Which College Essay Topics Are Taboo?

Are there any college essay topics you should avoid? The Dean weighs in. https://www.collegeconfidential.com/articles/which-college-essay-topics-are-taboo/

While visiting a T20 school, one of their admission counselors said in the information session: “and please, please don’t write about diarrhea. You’d be surprised how many essays we get about diarrhea.”

Any essay that shows or expresses or even hints at intolerance for particular groups of people based on race, ethnicity, beliefs etc. should be avoided. Also, any essay that shows inability to get along with various types of people should be avoided. One time, someone asked me to review his essays which basically hinted that he was anti-social and then became more social due to his experiences, and I told him the adcom would not like his essays but he would not budge. Ultimately, he got into a college ranked around 100th (and got denied from every college except one) even though he had good enough stats to get into top 20 colleges. Basically, he was stubborn as heck, which is a good quality in many situations, but when it comes to college essays, you definitely don’t want to come across that way.

Also, any essay that hints at your difficulty in getting adjusted to a new environment should be avoided because colleges imo.

In my work, I advise students to avoid topics such as death, divorce, anxiety and depression, winning the game, the service trip, serious health issues of self or a family member, “naughty” stuff, and so on.

It doesn’t mean that these are bad topics, and plenty of my students have indeed written about these things. The issue is that most students don’t have enough skill to write about these topics in a way that makes for good reading and/or write something that hasn’t been done a million times.

The best topic to write about is the topic that makes you feel good about yourself. You’re selling yourself. It’s easier to sell yourself when you’re conveying positive things. I’ve said many times over the years that, in a nutshell, colleges want to admit people they like.

Colleges are becoming more open. Let’s ask what is a “taboo” here?

How is this for a topic: In eighth grade, I was ranked first in geography bee nationals going into the top ten but I had never been under such stress and choked my way down to tenth only to be bullied by kids on youtube.

@squ1rrel , and how does that sell you to a college? Immediately, I noticed two words with negative connotations. “Stressed” and “bullied.” Add “choked” too. Sorry, but if I were an AO, that would immediately put me in negative mindset about your app. It will be a no from me, based on your topic as it stands.

Furthermore, I don’t want to hear about you in 8th grade. What have you been doing since then? That’s what I’m interested in. Don’t write about this topic.

Read the final paragraph of post #3.

@Lindagaf , how would you feel about an essay where one explains how not having social media has affected their high school career and general wellness?

@Florida25 , that almost doesn’t seem like a topic to me. Only because there are a ton of people in the world who grew up without social media. So your topic is kind of like asking kids today what it’s like to grow up without a microwave. It’s just life as you know it. If you have an interesting angle on it, go for it.

Any topic that even has the slightest whiff of being suspected of racism. Disagreeing with Political correctness and stating any exceptions and doubts or hesitations.

Squirrel nobody cares what happened in 8th grade. That is a long time ago when you were still a kid compared to a young adult entering college.

DS20 has had a boring life according to him. After much reflection, he wrote an essay on how he was bullied in 8th grade and was able to deal with the situation maturely and tied that to his HS anti bully work. D17 who is pretty good with essays (U Chicago EA) read it and said it is too cliche. Since DS only applies to Pitt bad Penn state, a cliche essay is ok? Appreciate your feedback.

@SincererLove -Did your daughter feel that her brother’s essay was too cliché because:

  1. He used a lot of hackneyed phrases in it such as “When all is said and done” or “At the end of the day”?

  2. He drew a trite conclusion (or two) at the end (e.g., “I have to stand on my own two feet and I can be whatever I want to be.”)

  3. She thought the topic overall was shopworn?

If the issue is #1, it should be easy to go through the essay with your son (or Sis can do it) and try to chop out the clichés. If it’s #2, a fix might be a little harder but likewise possible. And keep in mind that good essay often tells a story but this story doesn’t necessarily have to end with a moral-of-the-tale sort of conclusion. Let the readers draw their OWN conclusions instead.

As for #3, I don’t think that this topic itself is tired, but there ARE a couple pitfalls that your son should avoid. He doesn’t want to come across as whiny or condescending, either when he was back in middle school or now (as in “I was way more mature than all of the other numbskulls in my 8th-grade class" or “Most students, even in high school, unlike myself, don’t understand the harm that words can do”).

But if he has written an essay that mentions his 8th grade situation yet puts the emphasis on the measures he’s taken more recently to combat bullying, it sounds like he’s landed on a potentially sound idea. This is assuming, of course, that he can be specific about his anti-bullying efforts. For instance, does he write a blog or a newspaper column? Is he involved in a group that presents in assemblies or at club meetings, etc.? Simply saying, “I get on my friend’s case when he teases the freshmen in the cafeteria” probably won’t wow admission folks.

In addition, you are asking, “How strong does an essay really have to be for Pitt or Penn State?” Well, at large public universities where course selection, grades, and test scores usually play a starring role in admission decisions, the essay does commonly take a back seat … as long as it’s at least competent and doesn’t suggest that a student will crash and burn the first time he attempts a college paper. So, if your son’s GPA and test scores put him at the high end of the median range (or above it) at Pitt and Penn State (especially if he’s a PA resident to boot), then you probably don’t have to duke it out with him over his essay at the dinner table just because his sibling called it banal. But, on the other hand, it’s early in the summer now, and so your son has plenty of time to improve it. As noted above, he need not go back to the drawing board and start over with a brand-new topic, but he should certainly put in a little time replacing trite phrases with more original ones.

Let’s see, topics to avoid.

  1. How/Why I killed my dog, cat, hamster…basically killed anything
  2. How fantastic I am
  3. How fantastic you are
  4. Personal hygiene
  5. I guess I could just keep going but you get the idea.

@Sally_Rubenstone , definitely 3, and she doesn’t like the fact that she knew where it was going after the 1st sentence. But it is probably because she knew the actual events. Yes, we are in state. He did have a lot of specifics, but it doesn’t hurt to beef it up more! Thank you so much for your feedback!

The word limit is 650. He is currently 615.

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How about an essay on struggles and confusion a teen is going through trying to find his gender identity and sexual orientation? Does this kind of personal story matter to the admissions officer at all?

@vgulla —I always make two disclaimers whenever I discuss college essays:

**#1) As noted in the “Ask the Dean” response above: If a student is a strong writer, no topic is off limits.

2) Topics that suggest that the student is struggling (e.g., depression, anxiety disorders, suicide attempts, eating disorders, and gender confusion) can work against a student in some admission offices. BUT students often feel that this struggle is very much a part of who they are and they don’t want to sweep it under the rug. Instead, they’d rather be at a college that recognizes the battle they are fighting and accepts them anyway—or maybe actually *because* of this—even if it means that some top choices will say no. **

So … back to your question …

When students write about their difficulties with gender identity or sexual orientation and if the essay suggests that the student is STILL in conflict, then some admission officials may feel that it’s a risk to admit this student while others will not. When I say “risk” I mean that the admission officials will worry that, if accepted, the student could be constantly camped out at the counseling service’s door or—even worse—SHOULD be but isn’t going there. Depending on the nature of the essay, admission folks might also fear that the student will drop out early on or is in danger of self harm.

However, if the essay indicates that the student has already come out the other side … as in, “Finally I admitted to myself and later to my family, that I’m gay, and now I’m the proud president of my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and senior class president as well …” or something like that … then the admission folks are NOT likely to see this student as a risk and the essay might work in the student’s favor.

At the most conservative colleges, a student who self-identifies as gay or, especially, as transgender, non-binary or gender fluid may not receive a welcoming response in admission offices. But, ironically, some of the most liberal colleges (like Smith, where I used to work) see SO many applicants who mention being LGBTQIA somewhere in an application that an essay on this topic may not help the applicant stand out in the crowd, and my advice would most likely be, “Write about something ELSE!” So if your teen is applying to colleges that are already well known for gay, trans. or non-binary populations, this probably isn’t a super essay topic at those places any more than it would be at an ultra-conservative institution.

I’ve found from eons of years in the admissions world that the elite colleges with “preppy” reputations can be good destinations for essays about non-traditional choices because those schools are trying to diversify their campuses and debunk stereotypes. So any essay about gender-identity issues might play better at, say, Colgate or Bucknell than at either Oral Roberts or Sarah Lawrence!

Finally, keep in mind that application essays are typically read by a couple of people only and not by the entire admissions staff. So, just as a “personal statement” can be personal to its student author, it can sometimes hit a chord—or not—with admission officers. So when you wonder, “Does this kind of personal story matter to the admissions officer at all?” it depends to some extent on WHICH admissions officer will read it. And thus, as with many other facets of the crazy admissions process, there is definitely an element of luck involved.

I’m lost.
My parents want me to studying in the US, which is not my motherland. I do not know what to do with the essay and intend to write about how basketball has transform me from a nerd to a sociable guys with numerous friends and activity engagements
Does it sound awkward. Do schools care about sport activities and sport achievements

“Show not just tell.” So not just, “…and now I’m more confident and president of…” What impact on others can you show? What stretch, for something better? It can be anticlimactic when you just rise to fit a typical mold.

And the higher the tier, the more it needs to be relevant to what they want in you. You may be the kid who loves shopping or collecting straws, write a super essay about being a vegetarian, but it wont get you into a top college.

These may be essays that someone could pick up off the floor and know only you could write it (odd advice.) But that doesn’t mean they hit the spot. It’s more than feeling good about what you wrote. It has to work for adcoms, who look for relevant traits and thinking.

Worst I ever read were one about how much she hated peers and another that literally opened with wanting to kill her little brother. Yup. You read, hoping for an epiphany, but nope.

@JohnPonBui -If you read the “Ask the Dean” column at the start of this thread, you’ll see that sports essays are VERY overdone and are usually to be avoided. BUT … if you can write about your basketball transformation in a way that is HUMOROUS, then it could work in your favor. Although I’m reluctant to stereotype, I have found over the years that essays from international applicants are far less likely to be funny than those from their US counterparts. So if you have a sense of humor and can show it off in your essay (perhaps giving some examples of why you claim you were a “nerd”) then this might help you stand out in the crowd.

If, however, humor doesn’t come naturally to you, I would pick another topic to write about. Keep in mind that one big reason that US colleges accept international applicants is because of the “diversity” they bring to campus. So if you can come up with an essay topic that highlights how your background is different from the that of they typical domestic applicant, it could be a plus.

Because writing about sports–and basketball in particular–sounds typically American, your basketball essay probably won’t help to highlight your international background unless you find a way to point out how playing basketball in your country is different than playing in the US. For instance, when my husband and I lived in the UK in the 1970s, he played on a basketball team there, but many of the gyms that his team played in were not heated, So there were actually times when he started the game wearing a wool hat and–once–even gloves! So that’s the kind of detail that might make your basketball essay memorable.