Mastering the Personal Essay For Your College Application

Preparing for college is difficult. When the time finally arrives to start filling out those applications, you want to present the best student imaginable. Your test scores, grades, and a list of activities are all parts of your image. They are critical. After that, the personal essay is one of the most important things. It’s the personal essay that will show admission officers that you are more than a good student; this is where they learn that you are a good person.

personal essay for the college application

By the time you finish high school, the chances are that you’ve written about a dozen different personal essays and narratives. Those are conventional practice, but your future is on the line here. The school wants to know who you are. What should you tell them? You must decide what makes you who you are, and convey that honestly. Writing yourself into a 500-word text box is hard, so here are some things to consider before you begin.

What do they want?

What do they want? While personal essays are predictable in their content, different applications will ask you to hone in on various things. They might give you a prompt or ask you about a particular event in your life (e.g., Write about a time when you felt lost, afraid, etc.). Identify your purpose. It will be easier to stay focused on the task and avoid getting off topic. That is a basic rule for writing in general. Know what they expect of you, and deliver.

Make your personal essay surprising

Now, this is not to say that you shouldn’t be surprising. In fact, you should always try to find something strange and unexpected. Think about who your audience is. You are writing for college admission officers who will read thousands of predictable, self-absorbed, monotonous essays. If you can be surprising, do it. Shake things up. Try to wipe the glossy sheen from their eyes and perk them up at their desk. Make them wonder who this kid is. There are several techniques you can use to spice things up. Humor is a wonderful method because they will remember that they laughed. You could choose a bizarre subject like food or beauty products. Find something quirky. Take risks. You want to stand out.

No doom and gloom attitude

That said, you will also be tempted to write about a tragedy. As will every other student that’s competing for a spot at this school. Fight the urge. If an unhappy event is integral to your identity, write about it. Be careful though. You do not want to come off as having a doom-and-gloom attitude. These essays are intended to help admission officers see the human behind the test scores — someone relatable. They aren’t looking to pity you. They are looking for someone worthy of putting time and effort into teaching, someone who can surmount obstacles and fulfill their potential. A person who cannot move on in life is not resilient enough for intense academic rigor. Do not become that person to them.

Be earnest, kind, and humble

You will also be tempted to posture. You will feel that this is your opportunity to impress someone. A pretentious vocabulary, complicated sentences, and fancy gimmicks are sure to show up in your paper if you give into this temptation. You will get so wrapped up trying to prove that you know what the word hegemony means that you will forget to sound like yourself. Keep it simple. You don’t need to sell yourself. Avoid long and complicated phrasing. Avoid adverbs. You only have about 500 words anyway. You should use them efficiently; this is an introduction. Be earnest, kind, and humble. These are qualities people like when they first meet someone. The same holds true for your admission team.

Personal essay storytelling

You’ll most likely have to tell a story, which is a good thing.  Stories are compelling and humanizing. People want to read through the end of a story. They relate to characters. You can pull someone to the edge of their seat with a solid hook, climax, and resolution. It is an ideal structure for a personal essay. Know what makes a good story. Do not try to cover more ground than you can handle. Write only about one event, one object, one person. The broader you decide to go, the less control and focus you’ll have. Particularly for these shorter essays, it is better to narrow your field of vision and zoom in. Makes sure something happens in this tale. Do not just describe yourself. It will be boring. Do not tell them that you are brave. Show them how brave you are when you give that speech or wrestle that bear. Show them who you are.

These tips lead to the most important point: relax. It’s true that there is a lot of pressure to succeed and write the best essay the world has ever seen. It is OK that you can’t do all of that right now. That’s the point. It shows that you have room to grow. The more tightly wound you are, the more you’ll get stuck in your head, and the harder it will be to reflect calmly and write something good. No one is expecting Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, or William Shakespeare. All they expect is you. Give them you.

Suggested books to help you with your personal essay for your college application:

College Essay Essentials: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Successful College Admissions Essay

Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps, Third Edition: Crafting a Winning Personal Statement

50 Successful Harvard Application Essays: What Worked for Them Can Help You Get into the College of Your Choice