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In this blog post, I will teach you how to discover the best topic for your personal statement, which is essentially the same as the CommonApp’s required essay. BUT FIRST…

I’ll admit the title is misleading. It’s borderline clickbait. Okay, it is clickbait. There is no single, universal best topic for all personal statements. If there was, everybody would be using it.

What actually exists is a best topic for you. This means that out of all the topics that you personally could turn into an effective essay, there’s one that’s the best for you. Let’s say you were ambitious and listed a thousand possibilities. Only one is the best, the perfect jumping off point for a stellar essay.



Before we go any further, I’d like to ask a favor of you. Stop reading and write down three topics for your personal statement. Don’t think about it too much. Just list three that might make a good essay. Now set them aside. We’ll need them later.



Selecting a topic on your own can be impossible. Something that resonates with you might fall flat with others. Have you ever been in the middle of telling what you believe is a great story, then you see the glazed-over expression of your friends and realize it’s a pretty boring story after all?

“Get it? I told them to stop yakking. A group of yaks!”
“No, we get it, Bob.”

When you choose a topic, you want to make sure it’s meaningful to you and will also connect with the reader. You’re going to devote a lot of time to writing and rewriting your personal statement, so you want to start off right, avoiding the situation where you’ve finished a draft or two and discover your friends and family aren’t too crazy about it.

To be honest, topic selection is the most difficult part of the application process, but for me, it’s the most fun.

Why? Do I delight in the misery of others? No, except for ‘instant karma’ videos on YouTube. 



The reason I enjoy topic selection so much is because it’s the time when I get to know my students the best. We’ll talk about your life, your experiences, your successes, and your failures—the times when you learned, changed, laughed, or cried. Together, we will mine the depths of your brain, searching for the diamond hidden within. It might not look perfect when we first extract it, so we’ll chip away, carving and polishing it into a gem that even the old lady from Titanic wouldn’t throw overboard. (That whole movie is one long personal statement, when you think about it.) 

Think of this post as a primer, a way to push your thoughts in the right direction. Topic discovery most often happens through conversation, the same way talk therapy leads to insights and breakthroughs that wouldn’t happen alone. If you’re interested in a conversation, I’m only one click away. It speeds up the process because I’ll help you instantly distinguish the bad topics from the good ones.

But hey, some free advice won’t hurt, so let’s get to it.



The first thing I always request from an applicant is a short summary of his or her life. Where were you born? Where did you first live? Have you always lived there? Did you ever move? Where did you go to school? What’s your first memory?

These may seem like routine questions, but I ask them in an attempt to discover significant moments of change. If you’re forced to give a short summary of your seventeen or eighteen years on this planet, chances are you’ll include the transitional times of change. Change often means conflict, and conflict is the heart of a good story.

“But Stephen,” you say, “I’m just a high school student. I’ve lived a normal, boring life.”

It’s only normal and boring because it’s your life! It’s the only life you know. Admissions officers reading your application haven’t lived your life, so it’s all new to them, and I bet you’ve had plenty of essay-worthy experiences. All it takes is a little digging to discover them.

Let’s do a hypothetical exercise to start that digging in hopes of unearthing your most exciting moments of change.



Here’s the scenario. Tomorrow you’ll be speaking in front of an audience of a thousand people (gulp). You’ll speak three different times, along with fifty other high school students. Whoever tells the most riveting autobiographical story wins a million dollars.

How do we define riveting? The stories can be funny, sad, enlightening, frustrating, triumphant, tragic, or all of the above. They must elicit a genuine reaction from the crowd while also revealing something about you.  The audience will vote on whose story is best, meaning which one they connected with the most.

Think about it. What three stories would you tell? Jot down the first three that pop into your head.

Wow! Did all of that really happen to you?! You don’t say.



What I want you to do now is go back and compare these with the three topics you wrote down at the beginning. In completing this exercise, I’ve never had a student who wrote the same three topics for both. The reason is because the mindset with which you approached each list was different.

The first list was informed by whatever your preconceived notions are about admissions essays. You thought perhaps about what admissions officers wanted to hear, what are “standard” topics you’ve heard before, or what you’re “supposed” to write about in essays. Throw these preconceptions out the window because the only thing that matters is telling your most compelling stories in the application.

The second list was created based on the true criteria for great personal statements. Without thinking about essays, you asked, “Which of my stories is inherently most interesting?” If you had to connect with a crowd, these are the stories you’d tell.



So why should your personal statement be any different? You have to connect with real human beings on admissions committees. They’re not robots. They have emotions and thoughts, and here’s the most important thing to realize: just like every other human, they get bored. By the time they get to your personal statement, they might have read a few hundred others that day. Their eyes are tired. They want to go home, put their feet up, and binge-watch Game of Thrones. You know why? Because it has a compelling story with great characters. Your essays should, too.

When you sit down to write the first draft of your personal statement, consider these exhausted admissions officers, like Sally.

Sally knows good writing—she has a PhD in English Literaturebut she’s spent the day sifting through applications that nearly put her to sleep. She’s just poured her fourth cup of coffee when she flips open your application. She gets to your personal statement, and her brow arches at the first sentence. It hooks her. She reads through the essay once to get a sense of the story then another time for closer inspection. It’s made an impact.

“Hey, Greg,” Sally says to her fellow admissions officer. “Check this one out.”

That is the kind of personal statement you want, one that stands out in a sea of sameness. If for nothing else, do it for Sally and Greg. Save them from boredom… and hey, get accepted while you’re at it.


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