Ivy League Admission Tips: Topics to Avoid in the Personal Essay

The personal essay is one of the most important components of the Common Application—it gives you a chance to show the admissions officers who you are and how you will add value to their schools. Your personal essay should tie in with your overarching admissions theme and narrative, showcasing your unique story.

Certain content, however, is generally inappropriate for a college admissions essay. And some kinds of content, such as misrepresentations of the truth, are simply unacceptable.

The following 10 kinds of content are usually inappropriate for the personal essay. Still, depending on your unique circumstances, it may be appropriate for you to write about some of the content that appears on this list—be sure to use your good judgment.

General Biographical Content

Since the rest of your application contains the biographical information required by the admissions officers, the personal essay should not be a regurgitation of your résumé. Any biographical information in your personal essay should be presented in narrative form, not as a description of what you have accomplished.

The more narrowly focused your essay is on a specific experience or series of events, the easier it will be to avoid writing generalized biographical content.

Outstanding Assignments

Your personal essay should not contain a classroom assignment you are particularly proud of. If a research paper, literary analysis, or some other writing assignment fits your theme and narrative and is truly exceptional, it should be submitted as supplemental material to the appropriate college department.

Minor Health Problems

If you have faced a serious illness, you might draw on that experience when drafting the personal essay. But you should be careful not to trivialize health problems by writing about a mild illness or condition; exaggerating a minor illness into a life-altering experience may strike admissions officers as immature or even dishonest. Write about a non-life-threatening illness only if it is a key part of your narrative.


Your personal essay should have an overall positive tone and should not come across as complaining or pessimistic. Of course, you can still write about problems, difficulties, or circumstances that you believe to be wrong or unjust; instead of complaining about those unwanted circumstances, you should address them with maturity and insight.

Lies and Misrepresentations

Your application, including everything in your essay, must be truthful. In the essay, however, being honest means more than simply portraying the facts and events accurately: your personal essay should be an honest reflection of who you are. Feigning interest in a subject, exaggerating your abilities, or hiding behind pretense is unethical and likely to be discovered.

Disrespect and Bias

Top colleges value strong convictions and passion, but they don’t tolerate disrespect, bias, intolerance, and bigotry. If writing about a firmly held belief, you should take care to avoid coming across as inflexible and closed-minded—after all, college is about learning from others, sharing insights, and broadening perspectives. Open-mindedness is a virtue.

Deeply ingrained biases have a way of working their way out in writing—even unconsciously. You should carefully check your essay for racism, sexism, politically charged language, use of stereotypes, disrespectful statements, profanity, and vulgarity.

If your essay relates to community service, missions work, people from underserved or underprivileged backgrounds, or people from other cultures, you should be especially careful to write in a thoughtful and compassionate way.

Illegal Activities

You should not write about any illegal activities in which you have engaged. Writing about pranks or ethically questionable actions is also unadvisable. Depending on your narrative, however, an essay related to illegal activity may be totally appropriate. For example, if you plan on studying criminology, a compelling essay might focus on an experience that piqued your interest in that subject.

Keeping these Ivy League admission tips in mind as you write your personal essay will allow you to focus on compelling, relevant content and avoid portraying yourself in a negative light. Even though it can do much to impress the admissions officers, the personal essay is just one of the elements of a successful college admissions profile. Ivy League Prep can guide you throughout each step of the admissions process and help you impress the admissions officers of your target schools.