The Worst Essay Topics — Part I - WiseApp
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The Worst Essay Topics — Part I

The Worst Essay Topics — Part I

I’ve talked and talked about how to pick a great essay topic, so it’s only fair that I address how not to do it.

First tip: don’t Google “the best personal statement topics” and click every link like you’re panning for gold. You won’t find it. Instead, you’ll find loads of sketchy, “We’ll write your essay for you!” services. But wait… Can you really hire somebody else to do the work for you?

Second tip: WRITE YOUR OWN ESSAY!

Whew, sorry. I got upset there. The thought of you forking over hard-earned cash to some retired teaching assistant at The University of Shysterberg to write you an essay called, “Are You There College? It’s Me, Matthew,” just gets me all steamed.  

I digress. What follows is an explanation of three essay topics that get admissions committees steamed, so I’d recommend you avoid them.

 

THE TRAJECTORY ESSAY

You worked really hard in high school. You stayed up late studying for exams, finishing papers, and doing full-length SAT (or ACT) practice tests. You’re proud of your grades and your test scores because you know it wasn’t easy to achieve them.

Your instinct is to let colleges know how hard you worked because it says something unique about you. You’re dedicated. You care. Your grades are important to you.

“As illustrated in Fig. 43-F, there is a direct correlation between grades v. time…”

You believe the personal statement is your 650-word chance to take the admissions committee (AdCom) into the trenches with you, to give them a behind-the-scenes look at what it took to produce academic and standardized testing glory. You need to tell them.

No, you don’t. They know.

“How?” you ask. “Are they mind readers?”

“No,” I answer. “They can see your transcript and score reports.”

“But but but,” you persist, working yourself into an angry lather. “Those things don’t show who I am as a person.”

“Neither does an essay about those things.”

“Okay,” you say, seeing my point but continuing the imaginary conversation, “but the AdCom doesn’t understand the hard work I put in to get those grades and scores.”

Yes, they absolutely do. If anyone understands how difficult it is to achieve respectable grades and test scores in today’s cutthroat landscape, it’s college AdComs. In fact, many know the reputation of your school, too: how competitive it is, how many advanced/AP classes are offered, and even whether or not there’s grade inflation. If you’re a promising applicant attending a little-known school, some AdComs will make a point to seriously research it.

The other reason not to write about grades and scores: it’s BORING.

I know that you remember every hurdle you had to jump over, but trust me, writing about them is a snoozefest. There is no way to make it interesting.

“Look, Stanley. Another essay about grades.”
“No way, you’re lion!”

“The Trajectory Essay” charts upward progress, and it’s almost always the same.

“First, I started out having a hard time in the class. Then, I worked really hard. My grades improved. I worked even harder, but my grades still weren’t perfect. So I kept working hard, and guess what? My grades improved even more!”

Oh man, I almost fell asleep writing that. You might as well write an essay about the time you climbed all one-hundred and two stories of The Empire State Building. “When I was at floor 21, I was tired, but I kept going. Then came 22, 23, 24…”

“But I can make my trajectory interesting!” you say.

No, you can’t. It might be interesting to you, but I swear nobody else will agree—except maybe your proud parents. They love you unconditionally. The AdCom doesn’t even know you.

And there’s the rub. The personal statement is your best chance in the application to showcase your personality, to tell them who you are. When they look at your transcript and score reports, the AdCom only sees numbers. When they read your essay, however, they need to see you on the page. So why regurgitate information that’s in another part of the application?

We’re a society obsessed with numbers. We believe there’s nothing like good old quantitative data to size up a human being—that’s what IQ testing is all about. You’re much more than numbers on a page, and you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to give three-dimensionality to your application.

Take the blue pill. Escape the numbers Matrix.

A final point: AdComs know numbers are limiting. Your GPA is important, but testing isn’t as heavily scrutinized as it used to be. Standardized test scores don’t reveal as much as their creators once hoped, and it turns out results aren’t based purely on merit. There are socioeconomic factors (a.k.a. things not in your control) that make the playing field uneven.

It’s why more and more schools each year are dropping the standardized test score requirement, and that’s a good trend in my opinion. If I wanted to get to know you and had to choose between reading your personal statement or viewing your score reports, you can be sure which one I’d pick…

…as long as you didn’t write an essay about your grades.

 

THE MYSTICAL MISSION TRIP

A mission trip can be a meaningful and noble endeavor. You travel with your school or house of worship to a place in the world that needs help. These are oftentimes cities and towns within developing nations in Central and South America, but sometimes the destination is within the United States, typically an area that has been hit hard by a natural disaster.

While you’re there, you and the group pitch in to build a house. You distribute food, clothes, and clean water to the locals. You meet people who have led completely different lives from yours. They are grateful you came, and perhaps they give you an introduction to their culture and customs.

Ultimately you learn that they are not so different from you, that we’re all humans who think and feel and love and hurt. Some people are just a little more fortunate to be born in a place where there are more opportunities, better education, and an infrastructure that provides a framework for your ambitious climb towards college and beyond. The locals you met on the mission trip don’t have all of this. They’re less fortunate than you, so that’s why you came to help.

Then, you went home. Therein lies the reason why this is an essay topic to be avoided.

You were afforded a glimpse into a different lifestyle, but it was finite. You could leave when it was over. I’m not suggesting that you should have stayed, but I want you to consider the effect this trip had on you. Oftentimes, it’s fleeting. Ask yourself: “Are my day-to-day actions different because of it? Did it fundamentally change the person I am?”

Probably not, and it’s not supposed to. It’s an act of charity—always a beautiful thing—but it’s short-lived. For a personal statement topic, you should choose something illustrative of your character. What have been your hardest struggles? Your biggest failures? The moments that defined you?

I’ve worked with at least twenty students who pitched their mission trip as the best idea for their personal statements. After informing them why this isn’t a great topic, we dug deeper. Guess what happened?

Each student had a better, deeper, more meaningful story of transformation.

“Wow, you guys. I’m totally writing about this in my personal statement.”
“Way to steal my idea, Gene.”

If the mission trip had such a profound effect on you that you decided to take a year off from school to live in a developing nation and commit yourself to charity, then I might agree that it’s worth writing about. The initial mission trip, however, would only be the introduction in that essay, which would be more about the ensuing year of charity work.

One final fact worth mentioning is that the weeklong mission trip is a common topic. AdComs see it a lot. That should tell you something. The essays look similar, too, full of vivid and sad descriptions of the poor corner of the world, and ending with the applicant remarking how good it felt to “make a difference.”

Whether or not these trips create long-lasting change for the locals is irrelevant. In your personal statement, you need to convince the AdCom that certain life experiences have had tremendous impact on you. It’s difficult to do that with the mission trip as your topic.

 

THE NOT-SO-SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER

I’ve said that telling an emotionally raw story is a calculated risk, but it comes with a caveat: it cannot be about a romantic relationship. That topic is off limits.

“Why?” you ask. “AdComs know that teenagers date and have relationships. Admissions officers aren’t ignorant prudes. They’re adults!”

That’s right, but you’re not.

I don’t mean be harsh. I know that at seventeen- or eighteen-years-old, you’re mature. You’re approaching or recently passed the legal cusp of adulthood, but you still have a lot to learn, especially about love.

There’s a reason people use the term “puppy love” to describe young relationships. Just like puppies, two young people in love are adorable. But also like puppies, they tend to make a mess easily.

“Cheap shot, dude. I’ve had a few accidents, so what?”

AdComs are not Puritanical. They would just rather hear about the other cool stuff that makes you who you are. It’s more interesting than reading about how one day you decided to ask Sophie if she thought Gina was into you, and even though Sophie said “Totes!” Gina didn’t reply to three consecutive SnapChats or seven comments on her Insta, which made you wonder if you used too many emojis.

All of this interesting to you because you lived it, plus love is so new and wonderful! Alas, even though holding hands with Gina makes it feel like your heart is made of a trillion fidget spinners, your love life is far less interesting to a group of people who have had more relationship experience. It’s like when your little cousin first discovered Hannah Montana, and you were like, “Please. I grew up with that show. She’s just Miley now.”  

She threw off the chains of childhood and came in like a wrecking ball.

I know that I’ve been describing innocent relationships here—puppy love, emojis, hand holding—but rest assured that AdComs don’t want to hear about your forays into physical intimacy either. You can file those away under TMI.

Relationships and sex are a part of teenage life in modern America, but they’re not relevant when it comes to evaluating your potential as a college student. AdComs want to hear about the defining experiences of your life, what you’ve experienced outside the classroom that has shaped who you are.

Word of warning: when applications ask about your “extracurricular activities,” they mean the opposite of what your mom means when she sits you down for “the talk” and makes air quotes every time she uses the same term.  

“I brought you out in nature to explain that there are birds and bees. You see, bees have stingers…”
“MOM, STOP.”

 

END OF PART I

Let’s summarize.

First, write your own essay. If you’re not planning on doing that, stop reading this right now and go turn yourself into the disciplinary board of the nearest college. You’ll end up there anyway.

Second, don’t choose topics about:

  1. Grades, scores, and the work you put in to achieve them
  2. Your church trip for earthquake relief, which you’ve titled, “Love & Haiti.”
  3. Junior Prom, where you kissed Gina then blurted out, “I think I love you!”

Keep an eye out for Part II & III of this series, which will cover even more taboo topics like name dropping, bad risk-taking, appropriated stories, and a board game whose origins date back to third-century India.

Hint: It’s not Candy Land.

I used to cry if I landed on Lord Licorice. Don’t judge. 

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