Bad Essay Topics for College Admissions

Essay topics you should definitely avoid

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A poorly chosen application essay topic can have disastrous results when applying to a selective college. Some topics are risky because they focus on controversial or touchy subjects, while other topics are simply overused and ineffective.

Choose Your Essay Topic Thoughtfully

A highly skilled writer can make almost any essay topic work. Still, you'll want to avoid taking risks that can backfire. Strong political positions or religious stances can alienate your reader, as can essays that are uncomfortably intimate and personal. Also work to avoid a tone that is bragging about accomplishments, flaunting privilege, or wallowing in self-pity.

Realize this list is not saying that no one should ever write about these ten topics. In the right context and in the hands of a masterful writer, any one of these topics could be transformed into a winning college admissions essay. That said, all too often these topics harm an application rather than help it.

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Your Drug Use

Probably every college in the country has to deal with substance abuse on campus, and most people who work at colleges have seen students' academic careers and lives ruined by drugs. If you've had problems with drugs in the past, even if you overcame those problems, the essay isn't the best place to draw attention to your use of illegal substances. On one hand, the college may be impressed with your honesty and courage in addressing the problem. On the flip side, the essay may present liabilities the college would prefer to avoid.

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Your Sex Life

Yes, sex is usually a bad essay topic. The admissions officers probably don't care whether or not you have an active or interesting sex life. More importantly, an essay on your sexual experiences is going to make many readers cry, "too much information!" You don't want to write about something that might be embarrassing for your reader.

That said, some touchy topics such as date rape and sexual violence can lead to an excellent essay if handled well. You'll need excellent writing skills to pull off this type of essay, and you'd be wise to get the reaction of readers who aren't close friends or family.

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Your Heroism

Sure, if you acted heroically in some way, it's a fair topic for a college admissions essay. It becomes a bad essay topic when the essay is self-absorbed and arrogant. There are a lot of annoying essays about how an applicant single-handedly won the football game or turned a friend's life around. Humility is more pleasant to read than hubris, and colleges are more likely to admit students who shine praise on others rather than themselves. Remember, a college is a community of people working and learning together, and the admissions office may take a pass on applicants who think a bit too highly of themselves.

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One-Track Social, Religious or Political Lectures

Be careful with divisive issues like abortion, capital punishment, stem cell research, gun control, and the "war on terror." You can certainly write an excellent and thoughtful essay on any of these topics, but too often applicants stubbornly and closed-mindedly argue what they see as the "right" side of the argument. The readers of your application don't want to be lectured to, nor do they want to be told they are wrong. The chances of offending your reader are high with some of these touchy topics.

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Woe Is Me

Writing can be excellent therapy for working through difficult and traumatic events in life—assault, rape, abuse, incest, attempted suicide, cutting, depression and so on. However, you don't want your college admissions essay to be a self-analysis of your pain and suffering. Such topics might make your reader uncomfortable (a fine thing to do in other contexts, but not here), or they might make your reader question how ready you are for the social and academic rigors of college.

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The Travel Journal

Colleges like students who have traveled, and travel can lead to a life-changing experience that could make a great college essay. However, travel is a remarkably common topic for college essays, and it often isn't handled well. You need to do more than highlight the fact that you have traveled, and you should be careful to make sure your essay isn't simply highlighting your privilege. A travel essay should be an analysis of a single and meaningful experience, not a summary of your trip to France or South America. How did you grow as a result of your travel? How did your worldview change?

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A Comedy Routine

The best essays often reveal a writer's sense of humor, but the jokes shouldn't be the point of the essay. Don't use the essay to showcase how witty and clever you are. A good college admissions essay reveals your passions, intelligence, and strengths. A 600-word comedy routine doesn't do this. Again, humor is good (if you are actually humorous), but the essay needs to be about you and have substance.

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If you had a bad semester or two in high school, it may be tempting to use the essay to explain your low grades. Perhaps you were ill, your parents were getting divorced, your best friend died, or you moved to a new country. You will want to convey this information to the college, but not in your personal essay. Instead, have a guidance counselor write about your bad semester, or include a short supplement with your application.

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Your List of Accomplishments

A college application gives you a space in which to list your jobs, community involvement, and extracurricular activities. Don't use your essay for repeating this information. Redundancy isn't going to impress anyone, and a tedious list of activities isn't going to make a good essay. The admissions folks want to read a good story, not a list.

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Anything Insincere

A lot of students make the mistake of trying to second-guess what the admissions folks want to hear in an essay, and then write about something that isn't actually central to their interests and passions. Sure, you'll want to include all of your community service and good deeds in your list of activities, but don't write about these activities in your essay unless they really are at the heart of what it is that makes you uniquely you.

If your favorite thing in the world is baking, you're much better off writing your essay about an experience with apple pie than you are focusing on a weekend you spent working with Habitat for Humanity. Show the admissions folks who you are, not who you think they want you to be. Colleges want to admit students with diverse interests and passions, so your best approach is to be you.

An essay about one's shyness or love of crafts can be far more effective than one about a humanitarian trip to Haiti if the former comes from the heart and the latter was half-hearted effort to impress the admissions folks.

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Grove, Allen. "Bad Essay Topics for College Admissions." ThoughtCo, Mar. 1, 2021, Grove, Allen. (2021, March 1). Bad Essay Topics for College Admissions. Retrieved from Grove, Allen. "Bad Essay Topics for College Admissions." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).