Just as no two people are the same, no personal essays should ever be the same, but choosing a topic can still be a challenge. Here are some general guidelines and rules from the experts at College Prep 360 that make for good topic selection.
1. Avoid “overdone” topics
One of the reasons that it is so helpful to work with experts who have actually read college applications is that they have the mileage to let you know which topics students commonly choose. The worst offenders include sports, community service, travel, grandparents, injuries, camp or what my bedroom says about me. No topic is off limits but choosing one that is overdone may put you at risk of being put in the “Like Many Others” category that everyone wants to avoid. These topics make it harder to stand out—or may result in an essay that isn’t about YOU, per se, but your grandparents, who aren’t applying to college.
2. Colleges want to see that you’re smart so it never hurts to lead with something academic or cultural.
What happens if all the things you want to write about—sports, travel, service work, etc.—fall under the “common topics” category? The good news is that you can elevate these topics by finding interesting links to academic or cultural topics. For example, the injured athlete who can no longer play might write her essay about the admiring the photographer Cindy Sherman’s exploration of multiple identities while reframing her injury as an opportunity to explore new identities.
Search out articles, museum exhibits, documentary films and books that might be relevant to your topic. Finding ways to link your story to a piece of art, a book, a mathematical concept, the Constitution or the laws of physics provides a fresh, unexpected point of view that will wow an admissions officer. Plus, finding interesting ideas to which you can connect your own stories is another way for you to grow and learn through this application process. It’s a win-win as far as we are concerned.
3. Write first, worry about the topic second.
The good news is that the Common Application questions are so broad that they can be literally about anything; most supplementary essay questions are also incredibly broad. So your first step is to figure out what you want to say and then find a way to make sure that you are addressing the question. College admissions counselors just want to read the best material. There are no extra points for choosing an obscure question or topic.
4. Avoid the kitchen sink trap….
Pick one meaningful topic and develop it with examples from your life. Don’t try to cram everything but the kitchen sink into 650 words! It’s simply impossible to talk about all you’ve done in this limited space. Find ONE theme—preferable something smart, meaningful and unexpected—and then bring in things from your life that support this theme.
…But also know that the Common Application personal essay should be about more than the topic at hand.
Some colleges have no supplements so your Common Application personal essay may be the only piece of writing a college receives. You want to show as much of yourself as you possibly can. If you’re writing about a research project you did, take it out of the lab and show us how you applied these lessons in other areas. If you write about a cause or issue that you care about, it’s important to show how you have tried to have an impact in this area. This is how the personal statement goes from being about a topic to being about YOU.
If you are struggling with an essay or any part of the college application process, give us a call and found out how we can help you today!