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.

McEssays (with Cheese)

Any senior who's planning to write college essays this fall should stop and read Parke Muth's "Writing The Essay: Sound Advice from an Expert."  In fact, his analogy comparing boring essays to Big Macs is so good that I actually started to resent him a teeny bit because I didn't come up with it myself.  At least I'm honest. 

Here's my favorite snippet: 

"Ninety percent of the applications I read contain what I call McEssays
– usually five-paragraph essays that consist primarily of abstractions
and unsupported generalization. They are technically correct in that
they are organized and have the correct sentence structure and
spelling, but they are boring. Sort of like a Big Mac. I have nothing
against Big Macs, but the one I eat in Charlottesville is not going to
be fundamentally different from the one I eat in Paris, Peoria or Palm
Springs. I am not going to rave about the quality of a particular Big
Mac. The same can be said about the generic essay. If an essay starts
out: "I have been a member of the band and it has taught me leadership,
perseverance and hard work," I can almost recite the rest of the essay
without reading it. Each of the three middle paragraphs gives a bit of
support to an abstraction, and the final paragraph restates what has
already been said. A McEssay is not wrong, but it is not going to be a
positive factor in the admission decision. It will not allow a student
to stand out."

College essays need personality (and some guts)

I did an essay workshop at a local high school today, at the end of which, a senior approached me a question.  He was debating between two stories to write in his essays and wasn't sure which one was the best choice, so I asked him to describe both to me. 

The first story was about being a troop leader in Boy Scouts, how at first the younger kids didn't respect him, he had to earn their trust, it taught him about how to be a leader, etc. etc.  He didn't even seem to enjoy describing the story, so I couldn't imagine that he would enjoy writing it.

The second story was about the time he and his friends entered a talent show competition in which they reenacted a 1990s boy band act.  Apparently, they spent hours watching videos to learn the dance moves, recreating the costumes, and perfecting their four-part harmony.  Even as he described it, he was animated, and his personality was coming out just telling the story.

Neither of those topics is inherently good or bad.  And whichever one he chooses, he'll need to tell an effective story that helps readers get to know more about him.  But I can tell you this–every year, thousands and thousands of college applicants write stories about leadership, perseverance, commitment, and other supposed "valuable life lessons" that they learned  Most of those kids didn't actually think those deep, reflective thoughts during and after those experiences.  And most aren't excited about those stories; they're just relating what they think the admissions office wants to hear.  Do you have any idea how many, "My trip to Europe broadened my horizons" and "Community service taught me the importance of helping others" admissions officers have to read every year?

The best college essays are about topics that make the writer tick, that give a glimpse into some part of your life (sometimes a big part, sometimes a small part).  Those essays almost write themselves because you are so engaged in the story.  It doesn't matter whether it's about a life-threatening illness or working a part-time job at a hamburger stand.  It's the energy behind the topic that's contagious and can move an admissions officer.

This student was excited about his boy band story.  So I told him to go with it.  When in doubt, write what you want to write.  Inject your personality.  Write something that if your best friend read it, she would acknowledge that it sounds exactly like you. 

It takes guts to write what you want to write, but that's a lot less risky than giving them what you think they want to hear.

College Essay Workshop at Palos Verdes High School

This summer and fall, we're offering our College Essay
Workshop on the campus of Palos Verdes High
School in Palos Verdes Estates, CA.  Students will not only attend our essay seminar, but will also have the opportunity to submit their UC or Common Application essays to us for feedback.  We're pretty excited about it.  The workshop tuition is $295 and PVHS students can enroll through the link at the end of this post.  We hope to see your student in the class!

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The One Thing You Need To Know About…

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The more advice you’re given about college admissions, the more complicated the whole process seems.  So this month, we picked some of the most common college admissions topics and, for each one, asked ourselves, "What’s the one thing a student really needs to know about this?"  Read one to find five of those of those one-things.      

1.  College Essays

Don’t write what you think the colleges want to hear.  You’ll inevitably end up writing about how community service taught you that it’s important to help people, or how your trip to Spain taught you to appreciate different cultures.  And those are the essays that everybody writes. 

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Inside the Admissions Office

Be_yourself Arun Ponnusamy, director of our Los Angeles office, is riding high these days. His beloved Ohio State Buckeye football team is ranked #1—he hasn’t missed a game on his flat screen all season.

When she’s not in the office next to Arun, Collegewise Counselor Jessica Schattgen is planning her wedding. This means she can recite all the advice from Martha Stewart’s last six “wedding guides.” And in our Irvine, CA office, Allison Cummings thinks that Burger King’s “Whopper with cheese” is a culinary delicacy to be enjoyed as frequently as possible. She’s acting on that belief. Regularly.

Fascinating? Not necessarily. But that’s the point. All three of these Collegewise counselors are regular people like the rest of us. And all three used to work as admissions officers at selective colleges.

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