Taboo Topics for Your Story

Taboo Topics for Your Story

Sometimes, no matter how vulnerable you want to be, there are taboo topics that just shouldn’t get brought up in your essay. While it’s important to show your most compelling side, there are a few topics that, even if you believe they are compelling, probably aren’t worth including.

Don’t politicize your essay

This is different than talking about politics. If you firmly believe your experience campaigning for a candidate or leading a political club over the past few years is important to you, that’s fine. What you don’t want to do is use your 500-650 words to defend (insert politician here). This is true regardless of party affiliation. No one wants to read about why you think (politician) is the greatest person since Jesus and no one cares about how you believe (politician)’s policies will make your country better. Keep the focus on you, your experience, and your learning experiences. It’s your story, not (politician)’s story.

Don’t brag about anything illegal or ethically questionable.

This is a little different than what most people say. Some will tell you never talk about illegal activity. I wouldn’t talk about the vehicle you stole or the credit card fraud you committed, but if you show repentance and how you’ve grown, it can work with carefully chosen words. This does not mean you should talk about crimes from your past. But if you consider them essential to your story and you’ve outgrown those moments, you can write about them—just tread carefully.

Don’t talk about your love life.


Other than that, I don’t really have any rules for content. Common sense will help you a lot, but don’t be afraid to get personal and show vulnerability. That’s the difference between mediocre content and compelling content.

Just don’t get so vulnerable that taboo topics come up, or your reader will never get past your choice of topic.

How Do You Tell Your Story?

How Do You Tell Your Story?

The personal statement is usually open-ended, 500 to 650 words, and has very few other guidelines to tell your story. With all this freedom, you have the chance to write something magical.

The flip side, of course, is that with this freedom comes the burden of too many options. What do I write about? How should I write about it? Is this an appropriate topic? Is this topic too boring? Too general? Too cliche? What if I’m a terrible writer?

Here’s the funny thing about these essays. As discussed before, you don’t need to be a great writer to tell a great story. So even if you think you aren’t a great writer, don’t let that give you cause to panic. This is not an AP English essay. This is your chance to tell a story.

But what if you’re still uncertain about doing that?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself that can generate some ideas:

What moments fundamentally changed you or the path you were on over the last decade?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing this has to be a Hollywood-type moment where you hit the game-winning three-pointer, nailed the audition that got you a role at a professional theater, or witnessed the death of someone close. If you had such a moment, then great! But if not, don’t despair. It’s about what’s fundamental to you being able to tell your story, not what would make a great film moment.

What moments trigger strong, almost overwhelming emotions?

The way to great writing is to write the raw truth. This is an absolute whether you’re writing an essay, an online column, a confessional, or even fiction. The more vulnerable the writing, the more painfully true, the better it is.

Oftentimes, this kind of writing will revolve around a failure you experienced that you overcame. Writing about truly exhilarating moments is fun, but not many people learn from them—they just indulge in them. The darkest, saddest, most frustrating moments are the ones we most often learn from and most often make compelling.

What moments represent the core of who you are?

If you know yourself well, you know there are certain traits that you value above all others. Be it kindness, empathy, leadership, determination, anything—if you can bring it to life in a story, it can make for a great personal statement.

There are, however, some topics that you do NOT want to talk about when you tell your story. Stay tuned next week to find out what those are.

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How to Write a Personal Statement Tip #5: Seek Feedback

How to Write a Personal Statement Tip #5: Seek Feedback

You’ve done all the work you can on your essay. Now it’s time to seek feedback from someone else.

You Can’t Do It All

By now, you’ve written two drafts, you have a solid idea of what you want your essay to say, and you’ve gotten it to that point.

It’s precisely for that reason that you need someone else to provide feedback on your essay. If you like the way you structured a certain paragraph, there’s very little chance you’re going to realize it may not work unless five other people point out that it just doesn’t flow. Even if everyone you send it to likes your content, you’d be surprised how often people miss basic mistakes in their writing.

You can decide to just do it all yourself, but you’ll be missing a valuable, fresh set of eyes that can play a major role in helping you.

Who You Gonna Call?

In general, I’m not a huge fan of having family and friends handle this step due to their biases. You can give it to them for their thoughts, but don’t be surprised if their feedback doesn’t go much further than “I don’t know why, I just liked it.” While this can be useful to the extent that you know you haven’t messed everything up, it’s not valuable if you want more than just the most basic of feedback.

I recommend English teachers, tutors, or a professional editor to check your work at this point (like me—click here if you want to hire me.) Regardless of who you hire, the big thing here is that someone besides you can look at this essay with no prior involvement or judgment—that is as invaluable as just about anything else.

It’s Not You, It’s Them

One of the hardest things for writers to realize is that writing isn’t about what satisfies you, it’s what satisfies your audience. That sounds like a tricky notion, especially since so many essays want you to write about yourself. But you have to think about how you’re presenting yourself. Your audience is the admissions officer—they are deciding if you can attend your dream school or not. How do you come across to them? Do you sound humble and appreciative? Or do you sound demanding and pretentious?

It can feel great to write about your greatest high school accomplishment. But are you writing it because the experienced awes you, or because it makes you look so awesome? Having other people look at your essay can help you figure out how you come across. It will make you realize if you’re speaking to your audience properly or ignoring them and focusing on your own self-gratification.

In the end, you may get nothing but positive feedback from the people you give your essay to. And that’s great! But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have done it. Odds are very good that will not wind up being the case for you.

Send it to some friends, let them review it, and then incorporate their feedback into the essay.

Want to have a professional take such a look at your personal statement? Let me help you get into your dream school.

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How to Write a Personal Statement Tip #4: Do a Second Draft

How to Write a Personal Statement Tip #4: Do a Second Draft

If you’re not planning on doing a second draft on your essay, think again. Even the greatest writers of all time will have typos, awkward sentences, and poor word choice in their first drafts. As good of a writer as you may be–even if you’re the best writer in your high school–you’re a better second draft writer than a first draft writer.

Your second draft is your chance to refine what you want to say. In a limited word count, it can be easy to think you’re staying on topic but then realize what you wrote about doesn’t fit in the flow of your story. It’s easy to realize on your second go-around that what you thought was clear actually just sounds pretentious and jumbled. With (hopefully) a fresh set of eyes, you can rework certain sentences, make sure you have a cohesive narrative, and blend it all together.

How do you do this? To be frank, it’s hard to give specific advice because each first draft will need something different. Some drafts have remarkably good content but need fine-tuning on the specifics, while some will seem so plain they’ll need an overhaul.

In general, your gut will tell you the right answer. What’s your immediate reaction when you read your essay after having taken some time off? Is it “huh, this is pretty nice” or is it “oh man, this sucks”? Remember, your essay should elicit a strong emotional response. If it’s not, it may be time to start over or perform some surgery.

My first step would be to make sure the content works. Are you happy with it? Does it have enough detail? Does it elicit the response you were hoping for? All of these are questions you should be answering “yes” to. If not, fix it up.

Next, it’s time to check your grammar and spelling. If you’re good at this, you can do it yourself. I recommend printing it out or blowing up the font to something much larger than normal—this will force you to look at it from a different angle and you’ll be more likely to catch grammatical errors. However, nowadays, there are several useful online editing tools, including a couple that I use, that will catch many common mistakes for you. I recommend using either Hemingway, Grammarly, or WritingAide. Almost all of these will have a free version you can use or a relatively cheap paid version.

Regardless of how you do it, though, you should use as many different tools as possible. Just using Grammarly will help you some, but I’ve caught errors the app didn’t. Similarly, the printed paper may allow you to catch some errors, but if you don’t know what is and isn’t a grammatical error, a program will prove mighty useful for you.

Once you’ve done all of this, it’s time for the final step of the second draft, one that we’ll go over in the next edition of this series–hand it over to a friend.

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Writing Tip #3: Don’t Repeat Yourself

Writing Tip #3: Don’t Repeat Yourself

Rarely, if ever, is this a literal error. If it is, it’s one that even the most novice of writers can correct. You just don’t see “I play basketball for fun. I play basketball for fun.” So what do I mean when I say “don’t repeat yourself?”

The problem is when you write two sentences back to back that don’t add any new information. For example, you might say, “While I worked at the summer camp, I learned a lot about communicating with underprivileged children. These kids taught me how to speak with people I wouldn’t normally spend time with.” There’s just not enough unique information to justify turning this into two sentences. Following in the steps of the previous problem, it’s better to write “That summer, I learned how to communicate with underprivileged children, a group I normally wouldn’t hang out with.”

This problem relates to the one about “Be Concise.” If you’re able to avoid redundancy, you can create more room for unique content. But if you end up saying the same thing over and over, the reader gets bored and thinks, “Yeah, I get it.” You don’t want that.

Go through your sentences. Does each one add a unique element? If you deleted it, would the essay as a whole lose any information? I like to look at each sentence and the sentence that came before and after it. I may not delete it entirely, but if I can merge it with one, then I will do that for brevity and to avoid redundancy.

In short, don’t do what this paragraph does. Don’t do what the words in this paragraph do.

Don’t repeat yourself.

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