One of the most challenging aspects of writing the personal statement is getting started.
Many students struggle with choosing a topic due to myths about what “the best” personal statement topic sounds like. And I find they often get stuck because they believe the falsehood that you must land on a “killer” topic because only the most spectacular and entirely original topic will guarantee a great college application essay and become the key to admission to their “dream” school.
I believe there are two camps that students fall into when choosing their topic for the personal statement: the Star Wars movies and The Office television show.
The Star Wars Essay
A Star Wars essay topic is like a grand space opera. The storyline is epic. The characters are exciting and dynamic. The special effects are dazzling. And the soundtrack is iconic. It’s hard to not find yourself sitting at the edge of your seat waiting to find out how the movie ends.
The Office Essay
The Office essay is the opposite of the Star Wars essay. The Office is mundane. The storylines are ordinary, with often silly, tales of people finding their way in the world. The characters range from unimpressive, regular people to quirky personalities who often make you cringe with embarrassment. And the setting is a nondescript (even ugly) office park.
The Problem with an Epic Star Wars Essay
Many students believe that their personal statement topic must be as grand, epic, and dazzling as a Star Wars movie. And it must have the drama of a space opera, including dazzling special effects, explosions, evil characters, and shining bright heroes.
Or rather, I agree that if a student has a story to tell that is as epic and exciting as Star Wars, then they should try to tell that story in their personal statement.
But the truth is, for the overwhelmingly vast majority of high school students applying to college, this is a rare circumstance. Trying to manufacture a topic that sounds as exciting as a Star Wars plotline is a bad idea because it will likely come across as flat, disingenuous, and unimpressive.
There Is Something to Be Said for “Ordinary”
Instead of striving for something unrealistic for the personal statement, I encourage students to model their essays after The Office.
What makes The Office a favorite show of mine is how touching the stories of unremarkable people are. In each episode, ordinary, and sometimes cringeworthy, scenarios play out with a universal quality that the viewer sincerely relates to, and can laugh at.
I’m not suggesting students should go out of their way to make their personal statements funny. In fact, most students should avoid trying comedic writing because this is difficult even for professional writers.
Instead, I recommend that students pick a seemingly ordinary or mundane topic as a starting point to explore in their personal statement. When they do, there often is a surprising end result: their essay draws the admission officer into the story to learn something subtle yet significant about the applicant—something that is not related in any other part of the application. And hopefully, the reader can see some of their own values reflected in the student’s unique story.
The Bottom Line
My advice to students is to avoid the unrealistic expectation that you must find the Star Wars-type topic to write about in your personal statement and consider instead an ordinary, yet subtle and authentic, topic from The Office point of view.
I am an Independent Educational Consultant with years of experience in the field of high school college counseling. If you are interested in more tips about college admission essay writing, please visit my website’s blog. Or contact me if you would like personalized support during the college application process.