Application Packaging: Three Helpful Hints in Choosing a Personal Essay Topic


Since the CommonApp goes live for rising seniors on July 15, 2011, we’re turning our attention in the next few blogs to several topics relating to application packaging, starting with today’s, Choosing a Personal Essay Topic.

The first thing you need to know is that starting this year (i.e., for applicants in the class of ’12), the main personal essay has a new limit: 250-500 words. This means that essays need to be shorter (see also CPE’s blog, Four Things You Must Know about The Common Application), so the the challenge is to write a lean, power-packed essay that says a lot about you in a very short space. The basic topics haven’t changed:

Bullet Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

Bullet Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

Bullet Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

Bullet Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

Bullet A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

Bullet Topic of your choice.

As you mull these over, keep in mind a few key factors: first, make sure the topic you choose enables you to keep the spotlight squarely focused on YOU. The topics relating to issues (the second one above) and other people and characters (third and fourth) may sound appealing, but they make it easy to avoid writing about yourSELF, which is of course the main purpose here.

Second, remember that how you treat your topic is much more important than the topic itself. That is, many students squander valuable time and energy fretting about whether they should choose to write about, say, a summer experience versus an extracurricular activity versus a volunteer job, etc. Like a good photograph, what makes a good essay is not necessarily the particular subject matter: there are great photos of sailboats and sunsets, flowers and fauna, sand dunes and starving children in Africa. What makes each one compelling is its clarity, composition, balance, vibrant colors, contrasts, etc. In other words, when it comes to your personal essay, it’s not so much WHAT you say as HOW you say it. Sometimes it makes sense to write up two or three different drafts on different topics and see which one is most compelling. Yes, it’s a little more work, but hey, you have all summer, and after all, this is your freakin’ college application essay—you want it to POP!

Third, and perhaps most important, you would be well-advised to “retro-engineer” your topic from the take-away message with which you intend to leave the admissions committee. Figure out what it is about yourself you want to communicate to committee members first, and then think about a story, or personal anecdote, that embodies that message. Too many times, students leap to a “great story” from their personal histories, only to find out after it’s written that it doesn’t communicate their most salient and attractive qualities. Admission committee members tend to like essays that reveal genuine intellectual curiosity, genuine passion for an activity, and leadership and initiative (see, for example, Behind The Scenes: How Do You Get Into Amherst?).

For more help brainstorming your personal essay topic, be sure to tune into CollegePrepExpress’s next BlogTalk Radio show, “Prep Talk” with CollegePrepExpress“Application Essays and the Common App: What You Need to Know”, which airs at a special time next week, Thursday, 6/23, 4:00-4:30PM ET. For more personal attention with your main essay and all the other elements involved in application packaging, including the rest of the CommonApp, interview preparation, lettters of recommendation, and maximizing your chances of GETTING IN, email or call (860) 519-1000 this summer to get it done before school starts in the fall!

Related Links:

Bullet “Prep Talk” with CollegePrepExpress: Application Essays and the Common App: What You Need to Know

Bullet Four Things You Must Know about The Common Application


Bullet Behind The Scenes: How Do You Get Into Amherst?



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The primary purpose of CollegePrepExpress, LLC is to help students get into their top secondary schools, colleges, and graduate schools and to reduce stress surrounding the entire admissions process.

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