Topics You Should Avoid in a College Application Essay

There are examples of excellent college essays, well-written and executed perfectly - worthy enough to get published. Considering Newton’s third law, (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction), on the other hand, there exists a bad essay that will just send you cringing long enough to consider burning the material. college application essay topics to avoid

College application essays, or personal statements, are there to help a student stand out from other applicants. There are thousands of other candidates that flock the admissions office with the same qualifications, experiences, and even goals. Being able to create a college essay that will set you apart from others is the only way you can get in to the school of your dreams. While that sounds simple enough, the actual process of writing one requires a great deal of planning and preparation. This will provide the admissions board grounds to accept you, and in all honesty, these people really just want to get to know you better beyond the grades and resume you’ve submitted. Sending in a poorly written one, with a badly chosen essay content, will accomplish the opposite. This article seeks to dwell on those mistakes, what to avoid, as well as some tips and tricks to writing a substantial college essay.

Bad College Essays: What Doesn’t Work?

First things first: what exactly makes college admissions essay terrible? It’s one thing to deem a subject matter completely inadequate, and there are several factors that come into play, which turn personal statements turn into utter nightmares. As discussed, meager college application essays aren't only caused by poor topics. Even if you managed to come up with a riveting, relevant topic, you can still come off as immature or unready for college because of the topic’s execution. There are several others more factors to consider, so make sure to check this list: 

  • The Topic. The very foundation of your essay is the topic, and choosing this poorly will easily lead you to creating one of the worst essays ever to have been written. Not only will this ruin your entire planning, this will also leave a lasting impression on your target college. Some bad topics will reflect that you simply don’t have the maturity or a good sense of judgement. Others will suggest that you are unable to process life experiences in a colorful way. They can also suggest that you’re completely disconnected from the outside world and only tuned in with yourself. Remember that these admissions officers do not know you – they are merely judging everything from what you’ve submitted, and whatever written on that piece of paper will be scrutinized. It’s also important to point out to choose topic relevant to you. Writing about something that doesn’t interest you will be a pain. As the saying goes: if you think a task is boring, you should avoid it – to avoid disaster itself.
  • The Execution. Even if you come up with a solid foundation made from experiences you wish to discuss, your way of executing the essay may send up warning flags. More than getting to know you, the admissions panel also need to know the level of your written communication skills. There are two factors of getting it wrong. The first way is to exhibit faulty writing mechanics, which refer to being unable to convey messages clearly and concisely, as well as incorrectly using punctuation marks. These are mistakes that will be costly, as college writing is beyond those. The other way is straight up ignoring instructions provided for, whether it be for the sake of creativity, or simply, carelessness. This will give the impression that you’re someone who completely disregards rules, or simply cannot understand how to follow them. Remember that they are on the lookout for students who are receptive, because education is a journey of learning. Why would they accept someone who thinks they already know everything?
  • Being Too Personal. Something to avoid when writing essays is being too personal. Your college essay’s content is expected to be something personal about you, but being too much and going down the road of revealing something private will give them the impression that you have no regard for boundaries. It could also mean that you simply just don’t understand them, but either way, this will lead them to conclude that you will be quite a problem later on. Remember that you will be living on your own with strangers. Unfortunately for most students, the line between personal and too personal can be blurred, so stumbling into restricted areas can be more common than you think. One rule of thumb: if it’s not something you wish to share with a friendly, enthusiastic stranger next to you, then it’s best not to tell the admissions board, either.
  • Being Too Revealing of Bad Judgment. Including illegal or immoral actions in your essay is simply a bad idea, which will most likely leave the admissions board to dislike you. There are exceptions, though such as using this to highlight how you’ve turned over a new life. You may have had a different mindset growing up, but in the midst of it, you learned and changed. Choosing to do this can be tricky, however, which still makes it a part of the list of topics to avoid.
  • Being Too Overconfident. While it’s great and admirable to be able to celebrate your abilities, no one likes arrogance. No matter how huge your accomplishments are, don’t center your essay around them. It’s better to narrate a certain setback that made you rethink your current situation, or moments of doubt, rather than dedicate your personal statement to praising yourself and your “wondrous” deeds.
  • Being Too Cliché or Boring. As a writer, you have to remember who your readers are. In your case, your reader will be an admissions officer sifting through thousands of other essays. Your job now is to make yourself memorable – anything less than that will brand you as boring, and anything you’ve written will be deemed as not worth paying attention to. You are also expected to inject a tone of personality. Make sure to represent a unique perspective of the world, as to be able to demonstrate curiosity and being a detailed observer. Ask yourself: could this essay be easily written by others?
  • Being Too Off-Topic. There are plenty of college essay topics to avoid, but some students deal with the problem of going too off-topic. The main subject of your personal statement is you – from your background, down to your dreams of the future. Writing about something else will work for another essay, but in this context, the school you’re applying to only needs to hear about you.
  • Being Too Offensive. Writing a one-sided essay, and making it long, about a certain issue will suggest that you are close-minded, lacking self-awareness, and closed to new ideas. Your reader will not like to be lectured at by whatever you wish to convey about the issue, and if that’s what the purpose of your essay is, then you will demonstrate a complete inability to communicate with others. 
  • Going Overboard with Eccentric. With everything said and done, you are indeed expected to stand out, and a little touch of creativity will do the trick. Remember, though: your college application essay is not the same as a requirement for your postmodern art class. While there are schools that will allow you to submit a portfolio or some work samples, most schools go by the standard application. This means that you need to stick with tradition, too – prose, paragraphs, sentence, words, and even quotes. It’s best to avoid them, and especially avoid negativity quotes.
  • The Failure to Proofread. When writing an analytical essay you should avoid turning in a paper full of fact errors and grammar mistakes, and the same applies to your college application essay. Part of the writing process is going through your work multiple times to check for any errors. Most people have trouble with this part, though, and if you’re one of them, ask someone else to proofread through your writing. This step is vital to your college application, as submitting an essay with errors on grammar, punctuations, and content details will reflect badly on you. You will look like you don’t know the basic rules of writing, or writing in general, and what does that say about you and your future college work? Or perhaps the admissions officer will deduce that you simply do not care enough to present yourself better – does that make you worthy of being admitted? Here are some errors you need to look out for:
  • Grammatical errors, typos, punctuation mishaps, weird fonts, and paragraph spacing issues. While these are often unintentional mistakes, caring and seeking them out as soon as possible demonstrates excellent work ethic and dedication to the task. 
  • Not respecting the word limit. It is said that the most intelligent people know how to convey themselves concisely – and part of that is being able to work with rules and limitations. Contrary to popular belief, going over the specified word count will leave a lasting impression of your not-so impressive self-control, and will not make you seem brave.
  • Repeating the same word/s or sentence structures. This makes your text sound monotonous and hard to read. Good writers should avoid repetition of words or key ideas because it shows lack of creativity.
  • Validity of research materials used. If you wish to incorporate content that must be presented in a factual manner, make sure to include necessary citations. Though a personal statement, do not pass off every idea as your own. 

College Essay Topics to Avoid

Now that you’ve fully grasped what makes personal statements problematic (problems with technicalities and content execution), here is a list of topics you should avoid in a college essay, gathered from various school websites and site essay critiques. Included here is a general list, but separated from that list are the worst of the worst topics to use. Read on to find out.

  • Humor

If humor doesn’t come naturally to you, then don’t even attempt to be funny. This is one of those topics you should avoid in a college essay. Including a humor story in your essay is acceptable, but that’s an entirely different case from forcing humor. Like everything in your essay, make sure you’re funny for a certain purpose, and not just for the sake of it. The admissions panel will see your sorry attempt – they won’t find it amusing. 

  • Reflecting on Why You’re Just So Lucky

If you’re one of those privileged kids, that’s great for you. Discussing this, however, and somehow turning it into narrative for your personal essay won’t make for an interesting topic. This will actually bore your reader – no one actually enjoys hearing someone flaunting their wealth - Cadillac, private school, trip to Paris and all. You’ll only cause eyes to roll. Avoid using this topic for you essay unless you have a purpose for it – perhaps you can talk about leaving all those privileges behind and why. Your reader will likely listen, and you will avoid turning your piece into a forgettable essay.

  • Behaviors Which Are Illicit/Illegal

Even if they’re part of challenges you had to work through, drug and alcohol use, police arrests, jail time, and even sex, are topics that you must avoid. In all honesty, which of these is not one of the controversial topics to avoid at work? These people from the admissions board have no means of knowing you beyond those papers, and they will make assumptions about the decisions you’ve made, even if they’re already part of the past. Your judgement may also be questioned solely for making the decision to write about it in the first place – it’s risky business, and if you want to increase your chances of being accepted, then it’s better to just leave these topics untouched.

  • The Most Important _______ in My Life

If you read it aloud, the topic sounds like a task assigned to a third grader. Avoid writing “my hero” essays, “my dog/cat/rabbit” essays, and “my hometown” essays. These sound incredibly simple, and if a child can accomplish this task, it won’t impress the college of your dreams.

  • Tragic Circumstances 

Life tragedies, such as divorce and death, are topics that can be extremely difficult to write about, and thus should be treated with caution. As much as possible, try to avoid writing your essay on a topic that involves these. If by chance you are extremely passionate about pursuing it as it has affected your life immensely, remember to keep the essay’s focus on you. Gather your feelings about the situation and assess them accordingly. Focus on how it has affected you, and all the things you’ve learned from it. This is better than simply narrating the actual even or the person you have lost.

  • The Big Picture

Asking the big, philosophical questions on existence, purpose, and life’s ultimate meaning can lead to insightful conversations and writing, but they make terrible application essay topics. Why? They have little to do with who you are. It’s better to write about your favorite summer memory instead: lying at night in your backyard under the stars with your best friend, talking about life and philosophy.

The Worst of the Worst College Application Essay Topics

  • Sports Story

The sports essay is one of the most cliche college essay topics to avoid. Regardless of the story or the kind of sport, everyone knows how an athletic story plays out – it’s a popular plot for mainstream media. An effective college admission essay transports the reader into a world of fascination and a new experience, but the theme of either winning or losing? Nearly everyone has their own version of that. Choosing to talk about how you cope with a win or loss will put you in a position equal with other applicants, as it will probably the 107th essay with the same theme. 

  • Relationship Breakups

The notion of talking about your love life may seem deep, as going through a breakup may be one of the biggest challenges you have faced so far. You may want to be tempted to talk about the time you supported your boyfriend throughout his physics project, and tie that in with how you would wish to support the school community. Keep in mind, though, just like with any writing, you need to first identify your audience. In this case, it’s the admissions board, and talking about your past romantic relationships doesn’t sound impressive. These are adults who have probably gone through worse, such as divorce, or a death of a spouse. They have more perspective on relationships over a high school senior, so writing about the demise of your relationship is not a good idea.

  • Mission Trips

Everyone who has ever been to Haiti, Guatemala, or Togo writes about how their eyes opened up to the world beyond their privileges, and argue that their lives will never be the same again after that. While it’s true that it may really have affected your life, it has also affected and continues to affect the lives of other students across the country who’ve experienced the same thing. That being said, this is one of the most overused college essay topics. If you truly feel like your time in Haiti is relevant and deserves to be written about, talk about a specific experience, such as a certain person you met there. Talking about the entire trip is cliché and vague.

  • The Foreign Language

The prospect of writing your college application essay seems like foolproof way of standing out, which will also show extreme passion for the subject. Even if you’re planning to major in that specific language, writing your entire essay in that language is a bad call. You’ll only be worrying the admission officers where and how your essay will be translated in order to be readable. If you wish for your passion to shine through, write about your recent trip to the Dominican Republic, and talk about how speaking only in Spanish made you realize that this is what you want to learn deeper, and in the future, actually teach the language.

  • The “I’m Different” Essay

There was once an instance wherein a student decided to write about the best day of his life, which actually translated to him sleeping until five in the evening, consumed some ice cream, and went back to sleep. No, he was not lazy at all. He was a pianist and a chess enthusiast, but he wanted his essay to sound unique and off the path. Rather than talk about his passions, he talked about that time he slept all day. Needless to say, it didn’t work – and there’s a good reason why no one else thought about writing that essay. The same idea goes for trying hard to be creative by coming up with witty one word, one liners, and poems. Although they’re different from what admissions officers usually read, that doesn’t guarantee success of your essay. You’re essentially creating an anti-essay, but remember – the purpose of your college essay is to get into the college of your dreams. There are other ways to stand out without compromising intelligence and character.

If you’re still shaking your head in disbelief about our what to avoid in college essays discussion, and adamant about pursuing that college essay topic, maybe it’s best to listen to Brooke Hanson, the face behind the channel called SupertutorTV, dedicated to helping students like you. Check her video: 

10 Words to Avoid When Writing the Essay

More than coming up with good topics, you need to understand that writing goes two ways – it’s a combination of art and craft. The art aspect comes from reading, thinking, dreaming, and the like. The craft aspect talks about technique. Writing, in itself, involves techniques. They can range from being complex to simple, but all of them serve the purpose of strengthening your writing. In most cases, strengthening your writing simply means avoiding anything that weakens it. To help with your college admissions essay, here are ten words to avoid in essays gathered that will weaken your essay – it’s best to avoid them:

  • Thing

Using the word “thing” is a constant impulse. Using this word, however, actually weakens your writing. “Thing” points to a shortcut, a sign of watered-down and vague writing. If you see it sneak up on you in your writing, pause for a while and think about what you really wish to convey.

  • Like

If you wish you compare something to another thing, it’s better to use accurate descriptions and correct verbs. It’s better than using “like”, which according to experts, “soil your writing”. A good metaphor can enhance your writing, of course, but using too much can make your material tedious to read, so reflect on other ways to express your ideas.

  • Just

Truth be told, the word “just” does not really add any value to the sentences you write. When you leave them out, you’ll find yourself with sentences of the same meaning. The only difference is that they are much tighter and more direct. See for yourself:

“People here love to make assumptions, as that’s just how they are.”

“People here love to make assumptions. It’s how they are.

  • One of

They say that the best writers take a stand. Avoid saying “one of the most important”, “one of the best”, as it’s either the most important or not, and it’s either the best or not. 

“She’s one of the best things that ever happened to this school”

“She’s the best thing that ever happened to this school.

  • Very

“Very” simply does not communicate enough information, and it’s been called as one of the most useless words ever to have been invented in the English language. To avoid using this, come up with descriptive words and explain the scene as vividly as you can. Whenever you become tempted to use it remember that it’s essentially next to nothing, and using it will only weaken your material.

  • That 

Simple rule: if you find a sentence still making sense after removing “that”, keep it that way. This word is essentially part of the top words to avoid in an essay. See the example below:

“This is the most comprehensive journal that I’ve ever read.”

“This is the most comprehensive journal I’ve ever read.”

  • Then

If you’re writing a sequence of events, remove “then” or replace it with the word “and”. Using this word actually sounds repetitive, sometimes leading towards juvenile. 

“I shut the door behind me, then accidentally tripped from a ball on the floor. Then Robby pointed and laughed at me, then I picked up the ball and threw it at him.”

“I shut the door behind me and accidentally tripped from a ball on the floor. Robby pointed and laughed at me as I picked up the ball and threw it at him.”

  • Some

By definition, “some” means “an unspecified amount or number of”, which in writing, is vague. Vague writing is equal to bad writing. 

  • Adverbs (words that end with “-ly”)

Adverbs, such as loudly, painfully, beautifully, are words used to mean well, but do nothing for the reading experience. As discussed, vague writing is poor writing, and the secret to successful writing is simply being specific. This means painting pictures in a reader’s mind.

“She cried loudly.”

“Her loud crying reverberated across the street like cars honking. Passersby turned to look at her, and regarded her with looks of disbelief. 

Adverbs can be useful and adds more meaning to the work, but it’s better to go straight-ahead for the real thing. 

  • Used to

Including “Used to” to your sentences merely adds to the word count and not the meaning. Replace “used to” with a past tense verb instead.

“He used to be a neighbor.”

“He was my neighbor.”

What Makes A Good Essay?

The first half of this material talks about bad college admissions essays, and the things to avoid while writing. To create a better idea of how to actually make a good essay, this half is dedicated to discussing good topics, along with some tips and tricks.

Admissions officers look for three things in your college admission essay: a unique perspective, strong writing, and the most vital, an authentic voice. There is no magic topic that will ensure admission to the college of your dreams, but there are experiences everyone has, including you, which you can utilize as the strongest point in your essay. First, however, consider the word “topic.” This originally meant “subject suitable for debate”, which means that you don’t actually want to “find” a topic. Debatable topics rarely make good essays, so instead of winning, convincing and pitching yourself as the most suitable candidate is better. The admissions board are people, and as people with cultures and essentially humanity, they love stories. Your stories are not debatable, as they are entirely your own. The best way to connect with people is through storytelling, narrating an experience as honestly and authentically as possible, the way only you can. That being said, the best college application essays are simply stories.

Good College Essay Topics – What Should I Write About?

You need to write a story, but what should you write about? Where do you begin? From all the experiences you’ve gathered, it will be hard to choose which one will work best and offer the most unique perspective. Looking for a never-before-seen essay topic will be almost impossible. To help you out with that dilemma, here is a list of good college essay topics, gathered from site essay critiques and triumphant essays that helped students get into their dream schools. 

  • Outdoor activities

One teacher recounts an instance in which she had to advise a student on their college application essay. She worked with a quiet student, a boy who always chose the farthest seats from the board. He decided to write an essay about building a treehouse with his best friend. Although simple, this revealed the many facets of his character: creativity, expert planning, love of nature and building, and the comical things that boys talk about as they hang out. This brought his essay life – when writing, recall any activities you’ve done that required you to take a creative approach, or challenged you to deal with it logically. 

  • Memorable meals

Food is something that connects people, as it is necessary to survival. When you read a story about food, most people warm up to eat and immediately think about their own favorite dishes, along with the stories and bonds that come with it. An essay focusing on this can work wonders. Look for any significant conversations you’ve had around food; describe the experience in a descriptive manner along with the food.

  • Challenges

A student once narrated a challenge she had to face on the first day of her ninth grade. “It was my very first day of ninth grade, and it was time for lunch. I walked into the cafeteria and looked for an empty seat. All of the black students were sitting to the left, huddled and talking to themselves. The other half to my right were the white students, huddled and talking to themselves. Where was I, with brown skin, supposed to sit? It seemed as if there wasn’t any.”

Most people have had those moments. You find yourself in an entirely foreign situation, with no air of familiarity. College application essays about these kinds of challenges reflect how your respond to difficulties, and these people reading essays are very much interested to know how you’ll handle the next four years of your college life.

  • Commitment

If you find yourself going in circles, perhaps these questions could help: What difference do you want to make in the world? Where specifically are you going with your life

Research about education supplies that the strongest predictor of a child’s success is the detail and specifics that come with the visions of their futures. As individuals, we have certain responsibilities not only to ourselves, but the community. This is the most important work that we need to do, so in your college application essay, explain your commitments – these will make you immensely attractive.

  • The Unique Way You Grew Up (And How It Affects You Now)

A Harvard student once shared a story. He met a student who was raised surrounded by wolves. Quite eccentric, but the student actually grew up in a wolf rehab community. She was just like any other student, studying Economics and is taking up modeling on the side, but being raised flanked by wolves was the most memorable thing about her. If you grew up in a weird way, and if that has affected who you are as a person now, it will be worth writing about in a college essay. It will make you memorable.

  • Failure

A common question schools ask is about failure: “Recount a circumstance when you experienced failure. How has it affected you, and what lessons did you learn?

Contrary to popular belief, this is not a trick question. It is, however, the most complex question provided for by these schools. It gives you a chance to go through a process of introspection, giving you a chance to show how you learn from your experiences and in this case, failure. Fair warning: it will take time to reflect on mistakes and find one that’s actually worth talking about, but it works.

  • Focus On A Moment

Should you decide to talk about a cliché essay topic mentioned above, then a good way to make a common story memorable is to focus on a single moment and build your essay around that. For instance, if you were to talk about a volunteer trip, do not talk about the trip as a whole. Don’t even dwell on the things you have seen, or the things you’ve realized. It’s best to talk about someone you’ve met there. It would be better to write about their home, their language, and how they communicated. From there, after describing the moment, connect its significance with something huge about yourself – a characteristic, a goal. Focus on that single moment that contributed to your life now. 

  • Lust For Literature

If you know people who spend their most of their days reading books, be it a friend or family member, you’re likely to believe that they’re quite intelligent. The good part about this is that colleges will likely think the same way about you if you decide to introduce your love for literature in your essay. Perhaps you own a book in which you strongly relate to the characters, or a philosophical material shifted your current paradigm. Perhaps you dream of becoming like your favorite author someday. Your love for literature will shine through your essay’s pages, no matter what the context.

  • Your Personality 

One author shares a story about his good friend. He had to answer a unique question for the school he applied for, and ended up enrolling. He was asked to describe one of his quirks, and he ended up talking about him being a storyteller. It was raw and genuine in every line, as he was a storyteller down to his core. He would tell his friends about that fishing job he got for summer just outside of town, that time he met wolves during camping, and recounted the adventures of his skydiving uncle, as if he was a superhero. Next time you come across questions like this, or if your essay feels like it’s missing something, then it could be its lack of the depiction of personality in its rawest form.

College Essay Writing Tips

Good college essay topics are one thing, and discussing topics to avoid in college essays is another. The actual writing process is an entirely different thing, as involves both creativity and technique. It goes beyond sifting through types of essays.  To start, asking yourself relevant essay questions is necessary. We’ve gathered a list of questions you should reflect on:

  • What makes you stand out among other applicants?
  • What draws you to your chosen career, and what do you wish to get out of it?
  • When did the interest for this career path begin? How do you suppose this interest developed? When did you become certain that this is what you wanted to do, and what prompted your decision?
  • List down your intellectual influences. They could be writers, books, professors, concepts you’ve learned that shaped your different perspectives.
  • What do you consider as academic accomplishments? How have they affected you?
  • What other experiences, outside of the academe, have contributed to your choice of school and/or career? (this could be work, volunteer, or family)
  • What do you know about the school you’re applying for? What makes it attractive? 
  • What about education that fascinates you? How are you sure you want to pursue higher education and beyond that?
  • What are the most important things the admissions board needs to know about you?
  • Think of a teacher you’ve had previously, which you also like and respect. If this person were to read your college application essay, what would most impress? What should you write about?

After the process of introspection, it will be likely clearer to you how you will proceed with your essay. Here are some tips to consider for preparing for the writing process.

  • Gather and double-check the requirements. 

Most of the time, schools asking for a personal statement will also ask for a set of requirements. Most schools provide certain prompts and questions needed to be answered in the essay, so stick to answering that. Another requirement could be the word count, and it is necessary to follow instructions. You may be asked to write 1000 words, so submit 1000 words. If there is no length requirement, make sure to remain concise.

  • Talk to others.

Before you start writing, even with introspection, considering talking to your close friends and family. Ask how they see you, and what they find unique in you. It will be difficult sometimes to list down all your strengths, so it’s best to ask others to help you. They could also have stories about you that may be interesting, or they could have insights about what sets you apart from others.

  • Organize your thoughts before writing.

From all the insights and data gathered, it is vital to first sit down and create a structure. This will help keep your thoughts organize, as well as ensure that your essay will flow well and coherently. Utilizing outlines will also help you keep track of any limitations and instructions, such as word limits and questions. 

  • Explain why you want to major in that field.

You need to be able to incorporate this well with your topic. Talk about what motivates you to take this course at a university level, and how you see your future in you chosen career path. Discuss how your interest developed, and what you’ve done so far to keep that dream alive.. Word of advice, though: refrain from overusing the word ‘passion’ as you write. 

  • Discuss how you're right for the course and for college.

Apart from explaining, argue why and how you fit the selection criteria, and provide concrete evidence. Remember to stick to the topic, however, and show them that you’ve done enough research.

  • Have someone proofread your material.

Reading your essay is one thing, but it will be better for someone else to look it over for you. Errors in grammar and spelling will make the admissions officer toss your application without hesitation. Make sure your essay is completely error-free, and the best way to do that is to ask for help.

  • Consider seeking feedback.

Before submitting your college application essay, go to a trusted mentor, like a school counselor, your teacher, or even your parents. More than reading over your work for any mistakes, they will be able to provide necessary feedback. This will be a good way to spot those details that shouldn’t be there, or points you need to explain further. Perhaps a concept makes sense to you, but that may not always come manifest in your writing. You won’t be there in front of the admissions officer to explain any vague sentences or ideas. Receiving feedback and critique is something you’ll experience for the rest of your life, as this is where you’ll grow. Listen to what others have to say about your work. 

For a glimpse of some successful college application essay examples, please continue.