How to Write the Personal Essay

College Essay Hell plus

As a former English major, I’ve always enjoyed writing but understand it’s not everyone’s favorite pasttime. The good news is that this isn’t your standard English essay. The bad news is that you’ve got only 650 words to tell your unique personal story. We all have one. What’s yours? The 2015-2016 Common Application folks just released the new prompts. New language appears in italics:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

What makes a student competitive are their grades, course rigor and standardized testing. What makes a student compelling are their interests – what they do outside the classroom – as well as their essays. If you are competitie, an essay can be the difference between an admit and deny decision. So what do college admissions officers want to know?

  1. Who is this person?
  2. Will this person contribute something of value to our campus?
  3. Can this person write?

How to start? My favorite resource for brainstorming is a process introduced by The College Essay Guy called the Objects and Values exercises: These two exercises are where I start with my students. Once you nail down your essense objects and values that are most important, you are ready to find your unique story that highlights those things that are most important to you. Once you’ve figured out the angle you want to take, the next step is getting it down on paper. With my students, I encourage a stream of consciousness exercise where they just brainstorm the different elements that could fit into the essay. Working together, we identify the most compelling parts of the story to craft the essay. How to craft the essay? This is where my other favorite resource comes into play. If you don’t have a copy of Janine Robinson’s Escape from Essay Hell, I highly recommend you purchase one. It’s a quick read and more importantly, is the best guide I’ve found for students who aren’t natural writers…. Last piece of advice: have fun with the essay and let your unique voice shine throughout. There is only one you!



January 7, 2016 at 10:31 am

The principle purpose of the introduction is to present your position (this is also known as the “thesis” or “argument”) on the issue at hand but effective introductory paragraphs are so much more than that. Before you even get to this thesis statement, for example, the essay should begin with a “hook” that grabs the reader’s attention and makes them want to read on. Examples of effective hooks include relevant quotations (“no man is an island”) or surprising statistics (“three out of four doctors report that…”).

Only then, with the reader’s attention “hooked,” should you move on to the thesis. The thesis should be a clear, one-sentence explanation of your position that leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind about which side you are on from the beginning of your essay.

Following the thesis, you should provide a mini-outline which previews the examples you will use to support your thesis in the rest of the essay. Not only does this tell the reader what to expect in the paragraphs to come but it also gives them a clearer understanding of what the essay is about.

Finally, designing the last sentence in this way has the added benefit of seamlessly moving the reader to the first paragraph of the body of the paper. In this way we can see that the basic introduction does not need to be much more than three or four sentences in length. If yours is much longer you might want to consider editing it down a bit!

Here, by way of example, is an introductory paragraph to an essay in response to the following question:

“Do we learn more from finding out that we have made mistakes or from our successful actions?”