College Essay On Immigration

A survey of our students has revealed that one of the most feared and most difficult parts of the college application process is the college admission essay. This is hardly surprising – after all, the college essay is unlike any other writing assignment that most students have come across. English courses tend to overlook narrative writing, leaving many students confused about how to craft a truly outstanding application essay. We’re here to help!

Put yourself in the shoes of a college admission officer. Imagine that you spend three months of every year reviewing applications, reading essay after essay after essay. The average admission officer will read thousands of essays each year.

I’ve read a lot of college application essays, giving me some small idea of what an average college admission officer goes through each year. After reading several hundred college admission essays, you find certain themes that an overwhelming number of students seem to rely on. Because these themes are so common, they quickly become clichéd. For an admission officer, these clichéd topics grow tiresome – not an adjective you want associated with your application!

To craft an essay that will help you stand out, you’ll need to avoid clichés. Here is our list of the top 5 essay clichés:

NUMBER ONE: The Amazing Epiphany

These essays follow a formula: struggle + success/failure = epiphany. Maybe the struggle is passing a really tough class, or maybe it’s overcoming shyness. In these essays, no matter what the struggle is, and no matter whether the student ultimately succeeded or failed, there’s always a magical epiphany at the end.

These essays go something like this: “I worked really hard to pass math/become class president/make friends/win a hotdog eating contest/etc., and then I succeeded/failed. Suddenly, I realized…”

If you find yourself writing “Suddenly I realized…” (or any other synonymous phrase), STOP! You’re becoming a cliché!

The problem with these essays is twofold: First, the way in which most students approach the big realization is about as subtle as a ton of bricks hitting you in the face; second, the realization is usually a pretty far reach compared with the struggle the student has overcome. These huge realizations feel forced – the reader can tell that you were trying really hard to come up with the magic lesson at the end of your story, which makes your essay less powerful. Unless your epiphany is particularly insightful and meaningful, or unless you are a particularly strong writer, it’s best to avoid the big epiphany.

NUMBER TWO: Lessons from the Less Fortunate

In an attempt to bolster college applications, tens of thousands of students participate in community service projects of all kinds. This is awesome. It becomes somewhat less awesome when students write about their community service projects without fully considering how their essays might be misconstrued.

This type of essay describes some sort of service project – often volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter or going on a mission trip to an undeveloped country. The essay concludes with the lesson that the student learned by working with impoverished people. If you’re a really good writer and you’re willing to get lots of input from teachers, tutors, counselors, or other third-party readers, then you can craft a truly excellent essay on this topic.

Sadly, many students fail to consider their essays from the point of view of someone who has never met them. These students not only use politically incorrect language (I’ve seen more than one student refer to “the poors” – not a good idea), but also tend to write about their experiences as if they were previously unaware that poor people suffered. This can easily make students seem hopelessly naïve or, worse yet, self-entitled. Students who have never experienced poverty must approach the topic carefully, making certain that there is no possible way for a reader to misinterpret the essay in a negative light. That can be very tricky!

NUMBER THREE: Coming to America

Application essays ask students to discuss the most life-changing events of their young lives. For any student who immigrated to the U.S. from a non-English speaking country, that life-changing event is probably their immigration experience. Unfortunately, life-changing though it is, this experience is not unique. Every single day, thousands of people do it. It’s not fair, but it’s true.

These essays go like this: “My family decided to move to America, and I hated it because I had to struggle to learn English, but I worked really hard, and now I’ve proved that I can do anything.” The details differ slightly, but the basic plotline is the same. And sadly, even the most well-crafted immigration story can be rendered cliché by the sheer number of immigration essays submitted to colleges each year.

Unless a student has a particularly unique immigration story, it’s probably best to avoid this topic.

NUMBER FOUR: The Confessional

The college application essay is not the ideal forum in which to confess all of your past crimes, failures, and misdeeds. This seems like common sense, but a surprisingly large number of students do this every year. They think they are writing a story of redemption and reformation, but usually they are simply confessing to things the college never would have known about in the first place. I’ve seen students confess to racism, sexism, and homophobia. I’ve seen students go on at great length about the one math test they failed in 9th grade. All of them redeem themselves by the end of the essay, but first they give the reader a negative image to hold on to.

Applicants should never write about anything that can reflect poorly on them. It’s a bad idea. The entire purpose of the application essay is to present your strongest self; confessing to past prejudices, academic failures, or – worst of all – illegal activities isn’t usually the best way to accomplish this task.

NUMBER FIVE: The Resume

Students spend their entire high school lives building a list of impressive accomplishments and extracurricular activities, so it’s little surprise that many students write about this in their application essays. Since you should have already listed your extracurricular activities, leadership positions, awards, honors, and recognitions in the appropriate space in your application, you don’t need to write about all of them in your essay. It’s repetitive and it often fails to tell the admission officer anything new about who you are.

A good application essay should be an intriguing story, so it’s okay to pick ONE activity/award/honor to write a story about. Maybe you want to write about your campaign for student council – that’s fine. Don’t write about your campaign for student council, the various other positions you held in student council, that time you interned at the mayor’s office, and the leadership award you won. The message that a resume essay sends to a reader is: “I have nothing of any depth to say about any of the stuff that I’ve done, so I’m just going to list everything I’ve accomplished and hope that you think I’m great. ” Your essay is not a resume – it is a story that reveals something unique about who you are and why you would be the perfect person to have on a college campus. Use this opportunity to demonstrate that you are more than just a list of accomplishments — you are a dedicated and talented student with passion and interests and a superb personality.

BONUS TIP: Proof Read!!!

This essay is not only your best chance of helping to separate yourself from the other applicants, but also your opportunity to demonstrate your supreme writing skills. Nothing will turn off an admission officer faster than a poorly edited essay! The people reading your essays are educators. They like grammar and spelling. They know their stuff. Don’t make yourself look lazy or uneducated by submitting application materials riddled with spelling or grammar mistakes!

/by C2 Education

Prospies, I’m going to let you in on a little admissions secret: Too many of you write about the same essay topics.

“But Lily,” you say to me frantically, “I’m different and more interesting than all the other people writing about the same topic!”

And now prospies, I will let you in on a second admissions secret: Just as Ginnifer Goodwin’s character Gigi learned in He’s Just Not That Into You, you are the rule and not the exception.

Since starting TP almost a year and a half ago, I’ve gotten into many arguments with high school students about this fact. The point is, no matter how special and awesome you are at home, at the end of the day, you are still one application out of thousands sitting on someone’s desk, and the things that make you unique in your hometown usually won’t mean jack to an admissions officer.

Is that just totally screwed up? Absolutely. But no one ever said that the admissions world was fair.

So, now that you are slowly coming to terms with the “rule not the exception” principle, let’s turn to essay topics. Your Common App essay and subsequent supplements can make or break your application, and after I read/edited over 120 college essays last winter break as part of our college essay extravaganza, I can tell you that 95% of applicants wrote about the same exact things. And if I was seeing the same essay over and over looking at only 120 Word docs, I can only imagine what admissions officers go through when deciding amongst thousands.

So without further ado, here are the nine college essay topics to steer away from and why.

1. The Immigrant Essay

Going back over the essays I received during the college essay extravaganza, 50% of the Common App essays I read were about students and their families moving to the US and learning to adjust. Now, I’m not saying that your familial struggles aren’t intense and worthy of talking about; after all, many students wrote about the loneliness they felt being the only new kid in school or having to adjust to American customs, and those are all absolutely valid conversations.

However, if you put all of these “moving to America” stories in a pile and read them one after another, they start to bleed together. The story lines and characters all sound the same. And for you, that means less of a chance to stand out and more of a chance of being labeled “one of those immigrant kids”. Is it fair? Absolutely not. Is that the way it is? Unfortunately, yes.

2. The “They Taught Me More Than I Taught Them” Essay

Please for the love of all that is admissions don’t write about the time you went on a service trip to a third-world country and learned from the locals. Not only does it typically come across as condescending and privileged (since most high school students are not aware of how to talk about cultures in politically correct terms), but it’s also so overdone and bland.

3. The “Ski Slope” Essay

When many students answer the quintessential “talk about a time you overcame an obstacle” prompt, they tend to write something that I call the “ski slope” essay. In this scenario, the author was given a physical challenge (like a ski slope, mountain, scary water slide ride, etc.) and was eventually convinced overcome it. Again, it’s an essay that I’ve seen over and over (and over) again, and there’s no real way to write these essays well. They usually involve a lot of cliche adjectives and some other person convincing the writer to go down the slope. Inspiring? Not at all.

Look at it this way: Thousands of people learn how to ski every year; it’s boring and totally not unique. If you’re going to write about an obstacle, it needs to be an obstacle that only 0.00005% of the world has overcome. Otherwise, you’re just like everybody else.

4. The “Look at How Super Deep I Am” Essay

Kids, don’t try to go on a philosophical rant in your college essays. Not only do you typically sound like a pretentious, self-important twerp pulling stuff out of your butt (and admissions officers know it), but these tirades also tell the reader absolutely nothing about you as as potential member of a college. Don’t get meta. If you want to talk about all the great deep thoughts inside your head, start a blog.

5. The All-Dialogue Essay

Note: Spending half of your 650 words going through a conversation you had with your sister is a complete snore and a total waste of time and space. Cut our dialogue unless it’s funny or actually moves the story along. Something like this is just really dull fluff:

“Sister,”I said to her.

“Yes?” she said back.

She looked at me with angst. “What?” she asked again.

Three lines in and you’re bored already, right?

6. The Way-Too-Extended Metaphor Essay

What do dumplings, crayons, and hoop earrings have in common? They’re all inanimate objects that have been used as extended metaphors in college essays, and all of those essays were not good.

Pulling off the extended metaphor essay is hard, and as you’ve learned by now, it’s best to go into essay writing with the mentality that you are the rule, not the exception. So stop trying to compare your life to a squashed kumquat you saw on the side of the road and find a different topic.

7. The “Lesson about Failure Where You Didn’t Really Fail” Essay

Remember that an admissions essay is still a story, and the best heroes and heroines have legitimate pitfalls. If your biggest failure is that you had a hangnail but you eventually took care of it, not only do you look shallow, but you also look dull. Failures need to be actual heart-stopping, “OMG, NOOO!” failures. Either commit to going all the way or avoid writing this type of essay altogether.

8. The Bat Mitzvah Essay

When the Common App prompt asks for something that marked your transition into adulthood, stay away from cultural or religious events that actually mark adulthood, like a bar/bat mitzvah or a confirmation ceremony or something. The best essays about transitions into adulthood deal with unforeseen shifts, not obvious ones (for example, my friend wrote about the different types of boxers he bought throughout high school. Shift to adulthood? Yes. Totally freaking clever? Heck yeah).

9. The Straight Up Cliche Essay

There are many topics that are way overdone besides the ones listed above. Some examples of what I mean:

  • The “What I learned at this academic conference/camp/event” essay
  • The “What my mom/dad/family taught me” essay
  • The “How I felt about moving to a whole new place or being in a new environment” essay
  • The “How I learned to fit in” essay
  • The “Death of person x” essay
  • The “How my parents’ divorce changed me” essay
  • The “Here’s a very vague essay about my family’s culture” essay

Again, these are just a few of the many examples of cliche essays.

Well, if you read this list and thought, “Wow, now I’m screwed,” fear not: We’ll be coming out with tons of articles over the next few months with essay brainstorms, interesting topic angles, and the whole nine yards to get you geared up and awesome for the admissions season. A good college essay is meant to be challenging to write, so sit back, relax, and read TP.



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the author

Lily Herman is a junior at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Besides bopping around on The Prospect, Lily is a columnist for USA TODAY College (read the Quad Report, yo); an editorial intern for The Daily Muse; a contributing editor for the campus blog Wesleying; a national contributing editor for Her Campus; and an editorial/marketing intern at HelloFlo. When she is not studying or awkwardly waving at people around campus, Lily enjoys eating Sour Patch Kids and re-watching the Friday Night Lights series finale (she's Team Saracen, by the way). Also (shameless plug alert), feel free to follow her on Twitter, or email her at lherman(at)theprospect(dot)net.

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