These are some bad college application essay #FAILs waiting to happen.
You know you need to stand out in your college application essay—but it’s important that you stand out in a good way. While you might be convinced that your essay is sure to impress the admission committee for its...uh..unique approach, it may not go over as well as you think. In fact, it might be downright bad.
When it comes to inventive application essay topics (or formats, for that matter), you don't want to go too far. Remember, the purpose of the application essay is to convey who you are, what’s important to you, what you’ll contribute to your community, and your college readiness. The application essay ideas below are simply bad at achieving those goals.
Trust me: you can be genuine and creative without them.
The foreign language
Writing your application essay in a foreign language might seem like a standout way to show your passion for the subject. But even if you’re planning on majoring in that language, it’s still a bad call. Besides, the admission committee has enough to worry about without getting your essay translated for them.
Instead: Write about your trip to the Dominican Republic and how speaking only Spanish made you realize you want to teach the language.
A poem instead of an essay
Can get a little bit messy
Try as you might
They often sound trite
As well as contrived, I must say
(Okay, that’s not very good. But poetry’s hard. Hence, don't go this route for your application essay.)
Instead: Write about your tradition of writing a poem for your grandmother on her birthday.
The devil’s advocate
Being controversial for the sake of being controversial has never been a good way to win hearts or minds. Your future college is looking for thoughtful, passionate students, not shock jocks.
Instead: Write about your experience on the school’s debate team.
The edgy rebel
Expletives. Violence and gore. Hot-button issues. What you might see as showing your edgy, rebellious side might actually come across as disrespectful to the admission committee. And why would they admit you if they don’t think you would represent their school well?
Instead: Write about how you love words, their cadence and meaning, and how one of your favorites happens to be a swear—without actually using the naughty word.
If it’s related to bodily functions, it’s probably not an appropriate essay topic. Also, please, please do not talk about sexy times with your S.O. as part of your college essay. It’s not romantic; it’s awkward.
Instead: Write about how you were the only kid growing up who wasn’t grossed out when someone skinned their knee and how you found the coagulating blood fascinating, you future pathologist, you.
The arts-and-crafts project
Your application essay isn’t an extension of your art portfolio. Don’t submit a papier-mâché sculpture of the person who most influenced you. In fact, don’t send in anything the application doesn’t specifically ask for. It doesn’t help your case for admission, but it does make you look like you can’t follow directions.
Instead: Write about your penchant for knitting, how you use it to focus, and how the click-click of the needles helps you calm down when you’re stressed.
The big picture
Questions of great significance—Why are we here? Where are we going? What does it all mean?!?!—can lead to insightful writings and conversations, but they’re terrible application essay topics because they have little to do with who you are.
Instead: Write about your favorite summer camp memory: lying around the campfire, looking at the stars, and talking about philosophy with your friends.
The sob story
This is a tough one, because a personal (or even societal) tragedy can be hugely influential in your life. Even so, this is another essay topic admission counselors recommend avoiding, since it’s hard to get a sense of who you are as an applicant, however moving your story might be.
Instead: Write about how much you value being the person your friends turn to when they need a shoulder to cry on.
The Friday Night Lights
Have you ever watched a sports-related TV show or movie and thought, “This is really similar to that other sports-related TV show or movie I saw.” Well, it’s a lot like that with sports-related application essays, if you know what I’m sayin’.
Instead: Write about how you used your time on the bus rides to and from away games to sell homemade energy bars.
So, what does work?
Now that you know all these college application essay don’ts, what are the do’s? What should you write about and how? Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered:
And if you want to take a new, inventive approach to your application essay, why not try an application video? Lots of schools are accepting them now. More advice here.
Have you seen any other application essays that just didn't work? Are you tempted to use one of these "bad" ideas anyway? Tell us your story! Leave a comment or get in touch.
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I'll add just a bit, from my own experience. I was an admissions officer at a very selective university for almost eight years. I read thousands of applications and essay responses. I've also worked as a college counselor in three high schools.
Submitting a poem as an essay response is a risk. I wouldn't categorically say it can never work. However, it's a risk because of its genre: a poem evokes emotion. A poem leads the reader to linger. In doing so, it may, or may not, answer the question being asked. The emotions that often inspire someone to create a poem don't always fit the tone of what's asked by the application question. If the question is: "Why do you want to attend our college?", or "Tell us about a person who has been influential in your life?", it's the rare applicant who will be inspired to answer such a question in the form of a poem, because the replies need to contain some specific information, and they need to clearly convey what you, the applicant, want from your education or how you've learned to be a better person from your mentor or hero.
The genre of poetry, in other words, isn't easily suited to the intent of the application question.
If, however, a student thinks in images and sensory language, and feels he can best express his answers via a poem, it's crucial to remember the reader.
As a former English teacher, I saw that most students reacted with some nervousness to poems in the curriculum. Having studied plenty of poetry myself, I can say that one needs practice in reading them in order to feel comfortable with their ambiguity.
What I'm saying is that, in my experience, admission officers--like all of us-- may fall into several camps: those who enjoy a poem but don't have the time to linger over it; those who don't particularly like poetry or are a bit nervous that they won't "get" it, or--perhaps most concerning for the applicant-- those who may be poetry lovers, or even poets, themselves. If that's the case, they can't help thinking about how "good" an applicant's poem is.
So if you are absolutely drawn to answer an application question with a poem, it is imperative that you solicit the advice and feedback of someone who knows poetry--preferably a college counselor or a teacher who's worked in admission or has some pretty deep experience with college essays--before you submit a poem. Don't submit a poem without having someone who knows poetry, and knows college admission, read it. And find out as much as you can (which I hope you would do anyway) about the college's emphasis and atmosphere and what it values.
I'm glad you feel an impulse to write poetry! And I'm glad you asked the question of this forum. Best wishes with your applications.