Writing A Personal Essay


#1

Hi, guys. I’m planning to apply to a university and it is required to write a personal essay. Though, I’ve never written one, at least, one that is going to be submitted into an academic institution. The question is:

“Are there any significant experiences you’ve had, or accomplishments you have realized, that have helped define you as a person?”

Of course, I already have something in mind, it’s just that I’m afraid I might go too personal for an essay to be submitted to a school. Any tips on how to write a personal essay for a university?


#2

You can-

(Remembers the low scores she had in her essays)

I will just call @DUNGEON_MASTER and @IronRaptor here…


#3

Just simply write your experience objectively and honestly. No need to sugarcoat it.

And think about what you want to include on the essay and what to not include :ok_hand:


#4

Personal essay for educational institutions hmm. No experience with them so I am just gonna sit back and watch.

BTW I think it’s only a short introduction maybe to assess your attitude, style of thinking and expression, major events happened to you overall a background check


#6

They get you to write personal essays to get into uni? How odd, I’ve never had to write one for any university. Must do things differently in different countries :). In saying that, I suspect it’s somewhat akin to an enterance interview which I have done and they asked questions along that line in it. I suspect that they want to know you can articulate your thoughts clearly, that you’re applying for the course for the right reasons and give you a chance to make a good impression. (Some courses are very competitive and/or have high drop out rates so it’s a chance to prove you’re the one they should be admitting if there’s a few people with similar marks/CV’s.)

If that’s the case I’d write clearly, make sure you cover anything they’ve specified they want to know and see if you need to structure it in a particular way (there should be guidelines somewhere?) I’d also see if the guidelines allow you any leeway in writing it (or talk to the faculty or student help line for more info). If it’s allowed and you can write it more loosely with elements of a story in there, it might be more interesting to read and memorable than a traditional essay (especially if they’ve got lots to read though!), but risky unless you’re sure you you’re allowed to write that way. (I did that once on a “personal reflection” essay that was university entrance related (long story) and it paid off, but it was a risk that I probably shouldn’t have taken as it could have backfired.) Be honest, include anything you think will help your cause but don’t go overboard, keep it realistic and genuine. I suspect there’s no right or wrong answer, as long as you keep it on topic. I’d use your judgement for whether it’s too personal. For example, talking about caring for a sick relative and the impact it had on you, might seem too personal for an engineering course unless there’s a particular point you wished to make, but if you were applying for nursing, it could be helpful to talk about it. If in doubt, ask someone else to read it for you and give you an objective opinion on whether they think it’s appropriate.

Anyway, take what I’m saying with a grain of salt as it’s based on interviews and reflective essays rather than a personal enterance essay. Good luck :slight_smile:


#7

…is this for an American university?

-flashes back to writing essays and filling out applications-

… -shudders-

I’m on my phone right now but I can go shuffle through old things to see what I got. Just know that you want to pick a unique topic because the admission people will be reading through hundreds of these! :heart:


#8

Every collage guidance person said that you NEED to get personal, give everything to the topic, anything that could even remotely be related.


#9

Hi there!

I won’t claim to be an expert on personal essays, but I have done my fair share of university application essays/personal statements and I can share some pointers with you. As with all advice, this is definitely not perfect and not universal, so do use your personal discretion.

  1. Typos/grammar/spelling - read and reread your personal statement. Run it through grammarly/get your teacher/friends/parents to read it. There is nothing more painful than spending months on a personal essay only to realise that you have made a typo in the first sentance. Academics get very very annoyed with these mistakes, especially so because of the intense competition - typos will kill your essay.

  2. Understand the objective of the personal statement - Sadly, the university doesn’t really care about you or your story, which is about as important as the other 10000 applicants. To the admissions officer, the personal statement should be written with a purpose -> to qualify you as a good candidate to study in the university.

It would be great to include relevant examples that would show how you would be a good candidate. For example, don’t just say “I would love to be an engineer”, show them how you have actively seeked to pursue your interest/passion in engineering.

  1. Keep to the topic - As tempting as it is to change the topic to one that suits you the best, don’t. Admissions officers are pretty much reading essays from morning till evening so anyone that tries to be special for the wrong reasons will quickly find themselves being dropped down the queue. But that being said, it is still up to you to angle and structure your essay. Although convention dictates an intro, body and conclusion, you can still have a lot of creative freedom while sticking to the topic.

  2. Don’t be afraid to sell yourself - A lot of us (especially asians like me) find it very awkward to tell people of our qualities/achievements as we are scared of coming off as arrogant. In an admissions essay/interview, think of it like this, they don’t know what you are capable of and they would love you to make their job easier by just telling them straight. So yes, highlight your qualities, skills and achievements but do it tactfully. Don’t say “I am a champion frisbee player”, talk about the process and how it impacted you (and throw in the achievement there ><).

  3. Understand your audience - Are you writing to a conservative/liberal college? For example, writing about controversial topics, no matter how close to your heart (i.e. religion, race, sexuality) when applying to asian universities would be a big no-no, simply because there is a chance that the admissions officer might not agree with overtly liberal views and also because most essays are capped by a word limit and it is very hard to make a strong argument/narrative within that limit.

I also understand that reference to drug use/crime would be frowned upon by American universities so it would be good to shy away from those topics. So do practice common sense. At the end of the day, universities are looking for students who would be in line with not just their academic objectives, but also their culture. So it will be helpful not to brand yourself as too much of a rule breaker/trouble maker.

  1. Focus - It will be very tempting to simply list your achievements, and rattle off a “I won this championship and captained that club and scored perfect SAT scores” but this doesn’t really mean much, and most students today would be able to match, if not better your achievements. Focus on one or two key events, talk about the process and their impact on you. It’s a reflective exercise, so draw meaningful conclusions and insights from your experiences, not a cliche “I became more responsible as a result”, but explain the challenges and how you overcame them. Talk about how you would have done it differently, and why that event shaped you etc etc. The point is, given 1000/500 words or however many, its better to go in depth for a few points than to go for volume.

  2. Personal is good, but understand the objective - writing something personal and close to your heart is good because you tend to write better vis-a-vis something you don’t really care for. But remember that this is an admissions essay and there are going to be thousands of essays that are similar to yours. So firstly, how do you stand out? Be clear about the objective of the essay, this is not a time for you to pour out your deepest darkest secrets or brag about your best achievements, be thoughtful and angle your essay to achieve your goal - entrance into the university. So be personal, but do not let your emotions cloud your judgement, or turn the essay into a sob story and appeal to pity cause chances are, its not going to work.

That’s about all I have, for now haha. Brain is not really working cause its been a long day so I hope it helps! Always get second opinions on your essay by asking friends/parents/teachers to read it for you. If your school has a university/career advisor, GO AND SEEK THEIR ADVICE. They have seen thousands of essays and they will be able to help you with yours.

All the best and good luck!!!


#10

So, um, I kind of wrote you an essay about writing essays. I’ve got two decent excuses for this:

  1. I wrote an essay about four years ago for almost exactly the same prompt, and it won me a scholarship.
  2. I’d like to be an English (or literature) teacher, so this was good practice summarizing my essay-writing tips.

I see @nauhziy just posted some very good advice on university applications specifically. Keep in mind I was writing to a Liberal Arts college, so his more cautious advice may be more appropriate depending on where you’re applying.

Okay, here goes…

Your Topic

Is it too personal? I’m not sure exactly what you have in mind, so I can’t give you a black and white answer to this question. However, keep in mind this is your only chance to show this university who you are beyond your academic record. Personal is going to be more memorable for whoever’s reading a stack of these essays.

Maybe imagine you’re talking to a stranger you’d really like to impress. I mean that’s what you’re doing, but ‘admissions office’ is kind of nebulous and not motivational. Take a celebrity or author you really admire, someone who inspires you. I’ll use the singer Lorde as an example, as she’s one of those people for me. So hypothetically, I meet Lorde, and she honestly seems to want to get to know me as a friend, and we get a chance to talk privately without any kind of media involvement. We have a great conversation about music and writing, and then she says ‘Alexandra, I heard you once did [essay topic] – that sounds really interesting, what was that like?’ There’s your essay – a quick summary of something that changed you, to someone you want to impress.

If you’re not sure about mentioning personal information about friends and family, change their names: e.g. ‘I have a friend (let’s call her Hannah), who…’. The other thing to keep in mind is that you will probably never have to meet the person who reviews your essay.
On a related note, having a style that’s too casual might be something to watch for; your writing should be polished and probably fairly formal. Aim for being genuine and avoid sounding stiff. Be honest and write about something you really care about, and let your style come from your interest in it.

You said you probably have a topic already, so this may be superfluous. But as this is turning into it’s own essay, might as well throw in some advice for picking a topic for this sort of thing.

  1. Take something unique and make it real. Have you done something unusual in your life? Taught Irish dancing? Worked at a museum? Cared for a friend or relative in the hospital? Bottle fed a lamb? Learned to sail? (Even if it seems normal in your community, it could be surprising to the university, depending on its location. However, I believe essays about travelling to a foreign country are fairly common, and not as unique as you may think. You’re more likely to know something truly unique about an area you’ve lived most of your life.) Tell us what it was really like. What details would we not guess? What would a normal day doing this be like? What’s most memorable about this for you?
  2. Take something normal and make it interesting. I’m fully convinced you could write a great essay for this prompt about working at a grocery store. (And it might not be as common a subject as you think, because other students tend to dismiss it as boring.) Maybe that work as a cashier brought you out of your shell, helped you realize you weren’t as shy as you thought, and gave you confidence to realize you could earn money on your own and actually enjoy the process. If something ‘ordinary’ indeed helped define you as a person, it’s a fine topic for an essay. You’ll make it unique by being personal and specific.
  3. Figure out what you enjoy writing, and find a topic that fits, or fit your topic to it. When I wrote an essay for almost exactly the same prompt several years ago, I hated writing about myself. What I did like writing was vivid description. I’d had a fairly unique job working at a museum, and wrote the essay mainly about my favorite exhibits, and favorite questions from tourists. I made the essay descriptive, and showed how the job had influenced me by my description.
Writing the Thing

The trick in writing essays, I’ve found, is to fool yourself into thinking you’re not writing an essay. It might be splendid to say things like ‘I can’t do the dishes tonight, I’m busy writing my essay!’ but thinking about it only gives me writer’s block. Below are two methods for working on your essay without that pressure. (They combine well, too!) Also, for either method, I recommend never deleting more than half a sentence. Make another document (call it essay scraps or some pun related to your topic), and copy-paste there instead of deleting stuff. If you ever change your mind, or your computer crashes and you lose your work, you’ll be very glad to have it!

I’m-not-writing-my-essay-yet-I’m-just-outlining-it
  1. This is good for that basic 3-point essay structure. First off, if at any time during this process, you come up with a brilliant sentence for your introduction/conclusion, write it down and save it. You’ll probably want to write both of these sections last, but it’s much better to have something to start with.
  2. Brainstorm a list of possible topics. Go crazy, don’t worry about being redundant, just put lots of words on your page. Take the ones that jump out at you (probably more than three), and list them in a column. Then, under each one, write yourself some notes about what you’d put in that paragraph. They can be sentences or keywords, whatever’s easiest. Imagine you’re taking lecture notes from your own brain.
  3. Keep swapping between your topics and adding details. You’ll probably find a couple that you don’t have as much to write about as you thought, or maybe two that are similar and should be combined. Rearrange as necessary and remember that three paragraphs is not a rule set in stone. If it makes sense and fills up your word count in the end, do it. (Unless you’ve got specific instructions to write a three-paragraph essay, then you don’t have a choice.)
  4. Eventually, your notes will approach paragraph length. Now you’re not writing, you’re editing. Connect the dots, check for redundancies and awkward grammar.
  5. Write your introduction and conclusion. This is much easier when the rest of your essay is done (yay!), because you know exactly what you’re introducing and concluding. If you need a title, grab a phrase from your favorite or most interesting sentence in your conclusion. That way, whoever’s reading it will at least read to the end to learn what your title means, and the repetition with be more memorable.
I’m-not-writing-an-essay-at-all-I’m-rambling-on-paper
  1. AKA the freewriting method. Set yourself a timer, or a word count goal, or say you’ll finish a page. Start writing whatever you think of related to your topic and don’t stop until you reach your goal. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling, just type as you think. (Or use old-fashioned paper if that’s easier for you.) If you’ve never done this before, or have a hard time writing without stopping, you might have good luck with Fighter’s Block (link at the bottom). It’s online, no download required – set a word count goal and it gives you a health bar and will ‘kill’ you if you stop writing for too long. You can adjust the difficulty and you can pause. Telling yourself you can have a cup of tea/coffee/chocolate when you reach your goal also helps.
  2. Depending on how much you have that looks useful, do this a couple times. Sometimes it helps to reread what you’ve done already, and even continue on the same document, other times starting fresh does the trick.
  3. Take what you’ve written, copy it somewhere else, and start deleting what won’t work in your essay. Deleting stuff is fun and doesn’t feel like work! Rearrange what does work by topic.
  4. Like the method above, you’ll reach a point where you’re simply editing. Connect ideas, check spelling and grammar, add to the beginning and end if needed to sound like an introduction and conclusion. Once again, if you need a title, grab a phrase from your favorite or most interesting sentence in your conclusion.
  5. This method probably won’t lead you to a basic, three-point essay. You might want to push it in that direction if that’s what you think this university is expecting. Broadly though, outlines exist to give you structure to write in, and make your finished work easier to follow. If you finished it, it makes sense to readers, and you aren’t specifically required to use a certain structure, who cares if it fits in a box? The goal is successful communication.
Final Editing
  1. Get someone to read your work! (Or several people.) This is really important, especially if you’re using my second method above. If you’re planning to write something especially personal, you might think ahead of time about who you want to read it for you. If you’re worried you might not finish in time for this step, find someone who will set an earlier deadline and nag you about it. When you reach that deadline, send them what you’ve got, even if it doesn’t seem finished. Feedback will give you more energy to keep going.
  2. Read it out loud. This is an excellent way to notice errors you’ve been skimming over.
  3. If you have time, set the essay aside for a day or two, then come back and read it again. Tbh, I almost never have time for this, but usually wish I did.
  4. Double-check the formatting the application requires, and make sure your font is the right size, the margins are what they want, etc. If you need to make text look like it fills more or less of a page, try different fonts, different line spacing, or different font sizes – within their guidelines and reason! Probably should keep your text size between 10-13, and try fonts that look like Times New Roman, which is pretty standard.
A Quick Personal Suggestion

If you’re at all inclined, can I humbly suggest you pray about this? Essays are scary and this is a big one. Honestly I’ve become a more serious Christian in the midst of academic pressure in the past few years, and tend to view my best essays as minor miracles. Writing’s a weird mysterious process, and I’m pretty sure there’s something more than my own little brain at work… :blush:

Good luck on your essay and college plans! Hope this was helpful

EDIT: Oops I forgot the link! :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes: Fighter’s Block is a handy tool for motivating yourself to get a lot of writing done (I’ve used it a bit working on my WIP)


#11

If you’re comfortable sharing it, they’ll probably prefer a more personal essay. Especially if it’s something reasonably unique.


#12

I’m not sure if this will help but I wrote an anecdotal tale about an event in my childhood and then discussed & reflected on what I learn from it and how it changed me. I was asked about it in my interview and my interviewer liked that it was both a light hearted yet humbling story but one that I learned something from. She also liked how the meaning of the lesson changed to me as I got older.
My only advice is to make it your own & to think about what type of person are you waiting to convey through your essay.
Best of luck!!


#13

@Alexandra Wait, seriously, the exact?! I don’t think it will be a surprise if it was the same school you were gearing on for a college admission as well. I’m aiming for psychology or behavioural sciences it is both humanities and social sciences courses so I think Liberal Arts is not far off, to be exact, the opposite.

I don’t know exactly how to balance of keeping it ‘you’ and being objective. I might start to be objective at the first phrases but I always find myself trying to weave some sort of poem in there. The line between personal and formal is blurred. It does not help the fact I hated the thought of writing about myself since I don’t really have an idea how to write about me, it’s a subject I didn’t think I have to be an expert at.

After reading your essay, I realised it might have been too personal since the beginning of my draft is some sort of an attempt to be poetic about a caterpillar without wings is not what you can call beautiful. I was planning to connect it with the not so good choices I’ve made in the past along with inserting the some personal experiences that you might usually tell to your best friend.

I like the idea of thinking impressing your favourite idol or an artist you really look up to, it able me to gauge the right amount of selling out myself out there and the amount of ‘personal’ I should put in my personal essay. Plus, I did noticed I was way too busy think of something quite extraordinary that I myself experienced that looks so amazing putting in a paper like this yet the small, seemingly ordinary activities makes just as much one heck of a story to tell too. Something just bing! into my head. A real story of mine that I feel it is more appropriate which is joining a youth leadership club and yet leading is not really one of my strongest suits but I joined since I was curious about: What if I can be a good leader?

I don’t think the words of ‘I appreciate’ and ‘Thank you’ is enough to let you know just how much grateful I am to get not just any advice but a detailed, thorough one. It answered all of my what’s and how’s. I’m really thankful you took your time just to help and give your insight.

THAnk yOU FOR WISHING ME LUCK IMMA NEED IT and prayers definitely


#14

That would be a crazy coincidence! But, my school doesn’t have a psychology major, and it was just a close prompt, not exactly the same (I think ‘what changed you’ instead of ‘what helped define you.’)

This is a pretty common attitude at this point in your life, I think. You’re on the verge of becoming an independent adult and you realize you don’t know much about who you are as an individual. You’ve probably had adults making most of your decisions for you and had a good idea of where you fit. Now you’ve got to make your own decisions and figure out who you’re going to be. It won’t happen all at once, but in about a year or so you’ll be able to look back at the decisions you’ve made and new people you’ve met and compared yourself to, and have a clearer idea. My life advice for now is to keep in mind an idea of who you’d like to be (not necessarily what you’ll be doing, but what your values and habits will be – a specific role model can help here), and remember it as you make little everyday decisions.

Anyway, back to writing advice.

This sounds like a great topic. Joining a club might not seem really unique, but it sounds like it was a big step for you. You don’t have to talk directly about yourself (‘I am a confident and charismatic person!’ feels weird to write and isn’t that memorable anyway). Talking about your opinion or telling a story should feel much more natural. Talk about your opinion of this club before you joined, tell us the story of why you decided to join even though you thought leadership wasn’t your strongest suit. Describe what you did in this club, focusing on specific details over general summaries. Then, instead of just saying ‘I found out I could be a good leader,’ tell us what you were doing that made you notice. Show that you changed by describing your actions, and make a comparison with how you might have acted differently earlier in your life.

If it gets really long, that’s better than too short. You can keep trimming it until you’re left with the best of what you’ve written (kind of like reducing a sauce or something :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:)

You know, I just had a terrific week and have about six people I can’t thank enough for their help (I had to leave my apartment in 3 days and I had no idea where I or my stuff was going! All cozy in a friend’s lovely house now). So I suppose I’m passing on the grace, in a way :blush: