What is the scope?
Is it individual?
Does it reveal your character?
Is it appropriate?
Does it make sense?
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5 Ways to Tell if You Have a Good Personal Statement Topic
If you’re a real human who is reading this blog post, there’s about a 99.9999% chance that you’ve had a lifetime full of unique experiences and memories. This being said, the moment that the Common Application asks you to write a personal statement, everything interesting or worthwhile that has ever happened to you may begin to sound about as interesting as a piece of dry toast.
Fortunately, this experience is not as uncommon as it may seem. Many people have trouble with personal statements, regardless of what they have or haven’t experienced. The opportunity to write about yourself in great deal on your college applications might feel intimidating, but it’s important to keep in mind that your essay is your opportunity to show adcoms a side of you completely separate from your activities list, test scores, transcript, GPA, etc.
This post will focus on how to tell if you have a good topic for your personal statement. For more advice on college essay writing, check out “How to write the Common App Essays 2016-17.” For proofreading and personalized content help, you can also take a look at CV’s college essay editing service.
How do you know if you have a good topic?
Unless you are clairvoyant, sadly you can never know for sure exactly what adcoms will think of your essay. This being said, there are some objective questions you can ask yourself to figure out if you’re on the right track. This post will focus on five of those questions.
If you are able, it might also be helpful to purchase and read a book of successful college essays (check out “50 Successful Harvard Application Essays” from the Staff of the Harvard Crimson). Be sure to get plenty of feedback from multiple trusted readers as well, like friends, family, and teachers, but be sure you don’t compromise your own voice in the process.
Questions You Can Ask Yourself to Determine Whether or Not You Have a Good Topic
Be sure to consider the scope of your essay topic. Is is specific enough to write a focused essay on, but not so specific that it doesn’t communicate much about you as a whole?
Going too broad with your topic could mean that you end up with a generic statement that doesn’t reveal much about you. Writing about how your love of reading has allowed you to travel to other worlds, for example, is probably too common of a sentiment. Writing about how your love of reading has inspired you to write your own mystery novel that takes place in 1920s Paris, though, might be a more compelling topic.
While you definitely don’t want to be too broad, you should also stray away from being too specific, as this can work against you as well. It’s okay to write about how an initially rocky relationship with a teacher taught you to be more flexible and adaptable in the professional world, but delving into the nitty gritty details of a conversation with said teacher that redefined your approach to studying for fact-based history tests probably isn’t the best idea unless it relates directly to your larger message. In short, it is hard to communicate a lot about your personality or extrapolate to your general life principles with such specific topics.
Ask yourself if your topic is something individual and unique to you.
Some cliché college essay topics include lessons learned from your grandparents, losing a football game, or overcoming stage fright. This is not to say that these topics can’t make an interesting essay — they definitely can—but in these cases the topic itself likely won’t be enough to make the essay individual. You’ll need to add a personal element that makes your essay unique. Colleges have probably already read about the student that learned how to overcome stage fright, but they might not have heard about how part of your process of overcoming it included singing all of Grease in a public park full of strangers.
In general, you should be thinking about whether or not your topic is something that other students would be submitting an essay about. If there is even a chance that someone else might have had the same experience as you, then you should probably be thinking of elements that you can add to your essay that will make it more unique. This can include something as simple as adding some highly specific details to your essay that will bring it to life.
As we’ve mentioned, a lot of the college process is about numbers and scores and tests, but the essay is a chance for adcoms to hear your voice. Admissions officers may read hundreds or even thousands of essays per application season — you want your essay to leave a memorable impact on them. It should be able to stand out from the pile as your essay.
An effective essay should be personal and unique, and it should also display a little bit of who you are as a person. Ask yourself if it shows or explains who you are as a person. You want to avoid writing an essay that simply relays a story or brags about your various accomplishments (that’s what the activities sheet is for).
An essay about winning the election for class president might make you sound authoritative and accomplished, for example, but it doesn’t really show anything in terms of personal growth. It might even be more compelling to write about how losing the election for class president taught you how to cope with disappointment and motivated you to run for treasurer, a position you were more qualified for, the following year.
Be sure that your topic is appropriate. If you’re at all in doubt about a topic being potentially offensive, it’s probably a good idea to take a second look at it.
It should go without saying that an essay that puts down or makes fun of any group due to their ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or gender is not okay. A good rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t show your college essay to your grandma, then it’s probably not okay. And it’s probably a good idea to consult a bunch of different readers before submitting your essay, too—after all, the last thing you would want is for your application to be taken out of the running because your words were misinterpreted.
For reference, you can take a look at this post about Controversial Extracurriculars and Your College Applications (see also: “Can I Talk About Politics on my College Applications?”). When it comes to essays, though, when in doubt, be sure to ask someone else to read it. In general, your writing will always benefit from multiple points of view, and in the case of college essays, this input may mean the difference between an effective, tasteful essay and one that could be easily misinterpreted as offensive.
Lastly, ask yourself if your essay topic is cohesive with the rest of your application. When you consider it alongside your extracurriculars, work experience, high school transcript, potential major, etc., does it present an accurate picture of your personality, interests, and goals?
Essays that come out of left field can sometimes be confusing. This isn’t always a negative thing, so long as you are mindful. If you’re hoping to go to school for biology and all of your extracurriculars are STEM related, then it might not be expected that you would write your college essay about your love of ceramics. Again, this isn’t a bad thing — just be sure to explain how your experiences in the art world have informed your love of cellular biology. Adcoms love to see applicants with interdisciplinary interests that can intersect to create something new and innovative. If this is who you are, then don’t be afraid to show it in your essay!
College essays can stress out even the most accomplished future English and creative writing majors, so don’t panic if you feel like every topic you can think of falls flat. A final piece of advice on this subject might be to think about a 1-2 sentence takeaway that you’d want a reader to get from your essay. Keep this in mind throughout the whole process—when picking your topic and writing your essay, and even when editing. Check in with yourself periodically and ask if you think that a reader would be reaching the conclusion from your essay that you’d want them to. Don’t be afraid to revise as many times as you need to! Though it may feel frustrating now, there is nothing more satisfying that submitting a personal statement that you are truly proud of and that demonstrates who you are.
For more information on personal statements and essay writing, check out these blog posts:
You can also take a look at CollegeVine’s Application Guidance Service. This program will match you with an advisor to help you throughout the entire college application process. They will help you select the schools you’d like to apply to and will offer you guidance with applications, essay writing, branding, and even interview prep! Take a look at the program here.