By Diana Hawkins

I spent this afternoon with one of my students discussing her Common App essay. She had been at it for several weeks, and despite various attempts, it wasn’t blossoming. When choosing among several ideas, she had committed to her topic with thoughtful consideration, but she couldn’t express them when it was time for the words to flow. In our weekly Zoom meetings, I noticed an uneasiness set in when we discussed her progress. With November 1 application deadlines looming, it was time to switch course. “Is it time to brainstorm a new essay?” I asked. I felt her relief across our fiberoptic connection. Energy renewed, we began again.

During each application season, I will have at least one student ask me if they should switch their essay topic. It’s not an easy call. In many cases, quite a bit of effort has been put into brainstorming and writing drafts, and starting over can seem unwise. Sometimes, choosing a new topic can lead the student to the same roadblock as the original topic. Here are some questions students should ask before ditching their essay topic and starting over.

1.)  Are you struggling with your essay because you typically find writing assignments challenging? Be honest. If this is true, starting over may increase your stress and cause you to lose valuable time preparing your applications.

2.)  Have you explored multiple self-reflection angles, and the essay still falls short of your original expectations, or is it the topic that keeps you from sharing the most meaningful parts of yourself?

3.)  Identify the essay’s shortcomings. Consider, can it be fixed with a new opening, new closing, or a restructuring of the content?

4.)  Do you have another topic that you can approach with enthusiasm?

5.)  Are you confident you can complete a new essay ahead of your deadlines?


If you’re feeling a case of PSTR (Personal Statement Topic Remorse) coming on, asking yourself the above questions will help you make the right (write!) decision.

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