What do colleges want to know about you? That's a good place to start when you're brainstorming your college essay.
You know colleges don't want you to tell your life story in 500 words. But you keep pestering yourself, wondering: "What should I tell them?" Think about things you've done in high school, activities you've participated in, experiences you've had, and maybe how you see yourself as being just a little different than your peers.
As an independent college counselor who has read hundreds of essays, and after conducting research on bad essay choices, here are my votes for the two biggest essay offenders: (1) the last-minute sports victory, and (2) the mission trip epiphany.
These two topics tend to be among the worst for essays because unless a student has a particularly inspiring, amusing or heartfelt story, colleges have seen it, heard it and read it thousands of times.
While winning a sports championship may be the pinnacle of your high school career, it is very difficult to get anyone else nearly as excited. Unless a student personalizes the sports essay with a meaningful anecdote, it is likely to focus on the importance of teamwork and is destined to sound cliche.
The mission trip epiphany is a regularly mentioned topic to avoid. Admissions staff are often quick to suggest that it is quite challenging to set yourself apart if you choose this topic. I'm not saying mission trips aren't a great experience and an opportunity for teens to be exposed to new things, but be cautious about using it as a college essay topic.
The problem is that the realizations students choose to share (for instance: "While on the outside we may look different, I realized after this trip that on the inside, we are really all the same") often unwittingly demonstrate how sheltered their existence has been and perhaps how privileged a life they've led.
Here are two other topics I suggest you avoid:
The confessional: Many students choose to use Common Application (www.commonapp.org) prompt No. 2, the obstacle essay, to dredge up their past misdeeds. Students will often overshare to provide background information and present themselves in a negative light, and then not have enough space to share how they've changed.
The resume: Don't waste precious essay words sharing information about yourself that you are providing in another part of the application. The Common Application has an area where you describe your extracurricular activities, your work experience, your awards, etc. Focusing on this information in your essay is repetitive and doesn't share any new insights about who you are or how you'll contribute to the college community.
Lee Shulman Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. Visit her website College Admissions Strategies.