What Not to Write About in a College Essay

By Austin Kilham · March 08, 2024 · 8 minute read

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What Not to Write About in a College Essay

To help boost the chances that you’ll get into the college of your dreams, it’s important to write a great college essay. The big question is, what should you write about?

When brainstorming ideas for topics, keep in mind that you want your college essay to make you look good and also help you stand out from other applicants. Toward that end, it helps to know what not to write about in a college essay.

Themes that consistently make the “worst college essay topics” list include cliches, stories that college admissions officers have read some version of countless times before, and any topic that reflects negatively on your personality.

Here’s a closer look at the college essay topics you’ll want to avoid, plus insights into the type of writing that can give you a leg up in the admissions process.

What Do Colleges Look for in Essays?

Colleges are looking for several things in your admissions essay. They want you to demonstrate strong writing, authenticity, and a unique perspective. Admissions officers are also looking to get a sense of who you are as an individual so they can better determine whether you’re a good fit for the rigors of academic life and school culture.

A good essay demonstrates this through vivid storytelling that illustrates your points rather than simply telling the reader what you want them to think and how you want them to feel.

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Why Should You Avoid Certain Topics for College Entrance Essays?

Generally, you want to avoid essay topics that could give admissions readers the wrong impression of who you are. It’s also wise to steer clear of essay topics that are cliches. A cliche is an idea (or phrase) that is overused and, as a result, has lost its meaning and potency. At best, cliche college essays can make you look unoriginal, and at worst they can make you look lazy.

Rather than lean on cliches, you’ll want to dig deep into what makes you and your thoughts original. Ideally, you want to choose an essay topic that demonstrates vulnerability and reveals your unique perspective and voice.

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College Essay Topics to Avoid

What follows are some topics you may want to avoid when choosing what to write about in your college essay.

Restating Your Resume

Your college application already includes school transcripts and information about your activities and awards. Rehashing this information is unlikely to translate into a compelling narrative, and it doesn’t teach college admissions officers anything new about you.

If you want to write about a specific extracurricular activity, consider choosing just one, and exploring it in depth to give your reader a better sense of who you are as a person.

Sports Challenges

Sports challenge stories tend to fall into the cliche category of college essay topics. They’re overused, and they tend to be predictable. For example, you may have scored a goal at the last moment, pulling ahead against all odds.

That’s not to say you can’t write about sports in your essay. Original and authentic sports stories that steer clear of cliches can be highly successful. For example, you could focus on how the skills you learned as part of a team translated to another unrelated challenge.

Your Big Performance

As with sports challenges, stories about big performances — music solos, starring roles in plays, speeches — often follow similar plots. The performance goes well, or poorly, and the writer discovers the value of preparation or how they had the inner strength to move past a major disappointment. However, you can use a performance story to tell an original and engaging tale.

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Your Hero

It may be tempting to write about a person who has inspired you. But college essays are short. And if you’re not careful, you may spend too much time writing about someone other than the person who should be the star of the essay — you. Remember admissions officers want to know what makes you stand out, not what makes your heroes special.

Romantic Heartbreak

Breaking up is hard to do — even more so when it’s young love. Yet the trials and tribulations of teen romance may not be the best topic for a college essay. Much like writing about your heroes, you may pay too much lip service to someone else, while neglecting to convey enough of your own story.

Illegal or Unethical Activities

If you’ve ever gotten tangled in ethically questionable or illegal activities, your college essay is generally not the right time to mention them, even if it makes for a great story. If you do, even in passing, admissions may worry about the types of behavior you’ll engage in once on campus.

Service Trips

A trip to help serve others in the U.S. or abroad might seem like a great topic for a college essay. Unfortunately, that means a lot of students write about these opportunities, making it one of the most common essay topics. What’s more, these essays tend to follow the same beats. As a result, choosing this topic doesn’t always help you stand apart from the crowd.

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Things That Happened Before High School

Writing about events that took place before high school may not give admissions a good sense of what you are like now. The kid who won a spelling bee in seventh grade may bear little resemblance to the high school senior applying for schools. Consider writing about recent events, or be careful to relate events from your past to high school and your current self.

Moving to a Different Part of the Country

Moving is always challenging. But countless students move across the country and switch schools each year. As a result, essays that focus on moves are relatively common. If you decide to write about a move, shift the focus of the essay to how it changed you as a person, pushing you to pursue new interests. It could work if it’s not a story college admissions officers haven’t heard many times before.

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Immigrant Stories

If you’ve moved from abroad, be aware that many students in the U.S. have immigrant stories. As a result, stories about making the move, struggling to learn new languages, and trying to fit into a new culture are common essay topics. If you choose to write about this topic, consider narrowing your focus on one aspect of your story that illustrates how you’ve grown and changed.

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How You Were Challenged by a Bad Grade

How you overcame a challenge is often one of the essay prompts on the Common App. You might think that writing about what you did after getting a low grade fits the bill, but it’s generally not a good idea to delve into this topic. For one, it highlights the fact that you got a bad grade to admissions’ officers. Another problem is that other applicants will likely have more serious hardships and challenges they have had to overcome, which could make your essay topic appear less consequential.


In and of themselves, tragedies are not necessarily a bad topic for college essays. However, it can be easy to fall into cliched writing as you tell these stories. Hackneyed themes and phrases include “life is short,” “time heals all wounds,” and “seize the day.” If you write about a tragedy you have known or experienced, be sure to make it personal, honest, and specific to you.

Sensitive Topics

Generally speaking, if a topic is one you would avoid bringing up at the holiday dinner table, you’ll likely want to avoid it in your essay as well. It can be tricky to discuss things like politics or religion in a way that is original and personal to your experience. What’s more, essays on these topics may trigger unconscious bias in the admissions staff reading your essay, which can color how they view you and your fit at the school.

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Your Privilege

If you’ve been lucky enough to grow up with a lot of resources at your disposal, discussing them may not be a strong strategy. It can make it seem like you haven’t had to work through any challenges. Instead you might consider essay topics that demonstrate vulnerability and grit in the face of adversity.

Attempts to Break the Essay Mold

You may be tempted to try to make yourself stand out with a creative essay that breaks traditional forms. For example, you might try to write a poem instead. You’re likely not the only one who has had this idea, and you may rob yourself of the chance to demonstrate your creativity through prose. The traditional essay is what admissions has asked for, and it may give you the most opportunity to demonstrate who you really are.

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The Takeaway

The best college essays tend to focus on specific moments when a student has learned something important, changed, and grown as a person. Ideally, you want your college essay to give readers a sense of your character, and how you may continue to change as you pursue your academic career. Avoiding cliches and other tricky topics can help you successfully reveal your true self.

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What are the most common essay topics?

Some of the most common essay topics include:

•   A meaningful interest or talent

•   Something meaningful in your background/identity

•   Lessons you’ve learned from obstacles you’ve encountered

•   Times when your beliefs have been challenged

•   Something someone has done for you that’s made you grateful in a surprising way

What Do College Essays Look for?

Admissions offers are looking for essays that demonstrate strong writing skills, original thinking, and a unique perspective that sets you apart from other applicants.

How Much Does Your College Essay Matter?

Your college essay generally accounts for about 25% of your application. In terms of weight, it’s less important than your extracurriculars (30%) but more important than your grades and coursework (20%), test scores (15%), and recommendations/interviews (10%).

Photo credit: iStock/Delmaine Donson

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