- SUGGESTED TOPICS
- The Magazine
- Most Popular
- Managing Yourself
- Managing Teams
- Work-life Balance
- The Big Idea
- Data & Visuals
- Reading Lists
- Case Selections
- HBR Learning
- Topic Feeds
- Account Settings
- Email Preferences
How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application
What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?
How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.
- Start early. Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
- Keep the focus narrow. Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
- Be yourself. Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
- Be creative. “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
- Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.
Where your work meets your life. See more from Ascend here .
We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.
What exactly goes into writing a great college essay, and more importantly, what does it take to write one that stands out from thousands of others, landing itself in the “Accept” vs. “Reject” pile?
Breaking Down the College Essay
Let’s start by breaking it down into manageable parts and examining the required elements.
What’s the point of the college essay?
Almost every standard college application requires first-year applicants to submit a personal essay. If you are one of these applicants, you may be wondering, what’s the point?
With so many colleges deciding to go test-optional, (many do not require standardized tests and instead focus solely on your transcripts, essay, and recommendations), the essay is the one place in your application where you can illuminate your character in words and ideas, rather than in numbers and percentages. It is your chance to show schools who you are, what makes you tick, and why you stand out from the crowd.
Admissions counselors will read your essay and try to determine whether or not they want you at their school. While reading, they will be asking themselves, “What will this person bring to our community? Will they make our school a more valuable place?”
What are the prompts?
There are seven personal essay prompts in the Common Application. You may choose to write about obstacles you’ve encountered, your accomplishments and realizations, moments when you experienced extreme gratitude, or select your own topic.
No one prompt is considered “better” than another, but they can vary slightly from year to year, so be sure to read through all of them for your application cycle. At the end of the day, if there is something you feel really passionate about, you can likely adapt it to fit a prompt.
How long should your essay be?
The essay should be 650 words, which might sound like a lot at first, but you will be surprised by how quickly you reach that limit once you get going. Most of the students I work with end up making cuts to shorten their essays before submitting. The word limit is non-negotiable. You will not be able to submit an essay that’s even one word over the limit.
Writing the College Essay
Your parents, teachers, and guidance counselors know what they are talking about when they tell you to get started on the essay during the summer before your senior year. Don’t leave it until the last minute. Once senior year starts, life is a whirlwind. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay. Aim to start in July or August before senior year.
Starting can be as easy as creating a document where you generate an ongoing list of potential topics. You will want to draft your essay in a separate document anyway. You can copy and paste it over into the Common Application once you have a final, edited version.
Additionally, starting doesn’t always mean sitting down in front of a computer and typing. Talk about topic ideas out loud with anyone who will listen. Discuss ideas for topics with your family members over dinner or on car rides with friends. Think about ideas when you are out for a run or bike ride. Almost all colleges and universities have samples of “College Essays That Worked” in the admissions section of their websites. Reading through these may inspire you.
Keep the focus narrow.
Do not think too big. Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
That leads to another suggestion: Don’t write about Covid-19. Your essay might touch on something that’s an offshoot of your time spent in quarantine or a loss connected to Covid, but it should not be about the pandemic specifically. There’s no question Covid-19 had, and still has, a major impact on all of us, but that topic has been written about by many students from every angle possible. Colleges want to read something different.
The Common Application has added an optional question that gives all applicants a place to address the impact that Covid has had on them personally and educationally. If you feel you have a story you must tell connected to the pandemic, this is the place to share it.
So, what should you write about?
When brainstorming topics, think about challenges you have faced and how you’ve handled them. You can also ask people who know you best how they would describe you in a few words and why. Their responses can be great jumping off points for writing your essay.
Some students choose to write about seemingly small, ordinary topics that illuminate their character beautifully, and are both poignant and thought-provoking. One student I worked with wrote about growing up hiking with her parents from the time when she was a baby in a backpack carrier, to a grumpy middle schooler, to an appreciative, nature-loving young adult who found outdoor experiences were an essential part of who she was at her core.
Other students choose to describe major life events, or especially challenging experiences that have impacted them deeply. An essay that comes to mind is one written by a student who battled loneliness and isolation due to anxiety and depression, and ultimately found invaluable reprieve in the arts, a passion that they hoped to continue to pursue at the college level.
Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, be sure the essay rises above a strict recounting of a story. Instead, use the narrative to reveal your true self. It’s okay to be vulnerable and honest; in fact, it’s critical you do so. Admissions counselors will not judge you negatively for depicting moments of weakness or fear, or for having different politics than they might. More likely, they will be impressed by your level of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and introspection.
Admissions counselors want value-adders. What adds value to a college campus? Students who display energy, resilience, leadership, passion, inclusivity, unique outlooks, and people who can inspire others. Your essay should tell a story that highlights traits like these. No one else has lived your life or experienced what you have in the way that you have; tell your unique story. Use a voice that’s real to you.
This is not the time to experiment with overly formal academic nor romantic, flowery language. Use words you would normally use and show the reader what makes you, you. There is no need to over-inflate things. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
The college essay is not like a typical English paper. It’s a true blend of the creative and the literary. In creative writing classes you often hear the advice, “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece. Describe sights, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and sounds as you write.
That said, just because you are being creative does not mean your essay should lack structure. This is not the time to experiment with a completely outlandish form. You don’t want to make your readers work to understand what you are trying to say. You want them to be entirely absorbed in the story you are telling. The easiest way to do this is by making your essay easy to read.
Think of the typical five paragraph structure for English papers. Your essay should have an introductory paragraph with a thesis/hook, supporting body paragraphs, and a conclusion that ties everything together. Your story might lend itself to six or seven paragraphs instead of five, depending on where the natural narrative breaks lie, and that’s fine. Just make sure it has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Your essay should not have any spelling, formatting, or grammatical errors. Mistakes do not put your best foot forward to admissions counselors, and they are distracting.
Be sure to read, re-read, and share your submission with others to prevent the possibility of mistakes. Use tools like spell and grammar check, and ask at least two other people to read your essay and offer feedback. You can ask a trusted family member to take a look, or even reach out to a friend with exceptionally good writing skills. We often get so close to our own words that we miss obvious errors. Even the best writers in the world rely on editors to help catch mistakes.
Another option is to ask your English teacher or guidance counselor to review your essay. In some schools, students will work on the college essay in English class during the fall of their senior year. This gives them a chance to receive both teacher and peer feedback, which can be incredibly valuable.
Finally, read your essay aloud before hitting submit. It may feel silly, but you will be amazed at the errors you will catch this way.
Make a point.
By the time you reach your conclusion, be sure your essay makes some sort of point. This is what will separate it from the competition. Ask yourself what you want your reader to walk away thinking and knowing about you, and allude to that in your final sentences. A strong conclusion that helps tie the entire essay together, and also points to the bigger picture, is key.
To achieve this, as you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had. Above all, remember that the conclusion should not be an afterthought, nor should it simply summarize the previous few paragraphs.
In many ways, the conclusion is the most important part of your essay as it’s the last thing people will read. Be sure to give it the time, effort, and energy it deserves. You want your readers to pause and reflect at the end of your essay. You want them to feel something, versus just moving on to the next essay on their list.
While some students are able to afford pricey college counselors to help guide them through the application process, at the end of the day, there is no magic formula that someone can pay thousands of dollars for when it comes to writing the college essay. Everyone has a unique story to tell and that is priceless. As long as you give yourself the time to brainstorm, and write and then rewrite, as well as ask for feedback from others along the way, you can end up with a solid final product.
One lesson you will learn at college is that the world is full of a wide array of brilliant, interesting, diverse individuals who all have unique life experiences. You are one of those people. Enjoy the process of telling your story, and then relish the opportunity you will have to create more stories as you move onto the next chapter of your life.
- AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business, All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including Pine Row Press , Months to Years, and Atlanta Review .
How To Write A Personal Essay: In 6 Easy Steps
When you’re learning how to write a personal essay, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed. Here, we’ll break down everything you need to know about essay writing.
If you’re worried about writing a personal essay, you’re not alone. Many people have a hard time writing in essay format, especially regarding a topic that elicits an emotional response. A good personal essay may share a deeper truth, describe a profound life experience, tell a striking personal story, or describe relationships with family members in a relatable way.
Whether you’re a seasoned essayist or in high school and writing an essay thesis statement for the first time, following a few simple steps can help you grab your reader’s attention. With practice, you can hammer home your main points, and share a personal experience in an enjoyable way for readers. Learn more about what is a personal essay
1. Choose Your Essay Topic
2. create a personal essay outline, 3. write your first draft , 4. revie and revise your essay draft, 5. format your essay , 6. seek feedback , the final word on how to write a personal essay, faqs on how to write a personal essay.
A personal essay is a type of creative nonfiction writing that shares a personal, profound life experience. Often told in first-person style, a personal essay relays a sequence of events with deep meaning.
Before beginning your personal essay, you’ll need to brainstorm a list of personal essay topics. Think about parts of your life that had a large impact on your current view of the world. Events that seemed small at the moment may have largely informed your life view. As your brainstorm, try not to judge yourself — freely jotting down all of your ideas will help you begin to craft your real-life piece of writing.
Narrow down your subject matter options and choose a topic from your list. Hang onto your list for another time — you may want to return to it later in life when it’s time to write a college admissions essay (check out these fantastic college admissions essays ).
Your narrative essay outline will guide your writing, making it easier for you to create a well-organized piece of writing that makes sense for your target audience. A good personal essay outline should contain several sections, including an introduction, several body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The introduction must draw the reader into a story. The first sentence should grab your reader’s attention and give them a reason to continue reading, even if they disagree with you.
This example from a Cornell applicant does a great job at making the reader want to learn more:
My face brightened as morning commuters passed by and took flyers from my hand. As they turned the corner, they carelessly tossed the flyers away. My brows furrowed. Is this what I woke up at seven in the morning for? To hand out flyers to indifferent strangers who won’t give the time of day, nevertheless a second glance? I was just a background character, a boy handing out flyers in the scene of a lively street. I was a mannequin, easily passed by unnoticed.
Throughout the rest of the introduction, work to breadcrumb your story (drop hints about exciting points to come). Try to hit on one point in each body paragraph. Longer isn’t necessarily better—try to eliminate fluff from your essay. Your goal is to keep your reader engaged in your story from start to finish. You might also enjoy learning how to write a game review .
After you’ve completed your outline, it’s time to start fleshing out your work with a first draft. Try not to worry too much about writing in active voice versus passive voice, or about perfecting the mechanics of your grammar.
Your first draft is all about getting your thoughts on the paper, and you’ll have plenty of time to proofread and revise later.
As you write your first draft, you may find that you need to adjust your outline—and that’s ok. Writing a college essay or other personal narrative isn’t usually linear. During the initial writing phases, share your experiences or point of view honestly. If you’re struggling, start small. Write the first sentence of each paragraph and fill in your first draft from there. Check out our guide to writing a first draft .
For your conclusion, be sure to tie your story together and hammer home your main point. Take a look at this personal essay conclusion from an essayist exploring her feelings about her cultural heritage:
I can now appreciate the value of my unique culture and background, and of living with less. This perspective offers room for progress, community integration, and a future worth fighting for. My time with Assemblyman Sepulveda’s office taught me that I can be a change agent in enabling this progression. Far from being ashamed of my community, I want to someday return to local politics in the Bronx to continue helping others access the American Dream. I hope to help my community appreciate the opportunity to make progress together. By embracing reality, I learned to live it. Along the way, I discovered one thing: life is good, but we can make it better.
If time permits, take a day or two away from writing before you begin the process of editing and proofreading your first draft. Taking a step back will allow you to gain some distance from your piece of writing, and can allow you to see what you’ve written with fresh eyes.
First, read over your draft and pay attention to how your personal narrative essay flows from one point to the next. Don’t worry about formatting or voice yet—simply make sure your introductory paragraph flows easily into your body paragraphs and that your final body paragraph flows easily into your essay’s conclusion. Interested in learning more? Check out our guide on how to create a writing prompt .
Once you have your story straight, it’s time to ensure that your essay is reader-friendly. Be sure you’re meeting any specified formatting requirements (for example, if you’re writing a college essay, you may need to use certain margins or spacing). You’ll also want to take some time to go over the mechanics of your essay, working to write in active voice over passive voice, as well as working to eliminate any grammatical errors.
In short, read or ask for the style guide for wherever you’re submitting the essay in question. Common style guides include APA, the Chicago Manual of Style and the Havard style guide. Check out our guide to style guide templates .
It’s tough sharing personal writing with someone else, but doing so can help you dramatically improve the quality of an essay. So, ask a trusted friend or family member to take a look at your essay and give you honest feedback on how you can make it even better. Ask them to provide critical feedback and suggest areas for improvement. Alternative, why not find a beta reader ?
The process of writing a personal essay can feel daunting, but breaking it down into steps can make it a little bit easier. Take your time, and remember, if you’re sharing your personal story and deep truths, you’re doing it right. Once you’ve written a personal essay, publish it online, submit it to a competition or a journal. Don’t let it sit in your drawer. If still need help writing an essay, in this interview, Pam Munter explains the art of personal essay writing .
What topics are acceptable for a personal essay?
For a personal essay, any topic that examines an important life experience or a learned deep truth is an excellent jumping-off point.
How long should a personal essay outline be?
An outline can be anything from a few words to a few sentences. If it gives you an idea of where your essay is headed and helps to guide your first draft, you’re on the right track
Join over 15,000 writers today
Get a FREE book of writing prompts and learn how to make more money from your writing.
Success! Now check your email to claim your prompts.
There was an error submitting your subscription. Please try again.
View all posts
Home / Essay Samples / Sociology / Identity / Personal Life
Personal Life Essay Examples
People have different values, and it is very important to reflect on these different values throughout life, and to know when our values change. I developed most of my values when I was younger and I continue to keep these values, but as I am...
“My life is my message” is a quote by Mahatma Gandhi. This quote can mean anything to anyone but to me it means everything. Every single moment, thought, image, and feeling I have created is my message. Everything I helped, complimented, joked about, and smiled...
It can sounds weird, but the piano played a big role in my life. So that was the purpose to wtite an “Piano essay” where I will share my relationship story with piano. “I really regret letting you learn the piano!” my mom yelled sitting...
To start with, this is my life story example where I want share personal experience. To start my example of life story, I lost my father when I was 4 years old. For my optimum upbringing, my mother started her own business of selling female...
What are some of the first things that would come to your mind if you were asked, “What is a good life?” If young ones were asked this question they would say something like not going to school and eating pizza with extra cheese for...
Hello everyone, my name is Lina Sha and in my autobiography essay I want to share my autobiography today. My major is hospitality of management, and I am going to transfer to UNLV next year to complete my bachelor’s degree. Most of my family members,...
Dear Diary, I have something terrible to tell you. Wait… I haven’t even introduced myself. Let me start over…. Dear Diary, My name is Anna and I have never written in a diary before, I saw dear diary examples how to start writing, but it...
According to Carl Rogers every person could achieve their Goals, Wishes, and Desires in life. It might seem easy to understand at first but, what does it really mean? One must have a deeper understanding in philosophy in order to understand Carl Rogers’ statement. We...
My life essay: a challenging experience that changed me. An Erie of quiet welcomed my kin and me as we went into my grandma’s home one night. As we wandered further into the calm house, scanning each space for my grandma our guiltless interest covered...
To start with, this is childhood memory essay were I want share why childhood is sweet time where I want to come back. It is happy to go back to the world of childhood where problems and worries haven’t yet existed. Childhood memories have a...
Trying to find an excellent essay sample but no results?
Don’t waste your time and get a professional writer to help!
You may also like
- Gender Identity
- Rhetorical Strategies
- Cultural Identity Essays
- Social Class Essays
- American Identity Essays
- Homosexuality Essays
- Minority Essays
- Ethnicity Essays
- Transgender Essays
- Woman Essays
- Same-Sex Parenting Essays
- Gender Criticism Essays