What Not To Talk About In A College Essay

(MoneyWatch) For students who are applying for college, one of the scariest parts of the admission process is writing the dreaded essay.

A common mistake that students make when tackling their college essays is to pick the wrong topics. It's a huge turn off, for instance, when applicants write about their sports exploits or their pets. I asked Janine Robinson, who is the creator of a wonderful website called Essay Hell and the author of an excellent ebook entitled "Escape Essay Hell," to identify those essay topics that teenagers should absolutely avoid.

Here are Robinson's college essay no-no's:

1. Listing accomplishments. You might be the most amazing person on the planet, but nobody wants a recitation of the wonderful things you've done, the people you've encountered and the places you've visited.

2. Sports. Do you know how many millions of teens have written about scoring the winning goal, basket or run? You definitely don't want to write about your winning team. And nobody wants to read about your losing team, either.

3. Sharing how lucky you are. If you are one of the lucky teenagers who has grown up in an affluent household, with all the perks that goes with it, no need to share that with college admission officials. "The last thing anyone wants to read about is your ski trip to Aspen or your hot oil massage at a fancy resort," Robinson observed.

4. Writing an "un-essay." Many students, particularly some of the brightest ones, have a negative reaction to the strictures of the admission essay. In response, Robinson says, "They want to write in stream-of-consciousness or be sarcastic, and I totally understand this reaction. However, you must remember your goal with these essays -- to get accepted! Save the radical expression for after you get into college."

5. Inflammatory topics. It's unwise to write about politics or religion, two of the most polarizing topics. Avoid any topics that make people angry.

6. Illegal activity. Do not write about drug use, drinking and driving, arrests or jail time. Also leave your sexual activities out of the frame. Even if you have abandoned your reckless ways, don't bring it up.

7. Do-good experiences. Schools do not want to hear about your church or school trip to another country or region to help the disadvantaged. You may be able to write about a trip like this only if you focus on a specific experience within the broader trip.

8. The most important thing or person in my life. This topic is too broad and too loaded, whether you want to write about God, your mom or best friend. These essays are usually painfully boring. 

9. Death, divorce, tragedies. The problem with these topics is not that they are depressing, but that such powerful topics can be challenging to write about. Absolutely no pet stories -- admission officers hate them.

10. Humor. A story within a college essay can be amusing, but don't try to make the entire essay funny.

As independent college admissions consultants, we read hundreds of application essays each year and see many common application essay mistakes. Below are some tips on what to avoid in a college application essay:

1.     Submitting a Generic Essay. Use the essay to convince a college they want you more than someone else. A college will not choose you over another if are unmemorable and-or sound like everybody else.  Make sure your essay reflects your special skills, your unique traits, your thoughts and-or your personality. The admissions people are looking for a story that shows your character and your reasoning.

2.     Not Following Directions. First, you need to answer the question. Read the prompt carefully.  If there are multiple parts to a question, you need to address each one. For example, if you choose to “Recount an incident when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”, make sure you thoughtfully and critically analyze both the event and its impact on you. For students who are recycling essays, this means to double check that your essay matches what each college wants.  Second, make sure you have the right word count.

3.     Rewriting Your Resume. The essay is for you to show and tell admissions things about you that they won’t find on your resume.  For example, your initiative, passion, personal growth, flexibility, willingness to take risks, motivation and problem solving abilities. Then there’s more.  The essay is also the place for you to showcase personal qualities such as leadership, confidence, ability to work in a team, strength of character, resilience, and-or what your presence will add to the college community.

4.     Not Doing Research Before Writing. Is the college asking you to explain why you want to attend their college or a certain program?  Research more than the first page of a college website. You need to flatter the college to make it want you. Pay attention to what is important to the particular school or program and, when appropriate, consider including it in some manner in your essay. If you truly can’t find anything that stands out for you, you should not be applying there.

5.     Using Controversy. Be very cautious on writing about any highly polarizing or sensitive topics.  You do not know who will be reading your essay.  If an admission committee member decides he or she doesn’t like you based on what you wrote, you’re not getting in.  Your goal is to get into college.

6.     Talking About Someone Else. Even if your dad is an astronaut, do not write the majority of your essay about him.  Don’t write too much about a role model or someone you admire. You could write a little about them but use this as a lead in to how much they influenced you to take action and go on to do many positive things.  Admissions is only interested in what you’ve done.

7.     Short Volunteer Trips, Trips Abroad and Family Vacations.  Think smartly about using these types of trips for your college essay. Most of the time these experiences just show admissions that your family has money to travel. However, if your trip truly inspired you to do more after you came back, and you took action, then this can be a good essay topic.   Alternatively, if you had a unique experience during your trip, that shows you in an excellent light and has changed you, this is also good to write about.

8.     Illegal or Illicit Behavior.  Forever avoid mention of drug and alcohol use, sex, arrests and-or jail time.  Even if you can write an essay about it as a learning experience with a positive ending. No matter what you say, the college is most likely going to question your judgment.  If you have been arrested and the college requires you to report it as part of their application process, we strongly urge you to speak with one of our advisors on how to best position this issue.

9.Error-Full Essay.  Don’t lose points for something that is entirely fixable.  Make sure you get your paper proofread by a trusted adult or two before submitting it.

Filed Under: College Essays, International College Counselors blogTagged With: admission essay, college application essay, college essay, college supplemental essay, writing college essay

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