Five Tips for Crafting a Powerful Personal Essay

Five Tips for Crafting a Powerful Personal Essay

It’s best to start extra early on each element of your college applications (not just the essay). According to College Board, “The summer before your senior year is the best time to start. Most students do the majority of their application work in the fall of their senior year.” So if you’re currently a junior, remember that summer is starting in just over two months!

The personal essay is perhaps the most dreaded part of the college application process. For most people, it involves sweat and tears—and hours spent staring at a blank page.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Read on for five tips that will help you craft a powerful personal statement.

1. Get your writing process right.

Most people spend the vast majority of their time writing their first draft. But the best writers spend about 50% of their time on preparation, 25% on writing their draft, and 25% on editing.

What this means in practice: after gathering ideas and developing a thorough plan, quickly jot down your first draft. It doesn’t matter if your sentences aren’t perfect—that’s what revision is for.

2. Turn on the idea factory.

I’ll let you in on a secret:

No matter how the personal essay question is worded, the real thing each college’s admission committee is trying to understand is ‘who are you?’

Simple, right?

I’m kidding. If you’re like most people, capturing in words the complex mesh of beliefs, dreams, and experiences that make you who you are will seem close to impossible. That’s perfectly natural but there are a couple of things that you can do to work through this.

The first is to set aside twenty minutes a day to answer big questions about you like:

  • What makes you unique?
  • What defines you as a person?
  • What moment or event or person in your life played the biggest role in defining who you are?
  • Which obstacles did you have to overcome? How did you do it? How did it change you?
  • What are your goals and how do you plan to achieve them?
  • Why should this school or program be interested in you?
  • How do you learn?
  • How do you solve problems?

The second thing you should do is to start carrying a notebook everywhere you go. You’ll find that inspiration will come to you at unusual times—and you need to be ready to catch it!

3. Tell an engaging story.

Now the actual writing begins! Don’t worry, you don’t have to create a Pulitzer Prize worthy essay right away.

Craft a story with an introduction, body, and conclusion. Your first few sentences should be really engaging—you want to keep your readers at the edge of their seats.

Compare these two hooks:

  1. I have always been passionate about…
  2. The comfort zone – I was about to leave it.

The first is overused. The second is punchy and exciting. Incidentally, the student who wrote it was admitted to Columbia. 

Set the context. The time and place of your story is important. Start by introducing obstacles and showing how the protagonist (you!) overcame them.

Show, don’t tell! Instead of simply stating a fact, use specific examples to demonstrate it. This paints a more vivid picture.

4. Find your voice.

Don’t worry too much of what you’re expected to write.

A personal essay is about finding your own voice. Do you have a great sense of humor? Then make your readers laugh until they cry. Are you unconventional? Prove it.

Experiment with words and structures, images and ideas. Avoid clichés and show what makes you YOU.

5. Revise, edit and proofread

My secret tip for revisions: sleep on it. Then look at your essay with fresh eyes and check:

  • Is your theme clear?
  • Is the structure logical?
  • Could you use better examples or craft a more engaging beginning?

Ask other people for input. They can help you with ideas and spot inconsistencies that you might overlook.

Spelling and grammar mistakes are a no go, so proofread carefully. Use WriteLab, read your essay out loud, and ask someone else to check it.

Stick to these 5 tips and you’ll be writing a unique and powerful personal essay in no time. Anything else you’d like to know? Ask us in the comments!


WriteLab is an online writing platform that offers immediate, actionable responses to your prose as you draft, revise, and polish your writing.

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