Last week, a new student came to my home for help on his college application essays.

I asked this eager senior about his target schools. He told me Stanford was his top pick, but he was applying to most of the ivies, along with a couple UCs (Cal and UCLA).

Then he handed me a printout of his essay. It was one he had written for his English teacher at our local high school.

It was about a mission trip. To a South American country. And he wrote how he loved working with the kids, and how he realized how privileged he was, and how he hoped to make a difference in the world.

I tried not to let my reaction show.

The essay was well-written, in that it expressed his ideas clearly and earnestly. But it was boring. And the topic was cliche. Oh so cliche.

I would say writing about mission trips for one of these essays is up there as not only one of the most overdone topics, but also a thankless topic to help you write something personal and memorable about yourself and stand out from the crowd.

And I sat there wondering to myself, “How many other super bright, promising students are applying to the most prestigious, competitive schools and are turning in terrible essays like this, and possibly jeopardizing or nixing any hope for getting accepted?”

(In the last couple days, I received other well-written essays to review from other high-achieving students on a dying grandparent, a Bar Mitzvah and a football injury. These were all red-flag topics.) 

It felt really wrong.

Do students really need to hire a private college admissions consultant for several thousands dollars (or more) to get the inside scoop on these essays? Maybe, if they can afford it.

Yes, you can do your online research. If you are industrious or lucky enough to land on the right Web site (like this one!), you can figure out quickly what makes a great essay and some tricks to making sure yours doesn’t end up in the reject pile—or at least significantly up your odds.

(Search things like “Help on College Application Essays” or “What Makes a Great College Application Essay?” to get started.)

Many students, however, like my recent client, either don’t have the time to do any extra research or it’s never crossed their mind or they are just trying to keep their head above water with their intense, pressure-driven lives of SAT prep, starting clubs, visiting colleges, playing sports, over-helpful parents, etc.

The reason certain topics are overdone is no fault of the students. They are only writing about what they know and think will make great topics, and they happen to be the same things (mission trips, dying grandparents, sports injuries, etc.).

My point is that many students are falling through the many cracks in this flawed college admissions system, not just those who are underrepresented or underprivileged, although they certainly lead the pack.

It isn’t fair no one is preparing all students to write these essays. Even the well-intentioned high schools and industrious English teachers who have incorporated them into their curriculum can miss the mark. (Just this year, our local high school was using outdated prompts.)

Until that changes, all is not lost. You can learn what you need if you’re willing to dig deeper and figure out what to do. It’s all online and mostly free.

At least you found Essay Hell here. Nice work!

On some level, this is a good thing, because it means that most of you are in the same boat when it comes to these essays—whether you are underprivileged or privileged or somewhere in the middle.

And a lot comes down to how much initiative, time, energy and creativity you put into figuring how to write these college application essays on your own.

Could the process be so unfair that somehow it’s fair, in a random, zen kind of way?

Maybe it’s supposed to work like this: Motivated, self-directed kids like you who do your homework are probably the ones who should get into the best colleges!