Topic Selection

After brainstorming, you should have a lengthy list of potential topics to cover. Some essays that answer specific questions will require only one topic, but for most general personal statements, you will want to discuss two to four subjects. Occasionally, you can discuss a single experience at length if you're 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.

Use the following guide to help narrow down your topics.

Finding the Pattern That Connects

Selecting the topic of your personal statement can be a process akin to reverse engineering: You begin with conclusions and work your way back to a premise and overarching theme. What you are seeking at this point is a pattern that connects the very best of the material generated through brainstorming directly to your chosen field. All those piquant ideas and vividly rendered anecdotes you include in your essay should be entertaining to read but at the same time must make a coherent and compelling case for your admission.

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 can't answer "yes" to these questions, then you have probably chosen a topic that's too generic. Search harder to find a subject for which you can take a more personal, original approach.

Painting a Complete Portrait

You can't write a comprehensive essay that discusses everything you've 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 not be redundant, but build on and supplement each other.

Standing Out

Is your topic unique? It's 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 your competition.

Keeping Your Reader's Interest

Will your topic be able to sustain your reader's interest for the entire length of the essay? It's true that good writing can make any topic fascinating to read about, but there's 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's 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're choosing specific experiences or events, then the relevant details should be clearly available. 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 don't 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. Your readers could perceive an irrelevant response as an indication of your carelessness or lack of interest in their school.

What to Avoid

After you've determined that your topic meets the above criteria, you should check that it also avoids the following pitfalls:

  1. Resorting to gimmicks: While creativity is encouraged, there must be substance to make your tactics worthwhile. Don't expect mere novelty to win you any points, and realize that you risk coming across as frivolous. Also, there's a good chance that any gimmicks you come up with—writing a poem, writing in the third person—have been done already.

  2. Focusing on the negative: There is a separate section of this course dealing with how to address negative aspects of your application. As far as your topic is concerned, the main idea should be focused on your positive attributes. This does not mean, of course, that you shouldn't mention past weaknesses that you have learned to overcome, as the emphasis there is still on the strength you demonstrated.

  3. Repeating information that's listed elsewhere in the application: We have already mentioned this point, but it's worth making abundantly clear. Your topic should not merely be a list of activities or synthesis of your resume. Rather, it should offer the kind of insight that only you can provide in a personal manner.

  4. Being 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.

  5. Seeking 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 haven't 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.

Next: Lesson Two: Graduate Statement Themes

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