Essay Writing

Three crazy, totally unacceptable college essay topics (that actually worked)


If you’re stuck on what to write your college essay about, here’s an approach that may work for you:

Stop trying to think of good essay topics.

Instead, think of bad, terrible, totally unacceptable topics.

Most students struggle trying to come up with an impressive story about themselves. I hear it from almost every student I coach. “I’m not this amazing person,” they tell me. “I haven’t done anything impressive. Nothing interesting has happened to me. How am I supposed to portray myself as an awesomely wonderful person?”

Guess what—you don’t have to portray yourself as an awesome, spectacular person in your college essays. You don’t have to present yourself as a “leader of tomorrow” or a “changemaker” or any of those goofy words from college websites and brochures.

So take that pressure off yourself. Forget about your best qualities for now. Forget about being amazing. Try this approach instead:

What do you think you shouldn’t write your college essay about?

When I ask students to brainstorm on this question, they come up with good ideas right away. Here are three of my favorites, from real students:

“All the times I’ve acted like a jerk.”

“I got in trouble for shoplifting.”

“How much I actually hate school.”

Yikes! All terrible stuff you shouldn’t write about, right? Actually, those “bad” essay topics turned into fantastic college essays.

“Bad” Topic 1: Acting like a jerk and losing everyone’s respect

This student based his essay on a moment when he’d blurted out something really offensive in class. “It was the rudest, dumbest thing I’ve ever said, the worst moment of 9th grade,” he told me, “and there were even parents visiting our class that day. I still cringe every time I think of it.” After writing a few paragraphs, he realized that moment had been a turning point for him. As he wrote in his essay, he realized how much he talked and how little he listened. “Now, whatever room I’m in, no matter how badly I want to give my opinion, I challenge myself to weigh in no more than three times.”

“Bad” Topic 2: Completely falling apart (and almost getting arrested)

This student wrote about how she started shoplifting at age 13 after her parents got divorced. She described the things she stole, her thieving strategies, and the humiliation of getting caught. More importantly, she reflected on how she was able to stop—when she discovered a new kind of “stealing” that was much more satisfying (and 100 percent legal). She was so happy with how her essay turned out that she even gave it a title, “Beep-beep-beep!”—the sound of a store alarm going off—which I absolutely love.

“Bad” Topic 3: Really, really hating school

This student wrote about struggling in the rigid school system of his country, where students were never allowed to ask questions or be creative. Bored and frustrated, he decided to think of himself as a “secret journalist” and sought out opportunities to educate himself about local industries. He focused his essay on one of his self-designed research projects, and ended up demonstrating his passion for learning. “I looked around my own community, and grew fascinated by a grocery store run by the same family for five generations. I no longer take places like that for granted.”

So what “terrible” topics are you avoiding?

All three students dug into their most humbling moments, reflected on them, and revealed how much they had gained. Their essay topics might have been inspired by bad experiences, but by the end of each essay, the writer and the reader were feeling really good about the person they’d become.

No, not all your mistakes and miseries are worth sharing. But some of your worst experiences can turn into the best college essays. Admissions officers want to know that you’ve made mistakes and that you’ve grown from them. Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability in your essays—it’s key to writing about personal growth. It will reveal your unique strengths of character—in other words, what an awesome person you are.

So try making a list of things you don’t want college admissions to know. It could lead you to a fantastic idea.

Want more great ideas for brainstorming essay topics? Keep checking back, or reach out to me today!

A “Tiny” Writing Idea for your College Essay


Searching for just the right story for your college essay? A friend recently gave me a neat little book called 642 Tiny Things to Write About, from the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. It’s packed with “tiny” ideas like this one:

Write your life story in five sentences.

This is a fun exercise for anyone, and it’s a great college essay catalyst! It forces you to focus on the experiences and moments that have shaped who you are now. You can’t fit your life story into one essay—and you definitely shouldn’t try. But you can develop one of those moments into a powerful college essay.

How do you do that? Read on for tips and examples!

First, don’t waste that first sentence on the obvious. I was born on July 3 in Springfield, Massachusetts isn’t very interesting. Unless your birth story was unusual in some way—for example, you were delivered during a bank robbery, or you’re a triplet—skip past your first minutes on earth. Skip to your first extraordinary or meaningful minute on earth. The first time you remember thinking that something really important was happening. Whether you were 6 years old or 12, this moment had a long-term effect on you.

Each of your 5 sentences should focus on a specific moment or event. Don’t worry about explaining or analyzing them right away. First, just get down the essence of what happened, and describe it through specifics.

Here are 3 examples from students who tried this approach:

1—My father broke his arm and both ankles in a motorcycle crash.

2—At fifteen, I first stepped inside the decorated hush of the mosque.

3—My aunt’s pottery jitterbugs and jumps off every shelf in the room.

Let’s look at what each of these writers did. They chose specific events from their lives—an accident, a visit, and a natural disaster. Then they presented them through specific actions, images, and details.

1—My father broke his arm and both ankles in a motorcycle crash.

This writer started with a perfectly good sentence: My father had a motorcycle accident and was severely injured. Then she improved it by being more specific, presenting details that make a stronger visual and dramatic impact. Her father’s accident was a significant event that threw her family into chaos. It forced her to take on more adult responsibilities, including two part-time jobs. It marked the end of her carefree childhood and the beginning of her identity as a self-reliant young adult. This became the basis of her main college essay—how she had learned that in any tough situation, she could always count on herself. And other people could count on her, too.

2—At fifteen, I first stepped into the decorated hush of the mosque.

This writer knew that at least one of her 5 “life sentences” would be about questioning and exploring religion. The events on and after 9/11 made her curious about Islam, and she began a private, cautious exploration of her own beliefs. She focused on the powerful moment when she first visited a mosque, secretly, on a family trip.

3—My aunt’s pottery jitterbugs and jumps off every shelf in the room.

The first version of this writer’s sentence was simply My family survived an earthquake when I was 11. A significant life moment, but a pretty boring sentence. So he rewrote it and rewrote it, reflecting and revising. Finally he hit on the fantastic description above. “When the quake happened, I was just a kid,” he said. “My first thought was that something funny and magical was happening, when things suddenly started dancing.” He expanded his sentence into his experience of the earthquake, as his childlike delight quickly turned to terror. His essay recounted how he and his family’s ordeal—actually, one moment in particular—changed his perspective and life goals in a surprising way.


Two bonus tips:

Notice that you can write in present tense or past tense, like the writers above.

Avoid using “I” in at least two sentences, to give your writing variety and texture.

Think you can do this? You can!

Grab a pen and paper, your phone or your laptop, and start thinking… what are your 5 life moments?

Go to Top