How to Stand Out With Common Personal Statement Topics

A Mini-Course for Students

Led by Ethan Sawyer (College Essay Guy) and
Tom Campbell (former Admission Officer at Holy Cross & Pomona College)

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This course is for students who wonder:

  • What’s the difference between a “common” and an “overused” personal statement topic (and why does that matter)?
  • What are some of the most common essay topics admission officers see?
  • How can students stand out with essays that are about someone else (i.e., the “inspiring grandparent” story)
  • How can students stand out even when they’ve faced similar challenges as other students?
  • Is there such a thing as a stellar “sports” essay? (Spoiler: There is—we’ll show you one!)
  • What should I do if my topic isn’t working, or is overused—and when is it too late to start over?
  • Can I really stand out with an “extracurricular activity” essay—if so, how?
  • What’s the difference between a common topic and a cliché topic—and how can understanding that difference help me?
  • What’s the secret to standing out with a common topic?

How to Stand Out With Common Personal Statement Topics

A Mini-Course for Students and Families


The “soccer” essay. The “family challenges” essay. And, of course, the “inspiring grandfather/grandmother/person who is totally not the student” essay.

How can students make these ideas work, come up with alternate topics that might work better—and how can they tell the difference?

In this pay-what-you-can mini-course, Ethan Sawyer (College Essay Guy) and Tom Campbell (former admission officer) will share practical techniques students can use to uplevel a personal statement in as little as twenty minutes, using a range of real essay examples from recent students.

What we're covering:

  • Important factors to consider when picking a topic
  • Why not all common topics are created equal
  • How to know when it’s probably best to start from scratch with a new essay topic
  • How to discuss your topic with your parents (especially if they’re wanting to be involved in your writing process)
  • Guidance for addressing mental health issues in the personal statement and additional information section (based on recent conversations with admissions officers)
  • Specific case studies and examples from students Ethan and Tom have worked with recently
  • Why the advice “any topic can work” may be misguided and actually counterproductive
  • A step-by-step walk-through of how to brainstorm a brand new essay idea + outline in less than an hour
  • Tips for how Early Decision + Early Action essays may differ from regular decision essays (and why that might not be a bad idea)
  • Conversation and learning opportunities with other counselors immersed in this process right now

Real example essays

Learn from actual essays from recent students

Practical techniques

Gain strategies you can put to use right away.

Get your questions answered

Ask Ethan and Tom anything you like (about admissions or UNC basketball).

Meet Ethan

Ethan Sawyer is a nationally recognized college essay expert, sought-after speaker, and author of the Amazon bestsellers College Essay Essentials and College Admission Essentials.

Each year he helps thousands of students and counselors through his online courses, workshops, articles, products, and books, and works privately with a small number of students.

A graduate of Northwestern University, Ethan holds an MFA from UC Irvine, two counseling certificates, is certified in Myers-Briggs and hypnotherapy. He lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful wife and daughter.


Meet Tom

Tom Campbell (he/him) is an eternally extra Gemini who has spent the past seven years helping students and families navigate the college admissions process – one alliterative/assonant aphorism at a time.

Prior to joining College Essay Guy, he worked as a college counselor at Lakeside School and an admissions officer at Pomona College and College of the Holy Cross (his alma mater).

He stans em dashes and semicolons, Kacey Musgraves (all eras, not just star crossed and Golden Hour), superior breakfast burritos, and complaining about space tourism.

Get direct advice and practical tools to uplevel your essays.

$97 includes:

  • Two Hours of Recordings
  • Access to Our Comprehensive Essay Writing Tool
  • A Student Community to Get Your Questions Answered
$97 one time - Register

This is a pay-what-you-can course

Access is really important to me. In fact, it’s at the heart of most of everything I do. It’s why I’m offering pay-what-you-can spots for any family who can't afford the sticker price.

If that’s you, request a pay-what-you-can spot and let us know what you can afford.

Don’t be shy; we’d love to have you.


Request a pay-what-you can spot

Frequently Asked Questions