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 other general personal statements, you may want to discuss between two and four subjects. If you try to tackle more than four subjects, you are probably treating each one in insufficient depth.

Use the following guide to help narrow down your topics.

Conveying Something Meaningful

Does your topic convey something meaningful about your personality? Will the reader walk away with an enriched understanding of who you are? If you cannot answer "yes" to these questions, 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.

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, but not be redundant.

Standing Out

Is your 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 less likely that you will blend in with the essays of other applicants.

Keeping Your Reader's Interest

Will your topic be able to sustain your reader's interest for the entire length of the essay? 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?

Staying Grounded In Detail

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.

Answering 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.

What To Avoid

After you have determined that your topic meets the above criteria, you should make sure that it also avoids the following pitfalls:

EssayEdge Extra: 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

Next: Lesson Two: Question-Specific Strategies