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College essays that will kill a student’s chances

Your college-bound student should be several drafts into his or her college essay by now, meaning that the topic was probably chosen a while ago. However, it might not be the sort of subject admissions officers are looking for. 

If your student's essay reads something like this…

"Ralph Waldo Emerson once said 'The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate.' My community service this past summer certainly reflects my desire to help people throughout my life. There is nothing like the joy of working at the soup kitchen spending time with the less fortunate and being a charitable person."

…Then you might want to have him or her reconsider.

Quotes and generic references to volunteering and having a desire to be a good person – obvious attempts to portray intelligence and a charitable nature – are surefire ways to seem boring. Sure, your child working at the soup kitchen and reading Emerson is great, and both are probably signs of his or her wonderful character. However, writing a college essay about these experiences and coming to the not-at-all mind blowing conclusion that your student is a good person and that means he or she will be a good fit at any given college doesn't make for a great college essay. 

Your child should think long and hard about a college essay theme. A generic topic will be quickly shut down. Your student should think long and hard about a college essay theme. A generic topic will be quickly shut down.

If your student's essay reads anything like the example above, or is based around any one of the themes listed below, have him or her consider taking a more original approach. Here are a few more examples of college essay topics your student should avoid:

  • A written, 30 for 30-esque documentary about your student's high school athletic career will not appeal to an admissions officer. There are plenty of amazing athletes at schools across the country, and they should be appealing to college athletics departments with those stories. As far as admissions goes, well, those people have heard it all before. Your student will need a story more interesting than overcoming an injury or winning a championship to put together an admissible essay.
  • So your student has been to Europe, South America, Africa and Asia. Admissions officers probably read about students like that five times a day. There has to be more substance than a desire to travel, or musings that your student's experiences making him or her a more cultured person. If your student helped people during his or her time abroad, then you're getting somewhere, but as mentioned above, it is important to avoid the generic "I like to help people" theme. 
  • A political or religious screed is to be avoided at all costs for most schools. Your student's religion may be very important to him or her, and may be a big part of why he or she is such a good person, but it can also be a touchy subject. Mentioning politics or religion is one way for your student to offer him or herself up for judgment without ever getting a chance to touch on his or her best characteristics. That doesn't make it fair, but it is true – religion and politics are two things that do not belong in most college essays.

Your student must devise a thoughtful and original way to explain who he or she is, and why he or she is a good fit. Sticking with an unoriginal theme, or an idea he or she thinks will appeal to admissions officers, is one way to get denied. A good essay may even contribute to a school's decision to give them student aid such as a free scholarship. However, a generic one will do nothing more than leave a bad taste in admission officers' mouths.