25 Dec The Worst Essay Topics — Part II
If you haven’t read Part I in this series, go back and check it out. Or don’t. There’s no need to read these in order!
Why? Because a bad topic is a bad topic is a bad topic.
You’ve heard the phrase, “Go with your gut.” Don’t, at least with essay topics. After working with applicants for eight years, I’ve discovered that first ideas are rarely the best. There’s even scientific evidence to prove it.
A good essay idea must be unearthed the way Michelangelo created his sculptures. First, he walked around the quarry to find the right slab of marble, reviewing countless seemingly identical chunks of rock until he found the perfect one. When it was delivered to his studio, he studied it, imagining the statue was trapped inside the marble and it was his job to let it out. He started by hacking away huge pieces and continued with lots of delicate chipping, sanding, and smoothing, then a final polish.
Michelangelo’s final work, an unfinished Pieta, reveals multiple stages of his process.
Choosing a topic is only the slab selection stage. If the marble you’re starting with is flawed, there’s no way you’ll be able to create something beautiful out of it. Just like Michelangelo, you need to devote solid time to this initial stage, rather than rushing into writing one of your first ideas.
Here are a few slabs that should be immediately thrown back into the quarry.
UNCALCULATED CREATIVE RISK
Where I am, it looks like there are no borders. I can see so much of the world, but it’s distorted. I will go and take a closer look and… OUCH! I bumped my head. There’s an invisible wall. I don’t know who put that there. There’s an invisible wall on the other side, too.
You know who has the answers? The diver with the sunken treasure. I flap my golden fins and swim down to him, gliding through the cool water. I love to swim, but I guess I’ve never done anything else.
“Hey, Mr. Diver!” I say. “What’s with the invisible walls?”
He doesn’t answer. He never does. I wait. In a way, “no answer” is life’s most common and mysterious answer. The invisible walls are a mystery, but not for long…
If you were an admissions officer reading this essay, chances are that around this point, you’d jump out of your chair and run headfirst into a wall.
This writing sample is based on a real essay I read many years ago. A student, let’s call him Joe Pesce, signed up to work with me on a few application supplements.
“I’m funny how? I mean, funny like I’m a clownfish, I amuse you?”
He told me he was already finished with his CommonApp essay, so he didn’t need help there. I asked if I could give it a read.
“Of course,” Joe said with pride and showed me the document.
I attempted to contain my surprise. The essay was written entirely from the perspective of a goldfish. From start to finish, it was a first-person (first-fish?) narrative of what it was like to live in a small glass bowl with a distorted view of the world outside.
“It’s creative,” I said, setting the essay down, “but I’m not sure it’s right for a personal statement.”
Joe was incredulous. He worked so hard on it! He was taking a risk! The meaning of it must have gone over my head! It was the only essay in history like it!
I had to give him that last point, but uniqueness wasn’t working in Joe’s favor. It was a risky topic for all the wrong reasons.
Taking risks in your personal statement can be a great idea. The risks, however, must be calculated. Ask yourself, “What is the purpose of taking this risk?”
The answer should be: “To show the admissions committee (AdCom) who I really am.”
Not the smartest risk, but cool photo, bro
In Joe’s case, the answer was: “Because it’s a huge, original risk!” In other words, it wasn’t calculated. It lacked purpose, and he was being creatively risky for the sake of it. Sure, it pleased him. I can remember Joe staring at me with an anticipatory grin as I read the essay, but it wasn’t going to please the AdCom or tell them anything substantial about him.
Good risks include telling an emotionally raw story, revealing a side of your personality not many people know, and experimenting with a creative format as long as the format/style has a purpose.
Joe’s fish essay could have been interesting if it was a metaphor that served as a quick opening. Perhaps for most of his life, Joe was like like the goldfish, bumping against the borders of his container and seeing a skewed view of the world outside of his bowl. But then, something happened that changed him, that brought the fish out of water—like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, where the perpetual cave-dweller leaves the shadowed reality of his world to discover something new and different.
“Wait, there’s like… stuff out here.”
Most of the essay, in this case, would be about recounting what happened to shift Joe’s perspective. He would need to give evidence of how it transformed him. The goldfish metaphor would be a short-lived, creative way to introduce the topic before switching to straightforward narrative. That would be a calculated risk.
In case you’re wondering, Joe’s original essay ended with the fish “jumping” to a larger tank, which signified going to college. I don’t remember the closing sentences, but they probably went something like this:
Look at this new world! It’s so much bigger than the last one. And, oh my gosh, there aren’t just goldfish, but tetras, swordtails, minnows, and guppies. There are plenty o’ fish in my new sea!
Don’t worry though. I helped Joe Pesce discover an even better topic: “A Sea Urchin Goes to Uni-versity.”
(That joke is dedicated to all the sushi lovers out there.)
“I just assumed I would be in an academic bowl, not a… a… a rice bowl.”
NAME DROPPING 101
We live in a culture where names are currency. A connection to someone can open doors, and the strength or weakness of one’s name can be a decisive factor.
“I’m a friend of Stephen’s,” you might say when greeting the bouncer at PÜP, Manhattan’s hottest dog-friendly night club.
“Who’s Stephen?” the bouncer would say.
“Stephen Black,” you insist.
“Who?” he says as he pushes you to the side. “You and your Bichon can leave.” Fluffy growls.
“Don’t make me beg…”
Okay, so I don’t have a name worth dropping.
You, however, might have a whole contact list full of names itching to be dropped. The perfect place to do it?
PÜP, maybe? Or anywhere other than your applications, really.
There are two common reasons you might want to drop a name in your personal statement: to show that you’ve rubbed elbows with famous people, or because the name belongs to a well-known person affiliated with a university.
Rule of thumb: If you don’t know the person well enough to call and ask for advice, then it’s not a good idea to invoke his or her name in your essay.
“Hey, Oprah. It’s me, Francis. Can I pick your brain for a minute?”
Unless you have that level of familiarity with Oprah (Hi, Gayle!), it’s not a good idea to write an entire essay based around the time you bumped into her while visiting Chicago’s Bean and asked her to take a selfie with you in the funhouse mirror reflection.
Just out of frame: Oprah walking away quickly, muttering about how I am “NOT” one of her favorite things.
It’s easy to understand the temptation to include a celebrity story in your essay. You’d think it would make you seem more important, but the problem is that it does the opposite. It takes the attention off of you. Chances are it’s not a story that centers around your meaningful personal growth, which means it’s not a viable topic from the start.
The AdCom would prefer to hear about the year you overcame your fear of public speaking by joining the debate team, instead of the time that Adam Sandler sang you a song at your bar mitzvah because your dad is his golf buddy.
“Sippity dippity doo, Adam Gwertzman we love you…”
“I get it,” you say. “Celebrity culture is shallow. I learned that in a sociology class I took at Yale’s summer session with Malcolm Gladwell. Now that is an essay topic…”
To many applicants, this seems like a perfectly reasonable reason for a name-drop. It shows that you engaged on an intellectual level with a highly regarded person in academia.
But once again, chances are the essay won’t center around your personal growth. I don’t care if you learned some really cool stuff, like why your future college having an amazing dining hall might not be such a great thing. Unless that knowledge affected you deeply and motivated you towards action as well as tremendous personal change, then I don’t want to hear about it. Neither do AdComs.
A final note relating to this point. Even if you’re not planning on dropping names of professors in your personal statement, you might believe that your summer session at an Ivy League school is a great essay topic.
It’s not. For one, a lot of applicants write about it, so it’s common.
The bigger reason is that enrollment in these programs is not a predictor of future success. Summer sessions are massive money-makers for universities, and they’ll accept most anyone who can pay tuition. It’s not merit-based like the college admissions process.
I’m not saying this to diminish your experience if you’ve gone to one. Summer sessions can be both enlightening and transformative. You’re living the life of a college student for eight weeks, going to classes and staying in the dorms. It’s meant to be significant.
It is not, however, unique. Unless something insanely out of the ordinary happened during those eight weeks that changed you as a person—and that change had a lasting effect on your character—then it’s not worth shaping into an essay topic.
JIMMY EAT WORDS
Do you have a blog or a personal journal? That’s awesome! I’m a believer that writing can be therapeutic, and spilling all of your feelings onto the page can help you process and understand them.
If you’re used to writing like this, it would seem a natural transition to keep writing this way in your personal statement. It’s supposed to be personal, right?
Yes, but I would caution you against going too far in that direction. I’ve advised you to write about emotionally raw stories, but the way you write about them matters. You must be able to synthesize these emotions. By using logic and reason, you should lasso and tame the wild emotions, containing them in order to explain them.
“Get over here, pesky lil’ emotion…”
Most importantly, growth must have resulted. The events you describe in the essay can be emotionally-charged, but you need to write about them with an ultimate sense of detachment. The emotional happenings and growth are behind you, and you’re explaining them to the reader as evidence of your growth and emotional maturity.
Confused? That’s okay. It’s like I’m telling you to do one thing, then instructing you to do the opposite.
“Write with raw emotion! But don’t make it too raw or too emotional.”
It’s a thin line, a tightrope act. If you fall to one side, you don’t have enough emotion. If you fall to the other, you have too much. With too much, you’ve got an Emo Essay. It’s a genre that might work for music, but it doesn’t work for personal statements.
“Wait, you said, ‘Emo’? Ugh, life is a soul-crushing extravaganza without meaning…”
Allow me to illustrate with two examples, both introductions to an essay with the same topic. Here’s the first:
Realizing my passion for helping others was not easy. I knew I wanted to do something, but I agonized over what it would be. One day I volunteered at a homeless shelter. The people there were haggard, their morose expressions stabbing me in the heart each time we made eye contact. I couldn’t bear it. When I took a shift at the Boys & Girls Club, the joyous faces of the children were a marked contrast to the enveloping and inescapable sadness I felt, knowing they would return to homes that were likely single-parented, living below the poverty line. How could I handle this? When I finally discovered that I could play my violin at the senior center each weekend for an hour, my heart flooded with pure delight. I knew I had found my purpose.
That’s the Emo Essay, obviously. It has so much emotion pouring out of every sentence that you begin to discredit the writer. Nobody can be this dramatic, you think, and you’re right.
Also, the synthetic emotion is an attempt to inject drama into the essay where there is none. The writer is picking a volunteer activity, not performing complex neurosurgery while plummeting towards earth on a plane that’s about to make an emergency landing.
“Nurse, forceps please… Nurse?”
There’s tons of overstatement, too. The writer didn’t “agonize” over the decision and wasn’t “enveloped” in sadness. Calling a one-hour-per-week volunteer opportunity “my purpose” is insane.
Here’s the second example:
I finish playing the final notes of Bach’s Chaconne on my violin and look up. There’s no round of applause. The recreation room of the Torrance Overlook Senior Center is silent. Out of the audience of ten, four have fallen asleep. A lone snore punctuates the quiet. Two gentlemen stare out the window, two more are in the midst of a chess game, and one woman appears to be taking a selfie. But there’s one more person, Margaret, with curly gray hair and bedazzled red-framed glasses. She smiles and gives me a nod. I smile back. It’s my first Sunday afternoon at the center, but I suddenly realize it won’t be my last.
It’s understated. The most emotional moment, when Margaret smiles, is written straightforwardly: “She smiles and gives me a nod.” This time, the writer allows the reader to discover the emotion, rather than force feeding it to us like the Emo introduction.
At that crucial moment, it would be so easy to smack the reader over the head with overemphasized emotion. “Margaret smiled at me, an ear-to-ear grin that showed how delighted she was. It penetrated deep into my soul, infusing my spirit with warmth and gratitude.” Ugh, no.
Instead, the writer allows the narrative to speak for itself. If the essay tells a good story, there is no need to explain what everything means and how everyone feels. These are communicated through subtext, reading between the lines. We understand how much the moment means to the writer simply because it’s been chosen for the opening of the essay. Phrases like, “I suddenly realize it won’t be my last,” are like punctuation, written to emphasize the subtextual points.
Well-played music elicits emotion. The same is true of great writing.
In the non-Emo introduction, we get the sense that the writer is gearing up for a personal statement that demonstrates real growth. The look from Margaret is the inciting incident, preparing us for an essay that chronicles a transformative experience at the senior center. The opening narrative gives us a taste of what’s to come, and it’s clear from the introduction that the applicant is a person capable of considerate reflection. That’s essential in a successful essay.
There’s another great tool used by the writer in this sample, one that pairs well with understated emotion: humor. It’s funny that she points out a few people have fallen asleep during her performance. It’s also self-deprecating, which shows that the writer doesn’t take herself too seriously.
Someone who talks about “inescapable sadness” and facial expressions that “stab” the heart, as in the first introduction, takes him or herself way too seriously. The writing is also not very funny. People who take themselves too seriously rarely are.
Ask yourself this question: based only on the two samples, which writer would you want to hang out with and get to know better? It’s not a silly question. The AdCom will ask something very similar when evaluating essays:
“Which applicants would our students want to hang out with… for the next four years at our university?”
Best college course: The Subtle Art of Wasting Time
END OF PART II
Great! Now you know three more topics to avoid.To recap, don’t write:
1. Uncalculated risks — i.e. an “An Ode to Khaleesi,” a poem written in iambic pentameter about your love for The Mother of Dragons
2. Essays centered around superficial interactions with a notable figure, such as a celebrity, an academic, or the rare celebrity academic (but if you got to hang out at The Hayden Planetarium with Neil deGrasse Tyson, you might want to consider that)
3. “It just takes some time, little girl you’re in the middle of the ride. Everything, everything will be just fine. Everything, everything will be alright. Alright.”
In the final installment of this series, we’ll talk about Donald Trump (or why you should avoid topics like Trump and other current events), stories that are compelling but don’t belong to you, and the third-century board game that enchants so many as a metaphor for life.
Hint: It’s not The Game of Life.
They didn’t even try with the whole metaphor thing.