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Tips and Reminders for Writing Your Personal Essay

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The Personal Essay - Overview

A college admission counselor not only has the job of determining if a student applicant meets the entrance requirements for the college/university that he/she represents but also has the task of evaluating whether a student applicant will “fit” and “feel” comfortable on the college/university campus.

With this in mind, it is important that you take every opportunity to provide the admission counselor with information that will assist in determining who you really are. Your application, transcript, letters of recommendation and resume are certainly important documents that demonstrate your academic, extra-curricular, leadership, and volunteer involvement.  But you are much more than what the paperwork reveals.  You are very unique.  An admission counselor recognizes this and wants to know as much as possible about just who you are.  It is the personal essay that gives you the opportunity to reveal aspects of your life that are not fully described in any “paperwork” that you submit to an admission counselor.  Do not consider the personal essay as optional—you will miss a very important opportunity which could cost you admission into a college/university of your choice.

Because the personal essay is unstructured (free style writing), most students become overwhelmed trying to guess what an admission counselor wants to hear.  RELAX!   This essay will be in narrative form-it will be a story from start to finish.  The essay does not have to be long.  It should just be a good story with a strong voice.  Use detail to give the story depth.  It can be written in first person.

Choose a topic that you feel very strongly about (but avoid controversial, offensive or outrageous topics which could bring doubt about your character to the reader).  Tell about the experience step by step:  Tell what happened; tell why this experience had such an impact on you; tell what you learned from this experience; explain how this experience made you a better person or just how it changed your thinking or believing from one perspective to another.

Tell the truth.  

Be yourself.  

Be authentic and let your true character come through.  

To test your authenticity, give the essay to a person who knows you well. Ask them to read it.  They should be able to tell that it was YOU who wrote this essay because no one else could have told it the way you did!

Write (and rewrite) the story as if you are holding a conversation with the reader.  The essay should give the reader an inside view of how you are unique, what you are passionate about, how you have grown and matured over the years, what makes you “tick.”  Let others read your story and give input—but remember, this is YOUR story.  You be the judge.  Do not make changes if you believe it changes your story to the point where it no longer is a true reflection of you.  However, pay close attention if punctuation, spelling, etc. errors are pointed out.

As the admission counselor reads this, he/she is looking for clues as to your interests, values, personality---looking for clues that you will be very happy and successful on their particular college campus (thrive vs survive).

Although none of us likes extra work, try to look at this as a “golden opportunity” to demonstrate what a unique person you are.  You have a captive audience—use it to your advantage!

And above and beyond…HAVE FUN with this! This is a chance for you to shine. :) 

General Tips

  • make it about YOU—not a story about others.

  • Get to the point—make the short essay full of golden nuggets of wisdom—AND humor!

  • Don’t be afraid to brag a little

  • It’s okay to share your vulnerability and questions—you are not expected to have solved every world problem by the time you enter college!

  • YOU ARE ENOUGH JUST AS YOU ARE. You do not need to prove yourself—they simply want to get to know you.

 Brainstorming for Potential Personal Essay Topics

Think about these questions:

  1. What has been the hardest thing in your life to date?

  2. What has been difficult for you to accomplish?

  3. At what point have you felt inadequate/how did you deal with those feelings?

  4. If you had a quick replay of your life, which 2 or 3 moments stand out?

  5. What do you regard as your greatest accomplishment?

  6. What in the world truly fascinates you?

  7. Which of your relationships have you had to work at the hardest?

  8. Have you ever made a discovery that thrilled you?

  9. Have you ever felt betrayed?

  10. What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you?

  11. Have you ever felt pure rage?

  12. What has held you back from realizing your ambitions?

  13. What fills you with pride?

  14. When have you ever felt totally at peace with yourself?

  15. What have you done that someone said you could not have done?

  16. What object or possession holds the most meaning to you?

  17. What keeps you up at night?

  18. Any other ideas?????

Common Essay Pitfalls to Avoid