How to Write the Personal Essay for your College Application

An application essay can help you gain admission to the college of your choice, provided that the essay is thoughtful and well written.  Most colleges regard the essay as quite important in determining which academically qualified students they actually admit.

Your grades in school and SAT or ACT test score will be essential too, of course.  But a personal essay provides a more intimate and in-depth glimpse into who you are, and that can stand strongly in your favor.  Here in California, for example, the UCs give a lot of weight to your responses to the four essay prompts.

In my work with high school students, I find that the following step-by-step approach to the essay works well: We begin by exploring and selecting essay topics – topics that will showcase your interests and awareness, your skills and achievements. And don’t worry, you will find that there is plenty to write about!   Remember that even misadventures can be cast as learning experiences.   Next, you the student write 3-5 drafts of the essay.  I go over each draft with you and make detailed comments and suggestions for revision.  The final draft is an essay that is not only well-organized and well written, but also conveys thoughtfulness, maturity, unique abilities and interests, and growth over the course of your young life.

Here are some suggestions you may find useful:

  • Start early so that you will have enough time to write several drafts.   Set aside for a few days what you have written so far and then read it again.  If you were an admissions officer, would you find the essay well-organized and interesting?  Does your essay reveal something deep about you and is it written in your own voice?
  • Make sure that your essay supplements the other parts of your application. It should neither repeat nor contradict anything else you say in your application. This is your chance to share information that isn’t conveyed by other parts of the application and, ideally, to leave a vivid, positive impression.
  • Make sure also to answer in your essay the specific question that the prompt asks.  Be very careful if you are copying and pasting material from an essay written for one college application into an essay written for another.
  • You can contact a college that interests you and ask admissions staff how the school uses and weighs the essay in the admissions process.  You can also ask other relevant questions.  For example, if your essay exceeds the word count limit by a few words, ask whether or not that is acceptable.
  • Give expression in your essay to your own experiences, learning, and growth.  This essay is not primarily an academic exercise; it makes a personal, sincere statement about who you are and what you aim to accomplish in the future.
  • Have at least one other person read and comment on your essay.  And of course, make sure that your final draft isn’t marred by misspellings or grammar errors.

Good luck!  And contact me if you’d like my assistance.

Raymond Barglow
ph. 510-486-1050