Topics to Avoid (Sort Of)

Thinking of a topic to write about is arguably harder than actually writing the essay. As we brainstorm, here are some tips to keep in mind.

September 16, 2020

Disclaimer: It is OKAY to write a “stereotypical” essay, people write about these things so often because it’s easy to write them well! If you can make it into something beautiful, do so. The goal is to give admissions officers something unique and interesting.

The Most Common College Essays

(Source: The Kath Path, Stanford undergrad student, owns an editing business)

While they aren’t necessarily bad, these topics are some of the most common essays admissions officers see. The goal is to stand out, so unless you can make a phenomenal story with an execution that is not stereotypical, it’s recommended you stay away from these. Please don’t delete that draft you started if you see your topic on this list though! I’ll also include the top tips given for writing these in a way that works in case you decide to choose one of them.


1. Multicultural Background Essays

AKA, I moved around a bunch and never really fit in. Through the struggle of making friends and visiting new places, I learned it’s great to be different and that I’m super *confident*. Or, I moved to Japan and now I see the world so *differently*. NO!

Top Tip: Admissions officers see this story so much, you need to bring something new to the table! They want to hear about how when you were living in Siberia you befriended a Shaman, and she inspired you to learn how to use herbs to create medicines. Since then you’ve worked your way up to selling natural medicines as a side hustle and it’s the reason you’re majoring in Herbalism. IDK? Give them something. Avoid the cheesiness/clichés, be true and unique to yourself.

2. Struggling to Win a Competition Essays

This is the: I was in a [insert type here] competition, my group and I went through [insert amount] setbacks and challenges, but we worked together to come out on top and won 1st place. Now I understand the importance of teamwork!

… Right.

Top Tip: Normally the people writing this essay were the leaders of their group. Don’t make it seem like you’re above it all. Everyone likes humbleness, universities and colleges want to know that you’re able to work with people without being problematic.

3. [STEM, etc.] field: My Emotional Savior Essay

When going into a field that is seen as “boring, uncreative, bland,” etc., students will talk about how this is their LIFE. It’s their creative outlet, and they have a strong emotional connection to it, and they wish the world could see it how they did. Now listen, nobody is saying that this isn’t true. For the majority of people going into these types of fields, they really do see it as a creative outlet and appreciate them for what they are. That’s beautiful, really! You just have to go about telling your story correctly.

Top Tip: One of the most common errors for this essay is forced metaphors to make your story more *spicy*. Math is not like a rainbow, and you’re a leprechaun. Don’t even think about it. What made you want to go into the field? Simple as that.

4. An Intense Sports Moment (Surprising, I know)

Whenever this type of story is written, people often write narrative style. “With sweat drenching my clothes, I watched the court with bated breath. Thirty seconds left.” Ma’am, this is a McDonalds drive-thru. I understand, you pushed yourself physically and learned emotionally from it. But… (see below)

Top Tip: Don’t over-describe the details, you’re not writing a book! Avoid just take up word space, really convey how this particular moment helped you learn something about yourself, or you did something you never thought you could in the heat of the moment. You can get this point across without writing as if you’re getting published. Analysis > Example.

5. The Generic Leadership Essay

First of all, I’m so proud of you! You started a business, or a club, or an organization. You did the research, went through all the paperwork, built a website and a team, solved this and that problem… I’m losing my breath here. That’s fantastic. No one is saying this is a bad essay. The issue here is that everyone chooses the same structure:

I saw a problem -> I wanted to fix said problem -> I struggled -> I had to [insert hard work here] -> I started it -> The End!

Top Tip: Do your best to choose a more unique structure in order to make this as personal and impactful as possible.

6. The Rebelling Against My Parents Essay

Here’s an example: I’ve always had a passion for social studies, but my parents want me to be a lawyer. This is why they want me to do this, this is why I want to do that. TURNING POINT! I rebel, they begin to understand how important social studies is to me, and we come to a mutual agreement.

Top Tip: A lot of the time people spend way too much time talking about their parents and not themselves. They don’t need individual paragraphs, they need like two sentences. Talk about the emotional experience of being held back and deciding to rebel boldly/in secret.


Source: Adapted from Conquer College Admissions (YouTuber), USC and Harvard graduate

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