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How to Write an Effective Personal Essay

by Minneapolis writing consultant Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D., originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Girls writes essay in the library

For parents of college-bound high school seniors, now begins a month of agony.

Over the next four or five weeks, parents across the United States will endure that most excruciating of all rites of passage: hounding, badgering and otherwise harassing their children into filling out their college applications in time to meet the deadlines.

Believe me, it’s not a pretty sight.

On the one hand, you have parents distracted to the point of desperation by filling out seemingly endless financial aid forms; on the other hand, you have teenagers who really do care about their futures – but in a “not-today-I’ll-do-it-tomorrow” sort of way.

The Personal Statement

The greatest impediment to completing those application forms often is writing the personal statement or the application essay. Here are some tips to help those students – and anyone writing letters of application – get started:

  • Don’t try to write your statement in a single sitting. Sure, it’s tempting just to dash it off and get it over with, but trying to write perfect copy in a first draft often causes writer’s block. Writing is easier if you do it in stages. Of course, this approach requires that you begin the process earlier than the day before the deadline.
  • Begin by taking notes. Take a few moments just to think. Read the question carefully. Reflect on your background, your experience and your interests. What sets you apart from other applicants? What details about yourself will create a favorable impression? Jot down specific points without worrying about how you will word or present them.
  • Consider presenting your material in narrative form. Remember that readers like stories. In telling your story, you might want to organize your material around one or two principal themes (e.g., your commitment to hard work, your openness to new experiences, your appreciation for other cultures and ways of thinking, your interest in travel). Give specific examples to illustrate your themes.

Writing a Draft

Now, write your draft. Then put it aside. After a day or two, come back to it and begin editing, keeping in mind the four principal challenges in writing personal statements:

  • To convey a great deal of information in a very limited space.
  • To get beyond the facts to convey warmth, personality and a sense of self.
  • To write about yourself, your qualities and your achievements without sounding immodest.
  • To engage the reader without appearing cute or contrived.

Polishing it Up

Now, you are ready to get down to the business of close editing:

  • State your name and provide other relevant information to identify your statement; consider giving it a title.
  • Avoid using “To whom it may concern.” Present your statement as an essay without a salutation.
  • Make sure your opening is engaging but not contrived (beware of overstatement).
  • Make every word count; write in a style that is concise and conversational.
  • Avoid clichéd language such as “had the opportunity,” “really excited,” “really exciting” and “very interesting experience.”
  • Offer specific, concrete, detailed examples and illustrations.
  • Write in carefully structured paragraphs, organized under clear topic sentences.
  • Use transitions between your paragraphs.
  • Tie all secondary or subordinate points top your main argument; make sure all information and examples are relevant.
  • Proofread carefully to eliminate any errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation.
  • Show your draft to friends or acquaintances – even your parents – and ask for their reactions and suggestions.

I wish the applicants good luck, and their beleaguered parents’ peace of mind.

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