Writing a Personal Essay

Table of contents

Defining the Personal Essay

Personal means just that. When you are assigned a personal essay, whether for an English course or, more commonly, for an admission or scholarship application, you are being asked to take a piece of your life and write about it. 

Most personal essays begin with some type of prompt. For example, in an English class, you might be asked to write about the best vacation or Christmas you ever had; you might be asked about an experience that changed your life, your beliefs, or your values; you might be asked to describe a major failure (or success) and how you grew from it. 

When writing a personal narrative for admissions or scholarship purposes, you will also be given prompts from which to choose. For example, many colleges (over 700 of them) use the Common Application, and there are 5 options for an essay. Other colleges have their own essay prompts, but they are pretty much the same in terms of asking for pieces of your life. The same goes for scholarship essays.

The point is this: you will be asked to retell events or experiences in your life and the impact they have had on you. You are supposed to show that you have learned something, or changed or grown in some way as a result of them.

Some tips on how to write a personal essay

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Potential Topics for the Personal Essay

You may not have total choice here – or no choice at all. But you will have choices about what life events or experiences you decide to talk about in your essay. If you have some options from among prompts, here is your plan of action:

Read each prompt – and then read each prompt again. Make sure that you understand what is being asked of you.

Time to make a list and check it twice. What events or experiences would be a fit for each prompt? Get them down in writing.

Review your lists and identify the one event or experience that had the greatest impact on you, that you remember very clearly and in detail, and that you know will be really engaging for a reader (people are a bit nosy, and they love stories that other people have to tell). You want your reader to learn something important about you. You can then choose the option that is right for your story.

Personal essay writing infographic

“Winning” Essay Examples

Before you even begin to write, it is always a good idea to see some samples of what great personal essays “look” like. Of course, you aren’t going to even remotely try to copy any of those, of course. Their stories are theirs alone, and so is yours. But you can get ideas about style, tone, language, and structure.

So, let’s have a look at what makes these essays so great.

  • They all have “killer” opening sentences and an opening personal story.
  • They move from that opening story to a larger life learning or experiences
  • When they move into abstracts (fairness, perseverance, or other philosophical statements), the “show” through personal experiences, rather than just tell.
  • They all use a very human, rather casual tone.
  • They project how what they have learned about life will serve them well in the future.
  • The conclusion neatly ties back to the introduction in some way.

Crafting the Personal Narrative Essay Outline

Once you have identified the prompt and the story you intend to use, it’s time to craft that outline. Don’t skip this step – if you do, you’re going to leave things out that will make your story more meaningful.

Begin by making a list of everything in the event, situation, etc., in chronological order. Put in all of the detail that you can remember. It is often in the detail that your story comes alive for a reader. 

Once you have the order and the detail, sit back an take some time to think about it. Ask yourself some questions: 

  • Why does this stand out in your memory?
  •  Why was it important to your growth or learning? 
  • What did you learn and how did you grow from it? 
  • How can you use that learning or growth in the future?

The answers to these questions will form the latter part of your essay – the part where you use the details to show, not tell.

Your personal essay outline doesn’t have to be formal – what you need is a map of the sequence in which you will be telling your story and then relating it to larger, more abstract concepts from the questions listed above.

Don’t worry about the introduction or conclusion yet. These are reserved for after the essay body is actually written, and you have time to think about that killer beginning and wrap-up ending.

Writing the Rough Draft

If you have ever written an essay of any type, you know the drill. You take that map you made and you start writing the body of your essay. Don’t worry too much about grammar and punctuation at this point. Just get your thoughts in a logical flow, with good transitions. 

Best personal paper topics

  1. The greatest failure in my life
  2. The importance of money in my life
  3. The day I spent with my grandparents
  4. Place I avoid
  5. If my pet could talk
Send topics by mail?

Now That Introduction and Conclusion

How to start off a personal essay is always a demand for some creativity. Note that the opening sentence is an attention-grabber. And that is just what you need. You want to set the scene and the tone with that sentence. 

Example: “When I got holes in the soles of my shoes, I had to stuff them with cardboard.” This will obviously be the story of a young person whose childhood was lived in poverty. From there, he may relate a short snippet about walking home from school one day, in a cold rain which soaked through that cardboard, his socks, causing him to arrive home with feet that actually hurt from the wet cold. 

He has set the scene. Now, at the end of this introduction, he might allude to all that he learned from being poor - resilience, craftiness, creative problem-solving, etc.

As you think about how to conclude a personal essay, go back and re-read your introduction. Look at each story snippet you addressed, and ask what you learned or how did you grow? Relate that to the essay prompt. You have described some of your life’s journey, and you want the reader to connect with that journey empathy, agreement, and maybe some passion for what you have experienced. When you do this, you leave the reader with a sense that you have been impacted in such a way that you will use what you have learned in the future.

Editing, Revising, and Proofreading the Rough Draft

Again, you know that you will never submit a rough draft as a final piece. And when we are talking about personal essays for admissions or scholarship purposes, only a fool would do this. You are not a fool. So, take the time to really comb through your essay for grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, and, very important, the logical flow of your thoughts. Do you have good transitions between your paragraphs? Have you varied the length of your sentences? Generally, you will want short simple sentences when you want to make a strong point. Then you can surround them with more complex sentences.

How is your tone? Have you made the piece really personal? Have you used a casual style but one that is free of phrases the reader might not know? Remember, you may be 18, but the reader may be in his/her 40’s, 50’s, or beyond.

If you are not really skilled in English composition, get some help, even if you have to pay for it. You can’t afford errors.

The Polished Final Draft

This should be a no-brainer now. You have revised that rough copy and all you need do now is type it up. If there are style requirements, follow them.

This may also be the time to come up with a creative title. There are some tools you can use to generate title options. They may not give you an exact title, but you will at least get some ideas to create one that will intrigue a reader.

The other lovely thing about personal essays? You don’t have to include resource citations, because the only resource is you.

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