As an admissions officer at Columbia University, I read through thousands of college essays every year, and after awhile it became apparent that there were definitely some overused topics out there, ones that didn’t help a student stand out or subjects that just couldn’t be adequately addressed in 500 words or less.  So as you’re trying to put together that perfect college essay, here are some of my top picks to cross off your brainstorming list pulled from my new book Seventeen’s Guide to Getting Into College.

1. The time you built houses in Mexico with your youth group or visited Israel to explore your cultural heritage–While these are both wonderful ways to spend your vacation, volunteering or traveling abroad with a school or youth group has become a really common high school experience and the subject of many a college essay.  It’s better to mention these elsewhere in the application than risk an entire essay sounding the same as everybody else.

2. Your parent’s divorce–There are three reasons to avoid the divorce topic: it’s (unfortunately) common, it’s not necessarily about you, and it’s hard to do justice in the space provided.

3. A narrative version of your resume–It’s fine to go into greater detail or tell a story about something that you’ve already mentioned, but don’t use the valuable essay space just to repeat info you have already included elsewhere in the application.

4. The death of a relative–There’s no denying the dramatic impact that the loss of a loved one can have on you; it’s something that affects us all.  But because of that, it is a common essay topic and therefore harder to stand out, not to mention difficult to capture in 500 words or less.

5. Why a particular college is so great–Colleges know what makes them great, but they don’t know what it is that makes you so fabulous.  Some students make the mistake of writing a mini-research paper on the school instead of talking about themselves.  If the application specifically asks why you want to go to the school either as an essay or short answer, make sure you talk about who you are and why the school is a good fit for you.

For more college essay topics to avoid and tips for writing a stand-out essay, check out Chapter 5 in Seventeen’s Guide to Getting Into College!


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