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College Application Essays: Write About THIS, Not THAT!

How to Approach Your Essay

Your college application essay is very important. It gives college admissions officers a clearer, fuller idea of who you are as a person. This is information that they can’t get from just looking at your transcripts.

So it’s crucial your essay stands out from the crowd — in a good way!

Not long ago, we shared our blog: College Application Essay: 5 Cliche Topics to Avoid. Once students try to avoid certain cliches, they often run into trouble with picking a topic. After all, students are drawn to certain topics for a reason. During your adolescence, you’re experiencing many profound situations for the first time: death, travel, poverty, hardships, defeat, and victory.

Where students go wrong is usually not in picking the topic, but in the way they decide to write about it. This is what causes admission officers to roll their eyes or – even worst – be offended or put off.

That’s why we’re sharing 3 things you should NOT include in your essay and 3 things you SHOULD include in your essay.

#1: Your Travels

DON’T write about your awesome vacation or life-changing mission trip.

Your college essay should be about you and an experience that was impactful for you. It’s very possible that a trip you went on affected you deeply, made you reconsider how you saw yourself, or taught you something valuable. 

So why is this topic so mocked or hated by admission officers?

Because unfortunately, most students end up giving their reader an itinerary of their trip or the different foods they ate. This is too broad and boring. Think about when your aunt comes back from France and makes you look at 100 pictures of the Eiffel Tower or different paintings in the Louvre. Do you really feel anything other than boredom, or maybe mild interest? Likely not.

Well, it’s the same for admission officers.

No matter how you write about vacations or even mission trips, you can risk coming off as very privileged. After all, you’re traveling around having a fabulous vacation or on a mission trip where you are realizing, for the first time, that you have way more things and opportunities than most people. While the vacation may have been fun and the mission trip profound, showing that you are richer than others is not going to make an admission officer relate to you or want you at their school.

DO write about a snapshot of your travels that spurred further interests or growth.

If a particular trip really impacted you and you really want to write about it, you still can. However, you should write about it in a meaningful, unique way.

Specifically, you can avoid the “boring and privileged” problem of writing about travel by simply including an interesting “snapshot” of your experience. In other words, instead of trying to capture all two weeks of your trip, focus on a particular anecdote. This story or “snapshot” of your trip should focus on something unique and particular to YOU, rather than on the trip itself or basic ideas such as “people are different, but also the same” or “I’m much more fortunate than others.”  

How does this one small experience, this slice of your life, lead to further growth or maturity for you? How did it spark or relate to a larger interest or passion that you have today?

By narrowing your topic and focusing on how the experience relates to you — your interest, growth, values — you can write a much more interesting college application essay. For more advice on how to plan your approach to essay topics, read this blog on the brainstorming process.

#2: Your Point of View

DON’T write about your political views.

Your political views may be very important to you, and may be an important part of your personal story. But similarly, admissions officers may take their own, potentially opposing views very seriously as well. It is always best to keep politics out of your essay to avoid offending any readers. 

Furthermore, if you are applying to a school that is historically more conservative or liberal, and your politics are in the opposite direction, an admission officer might wonder whether you will fit in well with campus life. Ultimately, it could hurt your chances.

DO write about your leadership activities, values, or even political involvement.

You can still include a sense of how your mind works and how you view the world by describing leadership experiences, times you took initiative, or other experiences that challenged you in ways big and small.

You can make a great impression on an admission officer by writing about experiences that demonstrate your desire to solve problems that you have observed in your community, country, or world.

Even certain political involvement such as helping with a campaign or marching in a protest, can be worth writing about if you can focus more on the experience and what you learned than the actual issue.

#3: Your College Essay Conclusion

Don’t end your essay by telling the admission officer a cliché lesson.

They’re called clichés for a reason. They are overused, and using them may give the impression that you are unimaginative.

Quite simply, clichés are boring.

This can be especially challenging when you are wrapping up your college application essay. It may be tempting to want to end with a generic, moral-of-the-story conclusion, such as:

  • “I now realize that I can reach whatever goal I set.”
  • “Suddenly I realized that it’s okay to fail, as long as you learn along the way.”
  • “It turns out that the whole time, I thought I was helping them, they were helping me.”
  • “My aunt taught me to never give up, even when life is really hard.”
  • “Life doesn’t always turn out the way you expect it.”
  • “I learned you don’t always know what is going on in a person’s life.”

Admission officers have already learned these lessons, and they won’t be impressed that you have too.

Rather than making you seem insightful and mature, these types of  cliché “lesson” conclusions, can leave an admission officer with the impression that you are shallow and dull!

DO end your essay by SHOWING an admission officer who you are or how you’ve changed.

You will want to conclude your college essay by highlighting that you are a mature, intellectually curious individual who will enhance the student bodies of the schools you are applying to.

So instead of a big cliché moral, end your essay with clear, vivid language that continues to tell a story rather than give a lesson. It’s critical to show, not tell in order to resonate with your readers.

Here are a few ways you can do this:

  • Dialogue – Ending your college essay with a piece of dialogue that demonstrates how you have changed can be very powerful and engaging.
  • Description – Again, show, don’t tell. Describe a scene to your reader that allows them to see the experience or growth that you’ve discussed in your essay.
  • Circle back to your introduction – A far better way to show a nice finality to your college essay is to return to something you had mentioned in your introduction. In doing so, you can more clearly emphasize how you have transformed or grown.

Finally, Write as Yourself.

Regardless of what you choose to write about, the most important thing is that you write as yourself. Don’t try to be someone you’re not, because this can give the impression that you are trying too hard.

For example, don’t use overly-sophisticated words because you think they may “sound better”. This may disrupt the flow of your narrative, and again, give the wrong impression.

You want to come across as the warm, intelligent, likable person you are!

For more expert advice, check out our College Application Essay program. My fellow expert coaches and I will guide you step by step through writing an amazing college essay!

Call 855-346-1410 or contact us today. We can’t wait to hear from you!

Elena Munoz

Elena is an outstanding English teacher for College Test Prep, H.S. Test Prep, College Application Essays, and MEK Labs. Her passion and drive help her to effectively connect with students and teach them valuable strategies for succeeding on their test scores and essays.


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