Admissions staff designed the college application essay to determine if students learned how to actually string a coherent idea together using proper English in between the piano lessons, sailing lessons, Mandarin lessons, and volunteering at a homeless shelter for blind former felons and their three-legged dogs that has flooded the application market. At most schools, the essay just proves your grasp of the English language and basic writing skills. But to really get a leg up on other applicants, your essay needs to hit it out of the park.
(Tip 1: Avoid clichés). Every year the Common Application “releases” its essay prompts for the year. These five prompts are the same at every release. At the almost 700 colleges and universities that accept the Common App, admissions staff members will roll their eyes at these seven essays in response to the prompts, of which they will receive virtually identical versions by the thousands. Avoid writing your own version of these 7 essays so your own essay stands out.
1. The sports essay
This essay is usually in response to the “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it” prompt.
We get it: your sport taught you discipline, dedication, and defense. While colleges will not discount the fact that sports are a valuable extracurricular that does in fact teach beyond technique, they will see that, while you may have the originality to create a new play or bestow creative nicknames upon each of your teammates, you don’t have the originality to come up with a new essay topic.
If your essay is solely about how being on time to practice and learning to work as a team made you a better person, admissions has already seen it by John Doe the basketball player, Jane Smith the tennis player, Joe Shmoe the soccer player, etc.
2. The Eagle Scout essay
Eagle Scout essays can say a lot about an applicant. He’s dedicated, he cares about his community, he takes initiative, and he’s just like every other Eagle Scout applying to college. Additional points deducted if the applicant adds in a cheesy metaphor about eagles or spreading their wings. Unless your Eagle Scout project was the only one of its kind and has a lasting and/or extra-wide- reaching impact, the topic will come off as unimaginative.
3. The lake house essay
“My favorite place in the world is my lake house because when I’m there I just feel one with nature and at peace.” This lake house could be anywhere from Utah to Michigan, written by any barefoot dude or girl with a flower crown. In most cases, your lake house is not interesting to anyone but you, not even your Instagram followers that throw your five sunset pictures a like every once in a while. Even if you spend your time identifying mushrooms and digging in the dirt for fish bait instead of lying on a dock working on your tan, the lake house essay is still not impressive. Plus, you won’t want FAFSA to catch wind of your parents being able to afford a second home.
4. The “Mom/Dad is my hero” essay
Your parents put a roof over your head, fed you, bathed you, and kept you alive and functioning well enough to get to you to the point of attending higher education. If they’re not your heroes, something is pretty wrong. They taught you all the basics, and may have passed down a few admirable traits of their own to you, but that’s to be expected.
Write this essay for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. The admissions staff wants to know you. Your mom won’t be locked in a passive aggressive war with a roommate in the dorms next year. You father won’t be gorging himself on all-you- can-eat mac and cheese in the dining hall. Even if your parents did shape you into the person you are, this is not the time to laud them. This is the time to prove yourself.
5. The Habitat for Humanity essay
This is the name brand for the generic “volunteer service abroad” essay. Yes, you’re a great person. Yes, you did a good thing. Yes, this service trip has a place on your application. That place is not in your essay. Almost everything you can say about your service trip has been said before. You’ll be hard-pressed to say something new and keep the humble-bragging closer to the humble side. It’s best to avoid this essay topic, and just make sure you list it in the extra-curriculars section.
6. The grandparents who passed away essay
Experiencing the loss of a loved one is a tragedy that can change a person dramatically. Losing a grandparent may have made you stronger or appreciate the value of life more. These essays can be beautifully written and even profound. But thousands and thousands of applicants have written this essay. Family members get old and pass away. Life and death happen. Though your individual response to mortality is unique to you, this essay is not unique.
7. The “I like helping people” essay
This is another typical response to the talent prompt, and usually a favorite of nursing, pre-med, psychology, and education majors. This essay is usually painfully generic. How do you help people? Do you rush into burning buildings? Do you tell people when there’s lettuce in their teeth? Do you genuinely offer up the last slice of pizza instead of just taking it? This is the kind of essay that needs to be very specific to be successful, and with a thesis like “I like helping people” you’re already behind on detail.
Though the skeletons of these essays are inherently unoriginal, there are ways to find new things to say about these topics. There’s a reason there are so many successful derivatives of Shakespeare plays. However, to best guarantee that your essay stands out to admissions staff, dig deeper than these topics. For more help, check out our college essay prep guide.