How to write about personal subjects in a college essay

Your college admissions essay is all about giving admissions officers a peek into who you are. However, at the end of the day, admissions officers are judges of your skills, experience, and potential—not your therapists. This may sound harsh, but in order to write a successful college essay, you must be strategic about how much of your personal history you reveal.

Just like your high school English teacher might have told you to think of the books you read in school as potential essay-fodder, you should view your own past as a potential catalog of essay topics to draw from. This is admittedly a cynical perspective; you may want to let the admissions officers get to know you—the real you!!!

But that’s not what matters here. What matters is getting accepted and starting off your adult life as well as possible.

By setting limits on what you share about yourself, you can express yourself authentically while maximizing the chances of a success admissions paper.

How personal is too personal in a college essay?

So what should you write about, and what’s off limits?

According to Scribendi, one of the most common college essay mistakes is being personal to the point of appearing to seek pity. Admissions officers don’t admit students on a basis of past hardships. Instead, they seek to understand how your past has made you the person you are (a person which, it just so happens, will be a great addition to the campus culture they’re trying to cultivate).

The topic itself isn’t the only important thing. How you write about it is key, too. Admissions officers report that they want to see “positive spins” in the personal statements they read. (Once again, insert your cynicism here if you so please.)

If you’re reflecting on the events or circumstances that made you you, and are struggling to figure out how to possibly put a “positive spin” on it, then perhaps that isn’t the right thing to write about.

Wait a minute: What’s the difference between an event and a circumstance?

Both events and circumstances are crucial tools in your toolkit when choosing your college essay topic.

An event is any specific occurrence—something that happened once, or perhaps a handful of times—that served as a pivot point in your life. Think of an event as the great opportunity to demonstrate your growth by showing the before, the after, and the event that changed you for the better.

An essay-worthy event in your life may be:

  • The loss of a loved one
  • A significant failure (losing the big game)
  • A significant success (winning the big game)
  • An accident or injury
  • A special interaction with a special individual
  • An important trip

A circumstance, on the other hand, isn’t something that occurred just once. It is something that has been ongoing throughout your life, or was perhaps set in motion before you were born. Circumstances have shaped you over time. Maybe you’ve been dealing with these circumstances for months, years, or for as long as you can remember.

An essay-worthy circumstance in your life may be:

  • Growing up without a key family member
  • Living with a disease or disorder
  • Living in poor economic conditions
  • Experiencing homelessness
  • Having a notably negative or positive long-term interpersonal relationship (romantic or otherwise)
  • Supporting someone in your life over a long period of time
  • Being given an amazing opportunity (such as studying/living abroad, being trained in a special skill, etc.)

To write a college essay that is perfectly personal—but not too personal—follow these tips:

  • Write down the ten most significant events or circumstances in your life. Pretend you’re a superhero; what’s your origin story?
  • Cross out any events or circumstances that you will struggle to put a “positive spin” on without sounding disingenuous
  • Follow our brainstorming guide to determine which remaining event or circumstance will allow you to most effectively answer the prompt

How to write about death in a college essay

In case you’re wondering, yes, you can write about death in your college essay. The passing of loved ones can be one of the most significant and life-changing things that has ever happened to you. If you’ve lost someone you were close to, it could have shaped large swaths of who you are as a person.

To effectively write about death in your personal statement, you should keep in mind that most college essays prompts care far more about your own growth or individual strength, rather than the depths of the hardships you’ve been through.

This is to say, don’t just discuss the details of your death and grief; discuss how these things shaped you.

How to write about religion in a college essay

Religion, similarly, can be an incredibly large part of who you are as a person. If religion is important to you, don’t feel like you need to hide it. However, keep in mind that the person reading (and evaluating) your essay may not share your religious beliefs.

To help them get the intended impact from your paper, remember to explain your beliefs without necessarily preaching them. Put another way, focus on explaining how your spirituality has allowed you to become the kind of person that your college would be thrilled to have on campus—rather than belaboring the explanation of your belief system itself.

This might sound like self-censorship. It’s not. Instead, this approach allows you to express yourself fully while still managing to satisfy the prompt and show admissions officers what they’re trying to see.

Check out these examples of great religious essays for inspiration.

More tips on how to write the perfect college essay:

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