Below is a list of general topics you should typically avoid. There are always exceptions, so use this only as a guide. Just make sure that if you cover one of the following topics, you do so in a unique way that highlights your strengths.

  • Sex, Drugs, Booze
    Don’t do this
  • Crime you’ve committed
    Don’t do this
  • Character flaws
  • Excuses
    • You can, however, include a short supplemental page that addresses a slip in your grades or some other negative aspect of your application.
    • Sample Essay
  • The Big Game
    • Essays about coming through in the end for your team I in the final seconds of the season are cliché and don’t typically reveal much about your character. They mostly just show how people sometimes get lucky.
  • Why that school is perfect for you
    • Your college essay is a love letter demonstrating why you want to be with that school. In a love letter, you don’t demand, “Be with me! We’re perfect! Can’t you see that? Why, for the love, can’t you see that?” You come off as, well, a little crazy. Beyond that, it sounds needy and turns the person off. You write your love letter by simply expressing your own feelings for the other person. Similarly, you do not want to try to come off as the school’s prototypical student but rather want to craft your essay from the heart and with subtlety. Let the colleges say, “Hey, this person is perfect for us. We need her here.” In essence, let them come to that conclusion on their own. You do this by showing, not telling.
  • Deep confessions
    • Save it for therapy
  • Sob stories
    • Really, therapy can be a truly cathartic experience
  • Sensitive political or social issues
    • You never know who is reading your essays and what his or her personal biases are.
  • Summer camp tales of growth
    • These tired stories make the “Big Game” essays seem distinctive
  • Summer abroad program working with poor community
    • Just because you escaped your posh lifestyle for the summer to help build a jungle-gym for some third-world kids and suddenly realized how fortunate you are, it doesn’t make you enlightened and certainly doesn’t make you a more qualified applicant. While such approaches could work, they typically come off as pretentious and cliché, even if your experience was genuine and valuable.
  • All-purpose essay that says a little about everything but really says nothing
    Don’t do this
  • List/Résumé as a replacement for an essay
  • Information they can get from your application
  • Overly philosophical or intellectual essay
    • If you are indeed a philosophical soul, convey that and write away. But don’t try to feign an academic aura if one does not already surround you.
  • Community-oriented theme
    • Again, if you have contributed something meaningful to your community, then write about it in a compelling way. But don’t try to invent yourself as a devoted citizen of your school or town if your experience does not naturally reflect this.
  • What you think they want to hear
    • Don’t fall into the common trap of giving the colleges what you think they’re looking for. You want to, of course, present a case for why you are a worthy candidate for each unique school. But the best way to achieve this is by being honest with yourself regarding why you are applying to each school and expressing this honesty. Show them who you are, not what you hope they will perceive you as. If you follow this sincere path, you will end up writing a more natural, compelling essay, plus it will allow you to reflect on whether or not a school is actually right for you.
  • Major news events – unless you have a unique and personal connection
    • Hordes of last year’s college graduates wrote their admission essays about the defining cultural event of their generation, which occurred right at the start of the college admissions process: the events of September 11. While each student’s experience of this day and its aftermath held its own individual significance, essays addressing this topic poured into colleges and thus failed to distinguish applicants for their originality. Unless your perspective of such a shared event is truly unique, pick something else to write about.
  • World peace
    • If applying to college is really just practice for the beauty pageant you’re secretly planning to enter, then go for it. Otherwise, move along.
  • A topic the application doesn’t ask about
    • Answer their question directly. Don’t just force an already-written essay on a completely different topic into other schools’ applications. Also, if they ask for 500 words, try to stay within the limit. Doubling the word count is unacceptable.

Next: Writing Do’s

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