I’ve met all kinds of students over my years as a college essay tutor in NYC, but there has been one thing that almost all of them had in common: the hardest part of writing their college admissions essay was picking a topic. And there’s nothing wrong with that! Staring at a blinking cursor wondering how on earth you should represent yourself in 650 words or fewer can be absolutely paralyzing. Either you can’t choose which story to build your essay around, or you can’t think of a story at all! So today, I’d like to introduce some of the methods that have helped my college application coaching students make a productive dent in the blank page.
The Common Application gives you five prompts to choose from, which leaves it up to you to determine the best topic for your personal statement. But when you begin to brainstorm topics for your essay, start by ignoring those questions. The first question I want you to ask yourself is:
In other words, what will I bring to the college campus? The admissions committee already has your transcript and your test scores. They know what clubs you were in and what sports you played. This is your chance to show the committee a different side of yourself.
This isn’t the place for artifice or for writing what you think they want to hear. Doing so will result in a generic essay that reveals nothing of interest about you—they read thirty thousand essays per year; believe me, they know when you’re just telling them what you think they want to hear, and they don’t want to hear it. This is the place for something more difficult: self-reflection. Sit down and ask yourself what makes you special.
A few more questions to ask yourself as you begin brainstorming:
- What are you more passionate about than anything else in the world?
- What life events have shaped your ambition, attitude, focus, and curiosity?
- What are you intellectually curious about? What have you done to pursue these interests in the past? What do you hope to do to pursue them in the future?
- What real hardships have you overcome to get where you are today, and what have you learned through the process of overcoming these hardships? I put emphasis on the word real, because tales of woe about minor misfortune such as a bad grade on a single test or a poorly timed cold rarely form the basis of a successful essay.
- What have you accomplished or experienced that makes you different from other candidates?
- What characteristics make you unique?
- Is there anything in your academic record that needs to be explained? In rare cases, if extenuating circumstances (such as illness or family emergency) caused a dip in your grades for a semester or two, you may want to attach a separate short essay to your application explaining those circumstances. Do not use the personal essay for this; that essay is all about showing you at your best. Overall, this approach should be used rarely and cautiously, however, because if poorly executed or inappropriately used, it can seem like you are making excuses for yourself.
Picking Just One
Once you begin to brainstorm in earnest, you may realize that there are a million things you want to talk about. The best essays, however, opt for depth rather than breadth. The next step is to whittle down your brainstorm to select a single topic. The consensus among essay writing tutors is that if you are applying to a school that allows you to write multiple essays, chose topics that complement one another to reveal a fuller picture of yourself. In other words, don’t write about the same thing twice.
As you begin to whittle down your options to find your final topic, consider the following DON’Ts to help you rule out topics:
- Don’t be negative. An admissions officer is looking for someone who will contribute not only to the academic community but also to the social community on campus. If you use your personal statement to complain or to insult, no matter how warranted your complaints or insults might be, this may make you seem like a negative person.
- Don’t reproduce your resume or transcript. The admissions committee already knows about your good grades and high test scores. They already have a list of your extracurriculars. Don’t use your personal statement to brag about these things unless the prompt specifically asks for them.
- Don’t ignore the prompt. You often have a wide range of prompts to choose from, so you have a lot of latitude in choosing a topic that suites you. However, it must directly answer one of the prompts. There used to be a “topic of choice” option on the Common App; it was removed for a reason. They put a lot of work into designing those questions, so answer them! If it takes you five minutes to explain the roundabout way your topic kind of sort of relates to one of the prompts, it is probably a poor choice.
Your personal statement is a valuable opportunity to show the admissions committee who you are and what makes you tick. The best essays are honest and passionate, so be real, be truthful, and choose your topic wisely. And if you’re still having trouble, consider giving Cambridge Coaching a call. We offer expert college application consulting and essay writing tutoring in New York, Boston, and online. Give us a call today and get a jump on the competition!
For more relevant reading from our essay writing tutors, check out these other blog posts]: How Do I Start My Personal Statement?, How to Make Your List of Schools, 4 Things You Need to Know about the Waitlist.