6 Essay Topics To Avoid for Your College Admissions Essays


“You sound like you think you know everything. But you don’t.”

It might sound harsh, but my mentor’s feedback was exactly what I needed.

When it comes to your essay, it’s normal to want to write an effective essay that not only shows who you are as a person, but demonstrates that you are an intellectual student who is ready and capable for college coursework. But, writing as if you know everything doesn’t go unnoticed. It’s obvious to an outside reader, even if it’s not obvious to you. 

Years ago, when I started to write my college essay, I wanted to share my experience of going to a homeless shelter as a “student in secluded suburbia” who started to learn about some of the “major societal issues at play.” What privileged 17-year-old me didn’t know was that phrases like “secluded suburbia” and “major social issues at play” showed readers that I thought I knew what I was talking about. Even when I very clearly didn’t. 

 Here’s the key takeaway as you write your essay:  We don’t know what we don’t know. That’s why it’s essential to get feedback from others on your essay. 

Whoever is supporting you through the essay writing process, whether it’s your mom or your teacher or your friend, here’s a list of topics to avoid as you get started. 

Steer clear of these topics to make sure you’re representing yourself in the best light. 

1. Charity or Volunteer Trips 

Before you write about your church missions trip to Guatemala or your weekend spent volunteering in your city, think about what your key takeaways from the experience are. If your top two takeaways include 1) being grateful and 2) feeling determined to make the most of your opportunities, you’re missing the point. 

Pair that with the fact that more students are writing about the same topic than you might think. Elizabeth Hoyt at FastWeb very frankly writes, “We get it. You’re privileged and you appreciate it, which is great. However, discussing it doesn’t make for a great essay. It’s actually super boring and, perhaps, may cause some eyes to roll.” 

There are ways to talk about your experiences that demonstrate what you’ve learned or how you impacted the community. Instead of writing about how volunteering showed you how lucky and grateful you are, talk about specific experiences. Hoyt continues, “Specific happenings can make great topics – try to think of something unusual and craft your essay around that experience, instead.”


2. All the Drinking and Smoking You’ve Done. 

Talking about your favorite activities of smoking and partying and drinking as a high school student does not go over well. You’d be surprised, some students are more honest than they need to be in a college admissions essay. No matter what you decide to do between high school and turning 21, drinking prior to 21 is illegal. How do you think talking about illegal activities makes an admissions counselor feel about your application? 

3. Controversial and/or “Hot Topics”

Treat your college admissions essay like the Thanksgiving table. Extreme political views, and religion are just a couple topics you’ll want to avoid. According to Niche, “Colleges do want you to have strong beliefs that you’re willing to stand for, and some essay questions give you the opportunity to do just that. Still, it’s best to avoid especially polarizing topics such as religion, abortion, and other hot-button debates.” 

Essentially, your admissions decision could lie in the hands of someone who has directly opposing views to yours. Do you want to risk offending the person with that power? “You don’t know who will read your college application essay or what they believe.”

4. Complaining

Complaining never helped anyone. You don’t have to pretend to be an eternal optimist in your essays, but you also shouldn’t be complaining in your essay. Listing out your grievances with your mom or that impatient biology teacher who is the “reason for your poor grade last semester,” isn’t going to tell a good story. Think about that friend who never has anything positive to say. That’s not the kind of vibe you want to bring to your admissions essay. 


5. “My Hero” Essays 

College admissions essays serve to demonstrate who you are, not your mom or brother or favorite singer. If you spend too much time listing out all of your favorite things about your hero(es), you’re going to leave the admissions counselor wishing they’d had more from you. 

As Niche advises, “If you do write about someone who influenced your life, make sure that you only briefly describe them. Spend most of the essay focusing on yourself and how your personality or choices have been shaped because of this person.”

6. Behaviors that You Wouldn’t Want in Your Future Roommate

One student used his college essay to admit that he was getting over stalking his ex-girlfriend. While he did take the opportunity to share some of the ways he’s moved on, there are certain behaviors that are going to bring up red flags. Would you want your future roommate to be an ex-stalker? Probably not. In that sense, some stories aren’t appropriate for your essays. 

A good rule of thumb

If you know you can’t share your essay with your grandmother or a teacher because of the topics covered, you don’t want to share it with admissions either. It’s important to have a few pairs of eyes read through your essay so you can get the honest truth about how things are coming across.