A personal essay is not about your grades, scores, and achievements—it's about you. Colleges look for curious and articulate people who are ready to enter college. So how do you show the college that you are that person?
Of course, your grades and academic record are the most important factors in college admissions. But your essay can also play an influential role. It proves that you can write and think coherently and introduces you as an individual.
Can Your Essay Help You Get In?
The essay is not a standard part of every college application. In fact, about 60 percent of colleges don't even require one. But at other colleges, particularly highly selective colleges, a well-written essay is essential. There's even a chance it will boost a borderline application into the "admitted" column.
You can find out how much application essays matter at different colleges with CollegeData's College Match tool. (Once you see the college profile, click the Admission tab and scroll down to Selection of Students.)
It's Always About You
No matter what the essay topic is, it's really about you. Sure, the application may ask for a description of your favorite book or person. But the college is really asking you to reveal your preferences, feelings, likes, and dislikes—the real you. The people who read your essay don't know you, but they want to. Just imagine you are meeting them in person. Whether you are naturally serious or humorous, engage admissions officers with your personality.
There's a mind-numbing amount of advice on writing college application essays. Here are some simple guidelines to get you started:
Read the instructions and stick to them. It's amazing how many students throw themselves into the essay without understanding the assignment. Read the requirements. Your essay may have to fit in the space allotted or meet certain word counts. Analyze the question carefully. If you are asked, "What is your favorite book and why?" don't forget to explain the "why"! Many students do forget.
Get started. Many students procrastinate, making their anxiety even worse—and the results worse as well. One way to get going is to talk through your topic. Record your thoughts or have someone type them for you.
Show your thoughtfulness. Colleges look for students who seek challenges and learn from them. As Harry Truman said, "It is what you learn after you know it all that counts." Many successful applicants write about situations in which they weren't so successful but learned a lot.
Develop your topic like a story. Begin with a great opening line that sets the stage. Then tell your story from beginning to middle to end. Outlining your essay first will help you lay out a strong story line.
Explain "so what?" Push yourself to paint a picture of why your topic is so compelling to you. Explain how you feel about it and why. Describe the images that come to mind when you think about it.
Be consistent with the rest of your application. Your essay should bring to life the same person revealed by your grades, scores, recommendations, and extracurriculars. Don't leave the admissions reader wondering if your essay "wandered over" from another application.
Revise until it feels right. Ask people you trust to read your essay for coherence. They may have some ideas for improvement, but don't let anyone change your writing style or what you are trying to say. Don't send it to the college until someone with excellent grammar skills, such as a teacher or parent, proofreads it.