"I Have Nothing to Write About!!!": The Tyranny of the Personal Statement

First of all, yes you do. Before you disagree, let’s talk about the college essay or “personal statement” in realistic terms. The point of writing this essay is to give admissions folks a chance to get to know the “you” behind the numbers. The essay needs to be genuine, heartfelt, honest, and something only you would write.

Here’s what it does NOT have to be:

  • An account of your summer in Africa during which you dug a village’s first and only well

  • The time you won the Nobel Peace Prize for your work in ending human trafficking

  • How you became the youngest mayor of any town in America

Now, if you fit into any of the above categories, write away. But most of us don’t. So, what can you write about?

Here are some examples of the stories students wrote about in successful essays we’ve seen:

  • A weekly brunch with an elderly grandparent

  • A failed audition for jazz band

  • Working at a swap meet

  • How water moves

  • What it's like to be named Gonzales and not speak Spanish

  • A knitting project gone awry

In each of the above cases, the student took a relatively mundane event or topic but attacked it from a purely personal and unique perspective. The focus was not on what happened but how the writer processed its meaning. The reader walked away knowing that the writer was clever, resilient, analytic, thoughtful, warm, loving, and a number of other desirable characteristics.

You may have heard that you need to avoid certain topics at all costs. Things like:

  • Losing a loved one

  • Losing a pet

  • Winning the big race/game

  • Overcoming a bad grade/difficult class

  • A personal struggle with addiction or mental illness

Yes, it can be tough to avoid clichés when attacking these kinds of topics, so you may want to steer clear of them. However, if you have a take on any of them that’s unexpected, go for it. Some of the best essays we’ve read are about these so-called forbidden topics that were written from a fresh perspective.

Juniors, start thinking about your topics now. And if you can, start writing over the summer. Having a working draft in the fall will be a wonderful thing as you head into the stress of application season.

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