How To Write a Personal Essay in 8 Simple Steps (With Tips)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated July 12, 2022 | Published February 25, 2020

Updated July 12, 2022

Published February 25, 2020

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.


Filling out applications is a necessary part of leading a professional lifestyle and is common when applying to new jobs, schools, scholarships or awards. One of the most common supplemental elements you may need to submit as part of your applications is a personal essay, which serves almost like an interview or introduction to your personality and life story. If you’re planning on applying for a job or spot in a program, you can use your personal essay to demonstrate how you meet job requirements and emphasize why you’re right for the role. 

In this article, we define what a personal essay is, explain the difference between an essay and statement, provide an eight step-by-step guide for writing your own piece and offer some helpful tips to help you in your own writing process. 

What is a personal essay?

A personal essay is a piece of writing where the author elaborates on an experience, event or realization from their past and how it left a lasting impression on who they are as an individual. Many employers and admissions departments ask candidates to submit personal essays because they can provide a lot of information about a person’s personality, outlook and motivations and how specific circumstances formed them. A personal essay consists of three main parts: introduction, body and conclusion, and it differs from formal essays in their length, tone and purpose. 

Related: How To Write a Narrative Essay in 5 Steps (With Definition)

Personal essay vs. personal statement

In a personal essay, you have the opportunity to describe an experience that had a long-term impact on who you are as an individual. You may go into detail about ways this scenario challenged you and your beliefs and what you did to overcome that. . A personal statement is usually specific to a job role to explain how you are right for the position. Personal statements are typically found on a resume, CV or application and are generally just a few sentences long.

Related: How To Write a Powerful Personal Statement


How to write a personal essay in 8 steps

Here are eight steps you can follow when writing a personal essay to ensure it engages your reader and encourages them to learn more about you.

  1. Make preparations.

  2. Get organized.

  3. Choose your topic.

  4. Consider your tone.

  5. Include a lesson or moral.

  6. Write the introduction.

  7. Write the body.

  8. Write the conclusion.


1. Make preparations

When preparing to write your personal essay, first consider who your audience is and what you want them to know. Ask yourself questions to determine how your story relates to your goals for writing it. It's helpful to make a list of points you want to convey so you can write an essay that makes your story relative and engaging.

Related: 10 Essay Writing Tips

2. Get organized

Creating an outline is a great way to organize your thoughts and ideas. Outlines can keep you on topic and avoid covering too many ideas so your main points aren't lost. Your essay should follow a sequence of events so the story follows a direct path from start to finish.

Example:

  • Introduction paragraph(s)

Opening sentence
Key points
Central message

  • First body paragraph

Beginning of story
Describe mood and attitude toward the event

  • Second body paragraph

Provide details of the story
Follow a logical order
Answer how, what, where, why

  • Third body paragraph

Describe the ending of the story
Expand on feeling and attitude toward the event

  • Conclusion paragraph(s)

Repeat the main points of the story
Provide the lesson or moral

Related: How To Write an Outline

3. Choose your topic

The story or experience you tell should correspond to the message you want to convey. Your personal essay may tell a story of an accomplishment or triumph, or it may talk about how your experiences shaped your worldview or changed you in a significant way. Determine what you want to accomplish in your essay and choose a story that furthers your goals.

Examples:

  • Friend or relative who taught you a valuable lesson

  • A minor yet significant life or professional event

  • What lessons have shaped you

  • What is meaningful to you

  • How you are suited for a profession

  • How you've learned from past mistakes

  • Personal point of view on a current event or topic (diversity, inclusion, seclusion)


4. Consider your tone

When composing a personal essay, consider the feeling you want to describe or the atmosphere you want to create that lends insight into your personality. Your essay may be about a past experience and might be written as a look back at an event and how it relates to present circumstances. If you're writing about a current event, the essay may be written from a present point of view and the impact felt today. Depending on the tone of your essay, focus on drawing your reader into the story.

Examples

  • Past: "I am a second-generation American born to parents who taught me the value of teamwork and inclusion."

  • Present: "Today's educational opportunities have enabled me to accomplish more than I ever thought I would."

Related: How To Write an Effective Persuasive Essay in 6 Steps


5. Include a lesson or moral

Your personal essay has a central message or moral you are relating to the reader to demonstrate your abilities, qualifications or the strength of your character. Think about what you want the reader to remember about your essay and explain how, why and what your experience has taught you.

Examples:

  • Overcame a hardship

  • Rose above the competition

  • Identified with a culture or community

  • Became a leader

  • Learned from mistakes


6. Write the introduction

A good rule for the length of an introduction is to keep it to one or two paragraphs that focus on your main points without providing too much detail. The introduction highlights the main points of your story and the opening sentence should make an impact. Use an opening sentence that engages the reader so they want to keep reading to find out more. Consider opening with an inspirational or funny quote or observation to start your introduction.

Examples:

  • There’s a common saying that “hindsight is 20/20,” and as a former investment banker, my life and career experiences have led me to believe this to be true. 

  • "If there is one thing I know for sure, it's that sometimes I'm successful, and sometimes I learn."

Related: How To Write an Introduction in 4 Easy Steps


7. Write the body

The body of your essay contains the most information and is generally two to three paragraphs long. The body is the main text that expands on each of the points you made in the introduction and follows a chronological order. This is where you provide supporting evidence of the lesson or moral you are conveying in your story. Use examples in your essay to make the story vivid and readable and create an emotional connection by describing scenes or events through sight, sound and touch.

Example:

  • "Through the smoke-filled haze of the fire's aftermath, it was hard to see how the support of others would shape the rest of my life. As the smoke cleared, so did my ability to see what the truly important things are."


8. Write the conclusion

The closing is generally one or two paragraphs long and repeats your main points in the body. Try not to share new information and focus on relaying your personal message. End your essay with a sentence that sums up the lesson in your story and links the entire essay together.

Examples:

  • "If it wasn't for that fateful day when I learned how to trust, I might have never found the courage to write this essay."

  • "Back then, I was skeptical about my ability, but today I am confident the lessons I learned will see me through every subsequent challenge."

Related: How To Write a Conclusion (With Tips and Examples)


Tips for writing a compelling personal essay

Follow these tips to help strengthen your essay, identify errors and enhance clarity:

  • Use an active voice.

  • Write conversationally.

  • Proofread.

  • Read the essay out loud.

  • Ask friends or colleagues for feedback.

  • Use writing tools.


Use an active voice

Use action verbs in your writing and try to avoid passive voice by making sure the subject performs the verb's action. Be direct.

  • Active: Monkeys adore bananas. The cashier counted the money.

  • Passive: Bananas are adored by monkeys. The money was counted by the cashier.


Write conversationally

A personal essay conveys emotion within its central message. Write as if you were talking to a friend but avoid slang and terminology that may not translate to another generation.


Proofread

Read through your essay to check for grammatical or spelling errors. Check that your margins and formatting meet any applicable guidelines. Take your time proofreading and consider reading more than once.

Related: 27 Proofreading Tips That Will Improve Your Resume


Read your essay out loud

Reading your essay out loud can help you hear how it will sound to your reader. Reading aloud also helps you spot errors or places where your message is unclear. Take notes as you read and make changes where necessary.

Related: 14 Tips for Becoming a Better Writer


Ask friends or colleagues for feedback

Ask others to listen to your essay while you read aloud to help identify where you might go off-topic or need additional clarification. Friends might also read the essay and catch spelling or grammar errors.


Use writing tools

Modern writing tools can help you identify spelling, grammar, passive voice, clarity and tone. Consider using online writing tools or apps to help make your essay clear and readable.


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