You DO have an amazing essay inside you. (The Personal Essay: A Step by Step Guide)
OK — 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. Today, I decided to share with you the exact steps I use with my own students to get them to dig down and find their amazing essay inside — and it’s there. I promise.
Some quick 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 4.5 years, I’ve been a private consultant, and when I’m not answering questions here or with my students, I’m reading posts on college admissions counselor pages, following tons of admissions offices and deans on twitter, 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 is: 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 important, we need your values. We need your beliefs.
And, really, what’s the frickin point of the personal essay? Here’s how I see it and what I’ve learned over many years and lots of time investigating and sleuthing on multiple college admissions websites, years of conference attending, and lots of twitter, instagram, and facebook following. Despite what you think and what you’ve been told, I’ve come to believe (strongly!) that the point of the personal essay is not to STAND OUT, but to STICK WITH. You want the reader to fight for you in committee, and they will want to fight for you in committee if you build a connection with them.
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 the 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 who you have deeper relationships with? 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: STOP READING ANY AND ALL ACCEPTED ESSAYS (this is important!)
If you fill your brain with “essays that work,” you get stuck inside your head about what a personal essay should like. 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 has 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) and his wise words. I’ve linked that chapter below in resources. Also, you can find words from u/Admissions_Daughter there.
The only exceptions I’d consider for this step are reading essays on College Essay Guy’s website or from college admissions websites where they profile what they liked! And even then, I still don’t really 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.
I loved this comment about reading “Essays that Work” from u/Vergilx217 on my reddit post so much that I wanted to add it here to make sure y’all all got to see it: “When you have no reference, that accepted essay becomes a reference. You will sound insincere. Furthermore, you create a mental guideline on how a “good” essay is and it severely stunts how much you can express yourself, and that makes your essay that much even more impersonal. It would be like forcing Django Reinhardt to learn the piano instead of the guitar, because you’ve seen so many famous pianists and not so many guitarists then.”
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.
STEP THREE: WWW.THISIBELIEVE.ORG
Go to www.thisibelieve.org and read essays. There are thousands of real deal personal essays there. Read at least three of them and absorb them. You can also listen to them, which can be fun because you can take the essays with you on a walk!
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 inner most 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.
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 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 like 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?
Just play with these. And learn a lot. Become the expert on you because you are really the only person who can be the expert on you. Here are some more questions to ask yourself as you’re going through this process. After you’ve answered them, look for themes that tell you about yourself. Then, you’ll be ready to teach the lesson about who you are and what you believe and value to the application readers. The vehicle (or idea) you use to get your message across really isn’t as important as what you’re saying about yourself. 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 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
While I don’t feel that you have to pick one of the prompts, because the topic is YOU no matter what, I do think it’s important to take some time and internalize what they are asking of you. You can find the prompts here. I encourage you to take time to read them all and focus on these words: background, identity, meaningful, lessons, challenge, obstacles, setback, failure, learn, experience, reflect, questioned, challenged, belief, idea, thinking, problem, solved, challenge, personal importance, significance to you, solution, personal growth, understanding of yourself, engaging.
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
Let these thoughts simmer. You’ve asked 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 www.themostdangerouswritingapp.com. I like the super hero one, the what do I believe, and special sauce, but you pick the ones you like most. Give yourself 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 five 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 YOUR ESSAY
Take what you’ve written on tmdwa and use that to get yourself going. Write your essay. Focus on who you are — not what you do. Like I said earlier, your job is to build a connection with your reader. You build a connection by allowing someone in and being vulnerable. So take what you learned about yourself and share that knowledge.
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. Lack of clarity, too many details about anything other than you, and language that is more complicated than necessary all build barriers between you and the reader, something you really don’t want.
While it’s certainly not the only way to write a personal essay, and I don’t suggest that you have to do it this way, the easiest way to move forward might be to use a “This I Believe” type format like those essays you read in www.thisibelieve.org. So if you’re looking for an easy way to move forward, focus on one belief that you thought of and then write about it. 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 TEN: 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 and your experiences.
STEP ELEVEN: 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 and I just don’t feel the flow. It’s usually from too much flower 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 get someone to review your essay, don’t let them just randomly edit. Make sure they suggest edits — and YOU ok them.
STEP TWELVE: 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.
- Check out www.collegeessayguy.com for lots more info on the personal essay.
- Be sure to read what u/ScholarGrade has to say in his many wonderful posts.
- Here’s a great blog post filled with great blog posts about the essay from Rick Clark, Director of Admissions at Georgia Tech.
- Here’s a link to the essay chapter of my book, Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit: In it, you’ll find lots of advice from me and others from Reddit from 2016–2018. I have a few more resources I’ll be happy to share with you if you email me at email@example.com.
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.