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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.

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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.


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…


Excellent points that hit the nail on the head! Most students try too hard to evoke what they deem to be ‘academic’ writing. Hence, the tendency to throw in every single fancy word within very close proximity. That makes the essay full of fat, haha.

I have much more respect for writing that oozes the author’s passion for the topic. Honesty is a key ingredient in good writing. After all, Bukowski writes in a very ‘raw’ manner, but with palpable momentum, so no one can deny his genius. He exposes the essence of his words in a way that’s far too easy and irresistible to grasp.

So many great tips here. Thanks!