College Essays: Three Essay Topics to Typically Avoid (or If You Do Them, How to Do Them Well)

There’s no such thing as a “bad” essay topic (except, that is, high school romances), but there are certainly bad ways of approaching certain topics, and there are certain topics that lend themselves to being done badly. If you want to stand out, it’s possible to approach these well-worn topics from a new angle — but do so at your own risk.

Essay Topic 1: Why The Cultural Diversity Of My Dinner Table Makes Me Unique

Cliché Thesis: “My background made me different — but then, why would I ever want to be the same?”

Your cultural lineage makes you unique and is worthy of celebration, but you need to stand out from others of a similar background who are also applying. What makes you unique from them?

If you see yourself as a last link of family tradition, then you’ve nicely shown how a situation defined you — but you still need to show how you define a situation. In other words, you risk showing that you are the creation of rites and rituals — rather than showing how you define yourself and the world around you.

How to do it well: It’s true, some of us grapple with our cultural background or conflicting cultural backgrounds more intensely. If you make an active effort to bring your cultural roots alive, then that’s worth writing about, as a way of showing off your initiative as well as your sense of self. Only the most exact details of dress, gesture, and culinary arts will bring these rites alive for the reader — and show your loving, painstaking concern for your culture as well.

Essay Topic 2: How I Helped Poor Kids in Another Country Build a House

Cliché Thesis: “I came to teach them about houses — but they taught me about life.”

To admissions officers, this will read: How Poor Kids Helped Me Build My Resume.

It’s borderline racist to pretend that inequalities only exist in faraway places populated by people with other skin colors who need the charity of visiting Americans to survive.

It’s even borderline racist and not the least hypocritical to pretend these exotic populations are superior for their supposed simplicity and courageous struggle against hardships — such condescending pity fails to account for their individual differences within groups.

Such two-week activities, unsupported by related extracurriculars, are resume fodder.

How to do it well: Not recommended, but try reversing it: show your growing comprehension of the locals’ perception of having to rely on affluent foreigners who pity those that don’t live as they do — and how that gives way to collaboration and mutual respect for differences.

Essay Topic 3: Anything to Do With Immediate Family

Cliché Thesis: “That summer, I didn’t just learn what it meant to be a son. I learned what it meant to be a dad.”

There’s nothing harder to write about than love (for dads or sports). By nature, this kind of love is (and even should be) unearned.

You risk showing yourself as a product of surroundings you have little ability to question — or, if you question them, you might sound overly-rebellious.

How to do it: If you’ve rebelled against unspeakable familial deeds or reconciled yourself to certain traits after intensive questioning — now that’s worth an essay.