Do’s & Don’ts: Choosing an Essay Topic

Traveling abroad can be the experience of a lifetime, but might not make the best topic for you.

Traveling abroad can be the experience of a lifetime, but might not make the best essay topic for you.

Essay writing season is underway at Educational Advocates. We are meeting with students to brainstorm topics and guide them as they begin to free write. While almost any topic written effectively can work, some topics are better than others and a few should be avoided. Here are tips to keep in mind as you begin your essay.

  1. Confusing a Gimmick with Originality. Each year students tell us they want a clever angle for their college essay. They mention the cousin who wrote about his favorite ice cream flavor and what it revealed about him or how a neighbor compared her life journey to playing a game of Risk. They focus on finding a gimmick instead of a genuine message about themselves. “Tell me a story about you,” is what Jennifer England, senior associate director of admission at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, tells students. “Don’t write something you think we want to read.” College admissions counselors are not looking for some particular style of writing or topic. They want to see students choose a topic that only they could write—one that is representative and unique to their own experiences.
  1. Oversharing. There is a fine line between revealing who you are and what you believe in — and sharing information that crosses a line and is inappropriate for a college essay. While there may be exceptions, certain topics should be off limits such as referring to bodily functions or discussing serious abuse or mental health issues in such detail that admissions officers will wonder about the student’s current well-being. According to Ms. England, there are times when a traumatic story is important for a student to share because it impacts how he thinks about himself or has impacted school performance. “Talk about the personal growth since the experience rather than the incident itself,” said Ms. England. This article in The New York Times  provides examples of students who hurt their chances for admission due to their poor judgment.
  1. Appearing One Dimensional. If you focus your extracurricular activities in one area such as athletics or theater your essay should present a different facet of who you are. Some three-sport athletes tell me that finding a topic outside of athletics is challenging for them. However, all students have family members or friends that have influenced them, interesting perspectives on their lives or challenges they have overcome. Ms. England suggests that dedicated athletes and actors can focus on the effort it has taken to get to their level of accomplishment in their chosen activity. “How did you balance your activity with your school work, friends, family and other commitments?” is a question she might like to see a student address in the essay.
    Does the "big win" show your ideal college who you are? Or would the journey to the game better show who you are?

    Does the “big win” show your ideal college who you are? Or would the journey in your sport tell a better story? The admissions officer will have seen before. It is certainly possible for such essays to be compelling, but students may need to use the experience as a springboard to discuss their resulting personal growth to differentiate the essay from others of its kind.

  1. Topics That Are Overused. A good piece of writing will be successful regardless of the topic. However, it is important for students to know that there are certain topics that admissions officers see frequently and should be broached from a unique perspective. The “Big Win” essay where students discuss their game-changing moment, “The Torn ACL” or “The Concussion,” or “Why My Summer Camp Means So Much,” are subjects that require a unique approach. 
  1. The Overstated Service Essay. Ms. England cites community service essays as having the potential to be problematic. Many students volunteer abroad for two weeks in the summer and do not continue a commitment to service work once they return home — not necessarily due to lack of interest, but possibly lack of time. No one doubts that the experience is meaningful to the student. However, an activity that focuses on only two weeks of a student’s life may not be central enough to the student’s high school career to be the topic of the essay. “The volunteer work described in the essay is often beyond the scope of what the student actually accomplished,” said Ms. England. At Educational Advocates, we notice the same problem when reviewing student’s activities pages where they say I “built a school” instead of I “collaborated with community members and leaders to construct a school room.” There is a big difference. Students and some parents think that colleges want to hear about service. Remember, colleges are not looking for anything in particular. Keep thinking and you will come up with an idea that is genuinely you.

For more information on the college essay, check out our article Five Tips for Generating College Essay Topics!

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