Teachers know it, guidance counselors know it, even colleges know it: High school students dread writing the personal college essay. The pressure is high, the word count is low, and it can be next to impossible to know where to start. While there are dozens of resources online telling you what you should include, knowing what you shouldn’t include can be just as helpful.
College admissions counselors are always on the lookout for unique, memorable essays to give them a better picture of the applicant’s personality. It’s extremely important for them to feel they know applicants beyond their GPA and SAT scores. With thousands of qualified applicants vying for the same slots at major universities, an exceptional college essay can be the difference between being accepted or rejected.
So how can you set yourself apart from thousands of other high school seniors? Find a unique subject, a story only you can tell, and consider avoiding the following overdone personal essay cliches:
How seeing other people’s suffering made you appreciate your own privilege. This is perhaps the most egregious of all college essay topics. Admissions counselors cringe when these essays come across their desks, and with good reason. While your mission trip or high school volunteer work may have indeed changed your perspective, framing another’s suffering as a way to propel yourself to greater happiness comes across as out of touch and condescending. Universities are leery of accepting students who lack the empathy to realize the issue with this perspective. Be careful not to use the less fortunate to highlight your relative privilege.
Your first experience with death. Dealing with death, especially the death of a loved one, is certainly a formative experience. While admissions counselors understand and appreciate the impact death can have on a student’s life, this topic rarely sheds new light on an applicant. The purpose of the personal essay is to provide a more nuanced picture of the student in question. While writing about dealing with the death of a loved one may be touching, grief is typically too universal a topic to set an applicant apart. (Typically, stories about divorce fall under this same umbrella.)
A story in which you’re the triumphant hero. In college admissions essays (and in life), there is nothing less flattering than someone droning on about their own virtue. Universities are much more interested in accepting humble, hardworking students than self-aggrandizing egomaniacs. There’s a reason why we root for the underdog in movies, or why superheroes have personal challenges despite their physical advantages. Perfection is boring, and it makes for painfully dull essays. Instead of the story of how you made the game-winning shot, tell the story of how you went from ball hog to team player and how it positively impacted your life.
What you learned from your sports win/loss. Almost every young athlete has a story of a sports loss or victory that helped define them. Unfortunately, that’s precisely the problem with picking this topic for your college essay. Admissions counselors read several variations of the same sports story several times a day. Sure, there are moral lessons to be learned from victory and failure, but these lessons are familiar and predictable. Unless you’re confident that your experience with high school sports was so unique that no one else could possibly write a similar essay, try to find a different topic.
What you learned from failure … when you didn’t really fail. When people are asked to discuss a personal weakness in a job interview, they’ll often provide a weakness that can also be interpreted as a strength. They might say they take on too many responsibilities or struggle with perfectionism, for fear of appearing too flawed to earn the position. In the same way, students are often wary of admitting their faults and failures to admissions counselors. However, counselors know their prospective students are human and prone to error. Honesty and humility are far more important than perfection. Don’t be afraid to discuss how true failure shaped you.
If this list contained a college essay topic you planned to write about, don’t despair. Admissions counselors are quick to mention that the right “angle” can make many of these topics acceptable. If you have a truly one-of-a-kind perspective on any of these issues that no one else could write, feel free to use it. The key to composing the best college essay possible is to tell a unique story that reveals something important about who you are as an individual.