You’re nearing the end of eleventh grade, and you’re approaching that daunting but thrilling task that you’ve been imagining for years: you’re applying to college! Even before you make a College Board account or begin narrowing down your college choices, you probably already know about that one super critical piece of the puzzle: the personal essay.  You’ve heard all the myths. That some kids have gotten into college on an astounding essay alone. That some kids live their entire lives according to what they’re planning to write about in the essay – going on service trips, joining every club in school and becoming the president of each one. Which myths are true, and which are just hot air? You’re feeling overwhelmed. There’s no formula for this essay. Where are you even going to begin? 

Though it’s true that the personal essay is a wide open space full of possibilities, and that each personal essay is going to be unique to its writer, here are a few tips that can help you unearth your best ideas and write an essay that really shines. 

Write about something you really care about.  

This might seem like a no-brainer, but a lot of students are convinced they need to write about certain topics or themes in order to “impress” an admissions officer. Students may think that it would be better to write about their time volunteering with a service organization or leading a high school academic club than, say, their experience teaching their mother English idioms. And of course, there may be times when writing about leading that club IS the best choice, because that’s something you’ve really put time, passion, and work into. But the bottom line is this: there is no universal “right” or “wrong” topic for the personal essay. Of course, there may be some topics that round out your application much more successfully than others, but at the start of the brainstorming process, it’s good to get all your ideas out there, and consider them all as possibilities, before you start crossing any off. You may find certain interesting connections between topics that could be used in your essay. 

Your voice will be strongest and most engaging if you’re writing something you genuinely care about. So don’t be afraid to get really nerdy. The more clearly excited and genuine you are, the more memorable your essay will be. 

Be self-aware: what qualities of yours are you most proud of? 

These essays are often a way to highlight qualities of yourself that you’re most proud of. Take a little bit to reflect on yourself and what these qualities are – and get specific! Push past the easy and the generic as you’re brainstorming. A lot of students start with adjectives like “hard-working” or “diligent,” but these words don’t say that much about you or make you stand out from the crowd. Most students taking the initiative to get a jumpstart on the college process are hard-working and diligent! What are some qualities that you can ground in real, specific anecdotes? How does helping your parents with taxes exhibit your maturity? How does teaching younger students math show your compassion and responsibility? How does starting a business show your creativity and drive? 

​​Start with a brainstorm before you think about structure. 

It’s often easier to start with MORE material and polish it down than to start with a structure and try to fill it with content. Start your process with a broad, lateral brainstorm, thinking of anything that particularly interests you, things you care about, or things that you think will demonstrate an aspect of your character that you’re particularly proud of. Write down anything and everything that comes to mind – no idea is a bad idea at the brainstorming stage!

Go beyond your transcript and activities list.  

These essays are a way to add something MORE to your application that can’t simply be shown on your transcript or activities list, providing cohesion to your application materials. 

This is always a good thing to remember as you look at your brainstorm list, whittling things down. Which of the topics you’ve chosen is going to augment and deepen the things already shown on your transcript and activities list? What is the narrative that is going to create a connective tissue between all of your activities and interests? If you’re experienced in biomedical research and also teaching kids how to play the piano, perhaps you’re a person interested, on a deep level, in helping others and the enrichment and betterment of people’s lives. 

Be specific. Specific = memorable. 

When you have found your perfect subject, start writing down of all the most specific anecdotes related to this subject that you can think of. Go into story mode! Get personal! Put yourself in the scene of these memories; provide full sensory details. Admissions officers aren’t going to be going around the office, saying, “hey, you gotta check out this kid who got perfect SAT score.” They’re going to be saying “wow, I can’t stop thinking about this story this kid told about making up and writing stories to read to students at their local elementary school.” 

Find a structure that matches your themes and subject. 

Think about how best to move between your vivid, specific scenes and more connective, reflective paragraphs full of summary, creating the correct pace and flow. The structure will depend on the material you intend to cover, the scenes you want to include, and what you want them to show/achieve. Are you starting with an anecdote and returning to it again and again throughout the essay? Are you covering multiple scenes/anecdotes in the essay that are thematically linked? Are you writing a more explanatory essay discussing various projects you’ve done at a specific position? Does it make more sense to have smaller, faster paced paragraphs, or denser, more detailed paragraphs? To start and end with the same anecdote, like bookends? 

Ask yourself questions throughout the process. 

Lastly, stay curious and open through the process! Keep asking yourself: have I made every moment of this essay as specific/non-generic as possible? Am I both augmenting my application and providing a cohesive narrative with the contents of this essay? What’s the most compelling content here and how can we split it up/arrange it/structure it for the greatest impact? How can I build more structure for this content? 

With these things in mind, you’re ready to launch into writing your personal essay! Good luck, and you got this! 

Sam graduated with a degree in Physics from Princeton University. After graduation, she taught physics at a high school in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She's currently pursuing her MFA in fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

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