“Are there any essay topics that are off limits in admissions? I’ve heard it’s important for your essay to stand out, but I want to make sure I don’t go over the line.”
Good question, Jake. First, if you have a story you really want to share and you’re not just going for shock value, it’s probably OK. But don’t choose a story just because it’s risky or controversial. This isn’t a screenplay. It’s a story to help admissions officers get to know you better. Your life is interesting enough without injecting drama for drama’s sake.
You shouldn’t share anything so personal that it would embarrass the reader. Stories about romantic interludes and things you tell your therapist are usually better left unwritten.
Be careful being too dogmatic with religious or political ideologies, too. It’s fine to be passionate about what you believe, but remember that most colleges encourage students to think critically about different sides of an issue. Implying or outright arguing that everyone else should share your way of thinking can be risky (unless you’re writing about your religion to a school that’s affiliated with the same beliefs).
And lastly, any story that would cause the college to worry that you could be a danger to yourself or others will raise a red flag in the admissions office. Violence, drug or alcohol abuse, eating disorders, suicide attempts—remember that admissions officers need to believe that you and your new classmates are going to be safe once you get to campus. Some students have written about these topics successfully, but these stories need to be handled carefully. Probably a good idea to run it by your high school counselor before you submit it.
When in doubt, just be yourself. Write something that you can proudly stand beside and say, “If the college doesn’t like this, I guess we’re not a good fit together, because this is who I am.”
Thanks for your question, Jake. I hope it helps. If you’ve got a question of your own, email us at blog [at] collegewise [dot] com. If we pick yours, we’ll answer it here on our blog.