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College essay don’ts: 37 Things to Avoid In a college essay

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Knowing what not to write about in a college essay is just as important as knowing what to write about!

This post is all about college essay don’ts , including college essay topics to avoid and how not to write your college application essays. 

It’s so important to know what NOT to write about in your college application essay. Whether you’re crafting your essay for the Common App or writing shorter college-specific essays, you need to know how not to write a college essay. 

Choosing the wrong topic for your college application essays could mean that you don’t get admitted to your dream school or you miss out on scholarship money. 

Since you really only have one chance to get it right, you need to know what topics to avoid in your college admissions essays, general college essay don’ts, and what other pitfalls to avoid when writing your college essays.

Essay writing may feel overwhelming and stressful, but knowing what not to do will help you write a great college essay!

What not to write in your college application essay

So you know exactly what not do in college admissions essays, here are 37 college essay tips about college essay don’ts. Follow this advice to know what not to write about in your college essay!

1. Don’t restate the Essay prompt

Start your essay with a hook. Start with dialogue. Start by setting the scene.

Don’t start by restating the essay topic! The reader knows the essay prompts, so just start telling your story. 

A great story will immediately grab the attention of the admission officers and make them want to keep reading!

2. Don’t try to be funny in your college admissions essay

There’s a good chance that what you think is funny may not be funny to the admissions officer. And even if your admissions officer thinks it’s funny, the dean of admissions may not agree.

Clever writing that naturally tells a funny story will get you further than trying too hard to make everyone laugh. 

what not to write about in a college essay

3. Don’t swear

You might not mind vulgar language, but many people do. It will come off as tasteless and crass. Simply put, curse words should not be part of your college admissions essay. 

4. Don’t just tell the reader what you think

Tell the reader what you did, how you felt, how you changed—not just what you think. Admissions officers don’t want to read about what you think in the abstract.

They want to know what has happened to you in life, how that’s affected you, and what you did as a result. 

Write an engaging, interesting story that shows the reader how you’ve grown and what you’ve learned.

5. Don’t try to Appear perfect

It’s okay that your life is messy and you don’t have it all together. It’s okay that you’re not super organized and you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up.

Your college essay doesn’t need to be about how awesome you are (really, it shouldn’t be!). It just needs to be about the real you. Remember, your personal essay for college should be just that—personal! 

6. Don’t brag

Your achievements are all listed on your resume.

Writing about how great you are, how you saved the day, or how you’re a hero to others is not going to make a positive impression on the reader.

Leave the bragging to the people who wrote your letters of reference. 

7. Don’t emphasize status

Avoid topics that emphasize your financial privilege. Voluntourism trips to aid people living in poverty in far-flung areas of the world is a key example of this.

Don’t write about going on a mission trip to a third world country to volunteer to help the less fortunate and how you learned how privileged you are. Just don’t. 

what not to write about in a college essay

8. Don’t lie

Don’t inflate your accomplishments. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.

If you write something dishonest in your essay, it won’t match the other parts of your application. If you were found to have been dishonest when writing your essay, you will not be offered admission at that college. 

9. Don’t reveal too much

If you have faced personal challenges, like addiction, mental health struggles, or learning disabilities, those struggles are part of you. You should feel proud of overcoming them.

But your college admissions essay is not the place to share your most deeply personal experiences. 

Some college admissions officers may read about your challenges and want to welcome someone with your tenacity and spirit to their campus.

Unfortunately, most admissions officers will read about your challenges and worry that you will face similar issues at their university. 

Many colleges choose not accept applicants who have demonstrated past mental health issues. This might not seem fair, but it is reality. Don’t hide your true self or be dishonest, but carefully consider how much you want to reveal in your admissions essay about your private struggles. 

10. Don’t write about illegal activities

It’s a safe bet that most colleges do not want to admit students who have a history of participating in illegal activities.

Even if you plan to talk about drug use, alcohol use, jail time, or committing crimes as a way to show growth and discuss lessons learned, illegal activities show a lack of maturity and questionable judgement.

Writing about criminal behavior will not reflect well on you as a candidate for admission. Illegal activities make bad topics for college essays.

11. Don’t summarize your resume

This is one of the biggest college essay don’ts! Your college essay is your opportunity to tell the college admissions office who you really are and what really matters to you.

Your resume already lists your activities, and your transcript details your grades. Your college essay isn’t the place to review these facts; it’s your chance to stand out by telling your story. 

12. Don’t tell a general story

Be specific. In fact, be very specific. Focusing on the details of your story will help make your college essay unique so that it stands out.

A good college essay will tell a story that could only have been written by you—no one else. 

Instead of telling a biopic story of your life, focus on one aspect of your life—your beliefs, a meaningful experience, a key event—that explains who you are and what matters to you. 

what not to write about in a college essay

13. Don’t write about cliché topics

Avoid writing about the sports victories and defeats. Winning a big game or losing a championship game might mean a lot to you, but sports are common topic and best avoided.

Don’t write about overcoming an academic setback or a romantic breakup.  

14. Don’t write about something controversial

You don’t know who will be reading your college admissions essay, and they might not agree with your views on controversial topics.

Moreover, your reader might not appreciate how you approach a sensitive topic. You might appear close-minded and unempathetic. 

The last thing you want to do is make the admissions officers reading your essay think you would bring discord to the campus community.

15. Don’t undervalue the small stuff

Great essays can be crafted from the small, personal details of daily life.

Don’t underestimate what interesting essays can be written about your morning routine, your favorite family recipe, your relationship with your sibling, or what you do on a snow day. 

In fact, some of the most memorable, best essays have been about a random item, food, or daily routine.

16. Don’t go negative

Criticizing other people, your current school, or anything else will probably just make a bad impression on your readers.

Don’t whine about your life. Negativity says more about you and how you perceive the world around you than it does about anything else. Certainly don’t criticize the college you’re applying to!

If you do want to write about negative experiences you’ve had, quickly move on to discussing what you’ve learned or how you’ve grown as a result of those experiences.

17. Don’t be pompous

Never assume that you know better than your readers or that your approach is the only way.

Don’t tell your reader what they should think. Avoid making generalized value judgements. 

18. Don’t go completely off topic

Don’t try to stand out by submitting a poem or creative writing sample.

Write a thoughtful, well-crafted essay about yourself, just like they asked for.

Show that you respect the school admissions committee’s request and can follow directions. 

19. Don’t ignore the prompt

College admission essay topics are designed to allow you a lot of freedom in how you answer. Craft a story that tells something about you, within the framework of the prompt. 

Just double check that your essay answers the prompt, to make sure you didn’t veer off topic as you wrote and edited the essay. 

Also know that you can write about whatever you’d like to . In your essay writing process, if you find that the first prompt you chose isn’t working out, choose a different one and start again.

20. Don’t get the tone wrong

Your college admissions essay is not an expository essay, formulaic and devoid of warmth. Nor is it the right time for you to use all the fancy words you’ve been studying for the SAT.  

Your college admissions essay should be engaging, show your personality, and sound like you—a teenager reflecting on your life thus far. 

21. Don’t write a trite conclusion

If your essay has done its job, you shouldn’t need to sum it all up for the reader in a neat little final sentence.  

If you have shown your reader what you’ve learned, how you’ve grown, or who you are, you don’t need to say it explicitly at the end of your essay. 

The conclusion is often the hardest part of the essay to get just right, so don’t worry if it’s hard to find the perfect words. Take a break from writing it and come back in a few days to get a fresh perspective on what you’re trying to say.

22. Don’t wait until the last minute to Write

Start writing your college admissions essay weeks, if not months, before its due. Senior year is an incredibly busy time, so it’s a great idea to get started on your college admission essays as early as possible.

Leave plenty of time to think about what you want to say, revise and edit, and finalize the essay. You’ll be amazed at how your essay can improve if you allow ample time to work on it.

If you’re going to apply early decision or early action, consider starting to work on your main essay the summer after junior year, before your senior year even starts, or early in the fall of senior year.

23. Don’t ignore the word count

You don’t want to write too much or too little. Aim to be within a few words of the word limit. Express yourself clearly and concisely.

what not to write about in a college essay

24. Don’t repeat your resume

When you’re writing your personal statement essay, don’t just repeat your high school resume.

Your personal essay is your chance to talk about an aspect of your personality or life experiences that can’t be found anywhere else in your college application. 

The list of courses you’ve taken (and your grades) tell about your academic interests. So there’s no need to turn your essay into a list of your academic achievements!

Your extracurricular activities show what you’re interested in and how you use your time. If you want to discuss how your extracurricular activities have been formative experiences for you, focus on one particular example. Don’t re-list all your volunteer experiences!

Your personal statement essay should reveal something about you that doesn’t show up in the rest of your application. 

25. Don’t write about an “example” topic

If you have read some amazing examples of college essays, and you’re thinking that you could write on that same topic, don’t.

Chances are, if your English teacher pointed out those examples, or you found them via a Google search, every other high school senior (and every school admission officer) has seen those essays too! 

Instead, dig deep and write your own amazing personal statement !

26. Don’t copy and paste

It’s completely fine to use the Common App to submit your personal essay to every school on your list (as long as they accept the Common App, of course). 

But for each college’s specific essays, tailor your essay to each school. Include specific details about each college that make you want to go there. And make sure your responses are appropriate to the culture of each college. 

If you do copy and paste your essays, be sure the essay doesn’t refer to the wrong school!

27. Don’t overuse the thesaurus

Everyone gets stuck using the same words over and over again, and it’s fine to check a thesaurus when you’re writing. 

But don’t use big words just in an attempt to impress the college admissions officers. Don’t use words you don’t really understand to try to sound smart.

For a great college application essay, write naturally in your own voice and let your true personality show. 

28. Don’t plagiarize

If you’re submitting someone else’s college essay as your own, you’re giving up the chance to share your unique story with the admissions office.

You’re also risking an automatic rejection if you’re caught!

29. Don’t be fake

Use your essay to tell the admissions officers what you want them to know about you.

Don’t try to guess what the admissions officers would like for you to say or try to be someone you’re not. 

Don’t invent a tragic event in your past, claim to have done hours and hours of community service you haven’t done, or exaggerate any aspect of your life.

Be authentic, write with your own voice, and craft an essay that stands out from the other applicants.

Simply take your time to craft a thoughtful essay that tells your personal story. Talk about your unique perspective on one specific experience in your life, using your authentic voice.

30. Don’t write a school essay

Your college admissions essay is not a five-paragraph expository essay that you would write for English class.

A winning college essay should have a beginning and an end, but the part in the middle should tell a good story, not make an argument in three points. 

The expository essay style of writing might be what your English teacher wants, but it makes for bad college essays.

For a college application, a well-written essay will examine your personal growth, your unique experience in life, and the different perspectives through which you see the world. And you should do this by crafting an intriguing story about a specific moment or experience that was significant to you.

what not to write about in a college essay

31. Don’t Avoid feedback 

If you’re feeling stuck, feel free to ask someone else—a teacher, parent, family member, or friend—to read your essay. Getting feedback on your entire essay is the best way to get a sense of how admissions officers will respond to reading it.

Feedback does not mean that they tell you what to write or how to write it.

Feedback should mean getting input from someone else can help you learn where your essay veers off point or where you need to dig deeper to tell a better story. 

32. Don’t skip editing

Please allow enough time to write AND edit your essay. Ideally, you will write a first draft of your essay, then edit it, then get feedback, then edit it again, then write a final draft (then proofread it—see below). 

Expect to write at least three or four, and maybe many more, drafts of your college application essay. Your essay will improve with each round of editing.

The essay writing process can be time consuming, but in the end you’ll have a strong essay to share with college admissions offices, so it will be worth it!

33. Don’t overedit

What? Didn’t I just tell you to edit?

Yes, absolutely. Just be sure that after you’ve shown your essay to trusted readers and you’ve made your edits, your story still remains.

The essay should still have your voice and should tell the story you want to tell. 

34. Don’t skip proofreading

After you make your edits and write a “final draft,” you might want to click send and submit your essay. But not so fast! 

Take time to do a final proofread of your essay.

Better yet, ask a teacher, college counselor, or someone with excellent grammar and spelling skills to proofread your essay. Having a fresh set of eyes on your essay will help ensure it is error-free. 

35. Don’t just rely on Spellcheck

It’s really important to have an actual person proofread your essay.

Spellcheck and other editing software won’t necessarily catch grammar errors, typos, or poorly structured arguments.

It’s always a good idea to trust the final proofread of your essay to a person, rather than technology. 

36. Don’t submit your essay at the last minute

You never know when a website will get glitchy!

Don’t take a chance that the Common Application or an individual university’s website won’t act up at a crucial moment. Do your best to upload your college essay at least a day before it’s due!

The admissions process is stressful enough without adding in technical errors. Don’t risk missing the deadline by procrastinating!

37. Don’t submit an incomplete essay

When you’re in the Common App website or a specific college’s application portal, and you attach your admission essay, scan it quickly before hitting the submit button.

Be sure you attached the correct file or that the complete essay transferred when you copied and pasted it into the online form.  

It won’t matter if you write a great essay if you don’t submit it correctly!

Final thoughts on college essay don’ts and what not to write in your college essay

Personal essays are a key part of the college application process. College admissions counselors, especially at smaller colleges, use college essays to learn more about the applicants applying for admission at their school. 

An amazing college essay might not make up for bad grades or a lack of extracurriculars, but a poorly written essay may push your application into the reject pile. This is especially true now that test scores are usually optional.

Successful essays allow admissions officers to learn about your personal qualities, your take on global issues, and how you might contribute to campus life.

Writing a great college admission essay is the most important thing you can do to make a great impression on the admissions team.

After looking at so many college applicants, test scores, GPAs, and awards all blend together. It’s the personal essays that stand out when admission counselors are deciding which high school seniors will be accepted.

So, it’s worth taking your time to write the best college admissions essays you can.

By avoiding all these college essay don’ts, you’ll know what not to write in your college essay. 

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what not to write about in a college essay

15 College Essay Topics To Avoid and Why | Tips & Examples

Blonde student wearing organge t shirt sitting at desk and worryingly looking at her flawed colege essay on her laptop

Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 3/12/24

Entrance essays are an integral part of your college application. Beyond your test scores, GPA, and other achievements, your essays are essentially the heart of your application. Essays help admissions committees get to know the person behind the stats. 

While your essays showcase your adept writing skills , they also uncover your personality, voice, background, experiences, and more. 

You can choose your essay topics when you apply through the Common Application, Coalition Application, or any other online application portal. However, there are some topics you should avoid, or at the very least, slightly steer your narrative in another direction. 

Below we’ll walk you through why it’s best to avoid some topics in your college entrance essays and a brief overview of some common topics to steer clear of or adjust the trajectory.

Why Should You Avoid Certain Topics for College Entrance Essays? 

Your college entrance essay is your chance to make a lasting impression on admissions officers. It's a way to reveal who you are as a person, separate from your grades and test scores. But some topics can backfire, hindering your application instead of highlighting your strengths. Starting an essay topic right can be your ticket into your desired school.

Adam Sapp , Assistant Vice President and Director of Admissions at Pomona College, said, “The essays are important in part because this is a student's chance to really speak directly to the admissions office.” 

What Do Colleges Look For in College Essays?

When it comes to college essays, colleges are on the hunt for a few key things. They want to get to know you beyond just your grades and test scores, so your essay is your chance to shine. Here's what they're generally looking for:

  • Your Personality : Colleges want to see your personality come through in your essay. They want to know what makes you tick, what you're passionate about, and what kind of person you are. This is your chance to let your individuality shine.
  • Writing Skills : Of course, colleges also want to see that you can write well. They'll be looking at your grammar, punctuation, and overall writing style. So, make sure your essay is well-structured and free of errors.
  • Your Story : Everyone has a unique story to tell, and colleges are interested in yours. They want to know about your experiences, the challenges you've faced, and how you've grown as a result. Share something personal and meaningful.
  • Why You're a Good Fit : Colleges also want to see that you've done your homework. They want to know why you're interested in their school specifically. What do you like about their programs, campus, or culture that makes you a good fit?
  • Thoughtfulness : Your essay should show that you've put thought into your future and your academic goals. They want to see that you're serious about your education and have a clear sense of purpose.
  • Creativity : While you want to be thoughtful and serious, don't be afraid to be creative and unique in your writing. A fresh perspective can make your essay stand out.
  • Impact and Growth : Colleges love to see how you've made an impact in your community or how you've grown through your experiences. Share any leadership roles, volunteer work, or challenges you've overcome.
  • Adherence to Guidelines : Finally, make sure your essay follows the specific guidelines provided by the college. Don't go over the word limit or ignore any prompts they've given.

Overall, colleges are looking for an authentic, well-written essay that gives them insight into who you are as a person, why you're interested in their school, and how you can contribute to their community. So, be yourself, put some thought into it, and don't forget to proofread! 

15 Topics to Avoid in Your College Essays 

what not to write about in a college essay

The perfect college essay demonstrates your growth, character, and fit with the school. To drive the point home, choose an essay topic that has proven results . Before you start brainstorming, know there are many college essay topics to avoid altogether. 

Some college essay topics are cliche, and some are risky, uncreative, or just downright inappropriate. We’ll talk you through all the topics to avoid in college essays. 

1. Inappropriate Topics

Some people think rolling with an inappropriate topic and shocking the admissions committee is a great idea, but it’s not. Stay far, far away from anything to do with illegal activity, alcohol, substance use, and anything else following these themes. 

You don’t set yourself up for success using topics like these. The admissions committee could cast judgment, and you’re certainly not putting your best foot forward. 

The only time something like this may be appropriate is if you volunteered at a needle exchange or harm reduction facility. Even then, you’d want to delve into the topic with tact and grace or consider choosing another topic altogether. 

Why Is This A Bad Topic For a College Essay?

Inappropriate topics like these are ill-advised because they can portray the applicant in an extremely negative light to admissions officers. Writing about illegal activities or substance abuse raises major red flags about the applicant's judgment and ability to make good choices. The admissions committee will likely view such topics as a lack of maturity and responsibility - qualities that are essential for college students.

2. A Rehash of Your Activities List and Transcripts 

Essentially summarizing your achievements won’t make for a compelling narrative. The admissions committee already has access to your activities list and transcripts, so there’s no need to reiterate all of the items you wrote down. 

Summarizing these documents is a mistake because it won’t add anything else to your application. Remember, you want to tell the admissions committee something they don’t already know. 

If you want to write about a specific extracurricular, get close and personal with just one. Select the most meaningful activity or the one you were most passionate about and delve beyond the surface. Focusing on one activity can make for a successful essay if it shows your growth, positive character traits, or personality. 

Rehashing information from other parts of the application is a wasted opportunity for the personal essay. The essay is meant to provide new insights into the applicant's personality, values, and experiences that transcripts and lists cannot convey. Simply recapping accomplishments fails to reveal anything meaningful about the applicant as an individual.

3. Relationships, Romance, and Breakups 

As much as you may be head over heels for your partner, or scraping the bottom of ice cream tubs after a breakup, don’t turn these experiences into essay topics. It sounds a little harsh, but your love life doesn’t matter to the admissions committee. Besides that, love is a gigantic and complex topic not well-suited to a college application essay. 

The other problem with this topic is it takes the focus off of yourself and onto another person. You want to ensure your essay is all about you . That's the person most important to the admissions committee, so put yourself first. 

Romance and relationship drama makes for poor college essay topics because they are too personal and not relevant to the applicant's qualifications for admission. Admissions officers are focused on evaluating the applicant's academic potential, not their romantic endeavors. Essays on this topic come across as immature and could raise doubts about the applicant's ability to prioritize their studies over their love life.

4. Writing About Your Hero

Writing a story about your hero sounds nice in theory. However, it’s a cliche college essay topic to avoid. Like writing about your sweetheart (or ex-sweetheart), writing about your hero takes the spotlight away from you and directs it to someone who isn’t applying to college. 

If you wanted to write about your hero in the first place, why? What did they inspire in you, or what experiences did you go through together? How did those experiences or “a-ha” moments make you a better person or a better candidate? Cut through the fluff and focus the lens back on yourself. 

The problem with writing about a hero is that the essay becomes more about glorifying someone else rather than providing insights into the applicant's own life experiences, growth, and motivations. Admissions committees want to learn about the applicants themselves, not read an ode to someone else's accomplishments. The personal statement should maintain a strong focus on the applicant as an individual.

5. The Sports Story

Ah yes, the classic sports story. These essays typically follow different plots. Maybe you scored a point in the last moment, or your team won a championship game against all odds, or you wanted to showcase your training regimen. 

Most people will tell you to stay away from sports topics altogether. If you are dead-set on writing about your sports experiences, don’t let your essay fall into cliche and predictable patterns. 

Approach your sports story from a creative and new angle. Ask yourself the following questions: 

  • How did the skills you learned from sports impact another experience? 
  • Did being team captain give you the leadership skills you needed to succeed in leading an unrelated project? 

Think critically about your experiences, and you could have a stellar essay topic on your hands to start writing . 

Laura Stratton , Director of Admission at Scripps College in California, recounts an exceptionally well-written sports essay about a student benched in a final game. 

“The self-awareness the student showed of being a good team member and showing up for her teammates, and continuing to be positive even though it wasn't the personal experience that she wanted to have, said a lot about her character and about the type of roommate she would be or classmate she would be.” 

Always look for a fresh angle in your sports story if it’s the one you want to tell. 

Sports stories are often cautioned against because they tend to be cliché and unoriginal. There are only so many ways to rehash the "big game" narrative before it becomes stale and uncompelling. Unless the applicant has a truly unique angle, a sports essay runs the risk of blending in with other applications and failing to make a memorable impression on admissions officers.

6. Tragedies

While tragedies you’ve faced can be formative experiences, this may be a college application essay topic to avoid. Some people aren’t comfortable sharing the intimate details of a tragedy they’ve faced, and that’s okay. Similarly, some people aren’t comfortable reading about the personal details of someone else’s tragedy. 

However, if a tragic event such as the death of a loved one is imperative to your narrative, you can carefully craft a story including it. How was the tragedy an index event that impacted your thoughts or actions?

Tragic events require an extremely delicate approach in college essays. There is the risk of either oversharing disturbing details that make readers uncomfortable, or glossing over the tragedy too briefly to give it proper context. 

Admissions officers may also worry that an applicant who has experienced major trauma is not in a good mindset for the rigors of college life. Overall, tragedies are very personal topics better avoided unless absolutely essential to the narrative.

7. Highly Personal Topics

Like tragic events, highly personal topics don’t always make the best essays . Examples of highly personal topics include past trauma, severe illnesses, and injuries. To fully explore the details of their stories, writers may get too graphic or go into way too much detail about these situations. 

If a highly personal topic is central to the story you want to tell, ensure you handle your narrative delicately. It’s okay to briefly share these anecdotes as long as you don’t go into way too much personal detail. 

Similar to tragic events, highly personal topics involving trauma, health issues, or other very private matters should be avoided unless directly relevant to the main narrative. Oversharing disturbing or graphic personal details can make readers uncomfortable and detract from the overall essay.

8. Controversial Topics: Politics, Religion, and More 

Controversial topics are typically college essay topics to avoid. The problem with these is that not everyone will share the same views, and you may open yourself up to judgment from the admissions committee members who don’t. 

Of course, admissions committees don’t make decisions based on criteria such as what political party you voted for or whether or not you attend a place of worship consistently. These topics work against you. Instead of showing why you’re the right candidate, writing about politics and religion can feel like you’re trying to convince the committee your views are correct. 

The only time you may want to write about a polarizing topic like religion is if you plan to attend a school where religion is a part of its heritage, founding, and teaching, such as Notre Dame University. 

Touching on controversial topics like politics or religion is inadvisable because it injects personal opinions and beliefs that may not align with the admissions officer reading the essay. This creates the potential for bias and judgment based on the applicant's stance on the issue. 

The personal statement should aim to unite readers around the applicant's strengths, not divide them over polarizing debates.

9. The Confessional 

If you want to craft a narrative about an obstacle you’ve faced or to share your growth throughout your high school years, avoid “the confessional.” 

You may feel guilty about something you’ve done that no one else knows about: it’s probably best not to share these confessions with the admissions committee. Your confessional probably won’t paint you in the light you were hoping for. 

Instead, focus on an experience where something or someone changed your perspective or how you navigated a challenging situation in the best way you could. These anecdotes show growth, adaptability, and the willingness to change your perspective when offered new information. 

Confessional-style essays delving into past mistakes, guilt, or skeletons in the closet are cautioned against because they can very easily misfire. What the applicant intends as a narrative of growth may come across as a laundry list of poor choices and immaturity. Admissions officers want to see the present, best version of the applicant, not dwell on their past missteps.

10. Throwing the Box Away 

It’s one thing to think outside the box, it’s another to throw the box out entirely and send it downriver. Sometimes students think an ultra-creative essay means going for an entirely new format, like writing a song or poem. While it might be more fun, it could put you at a disadvantage. 

Being creative doesn't mean you have to reinvent the wheel with your essay. It means you can describe an anecdote or situation using detailed description and vibrant imagery. Pour your creativity into your word choice and how you set up a scene, and it’s sure to strike a much better chord with the admissions committee than a poem or song would (pun intended).

While creative writing is encouraged, completely disregarding traditional essay formatting and structure can be a gamble. Admissions officers have to read thousands of personal statements, so presenting the information in an unconventional way like a poem or song may just come across as gimmicky. It's better to channel creativity into excellent writing within the bounds of a standard essay format.

11. The Service/Mission/Class Trip 

One of the problems with these essay topics is that everyone who has had the opportunity to participate in one of these trips wants to write about them. The second problem is that these narratives tend to follow similar themes and that students tend to write about the trip as a whole. 

If your heart is set on sharing an experience from a trip, pick one meaningful moment to focus on. Did you meet someone on your trip that impacted your character or beliefs? Did you face an unexpected challenge that made you need to rise to the occasion? 

Whitney Soule , Senior Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Student Aid at Bowdoin College, said, “Overuse of a topic doesn’t make it a bad topic.” Remember, honing in on one element of your trip can help differentiate your essay and show more depth than just glazing over your excursion.

Service trips, mission trips, or class trips are very common sources for college essays, which makes standing out difficult. Simply recounting the trip itself in a play-by-play fashion is unoriginal and doesn't reveal much about the applicant's unique perspective or growth. To make this topic work, the applicant needs to go beyond just describing the trip and pinpoint specific moments or interactions that were transformative.

12. Something That Happened Way Before High School 

Many of our most formative experiences can happen long before reaching high school. While these moments are important to you, writing about something that happened to you way before high school may not make the best admissions essay. Your experiences before high school don’t show the admissions committee who you are right now; they show who you were before. 

If you want to pick out a story about your childhood, ensure you relate it to high school or current events. This way, you get to tell that story, but you make it relevant to the person you are today. 

For example, if both your parents are scientists and you used to put on their lab coats at five years old, relate it to how your love of science grew over time to lead you to your school choices now. Don’t just stick to the first part of the story. 

While childhood experiences shape who we become, dwelling too much on events from the distant past can make the essay feel irrelevant to the present-day applicant. Admissions officers want to get a sense of the applicant's current identity, maturity, and mindset - not the person they were as a young child.

13. Your Privilege or Luck

If you’ve lived a privileged life or you’ve had stroke after stroke of good luck, focusing only on these elements isn’t in your best interest. It can come across like you haven't experienced any challenges or have a skewed vision of how the world works. 

It’s fortunate if you’ve lived a reasonably trouble-free life thus far. However, dig deep and look for something beyond the surface of sunshine and rainbows—admissions committees like some vulnerability and honesty. 

Essays that are overtly privileged or present a life of constant good fortune can come across as out-of-touch or lacking perspective. Admissions officers want to see that applicants have dealt with obstacles, learned from setbacks, and developed resilience. 

An essay that reads as completely devoid of any challenges or hardships may raise questions about the applicant's ability to cope with future difficulties in college.

14. Anything That Involves Lying

You would think this one is obvious, but many people feel like their stories just aren’t good enough to tell, so they fabricate elements. The bottom line is you should never lie about anything in your college admissions essays . Admissions committees can smell insincerity. That’s not a personal quality you want to communicate to them. 

Rest assured that you don’t need to have written a dramatic story filled with twists and turns. Excellent college essays can revolve around mundane topics. Write your truth, and don’t fudge any of the details. 

Lying or embellishing details in a college essay is a surefire way to undermine the entire application. If caught, it demonstrates a serious lack of integrity that will disqualify the applicant. 

Even if the lie slips through, the essay will likely come across as inauthentic. Admissions officers can usually spot when an applicant is exaggerating or fabricating stories. Honesty is always the best policy for personal statements.

15. Risky Topics Like Pointing Out a School’s Shortcomings 

This type of writing is uncommon for a reason: it won’t work. Some students may think pointing out a school’s shortcomings and how their attendance may help bridge them will give their essay the shock factor they need to stand out. 

Unfortunately, you’ll stand out in the wrong way. As a general rule, you probably shouldn’t rip apart the school you want to attend. 

A better option is to describe how your acceptance will add to the school and campus culture. A response like this may be better suited to a “Why this school?” supplementary essay, but schools want to admit students who contribute to its culture and add a unique perspective to classrooms.

Criticizing or calling out perceived flaws in the school is an extremely risky move that is very unlikely to pay off. It comes across as arrogant and presumptuous for an applicant to claim they can single-handedly fix an institution's issues before even being admitted. 

This tactic shows a lack of respect for the school and its existing community. Applicants are much better off highlighting their strengths as an additive force.

How To Write a Cliche College Essay That Works? (If You Really Want To)

While certain topics like inappropriate content, rehashing accomplishments, sports stories, and personal topics are generally cautioned against for college essays, there are ways to approach them thoughtfully if you insist on using them.

The key is to find a unique angle that shows personal growth, adaptability, vulnerability, or how the experience shaped you as an individual. 

Rather than just recounting events, analyze how a relationship taught you empathy, how a tragedy changed your perspective, or how being a team captain demonstrated leadership. 

Handle sensitive topics delicately without oversharing graphic details. Above all, ensure your narrative maintains an inward focus on your own insights, strengths, and fit for the university rather than distracting from your candidacy. 

With creativity and self-awareness, even cliched topics can make compelling essays that showcase who you are.

Check out our College Essay Examples Database for a detailed look at successful essays.

Do you still have questions about college application essays? We've got answers! Check out this FAQ section to find the information you need to ace your application.

1. Are There Any Sensitive Personal Experiences I Should Avoid Discussing in My Essay?

Avoid overly sensitive topics that might be uncomfortable for admissions officers. Instead, choose experiences that demonstrate personal growth and resilience.

2. Are There Any Topics That Might Come Across as Boastful or Arrogant in a College Essay?

Avoid bragging about achievements or sounding self-important. Focus on how experiences shaped your character and values.

3. How Can I Identify Potentially Overdone or Unoriginal Essay Topics?

Think about common themes like sports victories or mission trips. To stand out, find a unique angle or a more personal way to approach these topics. 

4. What Are Considered Cliché Topics in College Application Essays?

Cliché topics include sports victories ("the big game"), mission/volunteer trips, and overcoming a generic obstacle. Seek a fresh perspective to make these experiences more impactful.

5. Should I Avoid Discussing Controversial Political or Religious Beliefs in My College Essay?

Yes. It's generally best to avoid divisive topics. Focus on sharing experiences that highlight your values, problem-solving skills, and open-mindedness.

Final Thoughts 

There are many cliche essay topics to avoid and some inappropriate to share with admissions committees. Your college admissions essays should always carry a professional yet conversational tone, and you shouldn’t write about anything that would be detrimental to your application. 

Even though the above list is filled with topics to avoid in college essays, it doesn’t mean you can’t tweak them to make them more appropriate and a better story to tell. Your writing should authentically show your voice and character. Put your best foot (and best writing) forward, and you’re sure to produce stellar pieces of writing! 

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What If I Don’t Have Anything Interesting To Write About In My College Essay?

What’s covered:, what makes for a good college essay, how to write a dazzling college essay, will your essay make or break your college application.

College applicants are constantly told that in order to be attractive to admissions committees they need to stand out—but how can you stand out when you live a pretty ordinary life? Lots of students worry that the events of their everyday life are too boring or clichéd to be the topic of a really good essay.

That being said, there’s no need to worry! Your college essay doesn’t need to be about an extraordinary experience you’ve had. Rather, it should depict you as extraordinary. “Uninteresting” topics actually make great college essays because the topic itself doesn’t carry the essay—the student’s individuality does.

Read on for tips on how to write a college essay about an “uninteresting” topic that still shows off your personality, values, interests, and writing skills.

The purpose of your college essay is to humanize yourself to admissions officers so that they can see the ‘real you’ behind the grades and test scores you’ve submitted.

Our article about awesome essay topics gives five structures for a good college essay (though there are many more!):

  • A unique extracurricular activity or passion
  • An activity or interest that contrasts heavily with your profile
  • A seemingly insignificant moment that speaks to larger themes within your life
  • Using an everyday experience or object as a metaphor to explore your life and personality
  • An in-the-moment narrative that tells the story of an important moment in your life

As you might notice, only one of these essay topics references anything exciting, extraordinary, or unique. Set aside the idea that you need to write about something dramatic and unusual. Unusual experiences are not what is most important to admissions officers—rather, it’s important to position yourself as someone that an admissions officer would like to see at their university.

Some things that make for a bad college essay include:

  • Not answering the prompt
  • Stretching a prompt so that your answer doesn’t make sense
  • Writing about a controversial issue, particularly in an irreverent way
  • Showing prejudice
  • Writing about a clichéd topic
  • Writing about anything that advocates disrespect for authority—this can be anything from insulting a teacher to doing an illegal activity
  • Assuming the opinions of your reader

Beyond these boundaries, you can pick any topic you want. It’s how you write about the topic that matters!

Read on for our advice on writing a compelling essay that offers a window into your personality and life experiences.

Our guidance for writing a dazzling essay about an “uninteresting” topic involves:

  • Picking a value or fundamental truth about yourself that will humanize you to admissions officers and tell them something important about yourself
  • Identifying an experience that exemplifies that value or fundamental truth
  • Writing a thoughtful essay that uses your “uninteresting” experience to say something interesting about yourself

1. Get the Ball Rolling

There are many different practices you might find useful as you start brainstorming your college essay. These include freewriting, listing, outlines, and more. That said, don’t feel restricted by brainstorming exercises. Remember that they’re meant to start the process and get the juices flowing. Write down anything and everything that springs to mind—who knows what it could turn into?

Sometimes simple questions can open students up and reveal what is important to them. Here are some questions that might help you brainstorm:

  • What’s the last news story you read and found interesting? This question can help you identify an issue that you are passionate about or a cause that matters a lot to you.
  • What is your proudest accomplishment so far? What about it makes you feel proud? This question can reveal what you consider most important about yourself, which is likely something you find important in life.
  • When have you been the most nervous, and why were you nervous? What was the outcome of the situation? This could be anything from an important performance to standing up for an issue you care about. People’s fears can be an indicator of what they value.
  • What’s the most recent topic you researched on your own just for fun or self-improvement? Have you found yourself going down a rabbit hole of Wikipedia articles recently? Your interests are important to you and say a lot about you.
  • What have you learned from the community you grew up in? What do you value about that community? Your individual history and family history are very important factors in who you are as a person.
  • When have you most recently changed your mind about something important? If growth is important to you, admissions officers want to hear about it.

2. Pick Your Value

If you aren’t going to have a flashy topic, you need to make sure that you use your “uninteresting” topic to say something interesting about yourself. When the admissions officer finishes reading your essay, they should feel like they know you better than when they started reading. So what are you going to tell them about yourself?

Your value or fundamental truth about yourself doesn’t necessarily need to be positive, but neutral/negative values will probably need to be accompanied by self-aware reflection throughout your essay.

Values and fundamental truths can be things like:

  • I have a growth mindset
  • Family loyalty is very important to me
  • Giving gifts that people will treasure is important to me
  • I don’t like to be like everyone else
  • Embarrassment is a major fear of mine
  • I don’t like seeing others in pain
  • I am super curious
  • I always like to be busy
  • I don’t like making mistakes
  • Having fun is important to me
  • I’m a people pleaser
  • Self-care is important to me

3. Pick Your Experience

You will want to pick an anecdote, experience, or example that can serve as a channel through which you can communicate your value. Finding significance in a small incident can be incredibly compelling for your readers. On the other hand, you could explore the meaning of something that you do every day or every week. You can even simply muse on one relationship in your life that speaks to your value. Once you have chosen an experience, you have your topic!

Some “uninteresting” essay topics with interesting implications could be:

  • Making dinner with my mom on Fridays allows me to see how matriarchal strength has been passed down in my family
  • Volunteering at my local community center is how I take care of the natural caretaker in me
  • Going to the mall with my best friend is important to me because choosing which stores to go into is structured spontaneity, and I need structured spontaneity
  • Making cards for my friends’ birthdays started as a way to save money, but I really enjoy how it fuses technical and artistic abilities in a unique way
  • Singing Disney show tunes in the car is when I feel most relaxed because people around me put a lot of pressure on me to grow up fast and sometimes I miss being a kid
  • Going to the hospital to visit my uncle after his surgery was uncomfortable for me because I love others so strongly that it truly hurts me to see them in pain
  • Sleeping with my same stuffed animal every night makes me feel safe, which is important to me because my sister’s health issues cause me anxiety and it’s nice to have something stable to rely on

Some final notes on choosing your essay topic:

  • The topic you initially like the most may not be the one that allows you to write the best possible essay. Be open to trying something different.
  • You don’t need to commit to a topic right away. If it becomes clear after you start outlining or writing that your initial plan isn’t going to work as well as you would like, there’s nothing wrong with altering your topic or starting over with a new topic.

If you still feel stuck, we recommend you take a look at the school-specific supplemental essay questions presented by the colleges to which you’re not applying. One of these prompts might spark an idea in your mind that would also be appropriate for the colleges to which you are applying. Check out the Essay Breakdown posts on the CollegeVine blog for a convenient way to look at this year’s essay questions from many different competitive schools.

4. Make Your Experience Shine

Once you’ve selected a topic, you’ll need to figure out how to develop an essay from it that is technically skillful, compelling to the reader, and true to the vision of yourself that you’re working to portray in your application. Remember, the value of your essay is much more in how you write about your experiences than it is in what experiences you write about.

To write a truly effective college essay, you’ll need to focus not just on depicting your chosen experience, but also on expressing your personal experience in an interesting manner. The experience is simply your scaffolding. The focus of your essay should be what that experience says about you—or what you make it say about you.

When writing about an “uninteresting” experience, you will want to be reflective, be self-aware, and show maturity in your view of your experience. Focus on communicating your thoughts and emotions in a way that evokes emotion in your reader and makes them feel connected to you.

Details are also important to pay attention to while writing your essay, as they’ll bring life and context to your story. Vivid and evocative details can turn your “uninteresting” experience into a relatable and interesting scene in your reader’s imagination.

With skillful writing, powerful word choice, and a good sense of how to develop a fragment of an idea into a longer piece of writing, you can make any topic—no matter how “uninteresting” it may seem—into a mature exploration of your values and a showcase of your skills as a communicator.

It depends . A brilliant essay can’t make up for severe deficiencies in your academic qualifications , but it will still have a significant impact, particularly at smaller and more competitive schools.

If you’re “on the bubble” for admissions, an essay that makes an admissions officer feel like they know you could give them a reason to accept your application. On the other hand, an essay that’s carelessly written, inappropriate, or full of technical errors will hurt your chances of admission, even if you have great qualifications.

If you finish your first draft of your essay and are still worried that your “uninteresting” topic will break your college application, we recommend that you get feedback. Sometimes it can really help to have someone else determine whether or not your voice is shining through in your work. Feedback is ultimately any writer’s best source of improvement!

To get your college essay edited for free and improve your chances of acceptance at your dream schools, use our Peer Review Essay Tool . With this tool, other students will tell you if your essay effectively humanizes you.

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September 24, 2023

What Not to Write: 3 College Essay Topics to Avoid

What Not To Write College Essays

Previously Published on March 11, 2015:

College applicants sure do write about the strangest things! Several years ago,  Bustle  ran a piece on topics college applicants write about in their college admissions essays, topics they should never have broached — not in 2015 when the article came out and not now in 2023 when addressing the 2023-2024 college essay prompts at our nation’s highly selective universities. So, what kinds of topics do students make the mistake of writing about in their college essays?

What Not to Write About in College Essays

Here are three topics to avoid when writing college essays:

1. College Essays on Losing One’s Virginity

According to the piece by Rebecca Jane Stokes on crazy college essay topics , one admissions officer commented: “I got a handful of kids each year writing their college essays on losing their virginity. Always cringeworthy.” We at Ivy Coach would sure say so!

Why would a high schooler ever think to write about losing their virginity? That’s entirely too personal and inappropriate. Many students choose to lose their virginity in high school. But that doesn’t mean that Harvard will admit them for doing so. So why would a student spend the valuable real estate of The Common Application ‘s Personal Statement discussing as much? Oy vey.

2. College Essays with Grandiose Claims

Here’s another tidbit from an admissions officer quoted in the  Bustle  piece: “There was one applicant I remember who turned in an admission essay detailing his time as a clandestine operative for the CIA and informing us that he was the guy who invented the M16 rifle. The second was easily researchable on the internet (seriously, did he not think we’d Google that?) and the first…well…yeah.”

First, if this applicant was a covert operative for the CIA, why have they shared as much with colleges? This student clearly cannot be trusted since they’ve breached the code of the CIA. But, of course, the student was not actually a clandestine operative for the CIA, nor did they invent the M16 rifle. Did they really think making a mockery of the college admissions process — and lying — would lead to admission? Honesty matters in elite college admissions. Oy vey again.

3. College Essays with Alarming Statements

Another admissions officer shared in the  Bustle  piece, “Got a little scared of a kid who wrote an essay about someone’s murder. Never figured out if it was a personal story or a work of fiction.” Holy cow. 

Does one really think that a university would ever consider admitting a student who writes such an essay? Even if the student has perfect grades and perfect test scores, this is the kind of Personal Statement that will do the applicant in. Don’t murder people. And don’t write about such murders in college essays. But, mostly, don’t murder people!

Ivy Coach’s Assistance with College Essays

If you’re interested in optimizing your case for admission to elite universities by submitting compelling essays showcasing a singular hook — rather than well-roundedness — that would never dare touch a third-rail topic such as those discussed above, fill out Ivy Coach ’s free consultation form , and we’ll be in touch to outline our college admissions counseling services.

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Frequently asked questions

What topics should i avoid in a college essay.

Most topics are acceptable for college essays if you can use them to demonstrate personal growth or a lesson learned. However, there are a few difficult topics for college essays that should be avoided. Avoid topics that are:

  • Overly personal (e.g. graphic details of illness or injury, romantic or sexual relationships)
  • Not personal enough (e.g. broad solutions to world problems, inspiring people or things)
  • Too negative (e.g. an in-depth look at your flaws, put-downs of others, criticizing the need for a college essay)
  • Too boring (e.g. a resume of your academic achievements and extracurriculars)
  • Inappropriate for a college essay (e.g. illegal activities, offensive humor, false accounts of yourself, bragging about privilege)

Frequently asked questions: College admissions essays

When writing your Common App essay , choose a prompt that sparks your interest and that you can connect to a unique personal story.

No matter which prompt you choose, admissions officers are more interested in your ability to demonstrate personal development , insight, or motivation for a certain area of study.

The Common App essay is your primary writing sample within the Common Application, a college application portal accepted by more than 900 schools. All your prospective schools that accept the Common App will read this essay to understand your character, background, and value as a potential student.

Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs; instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.

Most importantly, your essay should be about you , not another person or thing. An insightful college admissions essay requires deep self-reflection, authenticity, and a balance between confidence and vulnerability.

Your essay shouldn’t be a résumé of your experiences but instead should tell a story that demonstrates your most important values and qualities.

When revising your college essay , first check for big-picture issues regarding your message and content. Then, check for flow, tone, style , and clarity. Finally, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors .

If your college essay goes over the word count limit , cut any sentences with tangents or irrelevant details. Delete unnecessary words that clutter your essay.

If you’re struggling to reach the word count for your college essay, add vivid personal stories or share your feelings and insight to give your essay more depth and authenticity.

If you’ve got to write your college essay fast , don’t panic. First, set yourself deadlines: you should spend about 10% of your remaining time on brainstorming, 10% on outlining, 40% writing, 30% revising, and 10% taking breaks in between stages.

Second, brainstorm stories and values based on your essay prompt.

Third, outline your essay based on the montage or narrative essay structure .

Fourth, write specific, personal, and unique stories that would be hard for other students to replicate.

Fifth, revise your essay and make sure it’s clearly written.

Last, if possible, get feedback from an essay coach . Scribbr essay editors can help you revise your essay in 12 hours or less.

Avoid swearing in a college essay , since admissions officers’ opinions of profanity will vary. In some cases, it might be okay to use a vulgar word, such as in dialogue or quotes that make an important point in your essay. However, it’s safest to try to make the same point without swearing.

If you have bad grades on your transcript, you may want to use your college admissions essay to explain the challenging circumstances that led to them. Make sure to avoid dwelling on the negative aspects and highlight how you overcame the situation or learned an important lesson.

However, some college applications offer an additional information section where you can explain your bad grades, allowing you to choose another meaningful topic for your college essay.

Here’s a brief list of college essay topics that may be considered cliché:

  • Extracurriculars, especially sports
  • Role models
  • Dealing with a personal tragedy or death in the family
  • Struggling with new life situations (immigrant stories, moving homes, parents’ divorce)
  • Becoming a better person after community service, traveling, or summer camp
  • Overcoming a difficult class
  • Using a common object as an extended metaphor

It’s easier to write a standout essay with a unique topic. However, it’s possible to make a common topic compelling with interesting story arcs, uncommon connections, and an advanced writing style.

Yes. The college application essay is less formal than other academic writing —though of course it’s not mandatory to use contractions in your essay.

In a college essay , you can be creative with your language . When writing about the past, you can use the present tense to make the reader feel as if they were there in the moment with you. But make sure to maintain consistency and when in doubt, default to the correct verb tense according to the time you’re writing about.

The college admissions essay gives admissions officers a different perspective on you beyond your academic achievements, test scores, and extracurriculars. It’s your chance to stand out from other applicants with similar academic profiles by telling a unique, personal, and specific story.

Use a standard font such as Times New Roman or Arial to avoid distracting the reader from your college essay’s content.

A college application essay is less formal than most academic writing . Instead of citing sources formally with in-text citations and a reference list, you can cite them informally in your text.

For example, “In her research paper on genetics, Quinn Roberts explores …”

There is no set number of paragraphs in a college admissions essay . College admissions essays can diverge from the traditional five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in English class. Just make sure to stay under the specified word count .

To write an effective diversity essay , include vulnerable, authentic stories about your unique identity, background, or perspective. Provide insight into how your lived experience has influenced your outlook, activities, and goals. If relevant, you should also mention how your background has led you to apply for this university and why you’re a good fit.

Many universities believe a student body composed of different perspectives, beliefs, identities, and backgrounds will enhance the campus learning and community experience.

Admissions officers are interested in hearing about how your unique background, identity, beliefs, culture, or characteristics will enrich the campus community, which is why they assign a diversity essay .

In addition to your main college essay , some schools and scholarships may ask for a supplementary essay focused on an aspect of your identity or background. This is sometimes called a diversity essay .

You can use humor in a college essay , but carefully consider its purpose and use it wisely. An effective use of humor involves unexpected, keen observations of the everyday, or speaks to a deeper theme. Humor shouldn’t be the main focus of the essay, but rather a tool to improve your storytelling.

Get a second opinion from a teacher, counselor, or essay coach on whether your essay’s humor is appropriate.

Though admissions officers are interested in hearing your story, they’re also interested in how you tell it. An exceptionally written essay will differentiate you from other applicants, meaning that admissions officers will spend more time reading it.

You can use literary devices to catch your reader’s attention and enrich your storytelling; however, focus on using just a few devices well, rather than trying to use as many as possible.

To decide on a good college essay topic , spend time thoughtfully answering brainstorming questions. If you still have trouble identifying topics, try the following two strategies:

  • Identify your qualities → Brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities
  • Identify memorable stories → Connect your qualities to these stories

You can also ask family, friends, or mentors to help you brainstorm topics, give feedback on your potential essay topics, or recall key stories that showcase your qualities.

Yes—admissions officers don’t expect everyone to have a totally unique college essay topic . But you must differentiate your essay from others by having a surprising story arc, an interesting insight, and/or an advanced writing style .

There are no foolproof college essay topics —whatever your topic, the key is to write about it effectively. However, a good topic

  • Is meaningful, specific, and personal to you
  • Focuses on you and your experiences
  • Reveals something beyond your test scores, grades, and extracurriculars
  • Is creative and original

Unlike a five-paragraph essay, your admissions essay should not end by summarizing the points you’ve already made. It’s better to be creative and aim for a strong final impression.

You should also avoid stating the obvious (for example, saying that you hope to be accepted).

There are a few strategies you can use for a memorable ending to your college essay :

  • Return to the beginning with a “full circle” structure
  • Reveal the main point or insight in your story
  • Look to the future
  • End on an action

The best technique will depend on your topic choice, essay outline, and writing style. You can write several endings using different techniques to see which works best.

College deadlines vary depending on the schools you’re applying to and your application plan:

  • For early action applications and the first round of early decision applications, the deadline is on November 1 or 15. Decisions are released by mid-December.
  • For the second round of early decision applications, the deadline is January 1 or 15. Decisions are released in January or February.
  • Regular decision deadlines usually fall between late November and mid-March, and decisions are released in March or April.
  • Rolling admission deadlines run from July to April, and decisions are released around four to eight weeks after submission.

Depending on your prospective schools’ requirements, you may need to submit scores for the SAT or ACT as part of your college application .

Some schools now no longer require students to submit test scores; however, you should still take the SAT or ACT and aim to get a high score to strengthen your application package.

Aim to take the SAT or ACT in the spring of your junior year to give yourself enough time to retake it in the fall of your senior year if necessary.

Apply early for federal student aid and application fee waivers. You can also look for scholarships from schools, corporations, and charitable foundations.

To maximize your options, you should aim to apply to about eight schools:

  • Two reach schools that might be difficult to get into
  • Four match schools that you have a good chance of getting into
  • Two safety schools that you feel confident you’ll get into

The college admissions essay accounts for roughly 25% of the weight of your application .

At highly selective schools, there are four qualified candidates for every spot. While your academic achievements are important, your college admissions essay can help you stand out from other applicants with similar profiles.

In general, for your college application you will need to submit all of the following:

  • Your personal information
  • List of extracurriculars and awards
  • College application essays
  • Transcripts
  • Standardized test scores
  • Recommendation letters.

Different colleges may have specific requirements, so make sure you check exactly what’s expected in the application guidance.

You should start thinking about your college applications the summer before your junior year to give you sufficient time for college visits, taking standardized tests, applying for financial aid , writing essays, and collecting application material.

Yes, but make sure your essay directly addresses the prompt, respects the word count , and demonstrates the organization’s values.

If you plan ahead, you can save time by writing one scholarship essay for multiple prompts with similar questions. In a scholarship tracker spreadsheet, you can group or color-code overlapping essay prompts; then, write a single essay for multiple scholarships. Sometimes, you can even reuse or adapt your main college essay .

You can start applying for scholarships as early as your junior year. Continue applying throughout your senior year.

Invest time in applying for various scholarships , especially local ones with small dollar amounts, which are likely easier to win and more reflective of your background and interests. It will be easier for you to write an authentic and compelling essay if the scholarship topic is meaningful to you.

You can find scholarships through your school counselor, community network, or an internet search.

A scholarship essay requires you to demonstrate your values and qualities while answering the prompt’s specific question.

After researching the scholarship organization, identify a personal experience that embodies its values and exemplifies how you will be a successful student.

A standout college essay has several key ingredients:

  • A unique, personally meaningful topic
  • A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
  • Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
  • Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
  • Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
  • A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending

While timelines will differ depending on the student, plan on spending at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing the first draft of your college admissions essay , and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Don’t forget to save enough time for breaks between each writing and editing stage.

You should already begin thinking about your essay the summer before your senior year so that you have plenty of time to try out different topics and get feedback on what works.

Your college essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s weight. It may be the deciding factor in whether you’re accepted, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurricular track records.

In most cases, quoting other people isn’t a good way to start your college essay . Admissions officers want to hear your thoughts about yourself, and quotes often don’t achieve that. Unless a quote truly adds something important to your essay that it otherwise wouldn’t have, you probably shouldn’t include it.

Cliché openers in a college essay introduction are usually general and applicable to many students and situations. Most successful introductions are specific: they only work for the unique essay that follows.

The key to a strong college essay introduction is not to give too much away. Try to start with a surprising statement or image that raises questions and compels the reader to find out more.

The introduction of your college essay is the first thing admissions officers will read and therefore your most important opportunity to stand out. An excellent introduction will keep admissions officers reading, allowing you to tell them what you want them to know.

You can speed up this process by shortening and smoothing your writing with a paraphrasing tool . After that, you can use the summarizer to shorten it even more.

If you’re struggling to reach the word count for your college essay, add vivid personal stories or share your feelings and insight to give your essay more depth and authenticity.

Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit to write a developed and thoughtful essay.

You should aim to stay under the specified word count limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, don’t write too little, as it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a detailed and insightful narrative about yourself.

If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.

In your application essay , admissions officers are looking for particular features : they want to see context on your background, positive traits that you could bring to campus, and examples of you demonstrating those qualities.

Colleges want to be able to differentiate students who seem similar on paper. In the college application essay , they’re looking for a way to understand each applicant’s unique personality and experiences.

You don’t need a title for your college admissions essay , but you can include one if you think it adds something important.

Your college essay’s format should be as simple as possible:

  • Use a standard, readable font
  • Use 1.5 or double spacing
  • If attaching a file, save it as a PDF
  • Stick to the word count
  • Avoid unusual formatting and unnecessary decorative touches

There are no set rules for how to structure a college application essay , but these are two common structures that work:

  • A montage structure, a series of vignettes with a common theme.
  • A narrative structure, a single story that shows your personal growth or how you overcame a challenge.

Avoid the five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in high school.

Campus visits are always helpful, but if you can’t make it in person, the college website will have plenty of information for you to explore. You should look through the course catalog and even reach out to current faculty with any questions about the school.

Colleges set a “Why this college?” essay because they want to see that you’ve done your research. You must prove that you know what makes the school unique and can connect that to your own personal goals and academic interests.

Depending on your writing, you may go through several rounds of revision . Make sure to put aside your essay for a little while after each editing stage to return with a fresh perspective.

Teachers and guidance counselors can help you check your language, tone, and content . Ask for their help at least one to two months before the submission deadline, as many other students will also want their help.

Friends and family are a good resource to check for authenticity. It’s best to seek help from family members with a strong writing or English educational background, or from older siblings and cousins who have been through the college admissions process.

If possible, get help from an essay coach or editor ; they’ll have specialized knowledge of college admissions essays and be able to give objective expert feedback.

When revising your college essay , first check for big-picture issues regarding message, flow, tone, style , and clarity. Then, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors.

Include specific, personal details and use your authentic voice to shed a new perspective on a common human experience.

Through specific stories, you can weave your achievements and qualities into your essay so that it doesn’t seem like you’re bragging from a resume.

When writing about yourself , including difficult experiences or failures can be a great way to show vulnerability and authenticity, but be careful not to overshare, and focus on showing how you matured from the experience.

First, spend time reflecting on your core values and character . You can start with these questions:

  • What are three words your friends or family would use to describe you, and why would they choose them?
  • Whom do you admire most and why?
  • What are you most proud of? Ashamed of?

However, you should do a comprehensive brainstorming session to fully understand your values. Also consider how your values and goals match your prospective university’s program and culture. Then, brainstorm stories that illustrate the fit between the two.

In a college application essay , you can occasionally bend grammatical rules if doing so adds value to the storytelling process and the essay maintains clarity.

However, use standard language rules if your stylistic choices would otherwise distract the reader from your overall narrative or could be easily interpreted as unintentional errors.

Write concisely and use the active voice to maintain a quick pace throughout your essay and make sure it’s the right length . Avoid adding definitions unless they provide necessary explanation.

Use first-person “I” statements to speak from your perspective . Use appropriate word choices that show off your vocabulary but don’t sound like you used a thesaurus. Avoid using idioms or cliché expressions by rewriting them in a creative, original way.

If you’re an international student applying to a US college and you’re comfortable using American idioms or cultural references , you can. But instead of potentially using them incorrectly, don’t be afraid to write in detail about yourself within your own culture.

Provide context for any words, customs, or places that an American admissions officer might be unfamiliar with.

College application essays are less formal than other kinds of academic writing . Use a conversational yet respectful tone , as if speaking with a teacher or mentor. Be vulnerable about your feelings, thoughts, and experiences to connect with the reader.

Aim to write in your authentic voice , with a style that sounds natural and genuine. You can be creative with your word choice, but don’t use elaborate vocabulary to impress admissions officers.

Admissions officers use college admissions essays to evaluate your character, writing skills , and ability to self-reflect . The essay is your chance to show what you will add to the academic community.

The college essay may be the deciding factor in your application , especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.

Some colleges also require supplemental essays about specific topics, such as why you chose that specific college . Scholarship essays are often required to obtain financial aid .

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Watch CBS News

10 topics to avoid in a college admission essay

By Lynn O'Shaughnessy

June 21, 2013 / 8:12 AM EDT / MoneyWatch

(MoneyWatch) For students who are applying for college, one of the scariest parts of the admission process is writing the dreaded essay.

A common mistake that students make when tackling their college essays is to pick the wrong topics. It's a huge turn off, for instance, when applicants write about their sports exploits or their pets. I asked Janine Robinson, who is the creator of a wonderful website called Essay Hell and the author of an excellent ebook entitled " Escape Essay Hell ," to identify those essay topics that teenagers should absolutely avoid.

  • 5 tips for writing a winning college essay
  • 5 myths about getting in and paying for college
  • 10 great opening lines from Stanford admission essays

Here are Robinson's college essay no-no's:

1. Listing accomplishments. You might be the most amazing person on the planet, but nobody wants a recitation of the wonderful things you've done, the people you've encountered and the places you've visited.

2. Sports. Do you know how many millions of teens have written about scoring the winning goal, basket or run? You definitely don't want to write about your winning team. And nobody wants to read about your losing team, either.

3. Sharing how lucky you are. If you are one of the lucky teenagers who has grown up in an affluent household, with all the perks that goes with it, no need to share that with college admission officials. "The last thing anyone wants to read about is your ski trip to Aspen or your hot oil massage at a fancy resort," Robinson observed.

4. Writing an "un-essay." Many students, particularly some of the brightest ones, have a negative reaction to the strictures of the admission essay. In response, Robinson says, "They want to write in stream-of-consciousness or be sarcastic, and I totally understand this reaction. However, you must remember your goal with these essays -- to get accepted! Save the radical expression for after you get into college."

5. Inflammatory topics. It's unwise to write about politics or religion, two of the most polarizing topics. Avoid any topics that make people angry.

6. Illegal activity. Do not write about drug use, drinking and driving, arrests or jail time. Also leave your sexual activities out of the frame. Even if you have abandoned your reckless ways, don't bring it up.

7. Do-good experiences. Schools do not want to hear about your church or school trip to another country or region to help the disadvantaged. You may be able to write about a trip like this only if you focus on a specific experience within the broader trip.

8. The most important thing or person in my life. This topic is too broad and too loaded, whether you want to write about God, your mom or best friend. These essays are usually painfully boring. 

9. Death, divorce, tragedies. The problem with these topics is not that they are depressing, but that such powerful topics can be challenging to write about. Absolutely no pet stories -- admission officers hate them.

10. Humor. A story within a college essay can be amusing, but don't try to make the entire essay funny.

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View all articles by Lynn O'Shaughnessy on CBS MoneyWatch» Lynn O'Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, consultant and speaker on issues that parents with college-bound teenagers face. She explains how families can make college more affordable through her website TheCollegeSolution.com ; her financial workbook, Shrinking the Cost of College ; and the new second edition of her Amazon best-selling book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price .

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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, 53 stellar college essay topics to inspire you.

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College Essays

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Most colleges and universities in the United States require applicants to submit at least one essay as part of their application. But trying to figure out what college essay topics you should choose is a tricky process. There are so many potential things you could write about!

In this guide, we go over the essential qualities that make for a great college essay topic and give you 50+ college essay topics you can use for your own statement . In addition, we provide you with helpful tips for turning your college essay topic into a stellar college essay.

What Qualities Make for a Good College Essay Topic?

Regardless of what you write about in your personal statement for college , there are key features that will always make for a stand-out college essay topic.

#1: It’s Specific

First off, good college essay topics are extremely specific : you should know all the pertinent facts that have to do with the topic and be able to see how the entire essay comes together.

Specificity is essential because it’ll not only make your essay stand out from other statements, but it'll also recreate the experience for admissions officers through its realism, detail, and raw power. You want to tell a story after all, and specificity is the way to do so. Nobody wants to read a vague, bland, or boring story — not even admissions officers!

For example, an OK topic would be your experience volunteering at a cat shelter over the summer. But a better, more specific college essay topic would be how you deeply connected with an elderly cat there named Marty, and how your bond with him made you realize that you want to work with animals in the future.

Remember that specificity in your topic is what will make your essay unique and memorable . It truly is the key to making a strong statement (pun intended)!

#2: It Shows Who You Are

In addition to being specific, good college essay topics reveal to admissions officers who you are: your passions and interests, what is important to you, your best (or possibly even worst) qualities, what drives you, and so on.

The personal statement is critical because it gives schools more insight into who you are as a person and not just who you are as a student in terms of grades and classes.

By coming up with a real, honest topic, you’ll leave an unforgettable mark on admissions officers.

#3: It’s Meaningful to You

The very best college essay topics are those that hold deep meaning to their writers and have truly influenced them in some significant way.

For instance, maybe you plan to write about the first time you played Skyrim to explain how this video game revealed to you the potentially limitless worlds you could create, thereby furthering your interest in game design.

Even if the topic seems trivial, it’s OK to use it — just as long as you can effectively go into detail about why this experience or idea had such an impact on you .

Don’t give in to the temptation to choose a topic that sounds impressive but doesn’t actually hold any deep meaning for you. Admissions officers will see right through this!

Similarly, don’t try to exaggerate some event or experience from your life if it’s not all that important to you or didn’t have a substantial influence on your sense of self.

#4: It’s Unique

College essay topics that are unique are also typically the most memorable, and if there’s anything you want to be during the college application process, it’s that! Admissions officers have to sift through thousands of applications, and the essay is one of the only parts that allows them to really get a sense of who you are and what you value in life.

If your essay is trite or boring, it won’t leave much of an impression , and your application will likely get immediately tossed to the side with little chance of seeing admission.

But if your essay topic is very original and different, you’re more likely to earn that coveted second glance at your application.

What does being unique mean exactly, though? Many students assume that they must choose an extremely rare or crazy experience to talk about in their essays —but that's not necessarily what I mean by "unique." Good college essay topics can be unusual and different, yes, but they can also be unique takes on more mundane or common activities and experiences .

For instance, say you want to write an essay about the first time you went snowboarding. Instead of just describing the details of the experience and how you felt during it, you could juxtapose your emotions with a creative and humorous perspective from the snowboard itself. Or you could compare your first attempt at snowboarding with your most recent experience in a snowboarding competition. The possibilities are endless!

#5: It Clearly Answers the Question

Finally, good college essay topics will clearly and fully answer the question(s) in the prompt.

You might fail to directly answer a prompt by misinterpreting what it’s asking you to do, or by answering only part of it (e.g., answering just one out of three questions).

Therefore, make sure you take the time to come up with an essay topic that is in direct response to every question in the prompt .

Take this Coalition Application prompt as an example:

What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What's the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?

For this prompt, you’d need to answer all three questions (though it’s totally fine to focus more on one or two of them) to write a compelling and appropriate essay.

This is why we recommend reading and rereading the essay prompt ; you should know exactly what it’s asking you to do, well before you start brainstorming possible college application essay topics.

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53 College Essay Topics to Get Your Brain Moving

In this section, we give you a list of 53 examples of college essay topics. Use these as jumping-off points to help you get started on your college essay and to ensure that you’re on track to coming up with a relevant and effective topic.

All college application essay topics below are categorized by essay prompt type. We’ve identified six general types of college essay prompts:

Why This College?

Change and personal growth, passions, interests, and goals, overcoming a challenge, diversity and community, solving a problem.

Note that these prompt types could overlap with one another, so you’re not necessarily limited to just one college essay topic in a single personal statement.

  • How a particular major or program will help you achieve your academic or professional goals
  • A memorable and positive interaction you had with a professor or student at the school
  • Something good that happened to you while visiting the campus or while on a campus tour
  • A certain class you want to take or a certain professor you’re excited to work with
  • Some piece of on-campus equipment or facility that you’re looking forward to using
  • Your plans to start a club at the school, possibly to raise awareness of a major issue
  • A study abroad or other unique program that you can’t wait to participate in
  • How and where you plan to volunteer in the community around the school
  • An incredible teacher you studied under and the positive impact they had on you
  • How you went from really liking something, such as a particular movie star or TV show, to not liking it at all (or vice versa)
  • How yours or someone else’s (change in) socioeconomic status made you more aware of poverty
  • A time someone said something to you that made you realize you were wrong
  • How your opinion on a controversial topic, such as gay marriage or DACA, has shifted over time
  • A documentary that made you aware of a particular social, economic, or political issue going on in the country or world
  • Advice you would give to your younger self about friendship, motivation, school, etc.
  • The steps you took in order to kick a bad or self-sabotaging habit
  • A juxtaposition of the first and most recent time you did something, such as dance onstage
  • A book you read that you credit with sparking your love of literature and/or writing
  • A school assignment or project that introduced you to your chosen major
  • A glimpse of your everyday routine and how your biggest hobby or interest fits into it
  • The career and (positive) impact you envision yourself having as a college graduate
  • A teacher or mentor who encouraged you to pursue a specific interest you had
  • How moving around a lot helped you develop a love of international exchange or learning languages
  • A special skill or talent you’ve had since you were young and that relates to your chosen major in some way, such as designing buildings with LEGO bricks
  • Where you see yourself in 10 or 20 years
  • Your biggest accomplishment so far relating to your passion (e.g., winning a gold medal for your invention at a national science competition)
  • A time you lost a game or competition that was really important to you
  • How you dealt with the loss or death of someone close to you
  • A time you did poorly in a class that you expected to do well in
  • How moving to a new school impacted your self-esteem and social life
  • A chronic illness you battled or are still battling
  • Your healing process after having your heart broken for the first time
  • A time you caved under peer pressure and the steps you took so that it won't happen again
  • How you almost gave up on learning a foreign language but stuck with it
  • Why you decided to become a vegetarian or vegan, and how you navigate living with a meat-eating family
  • What you did to overcome a particular anxiety or phobia you had (e.g., stage fright)
  • A history of a failed experiment you did over and over, and how you finally found a way to make it work successfully
  • Someone within your community whom you aspire to emulate
  • A family tradition you used to be embarrassed about but are now proud of
  • Your experience with learning English upon moving to the United States
  • A close friend in the LGBTQ+ community who supported you when you came out
  • A time you were discriminated against, how you reacted, and what you would do differently if faced with the same situation again
  • How you navigate your identity as a multiracial, multiethnic, and/or multilingual person
  • A project or volunteer effort you led to help or improve your community
  • A particular celebrity or role model who inspired you to come out as LGBTQ+
  • Your biggest challenge (and how you plan to tackle it) as a female in a male-dominated field
  • How you used to discriminate against your own community, and what made you change your mind and eventually take pride in who you are and/or where you come from
  • A program you implemented at your school in response to a known problem, such as a lack of recycling cans in the cafeteria
  • A time you stepped in to mediate an argument or fight between two people
  • An app or other tool you developed to make people’s lives easier in some way
  • A time you proposed a solution that worked to an ongoing problem at school, an internship, or a part-time job
  • The steps you took to identify and fix an error in coding for a website or program
  • An important social or political issue that you would fix if you had the means

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How to Build a College Essay in 6 Easy Steps

Once you’ve decided on a college essay topic you want to use, it’s time to buckle down and start fleshing out your essay. These six steps will help you transform a simple college essay topic into a full-fledged personal statement.

Step 1: Write Down All the Details

Once you’ve chosen a general topic to write about, get out a piece of paper and get to work on creating a list of all the key details you could include in your essay . These could be things such as the following:

  • Emotions you felt at the time
  • Names, places, and/or numbers
  • Dialogue, or what you or someone else said
  • A specific anecdote, example, or experience
  • Descriptions of how things looked, felt, or seemed

If you can only come up with a few details, then it’s probably best to revisit the list of college essay topics above and choose a different one that you can write more extensively on.

Good college essay topics are typically those that:

  • You remember well (so nothing that happened when you were really young)
  • You're excited to write about
  • You're not embarrassed or uncomfortable to share with others
  • You believe will make you positively stand out from other applicants

Step 2: Figure Out Your Focus and Approach

Once you have all your major details laid out, start to figure out how you could arrange them in a way that makes sense and will be most effective.

It’s important here to really narrow your focus: you don’t need to (and shouldn’t!) discuss every single aspect of your trip to visit family in Indonesia when you were 16. Rather, zero in on a particular anecdote or experience and explain why and how it impacted you.

Alternatively, you could write about multiple experiences while weaving them together with a clear, meaningful theme or concept , such as how your math teacher helped you overcome your struggle with geometry over the course of an entire school year. In this case, you could mention a few specific times she tutored you and most strongly supported you in your studies.

There’s no one right way to approach your college essay, so play around to see what approaches might work well for the topic you’ve chosen.

If you’re really unsure about how to approach your essay, think about what part of your topic was or is most meaningful and memorable to you, and go from there.

Step 3: Structure Your Narrative

  • Beginning: Don’t just spout off a ton of background information here—you want to hook your reader, so try to start in the middle of the action , such as with a meaningful conversation you had or a strong emotion you felt. It could also be a single anecdote if you plan to center your essay around a specific theme or idea.
  • Middle: Here’s where you start to flesh out what you’ve established in the opening. Provide more details about the experience (if a single anecdote) or delve into the various times your theme or idea became most important to you. Use imagery and sensory details to put the reader in your shoes.
  • End: It’s time to bring it all together. Finish describing the anecdote or theme your essay centers around and explain how it relates to you now , what you’ve learned or gained from it, and how it has influenced your goals.

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Step 4: Write a Rough Draft

By now you should have all your major details and an outline for your essay written down; these two things will make it easy for you to convert your notes into a rough draft.

At this stage of the writing process, don’t worry too much about vocabulary or grammar and just focus on getting out all your ideas so that they form the general shape of an essay . It’s OK if you’re a little over the essay's word limit — as you edit, you’ll most likely make some cuts to irrelevant and ineffective parts anyway.

If at any point you get stuck and have no idea what to write, revisit steps 1-3 to see whether there are any important details or ideas you might be omitting or not elaborating on enough to get your overall point across to admissions officers.

Step 5: Edit, Revise, and Proofread

  • Sections that are too wordy and don’t say anything important
  • Irrelevant details that don’t enhance your essay or the point you're trying to make
  • Parts that seem to drag or that feel incredibly boring or redundant
  • Areas that are vague and unclear and would benefit from more detail
  • Phrases or sections that are awkwardly placed and should be moved around
  • Areas that feel unconvincing, inauthentic, or exaggerated

Start paying closer attention to your word choice/vocabulary and grammar at this time, too. It’s perfectly normal to edit and revise your college essay several times before asking for feedback, so keep working with it until you feel it’s pretty close to its final iteration.

This step will likely take the longest amount of time — at least several weeks, if not months — so really put effort into fixing up your essay. Once you’re satisfied, do a final proofread to ensure that it’s technically correct.

Step 6: Get Feedback and Tweak as Needed

After you’ve overhauled your rough draft and made it into a near-final draft, give your essay to somebody you trust , such as a teacher or parent, and have them look it over for technical errors and offer you feedback on its content and overall structure.

Use this feedback to make any last-minute changes or edits. If necessary, repeat steps 5 and 6. You want to be extra sure that your essay is perfect before you submit it to colleges!

Recap: From College Essay Topics to Great College Essays

Many different kinds of college application essay topics can get you into a great college. But this doesn’t make it any easier to choose the best topic for you .

In general, the best college essay topics have the following qualities :

  • They’re specific
  • They show who you are
  • They’re meaningful to you
  • They’re unique
  • They clearly answer the question

If you ever need help coming up with an idea of what to write for your essay, just refer to the list of 53 examples of college essay topics above to get your brain juices flowing.

Once you’ve got an essay topic picked out, follow these six steps for turning your topic into an unforgettable personal statement :

  • Write down all the details
  • Figure out your focus and approach
  • Structure your narrative
  • Write a rough draft
  • Edit, revise, and proofread
  • Get feedback and tweak as needed

And with that, I wish you the best of luck on your college essays!

What’s Next?

Writing a college essay is no simple task. Get expert college essay tips with our guides on how to come up with great college essay ideas and how to write a college essay, step by step .

You can also check out this huge list of college essay prompts  to get a feel for what types of questions you'll be expected to answer on your applications.

Want to see examples of college essays that absolutely rocked? You're in luck because we've got a collection of 100+ real college essay examples right here on our blog!

what not to write about in a college essay

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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.

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Tressie McMillan Cottom

Who Would Want to Go to a College Like This?

A silhouette of a graduate, in a cap and gown and seen from behind, looking up.

By Tressie McMillan Cottom

Opinion Columnist

The moral panic about “woke” campuses has metastasized into actual legislation, and not just in the swampy idylls of Florida. Last week the governor of Alabama signed a bill that purports to limit the teaching of “divisive” topics in its colleges and universities. The bill is similar to Florida’s ban on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in public colleges, which was signed into law last May. Both are all-out attacks on learning by excommunicating liberal ideas from the classroom. Other state legislatures have also been busy. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Republican lawmakers have proposed 81 anti-D.E.I. bills across 28 states. (So far, 33 haven’t become law, and 11 have.)

Because most students attend public universities, state-level threats to higher education are especially troubling. While the federal government has outsize authority, states have more direct political reach. Republican leaders in the most reactionary states are banking that their appeals to moral panics about teaching history, race, gender and identity will attract donors and political favor. Bills already passed in Florida and Alabama are examples of shortsighted, counterintuitive legislative overreach. This political theater lifts up a caricature of college, in which coddled minds are seduced into liberal ideas. Without university leaders, politicians or voters mounting a defense of faculty governance and democratic speech, anti-woke reactionaries can remake college into the very thing they claim it is: cloistered institutions that cannot respond to what their students want and need.

It is hard to combat legislative overreach in states where gerrymandering and the structure of elections favor reactionary Republicans. But unlike in K-12 schools, in higher education, the students hold a tremendous amount of power. Public colleges and universities need students’ tuition dollars. If states become hostile to students’ values, those students could choose to go elsewhere or to forgo college altogether. That would set up a standoff between right-wing political favor and students’ dollars. But first, students would have to be paying attention. They would have to care. And they would have to be willing to choose colleges that match their values.

That is why I read with interest a recent report put out by the Lumina Foundation and Gallup on how policies and laws shape college enrollment. Part of a larger survey about students’ experiences of higher education, the report left me with one major takeaway: The national debate about so-called woke campuses does not reflect what most college students care about. It is worth looking at the report’s key findings. They underscore how unhinged our national debate over higher education has become and how misaligned Republican-led public higher education systems are with the bulk of college students. It isn’t hard to imagine that students could vote with their feet, avoiding schools in states that are out of step with their values.

The report names four reactionary changes in the national policy conversation that might shape students’ feelings about going to or being enrolled in college. First, there’s the group of bills against teaching supposedly divisive concepts, as in Alabama and Florida. Second, there’s a 2022 Supreme Court decision on concealed carry permits for firearms. Students fear that it signals how states with more restrictive gun regulations will change their campus gun policies in anticipation of legal challenges. Third, there are the sweeping changes to the availability of reproductive health care that came after the fall of Roe v. Wade . The Wild West of different abortion bans, legal challenges to Plan B and birth control will shape students’ experiences of college . Finally, there’s the Supreme Court decision in 2023 that effectively ended race-based affirmative action in admissions. States are already broadly interpreting that decision to include scholarships and programming.

If you are applying to college in 2024, you are tasked with not just choosing a major at a college where you can be happy and that may admit you at a price you can afford. You are also considering if you will be safe from gun violence, able to get medical care if you need it, qualified to use some types of financial aid and likely to encounter a liberal arts education that could improve the trajectory of your life.

I read the report closely for takeaways and what some of the fine-grained data points mean. The big context is that most students still choose colleges based on quality, cost, reputation and job prospects. Because I am interested in which of the four reactionary changes matter most (and to whom), I pulled those out of the list of all things that matter to students. Students care about — from most to least important — gun violence, “anti-woke” laws and reproductive health care. Because race-based affirmative action is measured somewhat differently from the other concerns, it is not ranked.

I lived through a campus shooting last year . As I watched college students climb calmly out of windows to escape the building, I realized this is a generation raised on constant shooting drills. That might explain why 38 percent of students who study on campus said they were worried about gun violence at their schools. Campus gun policies mattered at least somewhat to 80 percent of those surveyed. And of those who cared, students who wanted more restrictive gun policies outweighed those who preferred looser policies by five to one, according to the report.

As for those “divisive” concepts? Students want them. A majority of students who cared about those issues, the report notes, said they did not want restrictions on classroom instruction. Even more notable, students’ opinions do not align with the rabid political partisanship that dominates headlines. In a look at the students who care about this issue, some political differences might be expected. And there are some. But the good news is that they aren’t nearly as partisan as one might imagine. Even 61 percent of Republicans who cared about this issue when choosing a college preferred a state that did not restrict instruction on topics related to race and gender. That’s compared with 83 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of independents.

It is remarkable, given these data points, how little politicians and the public are talking about how afraid college students are — not of new ideas but of being shot on campus.

Fears about reproductive health ranked third among these changes; 71 percent of those surveyed said that a state’s reproductive health care policies would influence where they chose to go to college. The gender split here was a mixed bag. While many men cared about reproductive health, women were, by 18 percentage points, more likely than men to prefer states with fewer restrictions on reproductive health care. It is impossible to claim causation, but hackneyed culture wars about gender are not happening in a vacuum. They animate men’s and women’s values. The data suggests that it will be hard to recruit men (who are inclined to want more health care restrictions for women) and make female students feel cared for and safe. There may not be a way for a single college to serve both masters.

The Supreme Court affirmative action decision’s role in shaping students’ college choices is harder to parse than the other reactionary changes. People do not have a common understanding of what affirmative action means or how it works. Even so, 45 percent of those surveyed said the ruling would shape their decision of which school to attend or if they went to college at all.

While the idea of woke campuses may get attention and motivate parts of the reactionary Republican base, the report says that those partisan differences are moderate among students. “Most current and prospective students of all political parties who say these issues are important to their enrollment,” the report notes, “prefer more restrictive gun policies, less restrictive reproductive health care laws and fewer regulations” on curriculums.

Put more simply: Republicans must seem like aliens — if not dinosaurs — to the very college students they claim to be saving from hostile college campuses.

Debates about what happens on college campuses are proxies for partisan politics. They are also convenient ruses for clawing back the nominal democratization that higher education underwent during the last half of the 20th century. Those of us who see education as something more noble than a political football should care about the way partisan attacks and sensational headlines will harm real people trying to make sense of their lives.

Students go to college because they want jobs, they want to be educated or they want to be respected by others (or some combination of all three). A college or university implicitly promises them that it has the legitimacy to allow access, foster learning and confer status. The trick is that when universities play into the con game of moral panics about woke campuses, they become the thing we fear.

The loudest story about American colleges is disconnected from what college students care about. Even so, the nation’s diverse, aspirational college students are trying to make college choices that align with their political values. According to this survey, they are remarkably progressive, fair-minded and unafraid of intellectual challenge. If only our politics lived up to their values.

Tressie McMillan Cottom (@ tressiemcphd ) became a New York Times Opinion columnist in 2022. She is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, School of Information and Library Science; the author of “Thick: And Other Essays”; and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

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The War at Stanford

I didn’t know that college would be a factory of unreason.

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ne of the section leaders for my computer-science class, Hamza El Boudali, believes that President Joe Biden should be killed. “I’m not calling for a civilian to do it, but I think a military should,” the 23-year-old Stanford University student told a small group of protesters last month. “I’d be happy if Biden was dead.” He thinks that Stanford is complicit in what he calls the genocide of Palestinians, and that Biden is not only complicit but responsible for it. “I’m not calling for a vigilante to do it,” he later clarified, “but I’m saying he is guilty of mass murder and should be treated in the same way that a terrorist with darker skin would be (and we all know terrorists with dark skin are typically bombed and drone striked by American planes).” El Boudali has also said that he believes that Hamas’s October 7 attack was a justifiable act of resistance, and that he would actually prefer Hamas rule America in place of its current government (though he clarified later that he “doesn’t mean Hamas is perfect”). When you ask him what his cause is, he answers: “Peace.”

I switched to a different computer-science section.

Israel is 7,500 miles away from Stanford’s campus, where I am a sophomore. But the Hamas invasion and the Israeli counterinvasion have fractured my university, a place typically less focused on geopolitics than on venture-capital funding for the latest dorm-based tech start-up. Few students would call for Biden’s head—I think—but many of the same young people who say they want peace in Gaza don’t seem to realize that they are in fact advocating for violence. Extremism has swept through classrooms and dorms, and it is becoming normal for students to be harassed and intimidated for their faith, heritage, or appearance—they have been called perpetrators of genocide for wearing kippahs, and accused of supporting terrorism for wearing keffiyehs. The extremism and anti-Semitism at Ivy League universities on the East Coast have attracted so much media and congressional attention that two Ivy presidents have lost their jobs. But few people seem to have noticed the culture war that has taken over our California campus.

For four months, two rival groups of protesters, separated by a narrow bike path, faced off on Stanford’s palm-covered grounds. The “Sit-In to Stop Genocide” encampment was erected by students in mid-October, even before Israeli troops had crossed into Gaza, to demand that the university divest from Israel and condemn its behavior. Posters were hung equating Hamas with Ukraine and Nelson Mandela. Across from the sit-in, a rival group of pro-Israel students eventually set up the “Blue and White Tent” to provide, as one activist put it, a “safe space” to “be a proud Jew on campus.” Soon it became the center of its own cluster of tents, with photos of Hamas’s victims sitting opposite the rubble-ridden images of Gaza and a long (and incomplete) list of the names of slain Palestinians displayed by the students at the sit-in.

Some days the dueling encampments would host only a few people each, but on a sunny weekday afternoon, there could be dozens. Most of the time, the groups tolerated each other. But not always. Students on both sides were reportedly spit on and yelled at, and had their belongings destroyed. (The perpetrators in many cases seemed to be adults who weren’t affiliated with Stanford, a security guard told me.) The university put in place round-the-clock security, but when something actually happened, no one quite knew what to do.

Conor Friedersdorf: How October 7 changed America’s free speech culture

Stanford has a policy barring overnight camping, but for months didn’t enforce it, “out of a desire to support the peaceful expression of free speech in the ways that students choose to exercise that expression”—and, the administration told alumni, because the university feared that confronting the students would only make the conflict worse. When the school finally said the tents had to go last month, enormous protests against the university administration, and against Israel, followed.

“We don’t want no two states! We want all of ’48!” students chanted, a slogan advocating that Israel be dismantled and replaced by a single Arab nation. Palestinian flags flew alongside bright “Welcome!” banners left over from new-student orientation. A young woman gave a speech that seemed to capture the sense of urgency and power that so many students here feel. “We are Stanford University!” she shouted. “We control things!”

“W e’ve had protests in the past,” Richard Saller, the university’s interim president, told me in November—about the environment, and apartheid, and Vietnam. But they didn’t pit “students against each other” the way that this conflict has.

I’ve spoken with Saller, a scholar of Roman history, a few times over the past six months in my capacity as a student journalist. We first met in September, a few weeks into his tenure. His predecessor, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, had resigned as president after my reporting for The Stanford Daily exposed misconduct in his academic research. (Tessier-Lavigne had failed to retract papers with faked data over the course of 20 years. In his resignation statement , he denied allegations of fraud and misconduct; a Stanford investigation determined that he had not personally manipulated data or ordered any manipulation but that he had repeatedly “failed to decisively and forthrightly correct mistakes” from his lab.)

In that first conversation, Saller told me that everyone was “eager to move on” from the Tessier-Lavigne scandal. He was cheerful and upbeat. He knew he wasn’t staying in the job long; he hadn’t even bothered to move into the recently vacated presidential manor. In any case, campus, at that time, was serene. Then, a week later, came October 7.

The attack was as clear a litmus test as one could imagine for the Middle East conflict. Hamas insurgents raided homes and a music festival with the goal of slaughtering as many civilians as possible. Some victims were raped and mutilated, several independent investigations found. Hundreds of hostages were taken into Gaza and many have been tortured.

This, of course, was bad. Saying this was bad does not negate or marginalize the abuses and suffering Palestinians have experienced in Gaza and elsewhere. Everyone, of every ideology, should be able to say that this was bad. But much of this campus failed that simple test.

Two days after the deadliest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, Stanford released milquetoast statements marking the “moment of intense emotion” and declaring “deep concern” over “the crisis in Israel and Palestine.” The official statements did not use the words Hamas or violence .

The absence of a clear institutional response led some teachers to take matters into their own hands. During a mandatory freshman seminar on October 10, a lecturer named Ameer Loggins tossed out his lesson plan to tell students that the actions of the Palestinian “military force” had been justified, that Israelis were colonizers, and that the Holocaust had been overemphasized, according to interviews I conducted with students in the class. Loggins then asked the Jewish students to identify themselves. He instructed one of them to “stand up, face the window, and he kind of kicked away his chair,” a witness told me. Loggins described this as an effort to demonstrate Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. (Loggins did not reply to a request for comment; a spokesperson for Stanford said that there were “different recollections of the details regarding what happened” in the class.)

“We’re only in our third week of college, and we’re afraid to be here,” three students in the class wrote in an email that night to administrators. “This isn’t what Stanford was supposed to be.” The class Loggins taught is called COLLEGE, short for “Civic, Liberal, and Global Education,” and it is billed as an effort to develop “the skills that empower and enable us to live together.”

Loggins was suspended from teaching duties and an investigation was opened; this angered pro-Palestine activists, who organized a petition that garnered more than 1,700 signatures contesting the suspension. A pamphlet from the petitioners argued that Loggins’s behavior had not been out of bounds.

The day after the class, Stanford put out a statement written by Saller and Jenny Martinez, the university provost, more forcefully condemning the Hamas attack. Immediately, this new statement generated backlash.

Pro-Palestine activists complained about it during an event held the same day, the first of several “teach-ins” about the conflict. Students gathered in one of Stanford’s dorms to “bear witness to the struggles of decolonization.” The grievances and pain shared by Palestinian students were real. They told of discrimination and violence, of frightened family members subjected to harsh conditions. But the most raucous reaction from the crowd was in response to a young woman who said, “You ask us, do we condemn Hamas? Fuck you!” She added that she was “so proud of my resistance.”

David Palumbo-Liu, a professor of comparative literature with a focus on postcolonial studies, also spoke at the teach-in, explaining to the crowd that “European settlers” had come to “replace” Palestine’s “native population.”

Palumbo-Liu is known as an intelligent and supportive professor, and is popular among students, who call him by his initials, DPL. I wanted to ask him about his involvement in the teach-in, so we met one day in a café a few hundred feet away from the tents. I asked if he could elaborate on what he’d said at the event about Palestine’s native population. He was happy to expand: This was “one of those discussions that could go on forever. Like, who is actually native? At what point does nativism lapse, right? Well, you haven’t been native for X number of years, so …” In the end, he said, “you have two people who both feel they have a claim to the land,” and “they have to live together. Both sides have to cede something.”

The struggle at Stanford, he told me, “is to find a way in which open discussions can be had that allow people to disagree.” It’s true that Stanford has utterly failed in its efforts to encourage productive dialogue. But I still found it hard to reconcile DPL’s words with his public statements on Israel, which he’d recently said on Facebook should be “the most hated nation in the world.” He also wrote: “When Zionists say they don’t feel ‘safe’ on campus, I’ve come to see that as they no longer feel immune to criticism of Israel.” He continued: “Well as the saying goes, get used to it.”

Z ionists, and indeed Jewish students of all political beliefs, have been given good reason to fear for their safety. They’ve been followed, harassed, and called derogatory racial epithets. At least one was told he was a “dirty Jew.” At least twice, mezuzahs have been ripped from students’ doors, and swastikas have been drawn in dorms. Arab and Muslim students also face alarming threats. The computer-science section leader, El Boudali, a pro-Palestine activist, told me he felt “safe personally,” but knew others who did not: “Some people have reported feeling like they’re followed, especially women who wear the hijab.”

In a remarkably short period of time, aggression and abuse have become commonplace, an accepted part of campus activism. In January, Jewish students organized an event dedicated to ameliorating anti-Semitism. It marked one of Saller’s first public appearances in the new year. Its topic seemed uncontroversial, and I thought it would generate little backlash.

Protests began before the panel discussion even started, with activists lining the stairs leading to the auditorium. During the event they drowned out the panelists, one of whom was Israel’s special envoy for combatting anti-Semitism, by demanding a cease-fire. After participants began cycling out into the dark, things got ugly.

Activists, their faces covered by keffiyehs or medical masks, confronted attendees. “Go back to Brooklyn!” a young woman shouted at Jewish students. One protester, who emerged as the leader of the group, said that she and her compatriots would “take all of your places and ensure Israel falls.” She told attendees to get “off our fucking campus” and launched into conspiracy theories about Jews being involved in “child trafficking.” As a rabbi tried to leave the event, protesters pursued him, chanting, “There is only one solution! Intifada revolution!”

At one point, some members of the group turned on a few Stanford employees, including another rabbi, an imam, and a chaplain, telling them, “We know your names and we know where you work.” The ringleader added: “And we’ll soon find out where you live.” The religious leaders formed a protective barrier in front of the Jewish students. The rabbi and the imam appeared to be crying.

scenes from student protest; row of tents at Stanford

S aller avoided the protest by leaving through another door. Early that morning, his private residence had been vandalized. Protesters frequently tell him he “can’t hide” and shout him down. “We charge you with genocide!” they chant, demanding that Stanford divest from Israel. (When asked whether Stanford actually invested in Israel, a spokesperson replied that, beyond small exposures from passive funds that track indexes such as the S&P 500, the university’s endowment “has no direct holdings in Israeli companies, or direct holdings in defense contractors.”)

When the university finally said the protest tents had to be removed, students responded by accusing Saller of suppressing their right to free speech. This is probably the last charge he expected to face. Saller once served as provost at the University of Chicago, which is known for holding itself to a position of strict institutional neutrality so that its students can freely explore ideas for themselves. Saller has a lifelong belief in First Amendment rights. But that conviction in impartial college governance does not align with Stanford’s behavior in recent years. Despite the fact that many students seemed largely uninterested in the headlines before this year, Stanford’s administrative leadership has often taken positions on political issues and events, such as the Paris climate conference and the murder of George Floyd. After Russia invaded Ukraine, Stanford’s Hoover Tower was lit up in blue and yellow, and the school released a statement in solidarity.

Thomas Chatterton Williams: Let the activists have their loathsome rallies

When we first met, a week before October 7, I asked Saller about this. Did Stanford have a moral duty to denounce the war in Ukraine, for example, or the ethnic cleansing of Uyghur Muslims in China? “On international political issues, no,” he said. “That’s not a responsibility for the university as a whole, as an institution.”

But when Saller tried to apply his convictions on neutrality for the first time as president, dozens of faculty members condemned the response, many pro-Israel alumni were outraged, donors had private discussions about pulling funding, and an Israeli university sent an open letter to Saller and Martinez saying, “Stanford’s administration has failed us.” The initial statement had tried to make clear that the school’s policy was not Israel-specific: It noted that the university would not take a position on the turmoil in Nagorno-Karabakh (where Armenians are undergoing ethnic cleansing) either. But the message didn’t get through.

Saller had to beat an awkward retreat or risk the exact sort of public humiliation that he, as caretaker president, had presumably been hired to avoid. He came up with a compromise that landed somewhere in the middle: an unequivocal condemnation of Hamas’s “intolerable atrocities” paired with a statement making clear that Stanford would commit to institutional neutrality going forward.

“The events in Israel and Gaza this week have affected and engaged large numbers of students on our campus in ways that many other events have not,” the statement read. “This is why we feel compelled to both address the impact of these events on our campus and to explain why our general policy of not issuing statements about news events not directly connected to campus has limited the breadth of our comments thus far, and why you should not expect frequent commentary from us in the future.”

I asked Saller why he had changed tack on Israel and not on Nagorno-Karabakh. “We don’t feel as if we should be making statements on every war crime and atrocity,” he told me. This felt like a statement in and of itself.

In making such decisions, Saller works closely with Martinez, Stanford’s provost. I happened to interview her, too, a few days before October 7, not long after she’d been appointed. When I asked about her hopes for the job, she said that a “priority is ensuring an environment in which free speech and academic freedom are preserved.”

We talked about the so-called Leonard Law—a provision unique to California that requires private universities to be governed by the same First Amendment protections as public ones. This restricts what Stanford can do in terms of penalizing speech, putting it in a stricter bind than Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, or any of the other elite private institutions that have more latitude to set the standards for their campus (whether or not they have done so).

So I was surprised when, in December, the university announced that abstract calls for genocide “clearly violate Stanford’s Fundamental Standard, the code of conduct for all students at the university.” The statement was a response to the outrage following the congressional testimony of three university presidents—outrage that eventually led to the resignation of two of them, Harvard’s Claudine Gay and Penn’s Liz Magill. Gay and Magill, who had both previously held positions at Stanford, did not commit to punishing calls for the genocide of Jews.

Experts told me that Stanford’s policy is impossible to enforce—and Saller himself acknowledged as much in our March interview.

“Liz Magill is a good friend,” Saller told me, adding, “Having watched what happened at Harvard and Penn, it seemed prudent” to publicly state that Stanford rejected calls for genocide. But saying that those calls violate the code of conduct “is not the same thing as to say that we could actually punish it.”

Stanford’s leaders seem to be trying their best while adapting to the situation in real time. But the muddled messaging has created a policy of neutrality that does not feel neutral at all.

When we met back in November, I tried to get Saller to open up about his experience running an institution in turmoil. What’s it like to know that so many students seem to believe that he—a mild-mannered 71-year-old classicist who swing-dances with his anthropologist wife—is a warmonger? Saller was more candid than I expected—perhaps more candid than any prominent university president has been yet. We sat in the same conference room as we had in September. The weather hadn’t really changed. Yet I felt like I was sitting in front of a different person. He was hunched over and looked exhausted, and his voice broke when he talked about the loss of life in Gaza and Israel and “the fact that we’re caught up in it.” A capable administrator with decades of experience, Saller seemed almost at a loss. “It’s been a kind of roller coaster, to be honest.”

He said he hadn’t anticipated the deluge of the emails “blaming me for lack of moral courage.” Anything the university says seems bound to be wrong: “If I say that our position is that we grieve over the loss of innocent lives, that in itself will draw some hostile reactions.”

“I find that really difficult to navigate,” he said with a sigh.

By March, it seemed that his views had solidified. He said he knew he was “a target,” but he was not going to be pushed into issuing any more statements. The continuing crisis seems to have granted him new insight. “I am certain that whatever I say will not have any material effect on the war in Gaza.” It’s hard to argue with that.

P eople tend to blame the campus wars on two villains: dithering administrators and radical student activists. But colleges have always had dithering administrators and radical student activists. To my mind, it’s the average students who have changed.

Elite universities attract a certain kind of student: the overachieving striver who has won all the right accolades for all the right activities. Is it such a surprise that the kids who are trained in the constant pursuit of perfect scores think they have to look at the world like a series of multiple-choice questions, with clearly right or wrong answers? Or that they think they can gamify a political cause in the same way they ace a standardized test?

Everyone knows that the only reliable way to get into a school like Stanford is to be really good at looking really good. Now that they’re here, students know that one easy way to keep looking good is to side with the majority of protesters, and condemn Israel.

It’s not that there isn’t real anger and anxiety over what is happening in Gaza—there is, and justifiably so. I know that among the protesters are many people who are deeply connected to this issue. But they are not the majority. What really activates the crowds now seems less a principled devotion to Palestine or to pacifism than a desire for collective action, to fit in by embracing the fashionable cause of the moment—as if a centuries-old conflict in which both sides have stolen and killed could ever be a simple matter of right and wrong. In their haste to exhibit moral righteousness, many of the least informed protesters end up being the loudest and most uncompromising.

Today’s students grew up in the Trump era, in which violent rhetoric has become a normal part of political discourse and activism is as easy as reposting an infographic. Many young people have come to feel that being angry is enough to foment change. Furious at the world’s injustices and desperate for a simple way to express that fury, they don’t seem interested in any form of engagement more nuanced than backing a pure protagonist and denouncing an evil enemy. They don’t, always, seem that concerned with the truth.

At the protest last month to prevent the removal of the sit-in, an activist in a pink Women’s March “pussy hat” shouted that no rape was committed by Hamas on October 7. “There hasn’t been proof of these rape accusations,” a student told me in a separate conversation, criticizing the Blue and White Tent for spreading what he considered to be misinformation about sexual violence. (In March, a United Nations report found “reasonable grounds to believe that conflict-related sexual violence,” including “rape and gang rape,” occurred in multiple locations on October 7, as well as “clear and convincing information” on the “rape and sexualized torture” of hostages.) “The level of propaganda” surrounding Hamas, he told me, “is just unbelievable.”

The real story at Stanford is not about the malicious actors who endorse sexual assault and murder as forms of resistance, but about those who passively enable them because they believe their side can do no wrong. You don’t have to understand what you’re arguing for in order to argue for it. You don’t have to be able to name the river or the sea under discussion to chant “From the river to the sea.” This kind of obliviousness explains how one of my friends, a gay activist, can justify Hamas’s actions, even though it would have the two of us—an outspoken queer person and a Jewish reporter—killed in a heartbeat. A similar mentality can exist on the other side: I have heard students insist on the absolute righteousness of Israel yet seem uninterested in learning anything about what life is like in Gaza.

I’m familiar with the pull of achievement culture—after all, I’m a product of the same system. I fell in love with Stanford as a 7-year-old, lying on the floor of an East Coast library and picturing all the cool technology those West Coast geniuses were dreaming up. I cried when I was accepted; I spent the next few months scrolling through the course catalog, giddy with anticipation. I wanted to learn everything.

I learned more than I expected. Within my first week here, someone asked me: “Why are all Jews so rich?” In 2016, when Stanford’s undergraduate senate had debated a resolution against anti-Semitism, one of its members argued that the idea of “Jews controlling the media, economy, government, and other societal institutions” represented “a very valid discussion.” (He apologized, and the resolution passed.) In my dorm last year, a student discussed being Jewish and awoke the next day to swastikas and a portrait of Hitler affixed to his door.

David Frum: There is no right to bully and harass

I grew up secularly, with no strong affiliation to Jewish culture. When I found out as a teenager that some of my ancestors had hidden their identity from their children and that dozens of my relatives had died in the Holocaust (something no living member of my family had known), I felt the barest tremor of identity. After I saw so many people I know cheering after October 7, I felt something stronger stir. I know others have experienced something similar. Even a professor texted me to say that she felt Jewish in a way she never had before.

But my frustration with the conflict on campus has little to do with my own identity. Across the many conversations and hours of formal interviews I conducted for this article, I’ve encountered a persistent anti-intellectual streak. I’ve watched many of my classmates treat death so cavalierly that they can protest as a pregame to a party. Indeed, two parties at Stanford were reported to the university this fall for allegedly making people say “Fuck Israel” or “Free Palestine” to get in the door. A spokesperson for the university said it was “unable to confirm the facts of what occurred,” but that it had “met with students involved in both parties to make clear that Stanford’s nondiscrimination policy applies to parties.” As a friend emailed me not long ago: “A place that was supposed to be a sanctuary from such unreason has become a factory for it.”

Readers may be tempted to discount the conduct displayed at Stanford. After all, the thinking goes, these are privileged kids doing what they always do: embracing faux-radicalism in college before taking jobs in fintech or consulting. These students, some might say, aren’t representative of America.

And yet they are representative of something: of the conduct many of the most accomplished students in my generation have accepted as tolerable, and what that means for the future of our country. I admire activism. We need people willing to protest what they see as wrong and take on entrenched systems of repression. But we also need to read, learn, discuss, accept the existence of nuance, embrace diversity of thought, and hold our own allies to high standards. More than ever, we need universities to teach young people how to do all of this.

F or so long , Stanford’s physical standoff seemed intractable. Then, in early February, a storm swept in, and the natural world dictated its own conclusion.

Heavy rains flooded campus. For hours, the students battled to save their tents. The sit-in activists used sandbags and anything else they could find to hold back the water—at one point, David Palumbo-Liu, the professor, told me he stood in the lashing downpour to anchor one of the sit-in’s tents with his own body. When the storm hit, many of the Jewish activists had been attending a discussion on anti-Semitism. They raced back and struggled to salvage the Blue and White Tent, but it was too late—the wind had ripped it out of the ground.

The next day, the weary Jewish protesters returned to discover that their space had been taken.

A new collection of tents had been set up by El Boudali, the pro-Palestine activist, and a dozen friends. He said they were there to protest Islamophobia and to teach about Islam and jihad, and that they were a separate entity from the Sit-In to Stop Genocide, though I observed students cycling between the tents. Palestinian flags now flew from the bookstore to the quad.

Administrators told me they’d quickly informed El Boudali and his allies that the space had been reserved by the Jewish advocates, and offered to help move them to a different location. But the protesters told me they had no intention of going. (El Boudali later said that they did not take over the entire space, and would have been “happy to exist side by side, but they wanted to kick us off entirely from that lawn.”)

When it was clear that the area where they’d set up their tents would not be ceded back to the pro-Israel group willingly, Stanford changed course and decided to clear everyone out in one fell swoop. On February 8, school officials ordered all students to vacate the plaza overnight. The university was finally going to enforce its rule prohibiting people from sleeping outside on campus and requiring the removal of belongings from the plaza between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. The order cited the danger posed by the storm as a justification for changing course and, probably hoping to avoid allegations of bias, described the decision as “viewpoint-neutral.”

That didn’t work.

About a week of protests, led by the sit-in organizers, followed. Chants were chanted. More demands for a “river to the sea” solution to the Israel problem were made. A friend boasted to me about her willingness to be arrested. Stanford sent a handful of staff members, who stood near balloons left over from an event earlier in the day. They were there, one of them told me, to “make students feel supported and safe.”

In the end, Saller and Martinez agreed to talk with the leaders of the sit-in about their demands to divest the university and condemn Israel, under the proviso that the activists comply with Stanford’s anti-camping guidelines “regardless of the outcome of discussions.” Eight days after they were first instructed to leave, 120 days after setting up camp, the sit-in protesters slept in their own beds. In defiance of the university’s instructions, they left behind their tents. But sometime in the very early hours of the morning, law-enforcement officers confiscated the structures. The area was cordoned off without any violence and the plaza filled once more with electric skateboards and farmers’ markets.

The conflict continues in its own way. Saller was just shouted down by protesters chanting “No peace on stolen land” at a Family Weekend event, and protesters later displayed an effigy of him covered in blood. Students still feel tense; Saller still seems worried. He told me that the university is planning to change all manner of things—residential-assistant training, new-student orientation, even the acceptance letters that students receive—in hopes of fostering a culture of greater tolerance. But no campus edict or panel discussion can address a problem that is so much bigger than our university.

At one rally last fall, a speaker expressed disillusionment about the power of “peaceful resistance” on college campuses. “What is there left to do but to take up arms?” The crowd cheered as he said Israel must be destroyed. But what would happen to its citizens? I’d prefer to believe that most protesters chanting “Palestine is Arab” and shouting that we must “smash the Zionist settler state” don’t actually think Jews should be killed en masse. But can one truly be so ignorant as to advocate widespread violence in the name of peace?

When the world is rendered in black-and-white—portrayed as a simple fight between colonizer and colonized—the answer is yes. Solutions, by this logic, are absolute: Israel or Palestine, nothing in between. Either you support liberation of the oppressed or you support genocide. Either Stanford is all good or all bad; all in favor of free speech or all authoritarian; all anti-Semitic or all Islamophobic.

At January’s anti-anti-Semitism event, I watched an exchange between a Jewish attendee and a protester from a few feet away. “Are you pro-Palestine?” the protester asked.

“Yes,” the attendee responded, and he went on to describe his disgust with the human-rights abuses Palestinians have faced for years.

“But are you a Zionist?”

“Then we are enemies.”

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