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How to Pick a Common App Essay Topic

Updated: Jul 4, 2023




Likely at this stage, you're thinking about what to write about your personal statement. And believe me, I get it, when it feels like it's the most stressful decision you've probably had to make in a hot minute. So, hopefully, this post can help alleviate some of that stress for you and encourage you to find a topic that you're passionate about.


First, it would be helpful to conceptualize what the personal statement is. What are admissions officers looking for? What do they not want to hear? What's cliché? And this is where my philosophy becomes unconventional. I want to preface this because you might not find this same advice on other similar blogs, websites, or resources and that's because I differ from most college admissions advisors where building strong essays is about focusing on you and not how to make you fit a specific mold, like a cookie cutter. It's really enticing to receive advice that clearly and specifically tells you what exactly you need to do, in what order, style, and what conclusion to make. But, the downside to that is that it isn't necessarily what's going to help your personal story shine, so instead, I encourage you to let your memories, experiences, relationships, values, your life story, to write itself.


Okay, with that disclaimer. There are some initial things to know before jumping into choosing a topic. When it comes to U.S. admissions application essays, the process is very interested in figuring out what makes you you in terms of your hobbies/passions/interests/memories/joys/pass times/childhood/friends/goals, etc. This can be different than a lot of international schools or even how admissions was a few decades ago where the essays were focused on listing your accolades and personality trait strengths.


Please do not list your accolades and personality trait strengths in U.S. admissions essays. You'll understand why I highly recommend this as you continue reading.


Okay, so why is the Common App/Coalition App asking you to write about yourself and giving you a few questions to choose from?

---This is because admissions officers want to get to know you outside of your academic life. They have access to your grades, extracurriculars, teacher recommendations, test scores, and additional questions that try to investigate what you're looking to get out of college. As such, the personal statement is the one guaranteed space for you to write about something outside of school that makes you who you are. So take advantage of that space!


Why do admissions officers care about you outside of academics? It is not to evaluate your storytelling abilities, writing, or even communication skills. But it's to identify whether you're a good natured person and a good fit with that college. "Fit" is something that you can't really know for yourself, but the college assesses based on what they know they want to get out of their class. Primarily, diversity of thought, life experience, and passions, because those will enable the gears of the academia run and grow.


But, they're not going to get a sense of how you can add to campus as a community member if you write things that would otherwise go in a resume or insist on personality traits that universities already expect you to have.


So, when writing the personal statement, the one question you should think about is.

1) If you could only share one thing about yourself with a new friend or mentor, so that they could get to know you, what would it be?


From there, you then have to ask yourself:

1) Is this something that you yourself are personally motivated to write about?

2) Is this something that you can speak at length about?


These are the best questions to ask yourself, because these are what the admissions officers are looking for to help them best understand your life story.


That said, if you then choose to talk exclusively about the trials and tribulations of being President of a club and the communication, delegation, and respectful perception of your peers that you gained; or how you learned that poverty existed on a study abroad trip that you went on; or how you are responsible because you babysit your younger siblings sometimes.


In a space where people are taking advantage of talking about their hobbies, joys, people who've positively impacted them and values they have because of experiences over time, writing about really basic traits like responsibility, leadership, respect and writing a thesis about those concepts will actually hurt you in the process. It will also make readers wonder, why is it that the person thinks that respect is such a novel topic? Is this something that they struggled with before or are currently where they're really disrespectful or irresponsible or not self-sufficient, etc.


As such, it's really important to focus on your individuality (as they're asking you to through these questions) and write something that is important to you, not to impress or to conform to information that you think admissions officers expect from you.


In future blogs, we'll talk more about how to write about the topic you've chosen. If you're still struggling outlining, what's something that you haven't talked about in your application yet, but you still want it to fit an overarching theme so that each piece of your application builds on itself, I'd highly recommend checking out this guide that I've designed to help you think through that. Especially for students who feel like they have nothing to write about!


Tl;dr. Don't write about universal traits that admissions officers already expect you to have. Try to avoid writing about academic topics that will already show up throughout your application like grades, extracurriculars, test scores, internships, etc. Focus on figuring out what's something that you want to share with others? Writing an essay that comes from that headspace is going to set you up well on the roads to have a personable and memorable essay for admissions offices.

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