15 College Essay Topics To Avoid and Why | Tips & Examples

Why you should avoid these college essay topics
April 26, 2024
7 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/24

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.

Why Should You Avoid Certain Topics for College Entrance Essays? 

Your college entrance essay is your chance to make a lasting impression on admissions officers. It's a way to reveal who you are as a person, separate from your grades and test scores. But some topics can backfire, hindering your application instead of highlighting your strengths. Starting an essay topic right can be your ticket into your desired school.

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.” 

What Do Colleges Look For in College Essays?

When it comes to college essays, colleges are on the hunt for a few key things. They want to get to know you beyond just your grades and test scores, so your essay is your chance to shine. Here's what they're generally looking for:

  • Your Personality: Colleges want to see your personality come through in your essay. They want to know what makes you tick, what you're passionate about, and what kind of person you are. This is your chance to let your individuality shine.
  • Writing Skills: Of course, colleges also want to see that you can write well. They'll be looking at your grammar, punctuation, and overall writing style. So, make sure your essay is well-structured and free of errors.
  • Your Story: Everyone has a unique story to tell, and colleges are interested in yours. They want to know about your experiences, the challenges you've faced, and how you've grown as a result. Share something personal and meaningful.
  • Why You're a Good Fit: Colleges also want to see that you've done your homework. They want to know why you're interested in their school specifically. What do you like about their programs, campus, or culture that makes you a good fit?
  • Thoughtfulness: Your essay should show that you've put thought into your future and your academic goals. They want to see that you're serious about your education and have a clear sense of purpose.
  • Creativity: While you want to be thoughtful and serious, don't be afraid to be creative and unique in your writing. A fresh perspective can make your essay stand out.
  • Impact and Growth: Colleges love to see how you've made an impact in your community or how you've grown through your experiences. Share any leadership roles, volunteer work, or challenges you've overcome.
  • Adherence to Guidelines: Finally, make sure your essay follows the specific guidelines provided by the college. Don't go over the word limit or ignore any prompts they've given.

Overall, colleges are looking for an authentic, well-written essay that gives them insight into who you are as a person, why you're interested in their school, and how you can contribute to their community. So, be yourself, put some thought into it, and don't forget to proofread! 

15 Topics to Avoid in Your College Essays 

The perfect college essay demonstrates your growth, character, and fit with the school. To drive the point home, choose an essay topic that has proven results. 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

Some people think rolling with an inappropriate topic and shocking the admissions committee is a great idea, but 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. 

Why Is This A Bad Topic For a College Essay?

Inappropriate topics like these are ill-advised because they can portray the applicant in an extremely negative light to admissions officers. Writing about illegal activities or substance abuse raises major red flags about the applicant's judgment and ability to make good choices. The admissions committee will likely view such topics as a lack of maturity and responsibility - qualities that are essential for college students.

2. 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. 

Why Is This A Bad Topic For a College Essay?

Rehashing information from other parts of the application is a wasted opportunity for the personal essay. The essay is meant to provide new insights into the applicant's personality, values, and experiences that transcripts and lists cannot convey. Simply recapping accomplishments fails to reveal anything meaningful about the applicant as an individual.

3. 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. 

Why Is This A Bad Topic For a College Essay?

Romance and relationship drama makes for poor college essay topics because they are too personal and not relevant to the applicant's qualifications for admission. Admissions officers are focused on evaluating the applicant's academic potential, not their romantic endeavors. Essays on this topic come across as immature and could raise doubts about the applicant's ability to prioritize their studies over their love life.

4. 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. 

Why Is This A Bad Topic For a College Essay?

The problem with writing about a hero is that the essay becomes more about glorifying someone else rather than providing insights into the applicant's own life experiences, growth, and motivations. Admissions committees want to learn about the applicants themselves, not read an ode to someone else's accomplishments. The personal statement should maintain a strong focus on the applicant as an individual.

5. The Sports Story

Ah yes, the classic sports story. These essays typically follow different 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: 

  • How did the skills you learned from sports impact another experience? 
  • Did being team captain give you the leadership skills you needed to succeed in leading an unrelated project? 

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

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, 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. 

Why Is This A Bad Topic For a College Essay?

Sports stories are often cautioned against because they tend to be cliché and unoriginal. There are only so many ways to rehash the "big game" narrative before it becomes stale and uncompelling. Unless the applicant has a truly unique angle, a sports essay runs the risk of blending in with other applications and failing to make a memorable impression on admissions officers.

6. 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. How was the tragedy an index event that impacted your thoughts or actions?

Why Is This A Bad Topic For a College Essay?

Tragic events require an extremely delicate approach in college essays. There is the risk of either oversharing disturbing details that make readers uncomfortable, or glossing over the tragedy too briefly to give it proper context. 

Admissions officers may also worry that an applicant who has experienced major trauma is not in a good mindset for the rigors of college life. Overall, tragedies are very personal topics better avoided unless absolutely essential to the narrative.

7. 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. 

Why Is This A Bad Topic For a College Essay?

Similar to tragic events, highly personal topics involving trauma, health issues, or other very private matters should be avoided unless directly relevant to the main narrative. Oversharing disturbing or graphic personal details can make readers uncomfortable and detract from the overall essay.

8. 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 the 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. 

Why Is This A Bad Topic For a College Essay?

Touching on controversial topics like politics or religion is inadvisable because it injects personal opinions and beliefs that may not align with the admissions officer reading the essay. This creates the potential for bias and judgment based on the applicant's stance on the issue. 

The personal statement should aim to unite readers around the applicant's strengths, not divide them over polarizing debates.

9. 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. 

Why Is This A Bad Topic For a College Essay?

Confessional-style essays delving into past mistakes, guilt, or skeletons in the closet are cautioned against because they can very easily misfire. What the applicant intends as a narrative of growth may come across as a laundry list of poor choices and immaturity. Admissions officers want to see the present, best version of the applicant, not dwell on their past missteps.

10. 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).

Why Is This A Bad Topic For a College Essay?

While creative writing is encouraged, completely disregarding traditional essay formatting and structure can be a gamble. Admissions officers have to read thousands of personal statements, so presenting the information in an unconventional way like a poem or song may just come across as gimmicky. It's better to channel creativity into excellent writing within the bounds of a standard essay format.

11. 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.

Why Is This A Bad Topic For a College Essay?

Service trips, mission trips, or class trips are very common sources for college essays, which makes standing out difficult. Simply recounting the trip itself in a play-by-play fashion is unoriginal and doesn't reveal much about the applicant's unique perspective or growth. To make this topic work, the applicant needs to go beyond just describing the trip and pinpoint specific moments or interactions that were transformative.

12. 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. 

Why Is This A Bad Topic For a College Essay?

While childhood experiences shape who we become, dwelling too much on events from the distant past can make the essay feel irrelevant to the present-day applicant. Admissions officers want to get a sense of the applicant's current identity, maturity, and mindset - not the person they were as a young child.

13. 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. 

Why Is This A Bad Topic For a College Essay?

Essays that are overtly privileged or present a life of constant good fortune can come across as out-of-touch or lacking perspective. Admissions officers want to see that applicants have dealt with obstacles, learned from setbacks, and developed resilience. 

An essay that reads as completely devoid of any challenges or hardships may raise questions about the applicant's ability to cope with future difficulties in college.

14. 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. 

Why Is This A Bad Topic For a College Essay?

Lying or embellishing details in a college essay is a surefire way to undermine the entire application. If caught, it demonstrates a serious lack of integrity that will disqualify the applicant. 

Even if the lie slips through, the essay will likely come across as inauthentic. Admissions officers can usually spot when an applicant is exaggerating or fabricating stories. Honesty is always the best policy for personal statements.

15. 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.

Why Is This A Bad Topic For a College Essay?

Criticizing or calling out perceived flaws in the school is an extremely risky move that is very unlikely to pay off. It comes across as arrogant and presumptuous for an applicant to claim they can single-handedly fix an institution's issues before even being admitted. 

This tactic shows a lack of respect for the school and its existing community. Applicants are much better off highlighting their strengths as an additive force.

How To Write a Cliche College Essay That Works? (If You Really Want To)

While certain topics like inappropriate content, rehashing accomplishments, sports stories, and personal topics are generally cautioned against for college essays, there are ways to approach them thoughtfully if you insist on using them.

The key is to find a unique angle that shows personal growth, adaptability, vulnerability, or how the experience shaped you as an individual. 

Rather than just recounting events, analyze how a relationship taught you empathy, how a tragedy changed your perspective, or how being a team captain demonstrated leadership. 

Handle sensitive topics delicately without oversharing graphic details. Above all, ensure your narrative maintains an inward focus on your own insights, strengths, and fit for the university rather than distracting from your candidacy. 

With creativity and self-awareness, even cliched topics can make compelling essays that showcase who you are.

Check out our College Essay Examples Database for a detailed look at successful essays.


Do you still have questions about college application essays? We've got answers! Check out this FAQ section to find the information you need to ace your application.

1. Are There Any Sensitive Personal Experiences I Should Avoid Discussing in My Essay?

Avoid overly sensitive topics that might be uncomfortable for admissions officers. Instead, choose experiences that demonstrate personal growth and resilience.

2. Are There Any Topics That Might Come Across as Boastful or Arrogant in a College Essay?

Avoid bragging about achievements or sounding self-important. Focus on how experiences shaped your character and values.

3. How Can I Identify Potentially Overdone or Unoriginal Essay Topics?

Think about common themes like sports victories or mission trips. To stand out, find a unique angle or a more personal way to approach these topics. 

4. What Are Considered Cliché Topics in College Application Essays?

Cliché topics include sports victories ("the big game"), mission/volunteer trips, and overcoming a generic obstacle. Seek a fresh perspective to make these experiences more impactful.

5. Should I Avoid Discussing Controversial Political or Religious Beliefs in My College Essay?

Yes. It's generally best to avoid divisive topics. Focus on sharing experiences that highlight your values, problem-solving skills, and open-mindedness.

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 them 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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