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    What (Not) to Write About in Your College Essay

    Posted March 18, 2014, 8:27 pm by Stephen Friedfeld
    Young woman looking confused at post-it notes on a glass wall.

    The college application essay – what should you write about? More importantly, what should you not write about?

    Did you just break up with someone you were dating? Colleges don’t want to know about it. Are you a waiter who spit in a rude customer’s food? There’s no need to tell colleges about that either. Is George Washington the greatest president in your opinion? Please don’t choose this topic.

    Take a look at the examples above. Why are these potentially bad topics?

    • There’s a risk when you talk about boyfriends and girlfriends in your college essay. Are admissions officers really learning a lot about you from your love life? Doubtful. It can be a major turn-off.
    • When it comes to ethical behavior, it might be good for your conscience to come clean about spitting in a customer’s food, or cheating on an exam, or stealing a candy bar – but it’s not recommended. Admissions officers might be choosing between you and an applicant who just raised $5,000 for the local library. It won’t be a very difficult choice if you go this route.
    • Writing an essay on a famous historical figure can be pretty boring for admissions officers. They all went to high school and have already learned about these same people. Can an admissions officer really know more about you because you chose to write about George Washington, or Babe Ruth, or Marie Curie?

    It’s possible to write a good, or even great, essay on virtually any topic; it’s just that most applicants do not yet have the skills to do so. So, picking a good topic is key.

    Pick a good topic.

    When reading your essay, admissions officers might want to know what you like, what you don’t like, what you've done or what you hope to accomplish. They will want to know how you’ll contribute to their campus community for the next four years, what activities you’ll participate in, if you’ll become a leader and what you want to study.

    [Volunteer experience and summer programs look great on college applications and work as strong essay topics.]

    Finally, keep in mind that you want to come across as likable in your essays. Does this happen if you complain about your boyfriend, defend why you spit in a customer’s food or bore on about your admiration for Washington?

    Probably not.

    But would you like someone who taught English to immigrants? Would you like someone who worked hard for a year to complete a 5K race? Would you like someone who stood up for a friend at school who was being bullied?

    That’s what you should think about when writing your essays -– let admissions officers know who you are and what makes you likable. Because if you don’t tell them, they might not ever know.

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    Stephen  Friedfeld

    Stephen Friedfeld

    Stephen Friedfeld is the co-founder of EqualApp. Stephen was an Assistant Dean of Admissions at Cornell University for four years and an Associate Dean at Princeton University for six years. He also worked as an independent college consultant for four years.