Personal Essay

The naming of this essay and its meaning can get lost.  It’s referred to with the following names–Admissions Essay, Personal Statement, Personal Essay, College Essay, and whatnot.  Understand that this letter is part of the standard submissions of all of your application materials.  So it is mandatory; it is not supplemental.  For supplemental essay, see this.  A little context for these Personal Essays is in order.

By the time admissions officers start reading your college essay, they already know all about your grades and test scores, your extra-curriculars and your family background. What they don’t know is what you’re like in person. What are your outstanding personality traits? Courage?  Tenacity?  Strength to overcome adversity?  And such. What is it like to spend a day with you? What motivates you to take action? What are the events that have had a meaningful impact on your life? When trapped within the confines of a generic college application, so many students look the same. You would not believe how many good students and club leaders there are, or the number of students who achieve perfect scores on the SATs. The only way to make yourself stand out is to show admissions what makes you an individual. The essay is your one true chance to show it, and it can make all the difference between rejection and admission.


The goal of the Personal Statement is to convey personal growth and identity, capturing the essence of the student.

I will add that admission boards want a picture of your person, your character beyond what they can glean from academic performance, grades, clubs, and school involvement. 


 After all, 650 words is not a lot of space in which to convey your personality, passions and writing ability to the folks in the admissions office. And with holistic admissions, schools really do want to get to know the person behind your test scores and grades.

How important, then, is the Personal Essay?  If your grades, volunteer experience, or something else is amiss, then the Personal Essay can be very important.  So the answer to the question of “How important is the Personal Essay?” sort of depends.  It can be very important or it can be easily overshadowed by all of your other academic successes.  I like to treat everything like this, “It’s all important.”  

1. Remember, it’s a Personal Essay.  Key word is personal, so be personal in your essay.  Relay personal qualities inside personal stories.
2. Be creative: in other words, write a story.  “Once upon a time” type of thing.  

1. Personal Essay for College Application Essay. You hear it all the time–show, don’t tell. Wikipedia explains that “Show, don’t tell” is

a technique often employed in various kinds of texts to enable the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description

Meaning to engage all five senses every person has–including hearing, smell, touch, sight, and taste if possible.  So instead of “watching the story from aside, readers will be able to walk through it. This can make you a better applicant than the rest.”  Okay, but is this permissible or encouraged in a college essay?  Not only is it permissible, it is recommended.  Highly.  If so, what should one include in this “Show, don’t tell” College Essay?  Great question.  This essay provides the answers: a Memorable Meal, an Example of Failure in your life, Challenges, Commitment,  and Important conversations.  See the reasons for each of these in that essay.  Here is a sample featured by Business Insider by a student who got into 14 colleges.  Check out how it opens:

Four boys stood above me on a pile of garbage. Their words, “Bota, bota, matava” — “chubby”, “fatty” suffocated me:

A familiar sensation of frustration and hurt gripped me. Looking for defense I only saw a cinderblock at my feet, impossible for my eight year old body to heave, so, I screamed in English:

“You are just jealous that you are poor and I am American!”

As the words flew out of my mouth, I knew I was wrong — there was no sense of triumphant satisfaction. I abruptly turned and ran into the refuge of my aunt’s home.

Understand that the above student was in the top of her class.  What that means is that her supplement essay, meaning her Personal Essay, was not the thing that got her into Harvard.  It may service like a capstone on remarkable academic accomplishments, but I would never be so bold to say, as Business Insider has done, that it was her Personal Essay that got her into Harvard.  Harvard liked her accomplishments and was probably wooed by her Personal Essay.  So what she does is not good for everyone.  And to call it a “bold” move as BI does is a bit of a stretch.  See her academic accomplishments here: Highest SAT: 2330. Converted SAT: 1570.  GPA: 4.50.  Rank: Top 1%.  And here are some added details about this student:

From:  Miami, Florida.
Gender: Female.
Race/Ethnicity: Black/African American
Legacy: No.
Applied to: 14 schools.
Accepted at:  Harvard, Stanford, U of Chi, UPenn, Columbia, Rice, WashU, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Princeton, Florida, Northwestern, Brown, Miami.
1st Language: English.
Other Languages Spoken: French, Spanish
Sports: Swimming/Diving, Water Polo
Extracurricular Activities: French Club, Geobowl, Model Congress/Model UNk, Non-Profit, NGO or Charitable Organization, National Honor Society, Student Council/Government.

The student is definitely talented.  And her Personal Essay is excellent.  

Carol Barash makes a great point, one that is corroborated by other counselors.  It’s this:

Colleges are not looking for perfect people. They are looking for students who will make a difference in their classrooms, dorms, and community. Where are the stories that reveal what you bring to the world? Your best essays grow out of those moments.

This is worth the 110 seconds:

Two good points from Naomi Tepper.


“A well-conceived essay can help to make a student come to life and often becomes a key piece of understanding a student’s ‘story.’ We are building a community, and the essay provides insight as to how the student may fit into our community. We want to learn more about each applicant’s intellectual curiosity, character, level of maturity, attitudes, passions, creativity, and imagination.” — Oberlin College

And two:

“Know that I read almost 800 applications a year, so I want something that stands out. Take a chance. Tell me something nobody else knows about you, or tell me something in a way that is really going to paint a picture of who you are.” — University of Rochester

Kara Jo Humphrey, Admission Counselor at Truman State University (her alma mater) and Product of the Illinois public education system, writes:

The best essays captivate me with their honesty and understanding of the human condition, show me a student’s weaknesses but also how they grew as a person (especially if I am walked through how they struggled to solve a problem) and contain a bit of suspense. A good sprinkling of suspense is always part of any great story.

Bec Bliss, Technical Recruiter, also provides insight:

Linda Abraham, an admissions consultant, suggests using three elements in your essay: surprise, irony, and suspense. She describes how to use them more eloquently than I can here, so here’s the link to her article:…

Additionally she wrote a great article on toeing the line between arrogance and pride in your admissions essay, which is tough to do when so many essay questions ask about your achievements. It’s tough not sounding braggy:…

Eric Eng, Consultant at Ivy College Admit, makes a great point too:

Very few people understand how to write a stellar personal statement, and write it well. An extraordinary personal statement requires you to introspect into yourself like never before to demonstrate the personal qualities that define you.

Most personal statements I’ve read are simply not personal enough. Too often, I’ve seen candidates talk about a particular experience or activity describing what they achieved/accomplished without discussing the impact of that experience on them.

Ali Zafor makes some good points too.  Everything that I’ve listed here should be applied to your Admissions’ Essay.  

3. Reveals a specific core or “defining” quality about the writer, rather than trying to describe many qualities. This is how to focus the essay.

4. Showcases what the writer cares about and values; shows character.

5. Takes a risk. This means the writer tries to find a topic that is unique and relates the story in a creative way. Narrative-style writing is creative. You can be helped with writings and see how to write a cover letter for an internship.

2.  This is a good resource on Admissions Essays.

SOME DO’S AND DON’T’S by Aniruddh Chaturvedi, Senior Software Engineer at LinkedIn SF

It should be quirky.

Does he mean catchy, like catching someone’s attention?  Then do that.  

Don’t talk about things that can speak for themselves (grades, etc) unless they were earned in extenuating circumstances.

Don’t talk about why you want to attend college in general, you have the supplementary essay to talk about that.

Don’t use big and complicated words/phrases/sentences unless it is actually called for. Admission officers can see through that

Good point there on that last one.  If an admissions officer can and does see through it, they’re not gonna be very happy.  This is one reason it is really important to write this letter yourself and not through the prism of a ghostwriter.  

Show your *passion* for something. This is cliched but very important. It could be anything, really.

Okay, that’s not helpful.

I wrote my common app essay about my love for chicken makhani (butter chicken) and garlic naan. I did submit an additional essay about my love for quizzing though.. I’d like to believe that I turned out fine (got into a bunch of top 20 schools..)

Well, well, well.  Chicken marsala ain’t good enough for ya?  Just kidding.  

Don’t come across as a prestige whore.

Excellent point!!!

When you sit down to write the essay, just *start*. Write rubbish, write whatever comes to your mind. More often than not, you’ll be able to make a good essay out of it

Somewhere in the application (not necessarily the essay) demonstrate your interest / passion / reason for applying for that particular major.

This repeats a bit. 

Come across as being smart but not cocky / grade-grubbing. 

Don’t talk lowly of yourself *at all*… Basically, don’t give them a reason to reject you.

Humility doesn’t hurt.  

Get your essay reviewed by your counselor, parents and close friends. Listen to their suggestions carefully but don’t blindly incorporate them into your essay because it is YOUR essay, not theirs

After you finish something which is worthy of being called a first draft, read it from a third person perspective.

Good luck.