(MoneyWatch) For students who are applying for college, one of the scariest parts of the admission process is writing the dreaded essay.
A common mistake that students make when tackling their college essays is to pick the wrong topics. It's a huge turn off, for instance, when applicants write about their sports exploits or their pets. I asked Janine Robinson, who is the creator of a wonderful website called Essay Hell and the author of an excellent ebook entitled "Escape Essay Hell," to identify those essay topics that teenagers should absolutely avoid.
Here are Robinson's college essay no-no's:
1. Listing accomplishments. You might be the most amazing person on the planet, but nobody wants a recitation of the wonderful things you've done, the people you've encountered and the places you've visited.
2. Sports. Do you know how many millions of teens have written about scoring the winning goal, basket or run? You definitely don't want to write about your winning team. And nobody wants to read about your losing team, either.
3. Sharing how lucky you are. If you are one of the lucky teenagers who has grown up in an affluent household, with all the perks that goes with it, no need to share that with college admission officials. "The last thing anyone wants to read about is your ski trip to Aspen or your hot oil massage at a fancy resort," Robinson observed.
4. Writing an "un-essay." Many students, particularly some of the brightest ones, have a negative reaction to the strictures of the admission essay. In response, Robinson says, "They want to write in stream-of-consciousness or be sarcastic, and I totally understand this reaction. However, you must remember your goal with these essays -- to get accepted! Save the radical expression for after you get into college."
5. Inflammatory topics. It's unwise to write about politics or religion, two of the most polarizing topics. Avoid any topics that make people angry.
6. Illegal activity. Do not write about drug use, drinking and driving, arrests or jail time. Also leave your sexual activities out of the frame. Even if you have abandoned your reckless ways, don't bring it up.
7. Do-good experiences. Schools do not want to hear about your church or school trip to another country or region to help the disadvantaged. You may be able to write about a trip like this only if you focus on a specific experience within the broader trip.
8. The most important thing or person in my life. This topic is too broad and too loaded, whether you want to write about God, your mom or best friend. These essays are usually painfully boring.
9. Death, divorce, tragedies. The problem with these topics is not that they are depressing, but that such powerful topics can be challenging to write about. Absolutely no pet stories -- admission officers hate them.
10. Humor. A story within a college essay can be amusing, but don't try to make the entire essay funny.
If you are a student struggling with clinical depression in high school, it can be tough to know how to broach the subject of mental illness with prospective colleges. Should I ask questions about counseling when I visit? Should I write my essay about my treatment for depression? Will sharing my mental illness cause a college to immediately deny my application?
During my tenure as a college admissions officer, we would regularly meet with the counseling services on campus to learn about the trends they were seeing in our campus population, and to solicit their advice about how best to advise prospective students. Here’s my advice about how to handle this sensitive subject in your college application process:
- First of all, know that you are not alone. According to recent studies by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health anxiety and depression are the most common mental illnesses seen by college counseling centers. In fact, there has been a 30% increase in counseling center utilization on campus over the last five years. Please know that many students struggle with similar issues and colleges are accustomed to these inquiries.
- Don’t be afraid to talk about your struggles in your application. Students dealing with mental illness in high school have often demonstrated tremendous fortitude in overcoming their challenges and carrying on with their schooling. However, frequent absences or substantial dips in grades are noticed during an application review. As an admissions officer, I strongly preferred to hear the reasons behind these anomalies directly from the student, rather than their teacher or guidance counselor. In fact, our counseling center showed us that students who could openly talk about their mental illness and advocate for themselves and what they needed were much more likely to have positive outcomes in the college setting. I particularly advise students to write about their depression if there was a significant change in grades or time away from school while undergoing treatment. Contrary to popular belief, mental illness was not seen in the admission office as a reason to deny the student, but provided necessary context for the admission reader about that student’s high school experience.
- Do realize that you are more than your mental illness—and your main essay should reflect that. The main personal statement of your application should be an expression of your unique personality and interests. Are you a scientist, a writer, an artist? Are you funny, do you love to debate, or are you a meticulous researcher? Your main essay should reflect the wonderful qualities that you bring to any college campus, not only your depression. A statement about your treatment for depression is usually most appropriate for the Additional Information section on the Common Application, or for a supplemental essay in a college’s own portion of the application. Keep the statement short (1-2 paragraphs at most), and focus on the coping skills you’ve developed from treatment that will serve you well in college.
- Be aware of campus resources before you head off to college officially. Ask questions about counseling centers when you visit campus, or give them a call if you are unable to visit. Many campuses provide individual or group therapy on campus, while others refer students to work with therapists local to the area. Even if you are not currently experiencing depressive symptoms, it is important to know what’s available should your depression reoccur during the stresses of college life. The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) has a wonderful college guide resource to get you started.