In this exercise, you will find a list of Do’s and Don’ts for selecting a topic, along with comments from long-time admissions officers. For each of your five to seven potential topics, fill in this checklist. If you find yourself repeatedly answering “no” to these questions for any given topic, you should drop it and move on to another.

8 Types of Personal Statements to Avoid Video Summary

  • 00:07 – 1. The “the time I witnessed injustice” essay.
  • 00:49 – 2. The blah business school essay.
  • 01:34 – 3. The over-serious essay.
  • 03:09 – 4. The headless essay.
  • 03:45 – 5. The two-headed essay.
  • 04:28 – 6. The essay that’s really an excuse.
  • 04:52 – 7. The novelty essay.
  • 05:02 – 8. The childhood dreams essay.

The Checklist

1. Have I selected a topic that describes something of personal importance to my life?

Admissions Officers Say: “Personalize your essays as much as possible. Generic essays are not only boring to read but they’re a waste of time because they don’t tell you anything to help you get to know the applicant any better.”

2. Am I avoiding a gimmicky topic? You should be very, very wary of trying to write your essay in iambic pentameter or with lots of jokes. Almost always, this is done poorly and is not appreciated by the admissions committee. Nothing is worse than not laughing at something that was written to be funny.

Admissions Officers Say: “Gimmicks are a big mistake, and a sarcastic or flippant tone will often offend.”

3. Does my topic stay away from information listed elsewhere on my application? Don’t mention GPAs or standardized test scores in your essay. That’s what the resume and other parts of the application are for.

Admissions Officers Say: “Listings of anything are dull, no matter how impressive.” “Essays should be about more than just a running tally of accomplishments.”

4. Will I be able to offer vivid supporting paragraphs to my essay topic? Do not choose a topic if you cannot provide concrete examples for the body of the essay.

Admissions Officers Say: “Details provide the color, the spice, and the life of the essays.” “As the saying goes, if you’re going to talk the talk, you better walk the walk.”

5. Can I fully answer the question asked of me? Can you address and elaborate on all points within the specified word limit, or will you end up writing a poor summary of something that might be interesting as a report or research paper? If you plan on writing something technical for an application, make sure you can back up your interest in the topic and not merely throw around big scientific words. Unless you convince the reader that you actually have the life experiences to back up your interest in neurobiology, the reader will assume that you are trying to impress him or her with shallow tactics. Also, be sure that you can write to admissions officers and that you are not writing over their heads.

Admissions Officers Say: “Actually answer the question they ask. Many people just list off their accomplishments and never relate it to the theme of the question.”

6. Will my topic keep the reader’s interest from the first word? The entire essay must be interesting, considering admissions officers will probably spend only a few minutes reading each essay.

Admissions Officers Say: “If the first paragraph doesn’t fix my attention, like anyone I’m prone to skimming.”

7. Is my topic unique? Some students are so concerned about making the correct impression that they edit out anything that would help their essay stand out. They submit a “safe” essay that is, in reality, sterile, monotonous, and boring. Most topics are in fact overdone, and this is not necessarily a bad thing, but a unique and convincing answer to a classic topic can pay off big. Furthermore, when applying to a competitive program that might be out of your reach, taking a risk in the essay may increase your chances by helping you stand out.

Admissions Officers Say: “Applicants should not be afraid to go out on a limb and be themselves – even when that means incorporating humor or being a little bit controversial.”

8. Am I being myself? Admissions officers want to learn about you and your writing ability. You must develop your own voice and tell YOUR story, not the story you think the reader wants to hear. Write about something meaningful and describe what you did and felt, and your essay will be unique. Many people travel to foreign countries or win competitions, but your feelings during these events are unique to you. Unless a philosophy or societal problem has interested you intensely for years, stay away from grand themes that you have little personal experience with.

Admissions Officers Say: “It is through the essay that the admissions officers reading the application will feel that they have truly gotten to know you.”

9. Does my topic avoid hot-button issues that may offend the reader? If you write on how everyone should worship your God, how wrong or right abortion is, or how you think the Republican Party is evil, you will not get into the college of your choice. The only thing worse than not writing a memorable essay is writing an essay that will be remembered negatively. Stay away from specific religions, political doctrines, or controversial opinions. You can still write an essay about Nietzsche’s influence on your life, but express understanding that not all intelligent people will agree with Nietzsche’s claims. Emphasize instead Nietzsche’s influence on YOUR life, and not why you think he was wrong or right in his beliefs.

Admissions Officers Say: “It is dangerous for a non-professional to attempt writing as though the essay will be presented at a professional conference. You may be writing to someone who knows much more than you and will be irritated by your hackneyed proclamations.”

10. Is my essay honest? Unless you are a truly excellent writer, your best, most passionate writing will be about events that actually occurred. While you might be tempted to invent hardship, it is completely unnecessary. Write an essay about your life that demonstrates your personality.

Admissions Officers Say: “After 15 years of reading hundreds of essays a year, you develop an amazing ability to see straight through the bull.”

11. Will an admissions officer remember my topic after a day of reading hundreds of essays? What will the officer remember about your topic? What will the officer remember about you? What will your lasting impression be?

12. If you are writing about something unfortunate that has happened to you, ask: Am I able to highlight my impressive qualities under difficult circumstances without sounding pathetic? Unless you only use the experience as a lens with which to magnify your own personal characteristics, you will not write a good essay. Graduate and professional school applicants should generally steer clear of this topic altogether unless the experience can arguably help one become a better businessman, doctor, lawyer, or scholar.

13. Does my essay fit in well with the rest of my application? Does it explain the unexplained and steer clear of what is already obvious? For example, if you have a 4.0 GPA and a 170 LSAT score, no one doubts your ability to do the academic work; addressing this topic would be ridiculous. However, if you have a 140 LSAT score and a 3.9 GPA or a 170 LSAT score and a 2.5 GPA, you would be wise to incorporate into your essay an explanation for the apparent contradiction. For example, perhaps you were hospitalized or family concerns prevented your dedication to academics; you would want to mention this in your essay. However, do not make your essay one giant excuse. Simply give a quick, convincing explanation within the framework of your larger essay.

14. Does my topic avoid mentioning my weaknesses? You want to make a positive first impression, and telling an admissions officer anything about drinking, drugs, or partying undermines your goal. Why admit to weakness when you can instead showcase your strengths?

15. If you think you can add diversity to the school to which you are applying, ask: Does my essay specifically demonstrate how my uniqueness will contribute to the realm of campus opinion, the academic environment, or the social life? Every college, professional school, or graduate school wants to increase diversity. For this reason, so many applicants are tempted to declare what makes them different. However, simply saying that you are a black, lesbian female will not impress admissions officers in the least. While an essay incorporating this information would probably be your best topic idea, you must subtly handle the issue by addressing your own personal qualities and how you overcame stigma or dealt with social ostracism. If you are a rich student from Beverly Hills whose father is an engineer and whose mother is a lawyer, but you happen to be a minority, an essay about how you dealt with adversity would be unwise.

Next Steps

Once you have used this checklist for each of the five to seven topics you came up with in Lesson One, narrow the list down to the three topics that most easily pass all of the suggestions above. If more than three topics pass the test above, then simply choose the three that you are most excited about. If fewer than three topics pass the test, go back to your long list from the Brainstorming Exercise and run a few more potential topics through our checklist.

At this point, you might have a topic so inspiring that the essay writes itself. However, even seemingly boring topics can be made into exceptional admissions essays with an innovative approach. In writing the essay you must bear in mind your two goals: to persuade the admissions officer that you are extremely worthy of admission and to make the admissions officer aware that you are more than a GPA and a standardized score, that you are a real-life, intriguing personality.

Unfortunately, there is no surefire step-by-step method to writing a good essay. Every topic requires a different treatment since no two essays are alike. Lessons 3 to 6 will guide you through the various stages of writing a first-rate essay.