What Not to Write About in a College Essay

What Not to Write About in a College Essay

Crafting the perfect college admissions essay is no easy feat. As the famous quote goes – “I would have written a shorter letter if I had more time.” Condensing your entire life experience into a few compelling paragraphs, meeting strict word counts while also standing out from thousands of other applicants, is certainly an art.

But before charging into the writing phase itself, an often overlooked yet vital step is deciding exactly what to write about in the first place. One wrong topic choice speckled across 650 words can transform your poetic prose into a one-way ticket to the dreaded rejection pile.

To maximize your chances of admission success, let’s explore college application essay topics to definitively avoid.

What Do Colleges Look for in Essays?

Before diving into themes on the no-fly list, let’s explore what the admissions committee actually hopes to discover about applicants in their essays. Assessing candidates beyond just grades and test scores, compelling essays provide crucial windows into applicants’ personalities, values, and fit for the institution itself.

Specifically, compelling essays demonstrate:

Your Personality

How you think, approach challenges, and add unique value beyond sheer academic metrics offers admission teams powerful personality insights they simply cannot glean from transcripts alone.

Writing Skills

Your ability to logically structure thoughts, articulate ideas clearly, and employ vocabulary for maximal impact in writing is hugely revealing. Essays demonstrate command over the written word critical for collegiate success.

Your Story

The personal tales, anecdotes, and passions brought to life through essay themes offer context beyond sterilized application data, bringing candidates to life as human beings.

Why You’re a Good Fit

Essays represent your pitch, explaining how specifically you’ll positively contribute to campus life and why this particular institution offers a springboard for your aspirations.


Admissions teams assess how deeply you engage with essay questions themselves, evaluating idea sophistication, eloquence, and originality of responses.


In a sea of thousands of applications from cookie-cutter students, the ingenuity demonstrated through inventive essay themes helps cement memorable candidates worth accepting.

Impact and Growth

Colleges hope to glean how past experiences have positively shaped applicants’ trajectories, whether through overcoming challenges, seizing unusual opportunities, or inheriting unique worldviews. Compelling essays breathe life into this.

Adherence to Guidelines

Perhaps, obviously, directly answering the prompts while aligning completely with spelled-out essay requirements and parameters offered signals strong attention to detail.

Cliche College Essay Topics to Avoid

Writing a strong college admissions essay is challenging, as thousands of students compete for limited spots each year. Many fall into common traps, relying on overused themes that fail to impress admissions officers.

In an effort to stand out, students often focus on achievements, challenges overcome, or profound experiences. However, admissions readers have become adept at spotting these predictable essay styles, which tend to come across as disingenuous or lacking in depth and authenticity.

This section outlines the most cliched and ineffective college essay approaches that applicants should avoid if they want their personal stories to be impactful.

Resume/Academic Achievements

The grades, test scores, and academic honors you have already earned are summarized in other parts of your college application. So using your essay to repeat information about being top of your class or getting a perfect SAT score is not the best use of the limited space. The admissions officers will already see all those achievements in your transcript, test score reports, and honors/extracurricular lists.

The Mission Trip Essay

Many students write about a volunteer trip they took one summer to help build a school in a poor country or teach disadvantaged children English. The essays tell proud stories about realizing how fortunate the students are compared to kids overseas and finding their calling to help others.

However, admissions officers have seen this general story arc hundreds of times from different applicants over the years. It has become a bit of a cliché theme that comes off as an attempt to brag about sacrifice rather than share a meaningful personal experience. Even if the mission trip was life-changing, the colleges tend to be skeptical because these essays blur together after reading so many.

Sports Challenge Essays

Many students write application essays about getting injured while playing a sport, going through intense physical therapy, and then miraculously returning to play in time to score the winning points as the inspirational team hero.

These dramatic tales aim to show perseverance in overcoming setbacks. Rather than focusing narrowly on sports injury and recovery, admissions teams care more about the wider lessons you learned from facing physical and emotional adversity. They want insights into how hardship shaped your character – things like building empathy, discipline, patience, and leadership. 

The Big Performance Essay

In an attempt to showcase leadership and grace under pressure, some students recount manufactured tales of heroically saving the school play when disaster struck. However, admissions officers can recognize these over-dramatized ploys that basically invent imaginary scenarios highlighting the applicant selflessly swooping in, overcoming all odds, and garnering applause. 

Rather than fishing for moments that let you boast about reacting remarkably in a crisis, admissions teams want to understand your actual accomplished contributions and talents demonstrated over time through extracurricular activities and passions pursued.

Cliche Immigration Hardship Stories

A common essay topic describes the challenges an applicant’s family endured immigrating to America from another country. Often, these are emotional stories about leaving dangerous conditions, struggling through difficult travels, and overcoming language barriers and financial hardship. They depict the parents’ sacrifices to eventually achieve safety, freedom, and opportunity for their children.

Admissions officers have unfortunately become desensitized. Rather than defaulting to the common immigrant family hardship storyline, the admissions teams want 360 perspectives, not just tear-jerking accounts better saved for memoir prefaces. 

Why “X” Is My Hero Essays

Many applicants attempt to demonstrate their worldliness and strong values by writing essays praising historical icons like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., or Rosa Parks as their supreme personal heroes.

If you choose to cite a historical changemaker you admire, find a specific, less expected way their example shaped your development or perspectives growing up. Avoid generic, virtually interchangeable tributes copied from textbooks. Cover unfamiliar ground to demonstrate more openness.

The Tough Grade I Got Essays

Some students write about getting one really awful test score or report card in a certain subject but explain it was just a one-time thing and normally they are great students. Colleges care more about your grades overall over time, not just one bad slip-up. So you don’t need to waste essay space making excuses over a single lower grade that sticks out compared to all your other good scores

My First Heartbreak Essays

Some essays describe sad breakups from middle or high school romances. But colleges may think focusing too much on beginning dating relationships shows less maturity. The life lessons and problems students face in college involve much deeper adult issues than just broken hearts from the first puppy loves. Save oversharing romantic troubles for calls with your closest friends instead.

Illegal Or Unethical Activities

It should be obvious not to write essays about things you did that were illegal or could have gotten you into trouble. Admissions teams do not want to read about times you broke the rules, got detention, vandalized things, used bad language, snuck out at night without permission, or pulled dangerous pranks.

Save those stories for chatting with your friends instead of putting them in an essay that could make colleges worry about whether you’d cause problems on their campuses.

Controversial Hot Topics

Don’t use your essay to fight over polarized and controversial arguments about things like politics, gender rights, or other issues that lots of people debate intensely. Colleges want students with open minds, not just preset opinions. Show you can listen and think flexibly.

College is meant for learning about complex topics from all sides through thoughtful discussion, not preaching extreme views from day one before even starting classes. Save harder stances for later.

Highly Personal Topics

It’s best not to write essays that share very sensitive, personal things you’re dealing with, like medical problems, grief over someone dying, family issues, or traumatic events. This can seem like “too much information” that makes admissions officers uncomfortable or worried about your coping abilities.

Instead, it’s okay to talk more generally about setbacks or sadness, focusing mainly on the skills you learned in order to heal and demonstrate maturity despite facing real-life challenges. Show the positive side of overcoming difficulties, not just the darkest initial feelings.

Personal Achievements and Accomplishments

Listing a long line of your own successes, like starting a business, getting patents for inventions you created, publishing writings under your name, or highlighting every academic trophy and medal you ever won, can make you appear boastful.

Colleges want well-rounded students who contribute to the community in humble ways, not those who seem obsessed with their own talent and triumphs above all else. Focus more on describing how you positively impacted others’ lives versus quantified measures showcasing only your own shining resume.

Most Important Place Or Role Model Essays

Some essays try to be very deep by naming places like the Grand Canyon or figures like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. as supremely meaningful. But after reading many students’ essays every year, those examples now strike admissions officers as cliché and forgettable. With so many applicants to consider, essays need unique perspectives, not just familiar general descriptions of famous locations or people, to stand out.

Creative Writing Stories and Poems

Unless you’re applying to study writing or English, most colleges don’t want poems or short stories sent in as essays. They care more about academic skills, not judging creative writing talents yet. Save showing off your poems, lyrics, or imaginative stories for the school newspaper or literature clubs you might join later on. Stick to addressing the essay prompt questions directly using normal non-fiction prose for now.

Athletic Passion Essays

Essays shining the spotlight on big game-winning moments can seem seriously overdone to admissions officers reading these year after year. Unless you have extremely rare, exceptional achievements connected to sports interests, avoid play-by-play recounts better saved for celebrating with teammates. Focus instead on less direct connections between athletic pursuits and wider life lessons or passions cultivated through disciplines learned.

Joke or Humorous Essays

Some students try to make their essays funny or sarcastic to grab attention, which is understandable. But it’s extremely difficult to write genuine humor that lands well on paper, especially about your own life. Awkward attempts at being a comedian through an essay often totally flop with admission officers.

Don’t take a big risk telling jokey stories or making silly puns unless you’re absolutely confident you have the rare talent to pull humor off smoothly. Play it straight rather than going for punchlines that could painfully miss their mark.

Tales of Personal Hardship or Tragedy

Many students write very emotional stories about extremely difficult events they went through, like family tragedies, abuse, homelessness, natural disasters, or other traumas. But heavy concentration only on tales of hardship, no matter how touching, tends to share too much private information in admissions officers’ opinions.

They prefer learning how tough times helped you mature into a stronger, wiser person over just dwelling on the intense pain or sadness itself. Show the brighter lessons that emerged rather than only dramatic chapters best saved for private journals.

Privilege and Luck Essays

Some students try to show self-awareness by writing about growing up wealthy, with all the best opportunities handed to them, thanks to their families. But shining too bright a light on those advantages can accidentally make it seem like you remain oblivious about real life beyond your privileged bubble.

Admissions officers understand economic realities well. Subtly acknowledging your fortunate support system is fine, but don’t overplay that theme in ways that could backfire by calling extra attention to bubble-wrapped upbringings.

Negative Aspects of the School

Some students mistakenly think criticizing problems at their desired college will show they researched it extra thoroughly and still love it anyway. But being negative almost never helps applications! Stay 100% positive by focusing only on specific programs, professors, or opportunities attracting you.

Even if honestly sharing concerns about social issues or past incidents, frame those cautiously using thoughtful questions rather than accusations. Overly critical essays often inadvertently reveal cultural mismatch rather than extra diligence.

Summary: What Not to Write in a College Essay

The college admissions essay is a critical part of applying to college for high school seniors. When writing a college essay, avoid common pitfalls that can make your essay seem clichéd. Admissions committees read thousands of essays each year, so standing out with a unique story and writing style can make your essay more memorable.

Avoid listing your academic achievements or recounting a common sports story many other students may share. Bring something new to the table by writing about formative experiences that shaped your unique perspective. Show rather than tell how you overcame a challenge or learned from a difficult situation.

While tempted to discuss politics and religion, avoid controversial topics and do not boast about a privileged life. Focus on conveying your personal journey rather than trying to guess what essay prompts or committee members want to hear. Use vivid details and anecdotes to illustrate who you are versus stating generic clichés.

College essay tips include keeping it simple and authentic. Admissions officers want to learn what makes you different, not read a generic essay. Address the essay prompts thoughtfully, but use your own writing style and highlight your passions, curiosity, and dreams.

The goal is to give admissions committees insight into your character and potential contributions to campus life. With thoughtful writing and avoiding common essay pitfalls, you can craft a compelling essay to gain admission to your dream college.

Start Writing Your College Application Essay Today

Given limited space and intense competition, winning college admissions through essays necessitates highlighting your authentic personality, values, and purpose, positioning you as a truly distinctive welcome addition to campus.

Rather than defaulting to cliches admissions teams directly confirm offer little upside beyond instilling doubts, thoughtfully brainstorm meaningful themes demonstrating what sincerely sets you apart.

The closing window for next year’s admissions combined with essay writing inherently benefits from reflection demands, avoiding postponing drafting any further. Commit now to avoiding trite topics already doomed for recycling. Your future collegiate chapter filled with life-shaping moments of growth, discovery, and possibility awaits the necessary time investment today.

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