There is a panic that afflicts many students when they sit down to write their college admission essay. The blank page mocks them. "Fill me," it taunts. "Cover my crisp white emptiness with a 250-750 word distillation of the value of your entire life. Be brilliant, or you'll be deep-frying frozen potatoes for the rest of your sorry existence."
Under the hostile, reproving glare of their computer screen, the student's brain suddenly does its best Windows Vista® impression and years of valuable life experiences are replaced by a mental "blue screen" of despair. It becomes all too easy to rush it; just hammer away on the keyboard and hope that something worthwhile trickles out.
It usually doesn't. Instead, the essay almost always falls into one of the following categories and is lost forever in the crumpled morass of wasted paper.
So, no matter how panicked you are, don't EVER use one of these topics. They will do you a disservice.
1. The “Skim Milk” Essay:
What it looks like: “I have no idea what to write, so I will aimlessly wander through stunningly boring life events, hoping you, the reader, impart some significance to at least one of them.”
What we think: We stopped reading half-way.
2. The “My Life is a Metaphor for the Mundane” essay:
What it looks like: “An acorn is a seed that grows into a tall, sturdy oak tree. I will now describe the process in a short novella. Twelve pages later, I’ll take a paragraph to reveal that…wait for it…I am actually an acorn! (You, metaphorically, are the fertile ground in which I will be planted.) I will then make five or six hackneyed references to an oak’s ability to remain firm in the face of adversity and leave you to swoon over my brilliance.”
What we think: We know you’re really proud of your ability to compare yourself to an inanimate object, but we’re too busy gagging to appreciate your genius.
3. The “My Parents Sent Me on a Really Cool Trip!” essay:
What it looks like: “I went to another country. I ate weird food (gross!), and people talked funny (it was confusing!). I got lost once (so scary!). College will be just like my trip to Paris, and now I know I’m ready.”
What we think: Though it certainly sounds like fun, you aren’t Magellan because you took a tour of the Louvre.
4. The “Sainthood is Just a Martyrdom Away…” essay:
What it looks like: “My school forced me to do volunteer hours at a homeless shelter, where I pretty much saved the world. I deserve a medal and perhaps a cash payment.”
What we think: Wow. We’re so inspired that we think you should start your own church instead of attending college.
5. The “My-Dog-Died-When-I-Was-Four-and-I-Didn’t-Get-Over-The-Trauma-Until-my-Senior-Year” essay:
What it looks like: “I hear sad stories make up for bad grades. I will tell you about mine so you will ignore my inability to pass everything but homeroom. Here it goes. ‘When I was just a wee child my mother lost me in the grocery store. Though she found me after five minutes, the trauma persisted—mostly manifested in poor class attendance and incomplete assignments.’”
What we think: Wow. That is sad…Or it was, a decade ago. Now, it’s you that’s sad.
6. The “What I Tell My Parole Officer” essay:
What it looks like: “I may have burned down my school and chased my principal around with a modified paintball gun filled with frozen mayonnaise balls, but upon realizing that I have no future after high school I have now reformed. I can't really give you any evidence that I have (because there isn't any), but that also means you can’t convict me, right?”
What we think: Though we’re never, ever, ever going to let you in, we're at least glad you didn't shoot him with a "zany zip of Miracle Whip®."
7. The “I Can Only Truly Be Defined Through Famous People’s Words” essay:
What it looks like: “Due to constant exposure to reality T.V. I don’t produce many unique or poignant thoughts on my own. Instead, I will steal a famous person’s brilliant idea, misquote it, and attempt to apply it to my college aspirations. I will fall short, because my desire to attend college solely to keep my parents from sacrificing me on the altar of vicarious experience is not quite representative of 'being the change I want to see in the world.'" (Gandhi).
What we think: It’s a personal statement and you started it with someone else’s words. Can you see the disconnect?
8. The “Let’s Face It, We Both Know You’re My Safety School” essay:
What is looks like: “I don’t want to go to your school unless I’m rejected by everyone else—including my girlfriend and my pet Labrador—so I wrote an obligatory five sentences and sent them in just in case.”
What we think: Well, you can add one more rejection to your list.
9. The “Wow! This Thesaurus is Really Cool!” essay:
What it looks like: “The English language and I are barely on speaking terms, but I just discovered this magical tool that makes small words into bigger ones! Now I will methodically infuse my peculiar expectorate with inauspicious synonyms that I cannot elucidate.”
What we think: We really, really hope you’re just misusing “peculiar expectorate.”
10. The "I Deserve To Go To College Because I Want To Go To College" essay:
What it looks like: "I watched an MTV commercial (well, like five seconds of it...thank god for my DVR), that said that I'd make a million more dollars if I attend college. Plus, everyone I know would be so proud of me. That's why you should admit me: I really want to go to your school."
What we think: That's probably the reason you applied to college, right? Because you want to attend college? In fact, that's probably why these four thousand other students also applied. ...What's your name again?
So what to do instead? Well, you can read our earlier posts for more detailed advice, but the best rule to follow is the simplest: be yourself. It's the best way to ensure that your essay is unique. Pick one or two of your most defining [positive] characteristics and convey them to us in your own voice. That's all we're looking for in the first place.