Dos and Don'ts of Choosing a Topic for Your Personal Statement

You have six choices of topics for the personal statement on the Common Application, including “topic of your choice.”  So what do you choose as the topic?  Having read thousands of personal statements over the years, I want to offer some dos and don’ts about topic selection based on my experience as an admissions officer:

1)   Do choose a topic that allows you to highlight something about you that I wouldn’t know otherwise. 

All too often you choose to tell me something that is already obvious.  If you’ve listed “Grammy Award Winner” on your activities list, I probably don’t need an essay that describes how exciting it was to win or how much music means to you.  I get it.  Okay, so probably you weren’t awarded a Grammy, but the same thing applies to your retelling of the district championship basketball game, the day your team won Science Bowl, etc. 

2)   Do choose a topic that actually gives you something to say. 

If you’ve spent every spare minute on environmental activism, then by all means choose the topic that allows you to talk about an “issue of personal, local, national, or international concern.”  But if you aren’t the political/activist/change agent type, this is not the topic for you.  You can’t fake having something to say.

3)   Do choose a topic that invites you to recount a story. 

It is often very hard for students to make the transition from the 5 paragraph academic essay to a personal essay.  But if you are telling a story, you’ll find it easy.  A story has a beginning, a middle and an end, not an introduction with a thesis, 3 supporting points, and a conclusion.  So you’ll write a much better essay about conquering fear if you choose the topic that invites you to tell about “a risk you have taken” and “its impact on you” and you recount the story of going skydiving for your 16th birthday, then if you write a version of the standard 5 paragraph essay starting with the overworked FDR quote about the “only thing we have to fear….”

4)   Don’t choose a topic that reveals or even hints at your inner crazy, your inner rageaholic, or your inner paranoid. 

Sometimes in a student’s quest for the “unique” answer or in a student’s earnest attempt to be “completely honest,” things go way wrong.  So, for example, writing your essay about why Lee Harvey Oswald is “an historical figure who has had a profound influence on you” is simply not a good idea: no admissions officer will be persuaded that you are just who the class needs. 

5)   Don’t choose a topic that encourages you to write in boring platitudes or, maybe worse, hyperbolic flourishes. 

Students can easily fall off the bad prose cliff simply because they choose the wrong topic.  If the point of your essay can be summarized by a quote on a greeting card, then you’ll end up writing boring platitudes.  So please just avoid that hazard by declining to write about how you learned to “appreciate what you have” on your community service venture to Africa.  And you’ll end up with hyperbolic flourishes when you choose a topic that lets your creative genius run wild.  Don’t write about a Shakespeare sonnet that changed your life when your first true love recited it to you on prom night.  You’ll end up trying to be Shakespeare yourself, or you’ll add three exclamation points at the end of the paragraph. It won’t be your finest essay.  Promise.

6)   Don’t choose a topic that is a “non-topic.” 

Yes I’m aware that non-topic is not a word, but I had to invent it in order to convey my point.  What is a non-topic?  In this context, it is the antonym for topic.  And so a non-topical essay is one that doesn’t really have a topic.  Instead, it is an essay that the student writes in what you perceive as a clever dodge or witty, wildly original, prose. By far, the favorite non-topical essay is the classic essay about how hard it is to choose a topic for your admissions essay.  A close second in this category would be an essay in which you wax eloquently and humorously on all the attributes and accomplishments you wish you had because they would surely get you in.  Believe me these essays have been done to death.  You won’t write one that beats those that have been written over the years.  So give it up and actually bother to write an essay that has a topic.  It won’t kill you and it will definitely improve your odds of admission more than the non-topic essay will.

7)   FINALLY AND MOST IMPORTANTLY – do remember that there is really only ONE topic of the personal statement and that is YOU. 

Whatever topic you choose, make sure you choose a topic with this critical reality in mind.  Be sure that YOU are the star of the essay – not the experience, not the issue, not the influential person, not the memento, not the lesson, not the value – but YOU. 

Comments or Questions?

Wondering if you've picked the right topic for your personal statement?  Post and we'll offer our candid assessment. 

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (most recently at Dartmouth College). She works with students and families throughout the U.S. and abroad.  Follow Alison on Twitter (@IveyCollege)