As you prepare your college applications, the most important and likely the most difficult component you confront will be the personal essay. Required on the Common Application, the personal essay asks you to answer the question: WHO ARE YOU?

Beyond the existential challenge of identifying your essence, there is the technical challenge of conveying significant aspects of your identity through a compelling narrative, within the maximum length of 650 words. If this sends your head spinning, do not fear: below, we walk you through some tried-and-true tips for crafting a tight, captivating personal essay that will wow admissions officers. In this blog post, Part I: Brainstorming, we cover how to develop the best topics to write about. In our next blog post, Part II: Narrative Structures, we provide several options for how you can tell your story.

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How to Get Started

The first step to writing an impressive personal essay is brainstorming. As we like to say at Collegiate Gateway:

Great Writing Starts With Great Thinking!

An effective personal essay is the product of many hours of self-reflection; it takes time and patience to find creative and meaningful themes before you even craft your first sentence.

The goal in brainstorming is to review your experiences, motivations, and personal qualities. Try various techniques to unearth this information: journal; meditate; talk to a friend; go on a walk and record a voice message into your phone. You won’t end up including all of your life experiences—far from it, as doing so would result in a scattered personal essay—but excavating and then organizing your thoughts will give you a better picture of your potential essay topics.

You might also free-write or bullet-point in response to the following prompts from the Common Application for 2024-25; these prompts are unchanged from the 2023-24 cycle. Note that there is also the option to write about a topic of your choice.

  1. Do you have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful you believe your application would be incomplete without it? (Think creatively here: you might discuss the intersection of two different passions in your life.)
  2. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? (Here, you might write about overcoming a fear or an illness.)
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

Your eventual goal is to zero in on a small topic. Though it might sound paradoxical, it’s true: the specific is the gateway to the universal. So the narrower in scope your essay is, and the more depth (as opposed to breadth) it has, the more likely it will be to hook admissions officers.

What to Avoid

Now that you’ve brainstormed, you’re ready to get started on a draft! But before you dive in, make sure the topic you’ve chosen isn’t inappropriately personal, offensive, or too opinionated. Avoid summarizing the information already covered in other parts of your application. And try not to use cliché or convey arrogance or grandiosity.

Some topics may prove extra challenging because they’re very common. You can certainly write about these subjects but you would need to approach them from an especially unique viewpoint. Such topics include:

  • A natural disaster (like COVID, Katrina, or Sandy) and how it impacted you
  • A sports fiasco or triumph (such as your winning touchdown)
  • An essay about someone else (like your influential grandmother)
  • The service trip that changed your life (especially if it took place in Costa Rica)

Only pursue one of the above topics if it’s a unique situation or has had an extremely unusual impact on you such that you can address it in a personal and distinctive way.

Applying to college is a complex process and every component requires thoughtful consideration, Here at Collegiate Gateway, we are always happy to answer your questions about all aspects of the college admissions process, including the Common App, resumesrecommendationsinterviewsvideo submissions, and more. Visit our website to set up a complimentary consultation to learn about our services.