Seven Ways to Perfect Your Personal Essay

A girl trying to write a personal essay and instead typing random letters into her document.


Writing a college admissions essay is nobody’s favorite thing. The prompts are often vague. You have a word limit that seems way too short. You’re under an incredible amount of pressure to write a thoughtful essay that expresses your personality and showcases your writing abilities. The combination is downright unpleasant. If you thought you were alone, you’re not. It’s perfectly normal to stress over writing the perfect essay. I can tell you very honestly that my personal essay experience involved a lot of ugly crying, a lot of being really mad when my parents told me my writing wasn’t good enough, and, of course, a very grudging acknowledgement that they were right.

The good news is that colleges aren’t looking for a complete picture of you as a student and as an individual. That would be next to impossible; some aspect of you would end up getting shortchanged. Your job is to tell an interesting story about yourself, your aspirations, or your experiences that answers a specific question. Here are some ideas to help you stay productive throughout the process.

  • Get moving. Read over the essay prompt a few times and then go for a walk, run, or bike ride. Exercise can unblock ideas, stimulate creativity, and reduce stress. Ask yourself a series of questions: “What do I like about myself? How would my friends describe me? What stories come to mind when I think about my unique qualities? What do I feel passionately about?” When you get home, write down your ideas on paper so you can come back to them later.
  • Pick a topic. What ideas or stories can you expand upon? Using these anecdotes, can you completely answer the questions detailed in the prompt? Eliminate ideas that feel dishonest, contrite, or cliché. Everyone can volunteer to wrap presents at Barnes and Noble over the holidays. Not everyone has seen the look in a child’s eyes when they realize that they’re reading on their own for the first time. Pick a story that only you can tell.
    Ron Swanson typing on a typewriter saying "I'm going to type every word I know! Rectangle. America. Megaphone. Monday. Butthole."

    Parks and Recreation / Giphy

  • Find your voice. Trying to figure out what to say to impress college admissions officers is a waste of your time. Telling them what they want to hear is just as bad as writing a meaningless essay. Admissions officers want to hear your unique voice. Your essay will stand out if you choose to write about something that matters to you, even if it seems silly. For instance, I may have written about how one of my closest friends and I used to disappear into our imaginations and play Harry Potter for hours at a time. Totally embarrassing, but I was accepted to a number of schools, so who’s to judge?
  • Tell a vivid story. Include details and bring your essay to life with sensory descriptions. Don’t embellish or exaggerate the facts for the sake of making the story interesting, though. Stay truthful and the rest will come. Give your essay an obvious beginning, middle, and end to help the reader follow your thoughts. Use proper grammar and punctuation, but don’t feel the need to use big words just because you have access to a thesaurus and want to sound smarter. Your story needs to be able to stand on its own.
  • Stay positive. The college essay is no place for a pity party or sharing inappropriate, private information. Colleges want to admit students who are pleasant to have in classes and dorms. That being said, sometimes negative experiences can have positive outcomes. It’s perfectly acceptable to write about these situations as long as you have a clear and precise message that you wish to convey. Something like “someone close to me died suddenly, so I decided to start a foundation in their honor” is great. “Someone close to me died and now I’m an alcoholic” is not.
  • Ask for input, but not too much. If too many people look over your essay, you may become confused and stray from your original story or idea. It’s recommended to ask one family member and one teacher for their opinion. Have them offer suggestions, but don’t let them take part in any of the writing. Your voice needs to be your own (it will be obvious if it isn’t). Trust your instincts and take ownership of your work.
  • Penny sits in front of her computer looking disheveled. She says "Oh my God, I need help."

    Big Bang Theory / Giphy

    Proofread. It’s easy to overlook spelling and punctuation mistakes if you’ve reread your essay countless times. To catch errors, try starting at the end and working your way, sentence for sentence, back up to your opening statement. By disrupting the flow you have memorized, this method allows you to see your essay from a fresh perspective. Also, consider asking a trusted friend or family member to read your essay out loud to you. You may catch something with your ears that you didn’t notice with your eyes.

Writing your personal essay (or even short answer questions) is not a one-day process. Applications could be due as early as November, so the sooner you get started, the better. Instead of waiting until the last minute and spending all day getting frustrated and making minute changes, spend just an hour on your essay each day for a week. Then, put it away for a few days. When you come back to it, you’ll have fresh eyes and be ready to make more substantial changes. Good luck!

About Megan Clendenon

Megan C. is obsessed with Cincinnati-style chili, Louisville basketball, and Scandinavian crime fiction. She has lived in six different states and held 12 different jobs since beginning her undergraduate degree at Carleton College in 2008. The wanderlust abated somewhat in recent years, as Megan settled in Texas from 2013 to 2016 to finish a master’s degree in geosciences, write a thesis on the future horrors that stem from climate change, and get married. During her free time, you will find Megan sitting on the couch, cheering for her Louisville Cardinals, planning future adventures abroad, and snuggling with her dog, Tiger. She currently lives outside of Washington D.C.

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