carol created the Moments Method® and built Story2 to empower people to share bold, authentic stories in safe, intersectional communities.

what not to include in a college essay

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15 college essay topics to avoid and why.

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Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/21/22

Entrance essays are an integral part of your college application. Beyond your test scores, GPA, and other achievements, your essays are essentially the heart of your application. Essays help admissions committees get to know the person behind the stats. 

While your essays showcase your adept writing skills, they also uncover your personality, voice, background, experiences, and more. You can choose your essay topics when you apply through the Common Application, Coalition Application, or any other online application portal. However, there are some topics you should avoid, or at the very least, slightly steer your narrative in another direction. 

Below we’ll walk you through why it’s best to avoid some topics in your college entrance essays and a brief overview of some common topics to steer clear of or adjust the trajectory. 

Avoid embarrassing essay mistakes & get 5 FREE essay comments from a former college admissions officer in less than 30 minutes.

Why should you avoid certain topics for college entrance essays .

When you meet someone, what’s the first thing you do? You probably say “hello,” or “nice to meet you,” and maybe flash a smile and shake their hand. Think of your personal essays the same way: you’re “meeting” the admissions committee for the first time and want to put your best foot forward. 

Choosing the wrong essay topic that either paints you in a negative light, adds nothing to your profile, lacks creativity, or is otherwise inappropriate can jeopardize this crucial meeting. 

Adam Sapp , Assistant Vice President and Director of Admissions at Pomona College, said, “The essays are important in part because this is a student's chance to really speak directly to the admissions office.” 

Your essays should have a professional yet conversational tone and should show admissions committees why you're an excellent candidate. While all this sounds limiting, don’t worry too much. Many other topics would make an excellent essay. You just have to find what works and what doesn’t first.

15 Topics to Avoid in Your College Essays 

Before you start brainstorming, know there are many college essay topics to avoid altogether. Some college essay topics are cliche, and some are risky, uncreative, or just downright inappropriate. We’ll talk you through all the topics to avoid in college essays. 

Inappropriate Topics

A rehash of your activities list and transcripts , relationships, romance, and breakups , writing about your hero, the sports story, highly personal topics, controversial topics: politics, religion, and more , the confessional , throwing the box away , the service/mission/class trip , something that happened way before high school , your privilege or luck, anything that involves lying, risky topics like pointing out a school’s shortcomings .

Some people think rolling with an inappropriate topic and shocking the admissions committee is a great idea: it’s not. Stay far, far away from anything to do with illegal activity, alcohol, substance use, and anything else following these themes. 

You don’t set yourself up for success using topics like these. The admissions committee could cast judgment, and you’re certainly not putting your best foot forward. 

The only time something like this may be appropriate is if you volunteered at a needle exchange or harm reduction facility. Even then, you’d want to delve into the topic with tact and grace or consider choosing another topic altogether. 

Essentially summarizing your achievements won’t make for a compelling narrative. The admissions committee already has access to your activities list and transcripts, so there’s no need to reiterate all of the items you wrote down. 

Summarizing these documents is a mistake because it won’t add anything else to your application. Remember, you want to tell the admissions committee something they don’t already know. 

If you want to write about a specific extracurricular, get close and personal with just one. Select the most meaningful activity or the one you were most passionate about and delve beyond the surface. Focusing on one activity can make for a successful essay if it shows your growth, positive character traits, or personality. 

As much as you may be head over heels for your partner, or scraping the bottom of ice cream tubs after a breakup, don’t turn these experiences into essay topics. It sounds a little harsh, but your love life doesn’t matter to the admissions committee. Besides that, love is a gigantic and complex topic not well-suited to a college application essay.

The other problem with this topic is it takes the focus off of yourself and onto another person. You want to ensure your essay is all about you . That's the person most important to the admissions committee, so put yourself first. 

Writing a story about your hero sounds nice in theory. However, it’s a cliche college essay topic to avoid. Like writing about your sweetheart (or ex-sweetheart), writing about your hero takes the spotlight away from you and directs it to someone who isn’t applying to college. 

If you wanted to write about your hero in the first place, why? What did they inspire in you, or what experiences did you go through together? How did those experiences or “a-ha” moments make you a better person or a better candidate? Cut through the fluff and focus the lens back on yourself. 

Ah yes, the classic sports story. Unfortunately, these essays typically follow the same predictable plots. Maybe you scored a point in the last moment, or your team won a championship game against all odds, or you wanted to showcase your training regimen. 

Most people will tell you to stay away from sports topics altogether. If you are dead-set on writing about your sports experiences, don’t let your essay fall into cliche and predictable patterns. 

Approach your sports story from a creative and new angle. Ask yourself the following questions: 

Think critically about your experiences, and you could have a stellar essay topic on your hands. 

Laura Stratton , Director of Admission at Scripps College in California, recounts an exceptionally well-written sports essay about a student benched in a final game. 

“The self-awareness the student showed of being a good team member and showing up for her teammates and continuing to be positive even though it wasn't the personal experience that she wanted to have, it said a lot about her character and about the type of roommate she would be or classmate she would be.” 

Always look for a fresh angle in your sports story if it’s the one you want to tell. 

While tragedies you’ve faced can be formative experiences, this may be a college application essay topic to avoid. Some people aren’t comfortable sharing the intimate details of a tragedy they’ve faced, and that’s okay. Similarly, some people aren’t comfortable reading about the personal details of someone else’s tragedy. 

However, if a tragic event such as the death of a loved one is imperative to your narrative, you can carefully craft a story including it. The key is to focus on yourself: how was the tragedy an index event that impacted your thoughts or following actions? Remember that you don’t have to go into graphic detail about your tragedy as it can hinder instead of propelling your writing. 

Like tragic events, highly personal topics don’t always make the best essays. Examples of highly personal topics include past trauma, severe illnesses, and injuries. To fully explore the details of their stories, writers may get too graphic or go into way too much detail about these situations. 

If a highly personal topic is central to the story you want to tell, ensure you handle your narrative delicately. It’s okay to briefly share these anecdotes, as long as you don’t go into way too much personal detail. 

Controversial topics are typically college essay topics to avoid. The problem with these is that not everyone will share your same views, and you may open yourself up to judgment from the admissions committee members who don’t. 

Of course, admissions committees don’t make decisions based on criteria such as what political party you voted for or whether or not you attend a place of worship consistently. These topics work against you. Instead of showing why you’re the right candidate, writing about politics and religion can feel like you’re trying to convince the committee your views are correct. 

The only time you may want to write about a polarizing topic like religion is if you plan to attend a school where religion is a part of its heritage, founding, and teaching, such as Notre Dame University. 

If you want to craft a narrative about an obstacle you’ve faced or to share your growth throughout your high school years, avoid “the confessional.” 

You may feel guilty about something you’ve done that no one else knows about: it’s probably best not to share these confessions with the admissions committee. Your confessional probably won’t paint you in the light you were hoping for. 

Instead, focus on an experience where something or someone changed your perspective or how you navigated a challenging situation in the best way you could. These anecdotes show growth, adaptability, and the willingness to change your perspective when offered new information. 

It’s one thing to think outside the box, it’s another to throw the box out entirely and send it downriver. Sometimes students think an ultra-creative essay means going for an entirely new format like writing a song or poem. While it might be more fun, it could put you at a disadvantage. 

Being creative doesn't mean you have to reinvent the wheel with your essay. It means you can describe an anecdote or situation using detailed description and vibrant imagery. Pour your creativity into your word choice and how you set up a scene, and it’s sure to strike a much better chord with the admissions committee than a poem or song would (pun intended). 

One of the problems with these essay topics is that everyone who has had the opportunity to participate in one of these trips wants to write about them. The second problem is that these narratives tend to follow similar themes and that students tend to write about the trip as a whole. 

If your heart is set on sharing an experience from a trip, pick one meaningful moment to focus on. Did you meet someone on your trip that impacted your character or beliefs? Did you face an unexpected challenge that made you need to rise to the occasion? 

Whitney Soule , Senior Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Student Aid at Bowdoin College, said, “Overuse of a topic doesn’t make it a bad topic.” Remember, honing in on one element of your trip can help differentiate your essay and show more depth than just glazing over your excursion. 

Many of our most formative experiences can happen long before reaching high school. While these moments are important to you, writing about something that happened to you way before high school may not make the best admissions essay. Your experiences before high school don’t show the admissions committee who you are right now; they show who you were before. 

If you want to pick out a story about your childhood, ensure you relate it to high school or current events. This way, you get to tell that story, but you make it relevant to the person you are today. For example, if both your parents are scientists and you used to put on their lab coats at five years old, relate it to how your love of science grew over time to lead you to your school choices now. Don’t just stick to the first part of the story. 

If you’ve lived a privileged life or you’ve had stroke after stroke of good luck, focusing only on these elements isn’t in your best interest. It can come across like you haven't experienced any challenges or have a skewed vision of how the world works. 

It’s fortunate if you’ve lived a reasonably trouble-free life thus far. However, dig deep and look for something beyond the surface of sunshine and rainbows—admissions committees like some vulnerability and honesty. 

You would think this one is obvious, but many people feel like their stories just aren’t good enough to tell, so they fabricate elements. The bottom line is you should never lie about anything in your college admissions essays. Admissions committees can smell insincerity. That’s not a personal quality you want to communicate to them. 

Rest assured that you don’t need to have written a dramatic story filled with twists and turns. Excellent college essays can revolve around mundane topics. Write your truth, and don’t fudge any of the details. 

This type of writing is uncommon for a reason: it won’t work. Some students may think pointing out a school’s shortcomings and how their attendance may help bridge them will give their essay the shock factor they need to stand out. 

Unfortunately, you’ll stand out in the wrong way. As a general rule, you probably shouldn’t rip apart the school you want to attend. 

A better option is to describe how your acceptance will add to the school and campus culture. A response like this may be better suited to a “Why this school?” supplementary essay, but schools want to admit students who contribute to its culture and add a unique perspective to classrooms.

Final Thoughts 

There are many cliche essay topics to avoid and some inappropriate to share with admissions committees. Your college admissions essays should always carry a professional yet conversational tone, and you shouldn’t write about anything that would be detrimental to your application. 

Even though the above list is filled with topics to avoid in college essays, it doesn’t mean you can’t tweak them to make it more appropriate and a better story to tell. Your writing should authentically show your voice and character. Put your best foot (and best writing) forward, and you’re sure to produce stellar pieces of writing! 

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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, bad college essays: 10 mistakes you must avoid.

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College Essays


Just as there are noteworthy examples of excellent college essays that admissions offices like to publish, so are there cringe-worthy examples of terrible college essays that end up being described by anonymous admissions officers on Reddit discussion boards.

While I won't guarantee that your essay will end up in the first category, I will say that you follow my advice in this article, your essay most assuredly won't end up in the second. How do you avoid writing a bad admissions essay? Read on to find out what makes an essay bad and to learn which college essay topics to avoid. I'll also explain how to recognize bad college essays—and what to do to if you end up creating one by accident.

What Makes Bad College Essays Bad

What exactly happens to turn a college essay terrible? Just as great personal statements combine an unexpected topic with superb execution, flawed personal statements compound problematic subject matter with poor execution.

Problems With the Topic

The primary way to screw up a college essay is to flub what the essay is about or how you've decided to discuss a particular experience. Badly chosen essay content can easily create an essay that is off-putting in one of a number of ways I'll discuss in the next section.

The essay is the place to let the admissions office of your target college get to know your personality, character, and the talents and skills that aren't on your transcript. So if you start with a terrible topic, not only will you end up with a bad essay, but you risk ruining the good impression that the rest of your application makes.

Some bad topics show admissions officers that you don't have a good sense of judgment or maturity , which is a problem since they are building a class of college students who have to be able to handle independent life on campus.

Other bad topics suggest that you are a boring person , or someone who doesn't process your experience in a colorful or lively way, which is a problem since colleges want to create a dynamic and engaged cohort of students.

Still other bad topics indicate that you're unaware of or disconnected from the outside world and focused only on yourself , which is a problem since part of the point of college is to engage with new people and new ideas, and admissions officers are looking for people who can do that.

Problems With the Execution

Sometimes, even if the experiences you discuss could be the foundation of a great personal statement, the way you've structured and put together your essay sends up warning flags. This is because the admissions essay is also a place to show the admissions team the maturity and clarity of your writing style.

One way to get this part wrong is to exhibit very faulty writing mechanics , like unclear syntax or incorrectly used punctuation. This is a problem since college-ready writing is one of the things that's expected from a high school graduate.

Another way to mess this up is to ignore prompt instructions either for creative or careless reasons. This can show admissions officers that you're either someone who simply blows off directions and instructions or someone who can't understand how to follow them . Neither is a good thing, since they are looking for people who are open to receiving new information from professors and not just deciding they know everything already.


College Essay Topics To Avoid

Want to know why you're often advised to write about something mundane and everyday for your college essay? That's because the more out-there your topic, the more likely it is to stumble into one of these trouble categories.

Too Personal

The problem with the overly personal essay topic is that revealing something very private can show that you don't really understand boundaries . And knowing where appropriate boundaries are will be key for living on your own with a bunch of people not related to you.

Unfortunately, stumbling into the TMI zone of essay topics is more common than you think. One quick test for checking your privacy-breaking level: if it's not something you'd tell a friendly stranger sitting next to you on the plane, maybe don't tell it to the admissions office.


Too Revealing of Bad Judgment

Generally speaking, leave past illegal or immoral actions out of your essay . It's simply a bad idea to give admissions officers ammunition to dislike you.

Some exceptions might be if you did something in a very, very different mindset from the one you're in now (in the midst of escaping from danger, under severe coercion, or when you were very young, for example). Or if your essay is about explaining how you've turned over a new leaf and you have the transcript to back you up.


Too Overconfident

While it's great to have faith in your abilities, no one likes a relentless show-off. No matter how magnificent your accomplishments, if you decide to focus your essay on them, it's better to describe a setback or a moment of doubt rather that simply praising yourself to the skies.


Too Clichéd or Boring

Remember your reader. In this case, you're trying to make yourself memorable to an admissions officer who has been reading thousands of other essays . If your essay makes the mistake of being boring or trite, it just won't register in that person's mind as anything worth paying attention to.


Too Off-Topic

Unlike the essays you've been writing in school where the idea is to analyze something outside of yourself, the main subject of your college essay should be you, your background, your makeup, and your future . Writing about someone or something else might well make a great essay, but not for this context.


(Image: Pieter Christoffel Wonder [Public domain] , via Wikimedia Commons)

what not to include in a college essay

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Too Offensive

With this potential mistake, you run the risk of showing a lack of self-awareness or the ability to be open to new ideas . Remember, no reader wants to be lectured at. If that's what your essay does, you are demonstrating an inability to communicate successfully with others.

Also, remember that no college is eager to admit someone who is too close-minded to benefit from being taught by others. A long, one-sided essay about a hot-button issue will suggest that you are exactly that.


College Essay Execution Problems To Avoid

Bad college essays aren't only caused by bad topics. Sometimes, even if you're writing about an interesting, relevant topic, you can still seem immature or unready for college life because of the way you present that topic—the way you actually write your personal statement. Check to make sure you haven't made any of the common mistakes on this list.


Admissions officers are looking for resourcefulness, the ability to be resilient, and an active and optimistic approach to life —these are all qualities that create a thriving college student. Essays that don't show these qualities are usually suffering from tone-deafness.


(Image: Eduard Munch [Public Domain] , via Wikimedia Commons)

Lack of Personality

One good question to ask yourself is: could anyone else have written this essay ? If the answer is yes, then you aren't doing a good job of representing your unique perspective on the world. It's very important to demonstrate your ability to be a detailed observer of the world, since that will be one of your main jobs as a college student.


Off-Kilter Style

There's some room for creativity here, yes, but a college essay isn't a free-for-all postmodern art class . True, there are prompts that specifically call for your most out-of-left-field submission, or allow you to submit a portfolio or some other work sample instead of a traditional essay. But on a standard application, it's better to stick to traditional prose, split into paragraphs, further split into sentences.


Failure to Proofread

Most people have a hard time checking over their own work. This is why you have to make sure that someone else proofreads your writing . This is the one place where you can, should—and really must—get someone who knows all about grammar, punctuation and has a good eye for detail to take a red pencil to your final draft.

Otherwise, you look like you either don't know the basic rules or writing (in which case, are you really ready for college work?) or don't care enough to present yourself well (in which case, why would the admissions people care about admitting you?).


Bad College Essay Examples—And How to Fix Them

The beauty of writing is that you get to rewrite. So if you think of your essay as a draft waiting to be revised into a better version rather than as a precious jewel that can't bear being touched, you'll be in far better shape to correct the issues that always crop up!

Now let's take a look at some actual college essay drafts to see where the writer is going wrong and how the issue could be fixed.

Essay #1: The "I Am Writing This Essay as We Speak" Meta-Narrative

Was your childhood home destroyed by a landspout tornado? Yeah, neither was mine. I know that intro might have given the impression that this college essay will be about withstanding disasters, but the truth is that it isn't about that at all.

In my junior year, I always had in mind an image of myself finishing the college essay months before the deadline. But as the weeks dragged on and the deadline drew near, it soon became clear that at the rate things are going I would probably have to make new plans for my October, November and December.

Falling into my personal wormhole, I sat down with my mom to talk about colleges. "Maybe you should write about Star Trek ," she suggested, "you know how you've always been obsessed with Captain Picard, calling him your dream mentor. Unique hobbies make good topics, right? You'll sound creative!" I played with the thought in my mind, tapping my imaginary communicator pin and whispering "Computer. Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. And then an Essay." Nothing happened. Instead, I sat quietly in my room wrote the old-fashioned way. Days later I emerged from my room disheveled, but to my dismay, this college essay made me sound like just a guy who can't get over the fact that he'll never take the Starfleet Academy entrance exam. So, I tossed my essay away without even getting to disintegrate it with a phaser set on stun.

I fell into a state of panic. My college essay. My image of myself in senior year. Almost out of nowhere, Robert Jameson Smith offered his words of advice. Perfect! He suggested students begin their college essay by listing their achievements and letting their essay materialize from there. My heart lifted, I took his advice and listed three of my greatest achievements - mastering my backgammon strategy, being a part of TREE in my sophomore year, and performing "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" from The Pirates of Penzance in public. And sure enough, I felt inspiration hit me and began to type away furiously into the keyboard about my experience in TREE, or Trees Require Engaged Environmentalists. I reflected on the current state of deforestation, and described the dichotomy of it being both understandable why farmers cut down forests for farmland, and how dangerous this is to our planet. Finally, I added my personal epiphany to the end of my college essay as the cherry on the vanilla sundae, as the overused saying goes.

After 3 weeks of figuring myself out, I have converted myself into a piece of writing. As far as achievements go, this was definitely an amazing one. The ability to transform a human being into 603 words surely deserves a gold medal. Yet in this essay, I was still being nagged by a voice that couldn't be ignored. Eventually, I submitted to that yelling inner voice and decided that this was not the right essay either.

In the middle of a hike through Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, I realized that the college essay was nothing more than an embodiment of my character. The two essays I have written were not right because they have failed to become more than just words on recycled paper. The subject failed to come alive. Certainly my keen interest in Star Trek and my enthusiasm for TREE are a great part of who I am, but there were other qualities essential in my character that did not come across in the essays.

With this realization, I turned around as quickly as I could without crashing into a tree.

What Essay #1 Does Well

Here are all things that are working on all cylinders for this personal statement as is.

Killer First Sentence

Was your childhood home destroyed by a landspout tornado? Yeah, neither was mine.


Gentle, Self-Deprecating Humor That Lands Well

I played with the thought in my mind, tapping my imaginary communicator pin and whispering "Computer. Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. And then an Essay." Nothing happened. Instead, I sat quietly in my room wrote the old-fashioned way. Days later I emerged from my room disheveled, but to my dismay, this college essay made me sound like just a guy who can't get over the fact that he'll never take the Starfleet Academy entrance exam. So, I tossed my essay away without even getting to disintegrate it with a phaser set on stun.

The author has his cake and eats it too here: both making fun of himself for being super into the Star Trek mythos, but also showing himself being committed enough to try whispering a command to the Enterprise computer alone in his room. You know, just in case.

A Solid Point That Is Made Paragraph by Paragraph

The meat of the essay is that the two versions of himself that the author thought about portraying each fails in some way to describe the real him. Neither an essay focusing on his off-beat interests, nor an essay devoted to his serious activism could capture everything about a well-rounded person in 600 words.


(Image: fir0002 via Wikimedia Commons .)

Where Essay #1 Needs Revision

Rewriting these flawed parts will make the essay shine.

Spending Way Too Long on the Metanarrative

I know that intro might have given the impression that this college essay will be about withstanding disasters, but the truth is that it isn't about that at all.

After 3 weeks of figuring myself out, I have converted myself into a piece of writing. As far as achievements go, this was definitely an amazing one. The ability to transform a human being into 603 words surely deserves a gold medal.

Look at how long and draggy these paragraphs are, especially after that zippy opening. Is it at all interesting to read about how someone else found the process of writing hard? Not really, because this is a very common experience.

In the rewrite, I'd advise condensing all of this to maybe a sentence to get to the meat of the actual essay .

Letting Other People Do All the Doing

I sat down with my mom to talk about colleges. "Maybe you should write about Star Trek ," she suggested, "you know how you've always been obsessed with Captain Picard, calling him your dream mentor. Unique hobbies make good topics, right? You'll sound creative!"

Almost out of nowhere, Robert Jameson Smith offered his words of advice. Perfect! He suggested students begin their college essay by listing their achievements and letting their essay materialize from there.

Twice in the essay, the author lets someone else tell him what to do. Not only that, but it sounds like both of the "incomplete" essays were dictated by the thoughts of other people and had little to do with his own ideas, experiences, or initiative.

In the rewrite, it would be better to recast both the Star Trek and the TREE versions of the essay as the author's own thoughts rather than someone else's suggestions . This way, the point of the essay—taking apart the idea that a college essay could summarize life experience—is earned by the author's two failed attempts to write that other kind of essay.


Leaving the Insight and Meaning Out of His Experiences

Both the Star Trek fandom and the TREE activism were obviously important life experiences for this author—important enough to be potential college essay topic candidates. But there is no description of what the author did with either one, nor any explanation of why these were so meaningful to his life.

It's fine to say that none of your achievements individually define you, but in order for that to work, you have to really sell the achievements themselves.

In the rewrite, it would be good to explore what he learned about himself and the world by pursuing these interests . How did they change him or seen him into the person he is today?

Not Adding New Shades and Facets of Himself Into the Mix

So, I tossed my essay away without even getting to disintegrate it with a phaser set on stun.

Yet in this essay, I was still being nagged by a voice that couldn't be ignored. Eventually, I submitted to that yelling inner voice and decided that this was not the right essay either.

In both of these passages, there is the perfect opportunity to point out what exactly these failed versions of the essay didn't capture about the author . In the next essay draft, I would suggest subtly making a point about his other qualities.

For example, after the Star Trek paragraph, he could talk about other culture he likes to consume, especially if he can discuss art forms he is interested in that would not be expected from someone who loves Star Trek .

Or, after the TREE paragraph, the author could explain why this second essay was no better at capturing him than the first. What was missing? Why is the self in the essay shouting—is it because this version paints him as an overly aggressive activist?


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Essay #2: The "I Once Saw Poor People" Service Trip Essay

Unlike other teenagers, I'm not concerned about money, or partying, or what others think of me. Unlike other eighteen year-olds, I think about my future, and haven't become totally materialistic and acquisitive. My whole outlook on life changed after I realized that my life was just being handed to me on a silver spoon, and yet there were those in the world who didn't have enough food to eat or place to live. I realized that the one thing that this world needed more than anything was compassion; compassion for those less fortunate than us.

During the summer of 2006, I went on a community service trip to rural Peru to help build an elementary school for kids there. I expected harsh conditions, but what I encountered was far worse. It was one thing to watch commercials asking for donations to help the unfortunate people in less developed countries, yet it was a whole different story to actually live it. Even after all this time, I can still hear babies crying from hunger; I can still see the filthy rags that they wore; I can still smell the stench of misery and hopelessness. But my most vivid memory was the moment I first got to the farming town. The conditions of it hit me by surprise; it looked much worse in real life than compared to the what our group leader had told us. Poverty to me and everyone else I knew was a foreign concept that people hear about on the news or see in documentaries. But this abject poverty was their life, their reality. And for the brief ten days I was there, it would be mine too. As all of this realization came at once, I felt overwhelmed by the weight of what was to come. Would I be able to live in the same conditions as these people? Would I catch a disease that no longer existed in the first world, or maybe die from drinking contaminated water? As these questions rolled around my already dazed mind, I heard a soft voice asking me in Spanish, "Are you okay? Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?" I looked down to see a small boy, around nine years of age, who looked starved, and cold, wearing tattered clothing, comforting me. These people who have so little were able to forget their own needs, and put those much more fortunate ahead of themselves. It was at that moment that I saw how selfish I had been. How many people suffered like this in the world, while I went about life concerned about nothing at all?

Thinking back on the trip, maybe I made a difference, maybe not. But I gained something much more important. I gained the desire to make the world a better place for others. It was in a small, poverty-stricken village in Peru that I finally realized that there was more to life than just being alive.

What Essay #2 Does Well

Let's first point out what this draft has going for it.

Clear Chronology

This is an essay that tries to explain a shift in perspective. There are different ways to structure this overarching idea, but a chronological approach that starts with an earlier opinion, describes a mind changing event, and ends with the transformed point of view is an easy and clear way to lay this potentially complex subject out.


(Image: User:Lite via Wikimedia Commons)

Where Essay #2 Needs Revision

Now let's see what needs to be changed in order for this essay to pass muster.

Condescending, Obnoxious Tone

Unlike other teenagers, I'm not concerned about money, or partying, or what others think of me. Unlike other eighteen year-olds, I think about my future, and haven't become totally materialistic and acquisitive.

This is a very broad generalization, which doesn't tend to be the best way to formulate an argument—or to start an essay. It just makes this author sound dismissive of a huge swath of the population.

In the rewrite, this author would be way better off just concentrate on what she want to say about herself, not pass judgment on "other teenagers," most of whom she doesn't know and will never meet.

I realized that the one thing that this world needed more than anything was compassion; compassion for those less fortunate than us.

Coming from someone who hasn't earned her place in the world through anything but the luck of being born, the word "compassion" sounds really condescending. Calling others "less fortunate" when you're a senior in high school has a dehumanizing quality to it.

These people who have so little were able to forget their own needs, and put those much more fortunate in front of themselves.

Again, this comes across as very patronizing. Not only that, but to this little boy the author was clearly not looking all that "fortunate"—instead, she looked pathetic enough to need comforting.

In the next draft, a better hook could be making the essay about the many different kinds of shifting perspectives the author encountered on that trip . A more meaningful essay would compare and contrast the points of view of the TV commercials, to what the group leader said, to the author's own expectations, and finally to this child's point of view.


Vague, Unobservant Description

During the summer of 2006, I went on a community service trip to rural Peru to help build an elementary school for kids there. I expected harsh conditions, but what I encountered was far worse. It was one thing to watch commercials asking for donations to help the unfortunate people in less developed countries, yet it was a whole different story to actually live it. Even after all this time, I can still hear babies crying from hunger; I can still see the filthy rags that they wore; I can still smell the stench of misery and hopelessness.

Phrases like "cries of the small children from not having enough to eat" and "dirt stained rags" seem like descriptions, but they're really closer to incurious and completely hackneyed generalizations. Why were the kids were crying? How many kids? All the kids? One specific really loud kid?

The same goes for "filthy rags," which is both an incredibly insensitive way to talk about the clothing of these villagers, and again shows a total lack of interest in their life. Why were their clothes dirty? Were they workers or farmers so their clothes showing marks of labor? Did they have Sunday clothes? Traditional clothes they would put on for special occasions? Did they make their own clothes? That would be a good reason to keep wearing clothing even if it had "stains" on it.

The rewrite should either make this section more specific and less reliant on cliches, or should discard it altogether .

The conditions of it hit me by surprise; it looked much worse in real life than compared to the what our group leader had told us. Poverty to me and everyone else I knew was a foreign concept that people hear about on the news or see in documentaries. But this abject poverty was their life, their reality.

If this is the "most vivid memory," then I would expect to read all the details that have been seared into the author's brain. What did their leader tell them? What was different in real life? What was the light like? What did the houses/roads/grass/fields/trees/animals/cars look like? What time of day was it? Did they get there by bus, train, or plane? Was there an airport/train station/bus terminal? A city center? Shops? A marketplace?

There are any number of details to include here when doing another drafting pass.


Lack of Insight or Maturity

But this abject poverty was their life, their reality. And for the brief ten days I was there, it would be mine too. As all of this realization came at once, I felt overwhelmed by the weight of what was to come. Would I be able to live in the same conditions as these people? Would I catch a disease that no longer existed in the first world, or maybe die from drinking contaminated water?

Without a framing device explaining that this initial panic was an overreaction, this section just makes the author sound whiny, entitled, melodramatic, and immature . After all, this isn't a a solo wilderness trek—the author is there with a paid guided program. Just how much mortality is typically associated with these very standard college-application-boosting service trips?

In a rewrite, I would suggest including more perspective on the author's outsized and overprivileged response here. This would fit well with a new focus on the different points of view on this village the author encountered.

Unearned, Clichéd "Deep Thoughts"

But I gained something much more important. I gained the desire to make the world a better place for others. It was in a small, poverty-stricken village in Peru that I finally realized that there was more to life than just being alive.

Is it really believable that this is what the author learned? There is maybe some evidence to suggest that the author was shaken somewhat out of a comfortable, materialistic existence. But what does "there is more to life than just being alive" even really mean? This conclusion is rather vague, and seems mostly a non sequitur.

In a rewrite, the essay should be completely reoriented to discuss how differently others see us than we see ourselves, pivoting on the experience of being pitied by someone who you thought was pitiable. Then, the new version can end by on a note of being better able to understand different points of view and other people's perspectives .


The Bottom Line

What's Next?

Want to read some excellent college essays now that you've seen some examples of flawed one? Take a look through our roundup of college essay examples published by colleges and then get help with brainstorming your perfect college essay topic .

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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

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Do’s and Don’ts for College Essays

High school student sitting at desk with laptop writing his college essay

By Matt Musico

Writing your college essay can be a huge hurdle to jump over in completing your college applications. It can also create a ton of stress because you want to put your best foot forward to the admissions officers who will read it. Before you sit down to start writing, keep the following tips in mind.

Do: Be Honest

Don’t: try to impress.

Every single year, multiple students ask me what kind of topic would impress a college admissions office. And, every single year, my answer is the same: what will impress them is whatever story you’re most excited to tell.

Entering the college essay-writing process by choosing a topic you think will look impressive is not necessarily going to make it stand out in a pile of applications while they’re getting evaluated. What college admissions offices truly want to see is a slice of your personality. It’s one of the very few places in an application where you get to show who you are and what experiences have shaped your current mindset/trajectory in life.

It may be easier for students to share honest stories about themselves when they learn how admissions officers use a college essay during the evaluation process. The essay is an opportunity for admission officers to get a sense of how your personality would fit socially on their specific campus. Knowing what they do about the institution they work for; they use essays to gauge how well you’d assimilate and contribute to student life.

The easiest way for admissions officers to get an accurate picture of you is to show your true self – not what you think they want to read about.

Do: Own Your Story

Don’t: speak in clichés.

You may have heard about common college essay clichés. Whether it’s how sports taught you about the importance of teamwork or how traveling to another country broadened your horizons, admissions counselors have seen them all, multiple times over.

During peak application season, application readers can view as many as 50 applications per day. If you want to ensure that your essay falls into the large pile of essay topics they’ve seen before, include a cliché or two while you’re trying too hard to impress.

The best way to make an essay unique is to tell your story in a way nobody else can. You can do this by including thoughtful details and personal insights, which include your own thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the specific examples you plan on writing about. This way, it’d be difficult for anyone else to tell the story the way you just did – even if they experienced the same exact thing.

A great way to find out whether you have enough detail in a story or not is to read it over and be honest. There’s nothing wrong with saying for example, that being an athlete taught you about the value of teamwork. But anybody can say such a thing. Add why and how you realized this to make your essay more personal. If you ask yourself, “Can anyone else tell this story the way I just told it?” and the answer is yes, then you need more detail.

If you’re unable to do that, you may have to find a different story to tell.

Do: Share New Information

Don’t: turn it into a cover letter.

As I said before, there aren’t many places in a college application to showcase your personality. Outside of the essay, the only other opportunities are the descriptions of your extracurricular activities, and if a school asks for it, additional essay questions or writing supplements. With so few places to show off who you are, it’s important to take advantage by sharing new information with each chance you get.

This is not to say you shouldn’t write about activities you’ve mentioned elsewhere in your application. If being a baseball player or being in the theater club is truly important to you, it’s okay to write about those experiences in your essay. But remember that you’ve already mentioned it elsewhere in your application, so discussing it again means you’ll need to dig into new details about your experiences to show a reader why they’re so special to you (this is where owning your story comes in handy).

Keeping that in mind, your essay isn’t the place to list and discuss all your greatest accomplishments during the last three-plus years of high school. Other parts of your application should highlight the great things about you and what you can bring to a college campus. Your essay shouldn’t sound like a cover letter, trying to convince admissions officers why they should accept you.

There are three pillars of fit that admission counselors are mindful of when evaluating applications: academic, extracurricular, and social. By the time they get to your essay, they have a sense of the first two, but not the last one.

Do: Sound Like Yourself

Don’t: use a thesaurus to sound like someone else.

A lot of the stress behind college essays for my students comes from the fact that it’s an unfamiliar assignment. Over the years, they’ve been told that their English papers need to have one introduction paragraph and one conclusion paragraph, to write formally (which can include avoiding contractions), and to stay away from using first-person language. None of that is required for a college admission essay. Instead, admissions officers encourage students to be themselves and use a conversational tone. What does that mean, though?

Your essay shouldn’t look like a text message conversation you’re having with a group of friends. To nail down this “conversational tone,” think of a high school teacher you like and respect. How would you speak to them? Use that tone in your essay (which typically ends up being friendly, yet respectful). You’re not trying to get a good grade on this essay. It’s supposed to be about you, which will help admissions officers get a sense of who you are. The only way for this to happen is to simply be you, and if your essay sounds like it was written by a teenager about to head off to college, that’s perfect because that’s exactly where you are in life right now. Don’t use a thesaurus to inject a bunch of fancy words because it will come off as unnatural if you typically don’t use them.

I’ve always viewed college applications in two different parts: the paper side and the human side. The paper side is where students should aim to look “impressive” since this includes your transcript, test scores (if submitted), and extracurricular activities. The human side is everything else, which includes letters of recommendation and your essay.

Admissions officers get a sense of your qualifications by looking at the paper side of your application. They get a sense of the person behind those qualifications by looking at the human side of your application. Use the essay to your advantage to show colleges the type of person they’d be getting on campus if they accept you.

Matt Musico is a full-time sportswriter, but he's also spent the better part of a decade working in higher education.  Half of that time was spent working in an undergraduate admissions office, while the other half has involved working with high school families as a private college counselor.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to CollegeData, 1st Financial Bank USA or any other person or entity. All liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on the contents of this article are hereby expressly disclaimed. 

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How To Write — And Not Write — A College Essay

by  Brent Benner Director of Enrollment Management University of Tampa

People often ask me about the value of the application essay. “You don’t actually read all of them, do you?” I assure you, at my university and in admissions offices across the country,  we do . I can tell a lot about a person from his or her application essay; it’s the most current snapshot of who you are as a person. Think about it: Most of the items you submit to the colleges or universities you’re applying to showcase talents that you have developed over a long period of time. Your high school transcript contains at least three years of grades, showing evidence of hard work in a variety of subjects. Your clubs, organizations, sports, community service, and other accomplishments reflect years of participation and dedication to fields outside the classroom. Even your good old SAT or ACT scores reflect the accumulation of vocabulary, mathematics, and reading comprehension talents acquired throughout your life. The essay, however, is who you are right now. So, why not get started . . . right now?

I’m going to be completely honest with you: Your application essay cannot overshadow years of poor grades and test scores, and in this case, your essay may never find itself in front of the admissions committee. At the same time, you shouldn’t downplay the importance of the essay either. Keep in mind essays are a major separating factor in sorting the mediocre students from those who have gone (and most likely will continue to go) above and beyond.

Let’s get started It’s time to pick your essay topic . Hi. My name is Brent. What’s your name? “[Insert your name here.]” Great! That’s exactly who your essay should be about: you. This is your chance to paint a picture of who you are. I can’t even tell you how many wonderful application essays I’ve read about students’ mothers, fathers, brothers, grandmothers, neighbors, and even the ice cream truck driver being the most influential person in their lives. Those essays make the other people sound amazing! After reading them, I want to call the students up and encourage their grandmothers to apply! But, after reading these enthralling stories about other people, I still know absolutely nothing about the student who wrote the essay. So, I’ll say it again: Please, tell me about you. What are you like beyond your GPA and test scores? What makes you unique? What can you contribute to our campus community?

Now, keep in mind that creativity and a bit of humor are nice. Professionals on admissions committees have the daunting task of reading thousands of application essays per year, and it can get a bit tedious after a while. Don’t get me wrong, I love the essay prompts for many colleges, but some essay questions don’t exactly push for creativity or thinking outside of the box. For example, “Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you ...” is the essay topic where I hear an awful lot about Grandma, and the “topic of your choice” prompt can go from interesting to ridiculous pretty quickly. That being said, remember to choose an essay topic that helps keep the focus on you but is still flexible enough for you to incorporate your personality, your history, your individuality, and your impact on those around you.

Some college and university applications provide essay questions that influence some pretty good answers. For example, at The University of Tampa, the question, “How do you feel about the month of February?” rarely results in a boring application essay and can go in numerous directions. In fact, many schools have cool, offbeat essay questions that really provide you with the opportunity to present the admissions committee with new insight as to who you are. Take a chance! Get out of your comfort zone! Go out on a limb and take a stab at the question that helps you paint a unique and compelling self-portrait. And if your dream school presents you with some of the old standards, remember to approach the subject from the most unique angle you can. You’ve decided on a topic Great! Now, let’s start writing . “In 10th grade, I became a hooker.” Yes, this is the actual first line of an application essay we received a few years ago and something I never imagined I would see while reading an admissions essay. Ever. Immediately I was stunned trying to think of the events that must have lead up to this moment and how this student was going to swing this into a positive light. I had to read on. What I didn’t know at the time was that a “hooker” was actually the name of a position on a rugby team. The student went on about how he developed the strength and technique needed to be successful in the position and how that experience shaped him into the man he had become. Whether or not it was intentional, this student started his essay in a way that certainly caught the attention of the admissions committee, and that’s what your first sentences absolutely need to do.

While it is important to talk yourself up as the awesome student you truly are, you still have to remember that the application essay is not a résumé. You can certainly submit a résumé with your application, but your essay is not the place to do it. We want you to expand upon a few characteristics that make you great, not just give us a list with the thousand and one things that contribute to your greatness. This way, we are able to fully grasp why these particular characteristics, out of the many you could have selected, are so important to you and who you are as an individual. Besides, that other essay would go on forever, and, as I mentioned, we read thousands of these things each year.

On copious occurrences, pupils will endeavor to parade their current acquaintance with the English vernacular in an attempt to affect an air of knowledge. Let’s face it, that sounded a little silly, and this is exactly what we go through each time students attempt to replace every other word in their essays with longer words and more complex terms from a thesaurus. My suggestion to you is this: don’t. When a student attempts to stuff the essay with large words — words we both know are not a part of his or her everyday vocabulary — it often actually detracts from the piece. Be conscious of your word choice. Use your own voice. Remember, the admissions committee wants to focus on you, and sometimes it is hard to do so when all they are thinking is, “What is this person talking about?!”

In my experience, students love to write about how they have learned from their mistakes. They will go on and on about the time they did this illegal thing and broke the law, but it’s OK, because they learned from their mistake. The application process is competitive, and there are plenty of good applicants out there who have never broken the law. You are not required to incriminate yourself in your application essay, nor should you. This might be your only chance to show the admissions committee that you are more than just a GPA, test scores, and a bunch of extracurricular activities, so it may be best not to ruin their first impression of you with your past criminal history.

Sometimes the admissions committee will make a decision on whether or not to admit you to their college or university immediately after evaluating your application, and other times, they may hold on to your file for months before making their final decision. You need to end your application essay just as strongly as you began, so the committee remembers you when it comes time to make their final decision. When there are only a few spots left in the class, you want to be the one they choose. If your essay is forgettable, well, you might be too.

And, pencils down.

You’re done, right? Wrong . Once you have completed your application essay, be sure to find a couple of people you trust to look over your work before you submit it. I don’t recommend a friend who is afraid to correct your mistakes, or a parent, if you can help it. A teacher or family friend would be a great choice. Since you already know how it’s supposed to read, and you’re accustomed to reading it, it’s often easier for another person to catch your mistakes. You should also try reading the essay aloud to yourself.

Don’t rely on spell check alone to catch all of your mistakes, either. We had one applicant that said, “I speak tree languages.” (Really? Birch, oak, and what else?) As you can see, sometimes things are spelled correctly but just don’t make sense in the context of your application essay. Be sure you are using the correct form of words too (they’re, their, there, your, you’re, etc.). Few things will throw off an application evaluator more than misspellings and typos in the college essay — except when you mention the wrong college! Don’t tell us how much you want to attend XYZ University when you are submitting the essay to The College of ABC.

Remember, in the grand scheme of the college admissions process, the application essay is a unique opportunity — and an opportunity to be unique.

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9 College Essay Topics to Avoid at ALL COSTS

What makes a good college essay? It’s a question many high school seniors ask while going through the application process. A winning college essay engages admissions officers and shares with them the student’s identity and personality, painting a picture that goes beyond grades and test scores—compelling the reader to become an advocate for the student’s admission. Learn the college essay topics to avoid!

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Essays are a critical part of the college admissions process. A fantastic essay can make your application that much more likely to be accepted. Likewise, a bad college essay can spell disaster for your chances of getting into the university of your choice.

So, how can you make sure your college essays stand out? Sometimes talking about the mistakes you should avoid is the best way to answer this question. Here, we’ll take a deeper look at what cliche college essay topics to avoid and some helpful suggestions to make sure your essays stand out amongst the competition.

College Admissions Essay Topics to Avoid

Summary of your academic and personal achievements..

As you transition into college, you’re becoming more and more familiar with resumes. They’re the preferred way for showing your qualifications, experience, and skills to employers and schools. Naturally, you might assume that this format is a great choice when writing college essays. However, there’s one major problem: resumes are incredibly dry and boring.

That’s why you’ll see most employers request a cover letter in addition to your resume. Similarly, admissions officers aren’t going to be interested in regurgitation of what you’ve already outlined on your standard application. Not only is it repetitive, but it’s also very cliche as many students choose to write on this topic.

A woman sitting by the window, smiling while writing.

Instead of writing a summary of your personal and academic achievements, focus on the one that stands out above all the rest in terms of importance and impact. Talk about how it affected you, why it helped you become the person you are today, and how it changed your thinking. This type of essay topic is definitely effective for experiences that need more of an explanation or ones with an incredibly interesting background. For instance, maybe you participated in an extracurricular club that most people don’t even know existed. Or maybe the way you developed a passion for science has a unique story behind it.

Although you’re not beholden to one topic, it’s all about being detailed and specific rather than briefly mentioning many different accomplishments. Admissions officers will thank you for it, and your topics will have a better chance of sticking out from the flood of applications.

A sports-related obstacle or success.

Everybody’s been told by coaches, parents, and even fellow students that lessons learned through playing a sport are applicable to everyday life. While there is certainly some truth to this statement, it’s a topic that’s been covered countless times in pop culture. You can probably think of a dozen movies off the top of your head that had to do with a student struggling in a sport only to learn important life lessons from overcoming these obstacles. If you’re going to write an essay about sports, you’ll need to tiptoe around the cliche landmines that are the following topics:

Sports essays are so common that admissions officers are able to anticipate what’s coming next. And there’s nothing worse than having a predictable essay. It comes off as unoriginal and forgettable. Instead of talking about how you overcame a leg injury by never giving up and continuing to fight until it got better, you could relate this challenge to something completely unassociated with sports.

A person writing on a notebook

Maybe you decided to take up a new hobby during your downtime and the injury was how you discovered a new passion. It’s all about being original and unexpected. Sports is a cliche topic in general that you should avoid unless you have something compelling to say.

An immigration story

Out of any other country in the world, the United States has, by far, the largest immigrant population. While this is a wonderful statistic, it doesn’t bode well for immigration-related college essay topics. Why? Well, because there are tens of millions of other people with similar stories. In general, you want to avoid something college admissions officers have already read hundreds of times before, including topics related to:

In order to make immigration-related essays work well while avoiding cliche topics, you’ll have to make them incredibly unique and personal. Similar to writing about your achievements, you should make an immigration-story super focused and specific. Times of struggle and conflict are always incredibly intriguing. As these are common themes within more cliche immigration-related essays, you can make them more interesting by giving details about one specific scenario.

Young woman holding her books on a school campus.

For example, you could talk about how you were struggling to fit-in at a new school because of the language barrier and how you were able to make friends by joining an obscure club or extracurricular activity. You can also write about a unique experience you had when coming to the United States. Either way, be sure to make it personal, unique, and detailed.

Tragedies you’ve experienced

Although tragedies are often very formative, they’re universal. In other words, since everyone experiences difficult circumstances, it’s a common subject for college essays. Unfortunately, this makes these kinds of topics quite cliche. In addition, one of the greatest downfalls of these essays is the focus on the tragedy rather than the way the subject was affected. If you’ve experienced a tough event in your life that’s played a major role in shaping who you are today and you want to include it in your college essays, you can.

But you need to do it with caution. When done incorrectly, though, this essay subject can come across as unoriginal. You need to focus on highlighting the parts of the story that are unique and only briefly mentioning what’s not unique. For example, if you recently lost a loved one due to a chronic illness, you won’t want to spend too much time talking about the loss itself. Instead, you want to highlight how this experience impacted you.

Maybe you decided to become an advocate for this illness that isn’t well-known and you’ve been able to raise a lot of money to be put towards research. Start by thinking of what tragedies you’ve experienced but don’t stop there. Think about how you’ve been impacted and make this the subject of the essay.

Overcoming a challenging course.

There are a number of reasons why overcoming a challenging course doesn’t work well as a college essay topic. While it’s not the worst choice a student could make, it’s definitely cliche. And if you’re applying to an Ivy League school or any high-level university, there’s a good chance most applicants faced challenges in their difficult high school courses and ended up succeeding in the end. Furthermore, the primary characteristics you’d likely cover as having developed are already covered in many letters of recommendation. For example:

If your do want to mention how a difficult class impacted you, make sure to get as specific as possible. And don’t focus too much on the course. Keep in mind that college admissions experts are only interested in you when reading your essays. They already know everything about your high school curriculum and your overall academic performance.

Maybe a specific book in your AP English Course inspired you to start writing your own book. Or perhaps a difficult project in history class helped you develop a passion for a very specific and unique time in history. The classes you take are temporary, but the way they can impact you might be longer-term. Focusing on these effects will take your essay much further.

Someone you look up to

One of the most popular college essay topics to avoid is writing about someone you look up to or admire. It’s not that this topic automatically results in a bad college essay. It’s simply that so many people rely on this topic because it’s common, well-rehearsed, and easy.

Everyone can think of someone who inspires them to be a better person, to work harder, and to dream bigger. Whether that’s a family member or someone famous, the answers are pretty cliche. Yes, it’s probably undoubtedly true that your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even your siblings inspired you in some way.

When it comes to famous people, the answers become even more obvious. Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are just a few of the most popular names.

Although we encourage students to avoid this topic, you can make it work by focusing the vast majority of the essay by talking about how you’ve been influenced positively by this individual you look up to. Spending too much time on why you admire them will end up making your essay more cliche and, as a result, more forgettable.

A volunteer experience

College admissions officers love to see students who dedicate their free time to good causes. However, writing an essay about this is to pull off without coming across as cliche. Even worse, these topics can make applicants seem pretentious and full of themselves. The main problem with this topic is that students tend to talk too much about what they did, how they made a positive change, and how they were also positively impacted.

two female students holding a garbage bag while picking up garbage

This series of events – student doing something charitable, the gesture having a positive impact, and the student feeling good about it – is a cliche trap. It sounds great, looks great, and might even feel great. But it’s been done a hundred times before. If you really want to use this topic, we strongly advise you to switch it up and make it more interesting by talking about how it challenged you. Maybe you had some preconceived notions or stereotypes that were shattered after the volunteer experience. You can talk about how you grew from the experience without making it come across as pretentious.

Moving to a new home

Just like immigration-related topics, talking about moving across the country on your college essays can come across as cliche because millions of people experience the same thing every year. While some people undoubtedly have a tougher time making the adjustment or fitting in with new crowds, the negative experiences associated with moving are common enough to make this a topic you should generally avoid. If you really think you’ve got something unique to say related to moving, make sure the moving aspect is just a background theme. Don’t focus too much on it.

Here are a few examples of essay topics within this vein that might actually work if executed properly.

Relationships and breakups

We’ve stressed the importance of writing college essays that are personal. Not only does this ensure they’re unique, but it’s also a surefire way to get admissions officers to take notice. However, there is such a thing as too personal.

Generally speaking, anything that falls into the romance department is a little too much information to be a suitable topic for college admissions essays. While we’ve been able to give you some solutions for taking the other cliche topics in a more unique direction, this subject is much harder to redeem. As a result, we recommend students avoid it altogether.

Additional tips for making your college essays stand out

We’ve provided you with some college essay topics to avoid. However, it’s not just about staying clear of these subjects or, at the very least, the characteristics that make them cliche. In order to make your college essays stand out, you’ll still need to leverage some other strategies. Here are a few do’s and don’ts to help get you started.

Don’t use vulgar language.

If you’re wondering if you can curse in a college essay, the answer is technical “yes.” However, we highly recommend against it. This can come off as abrasive and inappropriate. While it might fly with some admissions officers, the problem is that you can’t control who reads your essay. That’s why it’s best to avoid cursing altogether.

Avoid cliche essay topics (if you can).

We’ve dedicated this whole piece to help you avoid coming across as too cliche on your college essays. However, the best way to do this is to avoid these topics altogether. However, we understand why they’re popular, to begin with. So, if you must rely on one of these cliche topics, find ways to make it unique and personal – which brings us to our next point.

Focus on you, not the topic.

When writing a college essay, too many students focus on the topic rather than the most important subject: you! For example, if you fell in love with a subject because of a passionate teacher, you should spend your essay talking about how you changed and grew through the process rather than what’s so interesting about the subject. Never forget that you are the most interesting subject in your essays.

We can help you nail your college essays

Your college essays are a critical part of determining whether or not you end up getting accepted into the college of your choice. While knowing about the cliche essay topics to avoid is an important part of nailing your college essays, there’s more to it than that.

Fortunately, AdmissionSight offers personalized essay editing services to help you make the most of your college essays. We’ll show you the worst mistakes to avoid along with some strategies you can use to improve your writing. You’ll also learn what college admissions officers are looking for, specifically from the college to which you’re applying. Feel free to contact us to learn more about what we offer.


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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

College Admissions Essay Topics to Avoid:

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College Essay Dos and Don’ts

Universities now base over 50% of admissions on the application essays. We’ll help you crack the code.

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Writing college application essays is one of the most intimidating parts of the admissions process. They’re also one of the most important components of your application.

Your essays are your best chance to address admissions officers directly. Essays help you stand out from thousands of other applicants, showcasing your unique story and “pitch” to the college of your dreams.

We’ve compiled a list of dos and don’ts to help you craft a killer college essay :

What Not to Do in College Essay

What to Do in College Essay

Need Help With Your College Essay?

Reach out! We have several essay writing tutors and our popular College Essay Bootcamp that can help you knock your essays out of the park and present the best of you to the college of your dreams.



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What NOT to Write About in Your College Application Essay

what not to write about in a college application essay

Updated on July 14th, 2022

When your student starts applying to college, writing essays usually comes with the territory. Your student may have to respond to the Common App essay prompts or questions created by specific colleges. In either case, they usually have some flexibility about what they discuss. That’s why it’s so important to know what not to write about in a college application essay.

If your student is preparing college application essays, why not add scholarship essays to the mix? Scholarships are a great way to make any college more affordable. If you and your student want to learn about how to find and land scholarships,  sign up for our free college scholarship webinar ! Take a quick trip over to http://thescholarshipsystem.com/freewebinar to reserve a spot today .

what not to include in a college essay

Making a misstep with a college admissions essay can mean missing out on their dream school. Luckily, many of the mistakes are easy to avoid once your student knows what they are and why they matter. If your student needs some insights, here’s a look at what not to write in a college application essay.

What Not to Write About in a College Application Essay

Sensitive, controversial, or taboo subjects.

Certain topics are naturally polarizing. While politics and religion are two of the most obvious subjects that can fall into that category, they certainly aren’t the only ones.

Even if your student is very passionate about the topic, that doesn’t mean it’s good essay material. After all, your student can’t predict who will read their essay. If the admissions committee disagrees with your student’s perspective, they may not accept them into the incoming class even if the content is well-written.

In general, when it comes to college essay topics to avoid, it’s best to steer clear of anything sensitive, controversial, or taboo. While your student may perceive this as playing it safe, it’s crucial to remember that their goal is to gain admission. As a result, they need to focus on subjects that increase their odds of making that happen.

It is important to note that what qualifies as sensitive may vary depending on the school your student wants to attend. For example, while discussing a religious topic may not be recommended for most colleges, if your student is applying to a university with a religious affiliation, discussing faith may be acceptable, depending on the angle they take.

A college essay misstep can mean missing out on top-choice schools. To help you avoid them, here's what NOT to write about in a college application essay.

A Rehash of Your School-Related Achievements

Usually, your student’s college applications and transcripts have a great overview of their academic and extracurricular achievements. As a result, rehashing those accomplishments in their essay makes the content a bit redundant.

Even if a question asks about school-related achievements, your student shouldn’t just restate what they’ve already shared. If they are going to discuss any of the same events again, they need to add extra depth. That way, they are adding something new to the story and not just retelling what is already known.

A Summary of a Volunteer Experience or Trip

While it may seem like talking about a lengthy volunteer experience or a trip to another country would be a good idea, summaries of the broader experience fall into the “what not to write in a college admissions essay” category. Often, the resulting story lacks uniqueness. Additionally, it doesn’t leave much space for showcasing why the experience was impactful.

If your student wants to talk about a volunteering experience or trip, they need to drill down into a single moment from that time. Individual people or single events that had a difference in their lives or how they view the world can be great topics for an essay and are far more unique than the summary approach.

college essay topics to avoid

Cliché Sports Stories

While student-athletes may want to discuss a sport-related event from their lives, if the story feels cliché, it may be better to skip it. Many students tell tales about their victories and defeats, as well as the lessons learned that got them there or what they learned from the experience.

The issue isn’t that those moments aren’t formative. Instead, it’s that many students will share very similar stories. It isn’t a great option for standing out. So, unless your student has a genuinely unique angle on the sports story narrative, they may be better off discussing something else.

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Illegal Activities

While drug addiction, alcohol use, arrests, jail stints, and similar activities may seem intriguing, they are usually college essay topics to avoid. There is a chance the admissions committee won’t view those actions favorably, regardless of the lessons they learned along the way.

Even talking about how they got off a less-than-ideal path might not be a smart move. In the end, it’s risky to admit their participation in those activities, as the admissions committee may question your student’s judgment even if they’ve moved forward.

what not to write in a college admissions essay

Anything Too Private

While a college admissions essay is supposed to help the committee get to know your student, that doesn’t mean they should reveal overly personal details. It may lead the committee to assume your student doesn’t understand boundaries, which isn’t ideal.

Exactly what qualifies as too private can vary. However, topics like bodily functions, romantic relationships, and sex are usually no-nos.

Now, this doesn’t mean students can’t discuss sexual orientation, gender identity, or topics in those veins. As long as they are staying away from discussing sexual activities, those subjects can be fine, depending on the kind of school your student wants to attend.

An Ode to Privilege

While many students who grew up with a degree of privilege are likely appreciative of that fact, discussing why they are thankful for it isn’t ideal for a college essay. The likelihood that the topic will resonate with the admissions committee may be pretty low, and there’s even a chance some will resent what they perceive as a cushier upbringing.

This doesn’t automatically mean that fortunate students can’t mention that they came from that position. However, there needs to be more to the essay than just being appreciative of that kind of upbringing.

what not to write in a college application essay

Forcing Humor

Telling a funny story can be a great way to engage the reader. However, actively trying to be funny doesn’t always work out. Forced humor isn’t always as amusing as your student may think, so that approach can work against them. It can come across as disingenuous and overly efforted, neither of which is great when writing a college application essay.

If they are sharing an experience and it happens to be funny, that’s fine. Sometimes humorous things happen. When it was genuinely amusing, forcing it isn’t necessary. The humor will emerge authentically.

Being Your Own Hero

If your student is given an essay prompt that asks them to discuss their “hero,” making themselves the star of that story is a horrible idea. It comes across as self-centered bragging, which isn’t likely to impress the admissions committee.

Plus, it leads the committee to think that your student lacks a necessary amount of awareness about being other than themselves. Since teamwork and collaboration are a big part of the college experience, there’s a good chance they’ll view that as a red flag.

college essay topics to avoid

10. Off-Topic or Not-an-Essay Essays

Some students want to break free of the mold and get a bit creative. They might think it’ll help them stand out. The truth is, it very well may, but not necessarily how they expect.

There is a reason that essay topics are set in advance. Choosing to write about a subject that doesn’t fall in line with the question or prompt either makes it seem like your student can’t follow directions or that they view themselves as above the requirements, neither of which is good.

Additionally, deviating from the traditional essay format may not be ideal. Turning their answer into a poem or free-writing exercise is incredibly risky. The same can go for using an overly literary approach.

In the end, your student should create an essay that’s going to connect with the admissions committee and follow the directions. That way, they can increase their odds of being invited to join the incoming class.

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  7. 9 College Essay Topics to Avoid at ALL COSTS

    College Admissions Essay Topics to Avoid · Summary of your academic and personal achievements. · A sports-related obstacle or success. · An

  8. College Admissions Essay Topics to Avoid

    College Admissions Essay Topics to Avoid: · A Summary of Your Accomplishments · Highly Polarized or Sensitive Topics · Sports · Humor · You're SO

  9. College Essay Do's and Don'ts by Ivy Tutors Network

    What Not to Do in College Essay · Don't list your accomplishments. · Don't try to cram too many themes or subjects into an essay. · Don't try to

  10. What NOT to Write About in Your College Application Essay

    In general, when it comes to college essay topics to avoid, it's best to steer clear of anything sensitive, controversial, or taboo. While your