How Do I Handle Difficult College Essay Topics?

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Farah Weheba
Farah Weheba

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Wondering how to handle delicate or difficult college essay topics? You’re not alone. College admissions officers get one good chance to understand you as a person through your essays. Deciding how to approach college essay topics like politics and mental health can be a challenge. While they’re not easy areas to navigate, these topics are important. Many students feel their applications would not be complete without addressing their most polarizing opinions or life-changing experiences—however controversial.

We’re here to help.

Here are some tips for college essay topics to avoid. Keep in mind: Navigating strategic college essay topics can be tricky. Empowerly is here to help! We’ll assess your overall standing, and let you know how to boost your personal story’s impact.

If Writing About Political Views… Take Caution

  • In an open-ended college essay prompt, it is still expected that the reader will hear about some transformative journey of yours. So if you write about a political topic, your essay should read like a personal story rather than like a political science essay or a news article.
  • If you want to highlight that you’ve grown and gained perspective about a nuanced political issue, then make the focus of your college essay how you’ve gained media literacy skills and learned to be critical of news sources. Perhaps you’ve gained an awareness of historical foreign affairs, military occupation, or the complexities of colonization or historical trauma. Perhaps you’ve gained an appreciation for consuming both American and international news sources in order to gain a more balanced worldview. Gaining an appreciation for the complexity of situations and hungering for further information shows maturity, growth, scholarship, and critical thinking skills to college admissions officers. But don’t write them a political science classroom essay.
  • A college admissions officer would want to hear more about your growth process, rather than an essay about current events.
Some guiding questions to consider when writing about political topics:
  • What prompted you to research this context?
  • Which media sources have you been reading?
  • What is your analytical process once you have read two opposing viewpoints on an issue?
  • Which personal shift has surprised you in yourself? What do you think prompted it?
  • You’re the hero of this story; how has the hero transformed?
  • A college essay story about how you consume news and how you gather context around current events is much more interesting than the political details themselves; that’s a story about you.
  • For example, if you are writing a college essay topic about your views on headlines and how you feel they are often sensationalized, then in conclusion, what is your call to action? What are you urging journalists to do? What would you yourself do? How, theoretically, would headlines look if more neutral and informed by more perspectives? How would you yourself redesign that process and how would you behave differently? Is it the responsibility of media to present a balanced, historically representative view, or is it the responsibility of individual citizens to read many varied sources and historical texts and remain critical?
Other Tips
  • Do not spend your precious college essay word count informing your admissions offer about technical details of current events.
  • Contextualize the issue briefly, and then transition to your own relationship with these views and write about your transformative journey.
  • Research student groups or research labs on the university’s campus that might be doing similar work or advocating for similar causes as you.
  • Write about how you could join as a member of that group and the perspectives and experience you could lend that group of students on campus. 
  • Explain both your unique qualities and set of experience that you could bring to the group, and your excitement to learn from existing more senior members of the group. 

Culture fit

  • Are the college essay topics you are expressing in line with the target university’s values?
  • If views are not a fit, consider applying to universities that honor your personal values.
  • If your convictions and values contrast with the positions and culture of the university, you do not need to pander to the college, but rather, ask yourself why you are applying there in the first place. A university needs to represent and conduct itself by your own values. Unless…

Seeking a challenge

…Unless you are openly looking to have your perspectives challenged and recognize a need to broaden your exposure to oppositional ideas. Writing about such openness to grow and be challenged in the convictions you’ve been taught would demonstrate self-awareness and an analytical mind to an admissions officer in a college essay topic.

You would in that case need to acknowledge the marked difference between your currently held beliefs and the university’s, and explain why you are intentionally seeking this challenge in your college essay topic.

When Should I Choose A Different College Essay Topic? 

  • Are you expressing views that may marginalize, or advocate for the exclusion, of any groups? 
  • Is any of your language undermining or minimizing any group of people or their potential? 
  • Are you dehumanizing or demeaning any groups or making sweeping generalizations? 
  • Does the essay end up with you positioning any groups as essentially flawed or less valuable than others? 
  • Does your essay flaunt economic privilege?
  • For example, are you discussing your expensive travel opportunities or lavish vacations that were not merit-based or service-based?

Can you answer yes to any of the above questions? Your difficult college essay topic may not read well to an admissions officer; instead, it may come off as attacking a minority group, or being unaware of your own privileges. Steer clear and choose another college essay topic altogether. 

Writing About Mental Health

If you are considering writing about mental health advocacy or personal experience, your college essay topic needs to be focused. It should detail why you are invested in this issue, how it has moved you, and how you are positioning yourself as a change agent. 

  • Your college essay topic should not simply discuss an injustice you are observing or a concern of yours; it should also detail how you actively disrupt that system, and how you plan to keep disrupting that system at the university level.
  • Have you observed someone struggle with mental health, or struggled with it yourself? If you would like to share your story of growth and overcoming obstacles, tell your story in a way that explains each stage. For instance, your initial observation of the problem; your call to action; and how you’ve stayed on mission to disrupt the problem.
  • If you would like to share your process of overcoming adversity and how the experience has shaped and bettered you, this could make for a successful rite of passage essay.
  • You may be wondering if admissions officers will judge you harshly for being vulnerable or revealing your personal struggle. Might volunteering this information put you at a disadvantage or make you appear to be a weaker or flawed candidate? The answer is no.
  • Everyone struggles with hurdles and obstacles of different natures; if you would like to share a story about your growth and experiences, you certainly may without it impacting evaluation of your character negatively. Colleges look for a growth mindset: the belief that you can succeed with hard work, and by asking for help when needed. 
  • Research student groups or research labs on the university’s campus that might be doing similar work or advocating for similar positions as you. Write about how you could join as a member of this group and the perspectives and experience you could lend to that assembly.

When Should I Choose A Different College Essay Topic? 

  • Are you currently struggling with mental health, or still in a formative part of that journey learning to manage it? That college essay topic may not be the best choice for your application.
  • If you are not interested in working on mental health advocacy in college, the same applies.
  • If you’ve not yet taken any steps to advocate for these issues or disrupt the problem through leadership, volunteering, or academic work, then perhaps this is not yet a college essay topic. 
  • It doesn’t mean that your observations aren’t significant; it just means that the timing of your process may not be complete enough to write a complete story arc.
  • If your healing process is unresolved or very difficult to write about, you do not have to choose this topic. I love the adage “don’t hurt your own feelings.” 
  • You don’t want your college essay to just read: “here are some things I’ve noticed are unfair or difficult. These are just my musings about this.’
  • What do you plan to do about those unfair difficult things? What have you already done? How will you continue in that vain at the university in question?

In conclusion

Working with an Empowerly counselor can help you position your personal brand in the most outstanding way. With the proper guidance and support, your admissions potential can fully set sail.

Questions? Let us know!