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The Personal Statement Topics Ivy League Aspirants Should Avoid

Yale University

As students begin drafting their essays this summer, it’s important to remember that choosing the right topic is key to crafting a successful essay. For those aiming for Ivy League schools, a cliche, unoriginal, or inauthentic essay can mean the difference between catching the eye of admissions officers and blending in with other applicants.

A compelling personal statement is a vital part of an Ivy League application, giving students a chance to highlight their personality, experiences, and goals. Starting the writing process in the summer can provide a significant advantage, offering more time for brainstorming, editing, and perfecting standout essays.

For students navigating the college application process, here are some personal statement topics to avoid:

While many students have faced significant challenges by the time they apply for college, some believe that sharing their most traumatic experiences will garner attention and sympathy from admissions committees. Though vulnerability can be impactful, divulging overly personal or sensitive information can make readers uncomfortable and distract from a student’s unique strengths. Students should aim to be authentic and honest about their struggles while remembering that the personal statement is a professional piece of writing, not a diary entry.

Before sharing a tragic or traumatic experience, students should consider why they want to include it and how it might impact the kind of student and community member they will be on campus. If the story genuinely enriches the admissions committee’s understanding of their candidacy, it can be included thoughtfully. However, if the aim is to prove they are more deserving or to elicit pity, it might be better to choose a different topic. This critical approach should also be applied to supplemental essays, where students should exclude unnecessary details and focus on how the experience has shaped who they are today.


2. The Travelogue

Travel can be a transformative experience, but essays that simply recount trips abroad without deeper insight often miss the mark. For students choosing to write about their travels, it’s crucial to focus on depth rather than breadth. A personal statement should not read like a travel itinerary or a comprehensive trip diary. Instead, students should hone in on one specific, impactful experience from their journey. By using vivid details and creative storytelling, they can highlight how this particular moment shifted their perspective, instilled new values, or inspired their future aspirations.

3. The Superhero Narrative

Ivy League and other top colleges seek students who are introspective and willing to learn—admissions officers understand that no applicant is perfect. Therefore, it’s essential for students to be aware of their strengths and weaknesses and to openly discuss the areas in which they hope to grow. They should avoid grandiose narratives that portray themselves as flawless heroes. While it's important to highlight their achievements, presenting themselves as protagonists who single-handedly resolve complex issues can come across as exaggerated and lacking in humility. Instead, students should consider sharing experiences that demonstrate their personal growth and capacity for self-reflection. For example, rather than recounting a tale of being the only person to stand up to a bully, a student could describe an experience that empowered them to advocate for themselves and others. This approach adds depth and dynamism to their essay, presenting a more nuanced and relatable story.

4. The Plan for World Peace

Many students feel the urge to declare their plans to solve monumental issues like world hunger or climate change. While these aspirations are admirable, they often come off as unrealistic and insincere, overshadowing the student's tangible achievements and real-world experiences. Rather than making sweeping proclamations, applicants should concentrate on the concrete steps they've taken or plan to take within their local communities to create positive change. This approach demonstrates their commitment and practical mindset. For example, instead of claiming they want to eradicate poverty, students could share their long-term involvement with a local charity. This narrative could illustrate how this experience helped them discover their values and put their passions into practice. By focusing on specific, meaningful actions, students can present a more genuine and impactful story.    

5. The Sports Narrative

While sports offer valuable life lessons, essays focusing solely on athletic achievements or the significance of a particular game can often feel clichéd and lack depth. Admissions officers have seen countless essays about scoring the winning goal, overcoming injuries, or learning teamwork through sports. Instead, students should aim to share a story that is uniquely theirs. For instance, a student might have a distinctive tale about introducing competitive pickleball to their high school and bringing together diverse groups of friends, or starting a community project to repair and donate golf equipment to students who couldn’t otherwise afford to play. If a sports-related essay could easily be written by any high school point guard or soccer team captain, it’s time to brainstorm fresh ideas.

6. The Pick-Me Monologue

In an attempt to impress Ivy League admissions officers, some students feel compelled to list their achievements and standout qualities. However, this approach strips their essays of depth, introspection, and creativity, reducing their experiences to a mere resume. Admissions officers already have access to students’ Activities Lists and resumes; the personal statement should add richness and dimension to their applications, showcasing facets of their character, values, and voice that aren’t evident in the quantitative aspects. Instead of enumerating all their extracurricular activities, students should focus on a particularly meaningful experience or event from one activity that holds significant importance to them. Reflecting on how this involvement has shaped their growth as a student and as a person will provide a more compelling and authentic narrative.

7. The Pandemic Sob Story

The Covid-19 pandemic was a significant and transformative period for many students, making it a common source of inspiration for essay topics. However, essays focusing on the general challenges of the pandemic, such as remote learning difficulties, social isolation, and disruptions, may seem unoriginal to admissions officers who have read numerous similar accounts. These narratives often blend together, making it hard for any single essay to stand out. Instead of centering their essays on the pandemic's hardships, students should highlight how they adapted, grew, or positively impacted others during this time. For instance, rather than discussing the struggles of remote learning, a student could describe how they established a virtual study group to support classmates. Alternatively, an applicant might write about acquiring a new skill, such as coding or painting, during lockdown and how this pursuit has influenced their academic or career goals. By focusing on resilience, innovation, and personal development, students can craft more compelling narratives.

Creating an outstanding personal statement requires time, thoughtful consideration, and genuine reflection. The most impactful essays balance vulnerability with professionalism, introspection with action, and championing one’s strengths while acknowledging weaknesses and focusing on areas for growth. Starting early and avoiding overused topics can elevate a student’s essay, increasing their chances of making a memorable impression.



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