Tips for Writing the Common App Personal Essay

Writing the Common App Personal Essay is often the most challenging part of the application process, even for students who are excellent writers. The essay is a unique type of writing, part personal memoir, part personal narrative; it is unlike what students have written for English (or even creative writing) class.  

I saw firsthand how unsettling writing the Personal Essay can be when my own children were applying to college—too much drama and angst. I also saw firsthand when I worked in the Princeton admissions office how quickly admissions officers read the Personal Essay—650 carefully chosen words are summarized into a 600-character synopsis in under five minutes.

While the Personal Essay is an important part of the application, it should neither consume months of a student’s time nor become a frustrating writing experience. Here are a few tips that can help students—many of whom plan to use the summer months to write their personal essay—to write their Personal Essay with more confidence and less anxiety.

  • Students should spend time brainstorming a good topic. The Personal Essay is an opportunity for students to reflect on a personal trait or characteristic they would like to share with colleges.
  • Students should share something new with colleges. Students should convey that trait or characteristic in a story that shares something from their lives, something that is not otherwise apparent in their college application.
  • Students should write like they speak. The Personal Essay is a formal piece of writing, but it is conversational in style. Students should be mindful of word choice, tone, and voice, but they should sound like themselves.
  • Should students plan ahead, and not procrastinate. Students should expect to have several drafts of their Personal Essay, so they want to leave ample time to write and revise. That’s why the summer is an excellent time to start working on the Personal Essay.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread!

Students should not search for a rare topic instead of a good topic. Most 17-year-old students have not had unique experiences and they do not have to write about something that no one else has written about. If the topic reveals a personal trait or characteristic, in a story that tells colleges something new about the student, it’s a good topic!

Students should also take full advantage of the 650-word limit. While students do not have to use every available word, an essay shorter than 550 words probably lacks details that can help set the student apart from others. In fact, it’s those details – more than the topic itself – that help students stand out.

I love working with students to help them brainstorm and identify compelling topics and craft well-written essays. Some of the topics my students have written about recently include ordering octopus at a family dinner, conquering a fear of water, and learning to drive. In these essays students explored risk taking, bravery, and embracing independence. They not only wrote wonderful personal essays for college but also, in the process of self-reflection that is the hallmark of a great essay, learned a little more about themselves.