What is a Personal Essay?

Dan Cavallari

A personal essay is a piece of writing that addresses a given topic from the writer's own perspective, usually including some examples from the person’s life to support the main ideas. It allows readers to get a sense of someone’s abilities and personality, so some people see it as a type of interview. Although it is similar to other formal papers in that it usually needs at least five paragraphs, the use of “I” language and acceptance of bias make it distinct. Many people have trouble constructing one, but most of the problems authors encounter are either avoidable or can be fixed.

A personal essay gives the reader some insight into the author's personality.
A personal essay gives the reader some insight into the author's personality.

Common Uses

Many college admissions boards ask prospective students to write a personal essay as part of their general application process. Scholarship, internship and contest committees also often request them. Reviewers use them not only to get a general sense of a writer’s history and philosophies, but also to analyze whether he is educated, creative or experienced enough to stand out from other applicants.

College's often require a personal essay as part of the application process.
College's often require a personal essay as part of the application process.


Opinions on how to best write a personal essay vary, but typically, one has an introductory paragraph that ends with a main thesis. Most use at least three supporting points and paragraphs, and a conclusion that wraps everything up is also fairly standard. It isn't necessary to write these parts in the order they will appear in the final draft, but when everything is put together, the work as a whole needs to flow well, transitioning logically from one idea to the next.


In general, a personal essay runs one to four pages, but ultimately, the final length depends on the requirements of the person or group requesting it. If an individual or organization doesn’t put a limit on how long one has to be, the rule of thumb still is to be as brief as possible, hitting only as many points as are necessary to support the work’s main concept clearly. Nothing should be repeated in the main body of the essay.


Contrary to other types of writing, a personal essay does not require someone to be entirely objective. In fact, one of the hallmarks of the style is that the writer describes himself or something else using his own opinion, thoughts and ideas, often relying on clear, honest examples from his own experience. An author usually constructs what he has to say in first person for this reason, using statements such as “I think” or “I feel” and words like “me” and “mine.” He still might answer a specific question or request, however, such as “Describe a time when...” or “Explain why...”, so a lack of objectivity does not translate to a lack of direction or focus.

Experts generally stress the importance of using active rather than passive voice for one of these papers. In the latter type of construction, the object of a sentence, which can be either a noun or a noun phrase, appears as the subject. “Thomas loved the toy,” for example, is active, while “The toy was loved by Thomas” is passive. A personal essay written in passive voice usually ends up being wordier, and points don’t come off as strong, which is bad considering that reviewers usually want to see that the writer is confident in what he’s saying.


Most personal essays use Modern Language Association (MLA) formatting, although individuals or groups sometimes ask for a different format when it will make reviewing easier. Margins should be 1 inch (2.54 centimeters) all the way around the page, and lines should be double spaced. Indenting is five single spaces, or one tab. Some experts still recommend using two spaces at the end of every sentence, but this is falling out of favor because the extra spaces take up more physical room. The standard font to use is Times New Roman 12.


Even though these essays by definition contain some personal information and should “show” each point, many writers fall into the trap of including things that aren’t really relevant. The problem usually happens because a person takes a more stream-of-consciousness or anything-goes approach to construction. He might start writing about his friend in high school who had a really cool car, for example, simply because he started off talking about how hard it was to change a car's oil for the first time. Taking the time to establish the main points and choose specific examples that support each one often helps maintain focus and conciseness.

Another problem with these essays that also can result in the inclusion of irrelevant content and repetitions is that, when a page requirement is given, writers sometimes start to “pad,” looking for something else to say on their main points just to make the length more acceptable. They focus more on this technical aspect than on whether their points are clear. In these cases, it’s usually better to add an entirely new point that supports the thesis than it is to try to expand ideas that already are well-expressed.

Some people also lose a sense of their target audience. If someone is writing the work for a college board, for example, then the tone should be somewhat professional and academic, even though the language still should show who the author is. Formality typically cannot go completely out the window simply because “I” language is allowed. A good tip is to have someone else read over beginning drafts to double check what initial impression the reader gets from the content and the way it is presented.

A personal essay does not require someone to be entirely objective.
A personal essay does not require someone to be entirely objective.

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Discussion Comments


Icecream17- I know there's some companies prepare you for college admissions. They actually give you guidance on how to put together the essay.

Many of these firms actually work on retainer and the parent pays a certain fee in order to gain access to the best universities in the country.

But you don't have to go that far; there are companies that work with you on just the college essay portion of the admissions process which makes it a little cheaper. They provide personal essay examples and help you set up your own essay.


BrickBack- I think the best personal essays touch the reader. They offer information about the writer that the reader can relate to.

Many colleges ask for a personal essay as part of the application process. A college personal essay is handled the same way. It may include something significant that you had to overcome which illustrates determination or a larger problem that you solved in your life which shows resourcefulness.

Most scholarship personal essays, graduate school personal essays, or medical school personal essays require the same information. Personal essay topics should include situations that demonstrate a character building situation.


Learning how to write a personal essay is easy. Personal essay writing usually provides some information regarding something that happened to you, followed up by your reaction to the incident and what you did about it.

Essays should start off specific and eventually branch out into more general terms. For example, your personal essay might include how you became overweight followed by how you conquered that problem and lost weight.

You can then branch into general terms by expressing the notion of how you didn't give up and how important it is to stay focused on your goal is in a much broader term than most people can understand.

Also your personal essay samples should be between 500 words than 1500 words. It should also include a conclusion.

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