The Top 5 College Essay Topics to Avoid

Girl thinking about college essay topics to avoid

Why Are There College Essay Topics to Avoid?

The college essay, more formally known as the Common App Personal Statement, is a 650-word essay that gets sent to colleges as part of the Common Application process. This is where applicants, like you, are given a chance to share something meaningful, be it a defining trait, value, or personal experience, that would not otherwise be showcased in the rest of the application. The college essay is there for you to convince the admissions reader (in not a lot of time) that they should be rooting for you. The essay is also one of the only pieces of writing that colleges will see from you, so it’s important that you communicate in a clear and concise fashion and avoid using this space to tell a story that doesn’t necessarily need to be told. Over the course of this article we’ll be discussing college essay topics to avoid, and how to pick a topic worth writing about. 

College admissions readers are extremely busy people, and only spend an average of eight minutes per essay. Since admissions readers have such little time, it’s important to put your best foot forward in the college essay, and to do so immediately. Some applicants get stuck in the wormhole of writing about their place in other people’s stories, mentioning achievements already listed on their transcript, or highlighting a part of their life that doesn’t speak accurately to their character.

The admissions reader clicking through your application wants to know about your traits, values, and unique experiences, so it can be frustrating to read through topics that ultimately fail to reflect that. College essay topics that can more often than not be avoided. Over their time reading thousands of college essays, there have come to be topics that readers are bored of having heard them quite a few times already. Falling into the pitfall of anonymity is something you can avoid by avoiding some of the essay topics in the following sections. 

The Top 5 College Essay Topics to Avoid

College Essay Topic to Avoid #1: The Side Character – Writing About Other People

Applicants sometimes fall into the trap of writing about other people when they mean to write about themselves. Prompt #2 of the Common App Prompt List asks the applicant to talk about an obstacle that they’ve gone through that’s made them stronger. While it might be tempting to write about divorce or the death of a grandparent or family member, this story isn’t necessarily yours. Instead, you should be encouraged to write an essay that reflects your personal struggles, not someone else’s. Prompt #3 asks us to discuss something that someone has done for us that we’re grateful for. While the person doing the action is one of the main actors of this story, it’s important for you to remain in control of the narrative. Focus the story on what you did as a result of what someone else may have done for you. 

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College Essay Topic to Avoid #2: The World Traveler – Writing About Your Overseas Enrichment

When writing the college essay, it would seem like a no-brainer to talk about your unique overseas experience, whether that be doing deep sea exploration to discover new creatures at the bottom of the ocean one summer, or going on a mission trip to build houses for hurricane relief for a few weeks. While these are interesting stories that you might have a chance to tell in other parts of your application, like a supplemental essay, they might be things we want to avoid in the college essay. 

Since experiences like these only highlight you in a very specific period of your life, they don’t speak to your overall character. While travel experiences can be enriching and eye-opening, be sure to avoid making them the sole focus of your essay. Travel is a common topic, and many students may have similar experiences. Instead, focus on the lessons you learned during your travels and how they have impacted your personal growth. Discuss the cultural exchanges, challenges you overcame, or moments of self-discovery that occurred during your journey. Highlight how these experiences have shaped your values, worldview, and aspirations.

College Essay Topic to Avoid #3: The Time Traveler – Writing About Career Aspirations

One of the most obvious topics to want to touch on in a college essay would be what you want to do with your college degree once you graduate. This is a totally normal topic to want to write about for a college essay, but it’s also one that we definitely want to avoid. You will have time to discuss your career aspirations in essays called “supplementals.” These are college specific essays where you’ll be asked why you want to go to this specific school, or study this specific major. While it’s advisable to talk about the school and what they can offer you in terms of academic and extracurricular resources, this is a great time to talk about what you hope to do in life after college. Your college essay topic should reflect who you are right now, that’s who the admissions reader wants to learn about, not the person you hope to become after the next four years. 

College Essay Topic to Avoid #4: The Scholar – Writing About Academic Triumph

At a first glance, Prompt #2, writing about obstacles and how you overcame them, is a perfect place to write about a class you were struggling with and how you studied incredibly hard to overcome that difficulty. This might be a topic we want to avoid for the college essay. Prompt #2 is a popular one for students, and of course it makes sense to want to write about an academic triumph, specifically one that came from a significant amount of hard work. 

However, this prompt is also used by students who have faced far more serious challenges in their personal lives, be it socially, economically, or otherwise. Writing about coming back from a C grade for your college essay might not pack as hard a punch compared to those other topics. To highlight an academic triumph, try using Prompt #1 to write about your tenacity and determination as a whole. Highlight your study habits in a paragraph and include other examples as well.

Remember that your essay should not be a comprehensive list of achievements or activities. Admissions officers already have access to your resume or application. Instead, use your essay as an opportunity to showcase your character, passion, and the impact you’ve had on others. Discuss your leadership, involvement, or any initiatives you’ve undertaken to make a positive difference.

College Essay Topic to Avoid #5: The Athlete – Writing About Your Sports Injury

Writing about sports is probably one of the first things a student might think about when considering a topic for their college essay. Talking about your sport allows you to talk about teamwork, community, passion, and dedication. Unfortunately, writing about these topics under the context of sports is an overused practice and should be avoided in your college essay. Flipping this topic on its head and writing about a sports injury could be compelling, but should probably also be avoided. Though this is a major obstacle that you may have had to overcome, and therefore fair game for Prompt #2, it lacks the agency of you actually overcoming it through tangible action. If after your recovery you were able to find a connection to your sport in a different and rewarding way, be it through coaching, commentating, or researching, that’s a direction for the college essay that you might consider taking. 

How To Choose a Compelling Essay Topic That You Feel Good About

Picking a topic for your college essay is a difficult task. Even though there’s so much you could write about, you may still feel that there’s nothing interesting worth bringing up. It can feel cringy at times to talk about yourself for an extended period of time, but that’s what admissions readers need to hear. By sticking to your voice and sounding like the intelligent and well-rounded applicant that you are, there’s no way you can go wrong in picking a topic for your college essay. 

As you reflect on your experiences, consider the lessons you’ve learned and the skills you’ve developed. How have these activities shaped your character and prepared you for college? Admissions officers are interested in understanding how you will contribute to their academic community and how you will grow as a student and as an individual.

Brainstorming Your College Essay Topic

As a brainstorming technique, start with the Common App Prompt List. Go through the prompts one by one and think of different ways you could fulfill each one of the prompts. Your ideas don’t have to be fully developed, by creating a bank of smaller ideas you’ll find that you’ll have an easier time parsing through them. Creating smaller ideas also lessens the stakes, and allows you to think about topics you wouldn’t have dared to consider under the pressure to find The Best Idea. Try to find common themes in your character, and think back on the stories and experiences that have made you who you are. 

By being authentic, reflecting on personal growth, offering a thoughtful perspective, and showcasing your unique qualities, you can craft an essay that stands out and resonates with admissions officers. Remember to proofread and edit your essay multiple times to ensure it is error-free, polished, and professional. And if you need assistance or guidance, don’t hesitate to seek help from a writing tutor or college advisor who can provide valuable insights and support. With dedication and effort, you can create an exceptional college essay that showcases your true self and sets you apart in the college application process.

Getting the Ink Flowing on Your College Essay

Now that you know what topics to avoid in your college essay, let’s talk about how you get started. Many students choose to seek professional guidance through the essay process. While an essay coach won’t write the essay for you, they will help you pick a topic and offer expert guidance and feedback as you craft your personalized essay. Here at HelloCollege, our highly experienced Essay Team works with our students through one-on-one essay idea brainstorms that focus on topic selection and planning for their first draft. Students receive professional reviews to finesse and improve their essays. A good college essay coach should listen and support you throughout the entire process. They should never write an essay for you. Colleges want to know your authentic story. Be proud of who you are and what makes you special.

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The Hello College Team

HelloCollege CEO Andrea Emmons has spent the last 15 years guiding students and families across the country on their path to college. Andrea knows the profound impact proactive college planning has on the lives of students and is passionate about mentoring families through the process.
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About Our Founder

Kevin Krebs

Inspired by his parents, Kevin’s journey from a first-gen, diverse, low-income background to Northwestern University shaped him. After experiencing challenges, including student loan debt, he founded HelloCollege and has spent the last 25 years helping students successfully navigate college admissions.

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