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Last Updated: July 12, 2021

Writing a Winning Personal Essay

The personal essay is the most daunting part of the college application process. This one essay, which is often no longer than 650 words, will end up deciding the next four years of a candidate’s life. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the essay is the most important soft, or non-quantitative, factor in the college application. Over half of the colleges said that the essay is of considerable or moderate importance in the admissions decision.

Candidates often agonize for hours and hours on writing the personal essay, reading it over and over again, showing it to countless friends, teachers, and relatives, and trying to divine what the admissions officers are looking for from the university website. The elements that have to be included in the essay have been listed on this page.

Elements of a Strong Personal Essay

The personal essay should be written from a completely subjective and personal space where the candidate can include their achievements and dreams along with the circumstances that made them choose the college or course. Anything and everything that the candidate has experienced in life that led up to that moment can be counted in though this will have to be filtered out into what can be included within the specified word limit.

While finding the right content for the personal essay is a matter of a candidate’s discretion, there are a few elements that cannot be ignored while preparing the personal essay. These elements are-

Grammar and Style

The most important element of the personal essay is the grammar and writing quality. Grammatical errors, typos, and clunky sentences will get any essay dumped in the ‘maybe’ pile faster than anything else. A poorly written essay shows the admissions officer that the candidate didn’t care enough about their application to work hard on it, and may make them think twice about their ability to complete college-level coursework. An admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania once read an essay by a student who wanted to attend the Wharton School of Bunnies-rather than the Wharton School of Business. A mistake like this won’t do the application any favors.

To ensure that the college essay is the best piece of writing the candidate has ever produced, they should start writing months in advance. This may seem excessive, but starting early will give the candidate time to work on the essay in chunks. They can draft the essay, rewrite it, rewrite it, and rewrite it again within this time frame. Starting early will also allow candidates to leave time between each working session. This will give them the chance to come back to their work with fresh eyes. Awkward sentences will be easier to spot, typos will jump off the page, and they will have time to craft the perfect turn of phrase.


After the quality of writing, the next most important thing is to write from the heart. Rather than attempting to figure out what’s most important to the admissions officers, candidates should figure out what is most important to them. Parke Muth, a former admissions officer at the University of Virginia, noted that when they asked applicants to tell them about innovation or creation from the past that was important to them, UVA received over 1,000 essays extolling the virtues of the Declaration of Independence. Most of these students chose the Declaration of Independence not for any great love of the document, but because Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia, penned it. These applicants attempted to give the admissions officers what they thought they wanted, but they ended up submitting a generic essay just like a thousand others. If these students had attempted to think deeply about the question and had written an essay from the heart, they likely would have ended up with something far more interesting.

Candidates should believe that they are a unique person, and hence the essay they create from personal experiences will be highly unique and improbable to be like any other that will be submitted for admission. Remember, admissions officers read thousands of essays every year- do them a favor by sending in something they haven’t seen a hundred times before.


Knowing that one should write something personal is often not enough. There should be a focal point to the essay which will communicate on a personal level to the admission officers. There is no way that a candidate will be able to pour the entirety of their soul into a 500-word essay. Instead, they should dig deep and drill down. Focus on a slice of their life and work on bringing all the tiny details to the fore. Candidates needn’t be afraid of talking about the way the hot wind felt on their skin or the way the dizzying sounds of the city made them feel.

Achieving this level of detail is difficult; it’s a technique, and their ability to write in this way will come only with practice and effort. During one’s high school career, they can start with reading widely. Short stories, especially, will give candidates examples of writing that packs a punch with just a few words. Candidates must keep practicing and honing their writing skills. After every draft, they should ask themselves about what they are showing their readers, or telling them. If they plan to write, “it was a hot, windy day,” that is much less powerful than, “I felt the wind tugging at my dress and sweat trickling down my back.” Adding details will pull the reader into their world and will give him or her a much better understanding of their life.

What Not to Write

First and foremost, it isn’t recommended that candidates study a thesaurus before writing their essay. Using big words will not make them sound smarter. If they are an inveterate user of words like amalgamated, cacophonous, and elucidate, they can consider using them in the essay. If they are like most people, they should stick to the words they typically use in order to stay true to themselves and sound authentic. Attempting to use longer words to sound smarter will only backfire; the essay will be less personal and less powerful, the admissions officer will know that the candidate has resorted to using a thesaurus, and no one will enjoy reading the essay.

Secondly, candidates should make sure that they write a personalized essay for each school. Be clear about why they want to attend that school and not any other. Instead of writing, “I was enticed to apply to your school due to its impressive faculty,” write something like, “as an aspiring foreign service officer, the many current and former State Department officials at Yale, including John Negroponte and Charles Hill, will be an invaluable resource.”

Admissions officers will want to know that the candidate is interested in their institution. They know that the candidate will be applying to a number of schools, but the candidate shouldn’t remind them of that fact. The goal is to let the admissions officer know that this school is the school for the candidate.


Personal essays are the part of the application that candidates will have the most control over. Once they reach the application stage, they would have already earned their high school grades, done all the extracurriculars they are going to do, and impressed their teachers as much as they are going to impress them. The essay is the chance to show the admissions committee who they are.

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