College applications have various important components, 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, worried they’ll select a bad topic from the start and doom their applications just as they’ve begun. Here, I’ll break down three of the places 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, but I’ll discuss a few of my favorites below.
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.
As soon as I read this prompt for the first time as I started thinking about my college applications, I felt it fit me particularly well. Both of my parents were science professors, my brother was studying biology in college, and I had biomedical research internships at the National Institutes of Health and a cancer research center. I knew that I would feel weird trying to tell admissions officers about myself without centering that description around my passion for science.
An important feature of a strong topic 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. 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. This prompt gives you a unique opportunity to demonstrate your intellectual independence. 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?
A few of the other prompts also ask about a time, event, obstacles, realization, or accomplishment (2, 3, and 5). When responding to one of these, it’s critical to think about the implications following. Explaining how you questioned an idea and then followed up with independent research, starting a club, or engaging somehow else can even further show your initiative.
Extracurriculars and Events
Your classroom work and academic capabilities are covered by your grades, scores, and recommendations, but how about what you do outside the classroom? How do you spend the seven hours everyday after school ends and what do you do over the weekends? This is often where high school students experience the most personal growth.
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 would be extremely difficult, for example, without it feeling disjointed. Your personal statement should not just list your activities, but it 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 affect you, exemplifies the person you are? Again, remember that the scale is essentially irrelevant. I wrote an essay on watching a youtube video on the evolution of the eye when I was eight, for example.
Asking yourself questions and thinking hard about them is a good way both to search for topics and make sure you know what you want to communicate. I recommends 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 will help you define what is important for colleges to learn from your essay.
Asking myself these, 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 get at your personality and identity. College applications are a lot like dating: they want to know who you are before committing to a relationship. 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 this you? How do you know that, and how can you show them?
College applications, and the personal statement in particular, make you define yourself, 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!