What Should You Never Write About On Your Admission Essay?

The following 2 admission essays were submitted to highly selective universities.


Essay 1: Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.


I inch silently towards the bed, forcing each step forward. White cloth slowly replaces the tile floors. I look up. My grandfather’s eyes meet mine. They are dull and scattered, drowning me, taking breath out of my body and rhythm away from my heart. I cannot swallow.

His cheeks have sunk in. New creases are etched across his face. As I trace them, I feel an itching inside my chest. I kneel down beside him. My head is ringing. His hand appears from under the covers.

His veins are a sickly shade of purple, twisting around underneath his translucent skin. I place my elbows on the bed and cup my hands around his, cradling it to my chin. His hand feels like warm parchment. I don’t let go.

A scratch leaves his throats, then another. I return my gaze to him and tighten my lips, leaning in closer. Pain flashes over his face, twitching as his mouth fights to form words.

“I’m sorry.”

A drop falls from my face onto the bedsheet. I pull one hand away to brush it aside, but more follow. My stomach is twisting, twisting and twisting around itself. His hand begins to shake. His eyes begin to water. We both knew that this would be our last moment together.


I slip my hands into the soft, silk gloves. They are snow white, and an inch too long on every finger. I kneel beside my grandfather, heart dancing as he takes down one out of the hundreds of dark leather binders lining the bookshelf. He leads me to the couch, easing into a comfortable position as I scooch next to him.

He opens the binder. I peer in over his elbow. Inside are stacks of thick paper sleeves, each lined with row after row of stamps. Vibrant faces and swirling colors catch my eye, dragging me into the pages. The spell breaks as my grandfather begins to flip through.

I watch him as he moves through his collection. A smile drifts onto his face. A chuckle rolls out with a toothy grin. His eyes are rich with memories, softening as they soak up every joy he rediscovers. As his emotions pour into me, I wonder if I will ever prize something as much.

He closes the binder, laying his hand over the cover. He turns his head, eyes glowing even brighter as he holds the binder out to me.

“Someday, when you’re older, these will all be yours. Every last one.”
I take the binder from him, fumbling as the weight distributes in my hands. I hold it tight, afraid to damage it.

As I bring the binder into my chest, he brings me into his,
And I can’t help myself from believing that
He would be there
For me


As time passes, memories trickle away, sucking out the detail from every frame. We are left with husks to treasure, emotions in their purest forms. When a person you love passes away, it isn’t the helplessness that drains you. It is the fear of forgetting.

But I will not forget my grandfather. He is still here.

I can see him through the gifts he has left.
I hear his laughter in my own.
I feel his warmth in every step I take, reminding me, I am not alone.

As I sit in front of my desk, chair reclined, eyes closed, images surface from the dark. They melt together in front of me, a creamy mixture flowing freely through my mind. I watch as it sinks into me. I feel it as it wraps around my heart.

I open my eyes to the blank sheet of paper in front of me. I pick up my pen.

And I write.
I write to remember.
I write to capture what we had.
I write to you, for you, for us.


Orphanage in China

Essay 2: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

My knees are tucked in tight, arms wrapped around them as I lay groaning on the floor. A tsunami is crashing around inside my body. Only a few drops of sweat escape me. What seemed like an eternity ago, someone had ripped out my stomach and flipped it inside out, tenderizing it for a good half hour before putting it back in. Through quick gasps, I spot my attacker walking closer to me, looming over my twitching body. Even with tears blurring my vision, I can see his mischievous grin. His fist is raised to strike again.

Luke is an orphan at Shepherd’s Field Children’s Village in Tianjin, China. Three years ago, the first time we met, he was six years old.

He sucker-punched my nuts.

He’s always been waiting. Every year, he watches other kids run up to their adopted families, carried away to a new life, a permanent home. When they leave, he stands by the gates, waving goodbye to his closest friends as they disappear.

The lazy afternoon sun coats us in its rays; the grass and trees are settling into their roots, preparing for sunset. Luke clasps my hand. He stares at the ground in front of him, unsmiling. As we shuffle along the curving path, his housing quarter takes form in the distance. I try to talk to him. He ignores me.

Along the way we pass the orphanage’s playground. Luke slows down, looking longingly towards the swings. I push him forward gently. I’m not supposed to take children to the playground at this hour. He drops his gaze once more. My heart twitches as guilt begins to weave its way in. I hold his hand tighter.

At the end of the playground, I sigh. I bend down and tickle Luke, plucking him off the ground as he begins to contract and giggle. He squirms in my arms for a few seconds, playfully pounding against my chest as I march us to the swings. As he smiles up at me, laughing, his eyes shimmer with joy.

That was two years ago. Luke was seven.

That’s when I started looking for ways to make him just as happy every day.

Luke’s biological mother and father abandoned him at the doorsteps of an orphanage, leaving him no papers or name. In China, Luke can never be adopted. He has been forced to bear the mistakes of an overly bureaucratic nation.
He was never given a chance.

I sit outside on the bench, watching Luke as he cruises around on his scooter. A pressure has built up in my chest, thinning out my breath. Luke waves to me as he passes. I wave back. When he looks away, I lower my hand, clenched in a fist.

Three years ago, Luke punched his way into my life.

Two years ago, Luke led me into his.

Now, as I watch him from afar, I can’t stop myself from worrying. I think about his future, about the life he lives while I’m away. I think about how much I’d give for him to have a chance at the life he deserves, the chance that others, no different from him, received.

Luke rides up to me. He lays the scooter in the grass, joining me on the bench. I put my arm behind him. He leans into me. The pressure in my chest subsides.

His name is Luke. He is eight years old and four feet tall.
He is more than what the world has given him.
He is family.

Next summer will be my fourth year interning at Shepherd’s Field. Luke will be there waiting for me. When I am with him, I don’t feel so helpless, but I know that the ache inside me will not subside until something changes. I will find a way to change the system, a way to help Luke. That is what family is for.



Rate each of these essays from 1–5 with 5 being the highest rating. What ratings did you give and why?

Did the same person write these essays? Do they each have a voice that is unique? Defend your answer.

What 3 words would you use to describe the writer’s character in each of these essays? Should schools evaluate character based on essays? If not essays how should colleges evaluate character?

As the title of the report released by Harvard Graduate School of education this past January:Turning the Tide Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions, there is concern among the most selective colleges and universities that there is too much emphasis on developing the individual and not enough on encouraging students to help the community they are a part of. The report suggests that less emphasis be given in admission on numbers (test scores, AP class total etc. and more emphasis on character and commitment to community. Virtually all the most selective schools have signed on to this document. Does the writer of these essays ‘prove” commitment to community?

What can you tell about the background of the writer(s )of these essays? Should gender, race, ethnicity and economic background be a part of what readers use to help define character? Does someone who has overcome hardship of some kind demonstrate the kind of character that should be given more attention in admission? What kind of hardship?

Are some essay topics to be avoided? If so, which ones?

There are many in education who advise student not to write about certain topics. The common wisdom is that these topics do not permit students to come across in ways that will help admission officers to advocate for their admission. One article cites 7 topics to avoid. Here are 2 of them:

1. A service project shows your passion for helping others.

“Many students choose to write about their participation in a community service project or a church mission trip,” says Marie Schofer, director of admission at Cornell College. “These are fantastic experiences that are personally meaningful and reflect on your character. The only problem: Regardless of where you traveled or what type of service you performed, the conclusion is always the same. You like to help people. This is great,” she explains, “but unfortunately, it won’t differentiate you from other applications.”

7. Talking about your role model.

“The challenge with this topic is that we often see essays written about the parent, grandparent, teacher, or coach,” says Curtis-Bailey, adding that “most of these essays are written solely about the ‘other person’ with no reference to the student.” She suggests avoiding this topic if you “are unable to show the connection of how the traits and characteristics of that individual are similar or even a model of tangible action that [you desire to take] or have taken.”

“While it might be true that a grandparent has been of great influence to the applicant,” Nichols points out that “this essay has been written hundreds of times over. When you’re competing against hundreds of other students who have submitted the same answer to the prompt,” he says, “it becomes more difficult to make your essay distinctive and to really stand out.”

Given the advice that many give about avoiding topics like service trips or essays about grandfathers would you assume that the chances of getting in to schools like the Ivies would be much more difficult for those who chose these topics? Is this fair? Why or why not?

As a parent would you support your son or daughter to do service work in an orphanage the way this writer did? Why or why not?

Would you change your mind after reading this article? Gap year students cause more harm than good as top university calls for orphanage visits to stop

Are the other forms of service that educators might not consider as useful to the people they are meant to serve or to the students themselves? Should schools do more to inform students what kind of service they value?

Why or why not?

Does valuable community service work primarily mean doing work in one’s own neighborhood, or state or country?

Would you care to guess the name of the college or university the writer(s) of these essays will attend? Hint: it begins with a P

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