30 of the Worst Personal Statement Topics We’ve Ever Seen
September 7, 2017
30 of the Worst Personal Statement Topics We’ve Ever Seen
Writing a strong personal statement is no easy undertaking. With endless potential personal statement topics, where do you begin? In 650 words, you must create a compelling essay that captures who you are as a person. Oh, and it would be great if it was the best piece of writing you have ever produced!
No pressure, but without a powerful and persuasive personal statement, you will not stand out, and you will not be accepted by your dream school.
Often, students don't know how to approach the personal statement. In English class, the 5-paragraph essay is practiced year after year, but personal writing is a different challenge. How do you get an admissions officer to connect with you in just over a page?
This all starts with selecting a strong topic. Much of the success of your personal statement hinges on this first step. But it's often where students go astray. There are common mistakes to avoid when picking personal statement topics, but there are still many places to get tripped up.
At InGenius Prep, we've seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. But we work with students to avoid bad topics, one personal statement at a time! To really understand what NOT to do, here are 30 of the worst personal statement topics we have ever seen.
Is this actually adversity?
1. “I was really scared about giving a big speech (and then I gave the speech!)”
One of the most cliché personal statement topics is doing something you were initially afraid to do. Overall, this is a pretty common feat. The “overcoming adversity” narrative is typical, so be sure to ask yourself: “Is it actually impressive that I did that?” A topic like this simply will not stand out, and should be avoided.
2. “I made it through trials and tribulations on the links (so I’ve grown as a person!)”
An entire essay about persevering through a particularly windy day out on the golf course won’t impress others. First off, this “struggle” showcases the applicant’s privilege. An admissions officer will not see the difficulty in having access to a golf course. This essay concluded with a reflection on how much the student had grown up, as evidenced by their willingness to continue playing golf, rather than quit and leave. The central flaw was that this was painted as "overcoming a challenge" rather than being about building up a skill set over time. Don’t try to come up with personal statement topics about adversity — if you’re passionate about golf, frame your personal statement differently.
Whose story is this anyway?
3. “My teacher got really sick and I held a bake sale (and it was so hard for me!)”
Writing about someone else’s heartache, illness, or tragedy is almost always a mistake. If the suffering belongs to someone else, it is their story — not yours. The same goes for family crises that happened when you were too young to remember or to have responded in a significant way. Write about yourself. Personal statement topics do not have to be dramatic or tragic; it’s more important that you own your topic.
4. “My friends had to move away because their parents lost their jobs (and it was so hard for me!)”
You never want to sound as though you are claiming another’s adversity as your own. You do not have to write about hardship if you have not experienced something incredibly life changing. Write about something that actually happened to you!
5. “My mother’s cousin is a famous actress (and I know her!)”
After reading an essay like this, an admissions office might want to admit your mother’s cousin, not you! It’s cool to know famous people, but it doesn’t have any significance for your application. Knowing a star is not impressive. In your application, you have to be the star.
6. “My parents are diverse (so I’m diverse!)”
This essay emphasized the diverse background of her parents, but the student grew up in a wealthy U.S. household. This demonstrated how out-of-touch the student was with the types of experiences her parents had over-coming challenges to access education. She didn’t think about diversity in her own lifetime, but tried to argue for her uniqueness because of her family’s background. Your personal statement needs to be about YOU, not your parents.
7. “Everyone at my high school is mean and stupid (but I am better than all of them!)”
Degrading others is off limits — an arrogant tone will instantly rub an admissions officer the wrong way. Not only does this topic put fellow classmates down, but this essay falls into the common trap of writing about others, not YOU. At the end of the day, details about your peers are irrelevant to an admissions officer. The main message of your personal statement should always be about you.
Personal statement topics should be personal!
8. “I have won a lot of debate awards (let me list them for you!)”
Listing your awards is fine — in other parts of the application. These can go in your honors list and in your activities list. The personal statement is where admissions officers want to get to know you as a person. When you tell admissions officers about your experiences, they want to see through your eyes. They want to understand what you were feeling and what you did in response. Use your personal statement to reflect on who you are, not to regurgitate your resume.
9. “Here’s a historical event I’m really interested in and have researched throughout high school!”
This is your chance to show who you are! Don’t spend time talking about a topic you like and describing it in detail. That’s application space other students will have used to demonstrate their talents, achievements, maturity, and interesting ideas. If you’re really passionate about a historical event, talk about how your research has changed your worldview.
10. “I came to the U.S. and saw the value of freedom of speech (wish my mother country had that!)”
It’s great that you’re enjoying the freedom America offers, but your American admissions officers don’t need to be told how great America is. You should strive to pick a more personal topic. In the end, this more of a policy statement than a personal essay.
Hear a Yale writing expert talk about prompts like these and other common personal statement mistakes here:
Privileged Pity Party
11. “While on vacation, I broke my leg waterskiing (and lived to tell the tale!)”
Just think about this scenario. If you were on a tropical vacation and broke your leg waterskiing behind a boat (which your family probably rented), then you must’ve spent a lot of money. Traveling for vacation is something that a lot of students have never experienced. Overcoming a leg break is not overcoming a challenge, especially if the leg was broken while on vacation. Really compare yourself to your peers and ask yourself: “Is this considered a real challenge?” In the end, this story reeks of privilege.
12. “I was surrounded by poverty in Africa (but lived in a gated community!)”
Overall, this makes the student look privileged and sheltered. Talking about how you have avoided poverty because you have money will be seen as extremely spoiled by admissions officers. Instead, talk about how the place you grew up changed your opinions or views of the world. Colleges want to take students from all different backgrounds, but looking pampered will ruin your chances of admission.
Be likable, admirable, humble
13. “I started a food fight and got suspended (but I learned such a valuable lesson!)”
Even though this essay topic is funny and memorable, it shows the student in the wrong light. In the end, it doesn’t give us any new positive impressions of their persona. On the other hand, as an additional informational essay explaining why the student has a suspension on their record, it could have been a decent approach!
14. “Accept me because you need some not exceptional students too (!)”
Promoting your shortcomings is not playing with the best odds. If your grades or test scores are below average, use other parts of the application to highlight your strengths. Showcase your dynamic personality, leadership, and impact on your community. In order to be compelling, you need a personal statement that sheds light on your assets.
15. “I’ll teach my roommates combat (and force them to adapt to my ways!)”
A student answered Yale’s “what will you teach your suitemates” question by saying that he would teach them the art of close-quarter combat, “force” them to adapt to foreign cuisine and language, and engage in regular bouts of unscheduled airsoft weaponry games. Unlike this student, you want to come off as positive and very, very stable. You never want an admissions officer to worry about you.
16. “Blood-soaked. 3am.”
That was the first line of one personal statement. And while the writer definitely grabbed the reader’s attention, this ended up being an essay about how much time this student spent playing video games. This is not a great attribute to highlight in a personal statement. Be sure your topic is a flattering one, and that your hook makes sense with the topic to follow.
Middle School Agony
17. “I was a great soccer player until 8th grade (then I got injured!)”
The injured athlete story is very hard to pull off. Sadly, it is too common. It doesn’t stack up well against students who have overcome shocking hardships. You also don’t want to talk about your middle school trials and tribulations. Tell us what is great about you now, not what might have been!
18. “I chose the wrong middle school in 5th grade (and I’m still thinking about it!)”
Bottom line: you should not be writing about your middle school self! Admissions officers want to hear about who you are now, not five years ago. Focusing on the pre-teen era makes it seem as though nothing of interest has happened to you since! If you gesture to middle school because a sustained interest started then, or you met the President and it had a profound impact on your life path, okay. But the general rule of thumb: do not write about middle school.
19. “China is the best country in the world for the following reasons!”
Or any other country. It’s always best to stay away from things that are controversial like nationalism, politics, or religion. Nationalism showing through an essay can make a student seem like less of a global citizen (which is what schools would really want). You never know who is reading your application, and what opinions they have on these ideas. Steer clear of disputed personal statement topics!
20. “I was shocked that most of my classmates weren't phased by the prospect of accidentally breaking their hymen by using a tampon!”
While this essay dove deep into cultural differences between the East and West, mainly regarding feminine hygiene products, its graphic nature was a little too graphic. Toning down the details would allow the reader to focus on the student’s passion for different cultures, values, and practices, rather than be distracted or uncomfortable. Don’t rub an admissions reader the wrong way with gory specifics!
21. “I helped children with autism for three weeks (and realized that they are human just like me!)”
Overall, this takeaway makes the student seem immature and ignorant. While it’s always good to give back to your community and volunteer, students should dig deeper for a more meaningful takeaway. What did that experience make you think about volunteerism in general? How would you continue to make more long-lasting changes? You do not want it to appear that you previously looked down upon people with Autism.
22.“Volunteering in Haiti made me wonder why didn’t they help each other more?”
This is was in a personal statement to Stanford, and the admissions reader happened to be Haitian. As you can imagine, this came across as incredibly ignorant and offensive. Moral of the story: You never know who your audience is! Think about personal statement topics that would appeal to anyone.
23. “I had a temper tantrum (that ultimately led to my parents’ divorce!)”
A student wrote his personal statement about how he refused to leave his current school, and thus when his father took a new job in a city four hours away, his parents had to separate, which ultimately led to their divorce. Nothing says “I can't handle four years away from home” like a temper tantrum that ultimately culminates in your parents’ divorce. Avoid all topics that could make you look immature!
24. “I want to attend your school because my parents have agreed to move across the country to be with me!”
It’s fine to show how important your family is to you, but not at the cost of your development into an independent young adult. At the end of the day, this personal statement comes across as immature. Explain that you want to go to an institution because of your intellectual interests and passions, not because of mom and dad.
25. “I spliced lyrics of Billboard Top 40 songs (into motivational lessons!)”
This original essay draft read like a cross between a poorly written motivational speech and the lyrics of 4-5 then-current Billboard Top 40 songs in the Pop category. Not only were these songs corny and overplayed, but writing to an Ivy League school about how your life is as profound as a Top 40 Pop song’s chorus will almost never land you in the acceptance pile. When you’re an 18-year-old waxing lyrical about how Disney’s Frozen theme song changed your life (and not in the way that a writer for The Onion might), you need to rethink your admissions strategy.
26. “Don’t give up, just be you, ‘cause life is too short to be anybody else."
Whenever possible, avoid starting with a quote or a corny life lesson — especially a cheesy one like this. Opening with a quote will immediately strike an admissions officer as cliché. A quote that wasn’t written by you is not worth including - an admissions officer wants to read your own words!
27. “I am a defender of truth. Let me show you deep thoughts (that you have never thought of!)”
Remember that the people evaluating your personal statement are much older than you are! Professing profundity is likely to make you seem immature instead of wise. This attempt to be profound comes across as arrogant.
28. “Let me tell you about confusing metaphors my grandfather taught me (that have philosophical lessons!)”
A student wrote an essay about a rock that came out of a cast-iron pot of boiling water from a coal mine. The rock was given to the student by his grandfather, and he said some confusing words when handing it to him (in another language). After spending 450 words describing this difficult-to-follow story, the student surmised as to its meaning and ended with “And, that’s what I hope to learn in college.” Adding esoteric confusion to your essays will not improve them. Your personal statement is not the place to be overly philosophical. Be sure an admissions officer would be able to follow your story, and get to your point quickly.
What Could Have Been
29. “There’s this research opportunity I almost got to do (but I screwed up the dates!)”
Achievements that didn’t actually happen have no place in your application. If anything, this essay portrays you as a scattered, disorganized person. Focus on your concrete achievements when thinking about personal statement topics! You want to talk about how certain opportunities have made you the person you are today, so don’t talk about hypotheticals or what could have been.
30. “Art has always been in my blood. I’ve never taken an art class (but at your school my inner artist will burst forth!)”
If you want to pursue art in college, good for you! However, the personal statement is a place to talk about who you are today and how you currently see the world. If your inner artist has not yet emerged, don’t talk about this interest. Things that could be don’t have a place in your personal statement.