Avoid the trap of the “bad” essay

Almost anything CAN make a suitable essay topic. However, the vast majority of students simply are not skillful enough to write about certain topics in a way that avoids conveying negative emotions, and instead, in way that shows positive aspects of a student’s personality. In general, avoid writing about politics, death, traumatic events, abuse, mental health issues, naughty/illegal stuff. There is almost always something better you can write about. You are more than your mental health issue, you are more than your dysfunctional family. Those things can be part of your essay, but the essay should focus on your “selling points,” or, why the AO should want you on campus.
(Note: There is a separate question on the Common App in regards to Covid. If you want to write about Covid and its effect on you, is it better to use the 250 words alotted for that?)

I have worked with hundreds of students on their essays. Below are summaries of the types of essays that I think are best avoided. All examples are fictitious based on essays I have read.

  1. A boring, generic essay saying, “This is what I am like” with no evidence to support it. The writing might be along the lines of “I am a really funny and kind person. My family always tells me how I brighten up a gathering…” The rest of the essay is in a similar vein, with absolutely nothing that SHOWS me in what way the student is funny and kind. It’s uninteresting to read and I haven’t learned anything about this person.

  2. A LOT of descriptive text that tells me nothing about the student. “The lights twinkled in the distance. I slowly drove back down the same road as before, trees rushing by. I turned the corner and at last I was home. I opened the old brass doorknob and walked through the quiet house…” And on and on and on, without ever getting to the point: the student. It’s great to help the reader visualize a scene, but there needs to be a reason for doing it.

  3. And similarly, a student using “big” words in inappropriate ways. “I immaculately wiped my glasses clean as I peered up at the ancient, wizened blackboard.” This serves no purpose other than to scream “I know big words and I’m gonna use them.” A wizened blackboard is not the same as a well-used blackboard. Wiping glasses immaculately clean makes the student seem uptight. Someone might be able to make these words work, but not the student who wrote this essay.

  4. A touchy subject, but I discourage students from writing about a relative who is addicted/chronically ill/other debilitating condition. If this needs to be included in the essay, the focus should be on the student. It is no doubt true that the effect on the student’s life is profound. Most often though, these essays end up being about the relative and how hard it is to live with the effects of the condition. They finish off by saying “In the end, I learned that I am strong enough to cope with anything.” An essay like this might have been successful if the essay had SHOWN how the student was able to cope with anything while living with such circumstances. Remember that the AO isn’t interested in admitting the person being written about if that person isn’t the student.

  5. Another touchy subject is a student’s mental health issues. This is a very common essay topic, and clearly it is an important part of the student’s life. But is there more to the student than their anxiety or depression? Can the student instead refer to the mental health issue in a way that shows how they were able to grow from the experience? I’ve read a few harrowing essays about mental health which made me feel deeply uncomfortable or sad for the student. An essay that makes the reader feel that way is not a selling point. AO’s don’t admit students out of pity. If mental health issues must be written about, find a way to extract some good from it. As an example, one student lived in a residential facility and turned the essay into how he made unlikely friends there.

  6. Avoid writing about the trip abroad if there is a chance the student will come across as sounding privileged… “On my family trip to Greece, I learned so much about myself by meeting local people. The children in the impoverished village ran up to us and we gave them all candy. It was so gratifying to see their faces light up and it made me appreciate what I have…” No, don’t do this. It’s fine to write about being in another country, but make sure it doesn’t sound patronizing. A student wrote about her high school trip to a foreign country, but the focus was about how she became seasick on a boat and what she learned about herself and others from that experience.

  7. Students should avoid forcing an essay because they think that’s what the college wants to hear. There are a number of ways students do this: talking about the time they won the game, a service trip, working in a soup kitchen, etc… Those are all excellent topics as long as the student is writing about it because it’s going to demonstrate their personality and not just a characteristic they think the college wants. A classic example might be about how they “pushed through the sweat and the leg cramps as the finish line came into sight, and I gave it my all with one last burst of energy. I had never felt prouder as my team lifted me on their shoulders…” Again, it isn’t that these topics are bad, but it can be hard to avoid making them sound cliched. These types of essays need to reflect you in a way that is unique to you. As in, no one else could write that particular story.

I’ll link an excellent thread here, because it has a lengthy discussion of what makes a good essay: What makes a "good" essay?

Feel free to add your essay ideas that are best avoided.

31 Likes

Linda, this is a fantastic idea for a thread and your points are so “spot on”.

I’ll add a few-

1- Sports as a metaphor for life. Yes, you lost the championship but you won the respect of your coach, parents, teammates, etc. Life is a marathon and not a sprint. Yup, we get it. It is very hard to do a “sports is more than sports” essay without sounding like a Nike commercial. If the takeaway of your essay could be used to sell beer, a souped up car, or an expensive hotel, start over again.

2- What I learned from my last breakup. Unless you have a published YA novel, you are probably not a skilled enough writer to make this topic work as an essay.

(This past season I read a couple of each of these… and therefore realized they are popular topics among HS kids. All the ones I read were dreadful and cringeworthy).

7 Likes

These are great ideas!

Our kids’ school does senior reflections, which are spoken presentations often similar to their main college essay (confirmed by many parents).

Common traps in addition to the far overdone sports metaphor and the ones filled with too many big words:
-lack of humility. Truly, some have been absolutely cringe-worthy to listen to. There is a lot of room between conveying your best attributes and being a pompous braggart.
-lack of their own voice: some are clearly written/edited by people much older and do not sound like the student in real life. I imagine it would be just as obvious even on paper that it is not in the student’s voice.
-lack of awareness of one’s privilege, such as one that went on and on about the family’s beach house and lovely family time together. The few good points that related to the student were drowned in a thick coat of privilege and wealth, though the student did not seem to realize how it came across.

6 Likes

This should be pinned!

I’ll add a couple:

  • coming out or identifying LGBTQ+ IMO, super hard to write a good essay about this in a way that shows the positives of a students personality and why they would be a good fit for the university. The essay is not a therapy session.

  • not answering the prompt. This is more a problem for supplemental essays.

9 Likes

I help students with essays as well and these are spot on. I will add one very obvious one that I have to gently explain to the parents that they are not “winning” topics.

Perfectionist tendencies - working really hard to get perfect grades or not getting a perfect grade for the first time and how they handled that. Boring and cliche.

12 Likes

Hello. It is great that there are many posters on this thread that have experience helping students with essays. I am genuinely curious of whether the Common App essay really must be written from the first-person perspective of the applicant, or could the applicant write an essay about themself but from the the first-person perspective of say, an object (like a football, just for example), a favorite book, a place, their ballet shoes, etc? In other words, paint a picture of who they are, but do so from an alternative perspective? Would those “in the know” about essays advise against this approach and consider that to be risky? I genuinely would appreciate the feedback. Thanks.

1 Like

Sure, if the student wants to write about the student from the perspective of the object relevant to that person, I see no harm in it. But, as always, it’s going to depend on the skill of the writer to pull it off. It could be difficult to pull off, but it might also be a great essay. There is no rule against this kind of approach.

6 Likes

Not risky if well done, per Linda’s comments.

Risky in the context of the college essay is writing about your interest in entrepreneurship based on your success as your HS’s dealer for bootlegged ADD medication, or your interest in psychology based on your three extended stays in residential programs for a sex addiction.

A well written essay on a neutral subject is never risky…

2 Likes

So many great tips here. Thanks!

2 Likes

Bumping for the next cycle.

1 Like

I just want to add a reassuring note that in my view, it’s okay for essays to be “good enough.” I believe it is the rare essay that is outstanding enough to make a large difference. Most essays can aim to be neutral in effect, I think the main goal is to avoid doing harm.

Authenticity and likability are important. Topics do not have to be weighty. I have read great essays on Legos and blueberry muffins. It really depends on the writing.

Finally, if a sports story is important to you, write about it. Sure that topic might be used a lot, but if you can write well and that is an authentic topic for you, don’t worry about whether it is “unique.”

Love @Lindagaf’s post with this:

The lights twinkled in the distance. I slowly drove back down the same road as before, trees rushing by. I turned the corner and at last I was home. I opened the old brass doorknob and walked through the quiet house…

I have seen this enough to wonder if this is how writing is being taught in schools. “My hand sweated as I slowly pushed the old wooden door open…” Etc. No need to try so hard! Simple, straightforward, even conversational can work.

Good luck to all!

7 Likes

I agree with this. And I love the idea that good enough is good enough for most. There is no need to aim for literary genius.

I just worked with cousins who both wrote about summer camp. This topic is incredibly popular, btw, and can be a good choice because kids often have so many positive associations with it. As ever, the picture in the frame needs to be the student.

While one essay was very positive and likable, the other fell short, at first read.

The student used a lot of negative words and phrases, such as dread, crying inconsolably, wanting to scream, running away, etc… It set a dark mood in the essay that couldn’t be redeemed by the later claims of being glad to have gone through the experience, despite the hardship.

The AO will read your essay once, and won’t spend a lot of time on it. Once the reader gets a negative vibe from an essay, it is very hard to redeem that. So review your essay and get rid of negativity if it’s in reference to how you think or feel. In the case of the above student, it was an easy fix. We discussed ways to see the flip side of the negativity.

8 Likes

I totally agree with all the advice so far, and agree the essay can just be “good enough”. I do think though, that it depends which colleges you are aiming for. A just ok essay probably will make a (negative) difference if you are aiming for the elite of the elite schools.

5 Likes

Agree with this. Depending on the selectivity of the school and the applicant’s relative qualifications, sometimes it is not a bad strategy to have a standard “do no harm” essay for some schools and a “go big or go home” essay for others.

3 Likes

One framing question I heard recently, and like, is something along the lines of:

Suppose a bunch of people tell stories at a party. What sorts of stories do you think get someone invited to the next party? It will be a variety, of course. Some will be funny. Some will be heart-warming. Some will be informative, or thought-provoking, or vivid, or just unexpected. But rarely will they be gloomy, or just a brag, or something like that.

The idea is in a way, you’ve been at one party, high school, and are looking to get invited to the next party, college. And colleges generally like a mix of party guests, and so there is no one right answer. But in whatever way makes sense for you, think about what would make you an attractive invite to that party.

And I agree that doesn’t take genius, “fancy” writing, or so on. Easier said than done, I know, but it really just takes a willingness to show some important side of you that can’t be found on a transcript or an awards list. But also the sort of thing that would make people want to spend more time with you, whatever that might mean for you.

5 Likes

I also agree that “good enough” has to be interpreted contextually. But I also think it is important to realize what can make an essay like this better than OK isn’t necessarily a matter of choosing a “great” topic, or displaying unusually good “writing skills”, or so on.

I actually think a lot of it is just a matter of understanding your audience, and what they are really looking for. That, of course, is a sort of first-day Communications 101 point, and yet it is so often lost once nervous people start thinking about what will be an “impressive” essay, or speech, or so on. Because rarely is an audience looking to be “impressed” in any sense like that. They want to be engaged, they want to be interested, they want to be amused, they want to be invited into a vivid world, to learn something new, to be inspired, and so on. At a very basic level, they want to feel like their time reading or listening was well spent.

And so really caring about your audience, understanding their needs and desires, and giving them something appropriate, tends to make a communication stand out from all the people who are mostly worried about how they look and whether they are doing well.

And the big irony of all this is if you actually do care about and connect with your audience in that way, it will end up looking very impressive. Because on some level we all understand this is what communication is supposed to be about. We just sort of forget that sometimes when we are nervous and actually trying to be impressive.

4 Likes

Totally agree. If you’re just aiming for “do no harm” at the super selective schools, I think you’re not helping yourself.

Especially at a school like UChicago that has unique and quirky essay prompts, they really want to see your personality and creativity shine through. A boring “safe” essay will hurt more than help.

2 Likes

A bit of an addendum:

I’ve also been thinking lately about how so much of what people mistakenly think is impressive involves some variation on showing how hard you have worked at something. And sometimes that is important, but often . . . not so much.

Indeed, it is common for something performative that is really impressive to be praised as “looking effortless”. Of course that may not be literally true. There might have been a lot of thought and care involved. Practice you didn’t see. Drafts you didn’t see. And so on.

But what you saw, the part that ultimately counts, looked like it just happened.

I again think nervous kids get in the mindset where everything in their application has to show how hard they worked. And some things, like your grades, sustained activities, a normal job, and so on, very much show that.

But some things don’t need to look like that at all. And I think that includes the essays. Again, you may in fact put a lot of work into them. But I don’t think you should necessarily be making them LOOK like they were a lot of work. And I think that cuts across a lot of “don’ts”.

1 Like

As Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Writing well is hard work – but the final product, if it’s good, shouldn’t seem labored.

6 Likes