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Are Certain Topics Off-Limits in a College Admissions Essay?

July 25th, 2011

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Are Certain Topics Off-Limits in a College Admissions Essay?

Since we are always on the lookout to find resources to help students with this task, I was excited to see an article from The College of William and Mary blog on writing essays and opening lines to not use. At first glance, the post some important points, such as the value in starting the essay strong and keeping the reader invested in what you are writing about. However, the post quickly shifts to a litany of complaints about commonly used subjects, such as overcoming an injury, making the team, and doing a service trip or study abroad program. The author urges applicants to avoid these topics and to “pick something uniquely you” when writing the college essay.

There may be some truth to this, but what this article ignores is that a particular topic may be important to some students and is what they know. There is nothing wrong with this nor is there anything wrong with these students or their essays, yet the implication is that anything that isn’t “uniquely you” is unacceptable and boring. Does this mean that a student is in trouble if he can’t write a specific, focused essay about something that is unique to him? Can anything that is “uniquely you” even be tackled in a 500-word essay? I imagine that many adult writers would have a difficult time with this task.

The other glaring problem with the advice is that it stubbornly maintains that all essays about a given topic are alike. Although these essays will have some similarities, there is, contrary to the author’s assertion, more than one way to write about topics like a service project. In fact, the unique perspective you bring to the topic can help keep it from being the “cliché, unoriginal, and predictable” essay that the article warns against. Rather than worrying about whether a particular topic has been done before (it probably has been), a better question to ask is “What can I say about this topic that is true to who I am?”

So, what should a college admissions essay be about? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. The best advice I can give a student who is writing the college essay is to write about something that is important to you and is true to who you are. With few exceptions, you can write about almost anything as long as it is something that is genuinely meaningful to you and not simply something that you think will impress the college admissions deans who will be reading your essay.

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