Common College Essay Mistakes: Things to Avoid, Part 1

Have an essay topic in mind, but wondering if it’ll do you good? Stuck on what to write and don’t know where to begin? Here’s Cardinal Education’s list of 10 essay topics/styles on which you most likely don’t want to start.

#1: The Sports Essay

Perhaps you play a sport. Perhaps you play it well. Perhaps it’s the extracurricular activity that you enjoy most. But colleges aren’t necessarily looking to read about the miraculous goal you scored with 15 minutes left in the game or that time you made a shot from halfway across the court. Why? 

Well, the first reason is, this topic is overdone: sports are the easiest go-to for students looking to discuss overcoming adversity, whether they’re talking about improving from a rough first season on the varsity team or a torn ACL. The second reason, though, is that college admissions officers will not be impressed by the sports experiences of students who aren’t advanced enough to become recruits. If you’re a serious, recruitable athlete for whom sports is one of few extracurriculars or perhaps your only one, this essay may be for you. But if not, avoid.

#2: The Life Hardship/Tragedy Essay

Terrible things happen in life, such as family tragedies, that may have deeply shaped you as a person. You may be tempted to write about them, and go in-depth as to how they’ve affected you. We understand that it would mean a lot to you to write about these things and that putting such experiences on the page may even feel cathartic. However, the college admissions essay is not the place to do so. Such essays can come across as guilting the admissions officers into accepting you, or simply venting your troubles when you are supposed to be highlighting your admirable traits. These essays chronically suffer from a lack of balance between the tragedy and the recovery, something that only very few have pulled off successfully; even fewer have been recognized by admissions officers as successful. So don’t risk it.

#3: The Laundry List Essay

You may feel indecisive as to what to include in your college essay. You want to talk about the 5k run you organized, and the awareness club you founded, and the short stories you managed to publish, and your stint as the lead role in a play…so you mash them all together as tightly as possible within the word limit. Don’t do this! Listing your accomplishments one by one is what your resumé is for. On the other hand, each essay should be a well-crafted story, ideally devoted to one extracurricular and two at most; these essays are meant to fully explore what each activity means to you. 

#4: The “Unreal” or Unfulfilled Underdog Essay

If you have an underdog story, make sure you have an underdog story. Don’t tell an underdog story if you weren’t ever really the underdog in the first place, and don’t tell one if you lack an ending where you came out on top. The former makes you seem unimpressive at best and privileged at worst, and the latter can come across as complaining to admissions officers.

#5: The Drama Mongerer Essay

Social woes, romantic breakups, trouble with teachers—stay away, stay away! Nobody wants to read an essay about the catty bullies at your school, or your string of awful significant others. Colleges are looking for people who are going to change the world. And quite frankly, those kinds of people are not the kinds who dwell on high school drama. 

#6: The Essay About Someone Else 

There’s bound to be someone in your life who’s inspired you, whether a loving family member, a trusted mentor, or a devoted teacher. You may even be asked specifically in a supplemental essay to write about the impact that someone you admire has had on your life. Your relationship with a personal hero can make for a great story of character growth, but be careful not to make the entire essay about them. As is commonly said by college admissions officers, “We don’t want to hear about why your parent/sibling/mentor should be admitted. We want to hear about you!”

#7: The Volunteer of a Certain Kind Essay

Volunteer work is a noble mission, one that can certainly feature prominently in your college application. However, we’d advise against making certain types of volunteer activities the centerpiece of your essays–such as hospitals or brief volunteer trips abroad. Hospitals are too commonly mentioned in applications. Moreover, if you spotlight a 1-2-week volunteer trip abroad, it may smack of privilege and may make you look like you only chose that activity out of desperation to fill your resumé rather than sincerity.

#8: The Negative Nancy/Judgy Judger Essay

You may want to talk about social issues in your essay, or any setbacks that you faced that made you a better person. This can be a good thing, and we welcome you to mention these topics if they relate to your extracurriculars. However, you must always be cognizant of your tone while doing so. Avoid a self-righteous and judgmental tone that declares “my way is the only way and everyone else is wrong.” Also, in general, avoid dwelling on negative events when discussing them, as the focus of any essay that mentions negativity should always be on how you overcame it.

#9: The Gimmick Essay

You might get the zany idea to write your Common App essay in verse. Or one of your supplementals as a three-part prose poem. Or otherwise, put a spin on the essay that you bet no one’s ever seen before. While we understand the desire to innovate, we strongly recommend you try to stay creative within a more traditional path. Like the life hardship/tragedy essay, gimmicks are something that many students are drawn to but few will succeed at pulling off. It’s more likely than not you won’t be one of them. Don’t take that risk.

#10: The Vice President Essay

Lastly, be careful while writing essays about activities in which you didn’t have the primary leadership position. Ordinarily, there’s nothing wrong with this, but difficulties can arise if someone else at your school applies to the same college. For example, if you’re Vice President of a club while your friend is President and you both write about that club for your Stanford extracurricular essays, which one do you think will stand out more?

That’s it for the 10 biggest things to avoid in your college essay. For tips on how to structure the college essay itself, stay tuned or visit us here.