The Five Most Overused Essay Topics

One of our counselors referred to his last year working in admissions at Caltech as the year of the blood drive essay. That year, an unusually high number of applicants told the same tale of how one on-campus blood drive changed their lives and made them appreciate the importance of serving humanity.

Writing such grandiose statements into your essays won’t help you stand out. The statements sound cliché. So here are the five most overused clichés I—and every admissions officer I’ve spoken with—see most often, and which you should avoid.

1. The aforementioned “blood drive essay” or “How community service taught me the importance of helping others”

Colleges appreciate students who are concerned about their communities. But one blood drive does not a humanitarian make. A claim to have learned how important it is to help people needs to be substantiated with evidence of a sincere, long-term commitment to helping people. Otherwise, your message loses some oomph.

If you had an experience during your community service that really meant a lot to you, say so. And be honest. Otherwise, consider doing a good deed for admissions officers and avoid the community service cliché.

2. “Hard work always pays off,” and other life lessons learned while playing sports

The problem with many sports essays is they explain what life is like for every athlete. You go to practice. You work hard. You compete.

Then the student makes it worse by saying sports taught him the importance of hard work and commitment, which is almost certainly not something he would say to his friends.

Be original. Tell your sports story that nobody else can tell. If you can’t find a story you own, just write about something else. The sport will still be listed on your application.

3. “How my trip to another country broadened my horizons”

This essay essentially says, “France is very difference from the United States—the food, the language, the customs. But I learned to appreciate the differences and to adapt to the ways of the French.”

Visiting a country and noticing that it is different is not a story that you own. The admissions office doesn’t want to read your travel journals. Instead, make yourself, not the country, the focus of the essay.

One of my students who had never previously ventured onto any sort of dance floor wrote that his trip to Spain was the first time he’d ever danced in front of other people. That wasn’t an essay about how Spain was different—it was an essay about how he was different in Spain.

4. “How I overcame a life challenge [that wasn’t really all that challenging]”

Essays can help admissions officers understand more about a student who has overcome legitimate hardship. But far too many other students misguidedly manufacture hardship in a college essay to try to gain sympathy or make excuses (e.g., for low grades). That won’t work.

If you’ve had a difficult hardship and you want to talk about it, you should. Otherwise, it’s probably better to choose a different topic. Note: The pet eulogy falls into this category. Lovely if you want to write one. Just don’t include it as part of your college essay.

5. Anything that doesn’t really sound like you

Your essays are supposed to give the readers a sense of your personality. So give your essays a sincerity test. Do they sound like you, or do they sound like you’re trying to impress someone?

Excerpted from my book: If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted

You can also find even more advice in our video, “How to Write Great College Essays.”  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download.