The personal essay is one of the most important parts of your college application. It’s your chance to show admissions officers who you are as a person, beyond your grades and test scores. But writing a great personal essay can be challenging. Where do you start? What should you write about? How do you make it stand out from the crowd?
In this guide, we’ll walk you through the entire process of writing a personal essay, from brainstorming topics to editing your final draft.
What’s the point of personal essays?
The personal essay is not just another piece of writing that you have to submit along with your transcripts, test scores, and letters of recommendation. It is a chance for you to tell your story, to reveal your unique perspective, and to connect with the admissions officers on a personal level.
The main purpose of the personal essay is to build a connection with the admissions committee. They want to get to know you as a person, not just as a student. They want to learn about your background, your identity, your passions, your challenges, your growth, and your aspirations. They want to see how you think, how you feel, and how you express yourself.
According to Jeannine Lalonde, the Dean of Admissions at UVA, the personal essay is not about finding a unique topic that will set you apart. It is about giving insight into who you are as a person. She says:
“I see so many students worrying about finding a unique college application easy that will ‘set them apart” right now. Application essay topics don’t have to be unique! I don’t mind if students write about something super popular, whether it’s an activity, academic interest, book, song… I just want them to give a little insight into who they are.”
How to Choose a Topic for Your Personal Essay
Choosing a topic for your personal essay can be challenging. You may feel like you have nothing interesting or meaningful to write about, or you may have too many ideas and don’t know how to narrow them down.
The key to choosing a good topic is to focus on yourself and your own stories. Don’t worry about what other people have written or what you think the admissions officers want to hear. Write about something that matters to you, something that reveals your values, your passions, your struggles, or your growth.
Here are some steps to help you brainstorm and select a topic for your personal essay:
1. Avoid “Essays that Work” content
These are essays that other applicants have shared online, claiming that they got them into their dream schools. While these essays may be well-written and inspiring, they are not helpful for you. If you try to copy their style or theme, you will end up with a generic and insincere essay that will not reflect your true voice and personality.
The only exception to this rule is when the essays are published by the colleges themselves, as they can give you some insight into what they are looking for and what they value. You can find some examples of these essays here:
- St John’s College – “Great Essays from Past Years”
- Tufts University – “Essays We Thought were Most Successful!”
- Hamilton College – “Essays That Worked”
- Johns Hopkins University – “Essays We Found Impressive”
- Connecticut College – “Essays That Worked”
2. Be Inspired by Essays Written to Express Innermost Values
These are essays that people write to share their beliefs, opinions, and perspectives on various topics. They are not written for college applications, but they can help you find your own voice and style. They can also show you how to write about something that is meaningful and personal to you. You can find some examples of these essays here:
3. It’s All About YOU!
Remember, the personal essay is called personal for a reason. It should be about you and your stories, not a rundown of your resume and activities.
If something is already mentioned elsewhere in your application, there is no need to repeat it in your essay. Instead, use the essay to reveal the “inner you” – your values, your personality, your passions, your goals, your challenges, and your growth.
The personal essay is your chance to show something that is not visible anywhere else. To find a topic that is truly personal, you need to dig deep and ask yourself some questions, such as:
- What are some of the most memorable moments of your life?
- What are some of the most challenging or rewarding experiences you have had?
- What are some of the most important lessons you have learned?
- What are some of the most influential people or events in your life?
- What are some of the most passionate interests or hobbies you have?
- What are some of the most controversial or unconventional opinions or beliefs you have?
- What are some of the most significant goals or dreams you have?
These questions can help you identify some themes or stories that can serve as the basis for your personal essay. You can also use this list of personal questions to help you brainstorm more ideas.
4. Analyze The Official Personal Essay Prompts
Every year, CommonApp.org publishes the official “Personal Essays Prompts” for the year’s application cycle. They are all focused on “you,” but you need to internalize what each variation asks you. You can find the prompts here.
These prompts are designed to help you explore different aspects of your identity, your background, your experiences, and your aspirations. They are also meant to stimulate your creativity and your critical thinking. You should read them carefully and think about how you can answer them in a way that showcases your personality and your voice.
5. Touch Grass
Sometimes, the best way to find a topic for your personal essay is to take a break from the college application process and do something else. Take a walk, take a shower, or do nothing at all.
Let your mind wander and relax. You may find that some ideas come to you naturally when you are not actively thinking about them. Write down any thoughts or insights that come to you during these moments.
How to Write Your Personal Essay
Once you have chosen a topic for your personal essay, it is time to start writing. Here are some tips to help you write a personal essay that shines:
1. Don’t Write Under Pressure
Writing your personal essay should not be a stressful or painful task. It should be a fun and enjoyable activity that allows you to express yourself and your thoughts. Therefore, you should start early and give yourself enough time to brainstorm, draft, revise, and edit your essay.
You should avoid distractions and interruptions, and find a comfortable and quiet place to write. You should also write in a way that feels natural and authentic to you, not in a way that you think will impress the admissions officers.
Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or structure at this stage. Just write down whatever comes to your mind, and let your ideas flow freely.
2. Write Your Essay the Correct Way
This means that you should write your essay in a way that is easy to read and understand, and that showcases your writing skills.
You should avoid using complicated language, confusing metaphors, funky word choices, and unnecessary adverbs. You should also use proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, and formatting. You want to make sure that your essay is clear and coherent, and that it flows smoothly from one paragraph to the next.
You also want to make sure that your essay sounds like you, with your voice, tone, and experiences. Imagine that your best friend found your essay on the floor in the middle of your high school hallway with no name on it. Would they know it was yours? If not, keep working.
3. Show, Don’t Tell
One of the most important rules of writing is to show, not tell. This means that you should use specific details, examples, and anecdotes to illustrate your points, rather than just stating them. For instance, instead of saying “I love music”, you could say “I spend hours every day practicing the piano, learning new songs, and composing my own melodies”. This way, you can show your passion, your skills, and your personality.
4. Be Honest and Authentic
Don’t try to impress the admissions officers with exaggerated claims or achievements. Don’t pretend to be someone you are not. Be honest and authentic about your experiences, your feelings, and your opinions. Admissions officers can tell when you are being genuine or not, and they appreciate honesty and authenticity more than anything.
5. Be Vulnerable and Reflective
A good personal essay is not just a summary of what you did or what happened to you. It is also a reflection of what you learned, how you changed, and how you grew as a person.
Don’t be afraid to share your failures, your mistakes, or your challenges. Show how you overcame them, what you learned from them, and how they shaped your values and beliefs. Being vulnerable and reflective can help you build a connection with the admissions officers and show them your maturity and resilience.
How to Edit Your Personal Essay
After you have written your first draft, you are not done yet. You need to edit your personal essay to make sure it is polished and ready to submit. Here are some steps to help you edit your personal essay:
1. Read Your Essay on Different Platforms
Read your essay on your computer screen, on paper, and out loud. This can help you spot any errors, inconsistencies, or awkward sentences. You can also use tools like Grammarly or Hemingway to check your grammar, spelling, and readability.
2. Get Feedback from Others
Ask someone you trust, such as a teacher, a counselor, a friend, or a family member, to read your essay and give you honest feedback. They can help you catch any mistakes, improve your clarity, and suggest any changes. However, don’t follow their suggestions blindly. Make sure you understand why they think a certain way before editing your essay. Remember, this is your essay, and it should reflect your voice and your perspective.
3. Revise Your Essay
Based on your own review and the feedback you received, revise your essay accordingly. You may need to rewrite some sentences, add or delete some details, or reorganize your paragraphs. The goal is to make your essay smooth, coherent, and compelling.
After you have revised your essay, proofread it one last time to make sure there are no errors or typos.
4. You Did It
Congratulations, you have written a personal essay that showcases your personality, your values, and your writing skills. You have done a great job, and you should be proud of yourself.
I’ve read a lot of stellar essays, and whenever I asked the writers if they felt %100 confident in the quality of their essays, the short answer was: NO.
This is just Human Psychology 101; your mind will always tell you that you could have done better. Don’t fall for these tricks; just give your teacher or someone you trust your essay to do some final reviews. If they approve it, just copy/paste it into your Application Portal and never look back!
Writing a personal essay can be a daunting task, but it’s also a great opportunity to reflect on your experiences and tell your story.
By following the tips in this guide, you can write a personal essay that will help you stand out from other applicants and make a great impression on admissions officers.