by j9robinson | May 19, 2010
I realized today that I never shared a list of topics that usually result in lame essays. (It feels negative to emphasize this list of no-no’s, but it can save students a lot of time if they know to avoid these early on.) You can make any topic interesting, of course, but if you want to give yourself a break, stay away from these potential losers:
- Listing accomplishments. Don’t even think about just rattling off amazing things you have done, people you have met or places you have visited, etc. Way too broad and BORING!! Bragging is not a good way to make friends!
- Death, divorce, tragedies in general. It’s not so much that these can be downers, but they’re such powerful topics that they can be very challenging to write about. (the “death” topic applies to family, friends and even those beloved pets.) HOWEVER, if you have lost someone dear to you and it has rocked your world–you probably should try to write about it. Just try to make the essay more about your feelings, how it affected you and what you learned than just about the person you lost.
- “The most important thing/person in my life.” Again, this is just too broad and loaded, whether you want to talk about God or your mom or your best friend. Yawn!!
- Sports. The thrill of victory. Agony of defeat. Done. Dull. Avoid if possible.
- Humor. Although a story you convey in one of your essays may be funny, do not try to be funny—there is a difference. Keep your deliver straight.
- “I’m so lucky.” Many college-bound students are privileged to live in beautiful, affluent towns and cities, and that’s great, lucky you!, but talking about this is plain boring.
- Do-good experiences. These can range from mission trips to Costa Rica to volunteering tutoring through the local schools. Although essays can certainly involve these experiences, the topic needs to be on a specific experience within that broader trip or program. There is a huge difference. Essays that basically describe trips or volunteering are boring. Specific, unexpected things that happen during them, however, can be great topics!
- Sensitive topics. Since you are writing for an audience who you want to want you, it’s important to use your common sense in terms of topics that have a high tendency to make people angry or upset because they do not agree with your opinion. Politics and religion are particularly provocative. No matter what, don’t preach about any topic!
- The un-essay. Many students, often some of the brightest, have a fundamental reaction to these essays and the assignment to reveal yourself in 500 words, so they want to get creative and in-your-face since that feels more genuine to them. They want to write in stream-of-consciousness or be sarcastic, etc. I totally understand this reaction. However, you must remember your goal with these essays: to get accepted! Save the radical expression for after you get into college.
- Illicit behavior. Drug use. Sexual activities. Arrests or jail time. Even if you stopped doing these illegal or unethical things, it’s still not the best idea to bring them up here. You can write about life missteps as long as it’s clear you have regained your footing! If nothing else, the admissions folks might just wonder about your judgment in general for not steering clear of these topics.
Now that you know what not
to write about, you can learn more about how to find great topics
. In general, don’t try to impress your reader–it usually backfires. Instead, focus on something that happened, how it affected you and what you learned. Those stories are naturally interesting and impressive.
If you want more help getting started writing, check out my Jumpstart Guide for writing college application essays.
Also, my new ebook guide, Escape Essay Hell!, will walk you through 10 fast and easy steps for finding a unique topic and writing a narrative essay.
by j9robinson | Apr 19, 2017
Should You Write About a Cliche Topic
for Your College Application Essay?
If you are just starting brainstorming ideas for your college application essays, one of the first pieces of advice you might stumble upon is to avoid “cliche” topics.
I always warn my students about these often over-used topics, which can include:
Death of loved ones
Sports (especially injuries and victories/losses)
Mission trips (volunteering)
Tutoring (especially special needs kids)
Travel (family trips)
RELATED: College Application Essay Topics to Avoid
The main reason to avoid them is that droves of other students have already written about these topics, so they aren’t as effective at helping you differentiate yourself from other applicants.
by j9robinson | Jun 2, 2013
College Application Essays
How Anecdotes Make Them Work
One of the best ways to learn what types of topics make the most interesting essays is to check out what other students wrote about. Especially if those students had the right guidance and came up with unique, compelling ideas. Like, say, my students!
If you are new to this blog, I always encourage writers to find mini-stories (anecdotes) that they can relate in their essays to reveal and share their broader ideas, passions and values. I also advise them that everyday (mundane) topics work the best.
The idea is that an anecdote is a perfect “grabber” for an introduction, since it hooks the reader’s attention with a compelling mini-story.
It usually shares one moment or focused image, event or experience, using a fiction-like writing style.
Here are five topics that my students came up with last year. I tried to sum up their anecdote and then how they expanded that moment or experience into an essay.
RELATED: How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps
See if you find these helpful in understanding how you can use this format:
Anecdote: The writer described “the time” he hoisted himself up in a tree using ropes and his knot-tying skills, but got stuck.
Larger theme: He then wrote about how his passion for knot-tying reflected his ability to solve problems, using logic, patience and imagination.
by j9robinson | Oct 9, 2008
“Try to write in a directly emotional way, instead of being too subtle or oblique. Don’t be afraid of your material or your past….If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability.”
This is from Anne Lamott, from her popular how-to writing book called Bird By Bird. (I highly recommend this guide, especially if you want to read one of the best books on learning how to write.)
Lamott takes a lot of risks with her writings, especially in her memoirs, and has the courage to splash all her insecurities, flaws and mistakes all over the pages.
But because she sticks to the often-blemished truth, she is both poignant and hilarious.
With these college admissions essays, I think that you can write the most compelling pieces if you are willing to take a hard, honest look at yourself and life—especially something that you weren’t necessarily proud of but somehow turned around or learned from or changed for the better—and share some of that with the reader.
When you write about any type of problem, include how it made you feel. Open up. Share your thoughts and opinions. Be vulnerable.
It is always a tough question about picking a topic that is too controversial or sensitive when writing college admissions essays.
You certainly don’t want them to think you are a total freak.
But my opinion is that if your topic helps you reveal something special or unique about yourself—go for it!!
One trick when writing about potentially loaded topics is to write more generally about the sensational parts, such as describing someone’s illness or injury.
In other words, if something is really graphic, just provide enough information so the reader understands what you are talking about.
If you get the sense that what you are writing about is a total turn-off or is just trying to shock or push hot buttons, of course, avoid it.
But if you are genuine and truthful, I think it’s worth a try.
Always have someone you trust read your work to get some neutral feedback.
You can always tone it down, if necessary.
by j9robinson | Jul 15, 2016
Got a Burning Question
About Your College Application Essay?
(Leave it in the Comments!)
After working with students like you for nearly a decade now, I’ve heard a lot of questions about these cursed essays.
And you are so smart to ask them.
How else can you figure out what is expected of you and how to write them?
Here’s a list of some of the most common ones I’ve heard over the years, and my answers. (more…)
by j9robinson | Jun 24, 2013
College Application Essays
Tips for Finding Topics That CBS Finds Worth Repeating
A couple days ago, Lynn O’Shaughnessy, a journalist who covers college admissions issues for CBS, featured this blog in her column for MoneyWatch. How cool is that? She shared one of my previous posts that try to help guide students toward finding college application essay topics that don’t fall into the common traps, such as being cliche, too controversial or just plain dull. (more…)
by j9robinson | Jul 10, 2020
A Great Essay Topic? Anything But the Coronavirus!
When counseling students on finding great topics for their college application essays, I often direct them to explore problems they have faced in their lives.
Problems provide the perfect springboard for writing a compelling personal statement. (Problems = challenge, obstacle, mistake, flaw, phobia, conflict, change, etc.) If you faced a problem, big or small, it means that:
1. Something interesting and personal happened
2. You had to deal with it
3. You learned something
This simple framework can help you share your personal stories in your essay, and then also examine, explore and share how they shaped you and what you care about (your values).
And voila! A college application essay that is engaging, meaningful and memorable.
RELATED: Use this post to learn how to write about a problem for your personal statement essay.
So if this simple approach works, and all you need is a juicy problem to spin into an effective essay, wouldn’t you want to write about the biggest problem the world is facing right now?
A global pandemic that has literally shut down life as we know it, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, snuffed out jobs, forced families to hide in their homes and has no clear end in sight?
Isn’t that the perfect topic?
Well, no. (more…)
by j9robinson | Jun 24, 2019
***Need in-person help getting starting? Check out my Jumpstart Webinars. Only $30! FREE if you can’t afford them. Two left this month!
Tips on Turning Problems into Hot Topics
So you have thought of a topic you want to write about in your college application essay.
I’m guessing it will fall into one of these three categories: the Good, the Bad or the Ugly.
If so, here’s tips on how to approach them so they make effective essays.
#1: How to Write About the GOOD in Your College Application Essay
Of course colleges want to hear about all the GOOD stuff you have done in your life so far, especially during your high school years. And it’s natural to want to stuff your college application essays with all those glowing details–about your achievements, your accomplishments, your shining personality and your stellar character.
Stop right there! The last thing you want to do with your essay is cram it full of lists of every good or impressive thing you have done. Not only would your essay be dull as dirt, but your application will already be loaded with details about your impressive grades, extra-curricular activities, awards, internships, etc.
Also, an essay that only talks about your good side can easily tip into a tone that comes across as boastful or arrogant, which is off-putting to readers (aka admissions officers).
Then how do you write about something good about yourself in your essay?
Easy! Start with something not so good about yourself.
If you are showcasing an accomplishment, start with a time when you were just starting to work towards it. Look for obstacles or challenges that were in your way. Share your frustrations, defeats, mistakes, conflicts, missteps, etc. After that, you can shift into how you overcame them and ultimately conquered your goal.
The point of sharing an accomplishment, achievement or something good about yourself in a personal statement essay is not only to let schools know what you did or how wonderful you are–but how you did it or got that way, why you did it, and what you learned in the process. That is what should make up the bulk of your essay if you want to write about the Good in your essay.
You will strike the right tone if you were first humbled by the challenge or obstacle. When you share how you worked toward your achievement, accomplishment or personal growth goal, you will indirectly reveal your impressive qualities.
Best of all, your college application essay will be interesting to read! What good is an essay if no one wants to read past the first sentence or two?
Start with the Bad–and then move into the Good! Works every time!
#2: How to Write About the BAD in your College Application Essay
I think topics about your Bad stuff usually make the strongest essays. They are the most interesting, and also give you the best platform to shift into all your Good stuff.
RELATED: Find Your Problems
I write a lot about how problems make awesome topics. If you think about problems you have faced in your past–especially the everyday, mundane ones–you will discover your little mini-stories, incidents, moments and experiences to power your essays. When you face a problem (challenge, obstacle, change, mistake, phobia, flaw, conflict…), it means that something happened. If something happened, then it’s interest to read about. You can also show how you turned that problem into a Good thing–because you dealt with it and learned something in the process.
When brainstorming topics for your essay, trust the times you had to handle problems. Almost any kind can work. You are terrified of the dark. You spent too much money at Target. You got caught gossiping about your best friend. You spilled coffee on a customer during your Starbucks job. You forgot your mom’s birthday. You got off the bus in the wrong neighborhood. You broke your dad’s favorite power tool. You dyed your hair orange by accident. You couldn’t afford the cost of your school trip to France.
Maybe you can’t believe you could spin an effective essay from a bad thing that happened to you. Won’t it be a giant downer and turn off your target schools?
Don’t believe me? Try reading some sample essays and see if you can spot some Bad stuff–and see how the writer turned it into an interesting and meaningful essay that ended up showcasing a lot of Good stuff. (Just put Sample Essay into the search box on this blog to find some. I also have a collection of sample essays available on Amazon, called Heavenly Essays.)
#3. How to Write about the UGLY in Your College Application Essay
When I say Ugly, I’m talking about the extreme Bad stuff. If you are lucky, you don’t have any Ugly in your life. That’s great!
However, many students have faced some really challenging realities and experiences. These can range from financial hardships to prejudices to illness, injury, death and other personal tragedies.
Should they write about these if they were so horrific?
I say YES. How could these circumstances or experiences not have shaped who they are, most likely in really Good ways?
That said, these highly dramatic or sensational topics can be tricky to write about.
What you want to avoid is an essay that describes all the Ugly stuff and only the Ugly stuff. Even though these details can be very moving and interesting, the essays need to be mainly about how the students handled these issues, and turned them into something positive as best as possible.
In fact, the most intense, tragic or Ugly the experience or situation, the less the student needs to write about it. Typically, a paragraph or two will convey enough for the reader to understand how hard it was. After that, time to shift into how the student dealt with the Ugly or handled it, and then what they learned from that process.
Another trick to handling a highly sensitive, emotional or tragic topic in a personal essay is to look for a smaller piece of that topic. Look for an example of the larger issue to share at the start of the essay, and then describe later the larger challenge. For instance, if a student writes about losing a parent, look for a moment, incident or experience that shows a related problem due to that loss. Maybe the student needs to find a resourceful way to get to school because no one is there to drive them. Or the student has learned how to buy groceries to feed the family now that mom is gone. (Notice that these are smaller “problems” that relate to the larger Ugly “problem.”)
Writing about these types of highly personal and often deeply painful topics can be extremely challenging. I think they can make powerful topics for college application essays if the student feels ready to explore and share them. Give it a try. If it’s too hard, bag it. There are many other topics out there!
Again, read sample essays to see how other students handled all these types of topics–the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Here’s a link to a few essays from Heavenly Essays to get you started (the second one, by Alex Segall is an excellent example of how to write about the Ugly): Sample Essays
Good luck! Remember, it’s not what you write about, but what you have to say about it that matters the most in these essays!
by j9robinson | Aug 9, 2017
Confused on How to Format Your
Common Application Essay?
Here are 9 Hot Tips
The 2017-18 Common Application opened for business earlier this week (August. 1). Chances are you will soon need to know how to format your common application essay.
If you are on the ball, you might be ready to apply to specific colleges and universities and need to submit your core Common Application essay, as well as other shorter essays required by certain schools (often called Supplemental Essays).
Or you are still getting ready or working on writing them, but will need to know how to format your common application essay(s) in upcoming weeks or months.
The first step is to get an account with The Common Application. (more…)
by j9robinson | Jun 6, 2017
Everyone Has a Cultural Background
Yours Could Make an Awesome
College App Essay Topic!
I love working with students from all over the world.
I’m always surprised, however, how many of these students overlook their rich backgrounds when brainstorming topics for their college application essays.
There have been several reasons for this.
Many international students seem to believe that colleges wouldn’t be interested in their country of birth, and the related customs, food, traditions, etc.
These same students also believe they need to appear “Americanized” in order to be attractive to their target schools in the U.S.
They are wrong and wrong. (more…)