Warning! These College Application Essay Ideas DON'T Work

by
Editor-in-Chief, Carnegie Communications

These are college application essay #FAILs waiting to happen.

You know you need to stand out in your college application essay—but it’s important that you stand out in a good way. While you might be convinced that your essay is sure to impress the admission committee for its . . . uh . . . unique approach, it may not go over as well as you think.

When it comes to inventive essay topics (or formats, for that matter), it is possible to go too far. Remember, the purpose of the application essay is to convey who you are, what’s important to you, what you’ll contribute to your community, and your college readiness. The application essay ideas below just aren’t good at achieving those goals.

Trust me: you can be genuine and creative without them.

The foreign language

Writing your application essay in a foreign language might seem like a standout way to show your passion for the subject. But even if you’re planning on majoring in that language, it’s still a bad call. Besides, the admission committee has enough to worry about without getting your essay translated for them.

Instead: Write about your trip to the Dominican Republic and how speaking only Spanish made you realize you want to teach the language.

The poem

A poem instead of an essay
Can get a little bit messy
Try as you might
They often sound trite
As well as contrived, I must say

(Okay, that’s not very good. But poetry’s hard. Hence, don't go this route for your application essay.)

Instead: Write about your tradition of writing a poem for your grandmother on her birthday.

The devil’s advocate

Being incendiary and controversial for the sake of being incendiary and controversial has never been a good way to win hearts or minds. Your future college is looking for thoughtful, passionate students, not shock jocks.

Instead: Write about your experience on the school’s debate team.

The edgy rebel

Expletives. Violence and gore. Hot-button issues. What you might see as showing your edgy, rebellious side might actually come across as disrespectful to the admission committee. And why would they admit you if they don’t think you would represent their school well?

Instead: Write about how you love words, their cadence and meaning, and how one of your favorites happens to be a swear—without actually using the naughty word.

The overshare

If it’s related to bodily functions, it’s probably not an appropriate essay topic. Also, please, please do not talk about sexy times with your S.O. as part of your college essay. It’s not romantic; it’s awkward.

Instead: Write about how you were the only kid growing up who wasn’t grossed out when someone skinned their knee and how you found the coagulating blood fascinating, you future pathologist, you.

The arts-and-crafts project

Your application essay isn’t an extension of your art portfolio. Don’t submit a papier-mâché sculpture of the person who most influenced you. In fact, don’t send in anything the application doesn’t specifically ask for. It doesn’t help your case for admission, but it does make you look like you can’t follow directions.

Instead: Write about your penchant for knitting, how you use it to focus, and how the click-click of the needles helps you calm down when you’re stressed.

The big picture

Questions of great significance—Why are we here? Where are we going? What does it all mean?!?!—can lead to insightful writings and conversations, but they’re terrible application essay topics because they have little to do with who you are.

Instead: Write about your favorite summer camp memory: lying around the campfire, looking at the stars, and talking about philosophy with your friends.

The sob story

This is a tough one, because a personal (or even societal) tragedy can be hugely influential in your life. Even so, this is another essay topic admission counselors recommend avoiding, since it’s hard to get a sense of who you are as an applicant, however moving your story might be.

Instead: Write about how much you value being the person your friends turn to when they need a shoulder to cry on.

The Friday Night Lights

Have you ever watched a sports-related TV show or movie and thought, “This is really similar to that other sports-related TV show or movie I saw.” Well, it’s a lot like that with sports-related application essays, if you know what I’m sayin’.

Instead: Write about how you used your time on the bus rides to and from away games to sell homemade energy bars.

So, what does work?

Now that you know all these college application essay don’ts . . . what are the do’s? What should you write about and how? Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered:

And if you want to take a new, inventive approach to your application essay, why not try an application video? Lots of schools are accepting them now. More advice here.

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