- Academic Research and Writing Tips / Tutorial

Write Personal Essays That Set You Apart

Admission Essay Writing Advice

With ever-increasing competition for college acceptance at all levels, Bachelor Degrees to PhDs, it is becoming more important than ever to write personal essays that set a student apart. This is possible whether the college requests a specific topic, such as "Why xxx school is best for you," or "What personal event changed your life?" or leaves the topic open-ended. "The reality is that the whole process of getting into school is extremely competitive, and it's not only what you do during the school year - your grades and extracurriculars," reports an interviewee in the New York Times. "It's your whole package..." These essays need to go well beyond the student's intellectual abilities, which can be seen through grades, and a list of personal interests, which are noted on the application. In one or more pages, the applicant needs to grab the attention of the reviewer and demonstrate why he/she will be a valuable addition to the school. Admission committee members read scores of essays every day, so they are exceptionally interested in seeing something that does not follow a typical formula and include the standard comments. What is the best way to write this one-of-a-kind essay? Students need to place an extra effort on originality and excellent writing skills and storytelling.

Personal Admission Writer

Tell It Like It Is

Every new skill requires instruction or learning: riding a bicycle, playing a new computer game and writing an essay for English class or for college admission. However, researchers such as McGinty (2004) find that few students are prepared for writing the application essay. He states that most applicants do not have a problem when writing essays concerning famous people in literature and history, but do not feel comfortable writing about themselves. They can analyze and criticize other people, but doing the same about their own lives is very difficult. Special tips as those noted below can make a personal essay stand out, but students must be introspective and gain a better understanding of their personal strengths and challenges. The writer has to be honest and not try to be something he or she is not, just because a school says it is looking for a certain type of student. In most cases, the readers can spot a con game. Also, if a student gets into a school under false pretenses, it will not take long for the teachers to find out. In addition, the student will end up at the wrong school and possibly very dissatisfied. "Time and again admission officers tell us that they want students to write their college essays about the things they, the students, actually care about," (Princeton Review, 2010). The essay needs to be written about something the student actually does. "Admissions officers want to know why you spent every Wednesday afternoon last year teaching an underprivileged boy how to use a computer, even when you didn't want to or didn't think you had the time." They want the students to give insights into who they really are and why. Why do they like dancing? Why have they always liked science?

The book Tips for Writing the College Application Essay (Associated Colleges of the Midwest [ACM], 2007) calls the essay the "living, breathing part" of the college application. This is where students can speak in their own voice and personalize their application. They are no longer just one student among many. They become individuals who stand alone on the page. Now they have the opportunity to show something about themselves that is not apparent in other places in the application. Now is the time to stand back and be reflective. Students must think about who they are as individuals. How do they perceive the world and their place within it?

What do they passionately care about? What other people and personal experiences made them who they are? What are their hopes, dreams, goals? The essay is where students find their own unique voice and gain the opportunity to write an interesting essay that could only be about a specific individual.

When conducting a writing workshop with ethnically diverse, underserved individuals, Early, DeCosta-Smith and Valdespino (2010) found that many students were fearful about writing admission essays. They expressed concern that they might sound "unprofessional," and many thought their life experiences were inconsequential and not worthy or impressive enough for college admission officers. These students' concerns are indicative of students as a whole. Yet when given tips about writing with such tools as dialogue and narrative, such students felt better about the quality of their work and the ability to convey information about themselves.

Inside Scoop about Open-Ended Essays

It is difficult enough to determine what to include when given a specific question to answer to write. What about those schools that just request a two-page essay on no specific subject? Of course, each essay has to be written for the particular school; this means including the school's name in a few places and actually relating the essay to the school's curriculum or teachers in a specific way. Although which topics are most appreciated by the readers will most likely vary depending on the school and degree, there are a few topics that are typically not appreciated anywhere. These include stories about any sexual, drug-related or violent experiences. In addition, certain anecdotes are cliché, such as travelogues or recovery from a sports injury. Humor can be used, but only if it comes natural to the student. Humor can also garner different reactions from readers, so the candidate needs to have several people read the essay before it is sent out and make sure the humor elicits the correct response.

Reviewers like reading essays about a student's persistence, ability to handle challenges and human traits such as curiosity and ambition. Early, DeCosta-Smith and Valdespino (2010) found that model essays included memorable writing topics, reader awareness, captivating leads, interesting utilization of dialogue and description, stories of impactful experiences, an ability to relate external information as book characters and world news to personal values, interests and lessons learned. Employees in admission offices are no different from people anywhere else. They want to do the best job they can. This means finding applicants who will be an asset to their university and provide value for both the school and the student.

The Revealing First Paragraph

The first paragraph of the essay quickly conveys the student's abilities to the reviewer. First, it demonstrates the basic understanding of grammar and spelling. Second, it shows whether the essay grabs the readers' attention and encourages them to continue with the rest of the essay. Third, it reveals creativity and originality. Is this a typical essay? Is it "machine made" and sound like thousands of other essays? Or, is this an essay that goes above and beyond and offers the reader something new and refreshing? The rest of the essay is surely important, but this first paragraph, as with any other essay, must set the stage and motivate the reader to see the rest of the play.

Since the student is applying to an American educational institution, the admissions people want the essay to be written at least at a college level if not above for those applying to graduate school or writing a personal statement for medical school. The essay must be clear, concise and structurally sound and completely accurate in terms of spelling and grammar. Structural soundness requires developing an outline of the order of the thoughts covered. Quality writing is easily understood and the prose clear and direct. The student gets his/her point across simply, without a lot of added words and going around in circles. The reader wants to know that the student understands sentence and paragraph structure as well as the narrative form, where the author is telling a story about him or herself. This means that one sentence flows well into the next sentence and then into the next paragraph. The ending contains a resolution or overall meaning. The reader needs to understand what the writer is trying to say right from the very start. Staying clear and concise also means not writing any longer than the number of pages allotted. The admissions reviewer has so many essays to read, he or she will be delighted with an essay that is brief, focused and meaningful.

The Narrative's Story

Students who learn about using a narrative style in essays, recognize the difference between two essays that respond to the question: "What person significantly impacted your life?"

The first starts out as "My mother is very special to me, because she saw my personal strengths and encouraged me to go to college." The second begins, "Mom and I had a conversation when I was 15 that was barely three minutes long, but somehow the words continued to haunt me." Early, DeCosta-Smith and Valdespino (2010) provide another example of one of the students in their workshop who had difficulty expressing herself because of low self-esteem. The first draft read, "My aunt used to take naps with me in the afternoon when I was young, and I remember wetting the bed. She simply comforted me and said not to get upset." The final draft was even more telling: "I lay there scared and embarrassed. My aunt cuddled up next to me. I hesitated to move. I was afraid she would wake up angry for wetting the bed. Just when I thought my nap couldn't get any worse, my aunt's eyes darted open. At first I thought she looked mad, but then a smile crept across her face."

Wrap It All Up

The introduction pulls the reader in, the personal descriptions and narratives keep them interested and the conclusion provides the "so what," reports Early, DeCosta-Smith and Valdespino (2010). This is the place where the story that represents the student and his or her unique experiences and personal traits moves away from the narrative and shares how it pertains to the specific university; what has the student gained from these experiences that can be a contribution to the school community and provide extra value? The student shares with the readers how his or her background fits into the unique qualities of the school. Finally, the student ties the conclusion back to the introduction without using overused words such as "in conclusion," or "summary" or reviewing all that was said earlier. The conclusion stands equal to the introduction in terms of importance, because it reiterates the primary message either through the continuation of one of the narratives or a fresh statement. "That smile of patience on my aunt's face made me begin to realize that we are all human, each with our own strengths and challenges. I was still very young, but it instilled within me the desire to make myself a better person." Then, this statement is related back to the school only if this was not done previously.

Review, Edit and Proof

Students must never rely on spell and grammar check. They need to have at least one person proof their work who has some English writing ability. Changes should be made and then the final is proofed a second time.

"So What"

If students start with a bang, continue with a strong narrative with interesting information and personal experience and then tie it all together at the end, the essay will be read and capture the interest of the reader.


Anderson, J. For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers. New York Times. Associated Colleges of the Midwest (2007). Tips for Writing the College Application Essay Chicago: Author

Early, J.S., DeCosta-Smith, M, & Valdespino, A. (2010). Write your ticket to college: A genre-based college admission essay workshop for ethnically diverse, underserve students. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 54(3), 209-218.

McGinty, S.M. The College Admission Essay. New York: The College Board.

Princeton Review. College Essays that Make a Difference. Framingham, MA: Author

Check the section on custom admission essays writing mistakes.