"Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment or experience that is important to you."
In some form or other, this prompt will be on almost every college application this fall, leaving admissions officers inevitably to read hundreds of college essay topics that are far too similar.
So how do you distinguish yourself from the sea of other applicants in your personal statement? It all starts with the right topic that simultaneously shows your ability to write well while painting a picture of who you are in a simple and authentic fashion.
No doubt this is easier said than done.
Before you begin brainstorming, make sure you know which college essay topics to avoid and why. Here are a few of the most common.
1. A service project shows your passion for helping others.
"Many students choose to write about their participation in a community service project or a church mission trip," says Marie Schofer, director of admission at Cornell College. "These are fantastic experiences that are personally meaningful and reflect on your character. The only problem: Regardless of where you traveled or what type of service you performed, the conclusion is always the same. You like to help people. This is great," she explains, "but unfortunately, it won't differentiate you from other applications."
2. Your family's history in a specific profession.
"Being proud of family heritage is a wonderful thing, but expanding on family and the roots the family may have in a specific profession is not helpful in selling [yourself]," says Christopher Hall, associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. "Mick Jagger may be a fantastic performer and singer," he adds, "but this does not mean that his children will have the same potential. [You] should discuss personal talents and abilities and not the legacy of talents and abilities of [your] great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers."
3. Overcoming an athletic injury.
As Drew Nichols, director of freshman admission at St. Edward's University, explains, "Most university applicant pools are diverse, and many include prospective students who have overcome substantial hardships such as growing up in poverty, difficult family situations or serious illness. The 'athletic injury' essay often indicates a lack of self-awareness on behalf of the applicant regarding their own privilege. If not being able to play soccer for a semester is the most difficult thing [you have] had to encounter," he says, then it "doesn't serve to demonstrate significant resilience or an understanding of the considerable challenges some of [your] peers have faced."
4. A rundown of a national disaster.
The point of a college essay is to get to know you, which gets lost when current events are the main focus, says Michelle Curtis-Bailey, senior admissions advisor and Educational Opportunity Program coordinator at Stony Brook University. After Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, she says, "Many students in the application cycle wrote about the hurricane, as it occurred in late October, peak college application time. Once again, the message is lost as the whole focus was more like a journal entry recounting what happened in the life of the students and their family without a clear connection to the individual. On a whole, we are aware of the impact that disasters have on the lives of our applicants," she says, but "the full scope of the college essay shouldn't recount those types of experiences."
5. A mission trip helped you to understand the struggles of impoverished youth in the U.S.
"We often get essays which describe wonderful experiences working in impoverished international countries doing such things as building houses, helping community members learn English and so on," says Hall. "But as soon as a connection is made by applicants that this experience can help them understand the plight of inner-city youth of America, or that that they have acquired special skills through these experiences to emotionally connect with impoverished U.S. youth, the power of their service work is diminished." Hall says, "Comparing U.S. inner-city youth and communities to Third World or impoverished countries demonstrates a lack of empathy and understanding of the differences in culture."
6. The sports game highlight reel.
"The game-winning catch or other sports highlight is another popular essay topic," Schofer says. "It is important to understand that the admission counselor reading your essay may not be familiar with your sport and will probably have no emotional attachment to the outcome of the District 5 semi-final game." If you do choose to write about a sports topic, Schofer recommends "an essay that debates the merits of the baseball's infield fly rule or a descriptive essay of your warm-up routine."
7. Talking about your role model.
"The challenge with this topic is that we often see essays written about the parent, grandparent, teacher, or coach," says Curtis-Bailey, adding that "most of these essays are written solely about the 'other person' with no reference to the student." She suggests avoiding this topic if you "are unable to show the connection of how the traits and characteristics of that individual are similar or even a model of tangible action that [you desire to take] or have taken."
"While it might be true that a grandparent has been of great influence to the applicant," Nichols points out that "this essay has been written hundreds of times over. When you're competing against hundreds of other students who have submitted the same answer to the prompt," he says, "it becomes more difficult to make your essay distinctive and to really stand out."
Authenticity matters most.
In all, essay readers want to know about you from your point of view. "Think about what is distinctive about [your] particular story," says Nichols, "and articulate that in an honest and meaningful way."
Don't pretend to be someone you're not simply to impress the readers. As Curtis-Bailey points out, "It's evident in reading many essays when a student is using words not commonly used in day-to-day communication that would often give the impression of a unique vocabulary." There's no need to use complex words and jargon, she says, "when all we want to see is [you], not pull a dictionary to gather the context of the terms used."
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Names and numbers.
I say that to my students over and over again — their college application is just a series of names and numbers.
- Names of courses taken
- Names of clubs and activities
- Names of sports they played
- Class rank
- SAT/ACT scores
- State test scores
And while all those names and numbers will be a record of what they have done in high school, it will not show who they are.
Their only chance to put a human touch on an impersonal process is to reveal their best qualities and characteristics in the essay.
AND THAT FREAKS THEM OUT!
I have had some students come in tears.
Some came with an empty page and a blank face.
Others had the seed of an idea that needed fertilizing.
Some were just looking for a final edit.
Rather than see the opportunity to stand out and distinguish themselves from a pool of applicants, many panic. They fear they lack life experience, they struggle to tell a story, and they regret not starting earlier.
I can help. I have some tips that can make the process easier and better. I’ve read well over 500 college essays over the years. Year after year patterns emerged. I saw what worked and what should be avoided.
The Biggest College Essay Mistakes and How to Fix Them
The Five Cliches
What’s Wrong: I read dozens of these essays each year — and they are all the same.
- My sports team won the championship — I love my teammates.
- My grandparent had cancer — Life is fragile.
- My parents divorced — I’m now independent.
- I traveled to a disadvantaged area — boy am I fortunate.
- I suffered a sports injury — The medical field is awesome.
Granted, I’m doing a gross overgeneralization and reducing these topics to a sound bite. But that’s the point. I’ve read so many of these essays over the years that they all become boring and predictable.
Make it Better: The only way to stand out with those topics is to be original. Don’t start by describing the winning goal in the league championship, begin with a small detail like the color of your cleat laces. Don’t tell me how much your grandpa suffered, show me what he looked like when he came to your science fair ceremony in middle school. Don’t tell me all the bad things your mom and dad used to say to each other, show me the moment when you realized his awful breath. Don’t tell me about the pop in your ankle, show me the DSW Shoe Warehouse aisles with all the open-toed sandals that you could no longer buy.
Please, don’t start with the obvious. Go off the beaten path and blaze your own trail.
The Big Words Fallacy
What’s Wrong: I have seen too many students make the terrible assumption that colleges want big words because big words are an indication of intelligence. The essay sounds like it was cribbed from the thesaurus with sentences like, I traversed my current state of adolescent bliss to the illuminating confines of the Guatemalan destitute.
Here’s the danger of writing sentences like that — it comes off as inauthentic and insecure. It says to a college admissions officer, Hey, I’m not that confident in my own voice or who I really am, so I’m going to the thesaurus to say the things and use words that I think will impress you.
Make it Better: Write as you talk. Application readers see right through the big words and overly descriptive sentences.
Students have been raised on a steady diet of expository writing. Its purpose is different — it is meant to inform and, consequently, is more formal. Narratives are meant to illuminate through the art of story telling. They include dialogue, action, and thematic purpose. Students are not used to writing this way because they don’t do enough of it. They need colorful writing, but they struggle to find their voice.
Have them tell their story to you out loud. Then tell them to write what they just said.
Mount Everest Syndrome
What’s Wrong: Many students feel they have nothing to write about because they have led the typical teenage life. In order to apply to college they feel they need to have climbed Mount Everest or sent care packages to orphans in a war-torn African village. As Brianna Crowley shared with me, “they feel pressured to find the most dramatic thing that’s ever happened to them and write about how that made them a better person. They don’t realize that sometimes the most revealing things about us are those small, seemingly mundane aspects of our life, perspective, or experiences that can be the most revealing or profound. No one has to die or almost die for us to have rich, compelling stories about our experiences and what makes us unique.”
Make it Better: In his poem, “Who Am I” Carl Sandburg writes, “My name is Truth and I am the most elusive captive in the universe.” Each student is a series of infinite truths waiting to be rescued the recesses of their mind.
Some truths reveal themselves in the most dramatic moments. But perceptive and reflective students can look back as the elusive moments of their life and see a truth that was speaking to them when they did not even know it. Only in the maturity of adolescence can they look back and realize it profound voice. There are a bunch of these types of essay in my free giveaway below. Those are the essays that speak to an admission counselor’s soul.
Activity Record as an Essay
What’s Wrong: I can look at your activity record and see that you were in the school play in 9th, 10th and 11th grade. I don’t need a three paragraph essay summarizing each year’s drama production. It doesn’t have to be drama. It could be robotics, or sports, or service club. But the problem is, when you do a My History in ________ essay, it reveals little more than what your activity record already shows. It is superficial, skimming along the surface of the experience. It does not allow you to develop yourself or the other people in your narrative. Action gets summarized. Dialogue is non-existent. And the essay plods to a boring conclusion that was predictable from the first sentence.
Make it Better: Don’t give me the telescopic view and all the constellations in the sky. Put your meaningful activity under the microscope. Zoom in so I see the all those fascinating interdependent cells that are hidden to the naked eye. Tell me what the costumes smelled like. Capture the timidity in Charlie’s voice when he asked out Claire backstage when no one was looking except you. Make me feel the spotlight burning into your retinas at 9:30pm on the Thursday of Hell Week with the show only three days away. Follow the age-old college essay axiom — show me, don’t tell me. A few sensory details go a long way.
Here are a few more college essay pointers compiled from teachers around the country:
Stay away from the 3Ds — drugs, death, and divorce. These essays tend to highlight the shortcoming of others rather than your own strengths
Avoid using 2nd person pronouns (i.e., you should keep trying hard …. etc.)
Some of the weaker essays include a “step-by-step” explanation of their Eagle Scout project, Girl Scout project, etc. that uncovers very little about the student.
Avoid overusing words/phrases: I love… my passion is… I’m passionate about …
- Some essays never answer the most-important question: what does this say about YOU?”
- Many essays that tackle ongoing adversities – health, mental health, dealing with bad teachers, sexual abuse — reveal little about why the student would be a good fit for a college.
- The writing style is just too vague. No clear details or images make the essay feel cold and distant.
- They fall into cheese at the end instead of allowing an organic closure.
What mistakes do you see students making time and time again? Drop me a note in the comments below.