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College Application Essays: 5 Cliche Topics to Avoid

College Application Essays: 5 Cliche Topics to Avoid

A college admissions officer is sitting at her desk. Piled on one corner is a small mound of folders; each one contains a resume, an application, and several recommendations and essays from prospective students. She has spent all day looking over these applications and has to finish today because tomorrow, a new pile of folders is waiting for her.

Before the admissions process is over, she will have looked at over 700 college applications. She can only spend an average of 15 minutes on each. She’s been working for this university for many years and has noticed a change in the caliber of applications. More students are graduating with an A average, high test scores, and completed AP classes.

As she begins to read the next student’s Common App essay, she wonders how she will differentiate this application from the others. She sighs loudly, realizing that once again she’ll be reading an essay about a student’s Spring Break mission trip.

Unfortunately, the scenario above is all too common. College admissions officers have many applications to look through, and the number of applicants is rising each year.

What Does this Mean for You?

It means that your college application essay has become even more important than ever. Here is your opportunity to make sure you stand out from the crowd — to let colleges get to know you a little and hopefully want to know more.

But most students waste this opportunity. They try to write what they think admissions officers want to hear or to regurgitate their resume in essay form. This is boring and unmemorable!

Luckily, our team at MEK Review is here to help.

Keep your admission officer’s eyes from instantly glazing over in boredom by avoiding these 5 cliche topics!

Topic #1: Dead Dogs (a.k.a. Death)

At this point in your life, there is a good chance you have experienced death on some level. Maybe it was the death of a beloved pet or something far more serious like a grandparent or friend. Experiences with death can shape our worldview, help us mature, and sometimes drastically change our lives.

So why isn’t this the perfect college application essay topic?

Because most of the time it’s too broad.

Although our experiences with death can be uniquely painful, grieving and the lessons we learn from it are highly universal. Lessons such as:

  • Life is short
  • You can’t take it with you
  • Make every day count

Therefore, even though this may have been a formative experience for you, reading about it is not always memorable.

Now, there are definitely exceptions to this rule. There’s a chance that you could write a very poignant and interesting essay about the death of a loved one but only if you have something specific in mind that you want to showcase about yourself.

For example, if you have experienced the tragic death of a parent, this might have changed the dynamic of your household and your role within your family. Or the death of a friend might have opened your eyes to an issue of which you were unaware.

However, usually in these college admissions essays, the death is more of a starting point than the central focus.

Overall, it’s best to steer clear of this subject. There are too many ways to veer into the broad, cliche, and unmemorable.

Topic #2: Sports

Remember the TitansRudyRocky, Miracle, and hundreds of other movies have taught us that athletes, through grit and hard work, overcome all odds to win the big game. Along the way, they learn important life lessons about never quitting, staying humble, or working with others.

There’s a reason there have been so many books and movies on this topic: it’s entertaining, and it has an inspirational message.

So great essay topic, right?

Not by a long shot.

First of all, it’s been done again and again. The chances that you will have something new and interesting to say on the subject is slim.

Furthermore, when told by students, these stories tend to be asymmetrical: you care a lot about the story but no one else does.

Think about it. Your neighbor starts talking to you about his high school basketball team and how the team won the regional champions even though the star player graduated the year before. He starts re-enacting the pep talk given by his coach during half-time and recounting all the hours he spent in the gym.

Are you actually interested in his story? Probably not.

Moreover, like writing about death, the lessons gleaned from these experiences are often fairly common:

  • Never give up
  • Trust your teammates
  • Winning isn’t everything

In general, your essay should tackle experiences that show you maturing or tackling adversity but in a sports context, this idea is – pardon the pun – played out.

Topic #3: Community Service

This topic is third on our list, but it’s often the number one topic most complained about by colleges.

On the surface, this subject seems like a perfect fit for your college application essay. You show colleges that you care about something other than yourself, and this experience might have genuinely affected you.

Unfortunately, colleges have heard all about the mission trips to third world countries, the Saturdays spent in soup kitchens, or the weekends used to build houses for the homeless. And most of them have become desensitized and, frankly, uninterested in the topic.

But the fact that it’s a common topic is not the only reason to avoid it. These essays often give a negative impression of a student.

How can this be?

It’s not that volunteering is bad. College admissions love volunteering, and they love seeing that students want to help others. It’s that these essays often contain a cliched lesson that goes something like this:

  • “And then my eyes were for the first time opened to the true challenges faced by [insert group here]”
  • “I never realized before that [insert global or local issue here] was going on.”

At best, this type of essay can make you sound naive and privileged. At worst, it can make you sound condescending about the group you are discussing.

This essay topic could still work, but only if you go beyond…

  • “I suddenly realized poverty existed”
  • “I discovered not everyone lives a life like I do”
  • “I now understand that [insert poor or underprivileged group here] is actually similar to me.”

For example, if you have a story about a specific individual or if you didn’t just volunteer but actually helped tackle a problem in a more extensive way, then this topic might be worth exploring. Otherwise, put your volunteer service on your resume but refrain from writing about it.

Topic #4: Important Person

There are people in our lives that hold great significance. Maybe it’s your 2nd grade teacher who believed in you or your grandmother who taught you life lessons.

Unlike some of the other topics we’ve discussed, your personal relationship with this person makes it an ostensibly less hackneyed and more distinctive subject to write about.

Unfortunately, although this topic seems promising in the brainstorming phase, once students actually start writing the essay, it often becomes exactly what they were trying to avoid: cliche and impersonal.

Because you are writing about someone else, you are pulling the focus from yourself. When everything else is stripped away, that is the most important aspect of your college application essay. It has to be about you.

It doesn’t matter how cool your aunt is or how inspiring your football coach was. Colleges want to know about you, and you knowing an interesting person isn’t remarkable.

Some students combat this problem by focusing on that individual’s influence on them.

This seems like a good solution. It becomes less about the other person and more about how that person changed you or helped you to grow. Yet this is where we run into a cliche problem. No matter how unique the person, the influence they had on you probably falls into a few categories:

  • This individual made me realize something about myself
  • This individual made me realize something about life
  • This individual made me realize something about the world

So now you’ve not only spent your entire essay talking about another person, but you’ve also delivered a rather forgettable platitude in the conclusion.

Best case scenario, when thinking about your application, the admissions officer remembers the person you wrote about but not you. That’s definitely not what you’re aiming for. This is your essay. Keep the spotlight on you.

Topic #5: Reciting your Resume

The worst, absolute worst, mistake you could make on your essay is rehashing your resume.

It’s not just that it’s dull; it’s a waste of an opportunity.

Your admissions officer already has your resume. He or she already knows the activities you were involved in, the leadership positions you held, and the grades you received. College admissions has become increasingly competitive, and you need to utilize every opportunity to pique that admissions officer’s interest.

You must tell them something they don’t already know. This is your chance to set yourself apart and make yourself more than just another name in a long list of names. There’s no way that an application or resume contains everything that someone needs to know about you.

Use your essay as an opportunity to show your personality, your values, and your passions. Admissions officers especially like to see growth in an essay. They want to know you are capable of learning and maturing and that you’ve already started that process. That is hard to convey by just listing all your activities.

Bonus: Avoid Cliche Language

In addition to avoiding cliche topics, avoid overused phrases. Once you find a great topic to write about, you don’t want to ruin it by using a lot of cliched expressions, or worse, ending with a cliched lesson.

Examples of Cliche Lessons

The truth is any of the above topics could potentially be turned into a good essay (except for #5, never #5) if done with a particular and personalized message in mind. Alternatively, you can also choose a completely unique topic and botch it by ending with a tired and trite “lesson.” Even if you don’t use the exact phrase, don’t let your essays boil down to yawn-inducing truths such as:

  • Don’t judge a book by its cover
  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
  • The grass isn’t always greener on the other side

This also applies to over-used methods for starting your essay. For instance, starting an essay with a quote from a famous or historical figure or giving the “Webster’s dictionary” definition of a word are just a couple of examples of timeworn openers that have lost their luster, particularly because they are so impersonal.

What Do You Do Now?

Okay, so now you should know better what NOT to do. But what if you are still struggling to find something to write about?

To start, you can check out our article on choosing the perfect essay topic

Plus, check out our Application Essay Writing program or our Road Map To College programs! Our expert essay coaches and college counselors guide students through the entire essay writing process and help them create stellar, polished application essays!

Call 855-346-1410 or contact us to get started today.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Rachel Erwin

Rachel is the Dean of Faculty, in charge of teacher training and material development. She teaches College Test Prep, H.S. Test Prep, and College Application Essays. Within the English Department, she serves as a coordinator for the Exam Prep team, working diligently to ensure all students’ success. With her clear and systematic approach to teaching, she helps students make huge improvements.


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