15 College Essay Topics To Avoid and Why

Blonde student wearing organge t shirt sitting at desk and worryingly looking at her flawed colege essay on her laptop
May 18, 2022
Why Should You Avoid Certain Topics for College Entrance Essays? 15 Topics to Avoid in College Essays

”Rohan

Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/21/22

Entrance essays are an integral part of your college application. Beyond your test scores, GPA, and other achievements, your essays are essentially the heart of your application. Essays help admissions committees get to know the person behind the stats. 

While your essays showcase your adept writing skills, they also uncover your personality, voice, background, experiences, and more. You can choose your essay topics when you apply through the Common Application, Coalition Application, or any other online application portal. However, there are some topics you should avoid, or at the very least, slightly steer your narrative in another direction. 

Below we’ll walk you through why it’s best to avoid some topics in your college entrance essays and a brief overview of some common topics to steer clear of or adjust the trajectory. 

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Why Should You Avoid Certain Topics for College Entrance Essays? 

When you meet someone, what’s the first thing you do? You probably say “hello,” or “nice to meet you,” and maybe flash a smile and shake their hand. Think of your personal essays the same way: you’re “meeting” the admissions committee for the first time and want to put your best foot forward. 

Choosing the wrong essay topic that either paints you in a negative light, adds nothing to your profile, lacks creativity, or is otherwise inappropriate can jeopardize this crucial meeting. 

Adam Sapp, Assistant Vice President and Director of Admissions at Pomona College, said, “The essays are important in part because this is a student's chance to really speak directly to the admissions office.” 

Your essays should have a professional yet conversational tone and should show admissions committees why you're an excellent candidate. While all this sounds limiting, don’t worry too much. Many other topics would make an excellent essay. You just have to find what works and what doesn’t first.

15 Topics to Avoid in Your College Essays 

Before you start brainstorming, know there are many college essay topics to avoid altogether. Some college essay topics are cliche, and some are risky, uncreative, or just downright inappropriate. We’ll talk you through all the topics to avoid in college essays. 

  1. Inappropriate Topics
  2. A Rehash of Your Activities List and Transcripts 
  3. Relationships, Romance, and Breakups 
  4. Writing About Your Hero
  5. The Sports Story
  6. Tragedies
  7. Highly Personal Topics
  8. Controversial Topics: Politics, Religion, and More 
  9. The Confessional 
  10. Throwing the Box Away 
  11. The Service/Mission/Class Trip 
  12. Something That Happened Way Before High School 
  13. Your Privilege or Luck
  14. Anything That Involves Lying
  15. Risky Topics Like Pointing Out a School’s Shortcomings 

Inappropriate Topics

Some people think rolling with an inappropriate topic and shocking the admissions committee is a great idea: it’s not. Stay far, far away from anything to do with illegal activity, alcohol, substance use, and anything else following these themes. 

You don’t set yourself up for success using topics like these. The admissions committee could cast judgment, and you’re certainly not putting your best foot forward. 

The only time something like this may be appropriate is if you volunteered at a needle exchange or harm reduction facility. Even then, you’d want to delve into the topic with tact and grace or consider choosing another topic altogether. 

A Rehash of Your Activities List and Transcripts 

Essentially summarizing your achievements won’t make for a compelling narrative. The admissions committee already has access to your activities list and transcripts, so there’s no need to reiterate all of the items you wrote down. 

Summarizing these documents is a mistake because it won’t add anything else to your application. Remember, you want to tell the admissions committee something they don’t already know. 

If you want to write about a specific extracurricular, get close and personal with just one. Select the most meaningful activity or the one you were most passionate about and delve beyond the surface. Focusing on one activity can make for a successful essay if it shows your growth, positive character traits, or personality. 

Relationships, Romance, and Breakups 

As much as you may be head over heels for your partner, or scraping the bottom of ice cream tubs after a breakup, don’t turn these experiences into essay topics. It sounds a little harsh, but your love life doesn’t matter to the admissions committee. Besides that, love is a gigantic and complex topic not well-suited to a college application essay.

The other problem with this topic is it takes the focus off of yourself and onto another person. You want to ensure your essay is all about you. That's the person most important to the admissions committee, so put yourself first. 

Writing About Your Hero

Writing a story about your hero sounds nice in theory. However, it’s a cliche college essay topic to avoid. Like writing about your sweetheart (or ex-sweetheart), writing about your hero takes the spotlight away from you and directs it to someone who isn’t applying to college. 

If you wanted to write about your hero in the first place, why? What did they inspire in you, or what experiences did you go through together? How did those experiences or “a-ha” moments make you a better person or a better candidate? Cut through the fluff and focus the lens back on yourself. 

The Sports Story

Ah yes, the classic sports story. Unfortunately, these essays typically follow the same predictable plots. Maybe you scored a point in the last moment, or your team won a championship game against all odds, or you wanted to showcase your training regimen. 

Most people will tell you to stay away from sports topics altogether. If you are dead-set on writing about your sports experiences, don’t let your essay fall into cliche and predictable patterns. 

Approach your sports story from a creative and new angle. Ask yourself the following questions: 

Think critically about your experiences, and you could have a stellar essay topic on your hands. 

Laura Stratton, Director of Admission at Scripps College in California, recounts an exceptionally well-written sports essay about a student benched in a final game. 

“The self-awareness the student showed of being a good team member and showing up for her teammates and continuing to be positive even though it wasn't the personal experience that she wanted to have, it said a lot about her character and about the type of roommate she would be or classmate she would be.” 

Always look for a fresh angle in your sports story if it’s the one you want to tell. 

Tragedies

While tragedies you’ve faced can be formative experiences, this may be a college application essay topic to avoid. Some people aren’t comfortable sharing the intimate details of a tragedy they’ve faced, and that’s okay. Similarly, some people aren’t comfortable reading about the personal details of someone else’s tragedy. 

However, if a tragic event such as the death of a loved one is imperative to your narrative, you can carefully craft a story including it. The key is to focus on yourself: how was the tragedy an index event that impacted your thoughts or following actions? Remember that you don’t have to go into graphic detail about your tragedy as it can hinder instead of propelling your writing. 

Highly Personal Topics

Like tragic events, highly personal topics don’t always make the best essays. Examples of highly personal topics include past trauma, severe illnesses, and injuries. To fully explore the details of their stories, writers may get too graphic or go into way too much detail about these situations. 

If a highly personal topic is central to the story you want to tell, ensure you handle your narrative delicately. It’s okay to briefly share these anecdotes, as long as you don’t go into way too much personal detail. 

Controversial Topics: Politics, Religion, and More 

Controversial topics are typically college essay topics to avoid. The problem with these is that not everyone will share your same views, and you may open yourself up to judgment from the admissions committee members who don’t. 

Of course, admissions committees don’t make decisions based on criteria such as what political party you voted for or whether or not you attend a place of worship consistently. These topics work against you. Instead of showing why you’re the right candidate, writing about politics and religion can feel like you’re trying to convince the committee your views are correct. 

The only time you may want to write about a polarizing topic like religion is if you plan to attend a school where religion is a part of its heritage, founding, and teaching, such as Notre Dame University. 

The Confessional 

If you want to craft a narrative about an obstacle you’ve faced or to share your growth throughout your high school years, avoid “the confessional.” 

You may feel guilty about something you’ve done that no one else knows about: it’s probably best not to share these confessions with the admissions committee. Your confessional probably won’t paint you in the light you were hoping for. 

Instead, focus on an experience where something or someone changed your perspective or how you navigated a challenging situation in the best way you could. These anecdotes show growth, adaptability, and the willingness to change your perspective when offered new information. 

Throwing the Box Away 

It’s one thing to think outside the box, it’s another to throw the box out entirely and send it downriver. Sometimes students think an ultra-creative essay means going for an entirely new format like writing a song or poem. While it might be more fun, it could put you at a disadvantage. 

Being creative doesn't mean you have to reinvent the wheel with your essay. It means you can describe an anecdote or situation using detailed description and vibrant imagery. Pour your creativity into your word choice and how you set up a scene, and it’s sure to strike a much better chord with the admissions committee than a poem or song would (pun intended). 

The Service/Mission/Class Trip 

One of the problems with these essay topics is that everyone who has had the opportunity to participate in one of these trips wants to write about them. The second problem is that these narratives tend to follow similar themes and that students tend to write about the trip as a whole. 

If your heart is set on sharing an experience from a trip, pick one meaningful moment to focus on. Did you meet someone on your trip that impacted your character or beliefs? Did you face an unexpected challenge that made you need to rise to the occasion? 

Whitney Soule, Senior Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Student Aid at Bowdoin College, said, “Overuse of a topic doesn’t make it a bad topic.” Remember, honing in on one element of your trip can help differentiate your essay and show more depth than just glazing over your excursion. 

Something That Happened Way Before High School 

Many of our most formative experiences can happen long before reaching high school. While these moments are important to you, writing about something that happened to you way before high school may not make the best admissions essay. Your experiences before high school don’t show the admissions committee who you are right now; they show who you were before. 

If you want to pick out a story about your childhood, ensure you relate it to high school or current events. This way, you get to tell that story, but you make it relevant to the person you are today. For example, if both your parents are scientists and you used to put on their lab coats at five years old, relate it to how your love of science grew over time to lead you to your school choices now. Don’t just stick to the first part of the story. 

Your Privilege or Luck

If you’ve lived a privileged life or you’ve had stroke after stroke of good luck, focusing only on these elements isn’t in your best interest. It can come across like you haven't experienced any challenges or have a skewed vision of how the world works. 

It’s fortunate if you’ve lived a reasonably trouble-free life thus far. However, dig deep and look for something beyond the surface of sunshine and rainbows—admissions committees like some vulnerability and honesty. 

Anything That Involves Lying

You would think this one is obvious, but many people feel like their stories just aren’t good enough to tell, so they fabricate elements. The bottom line is you should never lie about anything in your college admissions essays. Admissions committees can smell insincerity. That’s not a personal quality you want to communicate to them. 

Rest assured that you don’t need to have written a dramatic story filled with twists and turns. Excellent college essays can revolve around mundane topics. Write your truth, and don’t fudge any of the details. 

Risky Topics Like Pointing Out a School’s Shortcomings 

This type of writing is uncommon for a reason: it won’t work. Some students may think pointing out a school’s shortcomings and how their attendance may help bridge them will give their essay the shock factor they need to stand out. 

Unfortunately, you’ll stand out in the wrong way. As a general rule, you probably shouldn’t rip apart the school you want to attend. 

A better option is to describe how your acceptance will add to the school and campus culture. A response like this may be better suited to a “Why this school?” supplementary essay, but schools want to admit students who contribute to its culture and add a unique perspective to classrooms.

Final Thoughts 

There are many cliche essay topics to avoid and some inappropriate to share with admissions committees. Your college admissions essays should always carry a professional yet conversational tone, and you shouldn’t write about anything that would be detrimental to your application. 

Even though the above list is filled with topics to avoid in college essays, it doesn’t mean you can’t tweak them to make it more appropriate and a better story to tell. Your writing should authentically show your voice and character. Put your best foot (and best writing) forward, and you’re sure to produce stellar pieces of writing! 

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