College Essay Topics You’ll Want to Avoid

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College Essay Topics You’ll Want to Avoid

Published November 4, 2020 | Last Updated July 17th, 2023 at 10:09 am

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Students preparing to get into college are naturally going to be pitted against each other in a game of stats.

GPAs, class ranks, and scores on the ACT and SAT all factor into how they stack up for potential schools, and a majority of the application process is faceless.

Despite the hours of research and preparation it takes to craft a positive image for the school of their dreams, a student is unlikely to meet any of the people making these decisions.

If it seems like the individuality is removed from the situation, then students can utilize the opportunity to express themselves through their college application essay.

While extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and academic achievements all speak to what they’ve done, a great college essay gets to the root of who they are. This is their chance to sell themselves, and do it in their own words.

This is a student’s chance to highlight something that’s not on their applications, show how they’ve grown, and explain how they’d be a good representative of their school’s next graduating class. The admissions committee reads countless essays, and a lot of them cover the same prompts- here are some of the common topics to avoid.

What Should You Not Write Your College Essay About?

Avoid anything controversial or purposefully inflammatory

While picking a divisive political topic may seem like a great way to grab a reader’s attention, fiery language is only going to alienate admissions committees who hear about these topics all the time.

You never know who’s going to be reading your essay and what their values are, and even if their political opinions align with yours, they don’t want to be preached to.

An essay is not a call to action, and a reader is more interested in what makes you unique as opposed to being chided about issues that they already have an opinion on.

Don’t tell a story without a message or growth

A story is only as good as what you’ve taken away from it. While success stories, family tragedies, exciting sports moments, or breakups may feel exciting on paper, an essay is not a structured narrative story with a beginning, middle, and end.

While it’s important to prove your thesis (ie, why you should be admitted to this school) by explaining learning moments and personal growth, telling a neat story on its own isn’t enough.

Maybe you lost a parent or overcame a disability. Explain why it affected you and how you changed, even if it seems obvious.

The reader doesn’t know you well enough to infer any details, so provide them with a moment of reflection that explores why you’ve evolved into the person you are today.

Don’t give a list or broad summary

Your essay isn’t a resume. While your hard work to earn a great class rank and high test scores are important, those are for a different time and place.

Nothing is more dull than a list of accomplishments, and if you choose to write about a school experience, personalize it and explore it with pathos. You can use a similar approach when talking about any extracurricular activities.

Maybe you’re a top athlete with a lot of high scoring games, but pick one that meant something to you. If you had volunteer experience, don’t just list the activities and dates, explain why they were significant and how it affected you personally.

It’s better to prioritize your focus and fill it in with as much detail as possible.

Don’t write about other people

This can be a tricky one, but ultimately your essay is about you. If you took inspiration from a historical figure, family member, fictional character, or community leader, minimize the references to their words and use your own instead.

You want to sell yourself and explain why you are going to be valuable to this school, and this won’t be possible if you’ve framed yourself as the product of someone else’s achievements.

If you want to write about a mentor or friend, make sure that you are the driving force in the essay and that your realizations are a direct result of your own actions.

Don’t make it seem like you’ve peaked

While it’s important to explore your own personal growth, you also don’t want to make it seem like you’ve figured everything out already. Your school isn’t looking for someone who’s already a fully-fledged  “adult,” but rather someone they can nurture, teach, and develop over the next four years.

They want to help you, so while you should make it clear that you’re someone of value that they’ll want to support their mascot, you’re not applying for a job.

They don’t expect you to have everything mapped out, and it’s easy to come off as pretentious or condescending if you act like you don’t need their help.

Don’t write anything in second person

You’re not lecturing your reader or trying to insert them into your narrative. Yes, you’ll be trying to persuade them to consider you, but you need to show why you’re desirable without directly telling them.

This is a straight-up first person essay that should speak to a personal truth, and you won’t be able to do that if you’re working at it from someone else’s perspective.

A reader is only going to be annoyed if you start telling them what they should do or how they should feel; ultimately, it’s their time that you’re taking up.

Bottom Line

College essay readers will be going through a lot of essays.  The ones that will stand out to them will be the ones where they’ve experienced a work of individuality.

Avoiding the topics above and keeping your essay fresh and focused will enhance your chances of having it placed in the “yes” pile.


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

10 College Essay Topics to Avoid: What Admissions Officers Don’t Want to See

How to Pick a College That Loves You Back

Merit Scholarship Guide: Factors, Tips, Full List and Search Tools




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