Prospies, I’m going to let you in on a little admissions secret: Too many of you write about the same essay topics.
“But Lily,” you say to me frantically, “I’m different and more interesting than all the other people writing about the same topic!”
And now prospies, I will let you in on a second admissions secret: Just as Ginnifer Goodwin’s character Gigi learned in He’s Just Not That Into You, you are the rule and not the exception.
Since starting TP almost a year and a half ago, I’ve gotten into many arguments with high school students about this fact. The point is, no matter how special and awesome you are at home, at the end of the day, you are still one application out of thousands sitting on someone’s desk, and the things that make you unique in your hometown usually won’t mean jack to an admissions officer.
Is that just totally screwed up? Absolutely. But no one ever said that the admissions world was fair.
So, now that you are slowly coming to terms with the “rule not the exception” principle, let’s turn to essay topics. Your Common App essay and subsequent supplements can make or break your application, and after I read/edited over 120 college essays last winter break as part of our college essay extravaganza, I can tell you that 95% of applicants wrote about the same exact things. And if I was seeing the same essay over and over looking at only 120 Word docs, I can only imagine what admissions officers go through when deciding amongst thousands.
So without further ado, here are the nine college essay topics to steer away from and why.
1. The Immigrant Essay
Going back over the essays I received during the college essay extravaganza, 50% of the Common App essays I read were about students and their families moving to the US and learning to adjust. Now, I’m not saying that your familial struggles aren’t intense and worthy of talking about; after all, many students wrote about the loneliness they felt being the only new kid in school or having to adjust to American customs, and those are all absolutely valid conversations.
However, if you put all of these “moving to America” stories in a pile and read them one after another, they start to bleed together. The story lines and characters all sound the same. And for you, that means less of a chance to stand out and more of a chance of being labeled “one of those immigrant kids”. Is it fair? Absolutely not. Is that the way it is? Unfortunately, yes.
2. The “They Taught Me More Than I Taught Them” Essay
Please for the love of all that is admissions don’t write about the time you went on a service trip to a third-world country and learned from the locals. Not only does it typically come across as condescending and privileged (since most high school students are not aware of how to talk about cultures in politically correct terms), but it’s also so overdone and bland.
3. The “Ski Slope” Essay
When many students answer the quintessential “talk about a time you overcame an obstacle” prompt, they tend to write something that I call the “ski slope” essay. In this scenario, the author was given a physical challenge (like a ski slope, mountain, scary water slide ride, etc.) and was eventually convinced overcome it. Again, it’s an essay that I’ve seen over and over (and over) again, and there’s no real way to write these essays well. They usually involve a lot of cliche adjectives and some other person convincing the writer to go down the slope. Inspiring? Not at all.
Look at it this way: Thousands of people learn how to ski every year; it’s boring and totally not unique. If you’re going to write about an obstacle, it needs to be an obstacle that only 0.00005% of the world has overcome. Otherwise, you’re just like everybody else.
4. The “Look at How Super Deep I Am” Essay
Kids, don’t try to go on a philosophical rant in your college essays. Not only do you typically sound like a pretentious, self-important twerp pulling stuff out of your butt (and admissions officers know it), but these tirades also tell the reader absolutely nothing about you as as potential member of a college. Don’t get meta. If you want to talk about all the great deep thoughts inside your head, start a blog.
5. The All-Dialogue Essay
Note: Spending half of your 650 words going through a conversation you had with your sister is a complete snore and a total waste of time and space. Cut our dialogue unless it’s funny or actually moves the story along. Something like this is just really dull fluff:
“Sister,”I said to her.
“Yes?” she said back.
She looked at me with angst. “What?” she asked again.
Three lines in and you’re bored already, right?
6. The Way-Too-Extended Metaphor Essay
What do dumplings, crayons, and hoop earrings have in common? They’re all inanimate objects that have been used as extended metaphors in college essays, and all of those essays were not good.
Pulling off the extended metaphor essay is hard, and as you’ve learned by now, it’s best to go into essay writing with the mentality that you are the rule, not the exception. So stop trying to compare your life to a squashed kumquat you saw on the side of the road and find a different topic.
7. The “Lesson about Failure Where You Didn’t Really Fail” Essay
Remember that an admissions essay is still a story, and the best heroes and heroines have legitimate pitfalls. If your biggest failure is that you had a hangnail but you eventually took care of it, not only do you look shallow, but you also look dull. Failures need to be actual heart-stopping, “OMG, NOOO!” failures. Either commit to going all the way or avoid writing this type of essay altogether.
8. The Bat Mitzvah Essay
When the Common App prompt asks for something that marked your transition into adulthood, stay away from cultural or religious events that actually mark adulthood, like a bar/bat mitzvah or a confirmation ceremony or something. The best essays about transitions into adulthood deal with unforeseen shifts, not obvious ones (for example, my friend wrote about the different types of boxers he bought throughout high school. Shift to adulthood? Yes. Totally freaking clever? Heck yeah).
9. The Straight Up Cliche Essay
There are many topics that are way overdone besides the ones listed above. Some examples of what I mean:
- The “What I learned at this academic conference/camp/event” essay
- The “What my mom/dad/family taught me” essay
- The “How I felt about moving to a whole new place or being in a new environment” essay
- The “How I learned to fit in” essay
- The “Death of person x” essay
- The “How my parents’ divorce changed me” essay
- The “Here’s a very vague essay about my family’s culture” essay
Again, these are just a few of the many examples of cliche essays.
Well, if you read this list and thought, “Wow, now I’m screwed,” fear not: We’ll be coming out with tons of articles over the next few months with essay brainstorms, interesting topic angles, and the whole nine yards to get you geared up and awesome for the admissions season. A good college essay is meant to be challenging to write, so sit back, relax, and read TP.
Lily Herman is a junior at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Besides bopping around on The Prospect, Lily is a columnist for USA TODAY College (read the Quad Report, yo); an editorial intern for The Daily Muse; a contributing editor for the campus blog Wesleying; a national contributing editor for Her Campus; and an editorial/marketing intern at HelloFlo. When she is not studying or awkwardly waving at people around campus, Lily enjoys eating Sour Patch Kids and re-watching the Friday Night Lights series finale (she's Team Saracen, by the way). Also (shameless plug alert), feel free to follow her on Twitter, or email her at lherman(at)theprospect(dot)net.
Catching the Reader’s Attention
A good essay begins with an invitation into a rich discussion. The writing is crafted in such a way that it sparks anticipation and excitement in the heart and mind of the reader. Simply stating your opinion or the topic of the essay will never accomplish this. Engaging writing requires thoughtful attention to creating a hook for the reader.
Hooks can be created in an infinite number of ways, but here is a list of approaches that often prove valuable. Note that this is a list that you have likely seen before (most schools provide such a list), but be sure to read on as it is in the implementation of these ideas that they either succeed or fail:
- Start with a thought-provoking quotation.
- Start with a thought-provoking question.
- Tell a thought-provoking story.
- Make a surprising statement.
- Present a simile or a metaphor to introduce your essay topic.
Each of these options presents an approach to opening an essay that can work if it is implemented effectively. Of course, implementing them effectively is where things get tricky.
A Thought-Provoking Quotation:
Depending on the topic of your essay and the resources you have available, it can be very effective to begin with a direct quotation from a relevant source on your topic that brings up key ideas or presents controversial opinions. You, as the author, can then respond to them and establish your position in relation to this statement. Be certain the quotation you choose directly relates to your chosen topic.
A Thought Provoking Question
Opening essays with questions is dangerous because they only work if the question causes your reader to genuinely wonder about something. Simplistic or obvious questions turn your reader off, so try another approach unless you are sure you have a question that really ties your essay topic to something personal for the reader or to some intriguing idea in the world.
A Thought-Provoking Story
As a fiction writer, this is my personal favorite. There are two options available here. One approach is to tell a true story in close-up intimate detail that directly relates to your topic. The other option is to craft a story around the factual details of your topic and helps to humanize it—taking your reader into the personal human experience of someone in a given situation related to your subject. Simply be sure to tell the story well and don’t forget to craft the story in such a way that it leads directly to the central point of your essay.
Make a Surprising Statement
This one is also a tricky way to go unless you have come across a very striking fact or are dealing with a controversial subject. In order for this approach to work, the statement must include something that will genuinely surprise the reader, which is difficult to do. In addition to shock value, the statement must also have direct relevance to your topic so that a strong transition can still be made into your central argument.
Present a Simile or Metaphor
Similes and metaphors are among the most powerful linguistic devices available. When used well, they can bring profound interest and insight to a given topic. Using them well is, of course, the hard part. The trick to using them well is be sure that the nature of the symbol you use shares a great deal in common with the subtleties of the topic you are discussing. The broader and more specific those connections are, the stronger its linguistic power.
The very best way to use a simile or metaphor in an essay is to introduce it with the opening paragraph and then continue to weave the connections between the symbol and the subject throughout the entire essay, eventually bringing the idea back together in the conclusion to create a circular structure to the writing. This requires insightful thinking and hard writing work, but makes for an exceptional essay.
Clearly Establishing Your Purpose
With your reader’s attention now in place, you must be certain that you also directly address the question or prompt to which you have been asked to respond. A colorful and engaging opening story is all well and good, but it is worthless if it does not lead into a straight and clear statement of your thesis (also known as “topic sentence” or “position statement”).
Keep in mind that, contrary to what is often taught in elementary school, the opening paragraph does not necessarily require a complete listing of the main points of your essay, though that can be helpful at times. The only non-negotiable requirement for an introduction is a direct and clear statement of purpose somewhere within that first paragraph. With more creative openings, it generally occurs near the close of the first paragraph, anticipating the deeper explanations that take place in the body paragraphs of the essay. Feel free to be creative, but do not forget to directly address the question you have been asked!