The most common question we hear from our students every year is on what topics they should use for their personal statements.
While it is impossible to tell our students what to write for their personal statements, as everyone’s story must be personal, there are certain topics we should avoid using.
The following are seven topics that can easily sink an application from the get-go.
1. The Braggart
The US admissions process is holistic. This means the admissions officers review not only the student’s application form but also the teacher’s recommendation letters (often letters from two subject teachers), the school counselor’s recommendation letter, and other submitted supplemental materials such as artworks, research papers, and even personal websites. There is plenty of room for both the student and high school to show off the applicant’s achievements in the application package. Hence, for the admissions officers, it is very redundant and even annoying to see a high-achieving student “sell” his or her achievements again in the personal statement.
With this said, we have examples of students who have written amazing and personal stories about their achievements in their personal statement. But in these cases, instead of retelling the stories of the achievements, our students use their achievements as opportunities to reflect on their worldviews and values. In other words, they do not focus on what on-paper rewards they received, but the lessons they learned. These essays add layers to the achievements spoken about and add dimension to a student’s profile.
2. Extra, Extra! Breaking News (especially when you do not have any personal experience in it)
The world is a complicated place and shocking new headlines appear all the time. Some students may want to take advantage of the sensationalist nature of the incidents and try to insert themselves as a participant when they obviously were not. Headline news topics are almost certainly bad for personal statements unless the author was genuinely a significant part of the incident (e.g. student leader for a march versus an observer of the march). Building upon that, writing about your political or religious views in your personal statement is just as bad as talking politics or religion at the dinner table. It’s divisive, and with only 650 words, it’s nearly impossible for you to establish any point that would convince everyone inside the admissions office. Furthermore, unless you are writing about your personal experience dealing directly with the issue, you would sound like someone who tries to capitalize on other people’s misfortune in your essay. An example of such a deadly essay is when a student writes about the racial tensions in the US without ever having visited the US. While it can be interesting to discuss viewpoints on a sensitive topic in an academic paper, providing comments and thoughts on issues you have no direct experience with misses the personal element of a personal statement.
3. Voluntourism, (a.k.a the exotic getaway trip)
One of the most popular and cliché topics one could write about in a personal statement is “the trip”.
If you are writing about your volunteering experience in some rural place, please know that your reader has already read about your accomplishments and time spent on that trip in the Activities section of your application. And if such a volunteering experience is important, we should also see it mentioned in your teacher’s and counselor’s letters of recommendation. There is no need to retell the story of your charitable work, or recount how fortunate you are.
If you are writing about an exotic traveling experience, your reader may get to know more about the far-off places you have been to by simply reading travel guidebooks. And it may only serve to highlight your privilege and not your thoughtfulness or personal potential.
Finally, if something unexpected happened during your trip which you feel like you MUST discuss with your reader, you should focus solely on the unexpected experience and not on the trip or destination themselves.
4. The Jock
Stories about sports are predictable and cliché. Like every Hollywood movie about sports, everyone knows how the story will play out – hard work (together with my team) leads to victory, or some sort of winning (like gaining respect and the like).
Please know that every year the admissions officers must read a pile of personal statements about sports from their athletic recruits. Unless you are qualified to be a Division I player, I beg you not to tempt fate and write another jock story just to add to the annoyance of your reader inside the admissions office.
5. The Most Improved Player
Essays that use words like “determination”, “dedication”, or “hard work” repeatedly fall into another category of cliches that would warrant eye rolls. Examples include essays about training hard to become a better player, practicing an instrument for hours to get into the orchestra, etc.
While being a determined person dedicated to your interests are good qualities to have, the writer should allow the reader to decide whether he or she has any of these positive traits rather than force a cliched story on the reader.
Please focus on letting your story speak, so that your reader may get to know you as a person through your experiences. No one enjoys being told how they should think or feel about anyone or anything. In other words, show but do not tell.
6. An Important Thing or Person in My Life
Describing your favorite thing or the most important person in your life is a dangerous game to play as you risk the essay becoming about that thing or person instead. If you are to spend your limited word count describing your dad, mom, relative or a role model of yours, I am afraid your reader might just want to accept that favorite/most important person you are talking about instead of you. It is generally understood that death of a family member or beloved pets could have a major impact on a young student’s life, but remember a balance is hard to strike. You talk too much about the person who passed away, you risk the attention shifting away from you; but, if you talk too much about yourself, you risk disrespecting the dead. All in all, we usually suggest staying away from topics that pull attention away from yourself.
With this said, a few top schools such as Princeton University have similar prompts for their supplement essays. The purpose here is to see if any student can manage to write a truly personal essay with a very impersonal topic, but only as an addition to and as a complement to the required personal statement.
7.“World Peace!” (a.k.a the “Pageant Winner” topic)
We encourage young people to have ideals. Yet, it is quite useless to tell admission officers that you hold any overly broad and vague ideals such as “World Peace” and “Equality for All”.
A student once complained to us about our rejection of her essay about her dream to create a society without inequality by redistributing resources evenly. We explained to her that if her plan is to be realized then she would have to trade in her family mansion for a tiny apartment, and that she should have applied to public universities and not only to the most selective private schools in the world. Not to mention, the rest of her profile simply did not support her lofty ideals about closing the wealth gap.
It is good for young people to have ideals. But merely hoping and wishing for change and preaching your ideals without any viable plans is nothing but having a pipe dream.
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By Ally Ip, Director of Research