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5 College Essay Topics You Should Never, Ever Write About

College application essays are often the most challenging part of the application process. And while they may not be the most important part of your application, they can differentiate you from similarly qualified applicants.

They’re also the only opportunity you get (unless the college offers interviews) to showcase your personality, values, and voice.

To avoid writing your essay on a topic that might earn you a rejection letter, check out the five topics you should never write about in your college essay below.

1. Controversial or Hot-Button Issues

Colleges do want you to have strong beliefs that you’re willing to stand for, and some essay questions give you the opportunity to do just that.

Still, it’s best to avoid especially polarizing topics such as religion, abortion, and other hot-button debates. You don’t know who will read your college application essay or what they believe. To a degree, this mystery person holds your future in their hands, and you don’t want to risk offending them.

In some cases, it depends how you frame the topic. For instance, if church was a major part of your upbringing and is very meaningful to you, you could mention this aspect of your identity in a college application essay. However, it’s important to do so without implying that your religion is better than others or attacking people who don’t practice your religion.

If you’re not sure, follow the golden rule of college application essays: When in doubt, leave it out.

2. Topics That Focus on Someone Else

The college application essay is your chance to help admissions officers get to know you. For this reason, you should avoid topics that put the focus on someone else.

We encourage students to avoid writing “my hero” essays because they’re often overdone, and they put the focus on your hero instead of you. John Mahoney, the director of undergraduate admissions at Boston College, says, “After reading [hero essays], we’d often love to admit Mom or Dad, but the applicant has told us nothing about themselves.”

If you do write about someone who influenced your life, make sure that you only briefly describe them. Spend most of the essay focusing on yourself and how your personality or choices have been shaped because of this person.

Similarly, one topic you should never write about in your college essay is romantic relationships. It’s hard not to be cliché when writing about young love, and a relationship shouldn’t be the main aspect of your life that you want to showcase for college admissions officers.

The bottom line is this: No matter how much you love your mom, dad, grandparents, or significant other, your college application essay needs to be about you.

You may have been advised to take risks with your college application essays, but you don’t want to be too risky.

3. Risky or Inappropriate Subjects

You may have been advised to take risks with your college application essays, but you don’t want to be too risky.

Sometimes, applicants write about obstacles they’ve overcome or illicit/illegal topics including arrest, sexual experiences, drugs, and alcohol. In a few cases, these topics have been addressed effectively. But for the most part, it’s better to avoid subjects that could reflect poorly on your judgment and morals. After all, you don’t want colleges to think you’re someone they’d rather not have on campus.

As we mentioned earlier, you don’t know who is reading your essay or how they feel about these subjects. It’s best not to offend them or make them feel uncomfortable.

For the same reason, we recommend avoiding profanity and graphic language in your essays. Gail Berson, the dean of admissions at Wheaton College, shares a story about an applicant with excellent grades and test scores who wrote a graphic essay about a violent video game. The admissions team found the essay off-putting, and the student was rejected. Had he chosen a “safer” topic, he would have received an acceptance letter.

Over-the-top humor can also be a risk, but a well-placed joke or two is okay (if it reflects your personality). Keep in mind that humor can sometimes fall flat in print, and admissions officers don’t like essays that come across as cheesy or “cutesy.”

4. Lies and Exaggerations

Often, students feel pressure to write about a completely unique, never-before-seen essay topic that will help them stand out. When these students can’t think of anything “cool” or “special” enough, they make something up.

Don’t do this.

It’s possible that college admissions officers may suspect you’re lying, which is a poor reflection on your ethics and morals. Even if they don’t suspect you’re lying, you’ve missed your chance to showcase the real reasons that you’re a good fit for this school.

Remember that the purpose of a college admissions essay is to help admissions officers get to know you. If your essay is filled with lies and exaggerations, then you’ve missed the point entirely.

In fact, it’s important to write in your authentic voice and avoid using “fancy” vocabulary just to impress admissions officers. Your essay should truly sound like you.

You don’t have to scale the Himalayas or start your own successful charity to stand out. Even if your internship wasn’t with a multinational company or government organization, discussing minute experiences and how they contributed to your growth is more valuable than stretching the truth.

Some of the best college application essays are written about small moments that are meaningful to the applicant. You’re the only person with your exact combination of personal qualities, beliefs, values, and experiences, so you don’t need to lie or exaggerate to make your essay unique.

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5. Information Already Covered in Your Application

The essay is supposed to reveal information that you haven’t had a chance to discuss elsewhere in the application. It’s meant to be a deeper dive into who you are beyond the numbers and accolades.

While your essay may expand on points briefly mentioned in the application, it shouldn’t extensively cover information that the admissions team already knows.

Make sure that your essay is more than a recitation of the accomplishments, activities, and experiences already hashed out in the application. If your essay doesn’t present any new information, it will be dull and forgettable. If you really want to make an impression, let your personality shine through.

Bonus: Overseas Charity Trips

Both students and parents tend to think that writing about overseas volunteering or charity trips is a sure-fire way to impress admissions officers. In fact, the opposite is true.

Essays that focus on this type of topic usually conclude in one way: The student discusses how lucky she is to have her lifestyle; she now possesses a newfound appreciation for all the opportunities and things she has. She is thankful.

As heartfelt as such a conclusion may be, it’s important to avoid cliches. There’s nothing distinguishing about appreciating your life. Admissions officers hope your reaction wouldn’t be anything different!

Additionally, these types of essays frequently present the student as some type of savior, who is privileged enough to spend the money to fly and participate in an activity overseas. This “savior” trope could irk the admissions officer. Remember, you want to sound genuine, not sanctimonious.

The one exception to this rule is if you were able to receive a scholarship or work toward funding your own trip. You also want to demonstrate substantive contributions to the community you helped overseas. Basic volunteering won’t cut it, since you could have done the same thing in a local neighborhood.

Only consider this topic if you went above and beyond volunteering to help an overseas community. Otherwise, stay away from it.

The Key Takeway

In most cases, your essay isn’t the factor that determines your admission to college. However, an offensive, off-putting, or forgettable essay can hurt your chances. By avoiding the topics listed above, you’ll ensure that your essay helps — instead of hurts — your chances of admission.

Author: Jason Patel

Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion, a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance.