9 College Essay Topics to Avoid at ALL COSTS

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

A person writing on their notebook

What makes a good college essay? It’s a question many high school seniors ask while going through the application process. A winning college essay engages admissions officers and shares with them the student’s identity and personality, painting a picture that goes beyond grades and test scores—compelling the reader to become an advocate for the student’s admission. Learn the college essay topics to avoid!

A woman with several notebooks in front of her is writing.

Essays are a critical part of the college admissions process. A fantastic essay can make your application much more likely to be accepted. Likewise, a bad college essay can spell disaster for your chances of getting into the university of your choice.

So, how can you make sure your college essays stand out? Sometimes talking about the mistakes you should avoid is the best way to answer this question. Here, we’ll take a deeper look at which college essay topics to avoid and some helpful suggestions to make sure your essays stand out amongst the competition.

College Admissions Essay Topics to Avoid

Summary of your academic and personal achievements.

As you transition into college, you become more and more familiar with resumes. They’re the preferred way of showing your qualifications, experience, and skills to employers and schools. Naturally, you might assume that this format is a great choice when writing college essays. However, there’s one major problem: resumes are incredibly dry and boring.

That’s why you’ll see most employers request a cover letter in addition to your resume. Similarly, admissions officers aren’t going to be interested in a regurgitation of what you’ve already outlined on your standard application. Not only is it repetitive, but it’s also very common when students don’t know what to write.

A woman sitting by the window, smiling while writing.

Instead of writing a summary of your personal and academic achievements, focus on the one that stands out above all the rest in terms of importance and impact. Talk about how it affected you, why it helped you become the person you are today, and how it changed your thinking. This type of essay topic is effective for  discussing  complicated experiences or ones with an incredibly interesting background. For instance, maybe you participated in an extracurricular club that most people don’t even know exists. Or maybe the way you developed a passion for science has a unique and unusual story behind it.

Although you’re not beholden to one topic, the goal is to be detailed and specific rather than briefly mentioning many different accomplishments. Admissions officers will prefer this, and your topics will have a better chance of sticking out from the flood of applications.

A sports-related obstacle or success.

Everybody’s been told by coaches, parents, and even fellow students that lessons learned through playing a sport are applicable to everyday life. While there is certainly some truth to this statement, it’s a topic that’s been covered countless times in pop culture. You can probably think of a dozen movies off the top of your head that had to do with a struggling student-athlete who learns important life lessons from overcoming obstacles. If you’re going to write an essay about sports, you’ll need to tiptoe around the clichéd landmines presented by the following topics:

  • The camaraderie you felt with teammates (too obvious)
  • Overcoming obstacles (too common)
  • The excitement of winning (doesn’t show enough depth)
  • The sadness of losing (doesn’t show enough depth)
  • Never giving up (too common)

Sports essays are so common that admissions officers are able to anticipate what’s coming next. And there’s nothing worse than having a predictable essay. It comes off as unoriginal and forgettable. Instead of talking about how you overcame a leg injury by never giving up and continuing to fight until it got better, you could relate this challenge to something completely unassociated with sports.

A person writing on a notebook

Maybe you decided to take up a new hobby during your downtime and the injury was how you discovered a new passion. It’s all about being original and unexpected. Sports is a common topic that you should avoid unless you have something truly unique to say.

An immigration story

Out of any other country in the world, the United States has, by far, the largest immigrant population. While this is a wonderful statistic, it doesn’t bode well for immigration-related college essays. Why? Well, because there are tens of millions of other people with similar stories. In general, you want to avoid something college admissions officers have already read hundreds of times before, including topics related to:

  • Adapting to a new culture
  • Developing new and foreign habits
  • Acquiring a second language
  • Finding it difficult to fit in
  • Missing home

In order to make immigration-related essays work while avoiding common topics, you’ll have to make them incredibly unique and personal. Similar to writing about your achievements, you should make an immigration story focused and specific. Times of struggle and conflict are always incredibly intriguing. As these are common themes within more mundane immigration-related essays, you can make them more interesting by giving details about one specific scenario or challenge.

Young woman holding her books on a school campus.

For example, you could talk about how you were struggling to fit in at a new school because of the language barrier. But despite this, you were able to make friends by joining an obscure club or extracurricular activity. You can also write about a unique experience you had when coming to the United States. Either way, be sure to make it personal, unique, and detailed.

Tragedies you’ve experienced

Although tragedies are often very formative, they’re also universal. In other words, since everyone experiences difficult circumstances, it’s a common subject for college essays. Additionally, one of the greatest downfalls of these essays is the focus on the tragedy rather than the way the subject was affected. If you’ve experienced a difficult or tragic event in your life that’s played a major role in shaping who you are today and you want to include it in your college essays, you can.

But you need to do it with caution. When done incorrectly, this essay subject can come across as unoriginal and begging for sympathy. You need to highlight the parts of the story that are unique while not focusing too much on the tragedy itself. For example, if you recently lost a loved one due to a chronic illness, you shouldn’t spend too much time talking about the loss itself. Instead, you want to highlight how this experience impacted you. How have you had to grow and change as a result?

Maybe you decided to become an advocate for this illness, and you’ve been able to raise a lot of money to be put towards research. Start by thinking of what tragedies you’ve experienced but don’t stop there. Think about how you’ve been impacted and make this the subject of the essay.

Overcoming a challenging course.

There are a number of reasons why overcoming a challenging course doesn’t work well as a college essay topic. While it’s not the worst choice a student can make, it’s definitely a common choice. And if you’re applying to an Ivy League school or any high-level university, there’s a good chance most applicants faced challenges in their difficult high school courses but ended up succeeding anyway. Furthermore, the primary characteristics you’d likely introduce are already covered in your letters of recommendation. For example:

  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Hard work
  • Determination
  • Due diligence
  • Organization

If your do want to mention how a difficult class impacted you, make sure to get as specific as possible. And don’t focus too much on the course. Keep in mind that college admissions experts are only interested in you when reading your essays. They already know everything about your high school curriculum and your overall academic performance.

Maybe a specific book in your AP English Course inspired you to start writing your own book. Or perhaps a difficult project in history class helped you develop a passion for a very specific and unique time in history. Maybe a class you thought would be easy, turned out to be very difficult. The classes you take are temporary, but the way they can impact you might be permanent. Focusing on these effects will take your essay much further.

Someone you look up to

One of the most popular college essay topics to avoid is writing about someone you look up to or admire. It’s not that this topic automatically results in a bad college essay. It’s simply that so many people rely on this topic because it’s common, well-rehearsed, and easy.

Everyone can think of someone who inspires them to be a better person, to work harder, and to dream bigger. Whether that’s a family member or someone famous, the answers are pretty mundane. Yes, it’s probably undoubtedly true that your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even your siblings inspired you in some way. But that’s true for most people.

When it comes to famous people, the answers become even more obvious. Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are just a few of the most popular names.

Although we encourage students to avoid this topic, you can make it work by focusing the vast majority of the essay by talking about how you’ve been influenced positively by the individual you look up to. Spending too much time on why you admire them will end up making your essay less interesting and, as a result, more forgettable.

A volunteer experience

College admissions officers love to see students who dedicate their free time to good causes. However, writing an essay about this can be difficult. Even worse, these topics can make applicants seem pretentious and full of themselves. The main problem with this topic is that students tend to talk too much about what they did, how they made a positive change, and how they were also positively impacted.

two female students holding a garbage bag while picking up garbage

This series of events – student doing something charitable, the gesture having a positive impact, and the student feeling good about it – is a trap. It sounds great, looks great, and might even feel great. But it’s been done countless times before. If you really want to use this topic, we strongly advise you to switch it up and make it more interesting by talking about how it challenged you. Maybe you had some prejudices that were shattered as a result of the volunteer experience. You can talk about how you grew from the experience without making it come across as pretentious and self-serving.

Moving to a new home

Just like immigration-related topics, talking about moving across the country on your college essays can come across seem like a cliché because millions of people experience the same thing every year. While some people undoubtedly have a tougher time making the adjustment, the negative experiences associated with moving are common enough to make this a topic you should generally avoid. If you really think you’ve got something unique to say related to moving, make sure the moving aspect is just a background theme. Don’t focus too much on it.

Here are a few examples of essay topics within this vein that might actually work if executed properly.

  • Maybe you were considered the unathletic nerd at your old school. And, when you transferred to a new school after moving, you made a concerted effort to shed this persona by trying out for various sports and becoming a well-rounded person overall.
  • Perhaps you moved to a different environment where your personal views or beliefs were challenged. Whether you ended up learning more about views you once disagreed with or you reaffirmed what you previously thought, this experience is an interesting topic which places the move as an ancillary detail rather than the main topic.

Relationships and breakups

We’ve stressed the importance of writing college essays that are personal. Not only does this ensure they’re unique, but it’s also a surefire way to get admissions officers to take notice. However, there is such a thing as too personal.

Generally speaking, anything that falls into the romance department is a little too much information to be a suitable topic for college admissions essays. While we’ve been able to give you some solutions for taking the other questionable topics in a more unique direction, this subject is much harder to redeem. As a result, we recommend students avoid it altogether.

Additional tips for making your college essays stand out

We’ve provided you with some college essay topics to avoid. However, it’s not just about staying clear of these subjects or, at the very least, the characteristics that make them problematic. In order to make your college essays stand out, you’ll still need to leverage some other strategies. Here are a few do’s and don’ts to help get you started.

Don’t use vulgar language.

If you’re wondering if you can curse in a college essay, the answer is technical “yes.” However, we highly recommend against it. This can come off as abrasive and inappropriate. While it might fly with some admissions officers, the problem is that you can’t control who reads your essay. That’s why it’s best to avoid cursing altogether.

Avoid common essay topics (if you can).

We’ve dedicated this whole piece to help you avoid coming across as too common on your college essays. However, the best way to do this is to avoid these topics altogether. However, we understand why they’re popular. So, if you must rely on one of these topics, find ways to make it unique and personal – which brings us to our next point.

Focus on you, not the topic.

When writing a college essay, too many students focus on the topic rather than the most important subject: you! For example, if you fell in love with a subject because of a passionate teacher, you should spend your essay talking about how you changed and grew through the process rather than what’s so interesting about the subject. Never forget that you should be the most interesting subject in your essays.

We can help you nail your college essays

Your college essays are a critical part of determining whether or not you are accepted into the college of your choice. Knowing about the essay topics to avoid is an important part of nailing your college essays, but there’s more to it than that.

Fortunately, AdmissionSight offers personalized essay editing services to help you make the most of your college essays. We’ll show you the mistakes to avoid along with some strategies you can use to improve your writing. You’ll also learn what college admissions officers are looking for, specifically from the college to which you’re applying. Contact us to schedule your free consultation.


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