It’s not usually the topic, but how you write about it.
I’ve worked with high school seniors on their college admissions essays for several years. Some of the best essays were about topics normally considered off-limits—depression, death of a grandparent, sports injury, veganism, sexual identity, etc. These essays succeeded because no one else could’ve written them. It’s knowing how to personalize a topic. Plus, each writer showed how they grew as a person, which is exactly what admissions officers look for in an essay.
The college essay is a way to round out a student’s admissions package and should cover something not found anywhere else on the application.
Topics to avoid Obviously anything that can be interpreted as hate speech is inappropriate. As are gratuitous graphic descriptions. College admissions officers also aren’t interested in the details of your sex life, won’t agree with you that your arrest for underage drinking or shoplifting was funny, don’t need your chronicle of struggling to write this essay, and will reject your application if you rant about all the things you think are wrong with their college. Politics is generally not a safe subject, especially if you’re taking a one-sided approach. Religion is in this category if it’s presented in a limited context rather than how it makes you who you are or influences the way you interact in the world.
Discussing other “off-limits” topics Admissions officers are open to hearing about your struggle with mental illness or ADHD if you can show you’ve found ways to manage it and are prepared for the additional challenges of college. One client included that working through her own anxiety-depressive disorder helped her support other teens in her school with similar issues. This information can also be shared in a separate essay for the Additional Information section.
Using an experience or relationship to explain why you’ve chosen a career path, program of study or a college works fine. A client wrote how visiting her late grandfather in a nursing home and developing relationships with some of the other residents in his memory care unit led her to choose a career in geriatrics. Another talked about how his sports injury was the impetus for wanting to become a physical therapist.
How not to present yourself Yes, the essay is a place to brag, but in the right way. I lost a client because I encouraged him to include how he worked together with other teens on the projects he led. He was only interested in focusing on his role. Colleges don’t want to see a one-person show—like highlighting how you made the game-winning shot that won your team the basketball championship—if it doesn’t illustrate how the experience helped you grow as a person.
The same can be said about offering a very simple solution to a very complex problem. Sure, you have ideas, but share suggestions that match the level of the problem.
Don’t repeat Because the essay is a way to complete the story you’re telling a college about yourself, this isn’t the place to discuss the fact that you’re an honors student or the president of your class and anything else that’s already mentioned on your application. The exception is if it’s relevant to the broader topic you’re covering—like how as class president you challenged the administration’s policy on a particular issue on behalf of your fellow students and helped change the policy in a way that worked for everyone.
Again, don’t recount every sport you’ve ever played and your accomplishments on the field/court. You can summarize your athletic career to illustrate the role sports played in your life, what you’ve learned from sports or how being an athlete defines you. Focus on your unique experience.
It’s not just you Whether it’s bragging about your athletic, artistic or academic successes or lamenting the death of your dog, your parents’ divorce or your broken leg before your big dance recital, realize lots of other kids share these experiences so the story needs a very personal touch. If you choose to write about surviving a serious illness and that led to your decision to become a pediatrician or other type of doctor, make it an essay only you could have written.
This is how you do it Start by thinking about what you’d like a college to know about you that they can’t find anywhere else on your application. What do you bring to campus that another student can’t? How is your distinctive way of looking at life, at the world around you, an asset to a college? Remember, colleges are looking to create a Utopia in each freshman class. Then take a look at the Common App or Coalition App essay prompts and begin to brainstorm how you can write a related essay that showcases what you’d like to highlight about yourself. It can take a few tries to find the right approach and the right topic.