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11 Cliché College Essay Topics + How to Fix Them

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What makes a good college essay? It’s a question many high school seniors ask while going through the application process. A winning college essay engages admissions officers and shares with them the student’s identity and personality, painting a picture that goes beyond grades and test scores—compelling the reader to become an advocate for the student’s admission. 

The Four Core Questions are at the heart of college essays and answering them is critical. Those questions are: 

  • Why am I here?
  • What is unique about me?
  • What matters to me? 

By answering these questions, a student is able to share information that is otherwise hard to ascertain with admissions officials—things like personality traits, personal journey, interests, skills, and ambitions. A well-conceived and well-written essay is a way for students to separate themselves from other applicants; conversely, an ineffective essay does nothing to distinguish a student, which is why it’s so important to avoid writing a cliché college essay. 

Cliché College Essay Topics to Avoid + How to Fix Them

1. résumé of your life and achievements.

Résumés are an effective method to demonstrate achievements, but they’re boring to read. This is why, in the professional world, résumés are often accompanied by a cover letter. A college application is essentially a student’s résumé—it contains their grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities—which makes an essay listing achievements redundant. 

A better strategy is for students to pick one experience that stands above the rest and write about how it shaped the person they are today. This is especially effective for any experiences that would benefit from further explanation, or those that have an interesting backstory. For example, maybe you participate in a unique extracurricular that most people aren’t familiar with, such as being on a Chinese yoyo/diabolo team. You might choose to focus on that aspect of your identity and what it means to you. Or, maybe you love math, but never had the chance to explain on your application that you used to hate math, until a tutor showed you a different way to appreciate it (and that’s one of the reasons you want to become a math teacher). This would be another strong topic.

You don’t necessarily have to focus on one specific event, but your essay should be cohesive. Another traditional essay structure is telling a narrative over an extended period of time. This structure incorporates a handful of different experiences that are joined by a common thread. If you have a story of growth, change, or development, this is the classic essay structure for you. An example of this might be a football player who was embarrassed to admit he liked writing and poetry, but how he eventually became a published author, and came to accept and own his identity as a poet.

2. Sports injury, challenge, or success

Coaches on every level are known for telling their athletes about how the lessons learned on the field/court/ice translate to life. Unfortunately, these lessons and stories have been told in numerous movies and books, along with countless college essays

To successfully write a college essay about sports, it’s important to steer clear of the common themes.

  • Overcoming adversity
  • Trusting teammates
  • Refusing to quit
  • The thrill of victory
  • The agony of defeat

For example, instead of an applicant talking about how their team trained and improved to beat their rivals or win a championship, they should write about a unique way that sports shaped who they are. For example, here’s an unexpected way to write about a sports injury: maybe tearing your ACL in a soccer game actually led you to start a podcast while you were recovering, which became one of your biggest passions. 

Along a similar line, a student could write about discovering their motivation for playing sports.  Maybe they always played basketball because they were good, or their parents expected them to play, but they realized they didn’t enjoy the competitive nature of the sport and wanted to gravitate toward less competitive activities like hiking or surfing. 

3. Immigrant story

The U.S. is a nation of immigrants and while not every student has an immigrant story, a lot of them do. Consequently, these immigrant themes are ones that every admissions officer has read before:

  • Learning a new language
  • Adapting to new customs
  • Adjusting to a new lifestyle
  • Struggling to fit in

Asian students, in particular, should avoid immigrant-themed essays, as they have a harder time getting into college due to demographics, and this topic only calls attention to their background. 

To make an immigration essay work (and avoid being another cliché college essay), a student needs to make it extremely unique or incredibly personal. One tactic is to write about a singular experience—moments of conflict are always an interesting topic. For example, a student might write about a time they were made to feel unwelcome in the U.S. and how they responded to that moment, such as volunteering at the community cultural center or creating a welcoming committee for new immigrants. 

Another essay opportunity is to write about an experience that is truly unique. Perhaps, when a student first came to the U.S., they didn’t have access to a vehicle or public transportation and needed to walk to school or their job. That student could use their college essay to focus on what they learned on their walks and the ambitions it sparked—such as tenacity to succeed against all odds, or a desire to found a program for immigrants in a similar position.  

4. Tragedy – death, divorce, abuse

Tragedies are formative experiences, which in theory make them a natural theme for a college essay; however, tragedies are often a universal experience. Furthermore, essays on this topic are too often centered on the tragedy itself, rather than the applicant.

It is possible to write a college essay about a tragedy that isn’t cliche, however. The key is to keep it focused on the applicant and highly personal. To start, avoid overused themes like “life is short” and “make every day count.” Instead, highlight how the tragedy affected the writer. For example, if you had a friend who passed away from substance abuse, an essay centered around your subsequent commitment to drug prevention programs and advocacy is an interesting angle. 

In the case of an applicant who had a parent pass away, writing about shifting family dynamics, new responsibilities, and increased challenges are all great themes. For example, a student went from worrying just about academics to becoming the other adult in the house—preparing meals for their siblings, sending them off to school, and helping them with their homework.

5. Working hard in a challenging class

Working hard in a challenging class doesn’t work as an essay topic for a handful of reasons. If you’re applying to a highly ranked institution, it’s likely that most of their applicants took tough classes and worked hard. They also likely faced challenging classes, struggled, and ultimately succeeded. Another reason to avoid this topic? The traits conveyed are likely covered by recommendation letters: 

  • Perseverance
  • Work ethic 
  • Intellectual ability

Instead of writing your essay about overcoming a tough class, think about the personality traits you want to highlight. If you feel that your determination is already covered in other aspects of your application, pick another trait to feature in your essay. Or maybe, you feel like your determination isn’t emphasized enough. Which other experiences highlight this trait?

Another idea is to make the essay less about the class and more about the writer. Instead of sharing how you struggled to understand Crime and Punishment in your advanced lit class, you might detail how the class inspired a desire to write, or how the works covered made you reflect on your own life. 

You could also pick a problem or research question you want to solve, as per the fourth Common App essay prompt. Just remember that while the topic is an intellectual problem, your essay should still highlight your personality, identity, and way you think about the world. Pick something that is deeply personal to you and your background. For instance, maybe you want to create a proposal to solve food deserts in your county. This would allow you to share your personal experiences growing up in a food desert, your passion for increasing access to healthy food, and your analytical abilities.

6. Someone you admire (a person you know or historical figure)

The primary pitfall of writing about an admired person is that the essay is often focused more on the other person than the applicant. Even if students steer the essay toward themselves, they usually find themselves covering familiar themes:

  • Learning something about themselves
  • Learning something about life
  • Learning something about the world

The key to keeping writing about another person from becoming another cliché college essay is to keep the focus on the applicant. A great way to do this is to highlight a specific moment where they exemplified an attribute or action that they commend in a person that they admire. For example, if an essay writer admires their father’s ethos of standing up for what is right, an excellent essay theme is the time they stood up for another student who was being bullied, even though they knew they risked losing popularity, or finding themselves in the crosshairs of the bully as the result. 

If the person they admire is historical, they can talk about how they are trying to live their life according to those ideals. For example, the aspiring writer can focus their essay on how they adopted Hemingway’s ritual of writing every morning as soon after first light as possible, and what they’ve learned from that process. 

7. Volunteer trip

Building a winning essay about a volunteer trip is tricky—at best, these essays come off as cliché; at their worst, they can make an applicant seem pretentious, condescending, and privileged. Like other topics, the key is for the writer to focus on themself, not the group they volunteered for or the place they went. 

One way to avoid the cliché volunteer essay is to write about a specific moment on your trip, rather than giving a chronological account of your time. Get really specific and bring the reader into the moment and share with them how it affected you. An attention-grabbing essay will show the reader how you changed, instead of telling them. 

Another trick for turning volunteer essays from cliché to eye-catching is focusing on an unusual experience that happened during the volunteer trip. For example, a delayed flight while travelling home that left you stranded in a foreign city all alone and how it’s a parable for stepping on campus for the first time.

8. Moving to a different part of the country 

Similar to the immigrant story, writing about moving to a new place is also an overly-done topic. Countless students move or switch schools each year. Many have trouble fitting in or adjusting to a new place, but eventually make new friends. 

If moving was really integral to your high school experience and identity, think about why that is. Did it push you to try new interests or become more outgoing? Focus your essay less on the move itself and your adjustment, and more on how exactly it changed your life. 

For instance, some more original ways of spinning this topic would be:

  • How moving led you to start an organization that picks up unwanted furniture for free, and resells or donates items in good condition. For items in bad condition, you find ways to repair and upcycle them. This was motivated by all the trash you saw your family produce during the move.
  • At your new school, you joined the gymnastics team because you were known as the uncoordinated, awkward girl at your old school, and you wanted to shed that image.
  • After moving, you decided to go by the proper pronunciation of your Spanish name, rather than the anglicized version. You could write your essay on why you made this decision, and how it impacted your experience in your new community.

9. Your religious institution or faith

Religion is generally a very tricky topic, and it’s difficult to cover it in an original way in your essay. Writing about your faith and reflecting on it critically can work, but basic religious essays about why your faith is important to you are a little more clich é . 

It’s important to also remember your audience. If you’re applying to a religious school, essays about your faith will likely be expected. If you’re applying to a super liberal school, you might want to avoid writing your essay about your conservative religious views.  

Regardless of your situation, if you decide to write an essay on religion, share your personal relationship with your faith. Anyone can write broadly about how much their faith means to them or how their life changed when they found religion, but only you can share your personal experiences, thoughts, and perspectives.

10. Romantic relationships and breakups

Your college essays should be personal, but romantic relationships and breakups are a little too personal. Remember that applying to college is kind of like applying to a job, and you want to present yourself in a professional light. This means that writing about your romantic life is a bad idea in general. 

Unlike the other clich é topics, there are not really any directly-relevant alternatives. If you wanted to write your essay on your relationship, think about what traits that story would’ve brought out. For a breakup, was it your ability to overcome a setback? For a happy relationship, is it being emotionally intelligent or finding a compromise during conflict? Think about how you could still write an essay that conveys the same aspect of your identity, without mentioning this cliché topic.

11. Family pressure to pursue a particular major or field

Many students unfortunately experience family pressure to do certain activities or choose specific career paths. If this is the case for you, you shouldn’t focus your essay on this topic—it will only make it look like you lack independence from your parents. This is not a good sign to admissions committees, as they want a campus full of students who have the autonomy to make their own decisions. 

That’s not to say that parental input isn’t valid—you may have very legitimate reasons to follow your parents’ advice to pursue a particular career, especially if your family is low-income and you need to provide for them. But there are absolutely better topics to share your identity and background, beyond parental pressure.

Some ways to make this topic more original are:

  • If you have strict parents, discussing how you became more independent from them, and an example of when you did something for your personal development that they might not have agreed with at the time.
  • For those whose background influenced their decision to choose a “practical” field, you might talk about your situation growing up and how that influences your perspective and choices. Of course, you should still try to show genuine interest in your plans, as you don’t want to make it seem like you’re being “forced” to do something. 

Wondering if your personal essay topic is cliché? You can ask for the advice of peers and experts in our free  Q&A forum . If you’re looking for feedback on your essay, you can also get your essay  peer-reviewed for free . Just  sign up for your free CollegeVine account  to get started!

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15 college essay topics to avoid and why.

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Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 2/6/24

Entrance essays are an integral part of your college application. Beyond your test scores, GPA, and other achievements, your essays are essentially the heart of your application. Essays help admissions committees get to know the person behind the stats. 

While your essays showcase your adept writing skills, they also uncover your personality, voice, background, experiences, and more. 

You can choose your essay topics when you apply through the Common Application, Coalition Application, or any other online application portal. However, there are some topics you should avoid, or at the very least, slightly steer your narrative in another direction. 

Below we’ll walk you through why it’s best to avoid some topics in your college entrance essays and a brief overview of some common topics to steer clear of or adjust the trajectory. 

Why Should You Avoid Certain Topics for College Entrance Essays? 

When you meet someone, what’s the first thing you do? You probably say “hello,” or “nice to meet you,” and maybe flash a smile and shake their hand. Think of your personal essays the same way: you’re “meeting” the admissions committee for the first time and want to put your best foot forward. 

Choosing the wrong essay topic that either paints you in a negative light, adds nothing to your profile, lacks creativity, or is otherwise inappropriate can jeopardize this crucial meeting. 

Adam Sapp , Assistant Vice President and Director of Admissions at Pomona College, said, “The essays are important in part because this is a student's chance to really speak directly to the admissions office.” 

Your essays should have a professional yet conversational tone and should show admissions committees why you're an excellent candidate. While all this sounds limiting, don’t worry too much. Many other topics would make an excellent essay. You just have to find what works and what doesn’t first.

What Do Colleges Look For in College Essays?

When it comes to college essays, colleges are on the hunt for a few key things. They want to get to know you beyond just your grades and test scores, so your essay is your chance to shine. Here's what they're generally looking for:

  • Your Personality : Colleges want to see your personality come through in your essay. They want to know what makes you tick, what you're passionate about, and what kind of person you are. This is your chance to let your individuality shine.
  • Writing Skills : Of course, colleges also want to see that you can write well. They'll be looking at your grammar, punctuation, and overall writing style. So, make sure your essay is well-structured and free of errors.
  • Your Story : Everyone has a unique story to tell, and colleges are interested in yours. They want to know about your experiences, challenges you've faced, and how you've grown as a result. Share something personal and meaningful.
  • Why You're a Good Fit : Colleges also want to see that you've done your homework. They want to know why you're interested in their school specifically. What do you like about their programs, campus, or culture that makes you a good fit?
  • Thoughtfulness : Your essay should show that you've put thought into your future and your academic goals. They want to see that you're serious about your education and have a clear sense of purpose.
  • Creativity : While you want to be thoughtful and serious, don't be afraid to be creative and unique in your writing. A fresh perspective can make your essay stand out.
  • Impact and Growth : Colleges love to see how you've made an impact in your community or how you've grown through your experiences. Share any leadership roles, volunteer work, or challenges you've overcome.
  • Adherence to Guidelines : Finally, make sure your essay follows the specific guidelines provided by the college. Don't go over the word limit or ignore any prompts they've given.

Overall, colleges are looking for an authentic, well-written essay that gives them insight into who you are as a person, why you're interested in their school, and how you can contribute to their community. So, be yourself, put some thought into it, and don't forget to proofread! 

student writing on paper

15 Topics to Avoid in Your College Essays 

Before you start brainstorming, know there are many college essay topics to avoid altogether. Some college essay topics are cliche, and some are risky, uncreative, or just downright inappropriate. We’ll talk you through all the topics to avoid in college essays. 

Inappropriate Topics

A rehash of your activities list and transcripts , relationships, romance, and breakups , writing about your hero, the sports story, highly personal topics, controversial topics: politics, religion, and more , the confessional , throwing the box away , the service/mission/class trip , something that happened way before high school , your privilege or luck, anything that involves lying, risky topics like pointing out a school’s shortcomings .

Some people think rolling with an inappropriate topic and shocking the admissions committee is a great idea: but it’s not. Stay far, far away from anything to do with illegal activity, alcohol, substance use, and anything else following these themes. 

You don’t set yourself up for success using topics like these. The admissions committee could cast judgment, and you’re certainly not putting your best foot forward. 

The only time something like this may be appropriate is if you volunteered at a needle exchange or harm reduction facility. Even then, you’d want to delve into the topic with tact and grace or consider choosing another topic altogether. 

Essentially summarizing your achievements won’t make for a compelling narrative. The admissions committee already has access to your activities list and transcripts, so there’s no need to reiterate all of the items you wrote down. 

Summarizing these documents is a mistake because it won’t add anything else to your application. Remember, you want to tell the admissions committee something they don’t already know. 

If you want to write about a specific extracurricular, get close and personal with just one. Select the most meaningful activity or the one you were most passionate about and delve beyond the surface. Focusing on one activity can make for a successful essay if it shows your growth, positive character traits, or personality. 

As much as you may be head over heels for your partner, or scraping the bottom of ice cream tubs after a breakup, don’t turn these experiences into essay topics. It sounds a little harsh, but your love life doesn’t matter to the admissions committee. Besides that, love is a gigantic and complex topic not well-suited to a college application essay. 

The other problem with this topic is it takes the focus off of yourself and onto another person. You want to ensure your essay is all about you . That's the person most important to the admissions committee, so put yourself first. 

Writing a story about your hero sounds nice in theory. However, it’s a cliche college essay topic to avoid. Like writing about your sweetheart (or ex-sweetheart), writing about your hero takes the spotlight away from you and directs it to someone who isn’t applying to college. 

If you wanted to write about your hero in the first place, why? What did they inspire in you, or what experiences did you go through together? How did those experiences or “a-ha” moments make you a better person or a better candidate? Cut through the fluff and focus the lens back on yourself. 

Ah yes, the classic sports story. Unfortunately, these essays typically follow the same predictable plots. Maybe you scored a point in the last moment, or your team won a championship game against all odds, or you wanted to showcase your training regimen. 

Most people will tell you to stay away from sports topics altogether. If you are dead-set on writing about your sports experiences, don’t let your essay fall into cliche and predictable patterns. 

Approach your sports story from a creative and new angle. Ask yourself the following questions: 

  • How did the skills you learned from sports impact another experience? 
  • Did being team captain give you the leadership skills you needed to succeed in leading an unrelated project? 

Think critically about your experiences, and you could have a stellar essay topic on your hands to start writing . 

Laura Stratton , Director of Admission at Scripps College in California, recounts an exceptionally well-written sports essay about a student benched in a final game. 

“The self-awareness the student showed of being a good team member and showing up for her teammates, and continuing to be positive even though it wasn't the personal experience that she wanted to have, said a lot about her character and about the type of roommate she would be or classmate she would be.” 

Always look for a fresh angle in your sports story if it’s the one you want to tell. 

While tragedies you’ve faced can be formative experiences, this may be a college application essay topic to avoid. Some people aren’t comfortable sharing the intimate details of a tragedy they’ve faced, and that’s okay. Similarly, some people aren’t comfortable reading about the personal details of someone else’s tragedy. 

However, if a tragic event such as the death of a loved one is imperative to your narrative, you can carefully craft a story including it. The key is to focus on yourself: how was the tragedy an index event that impacted your thoughts or following actions? Remember that you don’t have to go into graphic detail about your tragedy, as it can hinder instead of propelling your writing. 

Like tragic events, highly personal topics don’t always make the best essays . Examples of highly personal topics include past trauma, severe illnesses, and injuries. To fully explore the details of their stories, writers may get too graphic or go into way too much detail about these situations. 

If a highly personal topic is central to the story you want to tell, ensure you handle your narrative delicately. It’s okay to briefly share these anecdotes as long as you don’t go into way too much personal detail. 

Controversial topics are typically college essay topics to avoid. The problem with these is that not everyone will share the same views, and you may open yourself up to judgment from the admissions committee members who don’t. 

Of course, admissions committees don’t make decisions based on criteria such as what political party you voted for or whether or not you attend a place of worship consistently. These topics work against you. Instead of showing why you’re the right candidate, writing about politics and religion can feel like you’re trying to convince the committee your views are correct. 

The only time you may want to write about a polarizing topic like religion is if you plan to attend a school where religion is a part of its heritage, founding, and teaching, such as Notre Dame University. 

If you want to craft a narrative about an obstacle you’ve faced or to share your growth throughout your high school years, avoid “the confessional.” 

You may feel guilty about something you’ve done that no one else knows about: it’s probably best not to share these confessions with the admissions committee. Your confessional probably won’t paint you in the light you were hoping for.

Instead, focus on an experience where something or someone changed your perspective or how you navigated a challenging situation in the best way you could. These anecdotes show growth, adaptability, and the willingness to change your perspective when offered new information. 

It’s one thing to think outside the box, it’s another to throw the box out entirely and send it downriver. Sometimes students think an ultra-creative essay means going for an entirely new format, like writing a song or poem. While it might be more fun, it could put you at a disadvantage. 

Being creative doesn't mean you have to reinvent the wheel with your essay. It means you can describe an anecdote or situation using detailed description and vibrant imagery. Pour your creativity into your word choice and how you set up a scene, and it’s sure to strike a much better chord with the admissions committee than a poem or song would (pun intended). 

One of the problems with these essay topics is that everyone who has had the opportunity to participate in one of these trips wants to write about them. The second problem is that these narratives tend to follow similar themes and that students tend to write about the trip as a whole. 

If your heart is set on sharing an experience from a trip, pick one meaningful moment to focus on. Did you meet someone on your trip that impacted your character or beliefs? Did you face an unexpected challenge that made you need to rise to the occasion? 

Whitney Soule , Senior Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Student Aid at Bowdoin College, said, “Overuse of a topic doesn’t make it a bad topic.” Remember, honing in on one element of your trip can help differentiate your essay and show more depth than just glazing over your excursion. 

Many of our most formative experiences can happen long before reaching high school. While these moments are important to you, writing about something that happened to you way before high school may not make the best admissions essay. Your experiences before high school don’t show the admissions committee who you are right now; they show who you were before. 

If you want to pick out a story about your childhood, ensure you relate it to high school or current events. This way, you get to tell that story, but you make it relevant to the person you are today. For example, if both your parents are scientists and you used to put on their lab coats at five years old, relate it to how your love of science grew over time to lead you to your school choices now. Don’t just stick to the first part of the story. 

If you’ve lived a privileged life or you’ve had stroke after stroke of good luck, focusing only on these elements isn’t in your best interest. It can come across like you haven't experienced any challenges or have a skewed vision of how the world works. 

It’s fortunate if you’ve lived a reasonably trouble-free life thus far. However, dig deep and look for something beyond the surface of sunshine and rainbows—admissions committees like some vulnerability and honesty. 

You would think this one is obvious, but many people feel like their stories just aren’t good enough to tell, so they fabricate elements. The bottom line is you should never lie about anything in your college admissions essays . Admissions committees can smell insincerity. That’s not a personal quality you want to communicate to them. 

Rest assured that you don’t need to have written a dramatic story filled with twists and turns. Excellent college essays can revolve around mundane topics. Write your truth, and don’t fudge any of the details. 

This type of writing is uncommon for a reason: it won’t work. Some students may think pointing out a school’s shortcomings and how their attendance may help bridge them will give their essay the shock factor they need to stand out. 

Unfortunately, you’ll stand out in the wrong way. As a general rule, you probably shouldn’t rip apart the school you want to attend. 

A better option is to describe how your acceptance will add to the school and campus culture. A response like this may be better suited to a “Why this school?” supplementary essay, but schools want to admit students who contribute to its culture and add a unique perspective to classrooms. 

bad college essay topics

Got questions about college application essays? We've got answers! Check out this FAQ section to find the information you need to ace your application.

1. Are There Any Sensitive Personal Experiences I Should Avoid Discussing in My Essay?

Yes, avoid discussing highly sensitive personal experiences that may make the admissions committee uncomfortable. Focus on experiences that show personal growth.

2. Are There Any Topics That Might Come Across as Boastful or Arrogant in a College Essay?

Definitely, steer clear of topics that sound boastful or arrogant. Instead, highlight how your experiences have shaped your character.

3. How Can I Identify Potentially Overdone or Unoriginal Essay Topics?

To avoid unoriginal topics, stay away from common subjects like sports victories or generic community service trips. Find a unique angle to make your essay stand out.

4. What Are Considered Cliché Topics in College Application Essays?

Common cliché topics include "the big game" or "learning from a volunteer trip." Add a fresh perspective to these subjects to make your essay more memorable.

5. Should I Avoid Discussing Controversial Political or Religious Beliefs in My College Essay?

It's best to avoid discussing controversial political or religious beliefs in your essay. Stick to experiences that showcase your values and character without diving into divisive topics.

Final Thoughts 

There are many cliche essay topics to avoid and some inappropriate to share with admissions committees. Your college admissions essays should always carry a professional yet conversational tone, and you shouldn’t write about anything that would be detrimental to your application. 

Even though the above list is filled with topics to avoid in college essays, it doesn’t mean you can’t tweak them to make it more appropriate and a better story to tell. Your writing should authentically show your voice and character. Put your best foot (and best writing) forward, and you’re sure to produce stellar pieces of writing! 

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bad college essay topics

Bad Essay Topics for College Admissions

Essay topics you should definitely avoid

  • Essay Samples & Tips
  • College Admissions Process
  • College Profiles
  • College Rankings
  • Choosing A College
  • Application Tips
  • Testing Graphs
  • College Financial Aid
  • Advanced Placement
  • Homework Help
  • Private School
  • College Life
  • Graduate School
  • Business School
  • Distance Learning
  • Ph.D., English, University of Pennsylvania
  • M.A., English, University of Pennsylvania
  • B.S., Materials Science & Engineering and Literature, MIT

A poorly chosen application essay topic can have disastrous results when applying to a selective college. Some topics are risky because they focus on controversial or touchy subjects, while other topics are simply overused and ineffective.

Choose Your Essay Topic Thoughtfully

A highly skilled writer can make almost any essay topic work. Still, you'll want to avoid taking risks that can backfire. Strong political positions or religious stances can alienate your reader, as can essays that are uncomfortably intimate and personal. Also work to avoid a tone that is bragging about accomplishments, flaunting privilege, or wallowing in self-pity.

Realize this list is not saying that no one should ever write about these ten topics. In the right context and in the hands of a masterful writer, any one of these topics could be transformed into a winning college admissions essay. That said, all too often these topics harm an application rather than help it.

Your Drug Use

Probably every college in the country has to deal with substance abuse on campus, and most people who work at colleges have seen students' academic careers and lives ruined by drugs. If you've had problems with drugs in the past, even if you overcame those problems, the essay isn't the best place to draw attention to your use of illegal substances. On one hand, the college may be impressed with your honesty and courage in addressing the problem. On the flip side, the essay may present liabilities the college would prefer to avoid.

Your Sex Life

Yes, sex is usually a bad essay topic. The admissions officers probably don't care whether or not you have an active or interesting sex life. More importantly, an essay on your sexual experiences is going to make many readers cry, "too much information!" You don't want to write about something that might be embarrassing for your reader.

That said, some touchy topics such as date rape and sexual violence can lead to an excellent essay if handled well. You'll need excellent writing skills to pull off this type of essay, and you'd be wise to get the reaction of readers who aren't close friends or family.

Your Heroism

Sure, if you acted heroically in some way, it's a fair topic for a college admissions essay. It becomes a bad essay topic when the essay is self-absorbed and arrogant. There are a lot of annoying essays about how an applicant single-handedly won the football game or turned a friend's life around. Humility is more pleasant to read than hubris, and colleges are more likely to admit students who shine praise on others rather than themselves. Remember, a college is a community of people working and learning together, and the admissions office may take a pass on applicants who think a bit too highly of themselves.

One-Track Social, Religious or Political Lectures

Be careful with divisive issues like abortion, capital punishment, stem cell research, gun control, and the "war on terror." You can certainly write an excellent and thoughtful essay on any of these topics, but too often applicants stubbornly and closed-mindedly argue what they see as the "right" side of the argument. The readers of your application don't want to be lectured to, nor do they want to be told they are wrong. The chances of offending your reader are high with some of these touchy topics.

Writing can be excellent therapy for working through difficult and traumatic events in life—assault, rape, abuse, incest, attempted suicide, cutting, depression and so on. However, you don't want your college admissions essay to be a self-analysis of your pain and suffering. Such topics might make your reader uncomfortable (a fine thing to do in other contexts, but not here), or they might make your reader question how ready you are for the social and academic rigors of college.

The Travel Journal

Colleges like students who have traveled, and travel can lead to a life-changing experience that could make a great college essay. However, travel is a remarkably common topic for college essays, and it often isn't handled well. You need to do more than highlight the fact that you have traveled, and you should be careful to make sure your essay isn't simply highlighting your privilege. A travel essay should be an analysis of a single and meaningful experience, not a summary of your trip to France or South America. How did you grow as a result of your travel? How did your worldview change?

A Comedy Routine

The best essays often reveal a writer's sense of humor, but the jokes shouldn't be the point of the essay. Don't use the essay to showcase how witty and clever you are. A good college admissions essay reveals your passions, intelligence, and strengths. A 600-word comedy routine doesn't do this. Again, humor is good (if you are actually humorous), but the essay needs to be about you and have substance.

If you had a bad semester or two in high school, it may be tempting to use the essay to explain your low grades . Perhaps you were ill, your parents were getting divorced, your best friend died, or you moved to a new country. You will want to convey this information to the college, but not in your personal essay. Instead, have a guidance counselor write about your bad semester, or include a short supplement with your application.

Your List of Accomplishments

A college application gives you a space in which to list your jobs, community involvement, and extracurricular activities . Don't use your essay for repeating this information. Redundancy isn't going to impress anyone, and a tedious list of activities isn't going to make a good essay . The admissions folks want to read a good story, not a list.

Anything Insincere

A lot of students make the mistake of trying to second-guess what the admissions folks want to hear in an essay, and then write about something that isn't actually central to their interests and passions. Sure, you'll want to include all of your community service and good deeds in your list of activities, but don't write about these activities in your essay unless they really are at the heart of what it is that makes you uniquely you.

If your favorite thing in the world is baking, you're much better off writing your essay about an experience with apple pie than you are focusing on a weekend you spent working with Habitat for Humanity. Show the admissions folks who you are, not who you think they want you to be. Colleges want to admit students with diverse interests and passions, so your best approach is to be you.

An essay about one's shyness or love of crafts can be far more effective than one about a humanitarian trip to Haiti if the former comes from the heart and the latter was half-hearted effort to impress the admissions folks.

  • Tips for an Admissions Essay on an Influential Person
  • Tips for an Application Essay on a Significant Experience
  • The 2021-22 Common Application Essay Prompts
  • Tips for the Pre-2013 Personal Essay Options on the Common Application
  • How to Write an Outstanding College Application Essay
  • Addressing Diversity in a College Application Essay
  • Tips for Writing a Winning College Application Essay
  • How to Ace Your University of Wisconsin Personal Statements
  • Tips for Writing a Winning College Transfer Essay
  • 2020-21 Common Application Essay Option 4—Solving a Problem
  • The Length Requirements for the Common Application Essay in 2020-21
  • Self Assessment and Writing a Graduate Admissions Essay
  • How Long Should Your Common Application Short Answer Essay Be?
  • Should an Application Essay Be Single-Spaced or Double-Spaced?
  • Short Answer Mistakes
  • 5 Tips for a College Admissions Essay on an Important Issue

Watch CBS News

10 topics to avoid in a college admission essay

By Lynn O'Shaughnessy

June 21, 2013 / 8:12 AM EDT / MoneyWatch

(MoneyWatch) For students who are applying for college, one of the scariest parts of the admission process is writing the dreaded essay.

A common mistake that students make when tackling their college essays is to pick the wrong topics. It's a huge turn off, for instance, when applicants write about their sports exploits or their pets. I asked Janine Robinson, who is the creator of a wonderful website called Essay Hell and the author of an excellent ebook entitled " Escape Essay Hell ," to identify those essay topics that teenagers should absolutely avoid.

  • 5 tips for writing a winning college essay
  • 5 myths about getting in and paying for college
  • 10 great opening lines from Stanford admission essays

Here are Robinson's college essay no-no's:

1. Listing accomplishments. You might be the most amazing person on the planet, but nobody wants a recitation of the wonderful things you've done, the people you've encountered and the places you've visited.

2. Sports. Do you know how many millions of teens have written about scoring the winning goal, basket or run? You definitely don't want to write about your winning team. And nobody wants to read about your losing team, either.

3. Sharing how lucky you are. If you are one of the lucky teenagers who has grown up in an affluent household, with all the perks that goes with it, no need to share that with college admission officials. "The last thing anyone wants to read about is your ski trip to Aspen or your hot oil massage at a fancy resort," Robinson observed.

4. Writing an "un-essay." Many students, particularly some of the brightest ones, have a negative reaction to the strictures of the admission essay. In response, Robinson says, "They want to write in stream-of-consciousness or be sarcastic, and I totally understand this reaction. However, you must remember your goal with these essays -- to get accepted! Save the radical expression for after you get into college."

5. Inflammatory topics. It's unwise to write about politics or religion, two of the most polarizing topics. Avoid any topics that make people angry.

6. Illegal activity. Do not write about drug use, drinking and driving, arrests or jail time. Also leave your sexual activities out of the frame. Even if you have abandoned your reckless ways, don't bring it up.

7. Do-good experiences. Schools do not want to hear about your church or school trip to another country or region to help the disadvantaged. You may be able to write about a trip like this only if you focus on a specific experience within the broader trip.

8. The most important thing or person in my life. This topic is too broad and too loaded, whether you want to write about God, your mom or best friend. These essays are usually painfully boring. 

9. Death, divorce, tragedies. The problem with these topics is not that they are depressing, but that such powerful topics can be challenging to write about. Absolutely no pet stories -- admission officers hate them.

10. Humor. A story within a college essay can be amusing, but don't try to make the entire essay funny.

suzanne-lucas220x140.png

View all articles by Lynn O'Shaughnessy on CBS MoneyWatch» Lynn O'Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, consultant and speaker on issues that parents with college-bound teenagers face. She explains how families can make college more affordable through her website TheCollegeSolution.com ; her financial workbook, Shrinking the Cost of College ; and the new second edition of her Amazon best-selling book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price .

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Articles & Advice > College Admission > Articles

White woman in white sweater holding thumbs up and thumbs down, making face

College Admission Essay Topics: Best and Worst

What should you write your college admission essay about? Which topics should you avoid? Check out some of the best (and the worst) college essay topic ideas!

by Phoebe Bain Freelance Writer

Last Updated: Apr 6, 2023

Originally Posted: Aug 16, 2017

The essay is easily one of the most difficult parts of the college application process. How can someone describe themselves in such a short amount of space, especially when all their accomplishments are listed on the page before and they don’t want to sound repetitive? There are a few clichés to avoid in the college essay world. Keep reading to find out what to avoid and what to approach in your college essay writing journey.

Worst of the worst

The sports game.

A great college admission essay makes the reader say something along the lines of, “Wow, I’ve never heard of someone who did/experienced that before.” Know what nearly everyone has experienced before? Winning or losing. More specifically, almost everyone has either won or lost a sports game. Talking about your experience coping with your win or loss will pile you in with every other applicant that the admission officer reads about that day, aka the exact opposite of what you want to happen to you and your beloved essay.

The breakup

A lot like dating a bad boy, this essay tempts you. Think about it: talking about your love life seems deep . Maybe a breakup feels like the biggest hardship you have faced thus far, or perhaps you think the way you supported your 10th grade girlfriend during her science competition seems like a great metaphor for how you plan to support your university community. However, just like with any good piece of writing, you need to know your audience. And in this case, your audience does not think anything about your high school relationship sounds impressive. College admission officers have not been in high school for a very long time. They might have been through a divorce or had to support their spouse through the death of one of their parents or children. But they have a bit more perspective on relationships than the average high school senior, so they will probably not find the demise of your junior year relationship as poignant as you do. 

The mission trip

Everyone who has been to Togo/Haiti/Guatemala wants to write about the time they saw real Third World poverty for the first time and extrapolate on how their lives were never the same after said experience. And while that experience may have really affected your life, it affects the lives of thousands of upper–middle class students around America in the exact same way, and they are all writing the same essay about it as we speak. If your time in Sierra Leone really feels like what you need to tell your dream school about, talk about a specific experience, like a conversation you had with someone who lived there. The cliché service trip essay often sounds incredibly vague, so if you must write about your experience, make sure you tell a very specific story that brings the reader into a certain moment with you (more on that later). 

The “different” essay

I once had a friend show me an essay he wrote in which he had to describe the best day of his life. Naturally, he wrote about the time he slept until five in the evening, ate some ice cream, then went back to sleep. However, he was not a lazy kid at all. He was really into piano and lacrosse, but he wanted his essay to sound off the beaten path and unique. So rather than talking about one of his passions, he decided to write about something he knew no one else would try…the time he slept all day. Unfortunately, there is a really good reason no one else wrote that essay. The same goes for trying to be creative and responding with one word, one sentence, or a poem. Although those are very different responses from what admission officers reads, this does not mean they are good responses. There are other ways to stand out without compromising your intelligence. 

Related:  Admission Essay Ideas That Just Don't Work

Better essay ideas

The ridiculous way you grew up (and how it affects you now).

The first time I went to Harvard to hang out with friends, I met a student who was raised by wolves. Yes, you read that right; she actually grew up in a wolf rehabilitation community. Sure, she was also a model and an Economics major, but the whole raised by wolves thing was definitely more memorable than anything else about her. If you grew up in a unique way that affects who you are now, it might be worth writing about in a college essay to make your application more memorable. 

Focusing on a moment

If you decide you have to talk about one of the cliché essay topics mentioned above, a good way to tell a more common story is to focus on one specific moment and build from there. For instance, if I were only interested in field hockey and felt I absolutely had to write about the sport in my essay, I would not write about some vague game and how good it felt when my team won. I would write about the sound the ball makes hitting the back of the goal, how my adrenaline changes in that moment, how all the sounds around me slowly rush into my ears afterwards. Then, most importantly, after describing the moment, I would write about its significance by connecting it to some larger idea or meaning or characteristic about myself. Focusing on a moment that changed your life—such as the time you broke your back as a kid in a car crash, or the time your dad told you the family was moving to a different country—can also function well in your college essay. 

Personality pic

A good friend of mine in high school had to answer an interesting question for the school where he ended up enrolling. The university’s supplemental application asked him to describe one of his quirks. I distinctly recall reading my friend’s essay about him being a storyteller above all else and visibly grinning as my eyes passed over each line, because the essay was just so genuine and true. He was a storyteller; he told all of us tales of his fly-fishing summer job in the Adirondacks, spun yarns about wolves that spoke to him while he was camping, and talked about his skydiving uncle like he was a superhero in a comic book. The storyteller anecdote never would have come through in the rest of his Common Application, but it was truly one of his most significant personality traits. So, lesson learned, read over your Common Application, and at the end, ask yourself, “What’s missing?” Who knows—the answer to that question might be the basis for your admission essay.

Lust for literature

If you have a friend or family member who reads a lot of books in their free time, I bet you think they’re pretty intelligent. Fortunately, colleges will think the same thing about you if you decide to incorporate your love of literature into your essay. Maybe you have a book in which you strongly relate to one of the characters. Perhaps a philosophical text really elucidates your current paradigm. Or maybe you strive to write like a certain author one day. Whatever the case, you really cannot go wrong writing about the literature you love, as your passion for it will shine through the pages.

Related: Top College Admission Essay Myths Debunked

We hope these tips help guide your topic selection when it comes time to write your college application essay! Find even more college essay advice in our Application Essay Clinic .

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bad college essay topics

Anna Breslaw

Updated Jul 31, 2018

6 Types of Essays College Admissions Officers Are Tired of Reading

  • Apply to College
  • Application Process

Admissions officers review hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of applications in an application season.

This makes it hard to stand out via a transcript or list of extracurriculars. The application essay—sometimes called the personal statement—can be an applicant’s main shot at showcasing their personality and grabbing the admissions officer’s attention. Selecting the right essay topic is important, and it can be tough to know where to start. In this list, admissions officers reveal the types of essays that have been overused.

1. Term Papers

It can be difficult for students who have been trained to write thesis essays to transition to personal statements. To set the right tone for an application essay, “write the way you speak,” suggests Julie Farkas, a regional admissions counselor. “Not with a ton of slang, but just like you’re talking to a friend.” While you do want to present the best version of yourself, that doesn’t have to mean formal, stuffy, or even academic.

2. Accomplishment Lists

Often students make the mistake of trying to sound impressive in their essays as opposed to articulating their true, authentic selves. “You can see the kids really trying to look good, but there’s no heart,” says Farkas. Such essays also tend to be repetitive of other parts of the application and don’t leverage the essay section to its full potential. The personal statement is the only part of your application where you can show admissions officers your individual personality. Farkas recalls one applicant writing about his love of heavy metal and how nobody else at his religious school liked it. It wasn’t about anything he’d accomplished at all, but Farkas says, “It piqued my interest because he was doing something different in his own world.”

3. Description of Personal Tragedy, But Not How You Dealt With It

T his is one of the biggest personal statement pitfalls. The standard “overcoming adversity” essay often doesn’t say much about the applicant. If you do feel the need to write about a personal tragedy, focus most of the essay on how this tragedy changed and impacted you versus the incident itself. Admissions officers read essays with the goal of learning more about who you are. Be sure your essay shares insights into your personality and how you grew from this friction in your life. Admissions officers aren’t going to glean the information they need from an essay that’s not much more than a description of a tragic event, even if it’s well-written.

4. Sports Stories That Don’t Say More

College admissions officers are inundated by essays about injuries or achievements in sports. It’s okay to use sports in service of a higher theme, says Dr. Shirag Shemmassian, a former Cornell admissions interviewer. Like the personal tragedy essay, this can’t actually be about sports. It needs to say something about you as an individual. Shemmassian offers a potentially good sports-related example of trying “to walk off a sports injury out of pride, which made it worse,” and then exploring the lesson you learned and how you applied that to other parts of your life.

5. Recounting Volunteer Experience

“College admissions officers can be turned off by essays where the student has a ‘savior complex,’” says Teddy Barnes, former director of college admissions at Trinity-Byrnes Collegiate School. “Also, volunteering abroad can be as much an indication of the student’s [financial] means as their commitment to service.” Farkas suggests avoiding the topic altogether unless you had a really transformative experience—or at the very least come at it from a unique angle, capturing some small personal moment you felt changed you. “It’s not about ‘the summer I went to Nigeria.’ It’s about ‘this one person I met,’ or ‘that moment I doubted myself.’”

6. Biographies of a Personal Influence

Often students choose to write about a parent, grandparent, teacher, a person from an underprivileged background, or some other mentor figure they admire. Even when it’s not one of these common examples, the essay isn’t focused on showcasing the writer, which is the point of the personal statement. “It’s a problem when the other character is the essay’s most impressive one,” says Shemassian. “The student has to be the most impressive character, and they should highlight their personal values.”

“The key to essays is to relax and be yourself,” says Farkas. Easier said than done when you’re staring at a blank page . But know that admissions officers truly want to get a sense of you through your essay, so be authentic and you’ll be doing it right.

Applying to college? We can help.

Related articles, how to cover your application fees, everything you need to know about common app, applying to an arts program here’s how to prep your audition or portfolio, how to start your college application.

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Bad College Essay Examples: 5 Essay Mistakes To Avoid

bad college essay topics

Grades, GPA, and transcripts are important components when applying to college. But numbers only tell part of the story. The  college admissions essay  plays a much more powerful role in telling your personal story to college admissions officers. So while university admissions departments may set initial cut-offs based on numbers, they make their final decision based on your college personal statement essay.

At Wordvice, we know college admissions essays. Every year, we receive tens of millions of words to edit from students applying to college. Therefore, we know what good college essays, bad college essays, and great college essays look like–and what students should do in their essays to get the attention of admissions officers.

Here we will cover  how to write a good college personal statement  by looking at some  common college admission essay mistakes to avoid  and discuss ways to improve your college application essays.

What does a good college application essay look like?

Before looking at some essay mistakes to avoid (or “bad college essays” to be a bit more blunt), let’s discuss what a good admissions essay does. Effective college personal statements give broad, comprehensive insights into your personal and academic background, provide college admissions counselors with an overview of your goals, and answer the college prompt directly and clearly. 

One of the best ways to learn how to write a good college application essay is to look at what successful students wrote.  

Check out a few powerful  examples of successful personal statements  so you can recognize what a great college application essay looks like. Reading examples of college essays can help you to understand exactly what college admissions officers are looking for.

bad college essay examples

Useful Tips on How to Write a College Admissions Essay

Once you take a look at what some successful college essay examples look like, the second step should be looking at some useful tips and checklists. This will help organize your college essay writing process, so look at these tips  before  you start writing and check them off as you go. 

  • Quick Tips to Conquer the College Application Essay
  • Six Tips for Proofreading your College Admissions Essay

Why it’s Important to Avoid Mistakes in Your College Essay

Even if you include all of the above positive tips in your college application essay, you still need to be aware of and avoid common college application essay mistakes. The importance of this cannot be understated. 

Negativity bias  is the concept in psychology that people will remember, dwell on, and act upon unpleasant thoughts and emotions as compared to positive or correct ones. Therefore, applicants should focus on the positive and productive elements of their personal narrative in the essay, even if this story includes some negative events or circumstances.

What does this mean for your college application essay?

Your personal statement is not only scanned by AI-powered grammar and spell checker apps to weed out simple mistakes outright, they are also read, interpreted, and graded by real human college admissions officers. These are seasoned professionals who will reject your college essay for any reason they deem fit. 

Randi Heathman, an independent education consultant, gives a clear summary of  why application essays are rejected :

Weak essays get skimmed. If a student’s essay isn’t great OR good, the admission officer will probably just skim past the essay and move right on to your transcript and your test scores to evaluate your candidacy for admission. Bad essays don’t get read. Period. A bad essay will prompt an admission officer to assume one of two things: 1) either you don’t care enough about your future at their school to take the time to write a good essay or 2) you aren’t academically up to attending their college or university. Neither of those assumptions will help you get admitted.

Do you see a theme here? Your college admissions essay needs to not only engage in and answer the prompt but also not give admissions officers any reasons to discard it. 

For this reason, students must actively  avoid the following college admissions essay mistakes.

Common College Essay Mistakes To Avoid

Below is a list and analysis of the types of mistakes to avoid on your college personal statement and avoid writing a bad college essay that will likely NOT get you into your program of choice.

bad college essay examples, broken plate metaphor

Your Application Essay Repeats the Essay Prompt

Many universities have strict word counts that are designed to make the admissions process more efficient but also force you to write concisely. 

For example,  Villanova University has two application essays . The free choice essay is limited to 250 words while its “Why Nova?” essay is limited to just 100 words! 

So if you really want to ruin your chances of admission, repeat the essay prompt. Veteran college admissions officers will instantly trash your essay. It shows laziness and is interpreted as you not respecting their time. You need every opportunity to show who you are, your goals, and how you align with your target university. The best students have plenty to write about, and so should you.

Your Application Essay Uses Cliches

One of the biggest mistakes to avoid in your college admissions essay would be including tired clichés that don’t add interesting points or content. Don’t try to sound profound, exclusive, or postmodern in your writing. This will be obvious to the reader, and you probably will also not be the best writer or candidate on paper they have seen. What’s actually important is to demonstrate your self-awareness, your self-confidence, and your priorities and goals. 

Trying desperately to sound special will make you end up sounding like every other applicant, and admissions officers are experts at spotting fakes. You have plenty of resources to work with. Make sure your ideas are your own.

Example of clichés in an essay

When explaining a personal setback or a difficult decision, instead of writing, “This event was a disparate result antithetical to my character,” show some personal ownership and be straightforward. Here is a better way to phrase this sentiment:  “This is a decision I am not proud of, but it helped me learn a valuable lesson and put me in a better place today. Without this formative experience, I wouldn’t be the kind of person who applies myself in every challenging circumstance.”  

Need extra help improving your essay writing? Check out these  14 tricks to make your writing clearer and more engaging :

writing tips for essays

Your Admissions Essay Shares Too Much Personal Information

You have probably read everywhere that your personal statement should be, well, personal. Colleges want to get to know not just your academic background but also your personal worldview and interactions with successful people. 

This doesn’t mean you should discuss deeply personal issues at length or in too great of detail. Even controversial topics such as religion and politics are often welcomed if your perspective is well reasoned and fair. However, you must be able to demonstrate you can respect, recognize, and maintain personal boundaries. That is a key life skill that college admissions committees are looking for. 

Examples of sharing too much personal information

  • Don’t discuss your sexual experiences.  Your sexual orientation may be a key part of your overall identity. However, limit this by keeping out details of personal activities. Use common sense and understand that most admissions officers are members of the general public who might not respond favorably to explicit details of your personal life. 
  • Don’t confess to strange, illegal, or immoral behaviors or beliefs.  If you have a strange obsession, keep it to yourself. Only include unique aspects about your character or preferences if are key parts of how you view the world or your success as a student.
  • Don’t insult subgroups of people . You never know who your college admissions officer will be. You want to show you know how to interface with the world, and your college application is a big first step to showing your maturity and inclusive views.

Your Admissions Essay is a Sympathy Essay

This essay mistake is very similar to oversharing personal information. These types of essays are usually a long list of all the terrible things that have happened to you with the hope that the admissions committee will take pity because they feel bad for you. 

Newsflash: the “sympathy approach” likely is not going to work. A lot of prospective students have gone through the divorce of their parents, the death of a friend or family member, medical issues, disabilities, mental health issues, accidents, etc. 

If you do want to include these life-changing or identity-forming events, they must be used to explain how they shaped you as a person, what you learned, and how you handled adversity. Show how you grew as a person or how your worldview and character were altered to make you into the excellent college candidate you are today.

Examples of “sympathy essays”

  • “Everyone around me kept me from succeeding.”  Like the lyrics of an early-2000’s rock song, some application essays foreground their experiences on a canvas of pain and oppression by all the people around them. This is just self-defeating. Even if something happened that changed your plans, upset you, or harmed you in some way, reframe your story to show how you were able to shift your priorities and succeed after you learned what you were unable to do.
  • “Becoming injured my senior year ruined my plans.”  If you are an athlete and suffered a career or scholarship-ending injury, that is a big deal. But your potential doesn’t just disappear because of a setback. Whatever events and influences made you who you were before are still more important than a single unfortunate occurrence in your past. 

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Your Application Essay Gives You All the Credit

While you may have top SAT scores, a high GPA, and lots of awards, don’t forget this one simple truth: there are always bigger fish in the sea. No matter how good of an applicant you are, there will be someone better based on whatever metric you are proud of. 

So what should you write about in your college application essay to stand out from the many overachievers?

Try humility and perspective. Don’t forget to give credit where credit is due. No person is an island, so in your essay you can give recognition to those who helped you along the way. Try not to belittle or minimize the contribution of your high school teachers or mentors. Admissions counselors, as educational professionals, will be looking to see if you are ready to interact with the next level of academic educators. So including friends, family members, and mentors who helped you grow and develop could be a good topic for your college personal statement.

Examples of “giving yourself all the credit” in an essay

  • “I was valedictorian and did it all by myself.”  You should be proud of your academic achievements, as they are important for your college application among other goals. However, give credit to someone who helped you learn. You didn’t teach yourself!
  • “In the end, I found the only person I could rely on was myself.”  Some students come from very tough backgrounds, and so it can be tempting for these students to stress this in their essay. But remember that college admissions offices want you to add value to the university community as a college student at their school. Even the smartest students cannot do this if they fail to acknowledge the contributions of others. 

Your Personal Statement Has Not Received Proofreading or Editing

A sure way to get your college essay thrown aside is to have it full of grammar and spelling mistakes. The college admissions process is very competitive, and you need every edge you can get. You should spend a substantial portion of your essay preparation editing and proofreading after writing your personal statement.

Start by reviewing and revising the essay yourself. Read it aloud. Run it through a couple of online spelling and grammar checkers. And start early on each college application–at least two weeks before the application deadline. You should also consider giving your admissions essay to a friend, parent, or teacher to review. This can help you improve your essay in many ways because other people can give quite different perspectives. 

Check out the  Benefits of Peer Review vs Self-Editing .

Finally, you should look into using an application essay proofreading and editing service to revise and improve your application essay. Just as peer review is superior to self-editing alone, professional proofreading services and application essay editing services are superior to peer review. The hard truth is that too many other students (your competition) are going above and beyond in preparing these important essays. Being short on time and expertise makes using an editing and proofreading service a good solution.

How Does Wordvice Improve Your College Application Essay?

Wordvice editors  are required to have graduate or postgraduate degrees. This means you are getting guaranteed expertise compared to other services, which typically only require editors to hold a bachelor’s degree. Wordvice is also among the top-rated  essay editing services  and personal statement editing services by Wired.com. We achieved this recognition by following the  Wordvice Customer Promise . That means providing value to every student and every personal statement we edit. 

Additional Admissions Essay Steps to Take

We hope you learned a lot from these examples of successful college personal statements. So what’s next?

I want to learn more about the college admissions process

Interested in learning more tips from experts about the college admissions process, personal statements, or letters of recommendation? Check out the  Wordvice Admissions Resource blog .

I am interested in professional editing for my personal statement

We also got you covered! Check out our  English editing services to get started on improving your college essays. Or jump straight in and use our  editing price calculator to get an editing price quote and start the ordering process.

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  • Choosing Your College Essay Topic | Ideas & Examples

Choosing Your College Essay Topic | Ideas & Examples

Published on October 25, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on July 3, 2023.

A strong essay topic sets you up to write a unique, memorable college application essay . Your topic should be personal, original, and specific. Take time to brainstorm the right topic for you.

Table of contents

What makes a good topic, brainstorming questions to get started, discover the best topic for you, how to make a common topic compelling, frequently asked questions about college application essays, other interesting articles.

Here are some guidelines for a good essay topic:

  • It’s focused on you and your experience
  • It shares something different from the rest of your application
  • It’s specific and original (not many students could write a similar essay)
  • It affords the opportunity to share your positive stories and qualities

In most cases, avoid topics that

  • Reflect poorly on your character and behavior
  • Deal with a challenge or traumatic experience without a lesson learned or positive outlook

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

Spend time reflecting on and writing out answers to the following questions. After doing this exercise, you should be able to identify a few strong topics for your college essay.

Writing about yourself can be difficult. If you’re struggling to identify your topic, try these two strategies.

Start with your qualities

After identifying your positive qualities or values, brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities.

Start with a story

If you already have some memorable stories in mind that you’d like to write about, think about which qualities and values you can demonstrate with those stories.

Talk it through

To make sure you choose the right topic, ask for advice from trusted friends or family members who know you well. They can help you brainstorm ideas and remember stories, and they can give you feedback on your potential essay topics.

You can also work with a guidance counselor, teacher, or other mentor to discuss which ideas are most promising. If you plan ahead , you can even workshop multiple draft essays to see which topic works best.

If you do choose a common topic, ensure you have the following to craft a unique essay:

  • Surprising or unexpected story arcs
  • Interesting insight or connections
  • An advanced writing style

Here are a few examples of how to craft strong essays from cliché topics.

Here’s a checklist you can use to confirm that your college essay topic is right for you.

College essay topic checklist

My topic is focused on me, not on someone else.

My topic shares something different from the rest of my application.

My topic is specific and original (not many students could write a similar essay).

My topic reflects positively on my character and behavior.

If I chose to write about a traumatic or challenging experience, my essay will focus on how I overcame it or gained insight.

If I chose a common topic, my essay will have a surprising story arc, interesting insight, and/or an advanced writing style.

Good topic!

It looks like your topic is a good choice. It's specific, it avoids clichés, and it reflects positively on you.

There are no foolproof college essay topics —whatever your topic, the key is to write about it effectively. However, a good topic

  • Is meaningful, specific, and personal to you
  • Focuses on you and your experiences
  • Reveals something beyond your test scores, grades, and extracurriculars
  • Is creative and original

Yes—admissions officers don’t expect everyone to have a totally unique college essay topic . But you must differentiate your essay from others by having a surprising story arc, an interesting insight, and/or an advanced writing style .

To decide on a good college essay topic , spend time thoughtfully answering brainstorming questions. If you still have trouble identifying topics, try the following two strategies:

  • Identify your qualities → Brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities
  • Identify memorable stories → Connect your qualities to these stories

You can also ask family, friends, or mentors to help you brainstorm topics, give feedback on your potential essay topics, or recall key stories that showcase your qualities.

Most topics are acceptable for college essays if you can use them to demonstrate personal growth or a lesson learned. However, there are a few difficult topics for college essays that should be avoided. Avoid topics that are:

  • Overly personal (e.g. graphic details of illness or injury, romantic or sexual relationships)
  • Not personal enough (e.g. broad solutions to world problems, inspiring people or things)
  • Too negative (e.g. an in-depth look at your flaws, put-downs of others, criticizing the need for a college essay)
  • Too boring (e.g. a resume of your academic achievements and extracurriculars)
  • Inappropriate for a college essay (e.g. illegal activities, offensive humor, false accounts of yourself, bragging about privilege)

Here’s a brief list of college essay topics that may be considered cliché:

  • Extracurriculars, especially sports
  • Role models
  • Dealing with a personal tragedy or death in the family
  • Struggling with new life situations (immigrant stories, moving homes, parents’ divorce)
  • Becoming a better person after community service, traveling, or summer camp
  • Overcoming a difficult class
  • Using a common object as an extended metaphor

It’s easier to write a standout essay with a unique topic. However, it’s possible to make a common topic compelling with interesting story arcs, uncommon connections, and an advanced writing style.

If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

Academic writing

  • Writing process
  • Transition words
  • Passive voice
  • Paraphrasing

 Communication

  • How to end an email
  • Ms, mrs, miss
  • How to start an email
  • I hope this email finds you well
  • Hope you are doing well

 Parts of speech

  • Personal pronouns
  • Conjunctions

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College essays need to start strong. They’re competing for an admissions officer’s attention, and you don’t want to lose your reader before your story ever really gets going. Here are five opening college essay examples to avoid, in other words, what's more likely to lose a reader’s interest.

It's that time of year again. The point in the application timeline where students are, or should be, getting ready to write drafts of their essays. Crafting strong essays for the application can be difficult for students, even the most skilled writers. Especially with students expected to write multiple essays with very different styles, it can feel overwhelming to submit a confident essay.

Just remember that first impressions matter in life and in college essays.

Personal Statement vs. Supplemental Essays

When applying through the Common Application, students are typically expected to write one personal statement submitted to every college and at least one supplemental essay per college.

The supplemental essay(s) demonstrate cultural and institutional fit for admissions officers. Many students refer to these essays as the 'why us' essays. And simply put, admissions officers want to learn why students are interested in the college and what makes them a great addition to their campus.

The personal statement, however, is an opportunity to show college admissions committees who the student is beyond the four walls of their classroom. Typically 650 words in length, the personal statement is, well, unique to each student. There is no 'right way' to write the personal statement, but we have a few tips to help students maximize their writing and avoid crafting a weak opening for their college essay. Each tip will also include an example of a real opening written by a former Collegewise student to demonstrate the tips we share!

To learn more about how to crack the supplemental essay, watch our Cracking the Supplemental Essays video!

1. An Introduction to Your Story

Imagine a student is telling a friend a story about life as a pitcher on the baseball team. The student wouldn’t start with, “Often in life, we face difficult situations that ultimately benefit us. While we may not see it at the time….” The speaker would lose the person’s interest before ever getting to the good stuff.

College essays work the same way. They’re stories, and stories need a beginning, not an introduction; instead of writing a general introduction to warm the reader up to a particular topic, starting with a clear opening that ties to the story are the best way to pique an admissions officer's interest in what they might learn from reading the essay further.

Real college essay example: " The worst part about being the slowest runner on my school’s cross country team is that I occasionally fall so far behind that I have to stop and ask for directions."

2. A Famous Quote

An essay that begins, “John F. Kennedy once said…” is already on the wrong track. Unless the quote was actually directed at the writer, the reader cares a lot more about what the student has to say than they do about any famous person’s pithy words. The one exception? Quotes can be effective when they’re part of the story. Say a student is writing about their experiences on a sports team, including a quote from one of their coaches can make their story more impactful. 

Real college essay example: " My baseball coach always says, “We’re going to play smart baseball, gentlemen because dumb baseball is no fun to play and even less fun to watch.”

3. A Definition

Opening with a definition like “Persistence is defined as…,” will probably not be a strong start. The reader, an admissions officer, doesn’t need the student to define words; they need them to tell a story that will help them learn all about who they are. If the personal statement is about persistence, explain how that trait is personified. Additionally, with the limited space students are given to share their stories, focusing on providing necessary details and leaving definitions to Google will help them maximize their writing. 

Real college essay example: " I hate heights. I am a complete scaredy-cat when it comes to heights. It must be genetic because there’s not much else that scares me. I’m usually pretty calm and composed. I have to be. There’s no time to be scared when you’re in the back of a speeding ambulance doing chest compressions on a nineteen-year-old motorcycle accident victim who’s just gone into full cardiac arrest. I did that last week.” 

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4. Being Too Creative & Lacking Clarity

Some students try so hard to be creative, or to entice the reader with a sense of intrigue, that they sacrifice clarity. If the reader is one paragraph in and thinking, “I don’t have a clue what this student is talking about,” the arousing interest has moved to confusion. It’s certainly possible and often effective to begin an essay with a description that piques interest without necessarily revealing exactly what the description is about. What's important to remember is that although the personal statement is a unique essay, a student should stay true to the writing style they feel most comfortable with. 

Real college essay example: " Once you know what the chicken at Kentucky Fried Chicken looks like before it’s cooked, you will never want to eat it again. I love my part-time job, and I’ve worked there for almost three years. But I really don’t enjoy looking at that chicken before it’s cooked."

5. Anything that Would Show Up on Google

You might think you’ve read or heard the perfect opening someplace else—a book of sample essays, a speech, a line in your favorite movie, etc. But pirating someone else’s writing is plagiarism, and every college I can think of would frown on an applicant who steals other people’s work without crediting the source. There’s always that chance that your reader could recognize what you’re sharing. And if they have even the slightest suspicion, the answer will always be just a Google search away.

FAQs & Final Thoughts

While there is no 'right' way to start any college essay, a few approaches may not be the best use of the limited space students have. Our list is just a few of the many tips we share with our students to ensure they're submitting confident essays to the admissions committees. In addition to our essay don'ts, we've come across a few frequently asked questions regarding college essays or the personal statement.

What are the Common App Essay Topics?

Each year the Common App releases its 7 essay prompts from which students can choose and write. Although they usually stay the same, there may come a year where one of two may change. That's why it's important to review the prompts early. 

To read through the Common App's 2021-22 essay prompts, read our Common App Essay Topics blog!

Are there Essay Topics To Avoid?

In short, yes! What's important to remember is that admissions officers read hundreds, if not thousands, of essays every application year, and they've read it all. Students need to write about their experiences and what helped shape them to be who they are rather than what they feel admissions officers want to read. 

How Personal Should The Personal Statement Be?

Although the personal statement is a unique story for every student, many students write about personal struggles, challenges they face, and situations they overcame. And while there is no set list of topics to avoid, it is important to note that students should share how much they are comfortable with. After all, a stranger will be reading this essay.

Additional readings:

  • Is a Personal Struggle an Appropriate Essay Topic?
  • Is Your College Essay Ready to Submit?
  • Tackling the Common App Personal Essay

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About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the family. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for your student to be their best self - whether in the classroom, the applications, or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of counseling ,  test prep ,  academic tutoring , and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform , lead to 4x higher than average admissions rates. 

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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, 50 great argumentative essay topics for any assignment.

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At some point, you’re going to be asked to write an argumentative essay. An argumentative essay is exactly what it sounds like—an essay in which you’ll be making an argument, using examples and research to back up your point.

But not all argumentative essay topics are created equal. Not only do you have to structure your essay right to have a good impact on the reader, but even your choice of subject can impact how readers feel about your work.

In this article, we’ll cover the basics of writing argumentative essays, including what argumentative essays are, how to write a good one, and how to pick a topic that works for you. Then check out a list of argumentative essay ideas to help you get started.

What Is an Argumentative Essay?

An argumentative essay is one that makes an argument through research. These essays take a position and support it through evidence, but, unlike many other kinds of essays, they are interested in expressing a specific argument supported by research and evidence.

A good argumentative essay will be based on established or new research rather than only on your thoughts and feelings. Imagine that you’re trying to get your parents to raise your allowance, and you can offer one of two arguments in your favor:

You should raise my allowance because I want you to.

You should raise my allowance because I’ve been taking on more chores without complaining.

The first argument is based entirely in feelings without any factual backup, whereas the second is based on evidence that can be proven. Your parents are more likely to respond positively to the second argument because it demonstrates that you have done something to earn the increased allowance. Similarly, a well-researched and reasoned argument will show readers that your point has a basis in fact, not just feelings.

The standard five-paragraph essay is common in writing argumentative essays, but it’s not the only way to write one. An argumentative essay is typically written in one of two formats, the Toulmin model or the Rogerian model.

The Toulmin model is the most common, comprised of an introduction with a claim (otherwise known as a thesis), with data to support it. This style of essay will also include rebuttals, helping to strengthen your argument by anticipating counterarguments.

The Rogerian model analyzes two sides of an argument and reaches a conclusion after weighing the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Both essay styles rely on well-reasoned logic and supporting evidence to prove a point, just in two different ways.

The important thing to note about argumentative essays as opposed to other kinds of essays is that they aim to argue a specific point rather than to explain something or to tell a story. While they may have some things in common with analytical essays, the primary difference is in their objective—an argumentative essay aims to convince someone of something, whereas an analytical essay contextualizes a topic with research.

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What Makes a Good Argumentative Essay?

To write an effective argumentative essay, you need to know what a good one looks like. In addition to a solid structure, you’ll need an argument, a strong thesis, and solid research.

An Argument

Unlike other forms of essays, you are trying to convince your reader of something. You’re not just teaching them a concept or demonstrating an idea—you’re constructing an argument to change the readers’ thinking.

You’ll need to develop a good argument, which encompasses not just your main point, but also all the pieces that make it up.

Think beyond what you are saying and include how you’re saying it. How will you take an idea and turn it into a complex and well thought out argument that is capable of changing somebody’s mind?

A Strong Thesis

The thesis is the core of your argument. What specific message are you trying to get across? State that message in one sentence, and that will be your thesis.

This is the foundation on which your essay is built, so it needs to be strong and well-reasoned. You need to be able to expand on it with facts and sources, not just feelings.

A good argumentative essay isn’t just based on your individual thoughts, but research. That can be citing sources and other arguments or it can mean direct research in the field, depending on what your argument is and the context in which you are arguing it.

Be prepared to back your thesis up with reporting from scientific journals, newspapers, or other forms of research. Having well-researched sources will help support your argument better than hearsay or assumptions. If you can’t find enough research to back up your point, it’s worth reconsidering your thesis or conducting original research, if possible.

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How to Come Up With an Argumentative Essay Topic

Sometimes you may find yourself arguing things you don’t necessarily believe. That’s totally fine—you don’t actually have to wholeheartedly believe in what you’re arguing in order to construct a compelling argument.

However, if you have free choice of topic, it’s a good idea to pick something you feel strongly about. There are two key components to a good argumentative essay: a strong stance, and an assortment of evidence. If you’re interested and feel passionate about the topic you choose, you'll have an easier time finding evidence to support it, but it's the evidence that's most important. 

So, to choose a topic, think about things you feel strongly about, whether positively or negatively. You can make a list of ideas and narrow those down to a handful of things, then expand on those ideas with a few potential points you want to hit on.

For example, say you’re trying to decide whether you should write about how your neighborhood should ban weed killer, that your school’s lunch should be free for all students, or that the school day should be cut by one hour. To decide between these ideas, you can make a list of three to five points for each that cover the different evidence you could use to support each point.

For the weed killer ban, you could say that weed killer has been proven to have adverse impacts on bees, that there are simple, natural alternatives, and that weeds aren’t actually bad to have around. For the free lunch idea, you could suggest that some students have to go hungry because they can’t afford lunch, that funds could be diverted from other places to support free lunch, and that other items, like chips or pizza, could be sold to help make up lost revenue. And for the school day length example, you could argue that teenagers generally don’t get enough sleep, that you have too much homework and not enough time to do it, and that teenagers don’t spend enough time with their families.

You might find as you make these lists that some of them are stronger than others. The more evidence you have and the stronger you feel that that evidence is, the better the topic.  Of course, if you feel that one topic may have more evidence but you’d rather not write about it, it’s okay to pick another topic instead. When you’re making arguments, it can be much easier to find strong points and evidence if you feel passionate about our topic than if you don't.

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50 Argumentative Essay Topic Ideas

If you’re struggling to come up with topics on your own, read through this list of argumentative essay topics to help get you started!

  • Should fracking be legal?
  • Should parents be able to modify their unborn children?
  • Do GMOs help or harm people?
  • Should vaccinations be required for students to attend public school?
  • Should world governments get involved in addressing climate change?
  • Should Facebook be allowed to collect data from its users?
  • Should self-driving cars be legal?
  • Is it ethical to replace human workers with automation?
  • Should there be laws against using cell phones while driving?
  • Has the internet positively or negatively impacted human society?

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  • Should college athletes be paid for being on sports teams?
  • Should coaches and players make the same amount of money?
  • Should sports be segregated by gender?
  • Should the concept of designated hitters in baseball be abolished?
  • Should US sports take soccer more seriously?
  • Should religious organizations have to pay taxes?
  • Should religious clubs be allowed in schools?
  • Should “one nation under God” be in the pledge of allegiance?
  • Should religion be taught in schools?
  • Should clergy be allowed to marry?
  • Should minors be able to purchase birth control without parental consent?
  • Should the US switch to single-payer healthcare?
  • Should assisted suicide be legal?
  • Should dietary supplements and weight loss items like teas be allowed to advertise through influencers?
  • Should doctors be allowed to promote medicines?

Government/Politics

  • Is the electoral college an effective system for modern America?
  • Should Puerto Rico become a state?
  • Should voter registration be automatic?
  • Should people in prison be allowed to vote?
  • Should Supreme Court justices be elected?
  • Should sex work be legalized?
  • Should Columbus Day be replaced with Indigenous Peoples’ Day?
  • Should the death penalty be legal?
  • Should animal testing be allowed?
  • Should drug possession be decriminalized?

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  • Should unpaid internships be legal?
  • Should minimum wage be increased?
  • Should monopolies be allowed?
  • Is universal basic income a good idea?
  • Should corporations have a higher or lower tax rate?
  • Are school uniforms a good idea?
  • Should PE affect a student’s grades?
  • Should college be free?
  • Should Greek life in colleges be abolished?
  • Should students be taught comprehensive sex ed?

Arts/Culture

  • Should graffiti be considered art or vandalism?
  • Should books with objectionable words be banned?
  • Should content on YouTube be better regulated?
  • Is art education important?
  • Should art and music sharing online be allowed?

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How to Argue Effectively

A strong argument isn’t just about having a good point. If you can’t support that point well, your argument falls apart.

One of the most important things you can do in writing a strong argumentative essay is organizing well. Your essay should have a distinct beginning, middle, and end, better known as the introduction, body and opposition, and conclusion.

This example follows the Toulmin model—if your essay follows the Rogerian model, the same basic premise is true, but your thesis will instead propose two conflicting viewpoints that will be resolved through evidence in the body, with your conclusion choosing the stronger of the two arguments.

Introduction

Your hook should draw the reader’s interest immediately. Questions are a common way of getting interest, as well as evocative language or a strong statistic

Don’t assume that your audience is already familiar with your topic. Give them some background information, such as a brief history of the issue or some additional context.

Your thesis is the crux of your argument. In an argumentative essay, your thesis should be clearly outlined so that readers know exactly what point you’ll be making. Don’t explain all your evidence in the opening, but do take a strong stance and make it clear what you’ll be discussing.

Your claims are the ideas you’ll use to support your thesis. For example, if you’re writing about how your neighborhood shouldn’t use weed killer, your claim might be that it’s bad for the environment. But you can’t just say that on its own—you need evidence to support it.

Evidence is the backbone of your argument. This can be things you glean from scientific studies, newspaper articles, or your own research. You might cite a study that says that weed killer has an adverse effect on bees, or a newspaper article that discusses how one town eliminated weed killer and saw an increase in water quality. These kinds of hard evidence support your point with demonstrable facts, strengthening your argument.

In your essay, you want to think about how the opposition would respond to your claims and respond to them. Don’t pick the weakest arguments, either— figure out what other people are saying and respond to those arguments with clearly reasoned arguments.

Demonstrating that you not only understand the opposition’s point, but that your argument is strong enough to withstand it, is one of the key pieces to a successful argumentative essay.

Conclusions are a place to clearly restate your original point, because doing so will remind readers exactly what you’re arguing and show them how well you’ve argued that point.

Summarize your main claims by restating them, though you don’t need to bring up the evidence again. This helps remind readers of everything you’ve said throughout the essay.

End by suggesting a picture of a world in which your argument and action are ignored. This increases the impact of your argument and leaves a lasting impression on the reader.

A strong argumentative essay is one with good structure and a strong argument , but there are a few other things you can keep in mind to further strengthen your point.

When you’re crafting an argument, it can be easy to get distracted by all the information and complications in your argument. It’s important to stay focused—be clear in your thesis and home in on claims that directly support that thesis.

Be Rational

It’s important that your claims and evidence be based in facts, not just opinion. That’s why it’s important to use reliable sources based in science and reporting—otherwise, it’s easy for people to debunk your arguments.

Don’t rely solely on your feelings about the topic. If you can’t back a claim up with real evidence, it leaves room for counterarguments you may not anticipate. Make sure that you can support everything you say with clear and concrete evidence, and your claims will be a lot stronger!

What’s Next?

No matter what kind of essay you're writing, a strong plan will help you have a bigger impact. This guide to writing a college essay is a great way to get started on your essay organizing journey!

Brushing up on your essay format knowledge to prep for the SAT? Check out this list of SAT essay prompts to help you kickstart your studying!

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Melissa Brinks graduated from the University of Washington in 2014 with a Bachelor's in English with a creative writing emphasis. She has spent several years tutoring K-12 students in many subjects, including in SAT prep, to help them prepare for their college education.

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Best college essay topics for 2023-2024

The best college essay topics for 2023-2024.

Bonus Material: To check out 30 real examples of essays that worked to get students into schools like Princeton, click the link: Download 30 College Essays That Worked

If you’re getting started on your college application essays, you’re probably looking around for the perfect topic to write about. What isn’t cliche? What will make you stand out? What will get you into your dream school?

PrepMaven’s college essay coaches have helped countless students choose their topics and craft compelling personal statements for the college application process. While we love making our resources freely available on this blog, we always recommend getting personalized help from one of our essay experts . 

In this guide, we break down what you need to know about choosing a college essay topic, and we’ll also cover some topics that you might want to consider–and some you’ll likely want to avoid. 

Download 30 College Essays That Worked

Jump to section: What makes a good college essay topic? So, what kinds of topics work best for college essays? Essay topics to avoid Next steps

What makes a good college essay topic?

While it’s true that a really good writer can write a great essay about anything, it definitely helps to have an interesting and unique topic for college admissions essays. 

College admissions officers will read essays from thousands of other applicants. That means even if you write an incredible essay about a cliche topic, you’re going to risk losing the admissions committee’s attention before you can win them over with your great writing. 

So, how do you decide what makes a good college essay topic? While there’s no objective set of rules, there are guidelines that are backed up by years of experience working with all sorts of student essays. 

Below, check out our list of 7 Qualities of a Great College Essay Topic. 

The best college essay topics should: 

bad college essay topics

  • This is always tricky. You don’t have to be a child prodigy to have something interesting to write about. What we really mean here is you should avoid an essay topic if you think it’s likely lots of other people have written about it in the same way. 
  • Remember: the point of this essay is to show how you’ve become the kind of mature, self-aware person who’s ready for college. The specific story you tell only matters insofar as it lets you show the admissions committee how you became that person. 
  • Colleges want students who are passionate! Whatever you write about, it should be something that presents you to college admission officers as someone with interests, passions, and goals. 
  • Don’t overlook this! If you pick a topic just because it seems like what you should write about, odds are you’ll be bored by it. And if you’re bored by it, how could someone else find it interesting?

bad college essay topics

  • People often forget about this, but there’s a reason college essays are also often called “personal essays” or “personal statements.” These essays aren’t meant to prove that you’re smart, or that you’re qualified for a particular job. They’re about what kind of person you are, how you view the world, and what kind of member you’d be of the college community. 
  • There are exceptions to this, but you should generally refrain from writing about something that happened in the distant past. The simple reason for that is that college admissions officers want to see who you are now , and most things that happened in early childhood won’t really help them do that. 
  • Naturally, you want to come off well! But students often try too hard to impress, listing their accomplishments or rattling off resume points. Remember that the colleges already have all that info–putting it in your essay will make it seem like you’re a little bit too obsessed with what you’ve already done. 

For our guide on how to brainstorm the best topic for you, check out our post on the Diamond Strategy here. 

So, what kinds of topics work best for college essays?

Because you’re unique, your best college application essay topic likely will be too. We’re not going to list out all the topics of the best essays we’ve seen, precisely because these topics are specific to the people who wrote about them. If you haven’t had to, say, renovate a home by yourself or invent a machine with your father, it won’t help you much to hear that other people wrote great essays on those topics. 

But there are certain kinds of topics that lend themselves much better to strong essays. Here, we’ll list a few of those, though of course you might come up with something totally different for yourself. 

So, what kinds of topics usually work best?

  • This can be a number of things. Many great essays have been written about the experiences of growing up a member of a marginalized or minority community. Others have been written about students’ familial or religious backgrounds. The key in either case: show how experiences linked to this identity have helped you understand some aspect of the world. 

bad college essay topics

  • Do you fly planes recreationally? Spend hours each week creating sculptures? Do research in a particular field? Anything of this sort makes for a great essay topic: it’s unusual and lets you explore how this activity helped shape who you are. 
  • Experiences with discrimination, financial difficulties, and even some family problems can be really effective topics. The key: these must be serious problems that were not caused by you, and that you have made some progress in overcoming. Avoid anything that may pose a red flag for admissions committees. 
  • Note: there are lots of obstacles you shouldn’t write about We’ll include a list of these in the section on Internal Link to “Essay topics to avoid” 
  • That’s a bit general, but it has to be, since this looks so different for everyone. But if there was an experience that truly, profoundly changed you for the better, it’s likely to be a great topic (so long as it isn’t in our list of Topics to avoid below). 

Below, we’ve linked a free collection of 30 college essays that worked to get students into schools like Princeton. Read through those, and note how the topics chosen by the students relate to the broad categories we’ve outlined above. 

Essay topics to avoid

While there’s likely a way to write about almost anything successfully, there are some topics that–generally–aren’t worth the risk. 

What makes a topic risky?

Well, think about it this way: your college admissions application is really an attempt to convince a room full of adults that you’ll not only be a good community member and student, but also that you won’t cause problems for the university. Problems can include anything from being someone who ignores rules to being someone who drops out or takes time off from school (remember that universities are always trying to keep their 4-year graduation rates high). 

But something else that can make a college essay topic risky is just that it’s boring! If you write about something cliche or typical, it’ll be much, much harder for you to say something original or interesting about it. And if you can’t say anything original or interesting, then your college admissions essay won’t help you get into that school.

With that in mind, here’s a list of college essay topics that should almost always be avoided :

bad college essay topics

  • We know: this is a real bummer for any student athlete who’s really poured their heart into their game. But the reality of it is this: successful essays on sports are extremely rare . It’s just too hard to say anything original about something that so many people have written about. 
  • Another topic to avoid almost always. Why? While the attitudes around this are changing somewhat, revealing a mental health issue will raise a red flag for many admissions officers, who may view it as a risk to your ability to navigate college life. 
  • What we mean by this is any type of essay that recounts an experience you had with a less fortunate group of people–people in poorer countries or communities, people with disabilities, the homeless, etc.–just to say that seeing their struggles helped you understand “how lucky you are.” 
  • Exception: if you’ve actually done specific work in this kind of community and that has shaped how you view your future goals, your academic pursuits, or social issues, that’s different. The key is: did you actually do something meaningful to help this group, and/or will you continue to do so?
  • While heartbreak and fights with friends are a normal and often important part of life, they don’t make good college admissions essays. Not only will it come off as immature, but it’s also the kind of topic that’s cliche and boring. 
  • It might seem clever at first, but writing the essay about how you’re writing the college essay, or directly addressing the admissions committee, or writing about how you don’t want to address one of the prompts–all of these have been done before, and are now almost guaranteed to annoy admissions committees. 

bad college essay topics

  • Don’t write an angry essay, period. Did a coach unfairly ruin your chances of playing on the team? Did a teacher arbitrarily deduct points because he hated you? That’s a shame, but leave it out of your essay. 

While all the above are controversial topics you’re better off avoiding, some of them can be made to work with the right kind of essay. But the risks are high, and it’ll be much tougher to write a successful college essay on one of these topics. 

Though everyone would benefit from working with an essay expert, if you’re considering writing on a topic you think might be risky, you would especially benefit by getting a second opinion from a writing expert who’s helped many other students craft compelling essays. 

In the meantime, check out our collection of 30 successful college application essays and note what kinds of topics those students focused on as you prepare to write your own. 

After you review the sample essays we’ve provided here, start thinking about what personal experiences from your own life might work as a topic for your college application essay. 

As you get started with the college admissions process, check out our other linked posts below, which cover everything from brainstorming to proofreading!

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Mike is a PhD candidate studying English literature at Duke University. Mike is an expert test prep tutor (SAT/ACT/LSAT) and college essay consultant. Nearly all of Mike’s SAT/ACT students score in the top 5% of test takers; many even score above 1500 on the SAT. His college essay students routinely earn admission into their top-choice schools, including Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth. And his LSAT students have been accepted In into the top law schools in the country, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Law.

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  10. What topics should I avoid in a college essay?

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    1. Your Bad Behavior: A Lesson Learned Reflecting on past experiences of bad behavior can be valuable for personal growth. However, college admissions professionals are not keen on reading about drug use, jail time, promiscuity, high school pranks, bullying, or any similar negative behaviors.

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    4. Being Too Creative & Lacking Clarity. Some students try so hard to be creative, or to entice the reader with a sense of intrigue, that they sacrifice clarity. If the reader is one paragraph in and thinking, "I don't have a clue what this student is talking about," the arousing interest has moved to confusion.

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  21. Top 10 Most Ridiculous College Essay Topics : r/ApplyingToCollege

    "My UChicago essay was a hot piece of pseudo-intellectual trash." Essay garbage in, arbitrary admissions decisions out. Some advice for your next college fair or campus visit, if you're feeling bold. Politely ask of the representative to justify their silly and vague essay topic or clarify inconsistent application guidelines.

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  23. Are these good or bad college essay topics? : r/ApplyingToCollege

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