A personal essay may accompany a job, college admissions or scholarship application. It may be required to demonstrate how you meet job requirements or why you are a right for the position, admission or scholarship. Personal essays narrate an important event, person or time period to provide evidence for why you are an ideal candidate.
In this article, we will explore what a personal essay is and how to write a personal essay that inspires the reader to consider your application.
What is a personal essay?
A personal essay is a piece of writing that explores a specific experience and tells the story of the experience or event from the individual's point of view. Personal essays illustrate how a personal conflict or event left a lasting impression or how it changed your views or perspective. A personal essay consists of three main parts: introduction, body and conclusion. Personal essays differ from formal essays in their length, tone and purpose. Writing a personal essay is an opportunity to showcase strengths, leadership and the ability to overcome challenges.
How a personal essay is different from a personal statement
A personal essay is a long story about how you were challenged or changed by the experience you are describing. Personal essays discuss the process in which the change took place or how a challenge was met and is written from the writer's personal experiences.
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.
How to write a personal essay
Here are the steps to writing a personal essay that engages your reader and encourages them to want to know more about you:
- Make preparations.
- Get organized.
- Choose your topic.
- Consider your tone.
- Include a lesson or moral.
- Write the introduction.
- Write the body.
- 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.
2. Get organized
Creating an outline is a great step 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.
- 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
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.
- 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 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.
- 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: Guide: 16 Personality Types
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.
- 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.
- "When Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, said, "Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower," I never knew he was talking about me, until now."
- "If there is one thing I know for sure, it's that sometimes I'm successful, and sometimes I learn."
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.
- "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.
- "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."
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.