Don’t Tell Me What Not to Write!

I’m annoyed.

I came across an article on Pinterest this morning entitled “5 College Essay Topics to Avoid.”

This seems to be the latest trend in College Essay advice. But I can’t think of anything worse to tell a student. Why don’t we force him to wear blinders, blast music so he can’t think, and criticize every idea he offers until he becomes so confused he produces nothing?

The author presented his list with the arrogance of someone who can’t step outside his own shoes and into someone else’s.

So he told high school seniors who have lived all of 17 years to avoid writing about the following:

  1. “You love to help people” —  His reasoning: too many student have traveled overseas to help underprivileged people, so you don’t have a unique story.
  2. “Beating an injury sustained in sports” — His reasoning: the common topic proves you can’t think of something substantial in life that’s happened to you.
  3. “How you feel about hot topics” — His reasoning:  Admissions officers are not interested in your political views.
  4. “Discussing your role model” — His reasoning: Admissions officers have read a lot of these so they’re not interested.
  5. “Your favorite celebrity’s issues” — His reasoning: This type of essay suggests you’re more interested in a celebrity’s point of view than your accomplishments and skills.

Here’s the thing. An essay on any topic can be compelling and memorable. It’s not really about the topic. It’s about how you present the story.

A topic about helping people

Writing a story about how you helped a group of people in an impoverished country can be fascinating, especially if you delve deeply into the hearts of the people who live there. That’s what foreign correspondents do every day in war torn countries and places where genocide occurs. Stories like these can change the world by raising awareness and giving hope. Don’t underestimate the power of such a story.

Your experience with a sports injury

If you’re a high school senior, a sports injury is substantial to your life. You’ve only been alive for 17 or 18 years and much of that period has been spent in childhood when you’re most sheltered by your parents. Not a lot of life happens by age 18. If this is an experience that is important to you, go for it!

Discussing a role model

One day while teaching a workshop on “Brainstorm your college essay,” I was struggling to interest my students in some writing exercises until I suggested they produce a brief profile of someone important to their lives. Suddenly their eyes brightened and they each took turns telling me exactly who they would profile and why. The people in our lives matter. When someone influences us in a meaningful way, he or she looms large and we’re happy to share why. Consider starting your essay with a characteristic of the person, such as “Nigel Bennington puffs cigars until the smoky front is an inch from the grin that welcomes every new arrival at his lumber yard. The 78 year-old carpenter can build anything with his hands and will happily teach you what he knows…”

A persuasive essay

Discussing hot topics and sharing a celebrity’s point of view are probably not the best choices for a personal statement, but I would never tell my student not to give the topic a try. Writing is a creative process that benefits from experimentation and a few wrong turns. Every draft you write will lead to something better, so don’t let anyone tell you what not to do. Go with what feels right and see what comes out.

If you need guidance, I’m here to help. Writing is what I do and telling stories is my passion.

I’ve won journalism awards and mentored several successful journalists. I’m happy to help:



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