(MoneyWatch) For students who are applying for college, one of the scariest parts of the admission process is writing the dreaded essay.
A common mistake that students make when tackling their college essays is to pick the wrong topics. It's a huge turn off, for instance, when applicants write about their sports exploits or their pets. I asked Janine Robinson, who is the creator of a wonderful website called Essay Hell and the author of an excellent ebook entitled "Escape Essay Hell," to identify those essay topics that teenagers should absolutely avoid.
Here are Robinson's college essay no-no's:
1. Listing accomplishments. You might be the most amazing person on the planet, but nobody wants a recitation of the wonderful things you've done, the people you've encountered and the places you've visited.
2. Sports. Do you know how many millions of teens have written about scoring the winning goal, basket or run? You definitely don't want to write about your winning team. And nobody wants to read about your losing team, either.
3. Sharing how lucky you are. If you are one of the lucky teenagers who has grown up in an affluent household, with all the perks that goes with it, no need to share that with college admission officials. "The last thing anyone wants to read about is your ski trip to Aspen or your hot oil massage at a fancy resort," Robinson observed.
4. Writing an "un-essay." Many students, particularly some of the brightest ones, have a negative reaction to the strictures of the admission essay. In response, Robinson says, "They want to write in stream-of-consciousness or be sarcastic, and I totally understand this reaction. However, you must remember your goal with these essays -- to get accepted! Save the radical expression for after you get into college."
5. Inflammatory topics. It's unwise to write about politics or religion, two of the most polarizing topics. Avoid any topics that make people angry.
6. Illegal activity. Do not write about drug use, drinking and driving, arrests or jail time. Also leave your sexual activities out of the frame. Even if you have abandoned your reckless ways, don't bring it up.
7. Do-good experiences. Schools do not want to hear about your church or school trip to another country or region to help the disadvantaged. You may be able to write about a trip like this only if you focus on a specific experience within the broader trip.
8. The most important thing or person in my life. This topic is too broad and too loaded, whether you want to write about God, your mom or best friend. These essays are usually painfully boring.
9. Death, divorce, tragedies. The problem with these topics is not that they are depressing, but that such powerful topics can be challenging to write about. Absolutely no pet stories -- admission officers hate them.
10. Humor. A story within a college essay can be amusing, but don't try to make the entire essay funny.
02 Sep The 3 types of essays: Good, Bad, Risky
Posted at 08:32h in Essay Writing by Lee Bierer
If they made a movie about nailing the perfect admissions essay, the title might be: “The Good, The Bad and The Risky.”
Let’s start with “The Risky.” One of the favorite stories being passed around by admissions officers these days is a young man’s response to an open-ended essay prompt: “Ask yourself a question, and then answer it.” So here’s what one bold young man chose to write:
Question: Do you play the tuba? Answer: No. That was it, his entire essay. You’ve got to admit that was a gutsy move. He was accepted at that college and several other colleges. Students can’t afford to take that kind of risk unless that’s really part of who they are. There are colleges that actively seek students like that young man: He stepped outside the box and to some, and he hit a home run. For others undoubtedly, he miscalculated, because he may be perceived as being cocky and overconfident. In this case, he had strong credentials and very likely would have been accepted anyway, but I am certain that his pseudo-essay was joyously passed around the admissions office. That was an “easy-read!”
Common admissions wisdom has advocated that students should avoid the 3 D’s — Death, Divorce and Drugs. The Death Essay is unfortunately more common than we all would like. Don’t think I’m heartless, but it’s very difficult for high school students to say much more than this special person had a tremendous influence and now that they’re gone they will miss them. These essays can be tremendously powerful, but they need to share the “whys” of the loss.
If there is a “typical” divorce essay that colleges receive, it starts with “I was happy until my parents split — now I am unhappy.” Students can take this topic and make it work for them if they talk about how they feel, how it has changed their lives and hopefully what they may have gained through this difficult experience.
Drugs: Some students want to share inappropriate details of their lives. Don’t do it. Even if it’s in the past, drug use sends up a red flag.
Parke Muth, senior assistant dean of admissions at the University of Virginia, has likened college essays to fast food. “Ninety percent of the applications I read contain what I call McEssays.” They don’t do an effective job of setting the student apart from the sea of applicants.
- Choose your topic wisely, but even if you choose a topic that other people choose, spend sufficient time brainstorming how to own your piece of the topic.
- Don’t try to write what you think colleges want to read. They’ve already read that in the first 50 essays they read today. Find and preserve your own voice.
- Focus on the details when you tell a story. The rule of great writing: “Show, Don’t Tell” still holds true.
- Read your essay out loud to several people and ask them if they believe it sounds like you. It will also help you find and fix the clunky parts that need help
Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to: email@example.com; www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com