4 College Essay Topics You Should Avoid

Your senior year may have only just begun, but the sweet freedom of college life is just a year away! There's only one thing that stands between you and that refreshing new college experience: getting in. Application season is here and while sending your transcripts and test scores may sound tedious, the essay portion is by far the most creative (and sometimes the most stressful) step of the process.

The essay portion gives you a chance to tell that admissions officer just how wonderful of a student you really are, and to vouch for your skills and talents in your own words. But when you're competing against thousands of other applicants, how do you stand out? Will an essay on your “passionate desire to help others” really cut it? Here are four essay topics you should avoid using in your college essays, so that you’ll leave a lasting impression on the college of your dreams. 

1. “I am an ideal student for this college because…”

Fortunately, nowadays most college essay prompts aren’t, “Write three reasons why we should accept you into our university.” If prompts were as stale as that, then students would be more likely to provide equally as stale answers. However, even if a college prompt inspires creativity, students can still fall into the trap of writing simple answers like, “I am perfect for this college because of X, Y and Z.” Avoid answering prompts with these kinds of simple sentences. Your college essay is the most “lively” part of your application. It’s basically a written speech from you to your prospective college, and if you sound too robotic, your essay can definitely be put in the waitlist or (even worse) the rejection pile. 

Sarah Madaus, a senior at Temple University, always thinks about what experiences are unique to her when she writes admissions essays. "Whenever I'm writing an admissions essay, internship essay, etc. I always think, 'What experiences have I had that most others haven't? Is there something about me that makes me think differently than the majority of people?'" Sarah explains. 

The more specific you are about your desires as well as what you can provide your dream college, the more appealing your essay will be to your admissions officer. For example, if you’re interested in a certain film studies program at your dream university, then read up on the events and initiatives at that university’s film department. Then relate those events to similar experiences you’ve had in your high school career, and how excited you would be to take your experience to that new arena of a similar, but more advanced theater setting where you can expand on the skills you already have.

When you discuss these specific benefits you want out of the college, the reader automatically assumes, Yes, this student can offer something meaningful to our university. You don’t need to say outright why you’re perfect for the university because your experience and passion will already speak for you.

2. "I really want to help others."

It’s a touching sentiment to center your essay around your strong desire to serve other people. We’re not encouraging you to abandon those feelings, but we do want you to know that it’s not an original source of motivation. Everyone wants to make a lasting contribution to the world in some way, and helping others is usually the mission for many students going to college. The student applying for the biology major and the student applying for commerce may both want to help people, so what’s the difference between the two? Essentially, if you say you’re only interested in a field of study solely to “help people,” that doesn’t say anything unique about your interests and strengths in your desired field of study. 

Audrey Lent, a senior at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, stresses the importance of personalizing your essay. “One thing I would suggest is DON’T be vague and generic,” she says. “Colleges want to hear a story that is personal to you.” Avoid simple explanations about how you really want to help people and instead build a specific vision of exactly how you’ll help others, including your passions for specific aspects of your academic field.

If you’re a pre-law major with an interest in international studies and you want to help people with immigration issues, you could write about your dream to travel to underdeveloped nations and be an immigration lawyer who negotiates asylum cases. Your goals don’t have to necessarily be this specific, but it’s a good example of focusing in on what you want out of your field and how you as an individual can achieve those goals.

Related: How to Perfect Your College Application Essay 

3. "My extracurriculars taught me the importance of..." 

Don’t get us wrong, the extracurricular activities you undertake are incredibly telling of your interests outside of your academic work. It’s not easy to juggle other commitments you’re passionate about alongside your schoolwork, and admissions officers will definitely notice your efforts to keep up with both. Again though, it’s easy for your essay to sound too generic if it only articulates how your extracurricular taught you about general concepts, like the importance of “organization” and “time management.”

Hattie LeFavour, a sophomore at Middlebury College, advises that you try not to let your extracurricular define you in a typical, boring way. “I would say it’s solidly cliche to write about how much a sport taught you about hard work, and I’ve been told by admissions counselors themselves that they’re sick of reading about life-changing ‘voluntourism’ in other countries,” Hattie says.

Basically, those topics don’t shed light on how you have specifically grown as a person. Lots of different commitments can teach you about hard work and helping others, so, again, that’s not something that makes your experience necessarily unique or impactful. If an extracurricular truly helped you evolve as a student and a leader, then they’re the perfect topic of discussion in your essay. If your extracurricular made you think more deeply about leadership, community, morality, privilege and/or communication, then those are impactful ways those responsibilities changed you, and an admissions officer will definitely be intrigued by your transformation, all thanks to the extracurricular you stayed so dedicated to.

4. "I struggled a lot, and that makes me a better student." 

College essays work very much like a story, a narrative of the transformation you’ve gone through throughout your high school career. Just like any well-written story, a college essay gets a lot more exciting when there is some type of struggle involved. It’s safe to say that when you try your best to do well in high school, you run into some bumps in the road. But admissions officers might be turned off if your paper is just full of complaints and few to no resolutions. The mistakes in your past are only worth mentioning in an essay if they transformed you into a better person.

For example, if you battled some mental health struggles and your schoolwork suffered along with you, how did you come out of that turbulent time as a better, more evolved person? Did you look toward your extracurricular, like multi-cultural dance, as a form of therapy? Did that experience change you, and if so, how? Stories like these are so vital to letting your admissions officer know not only who you are, but who you became after facing such tribulations.

Kelsey Parmenter, a senior at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and former peer adviser for her college, says that college admissions officers are itching to hear about how students combat their own personal issues.

“From my experience working as a peer adviser, I’d say that colleges want to hear less about your struggles and more about how you overcame them and became better and stronger,” Kelsey says. “Don’t spend the whole essay describing the hardest time of your life and then leave a small part at the end about how you grew or why it makes you a good student for getting through it. Use the essay to talk about how powerful you are or what the event meant to you and use examples throughout.” This is extremely helpful advice for anyone who wants to acknowledge the flaws in their academic career while also letting colleges know that those mistakes were still productive.

Related: How You Handle The College Admissions Process, Based on Your Zodiac Sign

College essays hold a lot more weight than you may think. They’re the voice of your application and if your essay can say just the right things, sometimes even a less-than-perfect SAT score can be overlooked. There’s warranted pressure around the essay, but in the end, it’s important to be specific about what you want and what you’ve done throughout high school to make you into the outstanding student you are today. Hone your individual experiences and think deeper about the mark high school left on you and the mark you left on your high school, then write about those sentiments to your heart’s content. Passion is palpable, and if you can avoid the nonsensical topics like these and get to the good stuff, then your dream college can feel that passion and will want you at their school.