What NOT To Write In Your College Essay

by Dr. Dean Skarlis on November 21, 2012

Many high school seniors will take this long, holiday weekend to work on their college applications.  Most will not have a clue what to write about.  While the best topics are authentically personal, and therefore unique to every college applicant, I can tell you with a good degree of certainty what NOT to write about:

1.  Your girlfriend/boyfriend/significant other.  Choosing this topic might be the biggest faux pas in the history of college essay writing.  No matter how wonderful this person is, and no matter how good a writer you are, there is absolutely zero chance that this topic will present you in the best possible light to college admissions professionals.  This is because one of the character traits most admissions professionals are looking for is a sense of maturity and self-understanding.  Focusing on someone you love, or worse yet, like “a lot,” is highly unlikely to show this side of you.  In fact, it is more likely to paint you as the dreaded “typical teenager,” possibly one of the worst monikers in the college admissions industry.

2.  A recitation of your resume.  They have already read that.  They know your GPA, test scores, and ALL of your activities ad nauseum.  Listing them again will not sit well with the vast majority of college admissions readers.  They would like to know something they wouldn’t already know by reading the rest of your application.  So think about what’s unique about you, and something about which you’re passionate, and begin writing.

3.  A political or religious issue.  This is the one caveat to the last sentence above.  Some of you are passionate about politics or social issues, but this is NOT the place to explore those beliefs.  You want your essay to appeal to a broad range of readers, so picking one side or another of a controversial (or even not so controversial) issue is not a good idea. 

4.  Big Words.  They don’t want to see them.  If you keep it simple, and use conversational, yet intelligent language, you will present yourself as an authentic, honest, intelligent young person.  You’re not writing a research paper, and you don’t need to impress them with the SAT word of the day.  College admissions professionals are regular people just like you, so write something that connects with them as a human being, and you’ll be in a great position.

5.  A “Big” topic.  Contrary to popular belief, students should not write about a horrible life event that changed their life forever.  The fact is that most of us have not had such a life changing situation before the age of 18 (so don’t make one up either!).  Even if you have had such an experience, don’t write about it.  These types of pieces can come off negatively, and sometimes a teenager’s perception of a life changing event is much different than that of a college admissions reader.  Instead, write a big essay on a small topic.  I once had a student who wrote about how he observed a water droplet while on vacation.  This seemingly insignificant event caused him to think about why he loved art and philosophy over science and math.  It turned out to be an excellent piece.

So resist these typical tendencies, and try to think carefully about one slice of who you are.  Take a good deal of time, and approach the process in stages.  Don’t try to write the piece in one sitting, and ALWAYS have others read it for content and grammar…but not TOO many!

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