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Lesson Two: Selecting a Topic  

After brainstorming, you should have a lengthy list of potential topics to cover. Some essays that answer specific questions will require only one topic. For most general personal statements, however, you will want to discuss between two and four subjects. Occasionally you can discuss a single experience at length, if you are confident that the material touches on the entire range of themes you need to convey. If you try to tackle more than four subjects, you are probably treating each one in insufficient depth.

For each potential topic, answer the following questions to help narrow your selection.

1. Have I selected a topic that conveys something meaningful about my personality?  Will the reader walk away with an enriched understanding of who you are? If you cannot answer in the affirmative, then you have probably chosen a topic that is too generic. Search harder to find a subject for which you can take a more personal and original approach.

2. Am I painting a complete portrait? You cannot write a comprehensive essay that discusses everything you have ever done, but you can aim to offer an argument that details the full range of what you have to offer. If you choose only one topic, that topic should be broad enough in scope to allow you to discuss layers of your skills and characteristics. If you choose multiple topics, they should build upon and supplement each other without becoming redundant.

3. Is my topic unique? It is hard to have something entirely new to say, but you should at least have a fresh take on your topic. If you recognize a lack of originality in your ideas, try to be more specific and personal. The more specific you get, the lower the risk of blending in with other applicants.

4. Will it keep my reader's interest? It is true that good writing can make any topic fascinating to read about, but there is no need to start yourself off with a handicap. Choose a topic that will naturally be of interest to any reader. For this criterion, it is necessary to step back and view your topic objectively, or else consult the opinion of others. If someone described the basic idea to you, would you care enough to ask for more details?

5. Can I write a detailed essay on this topic? You should make sure ahead of time that your topic is fundamentally based on concrete evidence. If you are choosing specific experiences or events, then the relevant details should be clearly available. However, if your topic is more abstract, then you must be prepared to back up any claims with concrete examples and illustrative details.

6. Does my topic answer the question? Applicants often overlook the very basic necessity of actually answering the question posed. They think they can get away with a loosely adapted essay from another application, or they simply do not take the time to review the question carefully. Make sure the topic you choose gives you room to address all parts of the question fully. Admissions officers could perceive an irrelevant response as an indication of your carelessness or lack of interest in their school.

7. Does it resort to gimmicks? While creativity is encouraged, there must be substance to make your tactics worthwhile. Do not expect mere novelty to win you any points, and realize that you risk coming across as frivolous. Also, there is a good chance that any gimmicks you come up with have been done already.

8. Is the topic too negative? As far as your topic is concerned, the main idea should be focused on your positive attributes. This does not mean, however, that you should not mention past weaknesses that you have learned to overcome, as the emphasis there is still on the strength you demonstrated.

9. Does my topic simply repeat information found elsewhere on the application? Your topic should not merely be a list of activities or a prose version of your résumé. Rather, it should offer the kind of insight that only you can provide in a personal manner.

10. Is my topic too controversial? If you get a sympathetic reader, a controversial topic might help you to stand out, but you risk offending others and severely hurting your chances. You would do better to search for a topic that makes you unique without resorting to cheap shots or obvious cries for attention.

11. Will my topic inspire pity? You can describe misfortunes or a disadvantaged background, but do not use them as an excuse for bad performances or to seek pity. Doing so not only could sound manipulative, but also means that you have not emphasized your strengths sufficiently. Thus, as in the case of weaknesses, you should bring up obstacles in your past only to show how you have overcome them.


Words of Wisdom from Admissions Officers

“Try very hard just to be yourself…We realize that this is difficult for high school students to do since they are in the midst of a period of self-discovery and are still figuring out who they are. Nevertheless, to the extent that you are developing a sense of your identity, try to be courageous and express yourself honestly.”

— Admissions Officer, Duke University

“The essay plays a particularly key role, not only in selection for the freshman class but also in reviewing candidates for scholarships and other honors programs…a good, polished essay within a carefully constructed application affords you the opportunity to be present, in a sense, when the committee meets, adding another element of control.”

— Admissions Officer, New York University

Move on to Lesson Three: Structure and Outline

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