Almost every teen tackling their college admissions essay has heard the same advice: Beware of the cliché topic! But sometimes the list of college essay topics to avoid seems all-encompassing. Avoid writing about sports and extracurriculars, difficult classes, people and books you admire, death and divorce, pets, immigration, travel, service projects… it goes on.
What else is left? Read on to find out what to actually avoid, and how to write about a chosen subject without treading into dreaded cliché land.
There Are No Off-limits Topics!
Imagine an admissions officer who’s already read through ninety-seven essays… before lunch. Your teen’s essay is the next in his pile. How can they capture the “sports injury” story—which the admissions officer has surely read before—in a new way?
If your teen wants to write about a sports injury, they should write about a sports injury. The key is to write about this experience in such a way that demonstrates something special about them—their courage, their kindness, their flexibility, their resourcefulness.
Perhaps instead of focusing too much on the injury itself, their essay emphasizes the aftermath. How during those weeks of recovery, their grandmother was the one who drove them to their doctor appointments, and how those one-on-one conversations in the car taught them something unexpected. Or how the audiobooks they listened to during the repetitive physical therapy exercises changed their whole outlook on what they want to study in college.
While it seems strange to say this in an article about college essay topics to avoid, the truth is that students can use what are often referred to as a “cliché topic” (the sports injury) if they do it to reveal something entirely fresh—something captivating about them that will make even a tired admissions officer perk up in his chair and pay attention.
Don’t Forget “You”
If your teen writes about someone they admire, or an album that blew their mind, or an important event in history, make sure they bridge the topic back to themselves. Here are some examples of bridges:
- What makes Greta Thunberg’s work so impactful to you? How has her fight against climate change influenced the way you think about your own impact on adults around you?
- How has Post Malone’s latest album changed the way you think about artistic expression? And what does that mean for your own artistic identity and goals?
- How did China’s Cultural Revolution affect your family’s values? Priorities? How has your own sense of self been influenced by this history?
Be Vulnerable, Not Confessional
When teens write about a subject that’s important to them, they’re inviting the reader into their minds and hearts: the fear they felt being pulled over by a police officer, for example, or how they have grieved the erosion of their family’s native language.
Regardless of what they write about, being vulnerable—sharing the emotional impact of an experience—shows the reader who they really are on the inside, the person underneath the transcript and scores. Their vulnerability makes the reader (i.e. the admissions officer who’s never actually met them) care about their life.
But being vulnerable is not the same as being confessional. Their college essay is not the right venue for diary entries or sob stories. Nor is it the place for confessing past wrongs that are difficult to fully reconcile in just 650 words. Remember that their essay should emphasize something about them that allows admissions officers to easily imagine how they will thrive on campus, and what they will contribute to their college community.
Ditch the Laundry List
Your teen’s application already has plenty of places for featuring their merits and accolades, so there’s no need to regurgitate their test scores in their essay, or how they nailed their AP Chem exam. Instead, have them use the valuable space of the essay to show admissions officers something new about them—something that can’t be captured in a transcript, résumé, or spreadsheet.
This Is (Still) an Academic Setting
That’s right, college is still school! Your teen’s essay is an opportunity to share something personal about themselves, but be mindful that as admissions officers read applications, they will also be forming an opinion about your teen’s judgment, maturity, and professionalism.
Unsure whether their topic treads into the territory of TMI (too much information)? Here’s a good rule of thumb: Don’t say anything in your essay that you wouldn’t share in your high school English class or in a job interview.