Expert Advice for your Common App Personal Statement Essay

Now that essay season is upon us (yes, indeed it is), it’s time to start thinking about your Common App personal statement. Junior year is coming to a close, your summer is beginning, and now it’s time to brainstorm and ideate. You might have some idea of a topic, experience, or incident that you want to write about. Or, you might not. That’s okay, too.

It’s helpful to think about this process as a highly creative one. You can truly write about anything, which is both liberating and overwhelming. The first step we always recommend our students take is to ask their friends to describe them in three adjectives. This step helps our students frame their essays and acts as a jumping off point. It conjures stories and creativity in a way that inspires them to write.

As you begin to think about your essays, it’s important to steer clear of cliches. We’ve written about essays that just don’t work, but we often write and speak about avoiding cliche topics. We’ve gathered a roundup of 5 essay topics to avoid during this process. We advise against writing on these topics not only because they are common and predictable, but because we know that they don’t give admissions readers as in-depth a perspective on who you are as you could be giving them. Read on for the five Common App essay topics to avoid.

  1. Leadership

    This might be counterintuitive, because of course a big part of the application process is illustrating how you have excelled as a leader. The reason why we advise against writing on this topic is because ultimately, you should be showing your leadership qualities and potential through your application, not telling them that you value leadership as a quality. There are good leaders and there are bad leaders. They are all leaders. We don’t believe that “leadership” is a quality. Being a leader is a job, and there are various qualities that contribute to being an effective leader, but leadership itself is not a quality.   

    Positive qualities that effective leaders possess include being good communicators and listeners, motivational, organized, and empathetic, among others. Instead of writing about “leadership,” write about times in your life where you displayed and exemplified the qualities that we just listed above. Make your reader feel how closely you pay attention to details and how passionate you are about valuing your team as individuals. It’s challenging to write about your own ability to lead in a way that is not skewed. You can’t recommend yourself for a job—that’s what reference letters are for. As such, you can’t reasonably say that you’re a great leader because you lead (and thus, possess leadership). Delve deeper. What makes a great leader and how do you exemplify those personality traits? Tell that story.

  2. Extracurricular Activities

    We advise against writing about your extracurricular activities in your essay because you risk repetition. The admission readers already know that you are President of Student Government, so don’t write about your campaign. Though it sheds a bit more light on the process, it doesn’t diversify your application or give them more information about you. It just provides some more detail about something that they already know. If you want to highlight your fundraising abilities or write a couple of sentences about your campaign process, use your resume or Additional Information section to do so.

    Your personal statement is the main writing portion of your application. Use this to your advantage—surprise them by producing a piece of writing that exemplifies who you are. At the end of the day, you don’t define yourself by your position as President of Student Government. You are more complex and nuanced than that. So why would you use up 650 precious words, the most creatively significant part of your application, delving into that one part of your day and identity.

    Instead of writing about a position you hold, your essay should highlight a quality that you possess. What does the fact that you are President of Student Government say about you? That is what they want to know. They don’t want to know what your campaign slogan was, they want to know why you chose your campaign slogan. It’s the why they are interested in. Talk about the why.

  3. Trips

    Of course your trip to care for sea turtles in Costa Rica was life changing and fascinating in many ways. We don’t doubt that and we’re not saying you shouldn’t write about something that happened on that trip, but we encourage our students to think very critically before writing about a trip that they took. More likely than not, most of the travel you have done was with your family. While the trips were amazing, we have to be frank and say that travel often speaks more to your parents than to you.

    Traveling is also an incredible privilege. Mentioning elaborate travel communicates that you have access to resources that many people do not. While appreciating those resources is important, we have found that it’s most effective to make sure that your privilege is checked throughout the application process, rather than on display. Being conscientious is an important quality that schools look for, and just because you have an opportunity to write about your incredible cruise to Alaska, doesn’t mean that you should. Even though you saw polar bears.

    Again, your essay should focus on a quality that you possess and tell a story about how you have grown. This is not to say that you haven’t been on a trip with a purpose (outside of building a house with a community service group). If you think you want to write about travel and want our opinion on it, just let us know.

  4. Family

    We’re not saying you can’t write about your family. Families contribute greatly to the people that we are and have become. They are integral aspects of your spirit and speak to your history and community. These are all topics that you should absolutely be exploring in your essay. We get into sticky territory when the essay ends up being more about your family than it does about you. As a reminder, your family is not applying to college, as far as we know. That’s just you. You’re applying to college. Your family has had a great impact on who you are, but your family is not you. You are your own independent person with many qualities and nuances—eexplore those and demonstrate your most unique qualities through the lens of a story that may or may not include details about your family. Your essay should ultimately reflect who you are as a person. Your family has contributed to who you are, but the essay should not be about them as a whole or even an individual member of your family.

    Additionally, we’re aware that not every family dynamic is positive. In fact, oftentimes negative family dynamics have contributed to your goals, challenges, and failures just as much as a happy family dynamic can contribute. While we encourage telling compelling stories, this portion of your application is ultimately not the time to reveal a harsh or traumatic familial dynamic or experience. Your essay should make the admissions reader feel optimistic and positive about your potential contribution to their college. We understand that you might be tempted to reveal something big in an effort to grab their attention, but in this case we strongly oppose the mantra that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

  5. Sports

    This might be a controversial stance, but if you wanted vanilla ice cream, you’d be on a different blog. We’re short ribs. Here it is: no one cares about sports.

    Take a breath. We’re not saying that your four-year commitment to basketball has been in vain. We’re saying don’t write about your game-winning 2-pointer junior year that secured your position as captain of the team for your personal statement. We’ll do the thing we advise against and repeat ourselves: they know that you’re the team captain. It’s on your resume and Activities section. Tell them something they don’t know. Illustrate a quality with your essay and express why something matters to you. What does captain mean to you and how has it affected your ability to relate to others? That’s the story that matters, not that you are captain.

    Your position as captain speaks to your athleticism, not your ability to contribute positively to a community. While you might be saying to yourself, “this doesn’t apply to me because I am being recruited for a sport and it is who I am so I will write about it,” think again. In that case, we discourage you even more from writing about your sport, because the college knows that you’re incredible at it. Now it’s on your resume, in your Activities section, AND the coach has written something that is attached to your application on your behalf about said sport. It’s there 3 times. Diversify. Trust us. It’s an effective strategy in both finance and college applications. Colleges want to know that you are more than your sport. They want students who are going to push themselves and contribute in more ways than are predictable.

    Colleges want to know who you are. At the end of the day, it’s difficult to illustrate a dynamic, genuine reflection of your persona on paper. The only way to come close is to write about your essential qualities. This starts with our suggestion up top of asking your friends to tell you about yourself. Execute on that. You’re going to find overlap and discover fodder for your essay.

The most convincing and effective college essays are those that tell stories about a student that not many people know. For example, we’re sure that you read about the student who had a member of the custodial staff at his high school janitor write his recommendation letter for Dartmouth. If not, it’s a must read. This is a great example of displaying a defining quality in an unexpected way. You want to convey a quality that you possess that makes you, you, in a way that isn’t cliche or repetitive.

If you need some inspiration for your essays, read some of our sample essays written by actual students of ours. They work. As always, let us know if you need any help at all. We’re here to help you with every step of the process.