CHICOPEE, Mass. (Mass Appeal) The summer before a high school student’s senior year is the best time to start writing
the required college admission essay. But most students aren’t sure what to write about, and especially what they should NOT write about. College admissions expert, Paul Hemphill, told us what topics to stay away from and how to write a great essay.
There “deadly” topics to stay away from. What do you mean and can you tell us what those topics are?
I mean “deadly” because they can kill your child’s chances for admission. Let’s go down
the notorious list of 8 topics and start with the 4 Ds: Death, divorce, disease, disorder,
and then there are sports injuries, boy friend/girl friend break-ups, trips or cruises, and
diversity. If you want colleges to know any of this stuff, have a teacher write about your
bad experience in a recommendation letter. That way, it’ll look like you rose above your
bad experience and moved on with your life. That would be a big positive.
What makes these topics deadly?
Put yourself in the shoes of someone in a college admissions office who has to read
your essay. Does he get up in the morning and say, “I can’t wait to get into the office
today so I an read an essay on death because I love getting depressed!” Here’s what
these admission people are warning you about: “Don’t be pulling at my emotional heartstrings
so that I can give you a boat-load of sympathy for the purpose of accepting you.
It won’t work. Enough already!”
What about trips and cruises? Why are those bad topics?
Trips and cruises suggest students of privilege. In other words, they come from wealthy
families and have a weak list of extracurricular activities. So to “fix it,” the parents write a
check that sends the student to Guatemala for 1 week to replant the rain-forests.
College officials see this all the time, have become very cynical about it, and as a result
it works against the student’s admission, not in their favor. One of my videos mentions
this mistake, and I use Guatemala as the destination point. A student wrote me asking if
Costa Rica would be a better destination point! I suggested he look at the video one
What about sports injuries?
It’s the “come-back kid” theme that is just so tiring, hackneyed, almost trivial. Don’t tell
me you sprained your ankle but you were still able to throw the hail-mary pass that won
the championship for your school. I’m not buying it.
Changing course…how does a student write a great essay?
I tell my students they are the world’s leading expert on what they experience and what
they feel. No one in the world knows more about those feelings and thoughts than you
do. Focus on a topic that answers this simple question: “Who are you?” The colleges
already know what you know by looking at your grades and test scores, but they want to
know who you are, and who you are in life always beats what you know. Which is the
whole purpose of the essay. I have a student right now who discovered how scared she
was when she had to dance in front of a group of other students without any warning,
but she did it, enjoyed the feeling she got from it, and discovered there is something
positive about stepping outside your comfort zone. It was a real life-lesson for her that
she felt compelled to write about. Colleges want to read a story about how you
experienced personal growth.