Admissions officers review hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of applications in an application season.

This makes it hard to stand out via a transcript or list of extracurriculars. The application essay — sometimes called the personal statement — can be an applicant’s main shot at showcasing their personality and grabbing the admissions officer’s attention. Selecting the right essay topic is important, and it can be tough to know where to start. In this list, admissions officers reveal the types of essays that have been overused.

“You can see the kids really trying to look good, but there’s no heart.”

— Julie Farkas

1. Term Papers

It can be difficult for students who have been trained to write thesis essays to transition to personal statements. To hit the right tone for an application essay, “write the way you speak,” suggests Julie Farkas, regional admissions counselor for Manhattanville College. “Not with a ton of slang, but just like you’re talking to a friend.” While you do want to present the best version of yourself, that doesn’t have to mean formal, stuffy or even academic.

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2. Accomplishment Lists

Often students make the mistake of trying to sound impressive in their essays as opposed to articulating their true, authentic selves. “You can see the kids really trying to look good, but there’s no heart,” says Farkas. Such essays also tend to be repetitive of other parts of the application and don’t leverage the essay section to its full potential. The personal statement is the only part of your application where you can show admissions officers your individual personality. Farkas recalls one Manhattanville applicant writing about his love of heavy metal and how nobody else at his religious school liked it. It wasn’t about anything he’d accomplished at all, but Farkas says, “It piqued my interest because he was doing something different in his own world.”

3. Description of Personal Tragedy, But Not How You Dealt With It 

This is one of the biggest personal statement pitfalls. The standard “overcoming adversity” essay often doesn’t say much about the applicant. If you do feel the need to write about a personal tragedy, focus most of the essay on how this tragedy changed and impacted you versus the incident itself. Admissions officers read essays with the goal of learning more about who you are. Be sure your essay shares insights into your personality and how you grew from this friction in your life. Admissions officers aren’t going to glean the information they need from an essay that’s not much more than a description of a tragic event, even if it’s well-written. 

4. Sports Stories That Don’t Say More

College admissions officers are inundated by essays about injuries or achievements in sports. It’s OK to use sports in service of a higher theme, says Dr. Shirag Shemmassian, a former Cornell admissions interviewer. Like the personal tragedy essay, this can’t actually be about sports. It needs to say something about you as an individual. Shemmassian offers a potentially good sports-related example of trying “to walk off a sports injury out of pride, which made it worse,” and then exploring the lesson you learned and how you applied that to other parts of your life.  

5. Recounting Volunteer Experience

“College admissions officers can be turned off by essays where the student has a ‘savior complex,’” says Teddy Barnes, former director of college admissions at Trinity-Byrnes Collegiate School. “Also, volunteering abroad can be as much an indication of the student’s [financial] means as their commitment to service.” Farkas suggests avoiding the topic altogether unless you had a really transformative experience — or at the very least come at it from a unique angle, capturing some small personal moment you felt changed you. “It’s not about ‘the summer I went to Nigeria.’ It’s about ‘this one person I met,’ or ‘that moment I doubted myself.’”

6. Biographies of a Personal Influence

Often students choose to write about a parent, grandparent, teacher, a person from an underprivileged background or some other mentor figure they admire. Even when it’s not one of these common examples, the essay isn’t focused on showcasing the writer, which is the point of the personal statement. “It’s a problem when the other character is the essay’s most impressive one,” says Shemassian. “The student has to be the most impressive character, and they should highlight their personal values.”

“The key to essays is to relax and be yourself,” says Farkas. Easier said than done when you’re staring at a blank page. But know that admissions officers truly want to get a sense of you through your essay, so be authentic and you’ll be doing it right.

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2018.