How to Write a Personal Essay That Won’t Make You Cringe

Image shows a panorama of Columbia University. We’ve already written lots of advice about how to craft the perfect personal statement when applying for a UK university.

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If you have your sights set on applying to a university in the USA, however, you’ll find the American university application system a little different, and the admissions staff at US universities will have slightly different expectations from the ‘personal essay’ or Common Application Essay – the US equivalent of the personal statement. If you have no idea where to begin with this, then don’t worry. In this article, we look at how to write a personal essay that gets you noticed by the admissions staff and give you some valuable tips to make sure you’re on the right track.

Tailor your essay to the university

Image shows the Thinker at Columbia University.
Think carefully about the unique traits of the university you’re applying to.

We start with an important piece of advice: don’t send the same essay off to all the universities you’re applying for. Tempting though it is to save time by writing just one essay and sending it off everywhere, it’s vital to tailor your essay to each institution – there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to personal essays. Quite apart from the fact that universities will most probably give you their own essay prompts, meaning that your essay for one may need to be very different from what you write for another, you need to be able to demonstrate that you’ve done your research and that this is definitely the university for you (even if you are applying to several!). We’ll give you some tips on how to do this later in this article. Also, whatever you do, make sure you don’t leave the name of another university in the text!

Bear in mind whom you’re writing for

Before you begin writing your personal essay, think about whom you’re writing for. Unlike in the UK (where applications are assessed by members of academic staff), in the US, applications are read by admin staff in the university’s admissions office. These members of staff are not lecturers themselves and will not have expert knowledge of a particular subject, so you need to remember that you’re not writing for academics. This means that the focus of your personal essay will be more on showing that you’d be a valuable member of the college community; your attempts to demonstrate the obscure academic topics you enjoy researching in your spare time may be lost on the person reading your essay.

Image is a button that reads "Browse all University Admissions articles."Demonstrate your writing abilities

Image shows a laptop on a desk by a window.
As you can’t impress admissions staff with your subject-specific knowledge, you should show off your writing skills.

Admissions staff are looking for evidence of your writing abilities, so your essay should be interesting and entertaining to read. Unlike personal statements in the UK, it’s fine to include anecdotes and tell stories that tell the admissions staff more about who you are, what you’re like, what motivates you and so on. You can include your thoughts and feelings, perhaps talking about a time when you’ve had to overcome adversity – what you did, how it changed you, and so on. Include specific details in these anecdotes, such as names and places, to make them more interesting. Don’t forget that your spelling and grammar should be flawless, with a mix of sentence structures to demonstrate your grasp of the English language; get someone to proofread your essay before you submit it.

Your background

Your essay should ideally also explain a bit about your family background, especially if it’s diverse – what makes you different from other candidates? Unless you’re specifically asked to do so, you don’t need to devote a huge amount of space to talking about this, and in fact it may come across implicitly from the stories you tell.

The essay prompts

Image shows a family at a bar mitzvah.
You could write about a traditional celebration like a bar mitzvah.

The university will give you two or three questions – or essay prompts – which you’ll need to answer in your essay. Many universities in America use what’s known as the ‘Common Application Essay’, for which there are set questions that you can choose from. For 2014-2015, these are as follows:

1. Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

As you can see, these are designed to give you opportunities to write about yourself. The broad themes are identity, failure and lessons learned, beliefs and challenging beliefs, environment, and accomplishments. There’s an emphasis in all of these on how your experiences have shaped who you are today, the implication being that you talk about experiences that show your motivations for academic success. Use these as a chance to tell the university more about you and why you’re suitable for this university; try to link the points you make in answering these questions with your prospective university plans.

Image shows a statue of three bears.
Why do groups of three work so well?

Universities often also set their own essay prompts for you to choose from, in addition to those in the Common Application Essay; these are provided as “Supplements”, such as “the Harvard Supplement”. The University of Chicago, for example, asks what it describes as “provocative” essay questions, of which there are some examples below.

1. What’s so odd about odd numbers?

2. Little pigs, french hens, a family of bears. Blind mice, musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and describe why and how they fit together.

3. In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.

While these questions certainly put one in mind of the notoriously arcane questions people imagine they will be asked in Oxbridge interviews, the good thing about having the opportunity to write about them is that, unlike in an interview situation, you have time to think about your answers. As the University of Chicago says about its challenging questions, “We think of them as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions. They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between.” In other words, it’s okay to let your imagination run wild when answering questions like these. The more original and interesting your answer, the better.

Image shows Harvard University.
Harvard allows you to submit an optional extra essay.

Some universities, such as Harvard, leave it up to you to write an optional extra essay on a topic of your choice, such as a list of the books you’ve read in the last twelve months. It’s advisable to do the optional extra essay, but to choose your subject wisely; don’t duplicate what you wrote in the Common Application Essay, as you’re only wasting the time of the admissions staff. Use the opportunity to cover something new that would tell them something interesting and valuable about yourself.
As a whole, your essay answers need to address the following points:

  • Your suitability for the university, why you’ve chosen it, and how you can contribute to its community.
  • What activities you undertake in your spare time, and what you learn from them.
  • Your academic interests, and how they fit in with your future plans.

We now devote the rest of this article to discussing how to talk about these things effectively in your essay answers.

Explaining why you want to study at this particular university

Image shows a chapel at Brown University.
Your application needs to be tailored to the particular university.

As we mentioned near the beginning of this article, a strong component of the American university application is being able to explain why you want to study at this particular university, why you’re suited to it, and what you could contribute to the university campus community. There’s no substitute for detailed research on this one: you need to read in detail about the university, its history, its ethos and facilities, and explain why it resonates with you. If, for example, you have a strong belief in protecting the environment, you might mention that you admire this university’s commitment to improving its green credentials. If there’s a particular academic at this university whose work in a particular field you greatly admire, you could talk about this being a motivation for choosing this institution. It’s definitely worth mentioning if someone in your family went to this university, and even more so if they’ve donated money to the university; it sounds unfair, but these things do make a difference in the American university system (unlike in the UK).

Writing about the subjects you’re interested in

The American university system differs from that of the UK in that applicants are expected to be either very specialised, and extremely knowledgeable about one subject, or a little bit knowledgeable about a lot of subjects. You don’t necessarily have to have settled on your major just yet, as you don’t have to decide until second year, so an interest in a broad range of subjects is a good thing. When you’re writing about your academic interests, it’s therefore advisable to demonstrate intellectual curiosity across different subjects, and perhaps reflect on how the subjects you’re studying at the moment appeal to you in different ways. You could mention a desired major if you want to – for instance, if it is part of your career plans – but it’s not essential to do so. Being able to demonstrate academic ability and general academic skills is more important, so you could, for instance, talk about your presentation or research skills and how you’ve gained them.

Talking about leadership roles, work experience and voluntary work

Your application needs to include strong evidence of your numerous non-academic achievements, including leadership roles you’ve occupied, work experience you’ve done and voluntary work you’ve undertaken. Don’t just list them: explain what you’ve learned from them, what inspired you to pick certain activities, and so on. For instance, you might have volunteered for a children’s charity having had a childhood friend from a disadvantaged background. Try to relating personal experiences to show your motivations and tell them more about you.

Discussing your extra-curricular activities

Image shows a volunteer at an animal sanctuary surrounded by puppies.
You could mention your extra-curricular volunteer activities.

Extra-curricular activities are highly valued, and talent in a particular area – such as music, sports or drama – will be admired, because it shows you to be someone who’d contribute to this side of college life. Again, don’t just list them: explain what each activity has taught you. For example, being on your school baseball team has taught you the value of teamwork and communication, skills that will prove invaluable when undertaking group work at university. Being leader of your section in your school brass band means that you’re comfortable in a leadership position and you’re comfortable with the idea of delegation, which again would be useful in group work in a university environment (and it also shows that you’re comfortable performing, which translates to being happy with the idea of giving presentations at university).

Make it about YOU

Finally, the overriding piece of advice for writing application essays is, as you might already have guessed, to make your writing about you. Don’t try to replicate the essays you might have read on the internet, because your essay should be unique to you, and should tell the admissions staff about who you are as a person. They want to know that you’re someone who will be a valuable member of the university community, who will fit in both academically and socially. You don’t have to tell them every miniscule detail of your childhood; you just need to pick and choose experiences that are interesting to read and that each shed light on a different aspect of your personality that makes you the ideal applicant. Good luck!


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Image credits: banner; Columbia; laptop; bar mitzvah; bears; Harvard; Brown; puppies.