Personal Essay Tips for Your College Apps

A good personal essay should present an aspect of your personality that is not obvious from the rest of your college application. The admissions officers will see your grades and test scores, a list of your extracurricular activities and your awards and achievements. They will also read the letters of recommendation your teachers have written for you. But they will not see the three-dimensional person you actually are. The purpose of your essay is to provide them with a deeper understanding of what makes you tick.

Selective colleges are looking for students who will bring creative energy and interesting thinking to their campus. Of course, they are also looking for evidence that a student is mature, socially conscious and will become a positive force in their community. The more your essay can convince the reader of these things, the more successful it will be.

Conflict is the engine of all good writing

To be successful, a personal essay must first hold the reader’s attention. To do that, you will need a bit of drama. You may have heard that every good piece of writing contains a conflict. Will Ahab avenge Moby Dick—or will the whale destroy him? Will Romeo and Juliet manage to come together, despite their families’ antipathies? If the writer presents a compelling problem or question, the reader will want to read on for the answer.

The same principle applies to a good personal essay, although the conflict may be less obvious. In “Professions for Women,” Virginia Woolf writes about the social restrictions that women have to overcome to launch themselves in any profession. E.B. White’s “Death of a Pig,” is about the writer’s struggle to reconcile his job of slaughtering a pig with his sentimental attachment to this animal. And in “Stranger in the Village,” James Baldwin, the only black man living in an Alpine village, considers the pain and irony of his cultural position.

Each of these essays holds the reader’s attention because we want to find out if and how the problem will be resolved. If you want to hold your reader’s attention, you too would be wise write about some sort of conflict—whether large or small—that you have dealt with.

Here are questions to ask yourself as you consider ideas for a personal essay:

  1. What is the subject of your essay?
  2. What conflict will you address?
  3. Exactly what do you want your readers to learn about you that’s not obvious from the rest of your application?
  4. Will the way you approach the subject enable you to emerge as a real and appealing personality?
  5. Does this essay offer evidence that you are an interesting thinker?
  6. Will it suggest that you are a person who can take initiative?
  7. Will your narrative make your reader believe you would be a valuable addition to the college community?

Writing the précis

Once you have answered the questions above, write a one-or two-paragraph précis or summary of your idea. This should not be confused with the first paragraphs of your actual essay. Instead, it should describe your idea for what you are going to write. For example, a student might write something like this for the précis:

Essay idea: Drumming makes me feel at one with the universe

In school, I’ve always been known as the math geek, the boy who plans to major in physics. But until recently, only a small circle of people knew that my secret passion has always been playing the tabla. The tabla is a pair of small drums that are the backbone of classical Indian music. I’ve loved their intricate rhythms ever since early childhood, when I first heard my uncle performing on these drums at a family party. Since 9th grade, when most of my friends and classmates went off to baseball, soccer or hockey practice, I’ve devoted three afternoons a week to meeting up with the fellow members of a raga group to play tabla and create beautiful music.

This wasn’t something I chose to share with most of my peers. I was afraid they’d laugh at the music and call me a weirdo. But six months ago, my raga group was profiled in our community newspaper, and the secret was out. As I feared, I’ve had to deal with a lot of strange looks and clueless questions. But those questions have forced me to think about the tabla and why I love it so much. It all comes down to this. Drumming takes me into another reality. It makes me feel at one with the universe. Drumming is as essential to me as the mathematical equations I love to solve. I’ve come to see how these two activities actually complement each other. In my essay I will explore how playing the tabla has helped me become a better mathematician and also a better and happier person.

After you’ve written the précis and are convinced that your idea fits the criterion for an effective essay, you can begin the real writing. You will need to flesh out your story with details. Instead of summarizing all the events in your narrative, you can describe some of them as if they were scenes in a movie. Choose one or two moments to dramatize, while telescoping others for brevity.

Fleshing out your idea

For the “Drumming” essay, the writer would do well to describe his experience when drumming. It would be good if he could set the stage by describing the physical situation. He might say something like this:

It was a Thursday afternoon at 4:00 p.m. and, as usual, I was at my friend Gary’s house, sitting cross-legged on his mother’s Persian carpet, my fingers whirring over the tautly-stretched drum heads of the tabla, creating lacy rhythmic patterns that wove in and out of the music around me. I felt inspired, even transported, by the bright melody of Gary’s sitar, which shimmered like morning light over water, while the warm overtones of Bela’s tanpura radiated benevolently over our little group of musicians.

Once you have set the scene, you should introduce your conflict and move forward. The writer of the “Drumming” essay will need to explain that the tabla was part of his “secret” life, which he didn’t share with many. He will talk about his fears of being misunderstood and ridiculed. The conflict in his story is between his love of the tabla and his fears of social rejection. This idea should be introduced early in the piece.

Keeping your story simple

Be sure to keep your story simple. A personal essay is not a novel or a Shakespearean drama. You have only 650 words to develop your idea. That’s why you’ll need to choose one subject and stick to it. You have room to narrate a story, but briefly. And, of course, you, the narrator, will need to step back at a certain point and reflect on the story. You’ll need to explain the conclusions you’ve drawn from the events.

This is what the drummer does, when he says that his classmates’ questions caused him to think hard about why he loves the tabla. This is his opportunity to show that he’s a thoughtful person—he doesn’t just play this music, he also thinks about its larger meaning. Many students are involved in unusual and impressive activities. But it is the ability of a writer to reflect on an activity and offer an interesting take on it that can make one candidate stand out from the rest.

Reading for inspiration

If you get stuck, don’t worry. Put your essay aside for a little while and do some reading. Read personal essays that other students have written. Read as many as possible. As you do so, ask yourself what makes one more effective than another. Also read essays by our classic writers. For starters, check out E.B White, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, George Orwell and Joan Didion. Then seek out the work of writers publishing today in respected magazines and newspapers. Every one of them can teach you something.

After you’ve read a slew of good essays, you’ll realize there are as many potential subjects to write about as there are stars in the winter sky. Choose one that excites you, and then get to work.

About the Author: Mona Molarsky

Mona Molarsky is a private college counselor who offers advice and assistance to students and their families at every stage of the college preparation and application process. She also offers tutoring in English, social studies and language arts.