Topics to Avoid in College Essays

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Gelyna Price
Gelyna Price

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Are there any topics to avoid in college essays? Certainly, if you’re still brainstorming for your college essays, you may be wondering how to stand out. When you’re writing your admissions essays, the best thing you can hope for is that they’ll stand out — in a good way! Of course, this means using flawless grammar and spelling, as well as showing off your writing and reasoning skills. Don’t stop there, though…

A truly compelling essay — the kind that will make an admissions officer sit up and take interest — goes further than just checking the basic boxes. It goes above and beyond with an original topic or perspective. That being said, there are certain topics that admissions officers need to read about over and over again. With that in mind, there are some specific topics to avoid.

These are the ones that students write about over and over again, so it will be very hard for you to stand out from the crowd.


Death, loss, and grief are incredibly powerful experiences. It’s absolutely tragic if you’ve experienced an unexpected loss of someone close, especially considering how young you probably are if you’re writing these essays. What’s even more heartbreaking is that thousands of other teenagers across the country have also experienced terrible losses. In an ideal world, of course this wouldn’t be the case, and all of our relatives and close friends would live long, full, happy lives.

Perhaps the late Leonard Cohen said it best: “And death is old / but it’s always new.” For each of us, death and grief may be shocking, new, deeply personal, and powerful. But after having read several hundred essays on the topic, college admissions officers have heard it all before.

Volunteer Trips

Your volunteer trip may well have been a truly meaningful experience that genuinely shaped your perspective on life. Like death, however, it’s also true for thousands of other applicants.

Unless you have a truly unique perspective or specific angle to explore, an essay about volunteering will end up being some variation of, “Volunteering in _____ completely changed my world view. During my volunteering trip, I learned to see different perspectives and to understand how other people live. Best of all, I realized how meaningful it is to be able to help others, and this is something I’m passionate about continuing to do.”

 If that’s the case, that’s absolutely wonderful. But can you imagine how dull it must be for admissions counselors to read some variation of this over and over? And if you’re not incredibly careful, you run the risk of the essay coming across as a humble-brag. Again, steer clear.

Your Game-Winning Shot

From your perspective, the time you scored that winning shot with seconds to go in the game may seem like a great essay topic. It was exciting and dramatic, which could lead to suspenseful writing. It shows you in a great light. And it gives you a chance to talk about other positive things, like teamwork, cooperation, the value of hard work, and never giving up. 

Unfortunately, you aren’t alone in that logic. 

You can bet that hundreds or thousands of other students will be writing some version of that same essay. This would be bad enough on its own. What makes it even worse is that the emotional impact that was there for you will be completely absent for the admissions officer. For you, the moment was thrilling because you cared about which team won; the person reading your essay won’t care about that at all.

Bonus: Creative Self-Expression

While this isn’t exactly a specific topic to avoid, it’s similar enough that it deserves a mention. Once you’re in college, you’ll have plenty of opportunities for thinking outside the box. The college essays aren’t the place to do it.

In other words…

Use your essay prompts as they’re intended. Don’t respond with a poem, an examination of why being asked to reveal yourself in 500 words is impossible, a Samuel Beckett-esque stream of consciousness, or anything else besides what the prompt requests. It’s not as creative as you might hope, and is more likely to frustrate than inspire the admissions officer. 

Wondering if you’ve found the best idea ever or might just be off the mark? Obviously, there are probably plenty of other topics to avoid in college essays that we haven’t covered here in depth. The team at Empowerly can provide an expert sounding board for your specific situation. More than that, our team can actually review and revise your essay together to bring it up to full potential. Don’t waste your shot to tell your story to college admissions officers. Book a consult today.

Questions? Let us know!