College Essay Topics Admission Officers Are Tired of Reading
Updated: Jul 20
Welcome back to our College Essay Collection series where we discuss, as you might imagine, all things related to college essays. In the last blog, we posed the question How Personal is too Personal for a College Essay (check it out). As I wrote the previous post, I spent quite a bit of time reminiscing about the copious college essays I have read over the years. You can ask any admissions officer, or do a quick Google search, and they'll gladly tell you about their least favorite essay topics. Today, I want to explore some of these topics and why they have become so ingrained into admissions culture that they are unanimously viewed as cliché. However, and maybe more importantly, I also want to take some time to talk about how these topics can be re-framed from clichés into engaging and meaningful essays.
#1 The Sports Essay
What is it?
The Sports Essay is infamous across the admissions profession. Typical topics include: winning a championship, injuries, or working hard for a spot on the team.
Why is it a problem?
The problem with most sports essays is that they are vapid and offer little to no insight into who the student is as a person. Even if the essay reveals something about a student, it almost always follows the same characteristics as other essays: "I worked hard," "I'm a team player," "I was injured and had to learn to deal with disappointment," etc. The culture of most sport communities emphasize victory, determination, and strength, so most of these essays follow a similar formula and don't help a student stand out. Another common problem is that these sports essays tend to focus on the narrative surrounding an event instead of the student's personal growth. The reader doesn't need to know the details of your season, tryouts, and championship, but they do need to learn more about who a student is and how these events have impacted them in meaningful ways. Because of this cliché, writing about sports can start you off on the wrong foot with a reader, even if the essay might be great.
How do you write a compelling sports essay?
It is not impossible to write a compelling sports essay. In fact, one of my favorite essays of all time was from a student athlete writing about his high school sport. I have a couple of suggestions that might help your essay stand out if you'd like to write about sports:
Emphasize attributes that are undervalued, but equally important, in sporting culture. Supporting your teammates, being a star behind the scenes, and authentic/mature leadership regardless of skill are all examples that can make for a compelling sports essay.
Do not over-emphasize your skills. This is your college essay, not your highlight reel. An admission officer doesn't care about how good you are at a sport. They aren't recruiting you for a sport (that happens through the coaches), but they are recruiting you to be a part of a community.
Remember that your college essay is about you and not an event. Too often, sports essays focus on an event or a timeframe and not on the student. If you're writing about an event, it needs to complement the main topic, which should focus on explaining who you are or how this event helped you grow.
If you have a compelling story and you are a talented writer, use The Sports Essay stigma to your advantage. Lure the reader in, only briefly, to believe that this will be another stereotypical sports essay, and then hit them with a twist (a curveball if you will)! Remember one of my favorite essays I mentioned earlier? That essay pulled the bait and switch on me and I'm still thinking about it 4 years later.
#2 The Service Trip Essay
What is it?
The Service Trip Essay is another timeless classic that has earned a spot in the most cliché essay topics hall of fame. Typically, these are international trips that involve the student helping a community, and the main take-away is recognition of their own privilege.
Why is it a problem?
It is very important to make a differentiation here between "service" and "service trips" as the base for an essay topic. "Service" often focuses on long-term involvement in service activities or specifically speaks to the development of a student's identity based on the theme of service. "Service trips" are typically a singular experience that is usually planned by somebody else for students, often involve traveling abroad, focusing on an event (rather than the student), and rarely leading to any compelling change after the service trip. There are three frequent problems when students write about a service trip. Firstly, the trip is often a one-off service activity that the student rarely continues to engage in after the trip is done; so how impactful was the experience really? Secondly, very much like The Sports Essay, these essays focus on an event rather than the student. Thirdly, service trip essays frequently lead students to make grandiose claims and it's not uncommon to hear that a trip "changed my life." This might be true, but if students can't back up these claims with insight and evidence, those claims are going to feel hollow and fall flat.
How do you write a compelling service trip essay?
A service trip is not an inherently bad topic for an essay and can be impressive with a little extra effort. Truthfully, the largest hurdle is students wanting to write about a service trip when they aren't actually interested in service. When thinking specifically about service trip essays, two suggestions immediately come to mind:
Focus your essay on "service" and not a "service trip." Focusing on service often lets you spend your time discussing your passions, values, growth, initiative, and long-term commitment involving service. If you can't write an essay about service, then you shouldn't be writing an essay about a service trip.
If you are going to write about how impactful a service trip was, then you have to demonstrate that it was actually impactful. Building a well in an African village is great, but you need to describe how you carried that experience back home with you. Don't just talk about how much the trip "changed you," show how you were impacted by your experiences on the trip!
#3 The Extended Resume Essay
What is it?
The extended resume is a cleverly hidden pitfall that traps college applicants every year. The Extended Resume Essay is most often characterized by the student writing an essay about everything they've done. In other words, it reads exactly like an extension (or even copy) of their resume/activities list.
Why is it a problem?
Students often think that talking about the activities in which they are involved is a safe topic for a college essay. Rarely does it actually pan out how they imagine. Assuming a student has properly completed their application, the admission officer already has access to the student's resume and/or activities list. Often, this essay just wastes the reader's time and throws away a valuable opportunity for the student to express something meaningful.
How do I write a compelling extended resume essay?
You can't, at least not if you actually write an extended resume. That being said, you can work with your resume or activities to formulate a meaningful essay. Here are some suggestions:
If there is something you couldn't fit on your resume or activities list, then it could be appropriate to write about for your essay. Alternatively, if something is so important and impactful that you can't fit all the information in your resume/activities list, then it is probably worth delving into.
Look at your resume/activities list. Do you see a common theme connecting each experience? If so, then that might be a compelling essay topic. In this case, it is okay to use your activities to demonstrate a unifying theme or value that has influenced you.
#4 The COVID-19 Essay
What is it?
Pretty self-explanatory: students discuss how they were impacted by COVID-19. Since the original publication of this article, these essays have become significantly less prevalent. The Common Application actually create a separate section allowing students to discuss their unique circumstances during COVID (if relevant).
Why is it a problem?
There are several key problems with choosing COVID-19 as your essay topic. Firstly, we have all been impacted by COVID-19 to some degree. This means that we are all connected through a globally-shared experience. Not every experience has been the same, but the vast majority of them are similar: online learning/work, wearing masks, social distancing, etc. This means that you are unlikely to stand out unless you had a truly exceptional and unique experience. Secondly, no admission officer wants to read about COVID-19. Admission professionals have had their own personal COVID-19 experience, in addition to a particularly stressful and chaotic professional COVID-19 experience. Thirdly, students once again fall into the trap of writing about an event or time frame. If COVID-19 is to be the topic, it is the backdrop to a much more personal story of growth and development. Lastly, many applications already have an opportunity for students to share their experience during the pandemic (including the Common Application with a prompt specific to COVID-19, and a few of the University of California Application's personal insight questions). As if all of these reasons aren't enough, there was already a stigma forming in the admissions community against COVID-19 essays before the 2020 reading season even began.
How do you write a compelling COVID-19 essay?
If you have an exceptionally unique COVID-19 experience to share, doing so could afford you an opportunity to demonstrate significant personal growth and reflection. Some thoughts on what a standout COVID-19 essay might look like:
Tragedy does not equal quality! I have said this before and will say it again, please don't use tragedies, traumas, and hardships as the singular focus of your essay. Tragedy, hardship, and trauma can all be compelling, but they are catalysts toward a more personal story about growth and discovery. This is doubly relevant when you consider the fact that many obstacles arising from COVID were shared with people across the globe.
COVID-19 can be used as context for something more personal. Did you use the past few months to pick up a hobby? Have you bonded with your family members in meaningful ways? Do you have new insights into your technological or social dependency? These are all potentially great topics that take place during the pandemic, but they are not about the pandemic.
#5 Essays That Are Too Personal
What is it?
Essays that are too personal are not always easy to define. What might be normal for one student, could be a shocking revelation for an admissions reader. Trying to find an appropriate line between personal insight and oversharing can often be difficult and frustrating for students. Most students know that writing about a saucy summer fling is a bad idea (even though I've read an essay about this while in admissions), but more nuanced or emotionally impactful topics can be difficult to navigate impartially.
Why is it a problem?
Admissions readers are not therapists. While the college application process can be an emotional one, admissions officers were not trained or hired to participate in ad-hoc emotional counseling sessions with their students. The competitive rat race of college admissions, fueled by high schools, colleges, peers, and parents alike, has created a problem of weaponizing a student's trauma. Things that might have once be reserved for intimate conversations with close friends or a trained therapist have been painted as "golden ticket" fodder for the college application process.
On the other hand, we have students that might view their college essay as a diary entry or a place to spill their salacious secrets. I never thought I'd have to say this, but students shouldn't be writing about illegal activities in the college essay. They also shouldn't be writing about their teenage romance, especially if they feel inclined to involve any kind of inappropriate sexual content. Lastly, no student should be writing about any topic that might be seen as glorifying any type of violent behavior or beliefs.
How do you write a compelling essay that might toe the line of being too personal?
This is possibly the most difficult question of the bunch. Some topics should be completely off limits: severe or visceral trauma (avoid triggering the reader), any topic glorifying violence, exceptionally radical beliefs (that are likely offensive to most of the population), any serious illegal activities (i.e. grand theft auto--not the game), and graphic sexual content. With those topics out of the way, there are a few personal topics that might be able to be appropriately discussed in a college essay:
Emotional or Mental Health Concerns: The world, and therefore this generation, is more aware of mental health than any previous generation. It is becoming more common than uncommon nowadays to encounter students with anxiety, depression, or some combination through self-diagnosis. If you decide to choose this subject, a few guidelines to consider:
Are you prepared to talk about this subject? One side effect of an increasing awareness of mental and emotional health is a growing movement of students using diagnosable terms incorrectly or colloquially. For example, a student can be depressed and without suffering from depression. If by attempting to discuss these difficult and nuanced issues a student shows their ignorance of the issue, it doesn't reflect well.
Does this topic connect to a larger theme or growth journey? If the answer is no, then you probably shouldn't be writing about it. Readers want to see a student overcome obstacles, not just suffer from them. A key indicator of a problematic essay is when a student decides to write about mental health obstacles without any form of progress or resolution. Without resolution, all the student has given the admissions reader is a red flag for a pre-existing pitfall that will likely continue if they join a college community.
Political, Religious, or Controversial Topics: When admission officers read essays, they are thinking about how a student might fit into the campus culture. This doesn't mean they are looking to create a dogmatically monolithic community, though. If anything, their goal is usually quite the opposite. Nonetheless, students should be aware of core institutional policies or beliefs that might run contrary to their personal beliefs or core values. The college essay is not a time to debate who is right or wrong, if there is such a sharp disconnect between values then the student should have addressed this earlier in the process while considering if the college was a good fit.
In the end I'd also ask a student to consider the following question: if demonstrating passion about an important ideology results in no offer of admission, was that a community and institution you would have thrived in? For what it's worth, my answer to that question is that students shouldn't be attending schools where the administration, faculty, students, or the surrounding community belittles or ostracizes them due to their beliefs. While there is some strategy in writing a college essay to appeal to a reader, this strategy should never compromise an authentic view of your personal, academic, and professional ambitions.
What's the take-away?
At the end of the day, there are two important things to remember about these essay topics:
These stigmas, clichés, and biases exist outside of your essay. None of these are an indictment on you or your passions. Nonetheless, this is information that you should take into consideration when exploring topics for your essays.
This blog post is not meant to dissuade you from choosing one of the mentioned topics (that would have been a much easier, and shorter article to write). On the contrary, this post is meant to give you insight into how these topics might be perceived and how you might be able to make them more compelling.
If you're struggling with one of these essay topics, please feel free to email me or set up a free consultation. Best of luck to all of you out there, and safe travels wherever your journey might take you! As always, be kind to each other, support each other, and challenge each other to make a better tomorrow.
With all my support,
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors