So you learned the importance of teamwork, even though you lost the big game. That’s great. It’s just not a great essay topic.
Think you have a great, super-unique idea for an essay? You might want to think again. Of the thousands of essays I read when I was an admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania, very few were particularly distinctive. Of those, even fewer were distinctive in a positive way.
Curious as to which topics you would do well to avoid? Here are the top five.
#5: The most important moment in my life was the big game that my team won (or lost).
Yawn. This is a bad idea because it’s boring, and the lessons learned are typically the same regardless of who writes it. The importance of sportsmanship coupled with the joy of being part of a team. How much it meant to win or how much you enjoyed the experience even though you didn’t win.
One of the primary goals of the essay is to help your application stand out. Don’t blow it by writing about something so common. Either find a more interesting angle on athletics or find a new topic.
#4: Behold all of my successes, aka The List.
Most applications include a place where you will record all of your activities, honors and awards. The essay is not that place.
Instead of trying to cover everything you have ever accomplished within the confines of 500 words, pick one important achievement and focus on that. What sparked your interest in that activity? Why do you do it and what do you enjoy most about it? Does it relate to your future goals and, if so, in what way?
#3: One night I volunteered at a soup kitchen and it changed my life.
Otherwise known as the essay where you tell the admissions people what a great person you are. With three exceptions — yes, three — every single essay I have read about volunteer work came to one of the following conclusions: I never realized how much I had until I met people who didn’t have anything; I never realized anyone could be happy without the things I take for granted; or a combination of the previous two.
You might think that admissions officers want to hear about what a great person you are, but in reality they want to hear about the person you are. Writing about a passion or true interest will always result in a more genuine and impactful essay.
#2: I am a can of seltzer.
This topic probably seems much more unique than the soup kitchen essay. Not everyone is comparing themselves to a bottle of soda — I’m fizzy! — right? Well, there’s a good reason for that: It’s an awful idea.
Admissions officers respond to authenticity. Focus on what’s real rather than on a “creative” idea that amounts to a gimmick. If you can find a more personal story, one that shares something important about who you are, your readers will feel like they know you much better when they’re done.
#1: Here I am writing my college essay (which, did you know, is really hard?!), and there you are, reading it.
You may be under the impression that this topic will show off your intellectually witty side. It won’t. At best, you’ll look like you started to write the essay the night before it was due. At worst, you’ll come off as a self-involved showoff without anything interesting to say.
Showcase your wit and intellect by writing about an absorbing academic or thought provoking experience. Instead of seeming pretentious, you will come across as an engaged learner who will likely make the most of the college experience.
The essay is the primary chance you have in the application process to share something important about yourself. Make the most of the opportunity by spending as much time thinking about what to write as you do actually writing it.
Elizabeth Heaton is a senior director of educational consulting at College Coach, the nation’s leading provider of educational advisory services. Elizabeth began her admissions career at the University of Pennsylvania, where she chaired university selection committees, evaluated potential athletic recruits as one of the school’s athletics liaisons, and oversaw the university’s portfolio of admissions publications.
applications, college admissions, College Coach, Elizabeth Heaton, essays, University of Pennsylvania, COLLEGE CHOICE
Trying to get beyond the self-aggrandizing essays of the past, new college application questions aim to probe more deeply and reveal the student's personality.
"It's a way to see students who can think differently and go beyond their academic, intellectual and extracurricular comfort zones," said Garrett Brinker, an admissions official at University of Chicago. Those essays also "break up the monotony of the application process," for students and colleges.
The Common Application, the online site used by 488 colleges, offers such generic prompts as: "Discuss some issue of personal, local, national or international concern and its importance to you." The site makes it easier for would-be students to apply, even if some are half-hearted about enrolling.
But an increasing number of schools prefer to hear only from serious applicants "aware of the values of the institution," said Katy Murphy, president-elect of the National Assn. for College Admission Counseling.
So more colleges are adding online supplements that require head-scratching writing assignments. Examples include Tufts' "Celebrate your nerdy side"; Wake Forest's "Think of things that fascinated you when you were 10 years old — what has endured?"; Caltech's "Please describe an unusual way in which you have fun"; and Brandeis' "A package arrives at your door. After seeing the contents you know it's going to be the best day of your life. What's inside and how do you spend your day?"
For some students, the questions may lighten an otherwise burdensome task. But others are intimidated, said Murphy, who is college counseling director at Bellarmine College Preparatory, a high school in San Jose. "The colleges talk about the creativity of play and the philosophy of Plato. What the students are trying to figure out is: 'What do the colleges want me to say?' "
Judy Rothman, author of "The Neurotic Parent's Guide to College Admissions," said schools like curveball essay questions because "they are sick and tired of reading the same thing over and over again" and because the topics encourage teen authorship without adult coaching.
High school seniors have mixed reactions, she said: "For a kid who is natural writer, it is relief and a great break from the tedious process of the applications. For the kids who just want to get through all their applications, it's a nightmare because you can't recycle material."
Hannah Kohanzadeh, a Santa Monica High School senior, has embraced the trend. "So many schools don't pay attention to the little quirks students have. Those personal things can tell whether a student belongs there or not," she said. With deadlines two weeks away, she is finishing applications to Brandeis, Occidental and others.
For Occidental, an essay asked: "Identify and describe a personal habit or idiosyncrasy — of any nature — that helps define you." She wrote about how she flaps her arms when she gets excited about hearing good music or reading a great book, and tied it to her love of new ideas. "I start flying," she said.
For idiosyncrasies, other students described being so rushed that they brush their teeth in the shower, wearing certain underwear as a good luck charm for exams and falling in love too fast, according to Occidental's Dean of Admission Sally Stone Richmond. Inviting such revelations helps ease applicants' fears that they must appear perfect and is "an opportunity to seek candor in ways that won't be intimidating to the student," she said.
At Caltech, the question about having fun and others in a similar vein push applicants "to thoughtfully reflect and respond honestly about who they are," said Jarrid Whitney, executive director of admissions and financial aid.
Now and then, an applicant reveals something "probably borderline unethical or demeaning to others," Whitney said. For example a few years ago, someone wrote about spiking a teacher's coffee with a potentially dangerous chemical. The teacher was warned in time, and the student did not meet academic standards for Caltech anyway. But if he had, that essay probably would have convinced officials he was "not a great fit in our community," Whitney said.