Writing a personal essay as part of the college admissions process is a matter of creating a narrative around your unique character. However, your own character can be the hardest subject about which to write. Too often a personal essay does not have enough detail or sounds stiff. A college essay on your character requires the same elements that make any paper successful and compelling: a plan to get you started, a strong opening paragraph, a storyline full of specifics, and the avoidance of cliques and errors.
Ask Yourself Questions before Starting
What makes you special? While colleges do want to know if you excel at academics or sports, volunteer in the community, and have received awards, what other aspects of your life are different from everyone else? What life experiences or people have shaped you? Have you had to overcome adversity or hardship to get to where you are today? Brainstorm the possibilities and make a list. Share the list with others and talk about the ideas. See which one seems the most compelling during your conversations.
Make a Plan
Before beginning your first draft, plan each paragraph. Decide what information needs to be included and what things you should leave out. You can’t tell everything about yourself, so determine what actions and events best illustrate aspects of your character. Also, stay away from anything that could be controversial, such as religion and politics.
Carefully Craft Your Opening Paragraph
Approach the beginning of a personal narrative in the same way you would any essay: create an opening paragraph that captures the attention of the reader. You can even create a thesis statement that distills into one sentence the ideas presented in the rest of the paper. Having answered questions to discover what makes you different, use that knowledge to create a thesis showing how those differences define your character.
Make Yourself a Character
Admissions directors read too many personal narratives that are simply lists of accomplishments with nothing to make them memorable. An interesting character essay reads like a story. It offers specific events told in a lively way. Think of yourself as a character in a story that has a beginning, middle, and an ending. Write the first draft of your paper in third person. This makes it easier to take a step back and fell less self-conscious when writing about yourself. Make sure you are offering detailed events that explain the “character” of your character. Adher to the rule that showing is better than telling. In the first draft, add as many details as you can regarding events that illustrate your charater. In future drafts, you can edit for flow and clarity, as well as changing to a first person narrative.
Do Research If Appropriate
A college admission’s essay might ask that you address specifically why you are a good fit for that institution. If so, it is important that you demonstrate your knowledge of the university. Do not have a generic essay you send to every college. Research each university and tailor your answer to that place. Know what makes a college special and why it is a good fit for you. Hopefully, you already know this without having to do very much research.
Answer All Required Questions
Some admissions offices have specific questions they ask you to address during the course of your personal essay. Be sure to answer all of these. Often, certain questions will be the same for more than one university. Avoid the temptation to write one generic answer and fit it into your essay. Tailor your answers to each college. This will help your writing stand out from the crowd.
Explain Any Unusual Issues
It is important that you explain anything that will seem questionable in the eyes of the admission’s committee. For example, if you have a period where your grades were low, include an explanation in your paper. If you are applying to a graduate program and have been out of school for a period of time, discuss why that choice was made. Answer any questions the committee might have that would negatively influence your candidacy for admission.
Proofread, Proofread, Proofread
Make sure your essay is free of any type of error. Run spell check. Proofread the entire essay. Have other sets of eyes look at your paper because it is hard to find errors in your own work. Look for anything that sounds cliqued. Remember that admissions committees look at thousands of essays. Edit anything that sounds trite and unoriginal. Finally, have another person read the essay for clarity. Because you know the events in the essay intimately, you may forget to include important information or details. An outsider will have a better grasp for whether this college essay on your character has the proper flow and clarity.
Hacker, Diana. A Writer's Reference. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2007.