A college essay can fail for a number of reasons. The writing can be of poor quality, the theme can be predictable, the execution of the essay can simply flop, or the student’s personality doesn’t shine through. We’ve compiled a list of 10 essay topics that don’t work, especially if the essay is not compelling and the personality of the writer does not shine through. These recommendations are not written in stone, however, if you can, try to avoid them.
1. The grandparent essay
Why it doesn’t work: Everyone looks up to their grandparents, but unless your grandma is the one applying to college, chances are the admissions officer will not want to hear about all of her accomplishments.
You want to show off your talents and personality, not your grandmother’s.
2. The death essay
Why it doesn’t work: It is tempting to use death as a vehicle for discussing personal growth. I’m sorry you’ve experienced death—I truly am—and it would seem like bringing up death in a profound or interesting way would give you sympathy points from the admissions committee, right? Wrong.
The reader will leave feeling sad and uncomfortable. This is not the impression you want to leave. Death is hard on everyone, and chances are you’re telling this story because you grew from the experience.
These lessons usually read as cliché, which is something we want to avoid.
3. The first chair violin or baseball essay
Why it doesn’t work: Do not write about anything that appears on your resume or in the activities supplement of the common app. Unless it is a supplemental piece of writing, which the personal statement is not, shy away from extra curricular.
It is a true accomplishment that you scored the winning goal or got that solo, but the admissions officer has read this essay before. No matter how well it is written, it is a cliché topic.
4. The dream school essay
Why it doesn’t work: Many schools have supplements that ask “why this school,” where you will be able to gush about why you love Columbia/Penn/Oberlin. The personal supplement is not the time or place.
This essay is supposed to be about you, not about the school you want to go to. Additionally, if you don’t get into that school early decision, you’ll have to change your personal statement on December 15th, and you do not want that kind of stress.
5. The controversial essay
Why it doesn’t work: While you should aim to stand out (you don’t want to blend in during this process!), do not be too controversial. If you worked out how much the government would make in gross revenue through marijuana legalization, perhaps you are the next Paul Krugman.
The college will not read your opinions or findings on marijuana legalization as novel; they will see you as a pothead. While on the topic of shock value, do not talk about losing your virginity. A story about losing your virginity is cringeworthy.
Do not contextualize why you got arrested for drinking beer in the park. There is no reason to bring up anything negative in this essay. The moral of the story is you don’t want to stand out for the wrong reasons.
6. The travel essay
Why it doesn’t work: All the college admissions officer will be thinking while reading this essay is, “wow, this rich kid has been to more countries than me.”
It is great that you gained a global perspective and now know that you don’t know everything, but there are more down to earth ways to show you have learned the same lessons. Above all, topics that naively express your privilege should be avoided.
7. The over-exaggerated experience essay
Why it doesn’t work: Like #3, do not talk about your activities in your essay: they can learn about your activities in the activities supplement or on your resume. The admissions committee isn’t looking to fill its class with people who volunteered two hours of their time to Relay For Life. They will be able to tell if you are feigning passion, and very few things are bigger turn-offs than that.
8. The community service essay
Why it doesn’t work: It is great that you went to Costa Rica and helped build a school for underprivileged kids, but writing an essay about it shows your privilege (after all, mom and dad did finance your trip) and is too much of a cliché topic to make you stand out.
They might also think that you just did this trip for your college resume, which, lets be honest, is not completely wrong. This essay is a red flag to admissions officers
9. The climate change essay
Why it doesn’t work: Avoid topics of public concerns because they are not about you as an individual. Unless you are a young Elon Musk and have created the solution to end the climate crisis, the admissions office does not want to hear your opinion.
This essay is your chance to talk about yourself. This is your opportunity to show the admissions officer who you are and leave them with a good impression. Discussing the immigration crisis will not leave them feeling warm and fuzzy.
10. The great essay for the wrong school
Why it doesn’t work: You’ve chosen one great (small, narrow and focuses) idea and explored the topic, exposing the right balance of vulnerability, wit, charm, intelligence and depth. Everyone has said it is a great essay and you feel confident. However, you’re applying to the wrong schools.
You’re an introverted person who likes being in a smaller group of people but for some reason you are applying to Michigan, Wisconsin or Ohio State. The admissions committee will know that you are not the right fit for the school and, even though your essay was perfect, they will reject you.
My bottom line message to you: The essay is important, but even a great one can only take you so far. It is a vital part of a much more complicated process. Having a refined and targeted list of schools and strategies for how to apply to each is extremely important.
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