Why Essays Are Boring

The college essay is tough. It’s not writing it that’s the hard part – it’s deciding what to write about that can be difficult. What’s most curious about the college essay is that many of the topics on this list (those that should be avoided) also happen to be some of the most commonly used topics out there.

But, why? Why are students writing about boring, tired out subjects?

A lack of creativity? Certainly not! Students know how to be creative.

A lack of gumption? Doubtful – many students even take it upon themselves to create their own version of an anti-essay (see number seven on the list).

For many students, the issue is the narrative, which begins at the essay’s focus: the topic.

For example:

A boring essay details a summary of Joe’s mission trip to Guatemala, where he volunteered at a local school with his family.

A great essay details Joe’s experience during his mission trip to Guatemala, where he volunteered at a local school with his family. It was there he met Anita, a local elderly woman who wanted to learn how to read but came from a poor family so she never had the opportunity. Joe and Anita developed a friendship…

See, you want to read more of the story, right? But, the first essay example didn’t make you want to continue reading on to learn any more details. That’s the difference.

You may think you know what you’re going to write your college admissions essay about but, before you do, read this list to learn what topics you should avoid and why.

1. A Summary of Your Accomplishments
College essays are similar to life and, in life, nobody likes a braggart. These topics are broad, unfocused and make a boring read.

You may have accomplished a lot, but let your essay speak by allowing the reader to get to know you as a person through your experiences – not through you telling them how accomplished you are.

After reading your essay, a person should be able to come up with their own assessment of you – people don’t like to be told how to think.

2. Highly Polarized or Sensitive Topics
The key topics to avoid here are the same as those at the Thanksgiving table: politics and religion.

Avoid preaching about sensitive topics, no matter how passionate you are about a particular one. You never know who is going to be reading your admissions essay and the goal at hand is to gain admission into college.

3. Sports
The sports essay is predictable and should be avoided, if possible. Everyone knows how an athletic story will play out, regardless of the story or the sport. Find another topic that is unique and hasn’t been covered a million times over.

Admissions officers have heard enough about “the thrill of victory” and “the agony of defeat” in relation to high school athletics and they are sick and tired of pretending to care.

4. Humor
Stop trying to be so funny. You may have a story in your essay that’s funny and that’s okay – but that’s different. Make sure you’re funny for a reason and not just funny because you’re attempting to be. If it comes out naturally in your essay, great. If it doesn’t, then don’t force it. Admissions officers will see the futile attempt – and likely not find it amusing.

5. Why You’re SO Lucky
We get it. You’re privileged and you appreciate it, which is great. However, discussing it doesn’t make for a great essay. It’s actually super boring and, perhaps, may cause some eyes to roll.

Avoid this topic at all costs unless you’re starting with that followed up with some along the lines of, “…so I decided to leave my cushy private school to switch places at a public high school in Detroit with an inner-city teen and this is what happened.” Now THAT would make for an interesting essay.

6. Volunteer Experiences & Trips
This may be one of the most popular essay topics out there…and it’s also one of the most boring clichés around. Nobody needs a summary of your vacation – people know what happens on mission trips and during volunteer hours.

While you should feel free to mention a great experience or trip, but your entire essay should not talk about your one experience volunteering during a mission trip in Costa Rica.

If you do want to bring up these topics, try to think of something interesting or unexpected that happened during your trip.

Did a particular person or experience have an impact on you? Specific happenings can make great topics – try to think of something unusual and craft your essay around that experience, instead. (See example within the opening of this article.)

7. Self-Expression

So, you’re creative, smart and so over this whole essay thing. You’re not going to be put inside a box with a regular essay; you’re going to do your own thing. You’re going to whatever you feel like writing. Some of the best and brightest students do this: basically, they create the anti-essay.

Fine, but be prepared to write whatever you feel like writing from a college that may not be your first choice.

Whether it’s a poem, a random stream of thoughts, sarcasm, or some other form of writing in order to feel more creative, it’s not always the best idea. Before you do this, remember one thing: the sole purpose of your college essay is to get into college. You can show off later.

8. Illegal or Illicit Behavior
Drug and alcohol use, sex, arrests and/or jail time are topics that you should steer clear of, even if they are life issues you’ve worked through.

You would not want your judgment to be called into question for the decisions you’ve made (even if they are in the past) or for making the decision to write about the decisions you’ve made. Either way, it’s risky business to go this route and is not recommended.

9. The Most Important [Person, Place, Thing] in My Life
Read this aloud. Doesn’t this topic sound like an assignment that a second or third grader would write about? It really does and, if a child can handle it, it probably won’t gain you a lot of points with college admissions officers.

10. Tragedies
Topics like death and divorce are cautionary because they can be extremely difficult to write about.

While these topics are tough, if you feel passionately that a particular tragedy impacted your life significantly and you do want to write about it, try to keep the essay’s focus on you.

Think about your feelings regarding the situation, how it affected you and what you learned from the experience rather than just simply recalling the situation or the person you lost.

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This article is part of a package on creativity. For more, read "The Future of Creativity," "Bright Ideas from Baltimore’s Citizens," "The Creativity Conceit," "Art + Science= Inspiration," and "Putting the Arts Back into the Arts."

The essay is in a bad way. It’s not because essayists have gotten stupider. It’s not because they’ve gotten sloppier. And it is certainly not because they’ve become less anthologized. More anthologies are published now than there have been in decades, indeed in centuries. The Best American Essays series, which began in 1986, has reached 20 volumes. The problem is that anthologies end up in the basements of our local libraries, where they sit until they are released gratis to used-book stores that, in turn, will sell them for a buck apiece to college students who’ll place them next to their dorm beds and dump them in an end-of-semester clean-out.

Is it our fault? Are we, as readers, responsible for the decline of the American essay? Have we become lazier, less interested, less educated? Attention spans, to be sure, have shortened. Gone are the days when people pored languorously over periodicals during transatlantic crossings. But this is not the reason why essay collections gather dust and why essayists so often count themselves “second-class citizens” (in the words of E.B. White). If the genre is neglected in our day, it is first and foremost because its authors have lost their nerve. It is because essayists—and their editors, their anthologists, and the tastemakers on whom they depend—have lost the courage to address large subjects in a large way.

“The essayist is at his most profound when his intentions are most modest,” declares Joseph Epstein, the editor of The Norton Book of Personal Essays and the author of at least a dozen books of autobiographical essays. The essay is a “miniaturist” genre, intones another anthologist; it is “in love with littleness.” Sound ingratiating? Sweet? Self-deprecating? It is. It is also eye-crossingly dull. The essay that is considered “literature” in our day is not an ambitious or impassioned (if sometimes foolhardy) analysis of human nature. It is not an argument, or a polemic. It is not a gun-blazing attack on a social trend, a film, a book, or a library of books. Those sorts of pieces, sniff the anthologists, are mere journalism.

The essay they prefer has a distinctive tone, which Epstein has called “middle-aged.” I’m not an age-essentialist, but Epstein is, and what he means by “middle-aged” is clearly quiet. Slow-moving. Soft-hitting. Nostalgic. Self-satisfied. It’s the tone he perfects in his signature essay, “The Art of the Nap.” The tone other writers use when they reminisce rather aimlessly about their trout-fishing expeditions as a child; the drugstore on their block; the New Year’s party they spent watching television with family and friends. “It’s only 11 o’clock,” Alan Lightman informs us in the keynote essay of the Best American Essays 2000, “but I am a morning person and already drowsy. I nod and sink into a chair. To wake myself up, I drink some tart apple cider. . . . ” Hundreds of words later Mr. Lightman is still “half-sleeping against a wall”—and so are his readers. It was one lame night then, and it’s one lame night now. It does not improve in the retelling.

Gentle is how the Best American Essays 2006 guest editor, Lauren Slater, characterizes the essay she prefers. It must not, she tells us squarely, have “too much tooth.” Its author may be (and usually is) “narcissistic . . . but in a harmless way” (my italics). The essay’s “core,” she intones, should be “gentleness.” Given the choice to publish a provocative polemic or a navel-examining indulgence of private nostalgia, a haymaker from a literary heavyweight or an unbearably light appreciation of the author’s slippers, editors today will invariably choose the latter.

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Although Michel de Montaigne, who fathered the modern essay in the 16th century, wrote autobiographically (like the essayists who claim to be his followers today), his autobiography was always in the service of larger existential discoveries. He was forever on the lookout for life lessons. If he recounted the sauces he had for dinner and the stones that weighted his kidney, it was to find an element of truth that we could put in our pockets and carry away. After all, his essays were about learning to live, as were those written by his idols Seneca and Cicero.

And here lies the problem with essayists today: not that they speak of themselves, but that they do so with no effort to make their experience relevant or useful to anyone else, with no effort to extract from it any generalizeable insight into the human condition.

The problem, of course, is not merely our essayists; it’s our culture. We have grown terribly—if somewhat hypocritically—weary of larger truths. The smarter and more intellectual we count ourselves, the more adamantly we insist that there is no such thing as truth, no such thing as general human experience, that everything is plural and relative and therefore undiscussable.

Of course, everything is plural, everything is arguable, and there are limits to what we can know about other persons, other cultures, other genders. But there is also a limit to such humility; there is a point at which it becomes narcissism of a most myopic sort, a simple excuse to talk only about one’s own case, only about one’s own small area of specialization. Montaigne thought it the essayist’s duty to cross boundaries, to write not as a specialist (even in himself) but as a generalist, to speak out of turn, to assume, to presume, to provoke.

“Where I have least know­ledge,” said the blithe Montaigne, “there do I use my judgment most readily.” And how salutary the result; how enjoyable to read—and to spar with—Montaigne’s by turns outrageous and incisive conclusions about humankind. That everything is arguable goes right to the heart of the matter.

“The next best thing to a good sermon is a bad sermon,” said Montaigne’s follower and admirer Ralph Waldo Emerson, the first American essayist. In a good sermon we hear our own discarded thoughts brought “back to us by the trumpets of the last judgment,” in the words of Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” In a bad sermon we formulate those thoughts ourselves—through the practice of creative disagreement. If an author tells us “love is nothing but jealousy” and we disagree, it is far more likely that we will come up with our own theory of love than if we hear a simple autobiographical account of the author’s life. It is hard to argue with someone’s childhood memory—and probably inadvisable. It is with ideas that we can argue, with ideas that we can engage.

Seneca and Montaigne were middle-aged when they wrote their passionate essays; America’s greats—Emerson and Thoreau—were in their early 30s. But none of them sounded “middle-aged” in the sense of Joseph Epstein. They all grappled with life, fought for solutions, fought for—yes—truths. We have no less need for truths and lessons and theories now than we did then, but today we leave the positing of them to televangelists and to tawdry self-help authors (10 Ways to Be Happy) and sports coaches.

Today’s essayists need to be emboldened, and to embolden one another, to move away from timid autobiographical anecdote and to embrace—as their predecessors did—big theories, useful verities, daring pronouncements. We need to destigmatize generalization, aphorism, and what used to be called wisdom. We must rehabilitate the notion of truth—however provisional it might be. As long as writers with intellectual aspirations are counted idiots for attempting to formulate a wider point, they will not do so, and even if they dared, most editors would not publish them and most critics would not praise them.

Take the case of Laura Kipnis and her recent volume, The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability (Pantheon, 2006). While there is a great deal for which this book can be faulted, it has been attacked not for the dearth of its author’s talent so much as for the breadth of her ambition. It is the size of her topics that gives her highbrow critics pause: “What is dirt?” Kipnis asks, in a book in which she attempts to explore “the female psyche.” Her New York Times reviewer responds disdainfully, “Which raises the question: Who is Laura Kipnis?”

In other words, how dare she ask such questions? Well, Seneca would have said, how dare she not? Life is short. It is a disgraceful thing that a man “should have a wisdom deriving solely from his notebook. . . . Assume authority yourself and utter something that may be handed down to posterity.” This is what Kipnis tries to do, and she should be saluted for it, not mocked. Her shortcomings lie elsewhere. But the territory she marks out for herself and the boldness with which she sprints into it are cause for gratitude. It is what all essayists should do.

Cristina Nehring writes regularly for several publications, including the Atlantic, Harper’s, and the London Review of Books. She is the author of A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the 21st Century, to be published by HarperCollins in 2008. This piece originally was published in Truthdig (Nov. 29, 2007), a progressive online journal that goes “beneath the headlines” to deliver in-depth news and opinion; www.truthdig.com.


image by Adam Larson

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