1. Follow directions and stay focused – Before you can even begin writing, you need to know the topic and word count for the essay. All personal essays are not the same, and while one might ask a general question about a significant experience, another might ask about how an experience provided a specific type of insight. A popular topic, for example, is how an experience has shown you the importance of diversity.
2. Use the first person – This essay is all about who you are, what you’ve done, and what makes you “you.” The only way to write about yourself is to use “I,” “me,” and “my,” so disregard what your teachers have said about formal, objective essay-writing. This isn’t a research paper; it’s more of a story than anything.
3. Open and end strong – Whoever is reading your essay will likely only spend a few seconds on it if they’re not immediately caught, and your conclusion will be what sticks with them once they’ve finished reading.
4. Use an anecdote – Your essay will likely revolve around an anecdote, and this is generally the best technique. Using an anecdote, especially at the beginning of your essay, captures your reader quickly and has a better chance of showing your personality and history than just talking about your accomplishments.
5. Don’t be afraid to get personal – It’s a personal essay; by definition, it has to be at least a little personal, and the more anecdotal it becomes, the more personal it will feel. If you’re not comfortable talking about the more private details of an experience, you can still stress its significance and how it has changed you without sharing everything.
6. Choose an experience that matters to you – If you’re writing about something that is only slightly significant to you, whoever is reading your essay will be able to tell. Get creative, and stop trying to outdo everyone. Just be you. Don’t try to use an experience that affected you briefly and slightly like a week-long volunteer position or a summer job – these are obvious choices that everyone assumes can impress, but it’s what you gain from even the smallest experience that sets you apart, not the experience itself. That said, you don’t have to have saved someone’s life or had a traumatic experience to be a worthy applicant. As long as it’s important to you, the most ordinary experience can be the most significant.
7. Balance humility with confidence – Whoever is reading your essay wants to know that you’re competent and have the qualities that they’re looking for, but that doesn’t mean that you should use your essay for bragging rights. Highlight your uniqueness and qualifications, but don’t try to assert your superiority over other applicants. In the same way, though, don’t undervalue your experiences and minimize the importance of what you’re saying. If you don’t appear to value your own experiences, why should someone else?
8. Research your audience – Although your essay prompt might be specific enough to explain what people who read your essay will be looking for in your essay, it doesn’t hurt to do a little research to find out what specific qualities are important to them and their institution or organization. You should know what type of person will be reading your essay to know which aspects of yourself you should choose to highlight. For example, if an organization’s website lists a mission statement that values determination, teamwork, and hard work, then try to highlight those qualities.
9. Show, don’t tell – Although you want to be clear about what you can offer your reader by explaining your qualifications in your essay, don’t outright tell them “I’m hard working and determined.” Show them examples of times when you possessed these qualities, and they can figure out how these examples apply to them on their own. This applies especially to when you’re working your research into your essay, as previously mentioned. Using anecdotes will help immensely with this, as stories natural “show” rather than “tell.”
10. Start early – If you leave your essay for the last minute, you’ll find that it’s much more difficult to come up with anecdotes and draw out the most meaning possible from your experiences. Starting early will give you time to think about what you’ve written for a few days, go back and revise, and feel comfortable that you’ve said all that you want to say. You’ll also have ample time to fix any mistakes you might have made, which brings me to my final point.
11. Check for errors! And then check again. And again – You get the idea. Make sure that your essay is as error-free as possible. Check punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and sentence structure over and over to be sure you catch any mistakes. If you’re not someone who excels at editing, or even just to get a fresh pair of eyes on your essay, ask you parent, teacher, or friend to read it for you. Having them read it out loud is even better, as you’ll be able to hear how someone other than you interprets what you’ve written, and you might change your mind about how you phrase something. At the end of the day, if you still have a few small mistakes in your essay, it’s not the end of the world. Putting in the extra effort just shows that you used your time wisely, and the big mistakes will have been discovered, so hopefully you’ll just have a few commas out of place, which isn’t at all unusual.
In what instances have you needed to write a personal essay? What are some tips you’d suggest for writing them?