Topics to Avoid in College Essays

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: you can write about almost anything for your college essay, in almost any format, as long as it fits the 250-650 word length requirements, but there are a few topics that we feel very strongly about avoiding. And by very strongly, we mean very strongly. This isn’t because we’re kill-joys or trying to dull your sparkle. It’s really in your best interest.

Before we reveal what not to write about, let’s take a moment for a pop quiz.

The purpose of the college essay is… 

  1. To prove that your parents force you to read the newspaper.
  2. To argue a political stance.
  3. To help them get to know you.
  4. To gush over your dog/cat/baby brother/grandmother

The answer is 3. Duh. We really hope you go that one because it’s pretty obvious that the purpose of the essay is to give admissions officers an opportunity to connect with you in a way that the sterility of the application process doesn’t often allow for. And yet, somehow, someone has popularized the idea that the essay isn’t about you, it’s about proving what you know or advocating for what you stand for. We reject that notion.

Now, there are always exceptions to the rule, but unless a subject is deeply and inextricably tied to who you are, the essay isn’t the place to make it the center of attention. Read on for 5 topics that we tell our students to avoid because they steal too much of the spotlight.

1.     Climate Change

We saw the sequel to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and we know that we as a planet are in a lot of trouble. Climate change is real, our government needs to do more about it, and the lack of progress is infuriating. However, climate change is depressing, obvious, universal and, unless you live in the Maldives and are at imminent risk of disappearing into the ocean, it’s pretty impersonal. This isn’t to say that you aren’t connected to it, we all are, but most of us don’t have a specific and tangible connection to it that goes beyond the obvious and that shows something about ourselves that sets us apart. Without that tangible connection, writing about climate change says nothing about your soft skills or personality characteristics. It’s also a complicated topic that takes time to explore. You have 2-3 minutes. If you aren’t actively working in climate science or watching your home disappear, this isn’t the way to keep the attention of admissions officers.

2.     Politics and Social Movements

As much as we love Women’s Marches and encourage our students to be politically aware, there are few things more annoying than a teenager on a soapbox. Don’t do it.

We’d argue that if you aren’t at the heart of a social movement or a political issue, it shouldn’t be at the heart of your essay.  Your essay needs to reveal something about you that is unexpected. Young people believing that everyone should be treated equally isn’t unexpected. It’s awesome that college applicants today are so passionate about social causes, but the normalcy of that passion is what makes it a topic to avoid unless you’re deeply involved in a unique way that seriously sets you apart.

3.     Community Service/Voluntourism

We have some very strong opinions about voluntourism on our team, but we’ll try to keep this measured. Voluntourism is cliché and admissions officers are tired of hearing about it. They can see through the altruism to the fact that it’s a lot of money (whether paid out of pocket or fundraised) for what amounts to a vacation designed around exoticizing other cultures and minimizing their problems into things that can be solved by rich kids with no tangible skills. On top of that, remember that the person reading your application is probably making between $50,000 and $80,000 a year. They aren’t able to take a trip to Ghana, so bragging about your trip isn’t winning you any points. If you have to write about a faraway place that you visited for a week, don’t know the political history of, and/or can’t find on a map to make yourself interesting, you need to try harder.

If you’re still stuck on the idea, read our tips for making an essay about community service less unbearable.

4.     Grandparents

You grandmother is cool. We don’t know her, but we think our grandparents are pretty cool so we’ll give yours the benefit of the doubt. That aside, your grandparent isn’t the one applying to college - you are. Grandparents here are an example of any person you might be tempted to focus your essay on other than yourself. The bottom line: don’t do it. You need to be the central character in your essay. You can have a supporting cast. In fact, you most often should have characters other than yourself, and they could include your Grandmother, brother, or mom, but the essay is about spotlighting you, not your childhood hero or pre-teen nemesis.

5.     A Random Topic You Researched Once For Civics

There is always that kid who writes about legalizing weed because he thinks it’s avant-garde but the essay just becomes a regurgitation of a research paper his teacher said he couldn’t write. Don’t be that kid. Collecting some background research on your topic and finding ways to tie in art, literature, and theory can be immensely powerful tools, but the essay isn’t the place to vomit studies, citations, and legaleze. Do explore to supplement your understanding of yourself, but don’t make your essay a research paper.

These rules aren’t black and white, and we love seeing people find unique ways to break them, but 9 times out of 10 they apply. The essay is your place to shine, so don’t let a controversial, overcomplicated, or unfocused topic get in your way.

We help exceptional students tell equally exceptional stories, and 80% of our students get into their first choice schools. If you think you’re one of the exceptions to our rules, we’d love to hear from you.