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College Admission Real Sample Essays

Two Common Essay Topics that DON'T Work

Dec 06, 2022

When writing your essays for your college applications, it’s important

that you know that there are no do-overs in this process. When it comes

to the college essay, it is critical to get it right the first time. 

Today we are going to walk through two of four common topics that would be 

better to avoid when writing your essays, as well as the reasons 

that they do not work.  In this blog, solutions, or other choices with examples 

that you could write about with similar topics will be discussed.

Common Topic #1: Community Service 

I’ve traveled the country and met hundreds of families all looking for the magic formula of how to get admitted to selective colleges. Many believe the answer is found in the act of “doing” community service and then writing about it. I get it, and yet, this doesn’t work.

Why It Doesn’t Work: 

Teens believe they “must” complete community service as a rite of passage, and so many do it in order to check it off their list. Some find a true love for a particular organization and continue serving, while many others continue their service because others say, “It will look good on a resume.” If you are in the latter category, your essay will fall flat because you don’t really believe in the cause, the matter, or the reason for serving. Writing about something you don’t care about is the quickest way to get passed over. 

Solution A: 

I have found the best results happen when teens (with the help of parents) take the time to research a specific type of organization to serve. Ask yourself, WHY did I choose THIS organization over any other. Your essay topic is likely found in not WHAT you do for the organization, but WHY you do it.

Example: Story in the book about ROY who handles the blood drive at his school each year. His mother is a phlebotomist . She grew up with a desire to give blood consistently. That giving was passed on to her from her mother, and she passed that on to Roy, and Roy now shares his enthusiasm with other students. That is not only his story about recruiting record numbers of students to give blood, but also, this is his coolness factor. It’s cool not because of WHAT he does, but of WHY he does it. We learn more about Roy as he weaves in his why,  than simply describing the mechanics of recruiting a record number of donors. 


Giving back is one of the greatest life lessons we can learn while young. I want to encourage you to find a way to give your time, talent, or treasure. If literally serving soup or reading books to youngsters is not your calling, I promise you, this is perfectly fine. College campuses everywhere need leaders, coordinators, motivators, movers and shakers, as well as altruistic do-gooders. Stay true to who you are and serve your community in a way that is authentic to YOU!

Common Topic #2: Life Challenges

Other than community service, most students and parents believe that the way “in” to a college is to have a sad story. Many rack their brains for what to say, what to reveal, and sometimes even stretch the truth a bit because they feel so compelled to share a story of overcoming difficulty. 

Why It Doesn’t Work: 

The 4 Ds are more common than you think: Death, Divorce, Devastation, or a D on a transcript. Unfortunately, many teens have one or a combination of these that they could share. Because it is common, it can be difficult to create an essay that is compelling and both captures and holds the reader’s attention. 

Solution A: 

Whatever it is that you choose to write about, do NOT spend the words telling the reader that it was hard, it was a struggle, or that you worked hard to overcome this challenge. This is implied. What makes your essay compelling is your description of that struggle, challenge, or hardship. SHOW the reader what you did, how you overcame, and paint the picture of what that looks like. 


I remember a student at Marymount who had come to this country as a freshman if I remember correctly. By the time she was a senior in high school, four years later, she was taking AP English Literature. Amazing. Her story was found not in the fact that it was hard or that she was at a disadvantage from her peers – the story is found in the routine, the ritual, the tutoring, the hours and the why she did that. She had bigger goals, she wanted to graduate with honors, she had big college dreams, and she wanted to make her parents proud. The story she captured helped the reader understand the full context of who she is as a teenager. She had grit, she had goals, and nothing would stop her from achieving those goals. That’s a student an Admission Officer finds themselves wanting to advocate for. 


Your essay is much less about what you say, and more about how you capture that story. Life challenges happen to everyone, what makes your story unique is your description of how it affected you, what you did about it, how you grew, and what you will do in the future. If you can capture the answers to these questions, you are golden!