Back to all blog posts
How To Guides

On the Field of Words: Master the Game of Personal Essay Writing

How to Write a Personal Essay

Writing from the Heart and the Mind

Most of us find it difficult to talk about ourselves in a meaningful way. Sure, some people like to brag about their accomplishments or maybe even their physical features, but when they have to peel back the layers and discuss the most important parts of their lives and how those things relate to others, it’s not so easy. And writing about ourselves is even more difficult. Essay writers will be the first people to tell you this. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you have to write a personal essay for a class, or maybe you have to write one as part of a college admissions application, or possibly as part of the interview process for a job. Whatever the reason, this blog will help you on your journey from start to finish.

Let’s start with the definition of a personal essay and an explanation of what the personal essay genre is. The simplest definition of a personal essay is an essay written from the perspective of the writer about one or more specific life experiences. The objective can be persuasive or just informative, but the primary purpose is to showcase part of your personality to the person or persons reading it. With that in mind, personal essay writing is a fairly diverse genre with many different types of potential essays.

All personal essays share the commonality of being written from the perspective of the writer, but they vary based on who the intended audience is. This is important because it affects the tone and subject matter of a personal essay. For example, if you have been assigned to write a personal essay for a graduate-level English course about a life-changing experience you should invoke a lot of emotion and provide plenty of detail about this experience, including what you were thinking and feeling at the time. On the other hand, if you are writing a personal essay for college admission, often called a “personal statement,” then you should focus more on the facts in a straightforward, objective manner.

So, remember, the tone and subject matter will determine the content of your personal essay, but generally speaking the structure will be similar.

Structuring a Personal Essay

I’ve had the opportunity to write a number of different personal essays and help edit just as many, so I can say from experience that the best essays follow a similar format. Chances are you’ve written other types of essays, so with that in mind just think of the same format, but with a couple of twists.

The introduction paragraph in a personal essay is similar to a regular essay, but with two notable differences. The first sentence should be a hook that captivates the reader and draws attention to the direction of your essay. Stay away from quotes because they are a bit cliché and take the attention away from you. If you are writing an essay about an experience, start with a sentence that draws from that general theme. For example, if your essay is about how you overcame the death of a loved one, you can start with a sentence like this: “Loss is an unfortunate part of life, but even more important is how we deal with that loss.

If you are writing a personal essay for a university or a job, focus on the particular degree you are seeking or the specifics of the job for which you are applying. Suppose you are applying for admittance to a university program in finance. Think of how finance is important globally and how it affects things we do every day, and use that as your intro sentence hook. “As the world becomes more global in nature, so too does finance, affecting everyone from Wall Street to Main Street.

You should then introduce yourself and how you relate personally to the first sentence. So, for the first example you state how you went through a personal loss, and for the second example that you are applying to this particular program to be a part of this global phenomenon.

Most essays have a thesis statement, and although personal essays are a bit different, they too should have the equivalent of a thesis statement. If you are writing a personal essay about an event or experience, the thesis statement won’t be as apparent, but it’s still there. So, if you are writing about a personal loss your thesis statement could be something like this: “Eventually I overcame this loss through . . .” On the other hand, a thesis statement for a personal essay for a college admissions or job should be much clearer. Referring back to our finance program example, consider the following: “My skills, education, and background have prepared me for success in your program and given me the ability to immediately contribute in and out of the classroom.” Remember, with this type of personal essay you’re essentially selling yourself, so your thesis statement should be why you’re a good purchase.

After the introduction paragraph, you should have two to three paragraphs as your main body, just as you would in a regular essay. The format will vary depending upon if you are writing a personal essay about an experience, for admission to a college, or for a job. The number of paragraphs you include will also depend upon the required length of the essay. To use our example of how you overcame loss, each paragraph can be about how you specifically did that and what you were feeling. You can also follow a format where you tell the story of the loss vividly, describing in detail in the second to the last paragraph how you overcame that loss.

If you are writing a personal essay for a college or a job, the format is much easier and more direct. Just think of each paragraph as a reason why you should be admitted or hired. One paragraph should focus on your education, another on your experience, and possibly another on some other skills you have.

Finally, the conclusion should serve as a bookend where you reiterate your thesis and major points. For a personal essay that focuses on an event or experience, add a secondary hook sentence similar to your introduction. “I was personally affected by the loss of ____ but in the end, I preserved and improved myself just as he/she would’ve wanted” could be a good conclusion hook. Once again, the conclusion paragraph for a personal essay for a college or job is pretty straightforward. State that “for the reasons enumerated above, I know I will be a good fit for this program,” or something similar. Also, it’s important to thank the person reading the essay for their time and mention that if they need any more information to feel free to contact you.

The Steps for Writing a Personal Essay

Now that you know what a personal essay is and the structure you should follow, let’s take a more in-depth look at the research and writing process. Although the writing is important, an excellent personal essay is the result of the steps before and after the writing takes place.

  1. The first step is to come up with an idea. This is easy if your personal essay is for college admission or a job, but if it’s for a more open-ended assignment it will require some brainstorming. Since the essay is written from your perspective, think about important events in your life (good or bad), people who have influenced you, or even some idea you have. There are a range of good essay topics you can write about, so think about as many as you can. Whatever you choose to write about, remember to pick something that everyone can relate to. So, if you write about how a teacher encouraged you to stay in school, keep in mind that not everyone experienced this same problem, but everyone has experienced some hardships in their lives. Comparing your unique situation to other, similar yet different situations is a way to do this.

  2. Once you have your topic, the school you’ve targeted for your application, or the job for which you are applying, you can sit down and write your outline. You may be wondering, “What about the research?” Well, for a personal essay, the research is quite minimal. If you’re writing a creative-style essay about a personal experience, then your memory is the only research you need. If you’re writing a personal essay for a college or job, though, you may need to do some research on your target. Make sure you know enough about your targeted college or job to articulately explain why you would be a good fit for their program or company.

    Ultimately, the outline should be divided into sections for each of the paragraphs you want to write and you should put as much detail into it as possible. That way when you get to the actual writing process everything should be as smooth as possible.

  3. Once you’ve done the actual writing, you have one last step. As is the case with any writing, you should always proofread your work before you submit it. If your personal essay is for college admissions or a job, don’t be afraid to put the paper through multiple edits and have a friend or colleague look at it if possible. Remember, another set of eyes can often catch small typos or issues with diction and flow that you might not catch!

Do’s and Don’ts of Personal Essay Writing

When it comes to personal essay writing, there are plenty of things you should do and some things you should steer clear of. I’ve already covered a few of those, but here’s a list of some more to consider.


  • Write Your Essay Chronologically: Start from the beginning of your story and bring it to the present to avoid confusion. You can even apply this to personal statements.
  • Use Plenty of Details: Whether you are writing about an event in your life, a person who influenced you, or your education, work, or volunteer history, try to use as much detail as possible. Of course, this depends on the required length of your essay.
  • Make Things Personal: Remember, this is an essay about you, so don’t be afraid to talk about what makes you stand out as an individual and what your strengths are.


  • Get Caught in the Weeds: Details are important, but don’t focus on any single detail too much. You’re trying to make a point or sell yourself, so you’ll need to use many detailed examples to be successful.
  • Overuse Passive Voice: Generally speaking, active voice (“He threw the ball”), is preferred over passive voice, (“The ball was thrown by him”), in essay writing. Sometimes passive voice can work better, but you should always prefer active voice because it’s more engaging and flows better
  • Forget to Proofread/Edit Your Work: I can’t stress how important this is. If your essay topic is good, or your personal statement is structured well, but it’s full of typos, you’ve hurt your chances at a good grade, landing that job, or being admitted to a college.

Bringing It All Together

With all of this in mind, I think it’ll help if we go through an abbreviated sample essay to illustrate things a bit better. Let’s take a look at a personal essay/personal statement of Jane Doe to the fictional St. Croix University of about 1 ½ pages or around 500-700 words, single-spaced. Jane is at the top of her high school class, volunteers at an animal shelter on the weekends, and is active in sports and clubs. Jane is interested in St. Croix for its veterinary department.

Paragraph 1: Jane begins her essay with a catchy sentence about the importance of healthy animals in a healthy society. She then states that her interest in veterinary science brought her to St. Croix and that she has a lot to offer the school, which is her thesis statement.

Paragraphs 2-4: In each paragraph, Jane should emphasize something different. One paragraph can emphasize her grades and particular courses she’s taken, perhaps AP courses or biology electives. Anything related to veterinary science is good. Another paragraph can talk about her involvement in sports and clubs and how it demonstrates her ability to work with teams. The final paragraph should focus on her volunteer work at the animal shelter because it shows she already has a background in the field.

Paragraph 5, or the Final Paragraph: This is where Jane reiterates why she would be an asset to the school, thank the admissions staff or department, and volunteer to send any further information if needed.

It’s All About You!

Now that you know what personal essays and personal statements are, how to develop a personal essay, and how to write an excellent personal essay, you should be well on your way to success. Just remember that when you embark on this journey, don’t be afraid to talk about yourself because writing an excellent personal essay is all about you!

Elissa Smart Elissa Smart
Call us (Toll Free)