I’m sitting here imagining you sitting there contemplating the writing you have ahead of you. Somehow, this impossible-to-answer personal statement prompt has steamrolled its way into your life. I can picture the hunk of reluctance sitting on your shoulder, the wet pile of doubt at your feet.
But! There is good news. By the time you finish reading this blog post, you will have a much better idea of what you are going to write about in your personal statement. Because we’re going to review what essay topics not to write about. Ready? Let’s go.
1. SPORTS TROPHIES
If there is one common thread to high school life across the country, it’s participating in sports. As a result, can you imagine how many “the day I helped win the game” or “the day I learned the power of teamwork” essays come out of that? Unless you approach this from an extremely unique perspective, I would avoid writing about sports in general. Because we’ve all seen the movie Rudy, and, frankly, most of us don’t need to see it again. The gift from that game or trophy was gift enough. Don’t try to use it to get into college.
2. MISSION TRIPS
I understand why writing about this type of trip or other volunteer experience would seem like a good essay topic; it demonstrates selflessness and was a time in your life in which you learned about yourself.
However. While it might have been life-changing to you, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is going to translate into a good personal statement. It will almost always fall victim to the same pitfalls that a slide show does or excessive Instagram travel pics do: It’s just not that interesting to the person who wasn’t there.
Unless you isolate your essay to a specific moment (and, yes, doing that can work), it is going to be more of a rundown of the trip than it will be about you and, in the end, all we’ll really learn is that you felt good about helping people. But, who doesn’t?
3. ROLE MODELS
Unless the prompt specifically asks you to write about a person who influenced you the most, please avoid writing about your grandpa. Or dad. Or your plucky aunt from New Jersey.
The danger here is this essay topic will require that you write about someone else and not about yourself, so, in the end, we’ll be keen to meet Auntie Cassidy-Ann, but we won’t be that keen on meeting you.
With that said, it is possible to make this type of essay work, if you focus your lens on a very small story, moment or detail. I write more about that here.
You wouldn’t think anyone would be this foolish, but it happens. And, in a way, I can see how it does. Your heart is broken, nothing is nearly as interesting as talking about the person who broke it, and, when you do finally get over it, you feel like you’ve recovered from major surgery.
But this is not the venue to unleash your deepest, darkest feelings about Cory Bender or Madison Robbins. That’s what a diary is for.
5. THE ANTI-ESSAY
Being creative in your admissions essay or personal statement might feel like a good way to distinguish yourself. And it is a good way to do that — provided you do it within the confines of the assignment. Answering an essay prompt with one word or a poem or song lyrics or a long story about a fly stuck in a spider web in the corner of the room most often just sends one message about you: that you’re kind of a jerk.
In the end , the admissions officers have assigned a specific prompt for a reason. They don’t want to see how creatively you don’t do the work, they want to see how well you do do it.
6. YOUR PETS
Trust me when I say that I understand the deep love you can feel for your pet. Sometimes I look at my dogs Tilly and Fitz and wonder how they can be so perfect.
Expressing that love might feel like a unique, whimsical or even comical way to answer your personal statement prompt. But it won’t be appreciated. You’ll end up either sounding like you’re making fun of the assignment or that you’re made of about as much substance as cotton candy.
Let’s face it, you don’t talk about politics or religion in mixed company, and you don’t do it in a personal statement either. You have no idea what the belief system is of the admissions officer who is reading your submission, and the stakes are too great to run the risk of insulting someone. Besides, all you’ll end up doing is coming across as close-minded and possibly dogmatic, which is exactly the opposite mindset of what a liberal arts education is meant to instill.
8. YOUR PRIVILEGE
This is a one-way ticket to getting passed up. Admissions officers do not want to hear about how your dad is a doctor, how you enjoyed the tasting menu at Alinea or the day that you totaled your Jag. Most people don’t. Sure, you want to be authentic in your essay, but you want to be humble, too.
Now that you know what not to write about, let’s start thinking about what you should write about. Click here for 10 tips to get you going.