Five Tips for Finding Your Perfect Personal Statement Topic

Ah, the personal statement—your chance to tell the most compelling story of your life and convince your dream school to accept you, all in a measly 650 words.

It is intimidating, to say the least. But harder than actually writing the thing is deciding what you’re even going to write about. We understand the frustration. We’ve been at this a while, and have gathered a few tricks of the trade for finding that perfect topic. Here are a few:

1. Don’t be fooled by the “big, dramatic stories only” trap 

Have you seen that episode of Modern Family where Haley, the oldest Dunphy daughter, has to write a college essay about an obstacle she’s overcome? She’s distraught because she feels she has nothing to write about, and she blames her parents for making her life too easy. Some people have a whopper of a story that demands to be told, like fleeing a war-torn country, launching a rocket into space, or performing as a backup dancer for Beyoncé. But for many of us, it’s easy to pull a Haley, and panic because we don’t have an obvious home run story in our all-too-ordinary lives.

Don’t succumb to that trap! Everyone has a story: some might be high-adrenaline stories of beating impossible odds, some might be intricate stories that unveil something significant in the details, and some might be a clever take on a seemingly mundane topic. Let’s take Haley: Instead of needing a big, dramatic story, she could explore what she learned from her dad when they walked a tightrope in their yard. That story can contain humor, insight, and depth, through a unique lens only she could capture. Schools are not looking to create a class of child prodigies—mostly they want proof that your mind is fiercely unique and capable of future awesomeness. The essay that best reveals that will be different for everyone and need not involve any heroics.

2. Keep a journal

Whether you can’t think of a single potential topic, or you can’t find the perfect angle for your chosen topic, journaling can help. It’s hard to overstate the benefits of journaling for the writing process: it allows you to improve your writing skills, practice introspection, record memories you might otherwise forget, and dredge up stories you might have overlooked. 

If you need a place to start, consider following Julia Cameron’s method of “Morning Pages”—writing three pages of stream of consciousness writing, to stimulate creativity, provide clarity, and combat writer’s block. If that’s too much, force yourself to write something almost every day, however long. You may just unearth your golden ticket of a story, buried deep within your subconscious. 

Here’s how this might look:

  • Monday: We barbecued yesterday, nothing else to report.
  • Tuesday: [empty]
  • Wednesday: Is this journaling thing a waste?
  • Thursday: [empty]
  • Friday: I had a funny debate with the fam, on whether Jurassic Park could ever happen…

Anything good in here? Maybe, maybe not. But go another week, and another after that. Eventually, something will spark. You’ll find yourself suddenly flowing effortlessly as you explore your thoughts on the Game of Thrones ending, or as you recount your recent camping trip. Or, maybe your journal entries themselves won’t have any answers, but the process of journaling will have quietly unlocked the part of your brain that you need to get writing.

3. Brainstorm widely, then drill down

There are a ton of brainstorming methods out there, but here’s one that often works well: start by writing down all of the important things in your life—the “big buckets.” These are the things that matter to you, and might include things like family, the outdoors, poetry. Next, brainstorm indiscriminately—write down every topic that comes to mind for each bucket, however big or small. Then, drill down: conjure up every angle on each topic you’ve written down. 

When one of our Chinese clients did this exercise, one of his “big buckets” was traveling abroad, and one of the sub-topics was spending time in the U.S. for middle school. There’s nothing earth-shattering about that yet, but he drilled down and found a powerful angle: he recalled hiding in the bathroom to escape history class, because his English wasn’t strong enough to understand the teacher. He realized this moment of shame spurred his determination to improve his reading and writing skills, which led to his winning a school-wide reading contest the following year, and discovering a love for writing fiction. This vague bucket contained a compelling story of growth, discovery, and self-realization that he had to dig to uncover.

4. Chase down every story and learn from your writing

The only way to know if you’re on to a good story is to write it. Maybe that silly topic you’d initially discarded about playing a card game with your parents ultimately grows into a moving story covering family, your changing beliefs, and your understanding of yourself, and BOOM, that’s your story. 

Here’s how to do this: Once you’ve come up with that list of potential topics, choose a few to write short, speedy essays on, and see what emerges. Examine the essays and see what you learn about your writing: which topics bring out your authentic voice, what’s different between the best essay and the worst one, what’s powerful and what’s not? Learn more about what works best for you through practicing, experimentation, and refining.

5. Be a student of the craft and learn from the pros

Learning how to write a powerful story is like any other skill: the best way to ensure success is to learn from the experts. Pick up an anthology of essays or short stories, like The Best American Short Stories, read a few stories, and see what you learn. You’ll notice that a good writer can write a compelling story about any topic, so study how they do it. How does Anne Tyler create depth through fully-realized characters? How does George Saunders create suspense and humor? 

Read writers you admire, learn from their mastery, and draw inspiration from them. It will probably stoke something inside you—you might realize “oh, that boring family vacation to visit my grandparents in Florida actually contains a fascinating story about our weird traditions and dysfunctional closeness, and it’s a story only I can tell.”  

Hungry for more information? Check out our podcast episodes on personal statement: Part 1 & Part 2.

Still not enough? Check out some of our other essay-writing resources, or reach out to us for some help 🙂

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