How to Start Your Personal Essay for College Applications

Writing a compelling personal essay doesn't need to leave you with chewed to the nub nails.

In fact, writing your personal essay can be an adventure into self-exploration. It's possible to have fun, stay excited, and craft an essay that will shine above the others in the essay pile.

There's nothing too tough, mysterious, or scary about it.

You want to include certain information in your essay (which I've conveniently listed below), and the rest is your personal story. Which you know. Because you've lived it.

But writing that out can often be difficult, especially since we're not usually taught the specifics of how to write a personal essay. That's why I'm here - to help you simplify the process and guide you through writing your personal application essay.

Let's get started.

The best personal statements are vivid. They show your story rather than tell it. Here are a few simple tricks to have you writing your best admission essay with ease and confidence. Plus, a free download to get you started! Click through to write an irresistible personal essay quickly -- one that will stand out above the rest.

4 Questions your Personal Essay MUST Answer

No matter what prompt you're writing for, your essay should communicate four essential things:

  1. What you're passionate about

  2. Who you are (as a unique and wonderful snowflake)

  3. What you want to do in the world

  4. How college will help you achieve #3

Download this worksheet for questions that will get your creativity flowing. You'll finish the worksheet with everything you need to start writing your essay.

The Prompt

These are sample prompts from the Common App website for 2016:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

All of these prompts are doing the same thing. They're asking you for your story.

The different questions are different starting points in your personal history. 

In fact, you can think of the personal essay as less of an essay in which you explain things, and more as a piece of creative writing, in which you show a particular moment in your life, and then you show how that moment transformed you. Finally, you show how that moment connects to your future, and how college will help you achieve your goals.

How do you choose what moment to focus on? How can you fit all of the necessary elements into your story?

If you haven't downloaded the worksheet, do that now! It will guide you through this process in more detail and make writing your personal essay much easier.

Brainstorming Ideas

Now, forget about the 4 essential elements. Forget about college. Grab a piece of paper and pen.  I've got a warm up exercise for you.

1. Make a list of 20 values you hold in esteem

honesty | creativity | action | perseverance | intelligence | community | family | self-expression | innovation | gratitude | vision | teaching | learning | curiosity | balance | compassion | seeking | exploration | empowering | enabling | happiness | achievement

2. Make a list of five to ten vivid memories from your life

Paris train station | losing the swim race | saving a salamander | sitting in the tree with my cat | my aunt passing | my grandmother making cousa mashi | making magic with Melissa

These moments can be significant or small. They just have to be vivid memories in your mind.

Every life experience, small or large, has the power to teach you something about yourself. If a memory is particularly vivid, it means it's shaped you in some way. It's stayed with you for a reason.

3. Connect values to your memories

In third grade, my best friend Melissa and I thought we could levitate a stick with the power of our minds.

It's a very vivid memory, and had a lot of strange repercussions (I faked moving the stick while her eyes were closed, we both freaked out, started crying, and my mom grounded me [why?! I still don't know].) 

I can see certain values from my list exemplified in my story. Curiosity, creativity, exploration, enabling, achievement.

It's usually very easy to connect a story to a series of values. If you're having trouble, see if you can extract values that aren't on your list from your story.

To write the essay, I'm going to use my vivid memory and talk about the values that memory taught me. Then, I'm going to talk about my personal experience in school and my goals for college as they relate to the core values found in my story.

The result will be a vivid, cohesive essay that shows rather than tells the admissions committee why I'm different than all the other students and a good fit for their school.

For more detail on how to write your essay like a story, read these 2 big tips for writing an irresistible personal essay.

For personalized help polishing your admission statement, sign up for a one-on-one session, or check out my admissions package.