Write or Flight? Tackling The Personal Essay

You’re tongue tied, clumsily searching for something interesting to say about yourself, but your mind is blank. Sound like a first date? Or how about applying to college? For me, nothing was more daunting than trying to write the personal essay. Making a good impression with a few paragraphs can be intimidating, but don’t fear! There are plenty of ways to make personal essay writing less stressful and more effective.

Overcome Your Fear

When approaching a personal essay, the initial challenge can be the fear of rejection. While SAT/ACT scores are important, they don’t define you. On the other hand, a personal essay is meant to be, well, personal. While I may be pointing out the obvious, its the fear of -you- not your test scores being rejected that makes this essay so difficult. I had a hard time dealing with this fear, but my high school mentor and teacher, put it best when she said “If they don’t like you then it’s not a good fit and you deserve to be somewhere better.” This advice really applies to all aspects of life. You can’t control what anyone else thinks about you, but you can do your best to be honest about who are.

Uncover Your Passions

Half the battle is building confidence, but what if you’re not really sure who you or what you want to do? Don’t worry. While some people may have always known what they wanted to be, many, like myself, may not have the future mapped out. The personal essay creates an opportunity to reflect on what you want out of life. Ask yourself what you do enjoy? What are you good at? Talk about a defining moment, consider what inspires you, or discuss your hopes and dreams. Finding a topic could be as simple as looking back on a school project you invested a lot of time and effort in, or it could be a reflection on how Harper Lee changed your life.

Most importantly, make sure you discuss what matters to you, not what you think someone wants to hear. I didn’t know what I wanted out of life when I applied to college, but working on personal essays actually helped me discover what I wanted to get out of college. I realized I wanted to write stories, not just papers. English class was my favorite in high school, but my true love had been creating and playing characters in the game Dungeons and Dragons, nerdy right? It goes to show that you can find inspiration from the strangest things.

Admit Your Faults

Being true to yourself will get you far, but don’t let a bad semester or a bad grade hold your college application back. The personal essay is great place to note previous mistakes and take ownership of them. According to DePaul admission counselor, CJ Jones, “The most common mistake [in writing personal essays] is not addressing academic difficulties.”

She further explained that students need to take responsibility for academic shortcomings and provide an explanation. For example, if for one semester your pre-calc grades slipped because you were working too many hours after school the personal essay is a great place to discuss this issue. You may not be able to make a low grade disappear, but pretending like it doesn’t exist is even worse. You can always learn from mistakes. Take a moment to reflect and talk about how you moved forward after your academic difficulties. You’re human and so are the people reviewing your essays, so take the opportunity to discuss any shortcomings.

There’s no more excuses for putting off your personal essays. Get writing and you might even learn something new about yourself!

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Ryan Schapals

Ryan Schapals

Ryan Schapals is a senior at DePaul University studying Creative Writing and Psychology. Outside of class, Ryan can be found working in the Pysch Lab or at a local health clinic. When he's not distracted by cat videos, he tries to balance his time between playing guitar, writing prose, and running around the soccer field.

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