What Makes a Good Personal Essay?

By Ava L.

“Juicy” was the word. My sentences had to be “juicier.”

We always fought over this. I, the unruly first-grader hell-bent on finishing my episode of Spongebob, would sneer when my mother meticulously criticized my daily vocabulary homework assignments. Thursday night was the worst, because every Friday, I had to submit ten sentences, each using one of the week’s vocabulary words. I resented writing those sentences. Fill-in-the-blank was at least tolerable, but the sentences! I didn’t care about documenting the “surreptitious” dealings of corrupt governments, or hailing the “venerable” generals of Ancient Rome, or detailing the “aberrations” that covered the corpses tanned by centuries in Irish Bogs — I swore up and down about how “frivolous” any sentence with more than ten words was. When she made me replace my succinct phrases with “juicier” sentences, I argued that you could demonstrate a satisfactory understanding of a vocabulary word in ten words. Seven was ideal. Four? Masterfully lazy.

It’s perhaps odd, then, that the rebellious whippersnapper who hated vocabulary has matured into an optimistic freelancer who religiously reads The New Yorker. I’m the type of unapologetically-pretentious-intellectual-liberal who sports scarves, listens to Vampire Weekend, and apologizes to inanimate objects when I bump into them. But toss me before a warlord who promises to “decimate” a city, and I won’t hesitate to remind her that “decimate” means to “reduce by one tenth,” not to “obliterate.”

I’m not sure if my mother would be proud of these sentences. They’re certainly more than ten words — the longest sentence in this blog is forty-nine — but she despises the superfluous embellishments that I sprinkle across my writing. I suppose that her reaction supports the fact that literature spurs different sentiments, attracts different people, and inspires different reactions. I trudged through Hamlet’s inordinately drawn-out soliloquys; Atul Gawande, however, transformed my understanding of humanity and medicine.

Now reduce that irreducible vivacity of writing into just 650 words, and you’re left with the personal essay.

The personal essay poses many challenges to college-hopeful students. It’s easily the most time-consuming portion of the Common Application. Countless students echo the philosophy posited by noted thinker and Good Luck Charlie star Bridgit Mendler, who warned that “a single page could determine [her] entire future.” It’s no video diary, but this post seeks to offer guidance as you navigate that stress and compose your personal essay. How can you best prepare? What should you read? How should you write? What should you write about?

Well, sharpen your pencil, Shakespeare. Let’s begin.

Step 1: Read, read, read! It’s no secret that the best writers are also the best readers, and the same applies to personal essays. By reading plenty of successful personal essays — and reading across the greater genre of narrative nonfiction — you will find your own voice within that broader style.

I’ve included some examples of essays from students at Johns Hopkins University and Hamilton College to provide some creative examples of how narrative nonfiction can operate within the personal essay’s constraints. You shouldn’t, however, allow yourself to only explore personal essays. There are wonderful benefits to reading narrative nonfiction: besides its pertinence to college applications, narrative nonfiction can also be incredibly moving. Try comedian David Sedaris’s reflection on age and turtles, neurologist Oliver Sack’s warnings about a post-technological dystopia, or Frank McCourt’s retelling of the “Irishman’s initiation” (all sourced from the lovely New Yorker magazine).

Impactful narrative essays, as you’ll hopefully discover, are rhetorical spurs. They simply recount experiences, and readers — or admissions officers — can’t help but draw conclusions about the author.

Step 2: Poirot, I have been thinking. A quick glance at the Common Application’s Personal Essay Prompts might leave you breathless. Just seven questions unlock a universe of thought and reflection. It’s the literary equivalent of perching atop Mt. Everest: the horizon seems utterly endless. It may feel impossible to start writing when faced with such expansiveness, especially when tasked to write about oneself. But Edmund Hillary didn’t submit because he thought that Mt. Everest loomed too tall, and neither should you.

As I explore this writing-is-climbing metaphor more, the two appear even more similar than I originally thought. When someone attempts to scale a peak, much of the work occurs before they even set foot on the mountain. Developing the necessary stamina, planning your route, and saying your goodbyes before foot hits ground are akin to the brainstorming process that occurs before pen hits paper. Minus the death, I hope.

Choosing the perfect topic will help guide your essay. But what is the perfect topic? It’s not the philosophically ideal essay — I can feel Plato already penning postmortem rebukes — but rather perfect in that it perfectly encapsulates you.

Many students may feel pressured to rummage through their lives to unearth tragedies that they can transform into emotional essays. When every America’s Got Talent singer with a tragic backstory seems to earn a Golden Buzzer, it’s an understandable temptation. But Simon Cowell isn’t furrowing his chiseled brow over your application, so let’s explore why this won’t work for the personal essay.

Unless a student has truly experienced trauma, any “tragedy” they recount will inevitably feel manufactured. Want to describe the agony of breaking your arm and not being able to swim with your friends? No one cares. Did you go on a one-week service trip to Guatemala and “help the needy?” Great! But if you’re not dedicating your life to serving that issue, an admissions officer won’t hesitate to call out your privilege.

I’m being purposely blunt. If a personal trauma has truly defined your life — and you can somehow spin that trauma into a positive movement that underlines your resilient personality — then, of course, you can write about it. But, as a general rule, you should try to avoid the three “D’s”: Deaths, Divorces, and Disabilities.

Why? Well, you, the applicant, have no control over death or divorce. Writing about either category typically showcases none of your personality and may even sadden your reader. Many college guidance counselors classify everything from chronic illnesses to sports injuries as “disabilities.” The literary laissez-faire applies here, too — students affected by chronic diseases, unfortunately, have little control over their illness — and even overcoming sports injuries is often non-unique. Remember: an essay is perfect in that it perfectly encapsulates you (and you alone).

So, what is the perfect essay? One that is genuine. Find events that reveal the intricate fabric of your personhood.

I once had a student who was staunchly independent — the composer, conductor, and critic of her own tune, in the most cliché sense. But how can someone crystallize that abstract idea into words, let alone a brief essay? This student recounted a story from her childhood when she accidentally cut off all of her hair. She transformed what would typically be a cute story of youthful exploration into an incredibly poignant narrative about beauty standards and unwavering individualism.

Another student wrote about how Ping-Pong brought his family together. He realized that he could dominate Ping-Pong games through a slamming battle, or he could slow down, volley the ball, and actually connect with his opponent. That second variation of Ping-Pong, he realized, made him an effective communicator — you can only say so much before you have to return — but it also showed him how valuable his familial relationships are. It was probably no surprise to the admissions officers that he elected to pursue a communications degree.

Neither of these essays focuses on a tragedy. Successful essays, like these, are powerful because they transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. They subtly direct the reader towards revealing conclusions about the author from seemingly random details.

Still don’t believe that meaning can come from the supposedly meaningless? Check out this New York Times column containing dozens of odes to common objects.

Step 3: (Effective) creativity is intelligence having fun. Once you’ve elected the topic that perfectly encapsulates your personality, make it exciting to read. College admissions officers typically read applications in thirty minutes — sometimes, at larger schools, the time spent on a single application might dip to around ten minutes — so an interesting format can help your application stand out.

Try out new narrative styles within the personal essay. Beginning an essay in medias res, dead language for “in the middle of an action,” offers an enticing hook. What about a non-linear narrative, where you highlight your growth by jumping between events at different points in your life? Maybe take a cue from Fitzgerald’s green light and develop your scenery and dialogue, so your reader can sometimes “feel” your writing.

I knew a student who, because she was interested in theatre, wrote an autobiographical play — and stringed snippets of that play together to make her personal essay. An aspiring physician used an extended metaphor relating his obsession with Peter Parker to his fascination with oncology. One culinary-school-hopeful wrote the recipe for himself. Another student wrote hers from the viewpoint of her younger brother.

But hold your pens. There can easily be a serious danger with such free experimentation. Many applicants might believe that just writing a creative essay is enough to score admission to their first-choice universities. This mentality, however, can mislead students as they write their essays. A personal essay should be creative if that creativity brings the personality of the applicant to life on the page. Don’t be creative simply to be different. Be creative to better reveal the person you are. Creativity within the scope of the personal essay should perhaps be renamed effective creativity: creativity that underscores the personality of an applicant.

Step 4: Grab Pawan. The style of the personal essay is very distinct from the verbose jargon you might find in mainstream narrative nonfiction (cough David Foster Wallace cough). With just 650 words, there is little room for the type of epic plot development afforded to George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. So listen to Pawan Mishra, who suggests that you “tell a story in fewer and simpler words.”

Remember: you only have 650 words. Be deliberate in your word choice, and spend time considering the weight, connotations, and implications that every word in your essay might convey. That might sound silly, but you’ll better relay your personality with ample reflection.

Step 5: Write ‘till your ink be dry. Composing a good personal essay takes time. You might need to restart just when you think you’re done, you might need to forget everything you’ve learned in writing analytical essays, you might need to write “juicier” sentences when you think just ten words is enough. But embrace the opportunities that the personal essay provides. Perhaps you’ll never be asked to write about yourself again.

So, how do you write a good personal essay?

Read constantly, think genuinely, spin creatively, write clearly, and edit furiously. With just 650 words, you, too, can make the Bard proud.