What college essay topics should I avoid?

While admissions officers reviewing your application essay might not remember every word in it, they may well recall how they felt about you as a candidate for their college. Your goal in the essay is to leave the admissions staff member with an impression of you as an interesting and emotionally intelligent person who would contribute on campus. In order to do this, avoid the topics below in your college admissions essay.



If your topic is still giving the college admissions officer nightmares twenty years later, it’s probably one to avoid.

Fake photo. Actual topic.

Avoid These Topics

My Backpack
The contents of your backpack or bedroom as a metaphor for your life.
The Dead Grandma Essay
Make sure the reader knows more about you than your relative after they’ve read your essay.
Cannibalistic Hamsters
Anything which would make the admissions officer react with “Ewwww!” And, yes, I did once read an admission essay on cannibalistic hamsters.
The Roommate Exclusionary Essay
Avoid topics that don’t pass the “roommate test.” If after reading the essay, the admissions officer cannot imagine the writer being someone’s roommate, it’s not an appropriate topic.
Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll
Avoid any topic you would not want your Mom to read. This is also known as the oversharing essay.
Avoid anything gimmicky, such as directions to the college from Mapquest. (Prompt was to discuss a significant place.)
The Grudge Essay
Don’t use the essay to vent your frustrations about anything. No one likes a complainer.
The Essay Essay
Don’t write about writing the essay. We’ve already read that one. Don’t do it.
Honorable Mentions
• Everyone Knows How Smart I Am
• My Life Is Like Taking Out the Garbage
• Using Grades for College Admissions is Unfair
• I Heard You Are Rated the Best Party School
• My Japanese Fighting Fish Fred and Ethel
• Why I Hate People
• Performing an Autopsy on My Dog
• Why I Hope College Isn’t as Boring as HS
• My Victory over Using a Booster Seat in the Car
• My Family is the Worst Ever
• You Probably Don’t Want to Admit Me

If you were planning to write on any of these topics, you should probably check out the page How can I write a great college essay?


Proceed with Caution

The following are possible topics for a college application essay, but tread carefully, as they can end up sounding trite.

The Big Game Essay
The Big Game and/or sports as a metaphor for life. Give your essay to a non-athlete and ask if it makes sense to someone not involved in sports.
The Community Service Essay
Essays extolling the virtues of happy poor people can sound patronizing and it is hard to offer a fresh take on an often-used subject.

Fred and Ethel teach lessons in world peace.

Bonus! The List of Forbidden Words and Phrases

Every year I ask my colleagues in admissions what are the most over-used or ineffectual words and phrases that they never want to read again in a college admission essay. Here’s the current list:

  • Actually
  • Plethora
  • Awesome
  • Myriad
  • Well-rounded
  • Amazing
  • Totally
  • Passion/passionate
  • Incredible, wonderful
  • Great, outstanding
  • I believe….
  • I think….
  • I feel that….
  • I am a diverse person.
  • According to the dictionary….
  • Never since that time have I….
  • And that’s when I realized….
  • I knew at/after that moment that….
  • Essays written in the third person and ending with “yes, that girl is me!”
  • As a result, I changed in so many ways (but no examples are given to illustrate the changes)

Thesauritis can be fatal.


Thanks so much Wendy! It has been an absolute pleasure working on these application essays with you!