The college essay is tough. It’s not writing it that’s the hard part – it’s deciding what to write about that can be difficult. What’s most curious about the college essay is that many of the topics on this list (those that should be avoided) also happen to be some of the most commonly used topics out there.
But, why? Why are students writing about boring, tired out subjects?
A lack of creativity? Certainly not! Students know how to be creative.
A lack of gumption? Doubtful – many students even take it upon themselves to create their own version of an anti-essay (see number seven on the list).
For many students, the issue is the narrative, which begins at the essay’s focus: the topic.
A boring essay details a summary of Joe’s mission trip to Guatemala, where he volunteered at a local school with his family.
A great essay details Joe’s experience during his mission trip to Guatemala, where he volunteered at a local school with his family. It was there he met Anita, a local elderly woman who wanted to learn how to read but came from a poor family so she never had the opportunity. Joe and Anita developed a friendship…
See, you want to read more of the story, right? But, the first essay example didn’t make you want to continue reading on to learn any more details. That’s the difference.
You may think you know what you’re going to write your college admissions essay about but, before you do, read this list to learn what topics you should avoid and why.
1. A Summary of Your Accomplishments College essays are similar to life and, in life, nobody likes a braggart. These topics are broad, unfocused and make a boring read.
You may have accomplished a lot, but let your essay speak by allowing the reader to get to know you as a person through your experiences – not through you telling them how accomplished you are.
After reading your essay, a person should be able to come up with their own assessment of you – people don’t like to be told how to think.
2. Highly Polarized or Sensitive Topics The key topics to avoid here are the same as those at the Thanksgiving table: politics and religion.
Avoid preaching about sensitive topics, no matter how passionate you are about a particular one. You never know who is going to be reading your admissions essay and the goal at hand is to gain admission into college.
3. Sports The sports essay is predictable and should be avoided, if possible. Everyone knows how an athletic story will play out, regardless of the story or the sport. Find another topic that is unique and hasn’t been covered a million times over.
Admissions officers have heard enough about “the thrill of victory” and “the agony of defeat” in relation to high school athletics and they are sick and tired of pretending to care.
4. Humor Stop trying to be so funny. You may have a story in your essay that’s funny and that’s okay – but that’s different. Make sure you’re funny for a reason and not just funny because you’re attempting to be. If it comes out naturally in your essay, great. If it doesn’t, then don’t force it. Admissions officers will see the futile attempt – and likely not find it amusing.
5. Why You’re SO Lucky We get it. You’re privileged and you appreciate it, which is great. However, discussing it doesn’t make for a great essay. It’s actually super boring and, perhaps, may cause some eyes to roll.
Avoid this topic at all costs unless you’re starting with that followed up with some along the lines of, “…so I decided to leave my cushy private school to switch places at a public high school in Detroit with an inner-city teen and this is what happened.” Now THAT would make for an interesting essay.
6. Volunteer Experiences & Trips This may be one of the most popular essay topics out there…and it’s also one of the most boring clichés around. Nobody needs a summary of your vacation – people know what happens on mission trips and during volunteer hours.
While you should feel free to mention a great experience or trip, but your entire essay should not talk about your one experience volunteering during a mission trip in Costa Rica.
If you do want to bring up these topics, try to think of something interesting or unexpected that happened during your trip.
Did a particular person or experience have an impact on you? Specific happenings can make great topics – try to think of something unusual and craft your essay around that experience, instead. (See example within the opening of this article.)
So, you’re creative, smart and so over this whole essay thing. You’re not going to be put inside a box with a regular essay; you’re going to do your own thing. You’re going to whatever you feel like writing. Some of the best and brightest students do this: basically, they create the anti-essay.
Fine, but be prepared to write whatever you feel like writing from a college that may not be your first choice.
Whether it’s a poem, a random stream of thoughts, sarcasm, or some other form of writing in order to feel more creative, it’s not always the best idea. Before you do this, remember one thing: the sole purpose of your college essay is to get into college. You can show off later.
8. Illegal or Illicit Behavior Drug and alcohol use, sex, arrests and/or jail time are topics that you should steer clear of, even if they are life issues you’ve worked through.
You would not want your judgment to be called into question for the decisions you’ve made (even if they are in the past) or for making the decision to write about the decisions you’ve made. Either way, it’s risky business to go this route and is not recommended.
9. The Most Important [Person, Place, Thing] in My Life Read this aloud. Doesn’t this topic sound like an assignment that a second or third grader would write about? It really does and, if a child can handle it, it probably won’t gain you a lot of points with college admissions officers.
10. Tragedies Topics like death and divorce are cautionary because they can be extremely difficult to write about.
While these topics are tough, if you feel passionately that a particular tragedy impacted your life significantly and you do want to write about it, try to keep the essay’s focus on you.
Think about your feelings regarding the situation, how it affected you and what you learned from the experience rather than just simply recalling the situation or the person you lost.
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Listen to my interview with Michael Linsin (transcript):
Sponsored by Write About and Peergrade
In my first few years of teaching, student talking was like popcorn.
I gave the class instructions for some kind of work; let’s say journal writing. And for a few seconds, they did it. Things were quiet. Then, like that first kernel of popcorn, one student said she didn’t know what to write, so I walked over to her desk to help her. While we talked, two more raised their hands—two more pops—and said they were stuck, too. I signaled to them that I’d be over in a minute, but in the meantime, someone else was closing his journal, finished already. Another pop. The two who were stuck asked him what he wrote about.
The room needs to stay quiet so we can concentrate, I told them.
Someone else had a question. Another pop. I squatted by her desk, and behind me, a conversation started between two others. Pop pop. Another journal closed while a different hand went up.
Okay people, I said, this time louder. Let’s keep it down. And with rascally smiles, they turned back to their journals to pretend to write some more. At this point, it had turned into a game.
Someone needed to sharpen their pencil. Pop. Someone else decided to race them over to the sharpener. Pop. In a matter of seconds, the whole room had erupted, a huge hysterical bowl of popcorn, exploding all around me, and I couldn’t find my way out.
And then I yelled.
If this sounds anything like you, you’re not alone. I hear it from teachers all the time. One of the things they don’t teach us in our education courses is just how freaking much students talk, and how hard it can be to quiet them down in order to get anything accomplished.
To find solutions to this problem, I went to Michael Linsin, the creator of Smart Classroom Management and my go-to person for all classroom management needs. Last year, he taught us how to set up a clear, simple classroom management plan. Now he’s going to help us understand the causes of excessive talking, what you should be able to realistically expect from students, and how you can fix the problem.
Michael Linsin of Smart Classroom Management
First, two quick caveats.
One: I believe students need to talk.People need to talk. So if you’re shooting for a classroom environment where students sit silently and do rote seat work all day long, where they never have an opportunity to talk to their peers, where they never get out of their seats, and where the work is not engaging, you are going to have problems.
Two: A big part of good classroom management is building good relationships with your students. If you haven’t taken the time to get to know them as individuals, if you mispronounce their names, if you regularly use sarcasm or make them feel stupid for asking questions, then they aren’t going to want to behave well for you. And that’s a different problem.
So this post is based on the assumption that you’re planning engaging lessons and you have a decent relationship with your students. Without those two, these solutions might kind of work, but you’re still probably not going to love your job.
Why It’s Happening
Before you can solve this problem, you have to understand its cause. According to Linsin, excessive talking—talking that occurs during independent work time or direct instruction—happens for two reasons.
Reason 1: They don’t believe you mean it.
Despite the fact that you specifically tell students not to talk, deep down they don’t believe you mean it. “Or they don’t care,” Linsin says.
“At some point,” he explains, “Your authority has faded. If you’re able to teach to a quiet classroom in the beginning of the year and now you’re not able to, or if it happened right off the bat, then somehow at some point, the students’ respect for you and for the process, for the classroom, and your authority has faded.”
So even if they hear you, even if they understand that you want quiet at a certain time, they don’t believe anything negative will happen if they ignore your request. If they come to you with this behavior, it’s likely that it has just been part of their conditioning.
“Because so many teachers struggle with this problem,” Linsin explains, “many after a while kind of throw up their hands and just decide they’re going to talk over students, they’re going to do their best to keep things as quiet as possible during independent work time, so the students come to you (from) classrooms where the teacher asked them to be quiet but doesn’t really follow up on it.”
Reason 2: They don’t understand what “no talking” means.
This one is going to be harder for teachers to believe, but bear with us here: “No talking” may not mean exactly the same thing in different contexts, and if your students are talking more than you want them to, there’s a good chance you’re working with different definitions.
“When they come to your classroom,” Linsin explains, “and they’ve had teacher after teacher say the same thing, yet continue to allow it to happen in the classroom, then students think, Well, he or she just means we need to kind of keep our voices down, or We’re mostly quiet, but if we have important things to say to a neighbor, then we’re allowed to do that. And so they’re confused as to what the definition of ‘quiet’ really is.”
In many cases, Linsin notes, the problem is likely being caused by a combination of both of these reasons. But notice that neither reason is a blanket statement about students being disrespectful. This is why I like Linsin’s approach: He puts control for classroom management in the teacher’s hands, rather than placing blame on the student. That’s not to say that you won’t have disrespectful students, but shifting the blame to them means you have no power over the situation. Blaming the students simply isn’t a useful way to address the problem.
“When students are not doing something that you’ve previously taught them how to do,” Linsin says, “whether it’s talking or entering the classroom, and they don’t do it well, even though the students are responsible for their behavior, when most of the class is not doing what you ask, it’s on you. It’s about you. There’s some disconnect there, there’s something they’re not understanding.”
What You Should Be Able to Expect
Some teachers might wonder whether it’s reasonable to expect students to be quiet at all, especially if they are younger. Linsin says yes without hesitation. “You should absolutely expect, no matter where you’re teaching or what grade level, that the students are able to sit quietly while you’re giving instruction or directions, and they should be able to sit quietly and work during independent work times.”
Should there also be times when talking is permitted? “Absolutely,” Linsin says. “It’s really important to give students an opportunity to express themselves, to get up and move around, to work in groups and pairs and discuss. Classrooms should be vibrant and interesting, exciting places, and so I’m all for getting students up and moving and having fun. Those things just make classroom management stronger, and they free you to ask anything of your students, including silence.”
If you came here looking for a few tricks to end excessive talking, the bad news is that you won’t find anything clever or earth-shattering. The good news is that the solution is pretty simple, and it requires no behavior charts, tokens, or Jolly Ranchers.
Step 1: Define expectations in explicit detail.
“The fix,” Linsin says, “is to define, in detail, exactly what you want during independent work time and when you’re teaching a directed lesson.”
If you believe you’ve already done this, and it hasn’t worked, the issue is probably lack of detail in your explanation. Linsin says you need to go far deeper than what most teachers probably do.
“So you may bring a desk or a table up in front of your classroom, sit down, and pretend to be a student. You may have other students acting as models also. Show students how you expect them to behave while you’re giving instruction, and then how you expect them to behave when they’re doing independent work.”
“It’s also important to include what not to do,” he adds. “So you’ll model those exact behaviors that you’re seeing, those exact talking behaviors, whether it’s side-talking or standing up and whispering to someone, or whatever your classroom looks like. Even if it’s chaotic, whatever that chaos looks like exactly, you want the students to be able to see themselves in your modeling and what isn’t okay.”
Step 2: Have students practice.
Once you’ve modeled the desired behavior, have students practice it, just like you’d have them practice any skill you’re teaching.
Linsin gives an example of what this might look like. You’d start by saying, “‘I’m going to give you 60 seconds, and I want you to show me what good listening looks like, and no talking. So let’s pretend I’m standing and giving you a lesson. I want to know what that looks like.’ And then you’ll stand and maybe you’ll cross your arms and put your hand under your chin, and you’ll watch them.”
Keep this instruction light, he says. Keep it fun. “You’ll stare at them and you’ll walk around the room, and you’ll watch one of them, and you’ll nod your head and say, ‘Mmhmm, okay, that looks good. Mmhmm. Chin up a little higher!’ It’s okay to have fun with it. None of this is a punishment. It’s just good teaching. Whether you’re teaching how to find a topic sentence or how you want your students to line up before recess, it’s all teaching. So it’s okay to have fun with it. It’s okay for them to laugh at some of the things you say or to see themselves in the behaviors, which they love, by the way, especially if you exaggerate it and have some fun with it.”
The Sign Strategy: Students are often put in an awkward position when a classmate tries to talk to them during these quiet times. They want to follow your guidelines, but they also don’t want to be rude to a classmate. Agree on some kind of physical sign they can give each other at these times. “It can be a scissors or peace sign or whatever’s culturally acceptable wherever you teach. And all they do is just hold the sign up, and the sign means, ‘I’m really sorry, but I have to listen to the lesson,’ or ‘I’m really sorry, but I have to do my work.’ And you can tell them that if they give the sign and that student who sees the sign turns and gets back to work, you will not enforce a consequence, because they’re showing responsible behavior.”
Step 3: Teach the consequences.
“Walk them through the exact steps that would happen if they turn and talk to a neighbor, for example,” Linsin says. “The exact steps a misbehaving student would take from your initial warning to contacting parents or whatever your consequences look like.”
In order to do this, you have to know what your consequences are. Spend some time making sure you’re clear on that. If you need help, read our post on creating a classroom management plan.
Step 4: Do it for real.
Once students have been taught your expectations and have practiced exactly what they look like, it’s time to apply it in a real lesson. “Have a directed lesson ready,” Linsin advises, “to have them prove to you they can do it in practice.”
If you’ve taught the expectations in detail, students should do a good job, but if they don’t, you need to enforce your consequences exactly as you described. “You almost hope during that first wonderful lesson, that one student maybe turns, and so the class can see that you’re holding them accountable.”
If enforcing your consequences is difficult for you—and for many teachers, it will be—read Linsin’s post on why teachers struggle to consistently enforce consequences.
Step 5: Continue to define expectations in small chunks.
This last step is crucial. From this point forward, keep telling students what is expected of them before every switch in classroom activity. When you are about to do group work, let students know that talking within the group is okay. If you then switch to independent work, remind them that absolute quiet will be expected. Briefly describe what that will look like, even spelling out what not to do if that fits the activity.
Taking time to do this might seem unnecessary, but being clear ahead of time will prevent problems. “Anytime you can give a reminder before misbehavior,” Linsin says, “it’s a good thing. Anytime you give a reminder after you see misbehavior, it’s a bad thing. You should be holding students accountable, but be preemptive whenever you can.”
Learn More from Michael Linsin
The Happy Teacher Habits
(Links to this book are Amazon Affiliate links, which means I get a small commission on purchases you make through my links at no additional cost to you.)
There’s more where this came from.
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