Prospies, I’m going to let you in on a little admissions secret: Too many of you write about the same essay topics.
“But Lily,” you say to me frantically, “I’m different and more interesting than all the other people writing about the same topic!”
And now prospies, I will let you in on a second admissions secret: Just as Ginnifer Goodwin’s character Gigi learned in He’s Just Not That Into You, you are the rule and not the exception.
Inevitably, as admission officers slog through literally thousands of essays, they will continue to develop a personal catalog of the kind of essays that annoy, bore or simply leave the reader cold. In my own experience as a former
Ivy League admission officer
, the worst college essays tend to fall into definable categories within which they can be tagged by type. They leave the reader with questions about the
creativity, good judgment and depth of the writer.
Since starting TP almost a year and a half ago, I’ve gotten into many arguments with high school students about this fact. The point is, no matter how special and awesome you are at home, at the end of the day, you are still one application out of thousands sitting on someone’s desk, and the things that make you unique in your hometown usually won’t mean jack to an admissions officer.
In contrast, admission officers will recall great essays in specific details. The teenager who sits on a Queens rooftop at night to ponder her city; the Boston boy who sees in the condition of his mother’s feet, her sacrifices on the factory floor on his behalf; the wannabe comic honing his skills in comedy clubs, usually with mixed success; the mathematician trying to describe the beauty he sees in
Mandelbrot sets—these are essays I still remember because each offered a distinctive insight into the specific experience of an individual teenage life. But even the exceptional essays play a role only within a broader narrative that encompasses all the academic and social
choices a student made
throughout high school. They are the exclamation points to that story, not the centerpiece.
Is that just totally screwed up? Absolutely. But no one ever said that the admissions world was fair.
So, now that you are slowly coming to terms with the “rule not the exception” principle, let’s turn to essay topics.
These essays follow a formula: struggle + success/failure = epiphany. Maybe the struggle is passing a really tough class, or maybe it’s overcoming shyness. In these essays, no matter what the struggle is, and no matter whether the student ultimately
succeeded or failed, there’s always a magical epiphany at the end.
Your Common App essay and subsequent supplements can make or break your application, and after I read/edited over 120 college essays last winter break as part of our college essay extravaganza, I can tell you that 95% of applicants wrote about
the same exact things.
Meanwhile, a recent decision by the Common Application (the online application used by 400 universities) to radically overhaul the personal statement has once again highlighted the role of the essay in an American college application
. Some counselors responded strongly to the new absence of an open-ended “topic of your choice,” while others sighed in relief on behalf of admission officers who
will have fresh horizons of teenage angst to explore as questions change each
year. Many others, including me, have pointed out that the new questions are effectively asking students to address
the same essential ideas, and perhaps that is a good thing.
And if I was seeing the same essay over and over looking at only 120 Word docs, I can only imagine what admissions officers go through when deciding amongst thousands.
So without further ado, here are the nine college essay topics to steer away from and why.
In an attempt to bolster college applications, tens of thousands of students participate in community service projects of all kinds. This is awesome. It becomes somewhat less awesome when students write about their community service projects
without fully considering how their essays might be misconstrued.
1. The Immigrant Essay
Going back over the essays I received during the college essay extravaganza, 50% of the Common App essays I read were about students and their families moving to the US and learning to adjust.
The average admissions officer reviews over 1,000 applications per admissions cycle, enduring a host of hackneyed college essay topics and combatting the urge to groan at the cliched treatment of usual-suspect topics that reveal little to no information about the student at hand
. Applicants often choose to write about these subjects because they THINK the resulting essays present the kinds stories admissions officers want to read. To the contrary, jumping on an essay cliché bandwagon can make it nearly impossible for
an admissions officer to
distinguish you from your closest competition
. At the end of the day, your strongest essay will be the one that only you can write. So, we made you a guide to the three most common essay clichés, explaining their greatest pitfalls and providing strategies for turning these overused topics into unique stories that will help
you make a lasting impression on admissions officers
and increasing your chances of landing in the acceptance pile.
Now, I’m not saying that your familial struggles aren’t intense and worthy of talking about; after all, many students wrote about the loneliness they felt being the only new kid in school or having to adjust to American customs
, and those are all absolutely valid conversations.
These essays go like this: “My family decided to move to America, and I hated it because I had to struggle to learn English, but I worked really hard, and now I’ve proved that I can do anything.” The details differ slightly
, but the basic plotline is the same. And sadly, even the most well-crafted immigration story can be rendered cliché by the sheer number of immigration essays submitted to colleges each year.
However, if you put all of these “moving to America” stories in a pile and read them one after another, they start to bleed together. The story lines and characters all sound the same. And for you, that means less of a chance to stand out and more of a chance of being labeled “one of those immigrant kids”.
There are always exceptions
. Some students are such gifted writers or nuanced thinkers that they could retell the story of the Easter Bunny and get away with it. Sometimes, a cliché might truly be a student's best bet (or last resort). And there are infinite chances to explore new angles on common stories
. No matter what, those students who intend to
be exceptions to these rules should expect to work doubly hard to tell stories or explore angles that will be flattering to them.
Is it fair? Absolutely not. Is that the way it is? Unfortunately, yes.
2. The “They Taught Me More Than I Taught Them” Essay
Please for the love of all that is admissions don’t write about the time you went on a service trip to a third-world country and learned from the locals.
Many cliched topics exemplify what I call asymmetrical importance: what matters dearly to a teenager matters not at all to an adult reader, especially one as detached, anonymous, and disinterested as a college admissions officer
. Students may want to
suppress the desire to write about something "meaningful" in favor of the effort to write about something interesting (and, hopefully, also meaningful).
Not only does it typically come across as condescending and privileged (since most high school students are not aware of how to talk about cultures in politically correct terms), but it’s also so overdone and bland.
Sadly, many students fail to consider their essays from the point of view of someone who has never met them. These students not only use politically incorrect language (I’ve seen more than one student refer to “the poors” - not a good idea), but also tend to write about their experiences as if they
were previously unaware
that poor people suffered. This can easily make students seem
hopelessly naïve or, worse yet, self-entitled. Students who have never experienced poverty must approach the topic carefully, making certain that there is no possible way for a reader to misinterpret the essay in a negative light. That can be very tricky!
3. The “Ski Slope” Essay
When many students answer the quintessential “talk about a time you overcame an obstacle” prompt, they tend to write something that I call the “ski slope” essay. In this scenario, the author was given a physical challenge (like a ski slope, mountain, scary water slide ride, etc) and was eventually convinced overcome it. Again, it’s an essay that I’ve seen over and over (and over) again, and there’s no real way to write these essays well.
Given the opaque but obviously significant role of personal essays in American applications, it is not surprising that a recent blog post that revealed essays written by students admitted to Columbia’s class of 2017 elicited the vitriolic response that it did. While some decried the release of these “sacred texts” and the public mockery of
their young writers
, others pointed to the banality, absorption and self-aggrandizement of the published examples
They usually involve a lot of cliche adjectives and some other person convincing the writer to go down the slope. Inspiring? Not at all.
Look at it this way: Thousands of people learn how to ski every year; it’s boring and totally not unique.
Application essays ask students to discuss the most life-changing events of their young lives. For any student who immigrated to the U.S. from a non-English speaking country, that life-changing event is probably their immigration experience
. Unfortunately, life-changing though it is, this experience is not unique. Every single day, thousands of people do it. It’s not fair, but it’s true.
If you’re going to write about an obstacle, it needs to be an obstacle that only 0.00005% of the world has overcome. Otherwise, you’re just like everybody else.
4. The “Look at How Super Deep I Am” Essay
Kids, don’t try to go on a philosophical rant in your college essays.
A good application essay should be an intriguing story, so it’s okay to pick ONE activity/award/honor to write a story about. Maybe you want to write about your campaign for student council - that’s fine. Don’t write about your campaign for student council
, the various other positions you held in student council, that time you interned at the mayor’s office, and the leadership award you won. The message that a resume essay sends to a reader is: “I have nothing of any depth to say about any of the stuff that I’ve done, so I’m just going to list everything I’ve accomplished and hope that you think I’m great. ” Your essay is not a resume - it is a story that reveals something unique about who you are and why you would be the perfect person to have on a
college campus. Use this opportunity to demonstrate that you are more than just a list of accomplishments — you are a dedicated and talented student with passion
and interests and a superb personality.
Not only do you typically sound like a pretentious, self-important twerp pulling stuff out of your butt (and admissions officers know it), but these tirades also tell the reader absolutely nothing about you as as potential member of a college.
Let’s pretend for a second that you really do live by one of Shakespeare’s old adages, or that JFK’s patriotic appeals to the people really did inspire you to change your life (color us impressed!). It might seem like a great idea to share their wise words of wisdom—after all, they’re smart people, right?—but college admissions officers
want to hear from you, not from famous people.
Don’t get meta. If you want to talk about all the great deep thoughts inside your head, start a blog.
5. The All-Dialogue Essay
Note: Spending half of your 650 words going through a conversation you had with your sister is a complete snore and a total waste of time and space.
Students spend their entire high school lives building a list of impressive accomplishments and extracurricular activities, so it’s little surprise that many students write about this in their application essays. Since you should have already listed your
extracurricular activities, leadership positions, awards, honors, and recognitions in the appropriate space in your application
, you don’t need to write about all of them in your essay. It’s repetitive and it often fails to tell the admission officer
anything new about who you are.
Cut our dialogue unless it’s funny or actually moves the story along. Something like this is just really dull fluff:
“Sister,”I said to her.
“Yes?” she said back.
She looked at me with angst. “What?” she asked again.
Three lines in and you’re bored already, right?
6. The Way-Too-Extended Metaphor Essay
What do dumplings, crayons, and hoop earrings have in common? They’re all inanimate objects that have been used as extended metaphors in college essays, and all of those essays were not good.
The sports essay is actually a huge arena in which a student can showcase his or her creativity. It’s time to abandon the simple narratives of bones broken and medals won. Put your unique perspective on display by describing how the
skills you gained from athletics transfer to
other areas of your life (or vice versa). Turn your favorite sport into a metaphor to describe another aspect of who you are. Or, if you still can’t resist telling one of the more common kinds of sports
stories, dig into the details of that story. Try to isolate a small moment within the larger story that was significant or surprising. A victory isn’t just about winning or teamwork - maybe it’s also about the way your friend made you laugh
on the bus before you even set
foot on the field.
Pulling off the extended metaphor essay is hard, and as you’ve learned by now, it’s best to go into essay writing with the mentality that you are the rule, not the exception. So stop trying to compare your life to a squashed kumquat you saw on the side of the road and find a different topic.
The problem with these essays is twofold: First, the way in which most students approach the big realization is about as subtle as a ton of bricks hitting you in the face; second, the realization is usually a pretty far reach compared with the
struggle the student has overcome
. These huge realizations feel forced - the reader can tell that you were trying really hard to come up with the magic lesson at the end of your story, which makes your essay less powerful. Unless your epiphany is particularly insightful and meaningful, or unless you are a particularly strong writer
, it’s best to avoid the big epiphany.
7. The “Lesson about Failure Where You Didn’t Really Fail” Essay
Remember that an admissions essay is still a story, and the best heroes and heroines have legitimate pitfalls. If your biggest failure is that you had a hangnail but you eventually took care of it, not only do you look shallow, but you also look dull.
Applicants should never write about anything that can reflect poorly on them. It’s a bad idea. The entire purpose of the application essay is to present your strongest self; confessing to past prejudices, academic failures
, or - worst of all - illegal activities isn’t usually the best way to accomplish this task.
Failures need to be actual heart-stopping, “OMG, NOOO!” failures. Either commit to going all the way or avoid writing this type of essay altogether.
8. The Bat Mitzvah Essay
When the Common App prompt asks for something that marked your transition into adulthood, stay away from cultural or religious events that actually mark adulthood, like a bar/bat mitzvah or a confirmation ceremony or something.
According to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, a cliché is "a trite phrase or expression," "a hackneyed theme, characterization, or situation," or "something that has become overly familiar or commonplace
." The last thing you want in your essay is any of the above. Clichés make your writing appear lazy
, your ideas ordinary, and your experiences typical. Arm yourself with the list below and eradicate these and other clichés from your writing.
The best essays about transitions into adulthood deal with unforeseen shifts, not obvious ones (for example, my friend wrote about the different types of boxers he bought throughout high school Shift to adulthood? Yes. Totally freaking clever? Heck yeah).
9. The Straight Up Cliche Essay
There are many topics that are way overdone besides the ones listed above.
High school students are stronger writers, storytellers, and thinkers than they, or the adults around them, often give themselves credit for. When left to its own devices, though, even the sharpest teenage minds frequently gravitate
towards college essay topics that are so common that they can
only be described as clichés: stories and messages that every adult has already heard and
, probably, already lived through.
Some examples of what I mean:
- The “What I learned at this academic conference/camp/event” essay
- The “What my mom/dad/family taught me” essay
- The “How I felt about moving to a whole new place or being in a new environment” essay
- The “How I learned to fit in” essay
- The “Death of person x” essay
- The “How my parents’ divorce changed me” essay
- The “Here’s a very vague essay about my family’s culture” essay
Again, these are just a few of the many examples of cliche essays.
Well, if you read this list and thought, “Wow, now I’m screwed,” fear not: We’ll be coming out with tons of articles over the next few months with essay brainstorms, interesting topic angles, and the whole nine yards to get you geared up and awesome for the admissions season.
The crowd goes wild as you score the winning touchdown and are carried off the backs of your teammates….in a cast! Because you did the whole thing with a broken leg! Victories, injuries, and teamwork are the most common themes sloshing
around the bucket of vague sports essays. This topic presents an opportunity for students to describe
how they surmount different kinds of obstacles - an opportunity almost everyone takes. Surprisingly, the challenges of playing soccer in Ohio are quite similar to those of playing baseball in Montana. And serious athletes with
sports-heavy resumes who also write about sports run the risk of boring admissions to tears
with their one-note applications.
A good college essay is meant to be challenging to write, so sit back, relax, and read TP.