Are you about to apply to college and looking for essay tips? One thing we can do is show you exactly what not to do! In this video, we’ll describe 5 college essays that SUCK, so you don’t fall into the pit of overused and cliché essay topics.
Essay topic #1: “Here’s my resume!” essay
The “Here’s my resume” essay is essentially your resume in paragraph form with some more description added in. Lacking a story or narrative, this essay details activity after activity and what you did for each one.
The problem is that these entire essays could be condensed to a bullet pointed list without losing any information. In other words, they don’t reveal anything new that isn’t included in your activities roster on the application. Try to stay away from regurgitating what your application already shows so that you don’t end up with a boring and uninspiring essay.
A college essay needs to answer the “why” and “how” questions of what you want to do and what you find inspiring. This is your chance to say what you couldn’t inside the restrictive common application. Stop focusing on the “what” and start to think about the “why.” Take advantage of the essay portion – it’s the only part where you can present a qualitative characteristic about yourself as opposed to quantitative test scores, facts, and GPA.
What your essay should aim to do is either to create a story, lots of ideas and analysis, or both.
Essay topic #2: “I got an A” essay
This essay focuses on academic achievement. Whether it’s about a difficult class, teacher, or competition, the plot line of the essay is always the same:
You’re struggling academically, decide to study really hard and ask people for help, and then you get good results!
Predictability is not a good thing. Avoid this essay because this type of essay can be written by anyone and doesn’t present you as a well-rounded person. Your grades can speak for themselves. You want to show who you are when you’re not studying, too.
This type of essay can also be extrapolated to any “I struggled then succeeded” essay. For example, “My sports team was losing but then I practiced a lot and we won the rest of the games.” The message of all these essays again is predictable: hard work pays off. The thing is, everyone else who is applying to college has also worked hard. Showing you are “hard working” doesn’t make for a great essay many times because your efforts are similar to anyone else’s who also got good grades, took AP classes, and mastered the SAT.
If an academic subject is what you’re really passionate about, then go ahead and write about that and why you’re passionate about it! Make it idea-driven, not just “here’s what I accomplished.”
Essay topic #3: The mission trip essay
This essay is about how you went on a mission trip or some service project where you helped less-fortunate people. Then, you had your own epiphany where you were the one that learned something, you didn’t realize how bad off so many people were, and you rant on about how we need to do more good in the world. Any sort of generic thought process like that doesn’t tell me much about yourself.
Writing about 1-2 weeks of your entire life and how you went through some change but then returned back home and everything went back to normal doesn’t tell us much about who you are, what your personality is like, how you fit into a group, what original ideas you have to offer, or what makes you stand out. Again, this type of activity can also just be put in your resume. The mission trip essay in some instances could be ok if your story is truly unique, but for most it’s a topic to avoid since it’s very difficult to steer away from cliche phrases, plots, and conclusions.
Essay topic #4: The generic answer essay
This essay answers the question, but it’s so generic that it could be written by anyone. It has little personality and details in it, which means you are not taking advantage of the essay portion. The college essay isn’t about giving the right answer; it’s about who you are as an individual, what you’re passionate about, and what your personality is like.
Sometimes I find students write generic essays when they try to discuss tough issues. For example, I once encountered a very generic essay from a student trying to discuss sexual assault that happened to a friend at her school. She was so worried about sharing what happened though, that the entire essay turned into a pile of cliches. “It was a really tough time for my friend and she had a really bad experience and didn’t want to tell anyone. From talking to her, I learned a lot about myself and how I can be a good friend. We worked through everything and talked it over and we talked to a teacher about it so we could try to do more to make sure it didn’t happen again.”
Don’t be embarrassed to share about what happened in your life, because if your essay is vague to the point where anyone can write a similar essay, it’ll be a bad essay. If a topic is sensitive, you need to make a decision and either choose something else to write about, or you go for it and write down the details. Show us the story. Let us in. Or switch topics.
Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and show the human side of yourself.
Essay topic #5: The Jesus essay
Before I start, this essay applies to any conversion or religious experience. These typically detail the day you “came to Jesus” or “committed your life to the Lord.” Most students should avoid this topic because it’s not going to always resonate with a general audience and you can’t predict who is reading your essay. However, if you are applying to a religious institution, then writing an essay about your religious experiences is not only a good idea, but in some cases necessary.
When you meet someone new, the two topics you generally don’t want to talk about are religion and politics. For college essays, writing about politics is a bit easier because some students can talk about it in a more neutral way. Still, you might be best to avoid hot button political issues, such as abortion, unpopular viewpoints, such as the right to carry assault rifles, viewpoints that could be offensive (I had a student show me an essay about how white males are discriminated against– not a good move), your love for a specific president or presidential candidate, or extreme political viewpoints, right or left. Safer political topics tend to include advocating for the environment or working to help the poor. Generally, most universities tend to sway liberal, but you need to still exercise caution as you don’t know who will read your essay.
If you do want to write about religion, you can write about it from an academic point of view (especially if you’re applying as a religious studies major). You can also write about experiences that may overlap with religious activities. For instance, I wrote about volunteering with young women in juvenile prison, an activity sponsored by my church group; talking about religion, though, wasn’t necessarily a centerpiece of the essay. You can also write about a lesser known religion; for example, a student of mine wrote about her experiences at her Sikh temple for one of her UC essay. She was not only able to describe how the temple was another home to her, which is a relatable feeling, but was also able to let us into her unique world in a powerful way. Lastly, if you’re writing a religious essay, you want to make sure it’s from a perspective that isn’t offensive to anyone. Try letting someone who is not a member of your religion proofread it and make sure they aren’t uncomfortable or think you are preaching to them.
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