High school students are stronger writers, storytellers, and thinkers than they, or the adults around them, often give themselves credit for. When left to its own devices, though, even the sharpest teenage minds frequently gravitate towards college essay topics that are so common that they can only be described as clichés: stories and messages that every adult has already heard and, probably, already lived through.
This tendency is understandable, since students write college essays only once. It's hard to identify topics and perspectives that are truly personal versus those that have been hashed and rehashed ad nauseam. It's also unfortunate, because essays based on cliches -- even well meaning ones -- usually leave scant impression on admissions readers.
Many cliched topics exemplify what I call asymmetrical importance: what matters dearly to a teenager matters not at all to an adult reader, especially one as detached, anonymous, and disinterested as a college admissions officer. Students may want to suppress the desire to write about something "meaningful" in favor of the effort to write about something interesting (and, hopefully, also meaningful).
I've listed below the cliches that I've come across most frequently in my career. I wouldn't go so far as to prohibit these approaches. But, students would do well to weigh other options before writing about any of these. In so doing, they will think more deeply, get to know themselves better, take more pride in their ideas, and work just a little harder -- and come up with stronger essays.
This list is admittedly long. Fortunately, the list of human experiences, even for high school kids, is infinitely longer.
Sports is the ultimate in asymmetric importance. Winning a championship can be the emotional highlight of a student's life; losing a big game could be the lowlight. Parents, friends, and schoolmates get whipped into frenzies of excitement. It's hard to get anyone else to care.
Travel Few experiences are more illuminating than travel. Unfortunately, there's nothing inherently admirable about taking a vacation. And students don't want to incite envy in their readers. Cross-cultural awareness is often best demonstrated through an academic perspective, not through offhand observations made in a weekend or in the peloton of a teen tour.
Injuries and Illnesses A medical condition is usually worth discussing only if it bears on academic performance; in those cases, it's best to use the "additional information" section. With that said, if a disability or condition is central to a your identity, an essay may be appropriate and illuminating.
Childhood Anecdotes We were all once naïve and cute. Colleges aren't so much looking for cute. They're looking for smart. You're going to college as an adult, not as an eight-year-old.
Community Service Community service projects are varied enough that many of them make for great essays. Still, many types of projects remain incredibly common. Some projects simply fulfill school requirements or, worse, are contrived to look good on college applications. Students should be mindful of these nuances. As above, they should be wary of community service trips.
Influential Parents & Grandparents Parents and grandparents naturally play a starring role in kids' lives. They should play, at most, a supporting role in their essays. Students should own their accomplishments, interests, and motivations regardless of familial influence.
Sex, Romance, and Anything Else Risqué Should writers take risks? Absolutely. Risqué topics might lead to great discussions of politics, gender, and other social issues. Personal examples -- known otherwise as TMI -- should be used sparingly.
Political or Religious Preaching It's absolutely fine to analyze a political issue or a religious concept or convey a personal experience thereof. Students should not, however, advocate a political position or a particular spiritual belief, and they should not assume that the reader shares their beliefs.
Kooky Topics Some students pick something unusual just for the sake of being unusual. If your quirks are interesting, genuine, and reveal deeper levels of meaning, go for it. Don't write about quirks for quirks' sake, and don't contrive a quirk just because you think it will make you "stand out."
Advice, Morals, and Broad Conclusions Essays sometimes end with sweeping conclusions and life lessons derived from the experience about which the student has written, thus bringing any topic into cliche territory. These are lessons that most adult readers have learned (or at least heard) long ago.
There are always exceptions. Some students are such gifted writers or nuanced thinkers that they could retell the story of the Easter Bunny and get away with it. Sometimes, a cliché might truly be a student's best bet (or last resort). And there are infinite chances to explore new angles on common stories. No matter what, those students who intend to be exceptions to these rules should expect to work doubly hard to tell stories or explore angles that will be flattering to them.
For further reading: A discussion of this year's Common Application essay prompts.