This article appears in College Prep 2019.
Teachers know it, guidance counselors know it, even colleges know it: high school students dread writing their personal dissertation at university.
The pressure is high, the word count is low, and it can be almost impossible to know where to start. While there are dozens of resources online telling you what to include, knowing what you shouldn’t include can be just as helpful.
College admissions counselors are always on the lookout for unique and memorable essays to give them a better picture of the candidate’s personality. It is extremely important for them to feel that they know the candidates beyond their GPA and SAT scores. With thousands of qualified applicants vying for the same positions at top universities, an outstanding college essay can be the difference between being accepted or rejected.
So how can you stand out from the thousands of other high school kids? Find a unique topic, a story only you can tell, and be sure to avoid the following clichÃ© personal essay topics:
How seeing the suffering of others made you appreciate your own privilege
This is perhaps the most egregious of all college essay topics. Admissions counselors cringe when these essays hit their desks, and for good reason. While your mission trip or high school volunteer work has indeed changed your perspective, framing another’s suffering as a way to propel yourself to greater happiness seems disconnected and patronizing. Universities are reluctant to accept students who lack the empathy to understand the problem from this perspective. Be careful not to use the less fortunate to highlight your relative privilege.
Your first experience with death
Dealing with death, especially the death of a loved one, is certainly a formative experience. While admissions counselors understand and appreciate the impact death can have on a student’s life, this topic rarely sheds new light on a candidate. The purpose of the personal essay is to provide a more nuanced picture of the student in question. While writing about the death of a loved one can be touching, grief is usually too universal a subject to single out a candidate. (Typically, divorce stories fall under this same umbrella.)
A story of which you are the triumphant hero
In college admissions trials (and in life), there is nothing less flattering than someone speaking out of their own virtue. Universities are much more interested in accepting humble, hardworking students than self-glorifying egotists. There’s a reason we root the underdogs in the movies, or why superheroes have personal challenges despite their physical advantages. Perfection is boring and makes testing painfully boring. Instead of telling how you pulled it off, tell how you went from being a thug to being a team player and how it had a positive impact on your life.
What you have learned from your sporting victory / defeat
Almost all young athletes have a history of losing or winning in sport that has helped define them. Unfortunately, this is precisely the problem with choosing this topic for your college essay. Admissions counselors read several variations of the same sports story several times a day. Of course, there are moral lessons to be learned from victory and failure, but these lessons are familiar and predictable. Unless you are convinced that your high school sports experience was so unique that no one else could write a similar essay, try to come up with a different topic.
What You Learned From Failure … When You Didn’t Really Fail
When people are asked to discuss a personal weakness in a job interview, they often provide a weakness that can also be interpreted as a strength. They might say they take on too much responsibility or struggle with perfectionism for fear of appearing too flawed to deserve the job. Likewise, students are often reluctant to admit their faults and failures to admissions counselors. However, counselors know that their future students are human and error-prone. Honesty and humility are much more important than perfection. Don’t be afraid to discuss how real failure has shaped you.
If there was an academic essay topic on this list that you intended to write about, don’t despair. Admissions counselors are quick to point out that the right âangleâ can make many of these topics acceptable. If you have a truly unique perspective on any of these questions that no one else could write down, feel free to use it. The key to composing the best college essay possible is telling a unique story that reveals something important about who you are as an individual.