Writing Personal Statements Online

Managing Controversial Topics


On university campuses, not a week goes by without spirited debate or sponsored speakers addressing such controversial issues as sexuality, religion, racial intimidation, crime, politics, drinking, animal rights, the use of firearms, environmental ethics, and other issues specific to a particular campus. Therefore, admissions and scholarship committee members are not strangers to these topics, and some members are even an integral part of the debates. Effective attention to controversial issues in one’s personal statement requires a writer who can handle nuance and audience in a sophisticated way. So much depends on the context for the discussion, and the writer who takes a stance on such issues in an application should have a good reason to do so.

As one example, note how one writer in Chapter 5 of this handbook addresses the issue of civil rights regardless of sexuality in her policy proposal for a Truman Scholarship. The Truman Scholarship seeks students who will be “agents of change” and requires applicants to write a mock proposal to a government official. Thus, by definition, students must take a stance on a potentially controversial topic. This student does so by first establishing that sexuality-based discrimination occurs, tying this practice directly to public opinion and policy. She cites sources ranging from the Journal of Counseling Psychology to recent testimony in a government hearing, showing that her convictions are grounded in research and awareness. In her boldest and most direct appeal to her target audience—a particular Republican senator—she states: “Your recent support of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act is commendable, but this bill is not sufficient.” Here, she shows herself to be both informed and opinionated. She purposely pushes.

In this case, the student has chosen to express her views on a topic of controversy in a context where sound argument defending her views is clearly welcomed, no matter the direction towards which her views lean. In fact, selection committee members are always looking for writers who can argue about difficult topics effectively—not for writers who necessarily share their personal views.

In cases where you create the context for the controversial topic yourself, perhaps because you genuinely see the issue as a driving force in your life, you simply need to be sure that you present yourself as informed, involved, and insightful. Wherever your personal and political views fall, show yourself as one invested in the struggle for such principles as fairness, justice, dignity, morality, truth, spirituality, safety, and tolerance, and trust that your readers will respect the struggle as long as you argue about it effectively. Show yourself as one whose views are shaped by experiences and information, and consider highlighting the benefits to others or to your profession if your views are accepted. Also, if you bring up controversial issues in a personal essay, you should certainly be ready to discuss them further in a follow-up interview.


For some interesting articles on how to write about controversial subject matter and ideas for essay topics, visit the sites:

“Explore perspectives: Find Controversial Issues” page from the University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire

“Choosing a Topic” article from Tidewater Community College