Where to Start: 4 Ways To Choose Your Admissions Essay Topic

The hardest part of any writing assignment is where to start—even for professional writers. The pressure is even worse when it's the one essay that could help determine your future.

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US News & World Report interviewed admissions deans & counselors on what they're looking for in a compelling personal statement. Here's the scoop:

1) Start Early
Be prepared to go through multiple topics and even drafts before landing the right approach. (It's a little easier if you have some help). I recommend using the summer to start writing and see what clicks. The topic should reveal who you are, what you're passionate about, and how it makes you the perfect fit at your dream school.

Tracy Geng, 19, a sophomore at Dartmouth College from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, started her essay for the Common Application in July before senior year. Her first draft was about her love of writing poetry "and it was really cheesy," she says. With time to rethink, she dug deeper. A creative writing workshop she had put on for young Chinese dancers offered an opportunity to weave in both her love of poetry and her Chinese heritage while also highlighting her initiative. Geng, who danced for 13 years, had come up with the idea for the workshop on her own.

2) Focus on One Passion
Many students make the mistake of padding their applications with long lists of extracurriculars and community service. Guess what? Admissions officers can see right through that superficial contribution. They're not looking for activity—they want to see a passionate, meaningful commitment that shows growth, dedication & leadership.

"Who am I to say that writing for the literary magazine is better than running track; or serving your high school community by being in student government is better or worse than community service (or) is better or worse than working at Subway?" Anci says. "What we're in the business of making judgments about is the student's ability to reflect on what that's meant to them."

3) Show Where You Come From
What if you're too busy working an afterschool job or taking care of younger siblings to pad your activity resume? Write about it. Including those details shows that you can handle real adult responsibility and can explain worse grades or SAT scores if you can't afford pricey tutoring or admissions consulting.

There's also a push for colleges to put more weight on endeavors that less privileged students often have to prioritize, such as working to contribute to household expenses or caring for younger siblings or an ill relative. Erica Johnson, director of admissions at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, suggests including this sort of significant activity as an extracurricular if you don't want to write about it in your essay, so admissions officers know about it.

4) Explain How You Overcame Hardship
It's not enough to just have adversity: you have to show how you overcame it. Whether it's an illness or family circumstance that slowed you down, make sure you include your growth from that experience.

One common mistake, admissions staffers say, is presenting a learning disability simply as an excuse for a mixed performance. Instead, explain: "Here's what this condition has taught me. Here's how I've been able to move forward.'" That shows grit and self-awareness – two qualities every college wants.