What not to write in a college essay
Writing an essay

College work is often considered the linchpin of your application, a pivotal element that can make or break your chances of getting into the school of your dreams. While grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities are undoubtedly important, the essay provides a unique opportunity to showcase who you are beyond the numbers. It’s your chance to tell your story, express your personality, and convince the admissions committee that you would be a valuable addition to their campus community.

However, writing a compelling work is no small feat. It requires careful planning, thoughtful expression, and meticulous editing. While there are many guides on what to include in a paper, it’s equally crucial to understand what not to use. Making common mistakes can easily divert your work from being a standout piece to just another application in the pile.

In this article, we will delve into the intricacies of what makes a work effective and explore the pitfalls you should avoid. From choosing the right topic to understanding the words that can weaken your argument, we will provide a comprehensive guide to help you navigate the college essays dos and don’ts.

So, whether you’re a seasoned writer or a nervous beginner, read on to discover what to avoid in college essays and craft a paper that truly reflects your potential.

Understanding the College Essay ❕

University students
What should college essays be about?

A college essay, often referred to as a “personal statement,” is a written composition that accompanies your application. Unlike standardized test scores or GPAs, which are quantitative metrics, the work offers a qualitative insight into your character, experiences, and aspirations. It serves as a platform for you to present yourself in a way that grades and test scores cannot capture.

The primary purpose of the paper is to provide the admissions committee with a more holistic view of you as an individual. While your academic achievements are essential, colleges are also interested in how you think, how you solve problems, and how you can contribute to their community. The paper allows you to demonstrate these attributes effectively.

What should a college essay be about? Your paper should be a reflection of your authentic self. It should focus on experiences, values, or beliefs that are important to you and that have shaped who you are today. Whether it’s a significant life event, a hobby you are passionate about, or an issue that you feel strongly about, your work should convey your unique perspective and add a new dimension to your application.

One of the most critical aspects of a successful work is authenticity. Admissions officers can easily spot essays that are overly polished, insincere, or written with the sole intention of impressing them. Authenticity resonates more than perfection. 

Your essay should not aim to be what the writer thinks the admissions committee wants to read but rather an honest account of you. Sometimes writing can be extremely difficult, so essay writing experts can come to the rescue.

Topics to Avoid in College Essays 📖

A bunch of books
What are the topics to avoid for college essays?

What to not write about in college essays? While a college essay is a fantastic opportunity to showcase who you are, there are certain topics that can actually backfire if you’re not careful. Here is a list of common college essay topics to avoid:

  • Controversial issues: While you may have strong beliefs about certain topics, remember that the officer may not share your views. You risk alienating your reader.
  • Tragedies: While overcoming adversity is commendable, focusing too much on the tragic aspects can make your work overwhelmingly sad or depressing.
  • Humor: Humor is subjective. What you find funny might not resonate with the officer and could be deemed inappropriate.
  • Self-pity: Colleges are looking for resilient and positive individuals, not applicants who dwell on the negative aspects of their lives.
  • Illegal or immoral activities: Discussing illegal activities is a surefire way to get your application thrown out.
  • Travel diaries: Unless your travel experience had a significant impact on your life and can showcase your character, it’s best to avoid this topic.
  • Your resume: The admissions officers already have this information. Use the essay to show a different side of yourself.
  • Clichéd stories: These topics are overused and won’t help you stand out.

Bad college essay topics examples:

  • “How I Won the Game”: This is a cliché and doesn’t tell much about you as a person.
  • “My Summer Vacation”: Unless it was a transformative experience, it’s likely not essay-worthy.
  • “Why I Love Harvard-Westlake School”: This doesn’t tell the officer anything about you.

Avoid writing about things that you think will impress the admissions officers but don’t actually reflect who you are. Write what’s true to you, while avoiding the aforementioned problematic topics.

What Not to Write About in a College Essay ☝🏻

What not to do on a college essay
Working on a laptop

Certain elements can be detrimental to the impression you’re trying to create. Here, we’ll go into detail about what not to do in a college essay:

❌ Overused Topics

  • Volunteer Experiences & Mission Trips: While these are noble endeavors, they are also very common topics that admissions officers see all the time. Unless you have a unique angle or experience, it’s best to avoid this topic.
  • Sports: Writing about the big game or your athletic prowess is a big no-no. Admissions officers are looking for something more personal and insightful.
  • Your resume: Your work is not an extended resume. You already have sections in your application to list your achievements and qualifications.

❌ Negative Tone

  • Self-pity: Essays that focus too much on the hardships you’ve faced can come off as self-pitying. It’s okay to discuss obstacles, but the focus should be on how you overcame them.
  • Arrogance: Confidence is good; arrogance is not. Don’t brag about your achievements or belittle others to make yourself look better.
  • Complaints about past teachers or schools: This comes off as immature and adversarial. Remember, you’re applying to join a new academic community.

❌ Overly Complex Language

  • Thesaurus overload: Using complex words that you don’t understand can make your paper difficult to read and could lead to misuse of words.
  • Jargon: Unless it’s directly related to the topic, avoid using jargon. Your essay should be easily understood by a broad audience.

❌ Lack of Authenticity

  • Over-editing: It’s good to revise, but don’t over-edit to the point where your voice is lost. Admissions officers want to hear from you, not a version of you shaped by multiple editors.
  • Plagiarism: This should go without saying, but your paper should be your own work. Admissions officers have ways to check for plagiarism, and it’s a surefire way to get your application rejected.

❌ Vagueness and Lack of Detail

  • Generalities: Avoid making general statements without backing them up with specific examples. This lacks insight and won’t impress admissions officers.
  • Clichés: Phrases like “time will tell” or “every cloud has a silver lining” are clichéd and don’t add value to your paper.

❌ Excessive Flattery

It’s okay to say you love the college you’re applying to, but don’t overdo it. Excessive flattery can come across as insincere and can detract from the points you’re trying to make.

❌ Discussing Test Scores and Grades

Your GPA and test scores are already part of your application. Discussing them in your work is redundant and takes away from the opportunity to reveal other facets of your personality and life experiences.

By avoiding these pitfalls, you’ll not only make your work stronger but also more engaging for the admissions officers reading it.

List of Words to Avoid in College Essays 📚

Many open books 
What not to write about in a college application essay

When writing your paper, the words you choose can make a significant impact on how your message is received. While you want to sound intelligent and articulate, it’s essential to avoid words and phrases that can weaken your paper or come off as pretentious, vague, or overly complex. Here’s a list of words and phrases to steer clear of.

Overused Adjectives and Adverbs:

  • Amazing: This word is often overused and lacks specificity.
  • Really, Very: These adverbs dilute your statements rather than strengthen them.
  • Unique: Unless you qualify what makes something unique, it’s a word that has lost its impact due to overuse.

Filler Words:

  • Basically: This word adds no value to your sentence.
  • Actually: Often, this word is unnecessary and can be removed.
  • Literally: Unless you’re using it to clarify a statement, it’s best avoided.

Vague or Redundant Phrases:

  • In my opinion: It’s your paper; the admissions officers already know it’s your opinion.
  • I believe that: Similar to “in my opinion,” this phrase is often unnecessary.
  • In order to: Simply using “to” is more straightforward and concise.

Pretentious Words:

  • Utilize: Just say “use.”
  • Furthermore: This can often be replaced with “also” or “and.”
  • Thusly: “Thus” is sufficient.

Negative Words:

  • Hate: It’s a strong word that can be off-putting to readers.
  • Regret: Focus on what you’ve learned rather than what you regret.
  • Fail: Instead of focusing on failure, talk about a learning experience.

Slang and Informal Language:

  • Kinda, Gonna, Wanna: These are too informal for a college.
  • Cool, Awesome: These words are colloquial and can appear immature.
  • Stuff, Things: These are too vague and can make your essay less meaningful.

Jargon and Complex Language:

  • Synergy: Avoid business jargon unless it’s directly relevant to your essay.
  • Disambiguate: Stick to simpler words like “clarify.”
  • Pernicious: Unless it fits the context perfectly, it’s best to avoid words that might send the reader to a dictionary.

How to Find Good College Essay Ideas ✨

Making notes
Finding ideas for college essays

Before you even begin brainstorming topics to write about for college essays, make sure you understand the essay prompt given by the college. Each prompt is designed to give you the opportunity to showcase different qualities or experiences, so understanding what is being asked of you is crucial.

Take some time to reflect on your life experiences, challenges, and achievements. Consider what you’re passionate about, what makes you unique, and what you have to offer to the college community. Your college admission essay topics should ideally be something that genuinely excites you and offers valuable insights into who you are.

Good college essay topics are those that are deeply personal. They should offer a glimpse into your character, your values, and your worldview. Whether you choose to write about a life-changing event, a person who has significantly influenced you, or a personal aspiration, make sure the topic you choose offers room for introspection.

Good essay topics for college admissions are not just interesting but also specific enough to write about in detail. General or broad topics can make it difficult to delve into your subject matter in a meaningful way. The more specific you are, the more engaging your essay will be.

Before you commit to essay topics for college applications, test it out by drafting a quick outline or by discussing it with someone you trust. This can help you determine whether your topic is compelling and whether it offers enough scope for discussion.

Remember, your audience is the admissions officers. They’re looking for students who will be a good fit for their institution. Your topic should not only be interesting to you but also to them. It should align with the values and culture of the place to which you’re applying.

Here are some college admissions essay topic ideas to get you started:

  • A Challenge You’ve Overcome”: This could be personal, academic, or even social.
  • A Significant Experience or Achievement: What have you done that you’re particularly proud of?
  • A Person Who Has Influenced You: This could be a family member, teacher, or mentor.
  • A Book, Movie, or Work of Art That Has Influenced You: How has it shaped your perspective?
  • Your Career Goals: Where do you see yourself in the future, and what steps are you taking to get there?
  • A Social or Political Issue That Matters to You: How do you engage with this issue?
  • Your Cultural Background: How has it shaped who you are today?

Conclusion 🤍

Writing an application essay is a serious endeavor that can greatly affect your future educational path. Now you know what not to do in college essays. Every step, from understanding the essence and purpose of writing a paper to identifying topics and elements to avoid, is crucial to writing an essay that will set you apart in a sea of applicants.

Remember, an essay is not just a writing assignment. This is your chance to go beyond grades and test scores and show the admissions committee why you will be a valuable addition to their academic community. That’s why it’s important to be authentic, thoughtful, and thorough in your writing.