In this article, we’re going to show you how to write a personal essay from start to finish. We’ll walk you through the whole process, from picking a topic to submitting your finished work.
Whether you’re writing an admission essay or a college application, your main task is to show the reader who you are as a person. This means you’ll be writing a lot about yourself. However, it can be difficult to know how much to reveal. Too little information and the reader won’t see you as authentic or three-dimensional. Too much information and the reader won’t see you as relatable or identify with your experiences.
See also: Difference Between Paraphrasing and Summarizing
If you want to create a stellar personal essay, you need to understand what makes a great one. But before that, let’s first answer the question, “What is a personal essay?”
What Is a Personal Essay?
A personal essay is a short piece of non-fiction in the form of an essay. Most often, personal essays are autobiographical in nature and written in the first person where the writer recounts a story about something that happened in their life, describes an event, or explains an opinion held by them.
By their very nature, personal essays are usually descriptive and written from a particular point of view which is sometimes subjective rather than objective. This means that the writer of a personal essay is required to tell a story about something that happened, but in doing so, they also use the piece to reveal something about themselves.
The crucial thing to understand about a personal essay is that it is not an objective account of the events that are described. Instead, a personal essay is all about the writer’s own feelings and emotions and how they experienced and processed the events that are taking place. The way in which the writer feels and reacts to the events of their life is used as a means to reflect their own personality, character, experiences, and history.
Personal essays are not as formal as other forms of writing such as college papers or research papers that are based on factual research and require a formal, objective tone. Instead, personal essays have a more relaxed approach to their writing style and tone. The writer of a personal essay is not required to be as structured as a writer of a research paper and there are usually fewer rules about the format of the piece.
However, this does not mean that personal essays can be written without putting any thought or effort into their writing. A good personal essay requires just as much effort and thought as any other form of writing. The only difference is that the writer has more freedom and flexibility in the style and tone of their work which allows them to explain things from their own perspective and tell a story from their own point of view.
How to Write a Good Personal Essay
Start with the Right Topic
The first step in writing a great personal essay is picking the right topic. As we mentioned, your goal here is to reveal yourself as a person. When choosing a topic, pick one that allows you to show the things that make you who you are. You want to choose something that really interests you because if you’re not interested, neither will the reader. You also want to make sure that the topic is broad enough to allow you to write about it at a reasonable length.
As an example, let’s say you decide you want to write a personal essay about how you learned to play the piano. This could be a good choice for a topic because you could write about how you got started, what you had to learn, and what pieces you’ve played over the years. The topic is broad enough that you’ll have plenty to write about.
Start with a Hook
The next thing you need to do when writing a personal essay is start with a hook. This is the first sentence of your introduction and its main purpose is to grab the reader’s attention right away. One way to do this is by presenting an unexpected or surprising statement. However, you don’t want to make it too outlandish because then the reader won’t believe you and will stop reading.
Another way to start with a hook is by asking a question. Research has shown that readers tend to respond better to questions than statements. This is because questions demand answers and the reader will feel the need to read on in order to find out the answer.
In any case, your hook needs to do its job which is getting the reader interested enough to keep reading.
Craft an Interesting and Engaging Body
Once you’ve hooked the reader, it’s time to reveal more details about yourself in a logical sequence. In other words, it’s time to write the body of your essay. The trick is to pick up the topic you introduced in the hook and explain it in more detail while also weaving in other relevant details about yourself.
As you’re writing your essay, it’s a good idea to think about the types of questions a college may ask you. For example, if you’re applying to Harvard and they ask you to write a short essay, they may ask you, “What are you passionate about?” This is basically asking you what your interests are. If you were to apply to Harvard with the topic of piano playing, the answer to that question would be something like, “I’m passionate about the piano because it has been a big part of my life for many years. It allows me to express my emotions when words fail me and I find great solace and happiness when I’m able.”
This is what you want to do in your body paragraphs. Reveal information about yourself in a logical sequence while also incorporating details about your topic. The more specific you are, the better.
Write a Powerful Conclusion
Once you’ve covered all the main points you want to make, it’s time to wrap things up with a conclusion. This is where you can simply restate your main point or you can relate it back to other things you’ve experienced in your life. For example, if you wrote about playing the piano, you may want to relate it to how it makes you feel or how it has impacted your life in some way.
It’s also a good idea to briefly mention any other interests you may have had and what you’ve learned from those experiences as well. For example, maybe you tried swimming when you were younger but quit after a year.
You could mention that in your conclusion by saying, “Although I didn’t stick with the swim team for very long, I did learn how to tread water which has come in handy on holiday cruises with the family.”
This is relevant to your interests because it shows a) you have diverse interests, b) you’re a hard worker (treading water isn’t easy!) and c) you learned a new skill which will come in handy in life.
The conclusion is important because this is your last chance to make a good impression on the admissions officer reading your application. You want to end on a positive note so they remember you more favorably than other applicants.
Get Someone Else to Read It
After you have gone over your essay a few times, show it to at least one person other than the people you live with. If you can, find someone in your field of study and see what they think. Their advice will be especially helpful if they know exactly what is being asked for in the statement. They may even tell you that your statement is perfect and doesn’t need to be changed!
Proofreading and Editing
The final step to writing a great essay is proofreading and editing. Never pass anything out without double-checking for spelling and grammar mistakes. Be especially careful with your school name and your name, as these are the most common mistakes applicants make on their statements.
You may feel like your statement is done and ready to turn in, but taking an extra day or two to proofread will always be worth it in the end. After all, this is your best chance to show the committee who you are. After you’ve given your essay some time, read through it again making changes as you see fit.
This may involve changing specific words or phrasing, re-ordering sections, or cutting out unnecessary information. Whatever you do, don’t be too perfectionistic with this process. You don’t want to torture yourself by spending hours staring at a blank word document screen because that will only cause unnecessary stress.
Common Mistakes in Writing Personal Essay
Telling, Not Showing
It is very easy to lapse into “telling” instead of “show don’t tell.” Stories should be immersive and engaging for the reader. The writer should try to put the reader into his or her own body so that the reader can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel what the writer is describing.
For example, instead of writing “I cried,” it is better to write, “Tears streamed down my face.”
Instead of “I was sad,” it is better to write, “I sunk into myself and felt all the sadness in the world weigh me down like an anchor.”
Instead of writing, “He laughed,” it is better to write, “The boy laughed uproariously at something his friend said, his eyes shining with delight.”
The best stories need only a few details to tell the story. Readers can use their own imaginations to fill in the rest. Readers tend to become impatient when they have to wade through too much-written information before getting to the story. If every detail can’t be interesting, then at least try to put in a few humorous or exciting details.
Writing More than Two Pages
This is a common mistake because people don’t know what a page looks like. It is very easy to go over a page if you are not used to writing on paper, and it is very easy to go over two pages if you are not using a word processor. It is also common for people to reduce font size in an attempt to make the essay fit on the page. This makes the text harder to read and also can be used as justification for turning down your application. The most common reason personal statements are turned down is for going over the limit. A secondary reason is that the writing is too small to read.
Starting with “I”
The personal statement is about YOU, but it is not supposed to be all about you. Remember that there are other applicants and yours needs to stand out from everyone else’s. The best way to do this is to NOT make it all about you. Your opening sentence should be something like, “Playing with my sister was one of the highlights of my youth.” This instantly makes your application different from everyone else’s. If you start with something like, “I have always loved to play the piano,” someone else could easily start their statement with, “Playing the piano has been a lifelong passion of mine.”
Start your sentence with something that no one else can use, and make sure that whatever you start with is true. You don’t want to lie or stretch the truth in your personal statement. This is supposed to be an example of who you are, and lying on your application is never a good idea.
Many people try to use their personal statements as a way to complain about their life. For example, “My dad was never around, and my mom had to work all the time so I had to look after my little sister.” Admissions counselors have heard stories like this one too many times to count. It isn’t interesting and doesn’t tell them anything good about you. They hear about emotional and physical hardship all the time. Let’s try to come up with something better, “I had to sometimes watch my sister when I wanted to play ball with my friends, but I learned the importance of responsibility and had a lot of fun playing with her.” Including something about your family in your statement is a good idea, just don’t dwell on the negative.
There are exceptions to every rule. If your parents are crazy and abusive or you have an illness that prevents you from living a “normal life”, then it might be a good idea to list this information. However, be aware that few circumstances are so severe that you should even consider this option. If your father left when you were three and you never saw him again, there is no need to mention this. If your sister was severely disabled and required around-the-clock care, it isn’t necessary to mention that either. Keep your statement positive and upbeat. Highlight the benefits you have received from your experiences, not the emotional trauma.
In general, if you are unsure if you should include something, do not include it. This is especially true for anything concerning the family. Your goal is to have the reader like you, not think less of you.
There are a few applicants every year who attempt to sound smarter than they are in the hopes of impressing the committee. Do not try to sound like someone you are not, or you will end up lying and making yourself look bad. If you do not know the meaning of a word, do not use it. If you cannot think of a phrase other than, “I think…” then try not to use it. The best way to sound smart is to BE smart.
Strive to have your writing be as close to perfect as you can. You will need to use proper English grammar and spelling. You don’t need to fill your statement with big words, but if you are going to use a big word, make sure you know what it means!
- Don’t use: I am blessed with having multilingual abilities.
- Do use: I have multilingual abilities.
- Don’t use: His ineptitude at providing appropriate care to his patients was the reason for many untimely deaths.
- Do use: He was inept at providing appropriate care to his patients, which was the reason for many untimely deaths.
- Don’t use: She was an accomplished traveler who had journeyed to most of the known world.
- Do use: She was a traveler who had journeyed to most of the known world.
You should be aware that some words simply sound stupid when you use them a lot. Some examples include: utilize, specific, and viable. If you use these words in your statement, which you might, then try to mix them up with their synonyms.
After a story or essay is complete, it is very important to read it over several times to catch any spelling or grammar mistakes. It can help to read the writing out loud in order to catch any mistakes that aren’t noticeable just by reading it in your head. Never send an essay out without checking for mistakes!
How to Structure a Personal Essay
A personal essay contains 3 basic sections: the introductory paragraph, body paragraphs, and the conclusion.
The first thing you’ll want to do here is to catch the reader’s attention. You should try to do this in one of two ways:
1. Provide an Anecdote (Short Story)
For example, “The first time I ever sang in front of people was when I was 7 and in the Thanksgiving pageant at my elementary school. I remember I was supposed to sing “Softly and Tenderly” but I couldn’t remember the words and I got so nervous that I blanked out and started singing the alphabet instead.”
2. Provide a Startling Fact
For example, “Although I’ve always wanted to be a doctor since I was little, I’m ashamed to say I’ve never been very good at science. In fact, my grade in biology was the only C I ever received until this semester when I got a C- in human anatomy.”
The body paragraphs should make up the majority of your essay. Since you’ve already crafted the introductory paragraph, you know something interesting about yourself. Now it’s time to back it up.
Try to include at least two or three interesting facts about yourself and don’t be afraid to get creative. This is your chance to shine so don’t be afraid to step outside the box!
The conclusion is the final thing the admissions board will read before making their decision so you want to leave them with a positive last impression. To do this, simply summarize your strongest qualities.
For example, “I may not have done everything I’ve set out to accomplish but I’ve learned that I’m resilient and can figure things out as I go. For this reason, I believe I’ll be successful in college because I’m always willing to try new things.”
Example of a Good Personal Essay
Sometimes, when I talk to my little brother, Connor, he looks at me as if I have all the answers. Little does he know, he’s right. As the oldest sibling and the only girl, I have often found myself to be a motherly figure in our relationship.
When Connor first started school, I would often help him with his homework. On more than one occasion, I would encounter teachers who told me to let Connor learn through failure. They claimed it would help him in the long run. I, of course, never listened. Instead, I would do his homework for him and the next year, when he started school at a different school, his teachers didn’t know him as well and didn’t realize he wasn’t applying himself.
While Connor was coasting in school, I was working hard in mine. I wanted to become a doctor more than anything and knew I needed good grades to get there. I worked hard in school and rarely had time to have a social life. While most of my friends were out partying on the weekends, I was at home studying.
After I had gotten accepted to medical school, Connor threw a huge party. I wasn’t able to attend, of course, but after I saw all the pictures, I realized how much I missed out on in high school. It made me sad to think about how I couldn’t have gone to my own high school party because I would have been studying biology instead.
Still, I pushed on. I went to medical school and pushed myself even harder than I had in college. My classes were difficult and the studying and exams took a toll on my physical and mental well-being. It got to a point where I no longer wanted to go to medical school, but it was too late to quit. By then, I was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and all I could think about was earning money as a doctor.
I graduated from medical school and became a family doctor. Two years after graduating, I moved and began working in the emergency room. The hours are terrible and the patients are worse, but I manage. I still haven’t had time to settle down and have a family of my own. Sometimes, I feel as if I missed out on the best parts of being a kid because I was always studying. Other times, I’m thankful I didn’t waste my youth doing irresponsible things. Either way, I think about Connor and how he looked at me with awe in his eyes. I know I’m doing the right thing. I always have.
Making a personal essay is a lot of work, but well worth it in the end. When your essay is done, you’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment and relief that you got the task completed. Remember that you don’t have to follow all of these steps exactly as they are written here. You can change or skip around as you see fit.
What matters most is that you take the time to get to know yourself better and articulate that in your own words. The more “you” that comes through in your personal statement, the better chance you have of standing out from the crowd. Good luck!