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How to Write Personal Essays for U.S. Universities

Friday | March 22, 2019 | by Mariel S. Tavakoli

how to write personal essays

Mariel S. Tavakoli is a WES Expert Ambassador who recently graduated from the University of Oxford. Her studies focused on helping international students prepare personal statements in English.

Below, she provides essential insights about how to prepare a personal essay that will improve your chances of earning admission to a college or university in the United States.

When you are applying for an undergraduate program, graduate program, or scholarship, the written portion of the application requires you to reflect on your past experiences and connect them to your future goals. This portion might be called a personal statement, personal essay, or statement of purpose.

But no matter what it is called, and no matter what topic you are assigned, the true inspiration for your personal essay will always be the same: you.

Every admissions officer really wants to hear your unique voice, story, and vision. So, while there is no wrong way to approach an essay topic (which might also be referred to as a “prompt,” or come in the form of a question), there are ways to make the writing process more manageable—and the end result more powerful.

Here are some essential tips that will help you prepare an excellent personal essays for colleges and universities in the United States.

Give Yourself Time

The most important thing you must remember to do is give yourself enough time to write.

Many U.S. high school students begin writing their essays in the spring or summer—about six months before the application deadline. If this is the first academic essay you are writing in English, or your first time writing for an audience that is based in the United States, the most important thing you can do is to start thinking, researching, and writing in advance.

The process of writing a personal essay begins long before you grab a pen and paper.

Here are a few steps that will help you prepare:

First: Start by reading! The more that you read examples of personal essays in English, the more likely it is that you will figure out how to express your unique voice clearly in this language. This will also help you discover the appropriate level of academic expression and formality. Of course, you will need to do some research to find a variety of successful sample essays to study. Do not forget to consider that when planning the total time you will need.

Next: Identify teachers, parents, and friends who are fluent in written English and/or know what is expected of personal essays in the United States. Ask if they will agree to give you feedback. Sometimes, there is a designated staff member at your target school in the U.S. who can send you specific resources or provide more direct help; it is always worth asking the admissions office if this is the case for international applicants. You should be in touch with all of these potential candidates before you start writing; do not wait until you are ready to hand them something to read! (You will follow up and ask for their feedback once you complete your first draft.)

Now: Start writing! With plenty of time to understand, plan, write, and revise, you will write the best personal essay possible. This also helps you prevent stress during the application process.

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Understand Your Audience

Have you heard the following terms when reading about the personal essay?

  • Good fit
  • Stand out
  • Tell your story

In order to understand these terms and your audience—university admissions officers—it is important to understand the admissions process.

U.S. universities have traditionally taken a holistic approach to admissions. In other words, your admissions decision is not based on your marks or test scores alone. Rather, admissions officers attempt to get a 360-degree understanding of who you are and how you would align with the other students and the university culture as a whole. This is what is meant by a “good fit” with a university.

To understand what an admissions officer might be looking for, your first stop is the university itself. Check out its website, follow its social media pages, read testimonies from alumni, get in touch with current students, read the university’s strategic plan. As you do, make note of common phrases and shared language. Store it away for when you are reflecting and writing later on.

While a holistic admissions process is a great way to get to know applicants, it also means that admissions officers have to read hundreds of applications in a day. Your personal story must therefore “stand out” from the competition. Although it can be uncomfortable, articulating your strengths and highlighting your most important accomplishments will make a strong impression, even on the most tired admissions officer. Use direct language and specific examples to showcase the most original things about your personality, personal history, and future ambitions.

But no matter what, the best way to appeal to admissions officers is by being truthful and genuine. So next, let us dive into an entire section dedicated to “telling your story”…

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Find Your Story

“Telling your story” to an unknown admissions officer is not an easy task. A personal essay requires you to be personal and professional at the same time. You also have to weave your experiences and goals together into a cohesive narrative.

The first step is to take an inventory of your life thus far. You might already have a lot of this information organized on your CV. Use this to group your experiences into categories: job titles, responsibilities, lessons learned, types of impact, special skills, hobbies and interests, and so on.

However, your personal essay should not read like a list or résumé. To avoid this, choose one or two experiences that relate to the topic of your personal essay and excite you the most. Explore how you can connect other strong points from different categories back to it. Begin thinking about how you might weave these together into one compelling narrative.

For example, pay attention to how one experience may have led to a realization, inspired a behavior, or triggered a memory. Even the smallest personal details can be a gateway or framework to the rest of your essay.

It is important for your personal essay to balance authenticity (what is important to you) with what admissions counselors might expect from a viable applicant. To start, any leadership roles or times when you went above and beyond your responsibilities are important to highlight. Then, think back to your research on the university and what language people used to describe the campus or community. Do any of your experiences fit with these qualities?

Again, do not be afraid to show off these accomplishments and impress those admissions officers!

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Write It Down

There is not one right way to structure your personal essay. By giving yourself plenty of time to rearrange your thoughts with different words, sentences, and paragraphs, you will write an essay that represents your ability to think critically, as well as your ability to express yourself in writing. Both of these are essential skills and they are highly valued by admissions officers.

In the United States, it is important to follow basic concepts of essay organization. Make sure to group your thoughts into cohesive paragraphs, and use effective transitions between different ideas. Again, because your reader is tired and overwhelmed, it is important to make sure that your essay structure and specific word choices guide them through your statement.

Lastly, focus on your language. You should use your best academic English, and leave plenty of time at the end to refine and proofread. This is when you should contact the people that you identified in your research phase—the friends, family, and professionals who agreed to read your first draft.

Instead of asking for general feedback, ask them to share their thoughts on three specific things:

  • Your language use (word choice)
  • Your essay’s content (theme, story)
  • Your essay’s structure (organization of ideas)

Envision Your Future

The personal essay portion of your application is a challenge. But it is also a great academic exercise. Writing your personal essay prepares you for all of the writing you will do as part of your education in the U.S.

This is also a great time for personal reflection and growth. Take this time to explore your history, motivation, and goals—and get excited about your future studies in the United States!

Mariel S. Tavakoli, a WES Ambassador, is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).