We would never unequivocally tell an applicant that any proposed college essay topic is off limits. Great writers can take the most mundane, banal, and generic topic and transform it into a captivating composition. However, in our experience reading thousands of college essays, we are able to say with confidence that students are wise to steer clear of the following five era—lest they fall victim to some all-too-common common pitfalls.
Drugs, sex, and, well, just those two…
While you’re not auditioning to become an alter boy/girl, there are certain risqué topics that are unlikely to be viewed in a positive light by an admissions committee. On occasion, we’ve seen students aim for shock value by incorporating stories of sexual encounters or drug use into their essays—99% of the time this is an awful idea.
There are of course tactful ways to address these subjects if they are central to revealing who you are. One could easily talk about their sexual identity without writing an abridged version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Likewise, if a story arc of addiction and recovery is an essential part of your past, it may be a worthy topic to tackle. However, students should never mention casual use of drugs or alcohol. It sounds like obvious enough advice, but you’d be surprised…
This is a common go-to topic for many students. If done well, recounting a trip to a foreign country, whether for leisure of volunteer work will reveal something deeply personal and meaningful about you. Unfortunately, this is rarely executed well.
Too often, students, even fantastic young writers, waste precious application real estate on fanciful descriptions of Peruvian landscapes or generic observations about impoverished denizens of a Central American village. If you write about a trip to Haiti and chronicle the culture of the Haitian people then the essay is not really about you – it might as well be a homework assignment for a World Cultures elective.
An admissions officer is not going to emerge from reading an essay like this thinking, “What a worldly chap!” In reality, they are likely to feel like they just read a page from J. Peterman’s catalogue of Seinfeld fame.
Remember talk about something that happened to you, where you are at the heart of the action. Colleges want to know who you are and how you view the world – the essay may be your only chance to provide them with this type of insight and the travelogue is rarely an effective vehicle.
Many applicants are naturally inclined toward over dramatization, hyperbole, and enhanced self-importance in their essays. This is natural for two reasons: 1) even students with perfect SATs still have a teenage brain and 2) they wrongfully assume that this is required to impress admissions officers.
Writing an essay that is compelling doesn’t mean that you need to have wrestled a puma, grown up in a cult, or discovered a new galaxy at age seven. A great college essay can take place on a grand stage but it can just as effectively take place in everyday life. There is a ready supply of dramatic tension and conflict in the course of a typical day.
Parents can help their children in the brainstorming and editing stages by providing them with an adult sensibility and mature, grounded perspective. Many over-involved parents believe that they are helping their child’s essay by rewriting it in the style and tone of the New York Times. This is a mistake. Admissions officers do not want to read Nicholas Kristof’s version of your high school experience—they want it in your real teenage voice. Yet, parents can help be of great assistance by reminding their child to tone down their all-too-eager-to-impress natures. For example, a change in school lunch menu policy instituted by a student council president should not be compared to The New Deal. A photographic expose of in the school newspaper highlighting the poor condition of the football team’s locker rooms should not lead to comparisons to Jacob Riis. A discovery in robotics club should not…well, you get the idea.
(In a John Facenda voice)…”On a crisp and dreary Autumn day, a JV football field was the setting of a clash of titans, middleweight monsters of the gridiron, and there I stood, ready to perform the most challenging of the athletic arts, that fickle mistress known as…punting.”
Ask any admissions officer how many compelling sports-themed essays they’ve read in their entire careers. The answer will likely be somewhere between zero and one. Not even the spawn of Grantland Rice him/herself could breathe life into this black-hole of a topic.
The caveat here is that an essay can, of course, involve athletics as the backdrop to something more deep and personal. Competition and training undoubtedly provide ample opportunity to show more about your character, ability, sportsmanship, reaction to adversity, and ability to contribute to a larger cause. Just make sure something more revealing is being communicated than the fact that you once netted a hat trick against a rival or drained a last second three-pointer despite a sprained ankle. If you’re that great at a given sport, chances are a coach has already recruited you.
The Stream of Consciousness Essay
Okay, so this isn’t exactly a topic, per say, but more of an ill-fated genre that we’ve seen attempted before. Applicants will throw formality to the wind and spew out a string of stream-of-consciousness thoughts. If it worked for James Joyce, why not me? Unfortunately, such works typically read like a crazy e-mail written by a jilted lover at 3:00 AM rather than A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Writing in an authentic voice does not mean scribbling down some stream-of-consciousness thoughts 24 hours before the application deadline. There is a popular myth that Abraham Lincoln jotted down the Gettysburg Address on a napkin on his way to the battlefield. In truth, he spent over two weeks crafting the speech and went through five full drafts. All of that labor for a 272-word document about half the length of a college essay! The more time that you dedicate to your essay, the better the product will be.
Again, all of the above topics could be done in a masterful way and end up a beautiful essay, but based on our experience, the probability of this occurring is less than strong. The basic rules for writing a stellar college essay vary little from the general guidelines for producing any strong piece of written work: be authentic, tell a story that is personal and compelling, and diligently edit, revise, and polish your product. If you follow all of these steps, you will naturally steer clear of the stumbling blocks and hazards chronicled above.