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The 3 Worst College Essay Topics (and How to Fix Them)

by Carol Barash, PhD, on May 21, 2014 11:30:00 AM


I get a lot of questions about college application essays. What are the best topics? Should I write about my service trip to Indonesia? What about my mother’s illness? Is there anything I absolutely shouldn’t write about in my college application essays?

I want to say, “These are the wrong questions.” Admissions officers say that 80% of the essays they read are ineffective. So the real question students should be asking is: “How do I write an application essay that admissions officers notice? What kind of essay will put me in the top 20% of applications?”

Here are three essay topics many students try and fail to write:
  1. 1. I did poorly in ninth and tenth grade, but then I Turned Myself Around.
  2. 2. I struggled to overcome a Big Personal Challenge.
  3. 3. I visited Another Country on a Service Trip and realized how Lucky I Really Am.

Many people start with these three topics, and there’s nothing wrong with them. But they don’t work as college admission or scholarship essays. At Story To College, we call these essays “scripts.” They are vague, general topics that many people can write. They have happily ever after endings. They don’t happen to real people. As my poetry professor at the University of Virginia often said, “There’s nothing wrong with that. But it doesn’t hurt enough.

By “hurt enough,” he meant that powerful writing begins at a place of personal vulnerability, where things are messy and uncertain. In order to write a college application essay that connects with readers and gets you noticed, you need to explore the more complicated and ambiguous moments your own experience.

College admissions committees are looking for three things in your essays: your unique perspective, strong writing, and your authentic voice. To explore which topics make sense for you, start with almost any important moment in your life—or even an everyday moment—and walk the reader through your unique experience. Help them to see the world as you see it.

Explore the moments when life changed for you. Write as if you are talking to a friend and you are sharing something very important with them: not something they already know, but something that is yours alone. It doesn’t need to be complicated or perfect—colleges are looking for real people, and real people are not perfect.

Remember those three scripts from before? Here are some brain openers to get you started turning them into stories:

1. Turned Myselt Around

Many students have blips in their high school records, and you want to explain them. But your personal essays should be about your character, not your academic record. The best place to talk about anomalies in your school record, simply and matter-of-factly, is in the Additional Information section of the Common Application (or other app). It’s also helpful to talk to your counselor and ask if they are able to write about this in their recommendation letter.  

Let that section speak for you. Use your college essay as an opportunity to reveal another aspect of your character not evident elsewhere in your application.

2. Big Personal Challenge

Whether it’s learning to walk with a prosthetic leg, surviving a flood that destroyed your home, or coping with depression, any significant challenge is made up of many smaller challenges. Explore a few specific moments that convey the larger struggle. Try different moments. Try telling the story without naming the challenge. Try telling the story from others’ points of view.

3. Service Trip

There is a very fine line between working side by side with people from another community, and watching the whole experience from a distance, from the point of view of privilege. Service trips often involve physical work; start by remembering the details of the work itself. When you found yourself face-to-face with new people, what did you say and do? Explore the awkward and uncomfortable parts of culture clash.

Topics:college admission