Topics you should seriously consider avoiding in your essays…

By Lee Shulman Bierer, College Admissions Strategies – Founder


Lots of high school seniors currently find themselves facing an empty computer screen wondering just how to write an application essay that is memorable. Many fail. That’s because they are writing either what they think a college admissions representative wants to read or they don’t understand the objective of the essay.


Common cliché topics that students choose to write about and probably shouldn’t:

Sports Victory – how our team won the big game in the last few seconds because of my commitment, drive and focus.

Miss America – how performing community service has taught me the importance of helping others and achieving world peace.

Grandma – how she overcame so many obstacles.

The 3 D’s – how I endured the hardship of divorce, drugs or a death of someone close to me.

Sense of Entitlement – how my travel and numerous enrichment experiences have broadened my horizons.

Value of Life – how the death of a pet inspired introspection.

The Resume – how my entire life from preschool until today has prepared me for life at your college campus.

Laundry list of character traits – how my commitment, leadership, eagerness, determination and discipline make me a great applicant.

Rather than setting students apart in a positive way, these “been-there-done-that” topics end up, in a worst-case scenario, damaging the application or, in the best case, not helping very much at all.

So here are some essay rules of the road that should help get the creative juices flowing:

  • Brainstorm with family and friends – ask everyone “what makes me different from my friends and siblings?”
  • Think of a story – a funny, quirky conversation, a special gift you received from someone, etc.
  • Keep the scale manageable – don’t try to tell your life’s story, better to focus instead on a simple moment in time.
  • Grab them with your lead – after reading your introductory sentence, you want someone to be thinking “Wow, this is going to be an interesting essay, I’d like to meet this student.”
  • Be concise – keep the essay moving and vary the sentence structure to avoid monotony.
  • Use humor, but only if it works for your topic and it speaks to your personality. Imagine application essay readers plowing through 100-200 essays per day (sometimes more); putting a smile on somebody’s face won’t hurt.
  • Share your character. Let the readers get to know you and find out what makes you tick. Reveal the inner you and you’ll be certain that no one else has written the same essay.
  • Proof your work. Bad grammar and mechanics can hurt you. Write a draft. Let it sit for a day or two, revisit and edit and then pass it along to someone who knows you well who you feel is a strong writer. Incorporate their comments and redraft the essay. Proof again.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to:; 704-907-5685.