You Do Have an Amazing Essay Inside You. Here’s My Step-by-Step Guide to Your Super Personal Essay
So here’s the deal: after reading thousands of essays over the last couple of years, I know you have it in you to write a strong, heartfelt, personal, personal essay. So, I’m sharing with you the exact steps I use with my own students to get them to dig down and find their amazing essay inside. It’s there. I promise.
A little background: I was a writing teacher for thirty years before I became a college admissions consultant, and for the last fifteen of those I taught freshman writing at Houston Community College. Much of that time was spent covering and teaching my personal favorite, the Personal Essay. For the last 6.5 years, I’ve been a private college admissions consultant, and when I’m not answering questions here or working with my students, I’m reading posts on college admissions counselor groups, following tons of admissions offices and deans on Twitter, visiting colleges, and going to conferences (and now nearly daily webinars).
Here’s what I know: Your idea about some kind of story you tell just isn’t that important. Often, the best essays I read come from the most mundane ideas. So many of you are focused on finding the magical idea that you’re letting the point of the essay escape you. There is no magic formula. There is no perfect idea. Because you have the focus of the essay right there. With you. It’s inside you because that’s what it should be about: inside you. I mean, we the readers, want to get to know the narrator version of your life, not the pretty scenery version where we only see what the character is doing. We need to know what’s happening inside your head, and most importantly, we need your values. We need your beliefs.
How do you build that connection? You build a connection with your reader by building bridges instead of walls. Walls can be an extended metaphor that has gone too far, an essay that feels like it’s trying too hard, stilted formal language, thesaurus words (please don’t sound like you’ve swallowed a thesaurus — choking isn’t a good look), paragraphs that aren’t about inside you at all, but that are about another person, your ECs, or too much description. When I feel like someone is writing an essay that has been specifically written with the intent of impressing me — that builds a wall. Bridges let me in. Bridges are human connections. Bridges show vulnerability and problem-solving. Bridges aren’t afraid to show failure and learning from that failure. Think about the bridges and walls you have with your friends. What connects you with your friends with whom you have deeper relationships? What puts up a wall with your more shallow and surface friends?
How do you build the bridges? Let’s get to it! These are the exact steps I use with my students. It works. Time tested. Student tested.
STEP ONE: AVOID ACCEPTED ESSAYS LIKE HOT LAVA
If you fill your brain with “essays that work,” you get stuck inside your head about what a personal essay should look like. You can become limited in your idea of what a college essay is. Honestly, when I’m reading essays, the essays that I feel need the most work are from kids who have tried to emulate what they think an essay should be, so they get focused on the essay itself rather than sharing who they are and what’s important to them. And, moreover, you really don’t know if someone’s essay helped their app or they got into a school in spite of their essays.
Example: My daughter is an amazing writer, won tons of national and state awards for writing in high school. I never worried about or gave her college essays a second thought — not that it would have mattered if I did because she wouldn’t let me near her applications anyway, but that’s outside the point of this story. She was accepted to every school she applied to with the exception of Princeton, and she attended Harvard. I think we all just assumed her personal essay helped her with admissions because she wasn’t the strongest student in her school when it came to doing homework or daily assignments. But when she used the FERPA rule to review her application later during her sophomore year, she discovered that she’d been admitted despite the fact that they hated her essay. They called it “over-blown” “full of itself” and “way too self-important.” That’s just one example, but from many of the “essays that worked” that I’ve seen online, I’ve found a similar vein. So, you — or the writer of that essay have no idea if that essay actually helped or hurt them in admissions — even if they were admitted.
I go into more detail about this in the essay chapter in my book with the help of u/BlueLightSpcl (one of our amazing former mods on A2C) and his wise words. I’ve linked that chapter below in resources. Also, you can find words from u/Admissions_Daughter there. You might be able to find her advice archived here on Reddit somewhere too. She’s not active anymore,, but she has some awesome posts based on her years of college essay coaching — starting after she graduated and read her FERPA!
The only exceptions I’d consider to this step are reading essays on college essay guy’s website or from college admissions websites (like Johns Hopkins, for example) where they profile what they liked! And even then, I still don’t fully advise it because I want you focused on your own thoughts and feelings and values, and I don’t want you to be stymied by what you think your essay should look like. If you’d like to read some essays from colleges and also read what other folks in admissions say about reading “essays that worked,” here’s a link.
STEP TWO: WRITE FOR FUN
Put aside the pressure of the essays for a day or two and just write and then keep writing. Jot down a daily journal. Jot down your thoughts about the pandemic. Jot down your gratitudes. Don’t worry about grammar or trying to write in any certain way about any certain topic. Just get comfortable putting words on a piece of paper — or screen. Hell, write to us here on A2C every day for a week so you can get comfortable with your voice. You can do this while writing your personal essay.
Why am I ok with “this I believe” essays and not “essays that worked”? Great question. It’s because “this I believe essays” aren’t written with the intent to try to impress someone, but they are written (the good ones anyway) to express innermost values. Also, there are literally thousands of them, so you can play for hours listening and digging in and learning about what a personal essay sounds like that goes in deep and really personal. Here’s a link to some of my favorites.
STEP FOUR: I LOVE… I VALUE… I BELIEVE… ONE MINUTE EXERCISE
Set a one-minute timer on your phone and list out loud things you love, then list things you value, then list things you believe. Do it with a friend or do it on your own. It doesn’t matter. It’s a good warm-up. You can do this on different days or all one day. You can tell me some in the comments below if you like! (Idea piggy-backed from College Essay Guy)
STEP FIVE: GO WITHIN
Here’s the deal about the personal essay. It has to be just that — super, incredibly, deeply personal. The essay needs to be about Inner You — the you they can’t get to know anywhere else in your application. So, you have to peel off your onion layers, find your inner Shrek, dig in super deep, and get to know yourself as you’ve never done before. What is the essence of you-ness you want the readers to know about you? It’s not easy. Ask yourself (and write down these answers) some really personal questions like:
What do I believe?
What do I think?
What do I value?
What keeps me up at night?
What do I get excited about?
What comforts me?
What worries me?
What’s important to me?
Who are my superheroes?
What’s my superpower?
What would my superpower be if I could have any superpower?
What’s my secret sauce?
What reminds me of home?
This doesn’t have to be — and, (in my opinion) — shouldn’t be, a complete narrative. I think the essays need to be more reflection and analysis than story. Those are the essays that stick with me after reading a few thousand of them.
I’m not saying don’t use a story. Use one or two if that’s what feels right for you. Just remember the story is only the vehicle for getting the message of who you are across the page. I like to see more commentary and less narrative, so for me the Show, not Tell isn’t really that effective. I prefer show and tell — like kindergarten. I don’t want a rundown of your activities — if something is discussed elsewhere in your application, to me, you don’t want to waste the valuable space of the personal essay. In essence, you can think of it like this: More expressing, Less Impressing.
STEP SIX: ANALYZE THE PERSONAL ESSAY PROMPTS
Maybe highlight them in pretty colors and absorb them as you are in this thinking phase. All of these questions are asking you to dig deep and share what you’ve learned from your experiences. They want to see a person who’s ready to learn from mistakes and obstacles and who knows they can handle bumps in the road because they have.
STEP SEVEN: TAKE A WALK OR LONG SHOWER
Give those thoughts some time. Let these thoughts simmer. Take long walks and showers. Sit in silence. Give your brain a break from applications and all the stuff we spend so much time filling them with. Turn off ALLLLLL the screens. You’ve asked yourself some tough questions; now you have to give your brain some time to just let the thoughts soak. Live with these thoughts and questions for a few days and just hang out with them. Maybe jot down a note or two as you think of them, but it’s important to spend some time doing nothing at all to let your brain deal with your thoughts and questions. For many of you, this is the first time in your lives you’ve grappled with some of these big questions about life.
STEP EIGHT: FUN WITH WRITING AND QUESTIONS
This is fun: Pick three or four of the questions above and play around with them on www.themostdangerouswritingapp.com. I like the superhero one, the what do I believe, and special sauce, but you pick the ones you like most. Give yourself three or five minutes only to write as much as you can. The cool thing about the most dangerous writing app is that if you stop, you lose what you write, so be careful. I’ve had many many students end up using what they wrote in those few minutes as the catalyst or largest part of their essay. Copy and paste those paragraphs to a google doc so you can use them.
STEP NINE: WRITE A SHITTY DRAFT
Basically, this: “Bad writing precedes good writing. This is an infallible rule, so don’t waste time trying to avoid bad writing. That just slows down the process. Anything committed to paper can be changed. The idea is to start, and then go from there.” ~ Janet Hulstrand.
So, yeah. Get going on that shitty draft — especially if you’re experiencing overanalysis paralysis, just feel stuck, or feel like you suck at writing. I borrowed this idea from one of our subreddit parents who’d borrowed it from Anne Lamott. Start with writing the shittiest most terrible thing you can do. Just write down all your thoughts and words. Throw away grammar, and trying to make sense of it all. Push yourself to write some total crap. Just keep going until it’s the worst most horrible pile of words on a page you’ve seen. Here’s what she says “make it trite, make it stupid, make it arrogant, make it profane.” Get all that crappy stuff out of your head and write it down. Then put it away. Just leave it for a day or two and then I love this: She suggests doing a dramatic reading of it. How fun is that?
Read what Anne Lamotte says about Shitty First Drafts here.
STEP TEN: WRITE YOUR ESSAY
Essay readers in admissions offices will read your essays quickly, so with limited time to get the essence of who you are across a sheet of paper (or computer screen), clarity and focus on INNER you are essential from the get-go. You have to remember that they will give your essay about 5 minutes. Maybe 10. You don’t have a lot of time to be too nuanced. Lack of clarity, too many details about anything other than you, and language that is more complicated than necessary all build barriers (walls) between you and the reader, something you really don’t want. Remember, you want bridges.
If you can include the words I believe, I think, I value, I wonder, I know, and they fit well in your essay then you know that it’s personal. (Helpful Hints: 1. Remember to use your voice. This essay should “sound” like you and be more conversational. It’s not an English 5 paragraph essay. More like talking to an older cousin, you really like and respect. 2. I also like to suggest throwing in an “I mean” and a “you know” — if those can flow in your essay, then you know it’s conversational and relaxed.)
Suggestion: If staring at a blank screen stresses you out, record your thoughts by talking into your recorder on your phone. That’s a great idea for those of you who like to write while you walk (like me). Then just write it all down and give it some structure if you ramble!
STEP ELEVEN: THE THUMB TEST
If someone covered up your name with a thumb or they found your essay on the floor in the middle of your high school hallway with no name on it, would your mom or your best friend know it was yours? If not, keep working. That essay needs to sound like you with your voice, your tone, and your experiences.
STEP TWELVE: EDIT
Edit the shit out of your essay. Make sure you read it on your computer screen, read it on paper, and read it out loud, and have at least one other person you trust look it over. Here’s one of my Medium posts that goes over how to edit essays with lots more detail — you should read it when it’s edit time. Editing is far more than working on grammar, although grammar is important. Editing can be about totally restructuring the essay — and that can be good. When I’m reviewing essays, I look for bumps. Places where when I’m reading I just don’t feel the flow. It’s usually from too much flowery language or long-drawn-out metaphors or funky word choices, so read out loud and look for those bumps! Just make sure you are in charge of all edits. If you’re still finding your essay is toooooo loooong, try this Cutting to the Bone Exercise!
And, now pay attention here — If you get someone else to review your essay, don’t let them just randomly make edits and revisions. Make sure they suggest edits — and YOU agree with them and ok them.
STEP THIRTEEN: BREATHE
Pat yourself on the back, sit back and smile. (and then go back and edit it again!!)
LOOK, IT’S HARD
You CAN do this. It’s hard, but so important for your future, your college admissions, for sure, but it’s also important just for future you to take the time to learn to write clearly and dig in and figure out what’s important about the essence of who you are.
**A NOTE** You’re going to hear lots of different advice about all sorts of things when it comes to college admissions, and especially about the essay. My advice to you is to take it all in and absorb what does work and doesn’t work for you. I don’t think there’s one right or wrong way to end up with a killer essay that gets to the point of you.
tl;dr: The personal essay is about INNER YOU. Find your Inner Shrek. Build bridges, not walls. You do have an amazing essay inside you. I promise.
💜And finally, for those of you who made it all the way to the end of this post, I’m inviting you to a FREE One-Hour Personal Essay Work Session (Livestreamed on and , Recorded on ) for A2C and Instagram Family — Sunday, August 28 at ELEVEN AM Central Standard Time. Here’s what it is: I will walk you through all the steps I present here in the same way I do with my private students. This work session won’t include essay review or editing (stay tuned for that!), so it’s more for those of you who either aren’t completely happy or comfortable with your current essay or those of you who are ready to get started.
Badass College Apps LiveStream: Step-by-Step Personal Essay Work Session
Sunday, August 28, 2022
11 AM Central Standard Time
Recorded on YouTube
You don’t have to sign up ahead of time to attend, but if you email me at email@example.com before August 25, I’ll share the docs you’ll need ahead of time!