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Tips for Writing Personal Essays

Madison E.

Personal essays are an essential component of the college experience. Most college applications require a personal essay, and some college courses will require you to write multiple papers about your personal experiences. Personal essays require a different type of writing than the ACT and SAT essays do, so here are some tips for crafting effective personal essays.


A Snapshot of Your Life

A personal essay should be focused on a pivotal moment in your life. It should cover some defining experience that caused you to question and possibly change deeply-held beliefs and values. Essentially, you want to describe a specific experience in your life and what you learned from that experience.


How Did You Feel?

A good personal essay will go into some depth on how you felt during and after the snapshot you are documenting. Actually articulating these feelings can be surprisingly difficult. Often we work through difficult periods in our lives without actively categorizing and/or reflecting upon the specific emotions we are experiencing. Spend some time seriously thinking about the personal experiences that you want to write about before you begin writing about them. Jot down your thoughts and feelings about an experience as they come to you. These aren’t necessarily the kinds of revelations that you can produce on demand, so keep a journal or small notebook with you to document any “aha!” moments you may have.


Use Vivid Language

Personal essays should include plenty of vivid descriptive language to help paint a dynamic, emotionally involving portrait of your personal experiences. Once you have written your first draft, Google “vivid word lists” and similar searches. Look for places in your essay where you can add more descriptive adjectives, replace generic verbs with more specific verbs, and so on. While you don’t want you essay to read like you fell in love with a thesaurus, you do want to “punch up” parts of your writing that come across as vague, bland, or emotionally uninvolving.


Some Artistic License is Okay

One of the most important parts of writing a personal essay is to construct an emotionally involving narrative. Don’t hesitate to take some liberties with the story you are telling if you feel that it makes that story more effective. It is totally acceptable to alter small details, change the order of events slightly, and condense multiple smaller events into one major event. What is important is that you stick to the spirit of the story that you are trying to tell and don’t make any “true enough” changes that actually undermine the purpose of that story.

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