Key Elements Of A Personal Essay

A personal essay is more of a general domain that other essay types (argumentative, etc.) which typically follow a more fixed organization and intent. Personal essays are sometimes described as "free-spirited" or "meandering", although ultimately the degree to which this is (or should) be true depends on whether you're writing it for a grade.

Personal essays are often asked in response to a "storytelling" prompt, such as "write about a time when you ____" or...

A personal essay is more of a general domain that other essay types (argumentative, etc.) which typically follow a more fixed organization and intent. Personal essays are sometimes described as "free-spirited" or "meandering", although ultimately the degree to which this is (or should) be true depends on whether you're writing it for a grade.

Personal essays are often asked in response to a "storytelling" prompt, such as "write about a time when you ____" or "describe an experience that made you feel ___". Thus one of the key components of a personal essay is autobiographical material. Whereas other writing formats often forbid the use of the word "I", it is essential to the personal essay.

Also necessary, in order to make sense of the autobiographical material, is a narrative structure or plot. It must be clear that there is a purpose to the story; in fact this essentially takes the place of a thesis in the structure of the essay. It is often advised to build the story up to a climax of some kind, otherwise the story risks losing momentum and relevance in later paragraphs as the author runs out of fresh and interesting material.

Quotes or a speaker are often suggested as necessary in order to emphasize the personal experience; this can be the author, or another person.

Finally, reflection is necessary. This is in addition to the autobiographical material; we need to know how the material affected you.

If you're using the typical 5-paragraph structure, it might go like this:

  • Paragraph 1: Introduction to yourself. Talk about what kind of a person you are, and whether the events you're about to describe fit you perfectly, are the complete opposite, or they changed you forever, etc.
  • Paragraph 2: Introduce what took place. Set the scene and describe the important characters. Get the action moving.
  • Paragraph 3: Bring in the key event(s) that the essay is describing. Describe them in detail. Quotes would work well here.
  • Paragraph 4: Describe your immediate, and your long-term, reaction to the events.
  • Paragraph 5: Reflect on the events as you have written about them; what might have happened if they never occurred? Do they still affect you every day? How do others react when you share this experience?

Personal essays are often required as part of a scholarship application, college transfer application, or any application for a distinction, honor, or award.

Importance:

The personal essay is a very important component of your application packet. This is your opportunity to personalize your application by letting the reviewers know who you are and why you, above all other applicants, deserve the distinction of being selected.

What to Include:

Remember that your one page personal essay should give the reader a sense or feel on what you are all about -- your hopes, plans, dreams, aspirations, personality, etc. This is no easy task. You must also keep in mind that the reader has numerous applications to review and that they may not spend much time reading yours. You will need to "capture" their interest right away. The simplest way to do this is to "personalize" your essay, so they feel they know you as a person and thus identify with your hopes, dreams, and aspirations. When they can identify with who you are, the reader will be most likely to support your efforts by singling your application out above all others.

Grammar and Punctuation:

Organization, grammar, and punctuation, are all very important. The reviewer must feel that any funds given to you will be responsibly put to use to further your educational goals and objectives. They will need to feel confident that you have the organizational skills to invest this money where appropriate. Proper grammar and organization of your paper helps to instill a sense of your capabilities to the reader. The reviewer will be confident that you will do the right things with the money, or that if you are accepted to their institution that you will work hard to succeed.

Keep the length short:

It is important to keep your essay under one page in length and that you do so in a font that is large enough and clear enough to read simply and easily. A reviewer who must read hundreds of applications, will not be inspired to put much effort in yours if it is difficult to read, or requires too much energy and effort on their part. Say what you want to say simply and efficiently.

Summary of Essential Components:

Your personal essay should give the reader an introduction to your life (like where you are from and what you hope to major in), a brief history of your accomplishments, and a sense of your personality. You must also show them what obstacles you have encountered and how you overcame them. All of this must be done under one page and in a clear and readable font and writing style. The trick is to tell the reader you are great, but without sounding pompous, or overbearing.

Examples:

Here are two actual student essays (one for a scholarship application, the other for a college transfer application). Yours can be very different than these, so don't try to mold yours into someone else's format. It can be helpful though to see an example of how others have put theirs together. You should read yours to others, and have others read theirs to you. As you read other's essays, ask yourself, "Does this essay reflect what this person is all about and convey to the reader everything that was intended?" Also ask yourself, "How would I have written this differently to more effectively convey these ideas?"

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