College Planning Guide

How to write a compelling personal essay, part one

Colleges include personal statements as part of the application process because they want to see that you are a well-rounded, well-articulated participant in your own life in addition to being academically competent; they want to know who you are, not just what you can do. But writing a personal essay can be a daunting task. How are you supposed to sum up your character in just a few pages? What should you talk about? How do you even get started?

Begin with these three steps:

Brainstorm. Review the essay topic guidelines on the Common Application, and then set aside 30 minutes or so every day for a week or two to mull them over. Don't lock yourself into any one topic at this point. Brainstorming is a time to jot down every idea that you may have. Your goal is to put together a list of three to five topics. Think about

  • Your accomplishments, big and small, recognized or not
  • Your talents and skills and how you acquired them
  • Your successes and failures and what you learned from them
  • Your favorite books, movies, places, events, and why they're your favorites
  • What you love most in life
  • What your friends would say about you if they wrote your essay for you
  • What your dreams are
  • Who your role models are

Then, select a topic. Look at your list and consider each topic separately. Ask yourself

  • Am I going to enjoy writing about my topic? There’s little point in writing an essay that you won’t enjoy constructing, and it’s easy to tell when your heart isn’t in it.
  • Does my topic rely on some kind of gimmick? Don't write your essay in verse or try to be funny. (Although there’s nothing like a well-placed, appropriate joke to make your readers smile!)
  • Does my topic give me an opportunity to say something about me that won't be listed somewhere else on my application?
  • Can I build an engaging, detailed essay based on my topic?
  • Is my topic controversial? If it is, can I present my argument in a way that won't be remembered negatively?
  • Can I make it memorable from my first sentence on? Your topic doesn't have to be unique -- very few are -- but it does have to interest our admissions staff enough to make them remember you after days of reading hundreds of essays.

Now craft an outline. No big deal. You've done this hundreds of times. Think introduction (give us a portriat of yourself and your topic), supporting paragraphs (details, details, details), and conclusion (a thoughtful finish that will leave a good impression with our staff).

How to write a compelling personal essay, part two