You've started to narrow down your college list and decided you're ready to start writing your college essays, specifically your Common App personal statement, but now it's time to pick a topic that answers the seven prompts given to you. Which topic and prompt best fits your story? Here's how to select a topic for your Common App essay that will help you stand out in the college admissions process.
The personal statement is arguably one of the most important parts of a college application. In the holistic college admissions process, applications have various components that factor heavily into a student's evaluation, but your grades, scores, and teacher recommendations are usually nearly already set in stone by the time you begin writing your essays. The 650-word personal statement in the Common Application (a similar essay of 500-550 words is included in the Coalition Application) is uniquely challenging because of the freedom it provides.
Many students find this open-endedness paralyzing and are worried they’ll select a bad topic from the start, dooming their applications just as they’ve begun. But with a little preparation and creativity, there's nothing to worry about! Here, we break down how students find inspiration for high-quality essay topics.
The Common Application releases seven prompts every year, but they primarily serve as tools to help you brainstorm. The prompts are vague enough that you can truly write whatever you want, but they sometimes help spark students’ minds. The seven for this year can be found here (there is also an optional COVID-19 question within the Additional Information section, which isn't technically a personal statement), but I’ll discuss two of my favorites below.
It's important to note, however, that the personal statement isn't completely open-ended. You still need to address the prompt, and if you're trying to shoehorn your story into a prompt that isn't relevant, it will most likely count against you. You could even write your essay and then select a prompt afterward, with some slight tweaks if necessary, so as not to "compromise" your story. Regardless, there is still a framework you need to follow.
1. 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.
This is one of the most popular prompts for a good reason — it offers students the flexibility to take it in any direction they want. Whether you're talking about a scientist inspiring you to go into STEM, your family passing down your cultural heritage through recipes, or the anxiety and excitement you felt during your first debate tournament, many topics fit this prompt well.
An important feature of a strong topic like this is that it helps you highlight your growth. Some people have specific intense interests or activities that they’ve engaged with for years, and as a result, their growth in this area demonstrates their growth as a person, which could also foreshadow your growth as a student on their campus. It also allows you to show off a more reflective and insightful side of your personality, displaying maturity.
What you should avoid is writing a laundry list of achievements or a resume — this is not the place for that on college applications. All of this often leads to a very focused essay that highlights a student’s drive alongside impressive accomplishments.
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
An enormous challenge college applications pose is communicating maturity and personal growth, as mentioned above. This prompt gives you a unique opportunity to demonstrate your intellectual independence by dissecting a specific experience you've had (and specificity is essential in college essays). Colleges want people who are able to think critically and go beyond what they learn in the classroom. When did you begin to face the status quo or start thinking outside of the lines? The more precise you can be about when and why these beliefs and ideas started to change, the better.
A few of the other prompts also ask about a time, event, obstacles, realization, or accomplishments. When responding to one of these, it’s critical to think about the implications following the experience you choose to discuss. Explaining how you questioned an idea and then followed up with independent research, started a club, or engaged in a meaningful way can even further show your initiative and character.
Extracurriculars and Events
Your classroom work and academic capabilities are covered by your grades, scores, and teacher recommendations, but how about what you do outside the classroom? How do you spend the seven hours every day after school ends and what do you do over the weekends? This is often where high school students experience the most personal growth and discover their true passions.
Many students get involved in school clubs, whether academic, recreational, or pre-professional. A story about a robotics competition, science event, or talent show could make for a fantastic essay. But it’s also worth considering the things you do outside of official extracurriculars. Your part-time job at REI, skateboarding with your friends, painting with your mom, taking care of your little brother, and anything else you do on a regular basis can also be the main topic or at least a part of your personal statement if done right.
Although discussing these activities can often lead to strong essays, you want to avoid focusing on more than one if they aren’t connected by a theme. Talking about Model UN and chemistry club in the same essay could be extremely difficult, for example, without it feeling disjointed. But if you're talking about similar challenges you faced as a leader in those clubs, you may be able to connect them better. Your personal statement should not just list your activities, but you can pick one and use it as a vehicle to show the reader who you are.
Another avenue is to consider the things you don’t do regularly. What events in your life have been transformative or had the largest impact on your trajectory? Is there any moment that, even if it didn’t greatly affect you, exemplifies the person you are? Again, remember that the scale is essentially irrelevant — the most important thing is what you learned from the experience and how it changed your perspective on the world.
Asking yourself questions and thinking hard about them is a good way to search for topics and ensure you know what you want to communicate. I recommend asking yourself a few big questions — who you are, what matters to you, where you come from, and where you’re going. Forcing yourself to think about these ideas will help you define what is important for colleges to learn from your essay.
Take this case study of someone interested in STEM: "After asking myself these questions, I settled on a few key points. I was a scientist (in my interests and personal life) who had gotten where I was by constantly following my curiosities in biology. I came from a family of scientists and I wanted to become a scientist to make the world a better place. I was unique because of how I saw the world in scientific terms--animals as evolved beings and my drive home as a traveling salesman problem."
What does your set of answers look like? It’s okay if this doesn’t come to you immediately — in fact, it might only be clear in retrospect — but it’s worth giving it a shot.
You can find many more questions online that help you articulate your personality and identity. College applications are a lot like dating or a job interview: they want to know who you are before committing to something longer-term. Just like on a first date, you need to be able to tell them. Colleges want students who are going to be leaders in the campus community, the classroom, and the real world. Is that you? If so, how do you know that, and how can you show them?
College applications, and the personal statement, in particular, ask you to define yourself in a universal way using your specific experiences, something you’ve probably never been asked to do before. Read through the prompts, think about your activities, consider any important events in your story, and do some reflection.
If nothing pops out at you, keep at it! Write down as many potential topics as you can and then evaluate them based on how the story/essay you would write about each topic reflects your identity. Embrace the uncertainty and the associated freedom — college and life beyond will only bring more.