Topics to Avoid for the College Application Essay
In this four-part series on the college application essay, we consider how to select a topic, some common topic pitfalls, the elements of a great essay, and the writing process in order to help students navigate this under-emphasized portion of the college application process. This is part two: Topics to Avoid for the College Application Essay.
Working with students on college application essays, certain topics consistently appear. Students believe these topics will show them in a good light. Unfortunately, the topic is usually obvious, mundane, and will be covered by many, many other students. Rather than highlighting their individual qualities, it reinforces how average they are. What follows are some commonly selected topics that do not accomplish what they are perceived to showcase.
1. The “Try, Try Again” essay––In this essay, the student hopes to show how they have ambition and conviction. S/he tried out for the school team/band/play/club and was not accepted. After a year of practice and good effort, the student went to trials again and this time succeeded. Or, the student expected to ace a class, but then failed a major test, forcing a re-evaluation that led to eventual success (presumably an A). Many students have this experience. I have worked with a group of 20 students in an international workshop and had 4 of them wanting to write this essay, 2 of them about their experience with the soccer team. This essay does not show ambition as they hope; it shows limited experience since this mundane experience is one of the great events in their life. Most teenagers will have had to face failure. In the larger scheme of the world, this is hardly a great personal barrier to have to overcome.
2. The “Community Service” essay––This essay is often based on a church or community service trip to an impoverished nation, where the student discovered the heart-wrenching poverty in this world. Again, many students have this experience. One hopes that young people are aware of the poverty even within their own immediate geographical area. Unless the student can address some major initiative that s/he successfully launched upon return from this experience, which development and execution should be described in detail, this essay too often reads as a sigh of relief at not being poor like those others. If this trip has lead to a career focus, then the essay can be transformed into a detailed discussion of that life’s goal, telling the story of the trip in a sentence or two as a motivating experience.
3. The “I moved” essay––This has the same flaw as the two above in being too common to be inherently interesting. The difficulty of making friends, getting to know a new language or culture, the challenge in changing education systems, the discomfort of being a representative of one’s previous home are true of everyone who has ever moved. Can the student share something truly individual about that experience? Something that no one else could describe? That essay should then be about that experience, which just happened to occur because the student had moved.
4.a) The Death or Loss essay–– The problem with essays about a friend or a family member’s death or suicide, friend’s abuse of drugs or alcohol, or someone else’s eating disorder is their focus on someone other than the student. The first encounter with death, disease, or destruction is shocking, but recognizing the importance of friends and family does not make an adequate college application essay. In addition, this limited space must be devoted to the student’s own life story and personal traits, not the challenges of someone else. Can the student discuss significant new insights they have on the meaning of life, and how they are already implementing these realizations into their current life? If so, the student can write an essay about how s/he makes those values apparent, and mention in passing how this realization was brought forth by a friend or family’s addiction or death.
4.b) The Best Person Ever essay–- The student here usually sees much of their own character being altered by their relationship with this grandparent/teacher/priest/coach. That may be true, but usually the essay becomes entirely about the other person, rather than presenting important qualities about the student. This difficulty can be overcome by shifting the essay to find a story about something the student has accomplished, and narrating that story with reference to qualities that they try to emulate in this other person. This reveals more about the student by presenting how they overcome a difficult situation, showcases traits they admire in others and how they attempt to reproduce them within the context of their own life.
5.a) The “Parent’s Divorce/Remarriage/Affair” essay––Unfortunately, I have yet to read a student’s essay on a parent that has the necessary distance to avoid sounding plaintive. An application to college implies the student’s maturity to live away from the governing eye of parents. Even a student with the best intentions will likely appear to be caught in their kid-parent turmoil, in the adolescent blame game. I discourage students from writing about their parents. This is related to the other dangerous parent topic:
5.b) The “Parent is a Celebrity/Important Person” essay––This essay can be done well…if it focuses on the student. Otherwise, the student sounds like s/he expects to coast on the parent’s success, even if the student is complaining about how misunderstood s/he is because of the parent’s celebrity (in which case see item 5a above). The student can write a revealing essay about juggling the public and private of his or her own life, explain how difficult personal decisions get made because of the public, or share aspects of life in the shadows of someone’s celebrity. This remains focused on the student and presents the student as self-aware.
These problem topics highlight the difficulty in picking a good essay topic. How to do that is our next topic.
AUTHOR BIO: Charlotte Kent, PhD. lives and works in New York City, where she helps people of all ages improve their writing.