Prospies, I’m going to let you in on a little admissions secret: Too many of you write about the same essay topics.
“But Lily,” you say to me frantically, “I’m different and more interesting than all the other people writing about the same topic!”
And now prospies, I will let you in on a second admissions secret: Just as Ginnifer Goodwin’s character Gigi learned in He’s Just Not That Into You, you are the rule and not the exception.
Since starting TP almost a year and a half ago, I’ve gotten into many arguments with high school students about this fact. The point is, no matter how special and awesome you are at home, at the end of the day, you are still one application out of thousands sitting on someone’s desk, and the things that make you unique in your hometown usually won’t mean jack to an admissions officer.
Is that just totally screwed up? Absolutely. But no one ever said that the admissions world was fair.
So, now that you are slowly coming to terms with the “rule not the exception” principle, let’s turn to essay topics. Your Common App essay and subsequent supplements can make or break your application, and after I read/edited over 120 college essays last winter break as part of our college essay extravaganza, I can tell you that 95% of applicants wrote about the same exact things. And if I was seeing the same essay over and over looking at only 120 Word docs, I can only imagine what admissions officers go through when deciding amongst thousands.
So without further ado, here are the nine college essay topics to steer away from and why.
1. The Immigrant Essay
Going back over the essays I received during the college essay extravaganza, 50% of the Common App essays I read were about students and their families moving to the US and learning to adjust. Now, I’m not saying that your familial struggles aren’t intense and worthy of talking about; after all, many students wrote about the loneliness they felt being the only new kid in school or having to adjust to American customs, and those are all absolutely valid conversations.
However, if you put all of these “moving to America” stories in a pile and read them one after another, they start to bleed together. The story lines and characters all sound the same. And for you, that means less of a chance to stand out and more of a chance of being labeled “one of those immigrant kids”. Is it fair? Absolutely not. Is that the way it is? Unfortunately, yes.
2. The “They Taught Me More Than I Taught Them” Essay
Please for the love of all that is admissions don’t write about the time you went on a service trip to a third-world country and learned from the locals. Not only does it typically come across as condescending and privileged (since most high school students are not aware of how to talk about cultures in politically correct terms), but it’s also so overdone and bland.
3. The “Ski Slope” Essay
When many students answer the quintessential “talk about a time you overcame an obstacle” prompt, they tend to write something that I call the “ski slope” essay. In this scenario, the author was given a physical challenge (like a ski slope, mountain, scary water slide ride, etc.) and was eventually convinced overcome it. Again, it’s an essay that I’ve seen over and over (and over) again, and there’s no real way to write these essays well. They usually involve a lot of cliche adjectives and some other person convincing the writer to go down the slope. Inspiring? Not at all.
Look at it this way: Thousands of people learn how to ski every year; it’s boring and totally not unique. If you’re going to write about an obstacle, it needs to be an obstacle that only 0.00005% of the world has overcome. Otherwise, you’re just like everybody else.
4. The “Look at How Super Deep I Am” Essay
Kids, don’t try to go on a philosophical rant in your college essays. Not only do you typically sound like a pretentious, self-important twerp pulling stuff out of your butt (and admissions officers know it), but these tirades also tell the reader absolutely nothing about you as as potential member of a college. Don’t get meta. If you want to talk about all the great deep thoughts inside your head, start a blog.
5. The All-Dialogue Essay
Note: Spending half of your 650 words going through a conversation you had with your sister is a complete snore and a total waste of time and space. Cut our dialogue unless it’s funny or actually moves the story along. Something like this is just really dull fluff:
“Sister,”I said to her.
“Yes?” she said back.
She looked at me with angst. “What?” she asked again.
Three lines in and you’re bored already, right?
6. The Way-Too-Extended Metaphor Essay
What do dumplings, crayons, and hoop earrings have in common? They’re all inanimate objects that have been used as extended metaphors in college essays, and all of those essays were not good.
Pulling off the extended metaphor essay is hard, and as you’ve learned by now, it’s best to go into essay writing with the mentality that you are the rule, not the exception. So stop trying to compare your life to a squashed kumquat you saw on the side of the road and find a different topic.
7. The “Lesson about Failure Where You Didn’t Really Fail” Essay
Remember that an admissions essay is still a story, and the best heroes and heroines have legitimate pitfalls. If your biggest failure is that you had a hangnail but you eventually took care of it, not only do you look shallow, but you also look dull. Failures need to be actual heart-stopping, “OMG, NOOO!” failures. Either commit to going all the way or avoid writing this type of essay altogether.
8. The Bat Mitzvah Essay
When the Common App prompt asks for something that marked your transition into adulthood, stay away from cultural or religious events that actually mark adulthood, like a bar/bat mitzvah or a confirmation ceremony or something. The best essays about transitions into adulthood deal with unforeseen shifts, not obvious ones (for example, my friend wrote about the different types of boxers he bought throughout high school. Shift to adulthood? Yes. Totally freaking clever? Heck yeah).
9. The Straight Up Cliche Essay
There are many topics that are way overdone besides the ones listed above. Some examples of what I mean:
- The “What I learned at this academic conference/camp/event” essay
- The “What my mom/dad/family taught me” essay
- The “How I felt about moving to a whole new place or being in a new environment” essay
- The “How I learned to fit in” essay
- The “Death of person x” essay
- The “How my parents’ divorce changed me” essay
- The “Here’s a very vague essay about my family’s culture” essay
Again, these are just a few of the many examples of cliche essays.
Well, if you read this list and thought, “Wow, now I’m screwed,” fear not: We’ll be coming out with tons of articles over the next few months with essay brainstorms, interesting topic angles, and the whole nine yards to get you geared up and awesome for the admissions season. A good college essay is meant to be challenging to write, so sit back, relax, and read TP.
Lily Herman is a junior at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Besides bopping around on The Prospect, Lily is a columnist for USA TODAY College (read the Quad Report, yo); an editorial intern for The Daily Muse; a contributing editor for the campus blog Wesleying; a national contributing editor for Her Campus; and an editorial/marketing intern at HelloFlo. When she is not studying or awkwardly waving at people around campus, Lily enjoys eating Sour Patch Kids and re-watching the Friday Night Lights series finale (she's Team Saracen, by the way). Also (shameless plug alert), feel free to follow her on Twitter, or email her at lherman(at)theprospect(dot)net.
“He wrote about his genitalia, and how he was under-endowed,” Motto told me. “He was going for something about masculinity and manhood, and how he had to get over certain things.”
Motto, who was an assistant director of admissions at Yale from 2001 to 2003 and evaluated applications part time from 2007 to 2008, said that essays as shocking as those two were a small minority. Other people who have screened college applications or coached applicants through the admissions process echoed that assessment.
But they also noted, as he did, an impulse in many essay writers to tug readers into the most intimate corners of their lives and to use unfiltered frankness as a way to grab attention. In some of the essays that students begin to draft and some of the essays that they actually wind up submitting, there are accounts of , sexual abuse, self-mutilation, domestic violence, , . Sally Rubenstone, one of the authors of the “Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions,” has called this “the -ization of the college admissions essay,” referring to the host of one of the TV talk shows best known for putting private melodrama on a public stage.
Stephen Friedfeld, one of the founders of AcceptU, an admissions consulting firm, told me that in the essay of a student he and his colleagues worked with this year, he encountered a disorder he’d never heard of before: cyclic syndrome. And Friedfeld and his colleagues huddled over the wisdom of the student’s account of his struggle with it. Would it seem too gross? Too woe-is-me?
Their solution was to encourage the student to emphasize the medical education that he’d undertaken in trying to understand his ailment. They also recommended that he inch up to the topic and inject some disarming humor. Friedfeld said that the final essay began something like this: “In my Mom’s car? Yep, I’ve done it there. As I’m waiting in line to eat my lunch in school? Yep, I’ve done it there.” The “it” was left vague for a few sentences.
Right now, during the summer months between the junior and senior years of high school, many kids who’ll be putting together their college applications in the fall start to sweat the sorts of essays they’ll write. And as they contemplate potential topics, some of them go to highly emotional places.
“Being a little vulnerable can give great insight into your character,” said Joie Jager-Hyman, a former admissions officer at and the president of College Prep 360, which helps students assemble their applications. “I’ve had successful essays on topics like ‘my father’s alcoholism’ or ‘my parents got divorced because my dad is gay.’ ”
She’ll shepherd students through four or more drafts. Michele Hernandez, another prominent admissions counselor, runs one or more sessions of an Application Boot Camp every summer in which roughly 25 to 30 kids will be tucked away for four days in a hotel to work with a team of about eight editors on what she told me were as many as 10 drafts of each of three to five different essays. The camp costs $14,000 per student. That doesn’t include travel to it, the hotel bill, breakfast or dinners, but it does include lunch and a range of guidance, both before and during the four days, on how students should fill out college applications and best showcase themselves.
Hernandez, Jager-Hyman and others in the booming admissions-counseling business try to steer students away from excessively and awkwardly naked testimonials, which can raise red flags about students’ emotional stability and about their judgment.
“Admissions officers pay as much attention to students’ choice of essay topic as they do to the details in their essays,” Motto told me.
He added that admissions officers can sniff out an essay that a student got too much help on, and he told me a funny story about one student he counseled. He said that the boy’s parents “came up with what they thought was the perfect college essay,” which described the boy as the product of “an exceptionally difficult , with many ups and downs, trips to the hospital, various doctor visits.”
“The parents drafted a sketch of the essay and thought it was terrific,” Motto said. Then they showed it to their son, “and he pointed out that everything mentioned happened before he was born.” He ended up choosing a topic that spoke to his post-utero life as a math lover who found a way to use those skills to help patients at a physical rehabilitation center.
THE blind spots and miscalculations that enter into the essay-writing process reflect the ferocious determination of parents and children to impress the gatekeepers at elite schools, which accept an ever smaller percentage of applicants. Students are convinced that they have to package themselves and communicate in entirely distinctive fashions.
“We argue that one of the ways to help your case is to show that you have a voice,” said André Phillips, the senior associate director of recruitment and outreach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But in that effort, sometimes students cross the line. In trying to be provocative, sometimes students miss the point.”
Motto said that one Yale applicant “actually described himself as one of the world’s great Casanovas” and said that his amazing looks inspired envy in other boys and competition among girls vying for his affection.
In response to several essays about emotional trauma, Motto contacted the students’ secondary schools to make sure that the applicants were O.K. He said he called the guidance counselor at the school of the girl who had urinated on herself, expressing concern about the essay and about whether she might be sabotaging her own application. He said that the counselor was aware of the essay and as baffled by it as Motto was.
The girl didn’t get into Yale, Motto said. Neither did the boy who mulled his genitalia. And neither did Casanova. There were apparently limits to the reach of his legendary sexual magnetism, and the Gothic spires and ivy-covered walls of a certain campus in lay beyond them.Continue reading the main story