Writing Your College Essay: What to Include or Avoid

Here are some things to be aware of when writing your college admissions essay, in order to make sure you stand out! 

First up…

What Are College Admissions Committees Looking For in Your College Essay?

  • Voice 
  • Passions and interests 
  • Thought process and response to challenges 
  • Maturity level
  • If you would be a good fit for their college
What to Include in Your College Essay

Tips for writing a good college essay: 

  • Remember the topic is YOU
  • Write about your specific passions, interests, and ideas 
  • Write in your own natural voice 
  • Answer the prompt fully
  • Stay on topic 
  • Start early and write multiple drafts
  • Take time to brainstorm a few different topics, pick the one that represents you the best
  • Stick to the word count and use your space wisely 
  • Figure out what the heart of your essay is and make sure the full essay reflects that point
  • Get to your main point quickly 
  • Be unique (don’t choose cliche topics) 
  • Show, don’t tell
  • Use an active voice versus a passive voice 
  • Engage your reader
  • Include descriptive details 
  • Keep it personal (how does this topic relate to you specifically?) 
  • Complement your application (don’t just repeat it) 
  • Be professional 
  • Ask people to look over your essay before submitting it 
  • Proofread!
Topic Choice & Essay Execution

Topic choice and essay execution are the two major places where things can go wrong in your essay if you’re not careful. Firstly, topic choice refers to what the essay is about, while execution is how you present that information. Since you have a limited amount of words in which to wow the admissions committee, it’s important to get both of these things right.

Why is Topic Choice Important?

A bad topic choice for your essay can show:

  • Poor sense of judgement
  • Lack of maturity
  • Boring or unexciting personality
  • Unawareness of self and/or the outside world
  • Self-centeredness 
  • Inability to engage with new people and ideas

Why is Execution Important for Your Essay?

Poor essay execution can refer to smaller mistakes, such as incorrect grammar or punctuation, as well as larger mistakes, such as ignoring prompt instructions. Generally, both of these can give the impression that the writer does not know what they’re doing. And furthermore, ignoring prompt instructions can lead admissions committees to think that you are unable to follow directions either because you are “too good for them” (if you ignore the prompt on purpose) or because you lack the skill set (if you ignore the prompt on accident). Either way, not the best first impression. 

Topics to Avoid in Your College Essay
1) Topics that are TOO personal

Remember that this is the school’s first impression of you. It’s important to share personal aspects of yourself, but be careful not to overshare or share something inappropriate. Unfortunately, this can come across as a lack of boundaries.

2) Situations where you were involved in something illegal (ex: underage drinking, drug use, crime, etc.)

Exception: if you can show how you’ve changed and grown from the experience and talk about what you learned from that situation.

3) A fictional story about yourself

This is not the time to lie, admissions committees will see right through it.

4) Making yourself out to be a perfect person with zero flaws or mistakes

Not only does this come across as incredibly braggy, but it’s also a lie and something that schools don’t want. To be safe, it’s better to write about past challenges and failures than to make yourself out to be the “hero” of your essay.

5) An analytical essay you would write for school

Your essay is all about why the admissions team should choose YOU to attend their school, meaning that any topic you write about should relate back to you in some way. (You’ll write your fair share of analytical essays about other topics once you’re in college.) 

6) Transcribing/repeating the rest of your application

The admissions team doesn’t need you to list out all your extracurriculars and volunteer experience a second time; they’ve already read it on your application. Rather, this essay is so they can get a better idea of who you are as a full person, rather than just a list of achievements.

7) Cliche topics

These essay topics have been so over-done to the point that most experts recommend ruling them out as options altogether. If you want your essay to stand out, you won’t accomplish that by writing an essay the school has read hundreds of times. Unless you can come up with a brand new spin on it that you’re sure no one else has thought of, do yourself a favor and choose something else.

Common cliche topics: 

  • Sports
  • Volunteer trips to third-world countries
  • Starting with a famous or overused quote
8) Difficult topics

Hard life events are also common topics for college essays, which means there have been many essays written about them, but they can be difficult to write about. If you do choose one of these topics, make sure you focus on how you dealt with the event. However, it may be better to steer clear of these topics, as well. 

  • A tragic event (ex: death of a loved one)
  • Divorce 
  • Immigration


9) Topics that don’t focus on you

Remember, this essay is so the school can get to know who you are as a person! If your essay is about someone or something else, make sure you talk about how that person or thing affected your life and the actions you took as a result of it. In general, do not write an essay about something where you were either not present at all or played a passive role in the story. 

  • Someone who’s your hero
  • A story about someone else’s actions or achievements 
  • A piece of art or media 
10) Controversial topics

Writing about current events for your college essay is a bad idea altogether. In this case, it can often come across to admissions teams as lecturing, preaching, or being close-minded. This is not the time to hash out your point of view about something happening in the news (you can save that for a political science class once you get into the school). Remember, this is their first impression of you, don’t alienate yourself right-of-the-bat by launching into something controversial. 

  • Political or religious topics
  • Big debates/anything in the news
  • Negative things about the school
Common Execution Problems to Avoid in Your Essay

Even if you choose a great topic, issues with the execution of your essay can make or break it for you. Tone, presentation, and word choice have a huge impact on any essay, so it is important to put a lot of thought into these. You want your words to come across in the best way. 

These are some things to be aware of when writing your college essay (and examples of why they are important).

  • Being whiny or complaining 
  • Forced humor 
  • Condescending tone 
  • Preaching or lecturing
  • Sounding pessimistic/cynical
Lack of personality
  • Showing no emotion 
  • Vague generalizations
  • Lack of description
Not following directions
  • Not following the prompt 
  • Submitting other materials that were not requested 
  • Presenting your essay in a different format 
  • Going over the word count
Incorrect use of vocabulary
  • Using “fancy” words you don’t understand in order to appear smarter
  • Over-using synonyms 
  • Not sounding like yourself
Starting with a preamble and/or ending with a “happily ever after” conclusion
  • Don’t waste your introduction/conclusion
  • Jump right into the action, don’t spend too long setting it up 
  • The essay should already show what you’ve learned (don’t just repeat it in your conclusion)
  • Can bog down your reader
  • Remember, you only have a limited amount of space to say what you need to say
Not proofreading
  • Typos
  • Grammar/punctuation mistakes
  • Issues with spacing/flow
  • Sentence structure
  • Repetitiveness
  • Only share your essay with 1 or 2 people before submitting, sharing it with too many people can lead you to want to appease their ideas
  • Don’t lose your own voice!

Need more personalized recommendations?

The above tips and recommendations are broad strokes on College Prep. If you have further questions, feel free to contact us for a personal consultation. We look forward to helping you.

About MathTowne

MathTowne is a locally-based tutoring resource. We are here to support students through the key phases of their academic journey: middle school, the transition to high school, all four years of high school, and college preparationOur staff has years of experience in creating personalized lesson plans for all of our students.

isometric building letter M shape

Recommended Posts