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!