Standardized tests like the ACT and SAT have been on thin ice with college admissions officers even before the pandemic. But now, with the cancelation of the SAT II and many schools moving to test optional both this year and potentially in the future, essays have become so much more important. Even GPA, typically a good indicator of students’ abilities to perform academically, is less reliable this year given the patchwork of different approaches taken by different schools with regards to classes, schoolwork, and grading.
All of this means that college admissions officers are paying more attention to the essays than ever before. And each year, hundreds of college essays pass over the desks of college admissions officers. They see a staggering variety of stories from a massively diverse array of students. Reading so many essays each year, applicants need to walk a very thin line. On the one hand, you don’t want to write something that the admissions officer has read dozens of times just that week. On the other, you don’t want to try so hard to write something unusual that you miss the point – which is to highlight something positive about yourself that doesn’t otherwise show up in your application.
So what are the topics you should avoid when writing an essay? Well…
1. Doing well in a class
When asked to write about an accomplishment, a lot of students will default to talking about one of their courses. This makes sense – a lot of the achievements in your life so far have revolved around doing well at school - either through assignments or that big, important test. Creating a study plan, putting in the hard work following it, and doing well on your final is a great accomplishment and you should be proud of it! But it may not be the best thing to write about.
Writing about a class that you did well in misses the point of the personal narrative essay style. The admissions committee will already have received your grades, standardized test scores, and activities list through your application. The purpose of your application essay is to highlight some aspect of yourself that isn’t in the other parts of your application. That can mean showing off more intangible qualities like generosity, people skills, deep thinking ability, or leadership. Your academic performance should already shine through your application; you don’t need to reinforce that with your essay. Which brings us to the next kind of essay you should avoid.
2. An individual accomplishment
This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s a good guideline when it comes to what colleges are looking for. After you get out of school, you’ll find that most of the work that gets done in the world isn’t the result of one person’s efforts. Almost everything, from business to government to creative endeavors, is done as part of a team. That’s why colleges want to see that you’re able to work in a group setting. Obviously, showing that you’re able to be a leader is definitely something to highlight, but it’s also important to show that you can be a proactive and responsive team member. The best essay will showcase both of these qualities.
There are exceptions to this rule. If you’ve accomplished something truly amazing by yourself, like saving a life or creating a famous work of art, that’s definitely something that you should talk about in an essay. Outside of those exceptional situations, however, it’s usually better to write about an accomplishment where you had to work with other people, even if it was you who was the driving force of the project, it’s important to talk about the way you organized the contributions of others.
3. A failure (that you didn’t learn from)
The most important thing to focus on for this is the caveat attached. Often, a prompt will require you to talk about a failure or a setback. These prompts are actually a great opportunity to write a really strong essay, so long as you don’t fall into this trap. The worst thing you can do when talking about a failure is show that you aren’t capable of learning from your mistakes.
This may seem obvious, but there are a lot of ways students can fall into this trap. In particular, many students look at an essay prompt asking them to talk about a setback and assume that what the school wants to hear about is their perseverance. Writing an essay about how you failed but are determined to try again is not going to reflect well on your application. What is going to help your application is an essay about a time you failed and then took the time to understand why you failed and how you can do better in the future. Colleges aren’t looking for fully-formed adults capable of executing every task flawlessly. (If you’ve met one, please send them my way!) Instead, colleges want to see students who are interested in self-growth. They want to see students who take success, but especially failure, as an opportunity to improve themselves for the future.
4. Conflict with your school or fellow students
As a literary trope, there’s nothing wrong with a lone hero struggling against a large institution or an authority figure. There’s a reason that this kind of story is so common – we like an underdog! However, when we are evaluating whether or not someone would be a good addition to our community, we tend to look for different things – like the ability to work as a team and de-escalate conflict rather than win it.
That’s why an essay about your struggle with the school administration to change a school policy or conflict with your fellow students will often reflect poorly on you. An essay centered around conflict with someone else at your school, even a conflict you eventually win, will show that you’re more interested in having your own goals realized than helping others with theirs. But an essay about resolving a situation to everyone’s benefit shows that you understand the needs of others and are willing to work towards