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Every year, as my team at College Essay Advisors (CEA) begins to brainstorm essay topics with our students, the same refrain always emerges: “I read that I shouldn’t write about this” or “My teacher said I shouldn’t write about that.”
What subjects are actually taboo in a college essay? And which of these so-called rules can you break? Below I break down three practices commonly frowned upon in college essay topic selection that may not be as off-limits as you initially thought.
In other words, you can’t write about any subject that might be common fodder for college essays. I have always believed that there is no such thing as an “off-limits” essay topic, even if it’s one that, on its surface, feels overdone. The trick is to make the topic your own by approaching it from a unique angle and imbuing the essay with highly personal details. Writing an essay about kicking the final field goal and winning the big game is very different than penning a piece about how you came to love the routine of watching playback videos after each game to identify your strengths and weaknesses and accept constructive criticism (no matter how tough it may have been). What ritual did you engage in with your grandmother that really meant something to you and is representative of who you are at your core? (My grandmother and I attacked salt and pepper crabs together with gusto at Delray Beach’s preeminent Chinese buffet, the first in many of my wide-ranging food adventures.) Did the death of your beloved hamster bizarrely coincide with the birth of one of your greatest passions? Look for the unexpected and personal takes on these topics to pull them out of the unusable pile and spin them into winning reflections of your personality.
First things first: you shouldn’t write about a community-service initiative just because you think it’s what admissions wants to hear. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni has written about the many ways people twist their glam faux-service trips into essays about helping those in need. He also notes how essays about such efforts inevitably come off as inauthentic (because they often are). But there are plenty of students who have devoted time and effort to causes they truly care about and whose experiences deserve to be immortalized in essay form. If you are one of those people, you can absolutely write about your service experiences. In fact, much discussion in the admissions world, including a Harvard-led initiative to “Make Caring Common,” has been focused on how the admissions process can be used to encourage students to lead with their hearts and contribute to the world around them. That said, essays about community service can be tricky to make memorable. Try to isolate specific elements of your experience – your interactions with a single family at a homeless shelter, for example – to bring your essay out of the realm of the cliché. Small anecdotes and highly specific stories about your volunteer work are often much more impressionable than general explanations of your mission and vague descriptions of your efforts over time. Highly specific stories also feel more sincere (which is important as an admissions officer sifts through a pile of community-service essays), and reveal more about your character, motivations and how you interact with others.
This is one about which our opinions at CEA have shifted, over the past year, especially. Before the current administration took office, we typically urged people to steer away from focusing on political subject matter in college essays, partially because essays about policy tend to veer into didactic, term paper language (“zzzzz” for an admissions officer) and also because expressing potentially divisive views in a college essay isn’t always a risk that pays off. But with our controversial 45th president in office, more and more college applicants have something to say about the state of their country (and the world at large). Keep in mind, admissions is not looking for an opinion paper on the state of American politics. But writing about how the current political landscape has affected your life and family in a specific and personal way is worth considering. Have you seen the impact of family members being deported, first-hand? Are you worried about the impact of changes to healthcare coverage on a sibling with a pre-existing condition? Exploring these kinds of anecdotes and circumstances can hold extra weight if they are connected to your future academic plans (if you are entering the fields of social work or health care, for example). One last thing to keep in mind before committing to a politics-related topic: your audience. The admissions officers at certain academic institutions are more likely to have super liberal or ultra conservative bents than others, so the risk factor in terms of alienating your audience can vary. Still, if your writing focuses on the impact of politics on your life as opposed to your political views, it is more likely to both be more memorable and have a deeper impact across a wider span of ideologies.