The importance of the personal statement can hardly be understated – the perfect personal statement can mean the difference between an acceptance, a rejection, or a waitlist letter. Frustratingly, for all its significance, the personal statement is notoriously tricky to master.

A great personal statement is meant to be an exploration of what motivates a student. However, it’s difficult to distill your deepest passions and most significant experiences into a 650-word essay. How are you supposed to choose what topic to write on?

Thankfully, we at Admissions Hero have your back. Read on for our tips on how to choose the perfect subject for your personal statement.

What’s the Point of the Personal Statement?

Before we share our advice on how to choose a topic for a personal statement, we first want to address what purpose a personal statement serves in the context of your application.

Holistic admissions seek to consider not only tangible accomplishments, such as grades and accolades, but also the character of applicants. Are they truly dedicated to their passions? Do they actively seek to contribute to their community? Do they possess a genuine spirit of intellectual curiosity?

All these questions and more may factor significantly into an adcom’s final decision on an applicant, but they can’t easily be answered by test scores or extracurricular activities. That’s where the personal statement comes in.

A personal statement serves a dual purpose: not only does it allow a student to demonstrate their writing ability (which can be the most important skill you’ll need for success in college and your career) but it also communicates some aspect of the student’s life, be it their passion for a certain sport or activity, the adversity they’ve faced, or a unique perspective that allowed them to thrive in high school.

The aptly-named personal statement is intended to portray a side to the applicant that isn’t reflected elsewhere in the application. Accordingly, a safe, run-of-the-mill personal statement is unlikely to wow an admissions committee, while a creative and bold personal statement that allows adcoms to understand an applicant in a new light can have a huge positive impact on an application.

Go With Your Gut, Not Your Resume

The most popular prompt on the Common Application reads as follows:

“Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”

There are many students who read this prompt and immediately know what to write on; a lifelong illness or other significant adversity, a defining personal characteristic or ability, or a unique set of life circumstances could all be great material for a personal statement. If this sounds like you, by all means, pursue this topic!

However, circumstances like this aren’t the norm for most students. Many students look at this prompt and brainstorm for hours before deciding to answer the prompt with a description of a sufficiently impressive accomplishment or extracurricular activity.

The truth is, unless you feel an award or your involvement in an extracurricular activity has significantly impacted who you are, what you want to study, or any other aspect of your educational career, it’s probably not your best bet. This prompt, and the personal statement in general, are not intended as another outlet for you to list your various accomplishments and awards.

Put a Spin on Your Extracurriculars

This isn’t to say that you can’t talk about extracurricular accomplishments in your essay; like we said before, the personal essay is supposed to be an opportunity for you to showcase your primary passions and motivations. It’s very likely that the research project you completed or the piano concert you performed in have inspired you to pursue a certain path or informed your work ethic, dedication, patience, or any number of personal characteristics.

If you have an extracurricular activity or experience that you wish to write about for your personal statement, we encourage you to do so! It’s important to keep in mind, though, that unless this activity or accomplishment is extremely distinctive, there are likely hundreds, if not thousands of other applicants with similar stories.

The key to writing about these experiences – championship sports games, victories at academic competitions, and the like – is putting a unique spin on how they affected you. One way to do this is via figurative language; a commonly used device is a conceit, or extended metaphor, that can add a layer of complexity to a straightforward story (check out our blog post on how to use rhetorical devices in your personal statement for advice on conceits and more!).

The key to writing about extracurriculars is to establish a connection between the extracurricular and how it’s affected who you are and your academic career. If it’s obvious that you’re only mentioning an award or activity for its own sake and not to showcase a larger aspect of your personality or academic history, it won’t make for a very effective personal statement.

Embrace Adversity, but Don’t Exploit It

It’s common advice to stay away from “sob stories” in college applications: tales of difficult circumstances or adversity in a student’s life intended more to elicit sympathy from an admissions committee than to demonstrate the student’s academic, extracurricular, or personal merit.

While it’s true that your personal statement shouldn’t be a detailed account of all your woes, that doesn’t mean you can’t draw upon challenging life circumstances when writing your essay.

Just as with extracurriculars, the key to successfully recounting a tale of adversity in your personal statement is by explaining how that situation has shaped who you are as a person and student.

Therefore, if you choose to describe difficult circumstances in your essay, they shouldn’t make up the entirety of its content; rather, they can offer context on personal circumstances, while the thesis and bulk of the essay focus on describing how dealing with adversity has allowed the applicant to become who they are and achieve what they have.

The ability to overcome adverse circumstances and achieve success is highly prized by admissions committees. When skillfully done, essays addressing personal struggles can be highly effective and moving. What’s important to remember is that your story of hardship should serve as a springboard for a broader discussion of your personality, goals, and ambitions — not as a crutch to rely on to win the hearts of adcoms.

Don’t Shy Away From the Mundane

Oftentimes, students brainstorming ideas for their personal statement worry because they’ve never had any especially exotic or inspiring experiences to write about. As is the case with extracurriculars, students who don’t have incredibly unique experiences may feel like they share the same story as thousands of other applicants; how can commonplace, everyday experiences match up to the grand tales some students have to tell?

In truth, though such distinctive situations may make for great personal statements if executed correctly, they are by no means necessary to have a powerful personal statement. Some of the best personal statements are crafted from circumstances, experiences, or characteristics that may seem unremarkable on the surface, but in which the author has found a deeper meaning or which serve as a platform for a wider philosophical discussion.

For example, a member of our team wrote her essay on her distinctive hair, and how it was a reflection of her larger struggle as a Hispanic student in a predominantly white community. Essays on the mundane can be so effective because they allow an applicant to showcase their unique perspective on life without the distraction of exotic or exciting happenings.

Inspiration for a moving personal statement can be found in the most unexpected of places. Never discount an idea because it seems too dull or “out there!” What’s important is finding a creative way of describing who you are and what motivates you in a way that sets you apart from everyone else. Everyday experiences at home, at school, with friends, can all be sources of inspiration, so keep an open mind!

Perhaps you have a certain ritual or tradition you’ve always shared with family, or you remember one class activity that helped you realize how much you truly love learning – these experiences, when described from the viewpoint of how they’ve shaped your personality or ambitions, can make for engaging personal statements.

Writing a personal statement is hard, and for many students, thinking of a topic is the hardest part. It’s never too early to start brainstorming on what you might write on, so that once you’re sure of the message you want to communicate, you can focus on choosing the perfect way to deliver it. Following our tips above, you’ll be well on your way to writing a personal statement that sets you apart from the competition!

Anamaria Lopez

Anamaria Lopez

Managing Editor at CollegeVine Blog
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.
Anamaria Lopez