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Popular Essay Topics For College Students

The college essay is tough. It’s not writing it that’s the hard part – it’s deciding what to write about that can be difficult. What’s most curious about the college essay is that many of the topics on this list (those that should be avoided) also happen to be some of the most commonly used topics out there.

But, why? Why are students writing about boring, tired out subjects?

A lack of creativity? Certainly not! Students know how to be creative.

A lack of gumption? Doubtful – many students even take it upon themselves to create their own version of an anti-essay (see number seven on the list).

For many students, the issue is the narrative, which begins at the essay’s focus: the topic.

For example:

A boring essay details a summary of Joe’s mission trip to Guatemala, where he volunteered at a local school with his family.

A great essay details Joe’s experience during his mission trip to Guatemala, where he volunteered at a local school with his family. It was there he met Anita, a local elderly woman who wanted to learn how to read but came from a poor family so she never had the opportunity. Joe and Anita developed a friendship…

See, you want to read more of the story, right? But, the first essay example didn’t make you want to continue reading on to learn any more details. That’s the difference.

You may think you know what you’re going to write your college admissions essay about but, before you do, read this list to learn what topics you should avoid and why.

1. A Summary of Your Accomplishments
College essays are similar to life and, in life, nobody likes a braggart. These topics are broad, unfocused and make a boring read.

You may have accomplished a lot, but let your essay speak by allowing the reader to get to know you as a person through your experiences – not through you telling them how accomplished you are.

After reading your essay, a person should be able to come up with their own assessment of you – people don’t like to be told how to think.

2. Highly Polarized or Sensitive Topics
The key topics to avoid here are the same as those at the Thanksgiving table: politics and religion.

Avoid preaching about sensitive topics, no matter how passionate you are about a particular one. You never know who is going to be reading your admissions essay and the goal at hand is to gain admission into college.

3. Sports
The sports essay is predictable and should be avoided, if possible. Everyone knows how an athletic story will play out, regardless of the story or the sport. Find another topic that is unique and hasn’t been covered a million times over.

Admissions officers have heard enough about “the thrill of victory” and “the agony of defeat” in relation to high school athletics and they are sick and tired of pretending to care.

4. Humor
Stop trying to be so funny. You may have a story in your essay that’s funny and that’s okay – but that’s different. Make sure you’re funny for a reason and not just funny because you’re attempting to be. If it comes out naturally in your essay, great. If it doesn’t, then don’t force it. Admissions officers will see the futile attempt – and likely not find it amusing.

5. Why You’re SO Lucky
We get it. You’re privileged and you appreciate it, which is great. However, discussing it doesn’t make for a great essay. It’s actually super boring and, perhaps, may cause some eyes to roll.

Avoid this topic at all costs unless you’re starting with that followed up with some along the lines of, “…so I decided to leave my cushy private school to switch places at a public high school in Detroit with an inner-city teen and this is what happened.” Now THAT would make for an interesting essay.

6. Volunteer Experiences & Trips
This may be one of the most popular essay topics out there…and it’s also one of the most boring clichés around. Nobody needs a summary of your vacation – people know what happens on mission trips and during volunteer hours.

While you should feel free to mention a great experience or trip, but your entire essay should not talk about your one experience volunteering during a mission trip in Costa Rica.

If you do want to bring up these topics, try to think of something interesting or unexpected that happened during your trip.

Did a particular person or experience have an impact on you? Specific happenings can make great topics – try to think of something unusual and craft your essay around that experience, instead. (See example within the opening of this article.)

7. Self-Expression

So, you’re creative, smart and so over this whole essay thing. You’re not going to be put inside a box with a regular essay; you’re going to do your own thing. You’re going to whatever you feel like writing. Some of the best and brightest students do this: basically, they create the anti-essay.

Fine, but be prepared to write whatever you feel like writing from a college that may not be your first choice.

Whether it’s a poem, a random stream of thoughts, sarcasm, or some other form of writing in order to feel more creative, it’s not always the best idea. Before you do this, remember one thing: the sole purpose of your college essay is to get into college. You can show off later.

8. Illegal or Illicit Behavior
Drug and alcohol use, sex, arrests and/or jail time are topics that you should steer clear of, even if they are life issues you’ve worked through.

You would not want your judgment to be called into question for the decisions you’ve made (even if they are in the past) or for making the decision to write about the decisions you’ve made. Either way, it’s risky business to go this route and is not recommended.

9. The Most Important [Person, Place, Thing] in My Life
Read this aloud. Doesn’t this topic sound like an assignment that a second or third grader would write about? It really does and, if a child can handle it, it probably won’t gain you a lot of points with college admissions officers.

10. Tragedies
Topics like death and divorce are cautionary because they can be extremely difficult to write about.

While these topics are tough, if you feel passionately that a particular tragedy impacted your life significantly and you do want to write about it, try to keep the essay’s focus on you.

Think about your feelings regarding the situation, how it affected you and what you learned from the experience rather than just simply recalling the situation or the person you lost.

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Choosing a Topic for Your College Essay


Every year, an admissions officer reads hundreds, even thousands of application essays. After reading a plethora of essays about dreams, visions, academics and athletics, the content inevitably begins to sound redundant and painfully ordinary. If you want to stand out against the thousands of applicants with similar test scores and GPAs, writing a college essay that is memorable and proficient is the best way to do so. Usually an application will offer a very broad topic with which you can do almost anything, or they will allow you to write about whatever topic you would like. In this case, choosing your topic plays a pivotal part in the success of your essay.

Wrong the Wrongs So You Can Write the Right

Before you start writing your essay, here are a few topics you should avoid:

Don’t be repetitive.
If you have already included information in another area of the application, you do not need to relay this information again. Your admissions officer already knows you were president of the Beta Club, fed giraffes in a volunteer retreat and graduated tenth in your class. Your essay should not reiterate these accomplishments. If it does, your essay will sound redundant, uninteresting and leave little room for new information.
Don’t be negative.
Even if you have overcome some problems in your life such as drugs, alcohol, crime, abuse, or depression, your college essay may not be the best place to reveal your life’s roadblocks. If not handled well, it can result in an uncomfortable, emotional essay that may leave the admission officer questioning whether or not you are ready for college.
Don’t be one-sided.
Think about topics that are taboo at the dinner table: politics and religion. Though you can write a great article about subjects in these areas, many times they can come off as closed-minded and offensive to anyone who may hold a different belief, and you risk being perceived as arrogant. If you choose to write about a touchy or controversial subject, be mindful and careful when handling the essay.
Don’t overestimate or underestimate your writing skills.
Some people shy away from certain topics because they feel they will not be able to execute it. Other students feel that they can write a brilliant essay on a brilliant topic,and end up overstretching themselves. When brainstorming college essay topics, be honest with yourself about your writing style, your strengths and weaknesses, and the topics at which your writing capabilities can excel.
Don’t forget to research your school.
You will most likely be applying to more than one school, and if you are going to be writing separate essays on a similar topic for each application, do not forget to do some research on each school. This way, you can ensure that each essay is unique, and ties in the strengths of that particular university. Remember to proof-read; you do not want to make the mistake of writing a university’s name and then forgetting to change the name when applying for a different school, or applying for a college that you say has “small class sizes,” and then try to use the same essay for a college that has large class sizes. The school will know whether or not you took the time to understand the atmosphere, programs and faculty at the school before applying, and colleges love to see that students have a specific interest in their school. If you research the school first and include your research in a personal way, you will have a better chance of being accepted.

Potential College Essay Topics

Creativity, originality, and memorability are the most important aspects to keep in mind when choosing college essay topics. Before writing your college essay, you should take the time to plan, brainstorm and discover ways you can make your essay fresh and personal.

Stories
Stories can be a spectacular way of letting your personality, beliefs and challenges show through while also keeping the admissions officer interested and engaged. To successfully write a college essay as a story, you need to be a strong writer with developed skills in storytelling. The essay should not simply be a story, but rather an outlook on life, a perspective of the future, something deeper hidden within the story that will help you stand out and get your point across in a delicate and appealing way
Evaluations
For these topics, your essay should detail very specifically an experience, obstacle, achievement, or other life event that have changed you or your life in some way. You can incorporate elements from the storytelling genre of essay writing, including anecdotes, to inject more personality into your essay. If you have had any significant moment in your life that you feel you can effectively detail in your college essay, or if you have grown or matured in a way that you feel would be useful for the admissions officers to know, this topic may be the best for you
Influences
This topic can be very broad, but also enlightening for admissions officers. What influences you to reach your goals, aspire to become more, or take a stand for something you believe in? It could be a cause, a person or an organization. Whatever it may be, these essays can be extremely personal, showing your compassion, vulnerability, and concerns. Keep in mind that although the focus on the essay is a cause, person or organization, the essay should still be about you and what you can offer to the school to which you are applying. Don’t get wrapped up in everything that the person, cause or organization has done, but instead write about how that affected you and what you have done to follow in those footsteps
Diversity
As an international student, you are already bringing diversity to the school. Highlighting your diversity farther can give the admissions officers an idea of what unique gifts you can bring to the school. Before you being writing an essay on this topic, make sure that you understand what diversity means to you. Diversity delves beyond that of race, and the more diverse a community is, the more it can come together and grow in unity, embracing the different strengths and weaknesses as gifts

Writing a college essay can be a daunting task at first, but understanding how different topics of college essays work may benefit you in the future. Know your writing style and what you are trying to communicate to the admissions officers. Your college essay is your first impression to the school to which you are applying. You want your first impression to be one of intelligence, endurance and motivation. Though there are plenty topics of college essays that many admissions officers tell students to avoid, as well as topics admissions officers will encourage students to write, it is a very personal and specific decision. If your college does not give you a certain topic for your admissions essay, get to know yourself and get to know your school. If you pair this knowledge with good writing skills, spell and grammar checks, peer reviews, and editing, you are sure to make a good impression with the school. Don’t lie and don’t exaggerate; just be yourself. The admissions officers will see that and admire your authenticity.

For more tips on writing a great scholarship essay, visit Eight Steps Towards a Better Scholarship Essay.

Admission Essays

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