Topics to Avoid on Your Personal Statement

By Michaela August 17, 2020 College Application

Every year, there are students who are not prepared for their college essay, and essentially use this space as an extended resume. for example: “For the past 3 years, I have been involved in debate…” By the end of the essay, an admissions counselor has no deeper understanding of the applicant than they would by reviewing their Activities section.

To avoid this, plan to begin your essay with a memorable opening line; one that clearly communicates to the admissions team that this essay will be creative and well-written. Then, make sure your essay has one clear main focus, not spending one paragraph talking about one thing and the next paragraph focused on something else entirely. Finally, at the end of your essay, re-evaluate: Could you sum up your essay in one sentence? Is your one-sentence summation clear to the reader throughout the essay? Re-read your essay with these points in mind.

Where to Begin?

I recommend beginning by finding the “hidden story” within one of your extracurriculars. Every activity you join helps your personal growth in some way, and most likely has a connection to your future major.

For example, instead of listing your 10 years of playing piano as just another one of your involvements throughout your activities list, let it come to life with describing “when my fingertips touch ivory at the end of every day, I finally feel at home.”

A fantastic personal statement allows the college to get to know who you are on a deep level, while also connecting to an event or activity that has changed your perspective or future in some way.

What to Avoid?

A personal statement should be focused on a moment that built character, which many students interpret to mean “write about something sad.” As an admissions counselor, I saw hundreds of essays focused on the death of a family member (usually a grandparent).

This subject should be avoided for this reason: Writing about a death of a family member, rarely has a happy ending. The point of a personal statement is to show YOUR personal growth, and unless you started a non-profit in their honor or something equally grand, there is rarely a different ending outside “now my life is changed forever.” Now you have insider knowledge that many other students write their essays on this subject. By writing about something different, your essay has a better chance to stand out from the crowd.

I always tell my students to avoid the following cliche essay topics:

  1. Tragedy with no positive outcome. Including: divorce, death, disease, bullying. Why? Tragedy is hard to quantify, and rarely allows for an uplifting ending.
  2. Overcoming an injury. Unless this inspired you to publish a children’s book about Physical Therapy or something else inspiring, this topic is just too common.
  3. Winning the big game. Compare this topic to deeper essays: imagine reading “I escaped a refugee camp and started my own non-profit to help other survivors like me” and then, “I won a championship tennis game” … your essay will most likely fall flat. 
  4. Learning you were more creative than you thought during English class. Again, this essay will fall short when compared to more weighty essays. 
  5. Why you chose that school or that major. If the school cares about this, they will ask for a Why Major or Why Us essay. This is the time to share how creative you are, and tell a story about a time that built character.