An Independent School • Grades 5-12
Demystifying “bad” college essay topics

by Bonnie Singh, college counselor and writing specialist

As students approach the college application process, they are asked, as individuals intending to continue their educational journeys, to describe themselves. Colleges are eager to know who could join their campuses and how applicants, all potential threads of a tapestry, will interweave to form their incoming classes. However, there is a palpable hesitancy surrounding the essay writing process; putting pen to paper brings forth anxieties about being seen as unoriginal or generic, another name in a sea of applications. And oftentimes, students will ask if the essay topic they chose is “bad.”

The key lies in how students tell a story, not the topic they choose.

A cursory glance at the Common Application essay prompts reveals a key, albeit obvious, strategy for writing the college essay: talk about yourself. A frequent pitfall in the essay writing process is focusing too much on the topic and forgetting to tie it back to the student. Just as each paragraph of an essay supports a claim, each component of the story should connect to the student themself. While students often conflate a “good” essay topic with a unique one and a “bad” topic with a common one, both can be written about poorly and both can transform into an insightful narrative. The difference lies in how introspective students choose to be as they write.

Inevitably, many students will choose a topic that has been written about countless times. Consider the number of degree-granting institutions in the United States alone, and the number of applications submitted each year (both domestic and international). Harvard, for example, received 61,221 applications during the 2021-2022 admissions cycle. Focusing on a “good” (or “unique”) essay topic is a futile exercise. Priti Ravani, assistant director of admissions at New York University, told me that admissions officers have “seen it all and read it all. What should be different is the student’s voice.” Students should view their essay topic as a lens through which a story is told — it should not become the story itself.

On average, admissions readers have 8-12 minutes to review a college application, leaving them with a few minutes to read the essay(s). The purpose of college essays is for students to share something about themselves that cannot otherwise be seen on their application. It is a space for authenticity and vulnerability, and a chance to enhance an already strong application. Mason Heller, senior associate director of admissions at the University of Chicago, shared with me: “Almost any topic can make for a great college essay. An essay that stands out is not necessarily one with an uncommon topic, but rather an essay that gives your reader a genuine sense of who you are, where you come from, and what you value. Colleges want to understand the kind of person you’ll be when you join their campus community, and the goal of your essay is to share a thoughtful and engaging story about yourself through your particular voice and perspective.”

Here are a few foundational building blocks for a good college essay.

Values: When beginning to write a college essay, students should consider what is important to them. What defines the student and is the drive behind their actions and pursuits? If those values are consistent throughout their application, the essay will be a true reflection of them and will supersede the need for a “unique” essay topic.

Vulnerability: Students should consider the following: if they met a complete stranger, what story would they be willing to share with them? More importantly, how does the story demonstrate a sense of growth and learning? Vulnerability is important, but students must still use their discretion.

Depth: The fear of “bad” or “generic” essay topics stems from a lack of specificity, making an essay read like countless others. What is the student’s unique relationship to the topic they chose, and what does it reveal about them, their values, their background, and their interests? As students will hear countless times throughout the writing process, “Show, don’t tell.” Let specific experiences do the talking.

Voice: If a friend or family member were to pick up an essay without the student’s name on it, they should be able to identify the student from their writing. Therefore, multiple individuals providing feedback on a student’s essay (also known as having “too many cooks in the kitchen”) can dilute the student’s authentic voice. Colleges will be able to tell immediately if essays do not reflect the voice of a 17- or 18-year-old.

Lastly, the blunt, but most helpful, question in the essay writing process is “So what?” What is the purpose of this essay? What is the one takeaway the student wants the reader to have? Most importantly, is the student ready for the opportunities college has to offer?

As preparation for the college essay writing process, which should not begin until the spring of junior year at the earliest, students should use their time throughout Upper School to reflect on their values and moments of growth. As they become more thoughtful and introspective, students will possess a better mindset to write compelling college essays beginning the summer before senior year.

Bonnie Singh is a college counselor and writing specialist at Lakeside School. Reach her and other members of the team at collegecounseling@lakesideschool.org.