Expert advice on the personal essay process
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Expert Advice on the Personal Essay Process. An Intellectual Autobiography. Purposes of the Personal Essay. Introduce yourself to the people who are trying to decide whether or not to invite you to their campus or give you a scholarship.

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Expert Advice on the Personal Essay Process

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Expert advice on the personal essay process

Expert Advice on the Personal Essay Process

An Intellectual Autobiography

Purposes of the personal essay

Purposes of the Personal Essay

  • Introduce yourself to the people who are trying to decide whether or not to invite you to their campus or give you a scholarship.

    • As Yvette Gullat (from the UC Office of the President) puts it, your personal essay is an “intellectual autobiography,” the writing type is reflective and analytical, not simply narrative.

  • Show that you are effective communicator

  • Differentiate yourself from other students with similar applications for scholarships or college entrance.

  • In 2009, UCI received 45,000 applications for 4,000 slots. Your job is to make yourself stand out from the other 44,999 people.

Purposes of the personal essay1

Purposes of the Personal Essay

  • Provide information to support and explain the rest of your application.

    • This means your essay should fill in any gaps or answer any questions or issues that may be raised by your application.

    • It is also your opportunity to include anything that is not mentioned anywhere else in your application (though any information in your personal essay should be supported by your application).

The reader writer pact

The Reader/Writer Pact

  • All readers have expectations of writers, revealed in readers’ questions, observations, and interpretations of a text.

    • When your reader reads your application, he/she will:

      • Ask questions (“Why did Lisa only take 1 AP class?” or “Why did Mario’s grades slip his sophomore year?”)

      • Make observations (“It seems like Anne really likes science” or “It seems as if Tiffany really likes being involved with the KIWIN’s club”)

      • Make interpretations (“Jaime must have slacked off his first two years since he wasn’t in any clubs”)

  • You should complete your application first, then critically read it before writing your personal essay.

  • Pretend that you are an application evaluator and develop questions you (the evaluator) would like answered by the personal essay. Base your personal essay topic on the questions you anticipate readers will have.

What are the readers looking for

What are the Readers Looking for?

  • The most important thing to keep in mind is that you should not write about what you want to write about; you must write about what you need to write about.

  • All personal essay decisions must be strategic.

  • The readers are looking for:

    • Your self-knowledge and self-awareness

    • Your resiliency and determination – can you be persistent?

      • Discuss with a partner: What does it mean to be resilient?

        • According to resilience is: ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; buoyancy.

    • Your intellectual passions and interests – do you have something to add to the school’s environment or to complement an element of the school’s environment that is already there?

    • Your opinions and ability to argue persuasively for yourself and your admission/scholarship.

What are the readers looking for1

What are the Readers Looking for?

  • Remember: minimum eligibility will NOT get you accepted or win you a scholarship

    • Leadership (consistency)

    • Improvement

    • Academic Challenge (rigor)

    • Overcoming Struggles

      • Remember not to complain or make excuses—use this opportunity to take responsibility and show the readers how you have overcome obstacles in your life

    • Involvement in your community (consistency)

    • Extracurriculars(consistency again)

  • It is not just about what you did in high school, but about what you will bring to the university of your choice.

Steps to writing an effective personal essay

Steps to Writing an Effective Personal Essay

  • Gather Information.

  • Read Critically

  • Develop a topic and thesis

  • Draft, get feedback, revise

1 gather information

1. Gather Information

  • Pull together all info needed for your application:

    • Financial info

    • Clubs

    • Awards

    • Courses

  • Much of this is already completed on your Personal Statement Pre-Writing – “Finding the Holes in your Application”

2 read your application critically

2. Read Your Application Critically

  • Ask yourself the following 3 types of questions:

  • Level 1 Questions: What does your application say? The answers to these questions are evident in your application and provide the “evidence” in your personal essay.

    • What courses did he take at community college?

  • Level 2 Questions: What does your application mean? The answers to these questions are interpretations of the evidence provided in the application; they are inferential, synthesize information, and form the “topic sentences” in your personal essay.

    • How do his club memberships relate to his intended major?

  • Level 3 Questions: Why does your application matter? The answers to these questions go beyond the application to address its significance; they are global, evaluative, put the application in context, and form the “thesis essay” in your personal essay.

    • Why is she so passionate about the sciences?

3 develop a topic and thesis

3. Develop a Topic and Thesis

  • The Prompts:

  • 1. Describe the world you come from—for example, your family, community, or school—and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations (def: desires to achieve something).

    • This prompt presents you the opportunity to show your self-knowledge and resiliency/determination (if applicable).

  • 2. Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution, or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?

    • This is a question about your passions.

Moving from prompt topic thesis

Moving from Prompt -> Topic -> Thesis

  • As you narrow your choices down, it will be helpful to remember that:

    • The prompt is general and instructive – it gives you your subject and direction.

    • Your topic is specific, concrete, and responds to the prompt.

      • My experience in band

    • Your thesis is a point of view and decisive (though it can be implicit or explicit).

      • Being in band helped me appreciate the value of being a leader and standing out from the crowds.

      • Your thesis should NOT be a restatement of the prompt (My community shaped my dreams and aspirations.)

    • You are given the prompt, but you choose the topic and the thesis. (This is much more similar to college-style writing than you are probably used to, but it is another skill to begin learning now!)

The personal essay details

The Personal Essay Details

  • There are 2 Prompts

  • Both essays must be completed

  • The word limit is 1,000 total

    • You may write essays of equal length or not, your choice.

    • If they are not equal length, the shorter essay should be no shorter than 250 words.

      • (i.e. 250 words + 750 words = 1,000 words)

  • But for your early drafts, focus on the content first; write as much as you need and plan on cutting it down.

Analyzing prompt 1

Analyzing Prompt 1

Task 1


  • Describe the world you come from – for example, your family, community, OR school – and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.

    • Note the “OR”. You are to choose only one topic!

    • Be sure to address all parts of this prompt

      • Yes, describe your world (Narrative/Descriptive writing)

      • But the most important part of the prompt is how it has shaped your dreams and aspirations (which you must identify . . . even if you have not yet selected a major).

    • If you write about “Community,” define your community specifically. It is unlikely that simply growing up in Santa Ana provides a significant answer to any of the questions raised by your application.

      • Possible “communities:” your school, club, group of friends/classmates/ frenemies, bedroom, place of employment, favorite pet store/restaurant/ bookstore/classroom/quiet place, sports field, etc.

      • Be creative and consider the demands of your application and what you need to write about.

Task 2

Analyzing prompt 2

Analyzing Prompt 2

  • Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution, OR experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?

    • Do NOT list EVERY activity you are involved in. You already did this in your application. You must narrow your choices down to a topic, and then an argument.

    • Again, address the whole prompt. We also recommend tying the “how does it relate to the person you are” piece to the person who is about to go to college. How will your chosen quality/talent/ accomplishment/ contribution/experience help you in college?

    • Don’t think you have a talent? Try keeping a daily log for a week. Write down everything you do, and then at the end of the week, look for patterns. Do you come home from school every day, pick up younger siblings, help them with their homework, make dinner, and then start your homework? This shows persistence, resiliency, and balance, even if you aren’t involved in any clubs.

We are proud of you maury you clearly have talent and passion

We are proud of you, Maury! You clearly have talent and passion

Common problems we see every year

Common Problems We See Every Year

  • Remember, this is a NARRATIVE, REFLECTIVE and ANALYTICAL piece, not simply an expository essay:

    • Don’t tell us you’re humble, generous, dedicated, etc. Tell us a story that shows this.

    • This will help you to avoid vague, generic essays like, “My family helped me to become a better person.” These essays are boring and apply to most of us.

    • At least write an interesting opener – don’t start by restating the prompt (“Everyone is influenced by the world around them . . .”).

    • If you tell a story, your personality is far more likely to shine through than if you write an formulaic expository essay about the three ways your family influenced you, reasons playing violin changed your life, or ways you plan to revitalize Santa Ana.

Common problems we see every year1

Common Problems We See Every Year

  • Focus, focus, focus

    • We can’t say this enough, but DO NOT write about your school AND family AND community.

    • Even if you only choose one of the three broad topics, don’t try to cheat and write about a variety of subtopics. Choose one thing and explore it in detail.

    • While we’re sure your parents are amazing people, your siblings are the most heroic people who ever lived, and your pet turtle is the epitome of loyalty, none of them are going to college, YOU ARE. So write about you, and you only. Any details about people/objects/turtles who are not you should be kept to a minimum.

    • Don’t write about your boyfriend or girlfriend.

    • Be very clear about what you are writing about – if you “want to be successful,” define it for us. What does “success” mean to you? (And don’t state the obvious. No one wants to be mediocre and unsuccessful.)

Common problems we see every year2

Common Problems We See Every Year

  • Choose a different topic for each prompt. Your goal is to provide a complete picture of yourself. This is difficult to do if you waste an essay by writing about the same thing twice. (Think of it this way – would you go to a party and tell the same story twice?)

  • Don’t write about elementary or middle school. Your 17/18 year old self is the one going to college, so that’s the you that you need to write about. If you insist upon writing about elementary/middle school (which you shouldn’t), at least focus on how you have overcome whatever happened to you and who you are now as a result of that experience.

    • Even though you kind of have to brag about yourself, do it without disparaging others. This is especially a problem in the “personal quality” question, where students often write about how sad it is that no one else is as good/ studious/ hardworking/ etc. of a person as they are. Tell a story, and focus on yourself (not others).

Common problems we see every year3

Common Problems We See Every year

  • Weird issues that we never understand:

    • Be careful about trying to explain why you chose not to take AP classes or complete community service. We have yet to hear an excuse that makes you sound good.

    • Don’t be racist. When you make sweeping generalizations about “all Mexicans” or “all the Mexicans in Santa Ana” or “all Asian parents,” you sound racist, and you will probably offend your reader.

    • Be realistic about your goals. It is unlikely you will be able to send your parents into an early retirement straight out of college. It’s a tough job market/economy out there, and you need to show college admissions officers that you are aware of the world around you. (You should not, however, blame all of your problems on the current economic situation, as it is unlikely the sole cause of all the misery in your life.)

Step 4 draft get feedback revise

Step 4: Draft, Get Feedback, Revise

  • Next Up:

    • Read and critique student sample personal statements

    • Brainstorming Assignments – due Monday!!!

      * These assignments are extremely important * Purpose: Help you develop your topics & themes

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