How To Write A Personal Essay For College
Writing a personal essay for college can be challenging if you don’t have a natural talent for writing or the thought of pen and paper or screen and word processor unnerve you. But if you want to differentiate yourself from other college applicants — and you WILL want to do that if you plan to go to a school with more prestige — you will need to find your way to writing a good essay. Here are some tips for how you can pull it off even if you don’t consider yourself a good writer.
1. Don’t think of it as writing; think of it as a chance to talk about yourself.
“Writing” sounds like too much of a chore to many students, but the personal essay is more than just words on a page or screen. It’s a chance to put your life in perspective. A chance to talk about the philosophies that excite you, the stories you live by, the accomplishments that you have amassed. It’s a chance to celebrate and be enthusiastic about all the things that make you you. So before you ever put together that first sentence, slow down a bit and change your mindset.
2. Put the importance of your personal essay in perspective.
It’s easy to psyche yourself out when getting ready to write a personal essay for the colleges of your choice. But before you get too carried away with the importance of it, realize that it’s just a piece to the larger puzzle of who you are. It does not negate your grades or accomplishments or student involvement. And if you’re not comfortable taking my word for it, just listen to what Carolyn Pippen of Vanderbilt University has to say: “Be thoughtful, but not fretful [about your personal essay]. As a senior, most of the accomplishments that will make up the bulk of your application — academic performance, test scores, and extracurricular involvement — are said and done. In a sense, the only part of the application over which you have complete control right now is the essay. Don’t let this scare you! While the essay is a valuable tool that we use to understand you better, it is rarely if ever a “make or break” component of your application.”
3. Forgo fine print writing for personal reflection.
For most colleges and universities, the personal essay is a tool for learning more about you. Not about your prose abilities or how long you can spread out details of a trip or a person — I call this “fine print writing” in this context. No, instead of describing blow-by-blow every detail of the favorite football game you played in, describe what you learned from the experience. Now you should bring in some details in doing this, but only those that speak to the lessons you have learned. In other words, focus more on personal reflection, and if you’re going to wow them with your writing ability, make sure you have a point and that that point relates back to you in some way.
4. Bring out something your transcripts leave out.
It stands to reason that your personal essay should go beyond what your high school transcripts reveal. Try to minimize all the things that the admissions office will already know by a simple look at your record. Reveal something to them that you’ve never revealed to anyone, or something that isn’t common knowledge about you. (Of course, it also stands to reason that you would want this revelation to be somewhat complimentary. While it may be honest to reveal that you regularly cheated on math tests throughout high school, it’s probably not going to impress the person reading your essay.)
5. Brainstorm and organize your thoughts before writing.
As you can see the first four points are about mindset and about you. Here we are at No. 5, and we’re just now getting to the mechanics of writing and editing. That’s on purpose. I really want you to be thinking about content first. When you have a good idea of what you’re going to say, the writing will flow to the point that you don’t have to think about it. So during the brainstorming process, be putting all four of those first tips to use. Jot down interesting events or experiences and the life lessons they taught you. You don’t even have to use full sentences! Once you’re done brainstorming, try to find items that go together and place them into a group. This may require the use of note cards (for shuffling), erasing and rewriting (if by hand), or clipping and pasting the text around (if on a computer screen). Once you’re satisfied with the job you’ve done organizing, you can start writing.
6. Write and edit.
By now, you know the basic structure of an essay, so it’s a matter of pouring your ideas and reflections into that mold using whole sentences. Make sure that, after you’re done, you put all the text through a spellchecker program, and then consider moving it over to an app like AutoCrit or the HemingwayApp and doing a search there as well. These two programs are editing resources that go a lot further than spelling and usage when telling you what’s up with your text. Listen to what these programs tell you. Shorten sentences. Remove as many adverbs as possible. If your language makes sentences too wordy, or if you have too many complex sentences crammed together, simplify.
7. Finally, get a second opinion.
If you can find just one person, who will read your personal essay and give you an honest opinion, you’re much better off than if you were to write, proof, edit, and submit, on your own. Try to get as many as three honest opinions, though, so you can see if criticisms repeat themselves. (This is usually a good indication that you need to change something before sending it.) Once you’re pleased with the personal essay, and with your “editorial team”‘s reaction to it, it’s time to send.
If you know yourself and you know basic essay structure, then you already have the tools to write the perfect personal essay. What tips and tricks have worked for you? Sound off in the comments section!