Without proper guidance, students write their college application essays the same as they would write a five-paragraph essay in their English class. The difference is, college application essays like the Personal Statement and supplemental essays require introspection and a narrative approach.

There are seven prompts to choose from on the Common App for your personal statement essay. If you aren’t sure which prompt works for you, read our blog post on Choosing A Personal Statement Topic. There are hundreds of supplemental essay topics that a student could potentially write about, but the rules of crafting these college application essays are generally the same. 

In this article, we will review common college application mistakes to avoid. We’ll also provide plenty of examples so you can review these mistakes in context. You also want to be aware of what topics to avoid in college essays. So if you’re curious about common application mistakes and cliche college essay topics to avoid, read on for further insights!

Avoid taboo topics

Imagine you meet the admissions officer through a mutual friend and this is the first time you’re meeting. You likely won’t talk about politics and religion. The same goes for your application essay. 

While you can talk about these topics if they are important to you, it’s extremely important to speak on them in a way that will not offend your reader. Always be respectful. Context is also important. If you are applying to a religious school or a school known for having similar political values as you, you can discuss your views more freely.

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It’s also important to remain optimistic in your college essays. Topics about overcoming personal challenges can demonstrate positive personality traits such as compassion, resiliency, and maturity. It’s equally important, however, to avoid sounding too nihilistic. College admissions officers do not need (or necessarily want) to hear about your darkest moments. They’d much rather hear about what excites and inspires you. Keep this in mind as you consider what you should put in your college essay.

While your college essay should be personal and introspective, again, there is no need to overshare. There is a lot of pressure to write mature and moving essays. In the end, though, your college essay shouldn’t be a political, social, or religious manifesto; it should be about getting into college. 

Let’s look at two examples:

The following excerpts are both political. While the first excerpt balances tone and content well, the second excerpt is too controversial for a college application essay. Let’s take a quick look at some of the do’s and don’ts when approaching political topics. 

Excerpt #1
Marching through the streets, hand in hand with my sister, I felt a rush of energy and fear. What if this was all for nothing? Would writing letters to congressmen work? What about phone calls? It was in that moment, amidst the sweaty bodies and chants, that I knew I had to be part of policymaking.
This first excerpt references some sort of political march. We don’t know the cause, but we do know that this event is the catalyst for the student deciding to pursue public policy. We know that they are passionate enough about politics to attend these events, as well as reach out to political figures. That said, the reader does not know which end of the political spectrum the student falls. If you want to write about politics in your college essay, this is a good balance to emulate.
Excerpt #2
Listening to Hillary talk was like nails on a chalkboard. Her voice was piercing and I couldn’t believe the lies she spewed. 45 kept his composure so well. I was inspired by his poise. He was tall not just in height but in confidence.
This excerpt references political figures both by name and symbol (45). This is someone who is obvious in their political views and does not speak kindly of the opposition. While it is okay to have political role models, we want to be cautious when referencing them in our college application essays. After all, you do not want to estrange an admissions officer.

Avoid repeating accomplishments

The next faux pas students make on their college application essays is rehashing accomplishments that were previously mentioned in their application. This is another important consideration when thinking about college application essay topics to avoid.

Listing your academic accomplishments, extracurricular activities, and community work are redundant. An admissions officer doesn’t want to hear about how you’re the president and/or leader of all of these clubs and that is what makes you so great. They want to get a greater sense of your personality and how you interact with the world. The best college essays are introspective, unique, and self-aware.

starting a nonprofit

Remember, admissions officers read thousands of essays. They want to read essays that excite them and are memorable. So, what do you write about in your college essay? Ideally, your college essay should inspire admissions officers to view the rest of your application from a new perspective. 

Let’s look at some more examples:

While your high school GPA and level of course rigor are important college application factors, they should be highlighted in other sections of your application. There is no need to write about your academic accomplishments in your essay. The following examples both discuss extracurricular activities. Let’s take a look at what they could have done better. 

Excerpt #1
Outside of my AP classes, I spent a huge portion of my time leading my Student Government. As president of my class, I have been able to reduce the amount of single-use plastic in my school. This, combined with my efforts as the President of the Green Earth Club has really helped me further my interests in ecologically friendly lifestyles.
While this isn’t the worst paragraph in the world, it places too much emphasis on being the president of two clubs. The student could speak about their interest in eco-friendly efforts and lifestyles in a way that doesn’t repeat what we likely already know about them. Admissions officers should already know about your extracurricular involvements. It isn’t necessary to repeat information listed in another section of your application.
Excerpt #2
I look around my school cafeteria and see a sea of plastic water bottles. Sea is the perfect word since that is likely where they will end up. I mount my bike and ride home, trying to avoid the cloud of fumes that are emitted from the trucks exiting the parking lot. Paper straws were just a bandaid on a much larger problem. The conversations we have during Green Earth Club only helped me open my eyes to the deeper issues involved in climate change.
This paragraph is also not perfect, but it provides more color to the student’s surroundings without repeating their clubs and extracurricular activities. We learned about the Green Earth Club in a way that complimented the rest of the imagery.

Beware of losing the main character

Finally, some students get caught up writing a story about a personal role model. This can be a parent, a friend, or a teacher. However, students tend to make the focal point about that person and not about themselves. In the end, the reader learns more about the student’s parent, friend, or teacher and nothing about the student. 

Let’s look at one final example:

College admissions officers want to know what inspires and excites you. When this is a person, however, it’s important not to focus on them too much within your essay. After all, your college essay should be about you!

Excerpt #1
My mom sacrificed everything for me growing up. Working three jobs, then coming home in time to cook dinner was her way of showing me and my siblings love. She would cook anything she could find, but I never noticed she never sat down to eat with us. I never noticed she was tired as she hastily cleaned the kitchen before leaving for her final shift. She would walk 15 miles to work both ways in worn-out shoes, never once complaining about the heat.
If the essay continues in this pattern, we will learn more about the mom than we will ever learn about the student. Some information about the student is revealed, such as the fact they have siblings and were likely home alone a lot. Other than that, however, we learn very little about them.
Excerpt #2
My first-grade teacher was an excellent writer, or so I thought at seven years old. The way her writing swooped across the page in swirls and loops, entrancing me with every word. I would feverishly practice every night replicating her handwriting, and soon I found myself replicating her words. I would write tales of creatures, beasts, and goblins. I couldn’t wait to get to school and show them to her, anxiously waiting for her approval. Finally, she uttered those six words that changed my life forever: “You could be a writer someday”. My first-grade teacher was an excellent writer, or so I thought at seven years old. The way her writing swooped across the page in swirls and loops, entrancing me with every word. I would feverishly practice every night replicating her handwriting, and soon I found myself replicating her words. I would write tales of creatures, beasts, and goblins. I couldn’t wait to get to school and show them to her, anxiously waiting for her approval. Finally, she uttered those six words that changed my life forever: “You could be a writer someday”.
While this paragraph starts out talking about someone else, the reader soon learns how that person was a motivator and inspiration to the student. The story then shifts to the student and the reader learns about their passion for writing. While the teacher is still intertwined in the story, they act as more of a side character than the focal point.

Other common mistakes to avoid

Like with any important piece of writing, give yourself enough time to write several drafts. Seek out feedback from a few trusted individuals, such as your high school guidance counselor, an English teacher, or a parent. Avoid asking too many people for their opinion, however. This will likely lead to confusion and overediting. 

You’ll also want to make sure that your essay is grammatically correct. If there are significant errors in your essay or other common app mistakes, admissions officers may believe that you do not take your college applications seriously. In some cases, they may even question your ability to write at a college level and therefore, succeed in college classes.

Key takeaways and moving forward

During your college research, pay close attention to what you should not write about in a college essay. You may also want to explore topics such as what happens during the college admissions committee review and reasons college applications may get rejected

College application season can be a stressful time of year and it’s important to learn as much as you can about the different parts of the process. Whether you need help keeping track of important deadlines or knowing how to fill out financial aid documents, such as the FAFSA, remember to ask for help when you need it. 

Here at Prepory, we have the resources to help students succeed. If you have dreams of attending a highly-selective college, such as an Ivy League, reach out to learn more about our services and how we can help you reach your college goals.