Bad College Essay Topics For Your Applications

Sometimes knowing what not to do can be as useful as knowing what you ought to do. There are many essay topics that spring to mind quickly. These ideas can be enticing, too - in many cases they seem to almost write themselves... until you realize that they don't paint a particularly flattering portrait of you, or that the reason they sprung to mind so easily is that you've read essays just like them several times before.

Always look out for cliche! Avoid it like the plague, as well as essay topics that center themselves around your faults or around things that you are not, rather than things that you are.

Any advice about what not to do, of course, always comes with a grain of salt. There are always exceptions, so use this only as a guide. Just make sure that if you cover one of the following topics, you do so in a unique way that highlights your strengths:

  • Crime you've committed
  • Character flaws
  • Excuses for your shortcomings
  • The "Big Game"

This last one might surprise you - the big success at a sporting event is a common topic, and it talks about a positive, emotional event. So why not use it?

It often leads you down very well-worn paths without necessarily telling us much about what you will be able to bring to an academic or social environment. More often than not, these essays focus on one-off events that don't translate to your everyday life. But worse, they aren't memorable.

Picture an admissions officer reading through five hundred essays. Five. Hundred. Essays. How many of these feel the same? How many are about a success in a sporting event? Push further, past cliche and into the elements of who you are that are specific to you and what you do. Things no one else in your school can say.

There are many, many more. Take a look at CEO's list of college essay topics to avoid.

If you have more suggestions of good essay topics (or bad ones), we look forward to seeing them in the comments!

Ten Ways IECA Uniquely Serves Educational Consultants

Mark Sklarow, IECA Executive Director

The following is a guest blog post from our partners at IECA, the Independent Educational Consultants Association. This is the first in a series of IECA articles that will be posted here.

Mark Sklarow has served as Executive Director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association for 16 years. Prior to this he was Dean of Students at a private day school in Philadelphia, a Political Science instructor at Temple University, and Director of Education at Presidential Classroom. As IECA’s CEO he presents extensively across the country about trends in the field of independent educational consulting, and offers trainings and assistance to those entering the profession.

Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education recently completed a study of the field of Educational Consulting.  Noting the dramatic growth of the field, the research concluded by cautioning parents and other educators to steer clear of the thousands of educational consultants who have refused to subject themselves to the thorough vetting process required of membership in the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) or the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA).  As a result, there has been increased exploration among consultants in joining IECA.  To assist those unaffiliated, yet serious professionals, here are my “top ten” ways IECA helps to serve independent educational consultants:

1. Referrals: Given our extensive outreach efforts and national promotional work, the IECA print and online directories are referenced by parents thousands of times each week.  Just in the past few days we heard from one member noting that he received 4 referrals in August alone and another new member who noted she received her first client from an IECA referral, less than a week after joining.  A single referral covers the cost of IECA membership many times over.

2. Professional Development: IECA hosts multi-day and full-day training programs for those newer to the profession each fall (in conjunction with NACAC) and each summer.  We partnered with the University of California/Irvine extension to offer the only certificate program in independent educational consulting.  Our two national conferences draw between 850 and 1200 attendees each, including hundreds of colleges who participate in our fairs.  We also sponsor group campus tours throughout the year and IECA members receive invitations to members-only and other group tours through our website.

3. National Staff: IECA’s professional staff of 6 full-time employees means that someone is always here to help.  Whether you are working on your own social networking, need assistance with one of our dozens of member benefits, have questions about an upcoming meeting, need a sample contract or want to examine business expansion or ethics concerns, the IECA staff is available to you.

4. Small Business Assistance: We know that most who enter the field do so with a background in admissions or counseling and chose the profession because they are passionate about helping adolescents.  Yet to “make it” consultants must also embrace entrepreneurial skills and we assist members every step of the way in understanding small business skills from running an office to marketing.

5. Press and Public Relations: IECA spends considerable resources on its public outreach efforts.  Our goal is to make sure that when families, educators and the media think about independent educational consulting, IECA comes to mind.  We make all of our dozens of brochures and fliers available to members to use and continually look for ways to use new media including blogs, LinkedIn, Facebook and much more.

6. Leading the profession: Ask anyone who sets the standards for educational consulting and IECA is mentioned.  The recent Harvard Study noted our ‘Standards of Excellence’ and our ‘Principles of Good Practice’ as the two leading documents for those entering the profession.  Our opinions are valued, our leadership sought out.  No wonder those who want to be seen as serious professionals and leaders in the field join IECA.

7. Member Services: Marketing, publications, campus tours, special events, discounts on professional materials and office supplies (including College Essay Optimizer), healthcare programs, liability insurance, mentoring and members-only seminars are just some of the offerings for members.

8. Peer Networking: Central to our mission is a belief that professionals support each other in their work.  Whether through our ListServe, mentoring or interactions during workshops, seminars or conferences, those who join IECA become part of a network of consultants stretching around the globe.

9. Holistic View of Adolescence: We do not believe you can view college admission in a vacuum, and we do not exist to assit only with admission.  IECA believes strongly that independent educational consultants must understand the entire child.  We help ensure our members understand issues like depression, teen anxiety, impact of adoption, learning disabilities, non-traditional families and more, to best serve the needs of all students.

10. Recognition for Excellence: When you include “Member, IECA” on your brochure or Web site, it conveys a great deal about you: that you have been fully vetted, that you are among the most respected, knowledgeable, competent consultants with top-notch training, experience and credentials.  No wonder so many in the media, in college admission offices, and among parents, will only work with IECA Members.

To learn more about IECA and membership opportunities, visit:

Congratulations Rising Seniors!

Class o' '32

We really did not do as much for the class of 1932 as we could have.

Congrats to those of you wrapping up your junior year this month! And to those of you with a little bit more to go, hang on, you're almost there.

Finishing your junior year is all about getting the hardest classwork behind you. The most important exams and papers - even the SATs - pass quickly, leaving what looks like a cakewalk: senior year.

The last big push of work comes this fall with your college applications. We've posted before about the need to diversify your selection of schools, and to help you do it, we've set up a whopping 20% discount for all juniors who sign up for CEO's Essay RoadMap before July 1.

Head on over to our juniors page and have at it!

And in the meantime, enjoy prom, your summer vacation, and whatever summer plans you've got. We'll be updating our requirements throughout the summer as they become available and answering all your questions about how best to handle the application process through the end of the year. Stay tuned.

Knewton Blogs: Evil SAT Trick Of The Week

Sarlin vs. Evil. Bet Sarlin.

Sarlin vs. Evil. Bet Sarlin.

Our post this week comes from Alex Sarlin, Verbal Lead at Knewton, where he helps students with their SAT prep.

If you’ve begun your SAT prep, you’ve probably already realized that the test-makers aren’t exactly mild-mannered or kind—quite the opposite. Luckily, we at Knewton have their number. Today we’ll be revealing one of their signature tricks.

First, a quick aside. Have you ever heard this old word-game? It goes something like this:

You: Let’s play a game. I’m bet I can get you to say the word “black.”

Friend (smirking): No way.

You:  OK. Name the colors in a traffic light.

Friend (thinking, suspicious): Red… yellow… green.

You: How about the colors in the American flag?

Friend: Uhh… red… white… blue.

You: Gotcha! Oh man, that was so easy!

Friend (surprised): What?!

You: I made you say blue. You totally weren’t even paying attention.

Friend: What?! You said you were going to make me say ‘black!’

You: NOW I gotcha.

So very evil. And there’s a moral, too: Never let your guard down before the game is over.

The SAT writers use their own version of this trick on the math section of the test. They give you a rather complex problem, and then, just when you’re at the very last leg of your problem-solving, they’ll offer you an answer choice that refers to the next-to-last step. After all that work, many test-takers cling to this number like a life preserver, forgetting to do that last, important step and completely wasting all the time they just spent.

Let’s look at some examples:

8. There are 2 different ways to arrange the 2 letters A and B in a row from left to right. How many more different ways are there to arrange the 5 letters A, B, C, D and E in a row from left to right?

A.      60

B.      100

C.      118

D.      120

E.       625

Ah, permutations and combinations: everybody’s favorite subject. Dig into your math knowledge: you need to put the number of possibilities into “slots.” There are 5 possibilities for the first slot (A, B, C, D or E), 4 for the second (because one letter is gone), 3 for the next slot, and so on. You end up with 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 120 different combinations. Choice D. All set, right?

Wrong. The question actually asked how many more different ways are there to arrange 5 letters than there are to arrange 2 letters. Because there are 2 ways to arrange two letters, there are 118 more ways to arrange five letters. Choice C is correct—not evil Choice D.

Now try this problem, which has not one, but three evil answers lying in wait:

4. Hector is both the 4th tallest and the 4th shortest person in his family. If everyone in his family is a different height, how many people are in Hector’s family?

A.      6

B.      7

C.      8

D.      9

E.       10

Some test-takers will think, OK—four taller, four shorter, eight people, choice C, done. Those people obviously aren’t paying attention. For one thing, they forgot about Hector himself!

Others think, Ah ha! Four people taller and four shorter, plus Hector. There are nine people in Hector’s family: Choice D! That might sound like it makes sense—but it’s still wrong.

In reality, if Hector is the fourth tallest, then actually there are only three people taller than he is. He is the fourth tallest. The same goes the other way. There are three people shorter than he is. And, then, we have to add Hector. There are 7 people in Hector’s family. Choice B is correct.

As you can see, the SAT isn’t out to make friends. Watch out for answer choices that seem too obvious or simple to be correct—they often are. These are particularly evil examples, but in fact, the SAT uses this trick, in some form or another, on many math questions. Beware, and think twice before choosing the “obvious” answer!

Check out the Knewton blog for more Evil SAT Tricks!

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New York Times: Applications To Elite Universities Rise Again

...Maybe don't apply early here.

...Maybe don't apply early here.

A brief article posted last week by the New York Times' Education desk confirms that applications to elite American universities rose again this year despite economic hardship. But as always, the number of available spots isn't budging, so the selectivity of those schools continue to increase, and the need for applicants to diversify their applications increases.

Though it might seem dire, there are a number of pieces of good news to take from this. Selectivity increasing at the top means that those schools are stronger than ever. It also means that schools that used to be considered good (or at the very least, good enough) are also improving. Better and better students will find themselves at lower-tier schools, thus raising the quality of the student bodies there.

And what really makes this whole thing not as bad as it seems is that the tools at your disposal have never made applying to school easier or more efficient. Though you'll definitely need to apply to a broader selection of schools to increase the chances you'll be somewhere that satisfies you, tools like CEO can make that task a much more manageable one, often times requiring no additional work from you.

Knewton Blogs: The Most Important Parts Of Your College Application

Today's blog post comes courtesy Josh Anish over at Knewton. Enjoy!

I tutored for years before joining the tremendous team here at Knewton. And during those salad days spent lugging the Big Blue Book around Gotham, parents always asked me to prioritize the components of the college application for their students. Here was/is my unscientific answer that I nonetheless feel strongly about, ranked in order from greatest in importance to least.

Josh From Knewton, Sayin' Hey.

Josh From Knewton, Sayin' Hey.

1) Grades. There’s no substitute on your college apps for a strong GPA. Colleges are looking for good students, and the best way to show that you’re a good student is, well… to get good grades. Obviously you should strive to have an impressive GPA throughout your high school career, but if you had a few slip-ups early on, don’t worry too much; colleges give more weight to your performance during your junior and senior years.

2) SAT score. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the SATs still mean something. The SAT is not an intelligence test; students’ scores can jump up to 400 points if they prepare diligently and correctly. Hence the need for a good SAT course.

3) Personal statement. This is your one shot to really introduce your personality to an admissions board. It’s like you’re running for President and you’re on national TV at the convention: You get a podium and only a few minutes to make your case to the voters. The task of organizing all the admissions essays you need to write is a notoriously difficult one, but the good folks here at College Essay Organizer provide a tremendous tool that is extremely helpful.

4) Extracurricular activities. These might have ranked higher a decade ago (before Rushmore came out), but now they’re in their rightful place at #4. The marketplace is very crowded, and you can only start so many clubs. Nevertheless, colleges really want a vibrant campus, filled with students trying and doing new things. Show focus; do a couple of things and do them well. Don’t spread yourself too thin and/or try to preen for admissions officers.

5) Teacher recommendations. The challenge here is to choose your recommenders wisely. Colleges have seen great recommendations of all shapes and sizes, and a sweet letter surely works in your favor. It is more important, however, to be cautious of a bad or— more likely—a lukewarm recommendation. In short, play it safe and ask the teachers who really seem to have taken an interest in you, instead of the aloof teacher who has a reputation for writing flowery letters.

Josh Anish is the Senior Editor at Knewton. He’s getting fired up to help students with their SAT prep.

College Application Deadlines! Procrastination Strikes!

"Seriously, baby, I can prescribe anything!"

"Seriously, baby, I can prescribe anything!"

So today is another one of those days. One of those dreaded deadline days. A big pile of schools and their January 15th deadlines celebrate the end of another college application cycle this afternoon at 5pm.

It is what it is. Time marches on. Hope you wrote the essays you had to (and no more!) and they were better than you could have ever dreamed.

But what if they weren't? What if procrastination reared its ugly head and delivered the fatal stink bomb of slapped-together awfulness that kills so many college essays to your essay? What now?

Well, take it from Dr. Nick - there's always Hollywood Upstairs Medical College.

But in all honesty this post is about letting go of those worries. We at CEO recognize the stress that goes into the application process and the problems applying to a large number of schools has created. So today's the day to let it all roll off your back and remember that what's done is done. The apps are out the door, so it's time to recognize that it's out of your hands and hope for the best.

The admissions process is a long and involved one, but it's worth it to celebrate your accomplishments from time to time and to recognize the value of the hard work that goes into it. You're making an effort to improve yourself and present yourself as capable of great things, and all that effort pays off in one way or another. Onward and upward!

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The New York Times And College Applications: More On Holistic Admissions

One in Five. Too many? I guess that depends.

One in five. Too many? I guess that depends.

The New York Times refers here to an official study showing that one in five schools these days is using an unpublicized SAT cut-off point for applicants, and one in four of those schools that require the ACT does the same. Sounds bad, right? Well, I’d argue not entirely. We ought to see this as the glass being a lot more than half full.

This study's flip side shows that the overwhelming majority of schools are keeping their analysis holistic, and are willing to look at the application in full rather than in strictly numerical terms. (Remember that many of the larger schools, for whom the essay is irrelevant or nonexistent, are likely to be the ones using these cutoffs.) This also means that the schools are giving each application time, which is what we as applicants should be most grateful for. It’s the thing that takes the most effort and the most money on the part of the schools, so their doing that kind of legwork is beneficial for us.

It also means that all that time-consuming work that they’re throwing at you actually does matter! These essays are given quality reads and given their fair due in the evaluation process. So remember that even though they are not a quick-fix solution to elevating your application from dud to stud, they most certainly can be a quick-fix solution to making your application rise to the top. Make your work stand out, and as we at CEO like to put it, you will let your life speak.

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