Writing the Personal Essay: 5 Simple Yet Powerful Tips for College-Bound Kids

Skip the stress and grab these tips from a college adviser

by Nancy Reynolds

This post: Writing the Personal Essay:  5 Simple Yet Powerful Tips for College-Bound Kids

Written by: Michael Miller / College Advisor

With school back in session, a lot of high school seniors have college applications on their minds. They’re in the midst of deciding (and finalizing) which colleges they want to apply to, reviewing the college application process, and diving into the details of what’s required to submit their application.

One of the biggest challenges many college-bound kids face is what to write about in their personal essay. In fact, for a lot of students, it’s the portion of the application process they dread the most

With the exception of a few select schools (the UCs, Georgetown, MIT) that don’t use the Common Application (the most popular college application platform), every college a student applies to will require a 650-word essay that serves as the centerpiece of the application.

So often, students ask:

“How can I make my essay stand out among a competitive and seemingly equally qualified field of applicants?”

“What should I write about to grab the attention of admissions officers?”

“Is there a certain format or structure that admission officers prefer?”

As a college adviser, I know writing the personal essay can be overwhelming and intimidating for students. But it doesn’t have to be. Here are a few simple, yet powerful tips to help your teen write the most effective and attention-grabbing personal essay possible.

Writing the Personal Essay:

5 Simple, Yet Powerful Tips for College-Bound Kids


Tip #1: You don’t have to respond exactly to one of the given personal essay prompts

The Common App provides seven prompts for the personal essay. However, prompt #7 is always, “Share an essay on any topic of your choice.” So, you should not be writing essays with a prompt in mind. Just write. If your essay ends up fitting a specific prompt, that’s great! Choose that prompt. If not, that’s also great! Choose prompt #7.

You might choose to write about a difficult obstacle you overcame, a life-changing event in your life, your accomplishment(s), or a powerful reason why you’ve chosen your field of choice. Just remember, the goal of the essay is not to adhere to a prompt, but rather to share your story, who you are and what makes you stand out from the crowd so admissions officers can review your essay and determine if you’re a good fit for their college. 

Remember, too, your topic doesn’t have to dive into an earth-shattering event in your life. You can write a very compelling essay regardless of the primary topic if you approach it creatively and authentically.

Tip #2: Your essay should be about you – not a family member, friend, or other individual who is not applying

Keep in mind you are applying to college. Your mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, Aunt Matilda, and Uncle Wilbur are not. You should be writing about your own achievements, accomplishments, personal journey, and growth. Colleges want to know how you will change the world in some hyper-specific, unique way – and how you’ve already started on this mission. The essay should center around you. 

Tip #3: The essay should be written in a narrative style, which is likely different from most high school essays you’ve written

Most high school essays use an objective analytic structure, whereas the personal essay is often most effective when written in a narrative, story-focused structure that relies on excellent prose and vivid, sensory details, like in a novel or short story.

Compelling personal essays most typically draw the reader in by immersing them in a vivid scene out of the gate, a tactic known as in media res (Latin for “into the middle of things”). 

Think of your essay as a movie starting with a high-speed car chase and ending with a stunning plot twist (not the stock high schooler term “In conclusion, …”), and you’ll be closer to the feel that you want to give the reader as you try to captivate – rather than lose – their attention.

Tip #4: Don’t forget the most compelling essays are not only creative but also academically relevant

Colleges are academic institutions, and students who write the most compelling essays often interweave the delicate strands of personality and academic purpose.

They often convey seminal moments and stories on their paths to passion and discovery in the fields they plan to pursue in college.

They highlight the hospital supervisor who told them they couldn’t make a difference and how they did so anyway, expound on how learning to become a better listener and seek customer feedback helped shape their business, or how a rainy Sunday press conference on legislation addressing a topic as seemingly insignificant as “local potholes” inspired their love for nuance, change-making, and political science.

#5 Make sure your essay is grammatically flawless

Check your essay for spelling, grammatical, and formatting errors… then, check it again and again AND again. Pass it over to someone else and have them review it. Errors are very distracting to admission officers and it sends the message that while you may have put effort into the topic, you didn’t go the extra mile to proof it thoroughly. 

One final thought to remember is that YOU are a unique individual with your own story, journey, and perspective to share. Don’t be afraid to use that unique power to captivate admissions officers with your personal essay. You’ve got this!

About Michael Miller:

Michael Miller is a college advisor and one of the advising managers at Great Minds Advising, a high-touch college advising program based right outside of New York City that is focused on helping students stand out in today’s hypercompetitive college admissions landscape. Great Minds Advising’s students are admitted to the Ivy League at a rate of 11x the national average (with an 83% acceptance rate applying EA/ED) and have also received over $1M in scholarships since 2020. Holding a B.A. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, Michael has been a professional college advisor for over five years and a professional writing tutor for over eight (including at Penn’s esteemed Marks Family Critical Writing Center) and has guided students who have gained admission to Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Penn, Johns Hopkins, WashU, and Emory, along with many other top-tier institutions.

If you enjoyed reading, “Writing the Personal Essay: 5 Simple Yet Powerful Tips for College-Bound Kids,” you might enjoy reading these posts as well!

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