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The college admissions essay can be the tipping factor that gets you admitted to or rejected from a top school.
You likely know many of the “do’s” associated with writing a great college essay: choose an engaging topic, tell a story, reveal your personality and interests, etc.
But is there anything you should not include in the college essay? The short answer is: Yes.
As you plan and write your college admission essay, try to avoid the 9 topics listed below. As a general rule, we advise against these topics because they take the focus off you.
1. Avoid Inappropriate or Risky Topics
On occasion, students write essays on illegal or illicit topics that they may have worked through in their lives: drugs, alcohol, sexual behaviors, arrest, etc.
It’s possible to write an effective essay on these topics, but it’s better to avoid such risky topics entirely. You don’t want your essay to cast doubt on your judgment or call your behavior and morals into question.
The same is true for profanity and for topics related to violence. Gail Berson, vice president and dean of admissions at Wheaton College, tells the story of a student whose grades and test scores were excellent, but who submitted a very “off-putting” essay about a violent video game, written in graphic language. That student was rejected.
Remember that you don’t know who will read your essay or how they will feel about such topics. If you’re in doubt, it’s best to leave it out.
2. Avoid Controversial Topics
Similarly, avoid controversial or hot-button topics. These especially include politics and religion, which can be very polarizing subjects. Other examples include abortion or any hotly debated current event.
Again, you don’t know who’s reading your essay or where they will stand on the issue being addressed. If you tackle a touchy subject, the essay could be offensive or off-putting to the very person who will determine your admission.
It’s best to steer clear of especially sensitive or polarizing subjects on the college essay. Here’s a good test: If posting a Facebook status about this topic could start an online argument, don’t mention it in a college essay.
3. Over-the-Top Humor
Although it’s okay for you to include a well-placed humorous comment in your essay, many admissions officers agree that in most cases, it’s best to avoid too much humor.
It’s often difficult to be funny in print, so humorous essays tend to fall flat or come across as forced and unnatural. Admissions officers also frown on essays that read as too “cute” or “cheesy.”
Unless a student excels at writing satire or poetry, these genres are also better to avoid. Like humor, satire and poetry can sometimes miss the mark on college essays.
4. Avoid the “My Hero” Trope
Admissions officers regularly receive an influx of college essays about heroes. One reason that you shouldn’t write about your hero is that it’s overdone, and admissions officers do grow tired of reading the same topics over and over.
Another reason is that these essays focus too much on the student’s hero, and not enough on the student.
John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admissions at Boston College, says, “After reading these, we’d often love to admit Mom or Dad, but they’ve told us nothing about themselves.”
The point of the college essay is to help the individual’s voice and personality shine through. An essay about your hero often won’t accomplish this goal.
5. Avoid Other Cliché Topics
In addition to the “hero” essay, it’s best to avoid any topic that admissions officers have seen again and again.
These topics include:
- Finding a passion for helping others through volunteer work
- Overcoming an athletic injury, divorce, or death of a pet
- A tribute to a relative who is no longer living
- Family history in a career field
- Recounting a natural disaster
- Discussing highlights of a sports career (scoring the winning goal)
All of these topics are seen frequently by admissions officers, and they also fail to reveal much that is unique or specific about a student.
Topics that have already been extensively covered should also be avoided, since students won’t have many original ideas to add. These topics include Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus Christ, and 9/11.
Gail Berson says these topics make it too difficult “for students to expand on what’s already been written.”
Try to find a topic that isn’t overdone and that allows you to offer a unique and revealing perspective.
6. Avoid Topics that Include Lies
Sometimes students feel like they have nothing good to write about for their college essay, so they just make something up.
This isn’t a good idea.
Depending on how far-fetched the story is, admissions officers may suspect that you are lying, which doesn’t reflect well on your honesty or morals.
Additionally, the essay should be an authentic portrayal of you as an individual. Even if you feel like you haven’t experienced or accomplished anything especially noteworthy, you should be honest and genuine.
Some of the best college essays have been about small moments that held great significance to the applicant.
7. Avoid a Laundry List of Accomplishments
Make sure your essay doesn’t just rehash the experiences and accomplishments already detailed in the application.
The essay should offer new information about you. It should help admissions officers understand who you are beyond the statistics and extracurricular activities. If the essay adds nothing new to your application, it will lack personality and ultimately be forgettable.
You also risk sounding arrogant if this essay dwells on already mentioned accomplishments. Avoid bragging in your essay. Instead of telling admissions officers that you’re the best possible candidate, the essay should show why you are well qualified and allow admissions officers to draw their own conclusions.
8. Avoid Romantic Relationships
You shouldn’t write about romantic relationships for a few reasons. It’s another topic that can be overdone, and it’s hard not to sound cliché when writing about young love.
The college essay gives you the chance to tell admissions officers anything significant or unique about yourself, so choosing to write about a high school relationship often doesn’t send the right message.
Remind yourself that no matter what topic you choose, the focus of the essay needs to be on you and what you have to offer to a college or university.
9. Avoid Inauthentic Vocabulary and Voice
Voice and vocabulary aren’t exactly topics, but it’s essential for you to avoid word choices or a “voice” that sounds unnatural. The essay must be authentic, and it should “sound” like you. College admissions officers want the essay to be a window into your personality.
This means you should put away the thesaurus and stop trying to cram SAT vocabulary words into your essay. It’s great for you to include a higher-level word or two, but admissions officers don’t want to read an essay that sounds like a professor wrote it.
The essay should sound like a high school student—more specifically, like you.
And while you should certainly try to have others read your essay and provide feedback, make sure the essay isn’t so heavily edited that your voice gets lost.
Recap: College Essay Topics to Avoid
As you write your college essay, make sure that it’s focused on who you are and what you will contribute to a college campus. Provide engaging, genuine insight into your own personality.
To make the best possible impression, you should avoid topics that are inappropriate or risky, in addition to topics that are too controversial and potentially offensive.
You also shouldn’t try too hard to be humorous or to use big words. Don’t lie or write about a cliché topic, such as your hero. Lastly, don’t make your essay a list of accomplishments, and don’t focus on a romantic relationship.
By avoiding these 9 topics on your college admissions essay, you’ll also help yourself avoid the rejection pile.
And if you’re interested in gaining an edge in college admissions, check out our college essay boot camp.