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5 Overused College Essay Topics to Avoid

Essay season is my favorite part of the application cycle.

Fortunately for me, it is the one that stretches across months, as a student might be looking for someone to bounce ideas off of as early as March of their junior year, and they might still be looking for feedback on supplemental essays until those last Regular Decision deadlines in January (or even February). Essays, from topics to revisions, are almost always on my mind. 

There are innumerable great topics—moments both big and small—out there awaiting a reflective senior’s voice. But there are a handful of topics that have been done so often for the main college essay that a student’s experience is lost to the overly-familiar.

Admissions officers are under pressure to review each file in just a handful of minutes. A student’s essay must not only grab their attention but also hold it. When an admissions officer sees an overly-familiar topic, they might have hundreds if not thousands of past essays in mind as they read. Keeping their attention becomes that much harder.

Here are a handful of these overly-familiar topics to remove from your running list of possibilities for the main college essay:

1. Sports

Whether tales of an epic win or loss, played in full health or after facing injury, a sports-themed essay hits on familiar themes and story arcs. It is hard to offer a new angle, and even when a student does, the risk of inviting an admissions officer to skim rather than dive in remains high. Plus, sports are activities that have an assigned home on the Common App’s activities section. To write an essay on them repeats what is already in the application. So use every bit of that activity listing word budget to relay the highs and lows, but do not let that experience spill over into the main essay.

2. Community service

Service is a hard topic to write on, with an all but prescribed storyline and limited opportunities for unique self-reflection. Plus, service-focused topics are often found in a college’s supplemental application, which invites repetition. Save your community work for the activities list section, where you might show your impact or motivation (or both) through up to 150 thoughtfully crafted characters. Or, occasionally, you might expand on an experience for a school-specific supplemental essay question. Either way, share what you have done for your community in one of the spaces already dedicated to highlighting this work.


3. An academic interest

From the transcript and associated high school profile to the teacher recommendations to the “why major” or “why this college” supplemental essay prompt at many schools to academic-related clubs like drama, robotics, or math, a student’s academic interests have space to shine. A main essay focusing on similar themes dilutes what is already present, or worse, repeats it.


4. Travel

There are so many pitfalls with travel-related topics, from highlighting privilege to restricting opportunities for unique self-reflection. There can be exceptions, like visiting a family’s homeland. Such experiences can offer insight into one’s heritage and identity. But outside of this narrow sliver of subtopics, travel-focused essays are hard to write well.


5. A great achievement

Whether it was a winning debate, a patent earned for an original design, or an honorary award, an achievement presents a challenge when it comes time to write about it. The reader anticipates the story—moving through struggles to achieve. Plus, the range for self-reflection is limited. Save any academic “win” for the Common App’s honors section or incorporate an activity-related one, like winning “best attorney” at a mock trial conference, into the associated activity listing.


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Great topics run the gamut. Some recent favorites have been on everything from a student’s long driveway to an impromptu barber shop. And while major events can fuel a powerful essay, 650 words do not always allow for developing and reflecting on a “big” moment. Often, it is the smallest moment held under a microscope and explained through a lens of self reflection that offers the most insight into who a student is and what they might add to their future community.

So look for those small moments, the unique wins that emerge through how that moment is explained. Those are the ones that tend to encourage a powerful essay.