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College Application Personal Statement Topics To Avoid

It’s that time of year: deadlines for college applications will be here before you know it. As if you don’t have enough to worry about, now you have to craft the perfect essay. This essay is going to be your chance to show your potential university who you are outside of your standardized test scores and your GPA. College admissions counselors read so many essays that it’s crucial you pick a topic to make yours stand out, so avoid these cliché ideas!

1.  Controversial Opinion Pieces 

In college, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to express your political and religious opinions. While it’s great to be informed, your college application essay is not the place to share your views.

Andrea Nadler, a college admissions counselor from Hofstra University, says that “there may be colleges who frown on it because you never know who is reading it, and this can be a subjective process.” If your essay is about why Obamacare is the downfall of this country and your admissions counselor is a strict Democrat, you may have just spoiled your chances. The same idea applies to if you write about your Catholic beliefs, and your reader is Jewish.

If the topic is personal to you, you can write about it as long as you can do it without demonstrating extreme bias. For example, if the implementation of Obamacare changed your life in some way, you could write about it – as long as you could do so without attacking the opposing side. You want to appear passionate and strong, but not offensive.

What to Write Instead

Instead of writing about a controversial topic that could spark anger in your reader, gear that passion towards something else. Any social issue could be an acceptable topic: drinking and driving, bullying, etc. Write about whatever you’re passionate about without potentially causing offense.

2. Listing All of Your Accomplishments

Yes, your college essay is obviously supposed to be about you; however, that doesn’t mean it should be a self-loving piece about all the accomplishments you’ve made.

“Listing accomplishments is what the resume/activity sheet should do,” Nadler says. “The essay should focus on one aspect or facet of their life—something not otherwise known from the other pieces of the application.”

The admissions officers have your resume already; they know what you’ve done. Use this opportunity to show your future university who you are beyond the qualifications written on paper.

What to Write Instead:

So you were the cheerleading captain, first chair in your school’s band and on student council? Pick the accomplishment you have achieved that means the most to you. What skills did you gain from it? What lessons did you learn? Taking a situation and explaining what you got out of it will show your university what you can offer to them.

3. A Sob Story

Admissions counselors are people, too, and they will absolutely be very sorry if you’ve lost a loved one or your parents got divorced. However, your admissions essay is your school’s first look at who you are, so show them you—not the tragic things you’ve had to deal with.

“Students do not need to write about ‘doom and gloom’ to get our empathy or sympathy, but if they choose to write about something sad or drastic, it should be a story about overcoming so we can see their resilience,” Nadler says.

Save the sad stories for personal essays in class; you’ll have plenty of opportunities to express that side of yourself.

What to Write Instead:

One way you can incorporate unfortunate things that have happened to you is to turn a negative experience into a lesson.

“I wrote my college essay about the organization I help found for suicide awareness after my friend unfortunately committed suicide,” says Hannah, a senior from Hofstra University. “I got a handwritten note with my acceptance letter from my admissions counselor saying how impressed they were with my ability to help turn such an awful situation in a way to help others.” This is a great example of how a terrible situation can be used in an essay to show your positive attributes.

4. Volunteer Work

Hear us out: volunteer work is definitely something to be proud of. However, so many students choose to write about volunteering in their essays that they all become very similar.

It’s a bit cliché to simply explain the volunteer work you’ve done. “Be careful when discussing volunteer work; you don’t want to sound insincere or that you’ve done it just to boost your resume," Nadler says.

You want your essay to be about something personal to you, so make sure it isn’t a generic summary of the charitable work you’ve done. Anyone can write about volunteering and helping the community, but not everyone can make personal connections to it.

What to Write Instead

Rather than summarizing a volunteer trip in your essay (boring!), describe a pivotal moment in your journey. If there’s a specific situation you had volunteering that has a personal connection to you, focus on those moments. What did you learn from it? How did it change your life? Are you a different person because of it?

Writing your college admissions essay can seem intimidating, but there’s no need to worry! As long as you keep it personal and concise, the admissions will come rolling in. Happy writing!

Students prepare for applying to selective colleges by taking rigorous courses, participating in extracurricular activities, studying for standardized tests, and more. All of this preparation, however, can distract attention from one of the most notorious sections of the college application: the essays.

The essay is both the most and the least visible part of the competitive admissions process. Everyone knows that the essay is critical, but few actually get to see what “successful” essays look like. Some online resources, like The College Board, post examples of college application essays, but they often lack the necessary context for a reader to truly assess how accurately that essay conveys a student’s personality and interests.

When choosing a topic for an essay, students need to consider what the essay prompt is asking, the universities to which they’re applying, their goals, and, ultimately, what the essay says about them as a student and as a person.

Why the Essay Matters

Before you can choose a compelling essay topic, you first need to understand why there’s an essay in the first place. When evaluating college applications, most colleges use a “reading rubric” to evaluate the different components of each application. Aside from the “hard factors,” like grades, GPA, and test scores, colleges also look at the “soft factors,” such as extracurriculars, recommendation letters, demonstrated interests, and essays. The point of evaluating all these factors is to enable colleges to holistically build a well-rounded class of specialists. The essay (or essays) is a great way to learn more about an applicant, her motivations, life experiences, and how she can contribute to the campus community.

According to NACAC, 83 percent of colleges assign some level of importance to the application essay, and it’s usually the most important “soft factor” that colleges consider. The essay is important because it gives students the chance to showcase their writing and tell the college something new. It also allows admissions officers to learn more about students and gain insight into their experiences that other parts of the application do not provide. Just like any other admissions factor, a stellar essay isn’t going to guarantee admission, but students do need to craft compelling and thoughtful essays in order to avoid the “no” pile.

Related: How a Great College Essay Can Make You Stand Out

Types of Essays

Let’s talk about the different types of essays that a college may require applicants to submit. Over 500 colleges and universities use the Common Application, which has one required essay, called the personal statement. There are five new prompts to choose from, and this essay can be used for multiple colleges.

Related: Why I Love the New Common Application Essay Prompts

Beyond the Common Application essay, many colleges also have supplements that ask additional, university-specific questions which applicants must respond to with shorter-form essays. While topics vary from supplement to supplement, there are a few standard essay formats that many colleges use:

Personal Statement

This is the most common essay and is used for the main Common Application essay. In this essay, the applicant talks about a meaningful life experience that helped shape who she is today. The book “Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting into College” has a great section on the personal statement and how students can craft effective essays.

“Why This College?” Essay

Many colleges, including Columbia University and Duke University, use the supplement to ask applicants to explain why they have chosen to apply to this particular college. In this essay, students need to be detailed and offer specific examples for wanting to attend this school. Not only does it help students reiterate their passions, it also serves as a gauge for demonstrated interest and a vehicle for students to better articulate how they will contribute to the campus environment.

Activity Essay

In this essay, students write about an extracurricular activity or community service project that was especially meaningful to them. This essay was previously on the standard Common Application, but was removed starting in the 2014–15 application season. Instead, some colleges, like Georgetown University, choose to include a variation of this essay among their supplements by asking students to discuss an activity and its significance to their life or course of study. In this essay, students should choose an activity they’re most passionate about and include details about how they expect to continue this activity at the particular college.

Related: Using Your High School Internship as Inspiration for Your College Essay

Quick Takes

In an effort to challenge students to think creatively, some colleges include short, “quick take” prompts that require only a few words or sentences for the response. Some examples include University of Southern California’s “What’s the greatest invention of all time?” and University of Maryland’s sentence completion prompts like “My favorite thing about last Wednesday…”

What NOT to Write About

In order to stand out, it’s important to realize that there are a number of essay topics that are cliché and overused. Avoid writing about things like scoring the winning goal, topics of public consciousness like natural disasters, or something that happened to you in middle school. Also, avoid gimmicks like writing in a different language, presenting your essay as a poem, or anything else that is stylistically “out of the box.” Your focus should be on the message rather than the presentation.

It’s also important to avoid inappropriate or uncomfortable topics. Some students choose to write about things like sex or romantic relationships in order to stand out; yet, these topics fail to add substance or depth to an application. There’s a fine line between interesting and trite — don’t stand out for the wrong reasons.

Successful Essay Topics

A successful essay will reveal something about you that the admissions reader may not have already known, and will show how you interact with family and friends and demonstrate your beliefs or explore your passions. This doesn’t mean you have to regurgitate your resume — in fact, you definitely shouldn’t.

For example, a student whose number one extracurricular activity is swimming should not write an essay about “the big meet.” Instead, she could explore a more personal topic, such as something she is learning in class that conflicts with her religious beliefs. She can discuss the intersection of religion and education in her life and how she reconciled the differences — or didn’t.

A great essay also provides readers with a vivid picture. When crafting an essay, think of it as offering admissions readers a window into a certain event or story. Focus on the most meaningful moments, not the irrelevant background details.

For example, a student once wrote an essay about feeling out of place culturally during an internship. Instead of giving a general description of the internship and his conflicts, he opened the essay with a vivid description of what he saw when he first arrived, and used this scene to frame the feelings of alienation he underwent — giving the reader a striking image of his experience in great detail.

Remember, your college application essay is about you. There’s a lot of pressure to be “unique” and “interesting,” but at the end of the day, the key to standing out is to just be yourself. Admissions officers can tell when students are embellishing or being insincere in their essays, so it’s best to keep it simple and tell a story about you and the person you are today. In the end, with careful planning, research, and a thoughtful essay, you’ll get into the best-fit college for you!

For further guidance and examples, check out Noodle's collection of expert advice about college essays.

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