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Seven College Admissions Essays You Shouldn’t Write: Part One

A strong essay can be a definite advantage in making your application stand out from the crowd. Not only will it help you get noticed at the start of the review process, but in the decision homestretch, admissions counselors will fight for students they’ve come to love through their essays.

Yet writing a good essay is no easy task; even the strongest writers struggle with it. It’s challenging to find the right balance of personal narrative and persuasion.

So, here are a few examples of essay themes our counselors see a lot of—perhaps too much. If you’re going to write on one of these topics, take an extra pause and make sure your focus is in the right place. Following these tips should guide you on the right path.

Essay Topic #1: Volunteer Work

Volunteer work can be a great experience that adds depth to your application. But it’s obvious to a reader if you’ve volunteered simply to look good on paper. Telling us about the things you did and the people you encountered is great, but it doesn’t tell us much about you. Connecting the skills you picked up through Habitat for Humanity to your love of architecture or your plans to study social work shifts the focus of the essay onto you, the applicant. Be sure to take that extra step to discuss how the experience impacted your life.

Essay Topic #2: My Struggle with Adversity

Difficult experiences like the death of a loved one, your parents’ divorce, or fighting a disease may seem like prime material for an admissions essay: they are significant life experiences, and their deeply personal nature can conjure up heartfelt words. But there is much more to your life than the obstacles you’ve faced; in fact, there is likely more to your life because of them. Experiences like these can demonstrate perseverance and may serve as powerful motivators toward your future goals—but we won’t know that unless you show us.

Essay Topic #3: The Sports Injury

Many athletes have a story about overcoming an injury. The key to this essay is to delve into your motivations. Why did you push yourself to get better? Was it because you felt a commitment to your team, your school, your community? Because of a long-standing rivalry or a parent’s expectations? Or are you happiest when you’re playing soccer—and why do you think that is? In digging deeper like this, you reveal not only what happened, but what happened as a result. Show us just how significant the experience was by connecting it to your current mindset or your future ambitions.

Essay Topic #4: Winning the Big Game / Rallying the Team

In writing this essay, it’s important to explain how your victory affected you. (Of course you felt great about your accomplishment—who wouldn’t? We’re looking for something more.) Did it impact your self-confidence? Your priorities? Your plans for the future? A strong essay demonstrates the transformative power of the debacle you rallied through or the victory you attained working as part of a team.

In Conclusion…

Regardless of the essay topic you choose, there are a few key points to keep in mind:

  1. Show how you changed as a result of your experience.
  2. Connect the experience to your future plans (e.g., a specific major or career path, your goal to get straight As, your drive to make a difference).
  3. Demonstrate how the school you’re applying to will help make those plans a reality.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions below.

[Part 2]

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