How Personal is Too Personal in a College Essay?
Updated: Jul 19
"I don't want to read about your saucy summer fling."
There are few parts of the college application process more shrouded in myth and mystery than the college essay. I've read a lot of college essays, and I have to tell you, sometimes the essay can get you in, and sometimes it can keep you out, but the vast majority of the time the essay has relatively low impact on a student's decision. The way we describe this to students is that 80% of essays aren't going to make a huge difference, but that means we want to aim for the top 10% and avoid the bottom 10%. The internet is oversaturated with college essay advice. Some is great (shout out to the College Essay Guy, Ethan Sawyer [we Sawyers have to stick together]), others not so much. Today I want to tackle something that I haven't seen written about ad nauseam: how personal is too personal?
Most admission professionals agree: your essay needs to be a reflection of yourself. When I read applications, I had access to students' academic credentials and extracurricular activities. If you use your essay to regurgitate your resume or transcript, then you'll be wasting both of our time. The essay acts as a vessel for students to show a more personal or qualitative side of themselves. That being said, trying to find an appropriate line between personal insight and oversharing can often be difficult and frustrating for students. Most students know that writing about a saucy summer fling is a bad idea (even though I've read an essay about this while in admissions), but more nuanced or emotionally impactful topics can be difficult to navigate impartially.
In this post of The College Essay Collection, we're going explore when a topic is too personal for a personal statement, and how it can be re-framed as a compelling piece of writing.
When is a topic too personal?
Most topics are fair game, as long as you can answer the following questions:
What did I learn?
How did I grow as a person, professional, or academic?
Why is this important to me?
What does this say about me?
What do I want the reader to know/learn about me?
Am I highlighting my values as a potential admit?
But are there some topics that you shouldn't write about under any circumstances? Very few! From my experience, there are two categories of essay topics of which students should be mindful:
Serious Emotional Health Concerns
Gimmick Essays: One Word, One Word Multiple Times, puns, etc.
These are topics that can be written about, but students should think carefully about their audience or reasons behind using the topic. If you can't answer the questions above, pick a different topic!
Severe or Visceral Past Trauma (avoid triggering the reader)
Any Topic Glorifying Violence
Exceptionally Radical Beliefs (that are likely offensive to most of the population)
Any Serious Illegal Activities (i.e. grand theft auto--not the game)
Graphic Sexual Content
These topics are (almost) never a good idea to write about. Generally speaking, these are topics that are often viewed as red flags, radically outside of generally accepted social norms, or tragedies/traumas that have no indication of personal growth/development.
What about political, religious, or controversial topics?
This is a fairly common question, and the answer really depends on the topic and where a student is applying. When admission officers read essays, they are thinking about how a student might fit into the campus culture. This doesn't mean they are looking to create a dogmatically monolithic community, though. If anything, their goal is usually quite the opposite. Students will need to consider the audience and campus culture as they brainstorm topics. For example, a Church of Christ college in the South is likely to view the topic of atheism differently than a politically progressive college in the Pacific Northwest.
In the end I'd also ask a student to consider the following question: if demonstrating passion about an important ideology results in no offer of admission, was that a community and institution you would have thrived in? For what it's worth, my answer to that question is that students shouldn't be attending schools where the administration, faculty, students, or the surrounding community belittles or ostracizes them due to their beliefs. While there is some strategy in writing a college essay to appeal to a reader, this strategy should never compromise an authentic view of your personal, academic, and professional ambitions.
What's the take-away?
Students need to feel empowered to choose a personally meaningful topic. However, this is not an excuse to write a diary entry, spill salacious secrets, or pull your admission officer into an ad-hoc emotional counseling session. Something I will often remind my students is that tragedy does not equal quality. So, how personal is too personal?
Topics can be very personal, but they always need to connect to a larger purpose (usually focusing on growth or self-discovery).
Some essay topics must be approached very carefully, while others should likely be avoided altogether.
Campus culture varies across institutions, so students should consider how they might fit in a community as they consider topics.
If you're questioning whether or not your topic is appropriate, feel free to reach out to me at my email below. Best of luck to all of you out there, and safe travels wherever your journey might take you! As always, be kind to each other, support each other, and challenge each other to make a better tomorrow.
With all my support,
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors