When I was in college admissions, I spent one day each spring with the junior class of a small, private high school in an application essay workshop. On that day, the juniors would be exempt from their other classes to stay in the library with their English teachers, college counselor, myself, and two other admission officers so that we could supervise the writing of their application essays. Drafts were passed around and students rotated so everyone could give hints: Was this a good topic? Could this be explained better? Was this passage too wordy?
The event was always fun and the students wrote well. But the other admission officers and I consciously steered them away from writing about a short list of topics – a list I will now share with you. The point of the list is not to be flippant about topic selection; rather, it’s important to emphasize two main points:
- The purpose of an application essay is to reveal a part of your character, personality, or makeup that does not appear anywhere else in your essay and that is of vital importance for the admission committee to know.
- Some topics are not appropriate to reveal to a perfect stranger (which a college admission counselor or application reader is!) and can actually weaken your application rather than strengthening it.
So, with those two thoughts in mind, here are the five topics you should not write your application essay about – and the reason(s) why. (Equestrians, I’ve also added some specifics for you to bear in mind as you proceed.)
These topics are:
- The death of a family member/friend/your horse. While I agree that the loss of someone important in your life is hugely transformative and can steer you onto a path that you might not have landed on otherwise, it’s very difficult to write an essay about loss that focuses enough on you as a person to make it a worthy addition to your application. With word limits ranging from 500 to 650, it’s nearly impossible to both share the history of your relationship and to demonstrate clearly its effects on you since. There’s also always a risk that your essay will be perceived as a “sob story” request for admission, which is also something I recommend that you avoid.Equestrians who write about the loss of a horse also might face a lack of understanding from the admissions office, as some readers will fail to adequately understand the horse-human connection that horse people comprehend – and if you’re trying to make a point about how the loss changed you, the last thing you want is for your reader to say, “It was just a horse.” So as a general rule, unless you’re a particularly bold and creative writer with the strongest of skills, I recommend that you steer clear of death in your essay.
- Your parents’ divorce. Unfortunately, the United States is a country wherein nearly half of all marriages end in divorce – which means that approximately half of your new college classmates will come from homes with divorced parents. Does that mean that your pain at the separation of your parents is any less important than theirs? Certainly not! But to simply write an essay on the topic of the divorce itself is both clichéd (it’s been done many times before) and takes the attention away from you in an essay that is supposed to have you at the center.If, however, your parents’ divorce meant that you gave up riding one night per week because your father or mother had to work late and you took over the cooking duties on that night and that simple change made a significant difference in your approach to your pending adulthood or you wound up in a different place (physically or mentally) as a result of the divorce – a place that has put you on a trajectory to your post-college goals – you might be able to take a different approach to the topic and use it safely in your essay. But I caution you not to try!
- Your first trip to Europe and/or that horse-shopping trip you took to Germany. I once sat in my office overlooking the admission office’s visitors’ lot and read three – three! – essays in a row in which the students extoled the virtues of the trips they had taken to Europe – trips where they saw eight countries in eleven days (on a bus, no less). Now, do I doubt that the trip changed their lives? Absolutely not. I believe that they were changed by the experience – but I also couldn’t tell you which one was which ten minutes after finishing each file. It was instead as though I had read the same file three times in a row.
Travel is indeed a broadening experience that can contribute substantially to your growth as a person – and that’s certainly what admission offices want to read about! The problem is that all too often, travel essays come off as “brag sheets” of places visited – Stonehenge, the Blarney Stone, the Eiffel Tower, the Vatican, etc. If you took a trip that transformed you, the transformation itself is the key to your essay, not the location. (In fact, the location is really irrelevant if the essay itself is done correctly.)A final note of caution for equestrian students – it’s also not advisable to write about your horse-shopping trip to Europe for two reasons – the primary one being that no non-equestrian admission officer or application reader will understand the reason for leaving the United States to purchase one that has to be flown in by FedEx. In addition – and I say this with no sarcasm or irony – if you plan to file for any sort of financial aid, pointing out in your essay that you have the funds to shop for horses abroad is not a good decision.
- Your service trip to Mexico/Appalachia. Service trips are another travel option that is becoming much more widely available to all high school students, whether their school is public or private. With that in mind – and similar to the previously outlined topics – the fact that you’ve had access to one of these opportunities isn’t (in itself) newsworthy enough for an essay and won’t make you stand out from the crowd. Yes, colleges want students who want to change the world in big and wonderful ways, but the problem with making it the heart of your essay is that, because the essay is supposed to be about you, it can often turn into a sanctimonious exposition of how you have assisted the downtrodden.The caveat here is twofold; if you can paint the context for your service work appropriately and keep the focus on the change within you as a direct result of the work you’ve done, there’s a chance the essay will work. Also, if you are applying to a religiously affiliated school that has a Christian mission at the heart of its teachings and your own faith is tied up closely with your volunteer service, then the essay has the potential to paint a picture of your faith and your service under the umbrella of how you will fit into their campus community. But if your service experiences don’t fit either of those two caveats, it’s best to choose something else for your essay.
- Your torn ACL/broken vertebra/wrist/etc. and how you recovered from it in time for the big year-end horse show. I tend to take a little bit of backlash from my inclusion of this topic on the “no” list, but bear with me. I understand that it’s human nature to love a good “against all odds” story of triumph over adversity. I agree that a good triumph story has the makings for a good essay topic. Yet, it’s because the triumph story is so much used that I urge students to avoid it. It’s been so overdone in the past that it’s become easily the most clichéd essay topic in college admission circles and every college admission officer knows exactly how the story will end the moment you begin it. Thus, you leave no room for surprise in the telling – and no room for a grand revelation that will get your essay brought to the forefront when the admission committee meets to decide who will be accepted. So if you want to use this topic, you must find the element of surprise in order for it to work – and that’s a challenge that many students would prefer to avoid altogether.
I know from personal experience how hard the brainstorming process can be for young writers – especially at this time of year, when all of the stress of application season is in full swing! – and I sympathize with all of you. But a truly great essay is one that’s unique to you and your experiences and avoids clichés at all costs, so one sure way to make sure that you discover that topic for yourself is to avoid the five ideas listed above.
(And if you need help, I’m always here. You can contact me.)