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17 Personal Essays That Will Change Your Life
Think essays are just something boring you write for class? These masterpieces will make you totally reconsider.
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1. "Goodbye To All That" – Joan Didion
The final piece in one of her two most beloved collections, Slouching Towards Bethlehem , this essay contains everything there is to love about Didion — her sharp eye, her unbelievable concision, her expression of emotions that are real and contradictory. It follows her arrival in New York and her departure eight years later, and in so doing discusses the city and youth — and the romantic lies that both are. She writes: "... I was in love with New York. I do not mean 'love' in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite that way again."
2. "Mr. Lytle, an Essay" – John Jeremiah Sullivan
Sullivan has become one of the most talked about magazine writers of the last few years. This piece, which you can read online at the Paris Review , and was collected in his highly recommended book, Pulphead , is one of his best. It discusses, with such grace, being mentored in his twenties by once-famous Southern Renaissance writer Andrew Lytle. It's a meditation on art and futility, the Old South, and the sheer strangeness that can be relationships between men.
3. "Once More to the Lake" – E.B. White
Recognized for his children's literature (including Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web ) and popularizing Strunk's The Elements of Style , White was also an accomplished essayist. "Once More to the Lake" follows White and his son to Maine, where they spend a week along the same lake White visited with his father as a boy. It is one of the most moving reflections upon fatherhood, summertime, America, and mortality ever crafted. You can find it in many anthologies and in The Collected Essays of E.B. White .
4. "Ticket to the Fair" – David Foster Wallace
Those who knock Wallace for his verbosity — or associate him merely with a liberal use of footnotes — haven't read one of his classic essays through to the end. This one, which you can read online at Harper's or in his collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again , follows him home to Illinois, specifically to the state fair there. Laugh-out-loud hilarious and almost ridiculous in its level of detail, it explores the author's fractured identity, the Midwest versus the East Coast, and the American experience at large.
5. "A Few Words About Breasts" – Nora Ephron
Published in Esquire in 1975, this is the best-known essay by the late, great screenwriter and essayist. While she renders the experience of being flat-chested in the '50s with incredible humor and pathos, it is the essay's ending — the shock of it — that makes this unforgettable.
6. "Self-Reliance" — Ralph Waldo Emerson
One of Emerson's most influential essays, you can read it online or in nearly every collection of his works. While his prose's formality may be a shock at first, what he says he says with great clarity and to the great empowerment of his reader. It is a declaration of the fact that true happiness, in oneself and all relationships, must spurn from self-love and honest expression: "I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should."
7. "Here Is a Lesson in Creative Writing" – Kurt Vonnegut
Though it's collected in his great and final collection of essays, Man Without a Country , you can read an adaptation online at Lapham's Quarterly . While it's a must-read for aspiring creative writers, it's about more than writing — much, much more — despite its brevity and characteristic Vonnegut wit. It opens with the best slam of the semicolon ever.
8. "Notes of a Native Son" – James Baldwin
The titular essay from this collection — which honestly you should just read — is an ambitious and candid discussion of the passing of his father during a time of great racial turmoil. It opens: "On the twenty-ninth of July, in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these events, there had been, in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots of the century. A few hours after my father's funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker's chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem. In the morning of the third of August, we drove my father through the graveyard through a wilderness of smashed glass."
9. "The Invisible Made Visible" – David Rakoff
David Rakoff died a little over a year ago at the too-early age of 47. Just a few months prior, he read this essay about his cancer, his imminent death, and dancing, aloud as part of This American Life 's live show. As always with Rakoff's work, it was funny, painful, and revealed the author's intense love of the English language. Warning: When you watch this video , you will laugh audibly, several times, and you might cry.
10. "The Death of a Moth" – Virginia Woolf
The briefest — and perhaps densest — essay on this list, "The Death of the Moth," on its face, is about exactly that: Woolf notices a moth caught in her window and witnesses its death. Read it online and then read it again, and again.
11. "Total Eclipse " – Annie Dillard
This much-anthologized meditation follows Dillard and her husband as they drive to a mountaintop in Washington to witness a total eclipse — that rare event when the sun becomes entirely obscured, turning day briefly into night. Dillard's rendering of this experience showcases her enviable abilities to both observe and describe. It's collected in Teaching a Stone to Talk .
12. "Sliver of Sky" – Barry Lopez
Well-known nature writer Barry Lopez shocked many when he published this essay in January, in which he confessed being raped throughout his adolescence by his mother's sometime boyfriend. It is an affecting and horrifying portrait of what it is to be a victim of sexual abuse. Unfortunately you do have to be a Harper's subscriber to read it (for now).
13. "Shooting an Elephant" — George Orwell
Prior to penning 1984 and Animal Farm , Orwell was posted as a policeman in Burma, where he once had to shoot a rampaging elephant. The resultant essay, published in 1936, is a condemnation of imperialism — and his own selfish desire to not be implicated by it. Read it online or find it in the collection of the same title .
14. "Shipping Out" — David Foster Wallace
Yes, Wallace deserves two on this list. Also collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and originally published in Harper's , this is another travelogue turned existential rumination that shows unabashedly and hilariously the horrors of society (this time via a cruise ship) and really says more about the author himself.
15. "The Braindead Megaphone" – George Saunders
Saunders is more famous for his fiction (like many of the folks on this list) but that doesn't mean his essays are not fantastic. The first in the eponymous collection , "The Braindead Megaphone" takes on the current political and media climate in America that will make you shake your head in a I've-always-thought-that-but-never-really-put-it-that-way-myself way.
16. "We Do Abortions Here" — Sallie Tisdale
Tisdale was a nurse at an abortion clinic when she published this essay in 1987. She writes honestly and movingly about something she knows few want to think let alone read about. "There is a numbing sameness lurking in this job," she says, "the same questions, the same answers, even the same trembling tone in the voices. The worst is the sameness of human failure, of inadequacy in the face of each day’s dull demands." Read it for free online .
17. "The White Album" — Joan Didion
Of course Didion also gets two on this list. If you have not read this classic, do so now. It tracks our culture's — and the author's — transition out of the cataclysmic era that was the late '60s into something else much darker. It also contains an unforgettable image of Jim Morrison wearing black vinyl pants. Find it in the collection of the same name.
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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application
What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?
How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.
- Start early. Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
- Keep the focus narrow. Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
- Be yourself. Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
- Be creative. “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
- Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.
Where your work meets your life. See more from Ascend here .
We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.
- AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business, All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including Pine Row Press , Months to Years, and Atlanta Review .
7 Helpful Tips on How to Write A Memorable Personal Essay
Everyone has a story to tell and a message to share. The challenge lies in getting that story and message out of your head and into print in a way that resonates with your audience.
Starting somewhere in the late 2000s, a certain type of personal essay experienced a popularity boom. These essays were ultra-personal and confessional in nature, often in a TMI sort of way. Their headlines were clickable, not to mention shareable, for their shock value alone.
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Although the confessional shock essay’s star seems to be fading, the personal essay itself is still standing strong. Essay collections by late greats like James Baldwin ( The Fire Next Time ) and David Foster Wallace ( Consider the Lobster ) still top Amazon’s Best Sellers in essays. Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess) launched a career with her darkly funny and self-effacing essays about her health and mental illness challenges ( Let’s Pretend This Never Happened ). Celebrities like Mindy Kaling ( Why Not Me? ) and Tina Fey ( Bossypants ) blended personal essays into memoir-esque collections that became best sellers. We head for the nearest bookseller when essay titans like David Sedaris or Anne Lamott have a new release.
We’re looking for real stories and musings from people who are able to share their foibles, lessons, and truths in a way we can relate to. Here are seven tips to help you craft a personal essay that will connect with readers.
1 Understand what a personal essay is
Ask three different experts what a personal essay is and you’ll likely get three different answers. Are they structured? Must they address a certain type of subject? Here’s a definition we like:
A personal essay is a short work of autobiographical nonfiction characterized by a sense of intimacy and a conversational manner. Also called a personal statement. A type of creative nonfiction, the personal essay is ‘all over the map,’ according to Annie Dillard. ‘There’s nothing you can’t do with it. No subject matter is forbidden, no structure is prescribed. You get to make up your own form every time.’
Personal essays relate the author’s intimate thoughts and experiences to universal truths. They aren’t simply a retelling of events, though—that falls more in the realm of memoir or autobiography. They conclude with the author having learned, changed, or grown in some way and often present some truth or insight that challenges the reader to draw their own conclusions.
2 Find a compelling topic
The best essay topics are often deeply relatable. Although the story itself is unique to the author’s experience, there’s some universal truth that speaks to us from just below the surface. Topics like facing a fear, falling in love, overcoming an obstacle, discovering something new, or making a difficult choice tackle feelings and events that happen in everyone’s life.
3 Start with a strong hook
As with any type of writing, it’s essential to draw the reader in from the very first paragraph , or even the first sentence. Here are a few examples.
Aside from Peter, who supposedly guards the gates of heaven and is a pivotal figure in any number of jokes, the only saint who’s ever remotely interested me is Francis of Assisi, who was friends with the animals.
When I was young, my family didn’t go on outings to the circus or trips to Disneyland. We couldn’t afford them. Instead, we stayed in our small rural West Texas town, and my parents took us to cemeteries.
I underwent, during the summer that I became fourteen, a prolonged religious crisis.
Alone, we are doomed. By the same token, we’ve learned that people are impossible, even the ones we love most— especially the ones we love most.
Your hook and opening paragraph should establish the topic of your essay (or at least allude to it) and set the scene and tone.
4 Create an outline
All it takes to understand the importance of an outline is listening to someone who struggled to tell a personal story. Often, the story will seem to have no real point. The switchbacks where the teller says “But wait, I have to tell you about this part, first!” are maddening and disruptive. An outline will help you organize your thoughts before committing them to text.
Consider your opening hook and the statement it makes, then map out the sequence of events or main points that support it. Just like a good fictional story, your essay should have rising action. Raise the stakes with each paragraph until you reach a climax or turning point. Plan to add a conclusion that will evoke an emotional response in your reader.
5 Narrow your focus
Don’t try to write to a general topic. Your essay may well be about sexism, but you need to illustrate it through the lens of a defining incident that’s deeply personal to you. What did your experiences teach you about sexism? What does it mean to you as an individual?
6 Show, don’t tell
Close your eyes. Think of the scene you’re about to write down. What were you experiencing with your five senses? How did you feel?
Your challenge is to evoke those senses and feelings without flatly stating them. Don’t say “I felt cold.” Say “I exhaled and my breath turned to vapor that hung in the air. I shivered and pulled the blanket tight around my shoulders in a vain attempt to trap my body heat.” Your description should help the reader experience the cold with you. Stephen King describes it as making the reader “prickle with recognition.”
7 Craft a thought-provoking conclusion
Your essay should end with your own reflection and analysis. What did you learn? How have the events and thoughts you described changed your life or your understanding of life? It’s not enough to say “And that’s what happened.” You have to describe how whatever happened shaped you.
Just as a good lead hooks readers and draws them along for the ride, a good conclusion releases them from your essay’s thrall with a frisson of pleasure, agreement, passion or some other sense of completion. Circling back to your lead in your conclusion is one way to give readers that full-circle sense. Try to restate your thesis in a way that reflects the journey the essay has taken.
There is so much outside the false cloister of private experience; and when you write, you do the work of connecting that terrible privacy to everything beyond it.
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Best of 2021: Personal Essays
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Since we started the #longreads hashtag in 2009 to share great reads on Twitter, curation has been the beating heart of Longreads . All year long, we highlight our favorite stories in the weekly Longreads Top 5 . At the end of the year, we love to reflect on and share the pieces that stayed with us, a tradition we’ve kept for 10 years ! Today, we’re kicking off our annual curation celebration with five moving personal essays we loved in 2021. Watch for lists over the next couple of weeks that highlight reported essays, investigative reporting, features, and profiles.
The Gradual Extinction of Softness , Chantha Nguon and Kim Green, Hippocampus Magazine , November 8, 2021
For this category, I’m recommending a moving, lyrical personal essay from Kim Green and Chantha Nguon. Nguon is a co-founder of a women’s social enterprise in rural northeastern Cambodia. For 10 years, these two friends have been collaborating on Nguon’s life story, through interviews and cooking sessions, which will eventually culminate into Slow Noodles , a memoir on food, loss, and recovered family recipes. This excerpt from the memoir-in-progress is an evocative piece on surviving the Cambodian genocide, and remembering the flavors, the memories, and the past that the Khmer Rouge regime tried to erase. It’s also sprinkled with “recipes,” made up of ingredients that reveal details of Nguon’s life, particularly of her childhood in Battambang: “Take a well-fed nine-year-old with a big family and a fancy French-Catholic-school education. Fold in 2 revolutions, 2 civil wars, and 1 wholesale extermination. Separate her from home, country, and a reliable source of food.” I’ve read this gorgeous essay a number of times, and each time I pay attention to new details — aromas, tastes — which make me appreciate it even more. — Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Authors Chantha Nguon and Kim Green on the story they wish they’d written this year:
We both loved “ Cambodian Americans Are Ready to Share Their Cuisine, On Their Terms ” by Maryam Jillani in Condé Nast Traveler . It’s a great primer on Cambodian cuisine that acknowledges the diaspora’s collective trauma without dwelling on it. And we love how she highlights the artistry of chefs we follow and admire. We wish we had written it but are also thrilled that Jillani did it so well.
Aftermath , Briohny Doyle, Griffith Review , October 24, 2021
In her exquisite piece about the human condition in the age of COVID, climate change, and other calamities, Briohny Doyle challenges readers — and herself — to give up the ghost of renewal. “What is an ideal community, a good life,” Doyle asks, “if nothing is renewed, if we are working in and through catastrophe with only what we have now and in the face of what will be?” This question is more than essay fodder. It’s a mantra, an incantation — for us all. — Seyward Darby
Author Briohny Doyle ‘s personal essay recommendation:
I’m a long-time admirer of Vanessa Berry’s writing, which is always marked by assiduous curiosity and intimate detail. Gentle and Fierce — the title of her new collection — describes her writing as much as her animal subjects. This essay, “ Perec’s Cat ” is a wonderful example of her enviably light touch at work.
Ghosts , Vauhini Vara, The Believer , August 9, 2021
Even as artificial intelligence creeps across science and technology, bulldozing computational problems, we comfort ourselves in the face of such power by thinking there are some things a program simply can’t do. A program can’t be funny, can’t be fraught, can’t be human. And maybe it can’t. But in Vauhini Vara’s gutpunch of an essay, we begin to see the glimmer of otherwise. Unable to write about her sister’s death of a rare cancer years earlier, Vara began feeding the linguistic engine GPT-3 prompts about her sister — and over the course of nine increasingly stirring attempts, their two voices meld in a way that wipes away any preconceptions you might have brought to the piece. This isn’t a warning klaxon about robot overlords; it’s a bracing exploration of what can happen when we finally hold the mirror at the perfect angle. — Peter Rubin
Author Vanessa Angélica Villarreal on “Ghosts”:
“My own writing is largely a practice of communion with the dead—recording forgotten lives, lost records, documenting collective memory. I personally use tarot to tap into my own unconscious and excavate the buried material there, and have noted the recent trend of astrology apps and tarot on TikTok and the uncanny specificity of its algorithms to ensure the right message finds you. It is brilliant to use AI as a divination tool, and to explore what mathematical fabric algorithms might be connected to beyond our understanding.”
Contraindications , Alison Criscitiello, The Alpinist , September 17, 2017
Alison Criscitiello’s essay about her climbing partner Anna Smith has stayed with me for a long time. It starts off as a rollicking adventure story: Two best friends embarking on a climbing expedition to the Indian Himalayas. The affection and admiration the women share spills out of her words, “opposites in almost every way imaginable, end members constantly bringing one another closer to an elusive center.” It is not just an exquisitely told quest: It is also about true friendship — and the joy found in sharing beautiful experiences.
Then it becomes something else. When Criscitiello describes Anna’s death, it is raw; I felt her pain. The essay turns into a survival story: Surviving not only the physical challenge of getting Anna off the mountain, but the grief, shock, and loneliness overwhelming Criscitiello now that she “no longer had Anna tethered to me.” For three days, she stays with Anna before a team arrives to help take her body down. Even then, Criscitiello remains, “guarding her” until Anna is finally cremated “along the shores of the Beas River in the heart of Manali” and her ashes taken home. It is time spent remembering Anna, whose “strength emanated from her core” and whose spark “set my aspirations afire.” — Carolyn Wells
The Grief Artist , Traci Brimhall, Guernica Magazine , January 6, 2021
Brimhall’s essay explores the influence that art, process, and ritual have on dealing with grief and loss as she mourns her mother’s death and the end of her marriage. So many essays deal with grief, but few consider the shape of it through so many disparate lenses. As Brimhall makes art out of the unexpected, she weaves a strand of persistent, insistent hope for the reader. “I love that nothing is wasted,” she writes. “Everything is ripe for transformation.” This essay reminds me that despite the fact that humans struggle with loss and change, maybe we can learn something about ourselves if we choose to lean on process and routine. Maybe too, we can get better at being more human as we deal with things that end, be it a life, a friendship, a marriage, or even just a time in our lives. — Krista Stevens
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How to Write a Personal Essay
Last Updated: February 2, 2023 Fact Checked
This article was co-authored by Jake Adams . Jake Adams is an academic tutor and the owner of Simplifi EDU, a Santa Monica, California based online tutoring business offering learning resources and online tutors for academic subjects K-College, SAT & ACT prep, and college admissions applications. With over 14 years of professional tutoring experience, Jake is dedicated to providing his clients the very best online tutoring experience and access to a network of excellent undergraduate and graduate-level tutors from top colleges all over the nation. Jake holds a BS in International Business and Marketing from Pepperdine University. There are 10 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 306,994 times.
A good personal essay can move and inspire readers. It can also leave the reader unsettled, uncertain, and full of more questions than answers. To write an effective personal essay, you will need to first understand the structure of a personal essay. You will then need to brainstorm ideas for the personal essay so you are ready when it is time to sit down and craft your essay.
Starting Your Personal Essay
- For example, maybe you want to write about an experience where you learned about failure. You may think the time you failed a pop quiz in class. Though the quiz may have seemed insignificant to you at the time, you realized later that failing the pop quiz forced you to reassess your goals and motivated you to get a passing grade. Seen from a certain angle, your small failure became a gateway to perseverance and determination.
- This could be a seemingly small moment that ended up having a profound influence on you later, such the first time you experienced disgust as a child or the look on your mother’s face when you told her you were gay. Try to really dig into why you were hurt or compelled to overcome a challenge in this moment in your essay.
- Remember that moments charged with strong emotion will often be more engaging to readers. Having a strong reaction to a specific moment will allow you to write passionately about it and keep your reader interested in your essay.
- For example, you may focus on the day you found out your father cheated on your mother, or the week you mourned the death of a loved one. Think about a heavy experience in your life that shaped who you are today.
- You may also decide to write about a seemingly light topic or event, such as your first ride on a roller coaster, or the first time you went on a cruise with your partner. No matter what event you choose, make sure it is an event that triggered a strong emotional response, ranging from anger to confusion to unabashed joy.
- For example, you may think about why you and your mother stopped speaking years ago or why you are no longer close to a childhood friend. You may also look at past romantic relationships that failed and consider why they did not succeed or a relationship with a mentor that went sour.
- This could also be about someone that you're close with. For example, you could write about a moment that tested your relationship with a close friend.
- Ask yourself questions about the current event. For example, how does the current event intersect with your own experiences? How can you explore a current social issue or event using your personal thoughts, experiences, and emotions?
- For example, you may have an interest in writing about Syrian refugee camps in Europe. You may then focus your personal essay on your own status as a refugee in America and how your experiences a refugee have shaped the person you are now. This will allow you to explore a current event from a personal perspective, rather than simply talk about the current event from a distant, journalistic perspective.
- The introductory section should include “the hook”, opening lines where you catch the reader’s attention. It should also have some sort of narrative thesis, which is often the beginning of an important event in the piece or a theme that connects your experience to a universal idea.
- The body sections should include supporting evidence for your narrative thesis and/or the key themes in your piece. Often, this is in the form of your experiences and your reflections on your experiences. You should also note the passage of time in your body sections so the reader is aware of when and how certain events occurred.
- The concluding section should include a conclusion to the events and experiences discussed in the essay. You should also have a moral of the story moment, where you reflect on what you learned from your experiences or how your experiences changed your life.
- In the past, it was advised to have five paragraphs total, one paragraph for the introductory section, three paragraphs for the body section, and one paragraph for the concluding section. But you can have more or less than five paragraphs for your personal essay as long as you have all three sections.
Writing the Personal Essay
- Don't begin with a line that explains exactly what is going to be discussed in, such as, “In this essay, I will be discussing my fraught relationship with my mother." Instead, draw your reader into your piece and still provide all the information needed in your opening line.
- Start instead with a specific scene that contains the key characters of the essay and allows you discuss the central question or theme. Doing this will allow you to introduce the reader to the characters and the central conflict right away.
- For example, if you are writing about your fraught relationship with your mother, you may focus on a specific memory where you both disagreed or clashed. This could be the time you and your mother fought over a seemingly insignificant item, or the time you argued about a family secret.
- Try to use an active voice instead of a passive voice as much as possible when you're writing your essay.
- This writing voice may be conversational, much like how you might speak to a good friend or a family member. Or, the writing voice may be more reflective and internal, where you question your own assumptions and thoughts about the subject of the essay.
- Many personal essays are written in the first person, using “I”. You may decide to write in the present tense to make the story feel immediate, or past tense, which will allow you to reflect more on specific events or moments.
- Include vivid sensory descriptions in your essay to help the reader connect with your unique perspective. Describing touch, smell, taste, sight, and sound can help the reader invest in your story and feel like they're there with you.
- You can also include lines of dialogue spoken by your characters, based on your memory of the event. However, you should limit dialogue to only a few lines a page, as too much dialogue can start to veer away from personal essay and more toward fiction.
- You may use a plot outline to organize your essay. The plot points should act as supporting evidence for the central question or issue of the essay.
- It’s important to remember that though an experience may appear to have all the drama necessary to make a good personal essay, it may be a drama that is too familiar to the reader already. Be wary of experiences that are familiar and filled with pathos that a reader may have experienced before.
- If you are writing about the sudden death of a loved one, for example, it may feel important and deep to you. But the reader will likely know what to expect of an essay about a dead loved one, and may not relate to your essay because they did not know the loved one like you did.
- Instead, you may try to uncover a truth that is deeper than “I am sad my loved one died.” Think about what the loved one meant to you and how the loved one affected your life, in positive and negative ways. This could lead to the uncovering of a deeper truth and a stronger personal essay.
Polishing Your Essay
- For example, you may use metaphor to describe the experience of telling your mother you are gay. You may describe your mother’s face as “impenetrable, a sudden wall”. Or you may use a simile, such as “my mother’s reaction was silent and stunned, as if she had been struck by lightning.”
- As you read it out loud, you should highlight any sentences that are confusing or unclear as well as sentences that do not appear as strong as the rest of the draft. You should also make sure your characters are well developed and your essay follows some kind of structure or sense of plot. Consider if you are hitting a deeper truth in your draft and what you can do to get there if it is not yet on the page.Revising your essay will only make it that much stronger.
- When you are revising, you should consider if your content is really worth writing about, if you are writing about a topic or subject you are passionate about, and if your reader will understand your writing. You want to avoid confusing your reader, as this can turn her off from reading to the end of your essay.
- You should also make sure the focus and themes of the essay are clear. Your experiences should center around a central question, issue, or theme. This will ensure your personal essay is well written and concise.
- Avoid relying on spellcheck to catch all of the spelling and grammar errors in your essay.
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- To get a better sense of the genre, you should read highly crafted examples of personal essay. There are several known personal essays that are often taught in academia, including "Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin, “The Death of a Moth” by Virginia Woolf, “Shipping Out” by David Foster Wallace, “The White Album” by Joan Didion, and “We Do Abortions Here” by Sallie Tisdale. Thanks Helpful 1 Not Helpful 0
- Ask yourself several questions as you read the examples, such as: How does the writer introduce the subject of their essay? How does the writer explore the subject for a personal perspective? What are the key themes in the essay? How does the writer connect their personal experiences to a universal theme or idea? How does the writer use humor or wit in the essay? What is the concluding moral of the essay? Does the end of the essay leave you satisfied, unsettled, curious, or all of the above? Thanks Helpful 1 Not Helpful 0
Sample Essay and Template
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- ↑ https://owl.excelsior.edu/writing-process/thesis-sentence/thesis-sentence-angles/
- ↑ Jake Adams. Academic Tutor & Test Prep Specialist. Expert Interview. 20 May 2020.
- ↑ https://courses.lumenlearning.com/englishcomp1/chapter/writing-a-narrative-or-personal-essay/
- ↑ https://www.grammarly.com/blog/personal-essay/
- ↑ https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/how-to-write-a-personal-essay
- ↑ https://stlcc.edu/student-support/academic-success-and-tutoring/writing-center/writing-resources/point-of-view-in-academic-writing.aspx
- ↑ https://www.grammarly.com/blog/story-plot/
- ↑ https://www.grammarly.com/blog/literary-devices/
- ↑ http://admissions.vanderbilt.edu/vandybloggers/2013/09/how-to-write-your-personal-essay/
- ↑ http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/revising-drafts/
About This Article
To write a personal essay, start by deciding on an experience that affected your life in some way, such as how failing a pop quiz in class made you change your goals. Next, draft an outline containing the points you want to make, and including an introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. When writing, start your essay with an engaging scene that introduces the characters and main theme, then develop the characters in the body section so they're well-rounded. Conclude by summing up what you learned from the experience. For tips on how to include a plot in your essay and how to proofread your work, read on! Did this summary help you? Yes No
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10 Personal Statement Essay Examples That Worked
What’s covered:, what is a personal statement.
- Essay 1: Summer Program
- Essay 2: Being Bangladeshi-American
- Essay 3: Why Medicine
- Essay 4: Love of Writing
- Essay 5: Starting a Fire
- Essay 6: Dedicating a Track
- Essay 7: Body Image and Eating Disorders
- Essay 8: Becoming a Coach
- Essay 9: Eritrea
- Essay 10: Journaling
- Is Your Personal Statement Strong Enough?
Your personal statement is any essay that you must write for your main application, such as the Common App Essay , University of California Essays , or Coalition Application Essay . This type of essay focuses on your unique experiences, ideas, or beliefs that may not be discussed throughout the rest of your application. This essay should be an opportunity for the admissions officers to get to know you better and give them a glimpse into who you really are.
In this post, we will share 10 different personal statements that were all written by real students. We will also provide commentary on what each essay did well and where there is room for improvement, so you can make your personal statement as strong as possible!
Please note: Looking at examples of real essays students have submitted to colleges can be very beneficial to get inspiration for your essays. You should never copy or plagiarize from these examples when writing your own essays. Colleges can tell when an essay isn’t genuine and will not view students favorably if they plagiarized.
Personal Statement Examples
Essay example #1: exchange program.
The twisting roads, ornate mosaics, and fragrant scent of freshly ground spices had been so foreign at first. Now in my fifth week of the SNYI-L summer exchange program in Morocco, I felt more comfortable in the city. With a bag full of pastries from the market, I navigated to a bus stop, paid the fare, and began the trip back to my host family’s house. It was hard to believe that only a few years earlier my mom was worried about letting me travel around my home city on my own, let alone a place that I had only lived in for a few weeks. While I had been on a journey towards self-sufficiency and independence for a few years now, it was Morocco that pushed me to become the confident, self-reflective person that I am today.
As a child, my parents pressured me to achieve perfect grades, master my swim strokes, and discover interesting hobbies like playing the oboe and learning to pick locks. I felt compelled to live my life according to their wishes. Of course, this pressure was not a wholly negative factor in my life –– you might even call it support. However, the constant presence of my parents’ hopes for me overcame my own sense of desire and led me to become quite dependent on them. I pushed myself to get straight A’s, complied with years of oboe lessons, and dutifully attended hours of swim practice after school. Despite all these achievements, I felt like I had no sense of self beyond my drive for success. I had always been expected to succeed on the path they had defined. However, this path was interrupted seven years after my parents’ divorce when my dad moved across the country to Oregon.
I missed my dad’s close presence, but I loved my new sense of freedom. My parents’ separation allowed me the space to explore my own strengths and interests as each of them became individually busier. As early as middle school, I was riding the light rail train by myself, reading maps to get myself home, and applying to special academic programs without urging from my parents. Even as I took more initiatives on my own, my parents both continued to see me as somewhat immature. All of that changed three years ago, when I applied and was accepted to the SNYI-L summer exchange program in Morocco. I would be studying Arabic and learning my way around the city of Marrakesh. Although I think my parents were a little surprised when I told them my news, the addition of a fully-funded scholarship convinced them to let me go.
I lived with a host family in Marrakesh and learned that they, too, had high expectations for me. I didn’t know a word of Arabic, and although my host parents and one brother spoke good English, they knew I was there to learn. If I messed up, they patiently corrected me but refused to let me fall into the easy pattern of speaking English just as I did at home. Just as I had when I was younger, I felt pressured and stressed about meeting their expectations. However, one day, as I strolled through the bustling market square after successfully bargaining with one of the street vendors, I realized my mistake. My host family wasn’t being unfair by making me fumble through Arabic. I had applied for this trip, and I had committed to the intensive language study. My host family’s rules about speaking Arabic at home had not been to fulfill their expectations for me, but to help me fulfill my expectations for myself. Similarly, the pressure my parents had put on me as a child had come out of love and their hopes for me, not out of a desire to crush my individuality.
As my bus drove through the still-bustling market square and past the medieval Ben-Youssef madrasa, I realized that becoming independent was a process, not an event. I thought that my parents’ separation when I was ten had been the one experience that would transform me into a self-motivated and autonomous person. It did, but that didn’t mean that I didn’t still have room to grow. Now, although I am even more self-sufficient than I was three years ago, I try to approach every experience with the expectation that it will change me. It’s still difficult, but I understand that just because growth can be uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s not important.
What the Essay Did Well
This is a nice essay because it delves into particular character trait of the student and how it has been shaped and matured over time. Although it doesn’t focus the essay around a specific anecdote, the essay is still successful because it is centered around this student’s independence. This is a nice approach for a personal statement: highlight a particular trait of yours and explore how it has grown with you.
The ideas in this essay are universal to growing up—living up to parents’ expectations, yearning for freedom, and coming to terms with reality—but it feels unique to the student because of the inclusion of details specific to them. Including their oboe lessons, the experience of riding the light rail by themselves, and the negotiations with a street vendor helps show the reader what these common tropes of growing up looked like for them personally.
Another strength of the essay is the level of self-reflection included throughout the piece. Since there is no central anecdote tying everything together, an essay about a character trait is only successful when you deeply reflect on how you felt, where you made mistakes, and how that trait impacts your life. The author includes reflection in sentences like “ I felt like I had no sense of self beyond my drive for success, ” and “ I understand that just because growth can be uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s not important. ” These sentences help us see how the student was impacted and what their point of view is.
What Could Be Improved
The largest change this essay would benefit from is to show not tell. The platitude you have heard a million times no doubt, but for good reason. This essay heavily relies on telling the reader what occurred, making us less engaged as the entire reading experience feels more passive. If the student had shown us what happens though, it keeps the reader tied to the action and makes them feel like they are there with the student, making it much more enjoyable to read.
For example, they tell us about the pressure to succeed their parents placed on them: “ I pushed myself to get straight A’s, complied with years of oboe lessons, and dutifully attended hours of swim practice after school.” They could have shown us what that pressure looked like with a sentence like this: “ My stomach turned somersaults as my rattling knee thumped against the desk before every test, scared to get anything less than a 95. For five years the painful squawk of the oboe only reminded me of my parents’ claps and whistles at my concerts. I mastered the butterfly, backstroke, and freestyle, fighting against the anchor of their expectations threatening to pull me down.”
If the student had gone through their essay and applied this exercise of bringing more detail and colorful language to sentences that tell the reader what happened, the essay would be really great.
Table of Contents
Essay Example #2: Being Bangladeshi-American
Life before was good: verdant forests, sumptuous curries, and a devoted family.
Then, my family abandoned our comfortable life in Bangladesh for a chance at the American dream in Los Angeles. Within our first year, my father was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. He lost his battle three weeks before my sixth birthday. Facing a new country without the steady presence of my father, we were vulnerable — prisoners of hardship in the land of the free. We resettled in the Bronx, in my uncle’s renovated basement. It was meant to be our refuge, but I felt more displaced than ever. Gone were the high-rise condos of West L.A.; instead, government projects towered over the neighborhood. Pedestrians no longer smiled and greeted me; the atmosphere was hostile, even toxic. Schoolkids were quick to pick on those they saw as weak or foreign, hurling harsh words I’d never heard before.
Meanwhile, my family began integrating into the local Bangladeshi community. I struggled to understand those who shared my heritage. Bangladeshi mothers stayed home while fathers drove cabs and sold fruit by the roadside — painful societal positions. Riding on crosstown buses or walking home from school, I began to internalize these disparities. During my fleeting encounters with affluent Upper East Siders, I saw kids my age with nannies, parents who wore suits to work, and luxurious apartments with spectacular views. Most took cabs to their destinations: cabs that Bangladeshis drove. I watched the mundane moments of their lives with longing, aching to plant myself in their shoes. Shame prickled down my spine. I distanced myself from my heritage, rejecting the traditional panjabis worn on Eid and refusing the torkari we ate for dinner every day.
As I grappled with my relationship with the Bangladeshi community, I turned my attention to helping my Bronx community by pursuing an internship with Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda. I handled desk work and took calls, spending the bulk of my time actively listening to the hardships constituents faced — everything from a veteran stripped of his benefits to a grandmother unable to support her bedridden grandchild.
I’d never exposed myself to stories like these, and now I was the first to hear them. As an intern, I could only assist in what felt like the small ways — pointing out local job offerings, printing information on free ESL classes, reaching out to non-profits. But to a community facing an onslaught of intense struggles, I realized that something as small as these actions could have vast impacts. Seeing the immediate consequences of my actions inspired me. Throughout that summer, I internalized my community’s daily challenges in a new light. I began to stop seeing the prevalent underemployment and cramped living quarters less as sources of shame. Instead, I saw them as realities that had to be acknowledged, but could ultimately be remedied. I also realized the benefits of the Bangladeshi culture I had been so ashamed of. My Bangla language skills were an asset to the office, and my understanding of Bangladeshi etiquette allowed for smooth communication between office staff and its constituents. As I helped my neighbors navigate city services, I saw my heritage with pride — a perspective I never expected to have.
I can now appreciate the value of my unique culture and background, and of living with less. This perspective offers room for progress, community integration, and a future worth fighting for. My time with Assemblyman Sepulveda’s office taught me that I can be a change agent in enabling this progression. Far from being ashamed of my community, I want to someday return to local politics in the Bronx to continue helping others access the American Dream. I hope to help my community appreciate the opportunity to make progress together. By embracing reality, I learned to live it. Along the way, I discovered one thing: life is good, but we can make it better.
This student’s passion for social justice and civic duty shines through in this essay because of how honest it is. Sharing their personal experience with immigrating, moving around, being an outsider, and finding a community allows us to see the hardships this student has faced and builds empathy towards their situation. However, what really makes it strong is that they go beyond describing the difficulties they faced and explain the mental impact it had on them as a child: Shame prickled down my spine. I distanced myself from my heritage, rejecting the traditional panjabis worn on Eid and refusing the torkari we ate for dinner every day.
The rejection of their culture presented at the beginning of the essay creates a nice juxtaposition with the student’s view in the latter half of the essay and helps demonstrate how they have matured. They use their experience interning as a way to delve into a change in their thought process about their culture and show how their passion for social justice began. Using this experience as a mechanism to explore their thoughts and feelings is an excellent example of how items that are included elsewhere on your application should be incorporated into your essay.
This essay prioritizes emotions and personal views over specific anecdotes. Although there are details and certain moments incorporated throughout to emphasize the author’s points, the main focus remains on the student and how they grapple with their culture and identity.
One area for improvement is the conclusion. Although the forward-looking approach is a nice way to end an essay focused on social justice, it would be nice to include more details and imagery in the conclusion. How does the student want to help their community? What government position do they see themselves holding one day?
A more impactful ending might look like the student walking into their office at the New York City Housing Authority in 15 years and looking at the plans to build a new development in the Bronx just blocks away from where the grew up that would provide quality housing to people in their Bangladeshi community. They would smile while thinking about how far they have come from that young kid who used to be ashamed of their culture.
Essay Example #3: Why Medicine
I took my first trip to China to visit my cousin Anna in July of 2014. Distance had kept us apart, but when we were together, we fell into all of our old inside jokes and caught up on each other’s lives. Her sparkling personality and optimistic attitude always brought a smile to my face. This time, however, my heart broke when I saw the effects of her brain cancer; she had suffered from a stroke that paralyzed her left side. She was still herself in many ways, but I could see that the damage to her brain made things difficult for her. I stayed by her every day, providing the support she needed, whether assisting her with eating and drinking, reading to her, or just watching “Friends.” During my flight back home, sorrow and helplessness overwhelmed me. Would I ever see Anna again? Could I have done more to make Anna comfortable? I wished I could stay in China longer to care for her. As I deplaned, I wondered if I could transform my grief to help other children and teenagers in the US who suffered as Anna did.
The day after I got home, as jet lag dragged me awake a few minutes after midnight, I remembered hearing about the Family Reach Foundation (FRF) and its work with children going through treatments at the local hospital and their families. I began volunteering in the FRF’s Children’s Activity Room, where I play with children battling cancer. Volunteering has both made me appreciate my own health and also cherish the new relationships I build with the children and families. We play sports, make figures out of playdoh, and dress up. When they take on the roles of firefighters or fairies, we all get caught up in the game; for that time, they forget the sanitized, stark, impersonal walls of the pediatric oncology ward. Building close relationships with them and seeing them giggle and laugh is so rewarding — I love watching them grow and get better throughout their course of treatment.
Hearing from the parents about their children’s condition and seeing the children recover inspired me to consider medical research. To get started, I enrolled in a summer collegelevel course in Abnormal Psychology. There I worked with Catelyn, a rising college senior, on a data analysis project regarding Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Together, we examined the neurological etiology of DID by studying four fMRI and PET cases. I fell in love with gathering data and analyzing the results and was amazed by our final product: several stunning brain images showcasing the areas of hyper and hypoactivity in brains affected by DID. Desire quickly followed my amazement — I want to continue this project and study more brains. Their complexity, delicacy, and importance to every aspect of life fascinate me. Successfully completing this research project gave me a sense of hope; I know I am capable of participating in a large scale research project and potentially making a difference in someone else’s life through my research.
Anna’s diagnosis inspired me to begin volunteering at FRF; from there, I discovered my desire to help people further by contributing to medical research. As my research interest blossomed, I realized that it’s no coincidence that I want to study brains—after all, Anna suffered from brain cancer. Reflecting on these experiences this past year and a half, I see that everything I’ve done is connected. Sadly, a few months after I returned from China, Anna passed away. I am still sad, but as I run a toy truck across the floor and watch one of the little patients’ eyes light up, I imagine that she would be proud of my commitment to pursue medicine and study the brain.
This essay has a very strong emotional core that tugs at the heart strings and makes the reader feel invested. Writing about sickness can be difficult and doesn’t always belong in a personal statement, but in this case it works well because the focus is on how this student cared for her cousin and dealt with the grief and emotions surrounding her condition. Writing about the compassion she showed and the doubts and concerns that filled her mind keeps the focus on the author and her personality.
This continues when she again discusses the activities she did with the kids at FRF and the personal reflection this experience allowed her to have. For example, she writes: Volunteering has both made me appreciate my own health and also cherish the new relationships I build with the children and families. We play sports, make figures out of playdoh, and dress up.
Concluding the essay with the sad story of her cousin’s passing brings the essay full circle and returns to the emotional heart of the piece to once again build a connection with the reader. However, it finishes on a hopeful note and demonstrates how this student has been able to turn a tragic experience into a source of lifelong inspiration.
One thing this essay should be cognizant of is that personal statements should not read as summaries of your extracurricular resume. Although this essay doesn’t fully fall into that trap, it does describe two key extracurriculars the student participated in. However, the inclusion of such a strong emotional core running throughout the essay helps keep the focus on the student and her thoughts and feelings during these activities.
To avoid making this mistake, make sure you have a common thread running through your essay and the extracurriculars provide support to the story you are trying to tell, rather than crafting a story around your activities. And, as this essay does, make sure there is lots of personal reflection and feelings weaved throughout to focus attention to you rather than your extracurriculars.
Essay Example #4: Love of Writing
“I want to be a writer.” This had been my answer to every youthful discussion with the adults in my life about what I would do when I grew up. As early as elementary school, I remember reading my writing pieces aloud to an audience at “Author of the Month” ceremonies. Bearing this goal in mind, and hoping to gain some valuable experience, I signed up for a journalism class during my freshman year. Despite my love for writing, I initially found myself uninterested in the subject and I struggled to enjoy the class. When I thought of writing, I imagined lyrical prose, profound poetry, and thrilling plot lines. Journalism required a laconic style and orderly structure, and I found my teacher’s assignments formulaic and dull. That class shook my confidence as a writer. I was uncertain if I should continue in it for the rest of my high school career.
Despite my misgivings, I decided that I couldn’t make a final decision on whether to quit journalism until I had some experience working for a paper outside of the classroom. The following year, I applied to be a staff reporter on our school newspaper. I hoped this would help me become more self-driven and creative, rather than merely writing articles that my teacher assigned. To my surprise, my time on staff was worlds away from what I experienced in the journalism class. Although I was unaccustomed to working in a fast-paced environment and initially found it burdensome to research and complete high-quality stories in a relatively short amount of time, I also found it exciting. I enjoyed learning more about topics and events on campus that I did not know much about; some of my stories that I covered in my first semester concerned a chess tournament, a food drive, and a Spanish immersion party. I relished in the freedom I had to explore and learn, and to write more independently than I could in a classroom.
Although I enjoyed many aspects of working for the paper immediately, reporting also pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I am a shy person, and speaking with people I did not know intimidated me. During my first interview, I met with the basketball coach to prepare for a story about the team’s winning streak. As I approached his office, I felt everything from my toes to my tongue freeze into a solid block, and I could hardly get out my opening questions. Fortunately, the coach was very kind and helped me through the conversation. Encouraged, I prepared for my next interview with more confidence. After a few weeks of practice, I even started to look forward to interviewing people on campus. That first journalism class may have bored me, but even if journalism in practice was challenging, it was anything but tedious.
Over the course of that year, I grew to love writing for our school newspaper. Reporting made me aware of my surroundings, and made me want to know more about current events on campus and in the town where I grew up. By interacting with people all over campus, I came to understand the breadth of individuals and communities that make up my high school. I felt far more connected to diverse parts of my school through my work as a journalist, and I realized that journalism gave me a window into seeing beyond my own experiences. The style of news writing may be different from what I used to think “writing” meant, but I learned that I can still derive exciting plots from events that may have gone unnoticed if not for my stories. I no longer struggle to approach others, and truly enjoy getting to know people and recognizing their accomplishments through my writing. Becoming a writer may be a difficult path, but it is as rewarding as I hoped when I was young.
This essay is clearly structured in a manner that makes it flow very nicely and contributes to its success. It starts with a quote to draw in the reader and show this student’s life-long passion for writing. Then it addresses the challenges of facing new, unfamiliar territory and how this student overcame it. Finally, it concludes by reflecting on this eye-opening experience and a nod to their younger self from the introduction. Having a well-thought out and sequential structure with clear transitions makes it extremely easy for the reader to follow along and take away the main idea.
Another positive aspect of the essay is the use of strong and expressive language. Sentences like “ When I thought of writing, I imagined lyrical prose, profound poetry, and thrilling plot lines ” stand out because of the intentional use of words like “lyrical”, “profound”, and “thrilling” to convey the student’s love of writing. The author also uses an active voice to capture the readers’ attention and keep us engaged. They rely on their language and diction to reveal details to the reader, for instance saying “ I felt everything from my toes to my tongue freeze into a solid block ” to describe feeling nervous.
This essay is already very strong, so there isn’t much that needs to be changed. One thing that could take the essay from great to outstanding would be to throw in more quotes, internal dialogue, and sensory descriptors.
It would be nice to see the nerves they felt interviewing the coach by including dialogue like “ Um…I want to interview you about…uh…”. They could have shown their original distaste for journalism by narrating the thoughts running through their head. The fast-paced environment of their newspaper could have come to life with descriptions about the clacking of keyboards and the whirl of people running around laying out articles.
Essay Example #5: Starting a Fire
Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the garb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears. As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire.
Furiously I rubbed the twigs together—rubbed and rubbed until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers. No smoke. The twigs were too young, too sticky-green; I tossed them away with a shower of curses, and began tearing through the underbrush in search of a more flammable collection. My efforts were fruitless. Livid, I bit a rejected twig, determined to prove that the forest had spurned me, offering only young, wet bones that would never burn. But the wood cracked like carrots between my teeth—old, brittle, and bitter. Roaring and nursing my aching palms, I retreated to the tent, where I sulked and awaited the jeers of my family.
Rattling their empty worm cans and reeking of fat fish, my brother and cousins swaggered into the campsite. Immediately, they noticed the minor stick massacre by the fire pit and called to me, their deep voices already sharp with contempt.
“Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” they taunted. “Having some trouble?” They prodded me with the ends of the chewed branches and, with a few effortless scrapes of wood on rock, sparked a red and roaring flame. My face burned long after I left the fire pit. The camp stank of salmon and shame.
In the tent, I pondered my failure. Was I so dainty? Was I that incapable? I thought of my hands, how calloused and capable they had been, how tender and smooth they had become. It had been years since I’d kneaded mud between my fingers; instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano, my hands softening into those of a musician—fleshy and sensitive. And I’d gotten glasses, having grown horrifically nearsighted; long nights of dim lighting and thick books had done this. I couldn’t remember the last time I had lain down on a hill, barefaced, and seen the stars without having to squint. Crawling along the edge of the tent, a spider confirmed my transformation—he disgusted me, and I felt an overwhelming urge to squash him.
Yet, I realized I hadn’t really changed—I had only shifted perspective. I still eagerly explored new worlds, but through poems and prose rather than pastures and puddles. I’d grown to prefer the boom of a bass over that of a bullfrog, learned to coax a different kind of fire from wood, having developed a burn for writing rhymes and scrawling hypotheses.
That night, I stayed up late with my journal and wrote about the spider I had decided not to kill. I had tolerated him just barely, only shrieking when he jumped—it helped to watch him decorate the corners of the tent with his delicate webs, knowing that he couldn’t start fires, either. When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.
This student is an excellent writer, which allows a simple story to be outstandingly compelling. The author articulates her points beautifully and creatively through her immense use of details and figurative language. Lines like “a rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees,” and “rubbed and rubbed until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers,” create vivid images that draw the reader in.
The flowery and descriptive prose also contributes to the nice juxtaposition between the old Clara and the new Clara. The latter half of the essay contrasts elements of nature with music and writing to demonstrate how natural these interests are for her now. This sentence perfectly encapsulates the contrast she is trying to build: “It had been years since I’d kneaded mud between my fingers; instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano, my hands softening into those of a musician—fleshy and sensitive.”
In addition to being well-written, this essay is thematically cohesive. It begins with the simple introduction “Fire!” and ends with the following image: “When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.” This full-circle approach leaves readers satisfied and impressed.
There is very little this essay should change, however one thing to be cautious about is having an essay that is overly-descriptive. We know from the essay that this student likes to read and write, and depending on other elements of her application, it might make total sense to have such a flowery and ornate writing style. However, your personal statement needs to reflect your voice as well as your personality. If you would never use language like this in conversation or your writing, don’t put it in your personal statement. Make sure there is a balance between eloquence and your personal voice.
Essay Example #6: Dedicating a Track
“Getting beat is one thing – it’s part of competing – but I want no part in losing.” Coach Rob Stark’s motto never fails to remind me of his encouragement on early-morning bus rides to track meets around the state. I’ve always appreciated the phrase, but an experience last June helped me understand its more profound, universal meaning.
Stark, as we affectionately call him, has coached track at my high school for 25 years. His care, dedication, and emphasis on developing good character has left an enduring impact on me and hundreds of other students. Not only did he help me discover my talent and love for running, but he also taught me the importance of commitment and discipline and to approach every endeavor with the passion and intensity that I bring to running. When I learned a neighboring high school had dedicated their track to a longtime coach, I felt that Stark deserved similar honors.
Our school district’s board of education indicated they would only dedicate our track to Stark if I could demonstrate that he was extraordinary. I took charge and mobilized my teammates to distribute petitions, reach out to alumni, and compile statistics on the many team and individual champions Stark had coached over the years. We received astounding support, collecting almost 3,000 signatures and pages of endorsements from across the community. With help from my teammates, I presented this evidence to the board.
They didn’t bite.
Most members argued that dedicating the track was a low priority. Knowing that we had to act quickly to convince them of its importance, I called a team meeting where we drafted a rebuttal for the next board meeting. To my surprise, they chose me to deliver it. I was far from the best public speaker in the group, and I felt nervous about going before the unsympathetic board again. However, at that second meeting, I discovered that I enjoy articulating and arguing for something that I’m passionate about.
Public speaking resembles a cross country race. Walking to the starting line, you have to trust your training and quell your last minute doubts. When the gun fires, you can’t think too hard about anything; your performance has to be instinctual, natural, even relaxed. At the next board meeting, the podium was my starting line. As I walked up to it, familiar butterflies fluttered in my stomach. Instead of the track stretching out in front of me, I faced the vast audience of teachers, board members, and my teammates. I felt my adrenaline build, and reassured myself: I’ve put in the work, my argument is powerful and sound. As the board president told me to introduce myself, I heard, “runners set” in the back of my mind. She finished speaking, and Bang! The brief silence was the gunshot for me to begin.
The next few minutes blurred together, but when the dust settled, I knew from the board members’ expressions and the audience’s thunderous approval that I had run quite a race. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough; the board voted down our proposal. I was disappointed, but proud of myself, my team, and our collaboration off the track. We stood up for a cause we believed in, and I overcame my worries about being a leader. Although I discovered that changing the status quo through an elected body can be a painstakingly difficult process and requires perseverance, I learned that I enjoy the challenges this effort offers. Last month, one of the school board members joked that I had become a “regular” – I now often show up to meetings to advocate for a variety of causes, including better environmental practices in cafeterias and safer equipment for athletes.
Just as Stark taught me, I worked passionately to achieve my goal. I may have been beaten when I appealed to the board, but I certainly didn’t lose, and that would have made Stark proud.
This essay effectively conveys this student’s compassion for others, initiative, and determination—all great qualities to exemplify in a personal statement!
Although they rely on telling us a lot of what happened up until the board meeting, the use of running a race (their passion) as a metaphor for public speaking provides a lot of insight into the fear that this student overcame to work towards something bigger than themself. Comparing a podium to the starting line, the audience to the track, and silence to the gunshot is a nice way of demonstrating this student’s passion for cross country running without making that the focus of the story.
The essay does a nice job of coming full circle at the end by explaining what the quote from the beginning meant to them after this experience. Without explicitly saying “ I now know that what Stark actually meant is…” they rely on the strength of their argument above to make it obvious to the reader what it means to get beat but not lose.
One of the biggest areas of improvement in the intro, however, is how the essay tells us Stark’s impact rather than showing us: His care, dedication, and emphasis on developing good character has left an enduring impact on me and hundreds of other students. Not only did he help me discover my talent and love for running, but he also taught me the importance of commitment and discipline and to approach every endeavor with the passion and intensity that I bring to running.
The writer could’ve helped us feel a stronger emotional connection to Stark if they had included examples of Stark’s qualities, rather than explicitly stating them. For example, they could’ve written something like: Stark was the kind of person who would give you gas money if you told him your parents couldn’t afford to pick you up from practice. And he actually did that—several times. At track meets, alumni regularly would come talk to him and tell him how he’d changed their lives. Before Stark, I was ambivalent about running and was on the JV team, but his encouragement motivated me to run longer and harder and eventually make varsity. Because of him, I approach every endeavor with the passion and intensity that I bring to running.
Essay Example #7: Body Image and Eating Disorders
I press the “discover” button on my Instagram app, hoping to find enticing pictures to satisfy my boredom. Scrolling through, I see funny videos and mouth-watering pictures of food. However, one image stops me immediately. A fit teenage girl with a “perfect body” relaxes in a bikini on a beach. Beneath it, I see a slew of flattering comments. I shake with disapproval over the image’s unrealistic quality. However, part of me still wants to have a body like hers so that others will make similar comments to me.
I would like to resolve a silent issue that harms many teenagers and adults: negative self image and low self-esteem in a world where social media shapes how people view each other. When people see the façades others wear to create an “ideal” image, they can develop poor thought patterns rooted in negative self-talk. The constant comparisons to “perfect” others make people feel small. In this new digital age, it is hard to distinguish authentic from artificial representations.
When I was 11, I developed anorexia nervosa. Though I was already thin, I wanted to be skinny like the models that I saw on the magazine covers on the grocery store stands. Little did I know that those models probably also suffered from disorders, and that photoshop erased their flaws. I preferred being underweight to being healthy. No matter how little I ate or how thin I was, I always thought that I was too fat. I became obsessed with the number on the scale and would try to eat the least that I could without my parents urging me to take more. Fortunately, I stopped engaging in anorexic behaviors before middle school. However, my underlying mental habits did not change. The images that had provoked my disorder in the first place were still a constant presence in my life.
By age 15, I was in recovery from anorexia, but suffered from depression. While I used to only compare myself to models, the growth of social media meant I also compared myself to my friends and acquaintances. I felt left out when I saw my friends’ excitement about lake trips they had taken without me. As I scrolled past endless photos of my flawless, thin classmates with hundreds of likes and affirming comments, I felt my jealousy spiral. I wanted to be admired and loved by other people too. However, I felt that I could never be enough. I began to hate the way that I looked, and felt nothing in my life was good enough. I wanted to be called “perfect” and “body goals,” so I tried to only post at certain times of day to maximize my “likes.” When that didn’t work, I started to feel too anxious to post anything at all.
Body image insecurities and social media comparisons affect thousands of people – men, women, children, and adults – every day. I am lucky – after a few months of my destructive social media habits, I came across a video that pointed out the illusory nature of social media; many Instagram posts only show off good things while people hide their flaws. I began going to therapy, and recovered from my depression. To address the problem of self-image and social media, we can all focus on what matters on the inside and not what is on the surface. As an effort to become healthy internally, I started a club at my school to promote clean eating and radiating beauty from within. It has helped me grow in my confidence, and today I’m not afraid to show others my struggles by sharing my experience with eating disorders. Someday, I hope to make this club a national organization to help teenagers and adults across the country. I support the idea of body positivity and embracing difference, not “perfection.” After all, how can we be ourselves if we all look the same?
This essay covers the difficult topics of eating disorders and mental health. If you’re thinking about covering similar topics in your essay, we recommend reading our post Should You Talk About Mental Health in College Essays?
The short answer is that, yes, you can talk about mental health, but it can be risky. If you do go that route, it’s important to focus on what you learned from the experience.
The strength of this essay is the student’s vulnerability, in excerpts such as this: I wanted to be admired and loved by other people too. However, I felt that I could never be enough. I began to hate the way that I looked, and felt nothing in my life was good enough. I wanted to be called “perfect” and “body goals,” so I tried to only post at certain times of day to maximize my “likes.”
The student goes on to share how they recovered from their depression through an eye-opening video and therapy sessions, and they’re now helping others find their self-worth as well. It’s great that this essay looks towards the future and shares the writer’s goals of making their club a national organization; we can see their ambition and compassion.
The main weakness of this essay is that it doesn’t focus enough on their recovery process, which is arguably the most important part. They could’ve told us more about the video they watched or the process of starting their club and the interactions they’ve had with other members. Especially when sharing such a vulnerable topic, there should be vulnerability in the recovery process too. That way, the reader can fully appreciate all that this student has overcome.
Essay Example #8: Becoming a Coach
”Advanced females ages 13 to 14 please proceed to staging with your coaches at this time.” Skittering around the room, eyes wide and pleading, I frantically explained my situation to nearby coaches. The seconds ticked away in my head; every polite refusal increased my desperation.
Despair weighed me down. I sank to my knees as a stream of competitors, coaches, and officials flowed around me. My dojang had no coach, and the tournament rules prohibited me from competing without one.
Although I wanted to remain strong, doubts began to cloud my mind. I could not help wondering: what was the point of perfecting my skills if I would never even compete? The other members of my team, who had found coaches minutes earlier, attempted to comfort me, but I barely heard their words. They couldn’t understand my despair at being left on the outside, and I never wanted them to understand.
Since my first lesson 12 years ago, the members of my dojang have become family. I have watched them grow up, finding my own happiness in theirs. Together, we have honed our kicks, blocks, and strikes. We have pushed one another to aim higher and become better martial artists. Although my dojang had searched for a reliable coach for years, we had not found one. When we attended competitions in the past, my teammates and I had always gotten lucky and found a sympathetic coach. Now, I knew this practice was unsustainable. It would devastate me to see the other members of my dojang in my situation, unable to compete and losing hope as a result. My dojang needed a coach, and I decided it was up to me to find one.
I first approached the adults in the dojang – both instructors and members’ parents. However, these attempts only reacquainted me with polite refusals. Everyone I asked told me they couldn’t devote multiple weekends per year to competitions. I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself.
At first, the inner workings of tournaments were a mystery to me. To prepare myself for success as a coach, I spent the next year as an official and took coaching classes on the side. I learned everything from motivational strategies to technical, behind-the-scenes components of Taekwondo competitions. Though I emerged with new knowledge and confidence in my capabilities, others did not share this faith.
Parents threw me disbelieving looks when they learned that their children’s coach was only a child herself. My self-confidence was my armor, deflecting their surly glances. Every armor is penetrable, however, and as the relentless barrage of doubts pounded my resilience, it began to wear down. I grew unsure of my own abilities.
Despite the attack, I refused to give up. When I saw the shining eyes of the youngest students preparing for their first competition, I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was. The knowledge that I could solve my dojang’s longtime problem motivated me to overcome my apprehension.
Now that my dojang flourishes at competitions, the attacks on me have weakened, but not ended. I may never win the approval of every parent; at times, I am still tormented by doubts, but I find solace in the fact that members of my dojang now only worry about competing to the best of their abilities.
Now, as I arrive at a tournament with my students, I close my eyes and remember the past. I visualize the frantic search for a coach and the chaos amongst my teammates as we competed with one another to find coaches before the staging calls for our respective divisions. I open my eyes to the exact opposite scene. Lacking a coach hurt my ability to compete, but I am proud to know that no member of my dojang will have to face that problem again.
This essay begins with an in-the-moment narrative that really illustrates the chaos of looking for a coach last-minute. We feel the writer’s emotions, particularly her dejectedness, at not being able to compete. Starting an essay in media res is a great way to capture the attention of your readers and build anticipation for what comes next.
Through this essay, we can see how gutsy and determined the student is in deciding to become a coach themselves. She shows us these characteristics through their actions, rather than explicitly telling us: To prepare myself for success as a coach, I spent the next year as an official and took coaching classes on the side. Also, by discussing the opposition she faced and how it affected her, the student is open and vulnerable about the reality of the situation.
The essay comes full circle as the author recalls the frantic situations in seeking out a coach, but this is no longer a concern for them and their team. Overall, this essay is extremely effective in painting this student as mature, bold, and compassionate.
The biggest thing this essay needs to work on is showing not telling. Throughout the essay, the student tells us that she “emerged with new knowledge and confidence,” she “grew unsure of her own abilities,” and she “refused to give up”. What we really want to know is what this looks like.
Instead of saying she “emerged with new knowledge and confidence” she should have shared how she taught a new move to a fellow team-member without hesitation. Rather than telling us she “grew unsure of her own abilities” she should have shown what that looked like by including her internal dialogue and rhetorical questions that ran through her mind. She could have demonstrated what “refusing to give up” looks like by explaining how she kept learning coaching techniques on her own, turned to a mentor for advice, or devised a plan to win over the trust of parents.
Essay Example #9: Eritrea
No one knows where Eritrea is.
On the first day of school, for the past nine years, I would pensively stand in front of a class, a teacher, a stranger waiting for the inevitable question: Where are you from?
I smile politely, my dimples accentuating my ambiguous features. “Eritrea,” I answer promptly and proudly. But I am always prepared. Before their expression can deepen into confusion, ready to ask “where is that,” I elaborate, perhaps with a fleeting hint of exasperation, “East Africa, near Ethiopia.”
Sometimes, I single out the key-shaped hermit nation on a map, stunning teachers who have “never had a student from there!” Grinning, I resist the urge to remark, “You didn’t even know it existed until two minutes ago!”
Eritrea is to the East of Ethiopia, its arid coastline clutches the lucrative Red Sea. Battle scars litter the ancient streets – the colonial Italian architecture lathered with bullet holes, the mosques mangled with mortar shells. Originally part of the world’s first Christian kingdom, Eritrea passed through the hands of colonial Italy, Britain, and Ethiopia for over a century, until a bloody thirty year war of Independence liberated us.
But these are facts that anyone can know with a quick Google search. These are facts that I have memorised and compounded, first from my Grandmother and now from pristine books borrowed from the library.
No historical narrative, however, can adequately capture what Eritrea is. No one knows the aroma of bushels of potatoes, tomatoes, and garlic – still covered in dirt – that leads you to the open-air market. No one knows the poignant scent of spices, arranged in orange piles reminiscent of compacted dunes. No one knows how to haggle stubborn herders for sheep and roosters for Christmas celebrations as deliberately as my mother. No one can replicate the perfect balance of spices in dorho and tsebhi as well as my grandmother, her gnarly hands stirring the pot with ancient precision (chastising my clumsy knife work with the potatoes). It’s impossible to learn when the injera is ready – the exact moment you have to lift the lid of the mogogo. Do it too early (or too late) and the flatbread becomes mangled and gross. It is a sixth sense passed through matriarchal lineages.
There are no sources that catalogue the scent of incense that wafts through the sunlit porch on St. Michael’s; no films that can capture the luminescence of hundreds of flaming bonfires that fluoresce the sidewalks on Kudus Yohannes, as excited children chant Ge’ez proverbs whose origin has been lost to time. You cannot learn the familiarity of walking beneath the towering Gothic figure of the Enda Mariam Cathedral, the crowds undulating to the ringing of the archaic bells. I have memorized the sound of the rains hounding the metal roof during kiremti , the heat of the sun pounding against the Toyota’s window as we sped down towards Ghinda , the opulent brilliance of the stars twinkling in a sky untainted by light pollution, the scent of warm rolls of bani wafting through the streets at precisely 6 o’clock each day…
I fill my flimsy sketchbook with pictures from my memory. My hand remembers the shapes of the hibiscus drifting in the wind, the outline of my grandmother (affectionately nicknamed a’abaye ) leaning over the garden, the bizarre architecture of the Fiat Tagliero . I dice the vegetables with movements handed down from generations. My nose remembers the scent of frying garlic, the sourness of the warm tayta , the sharpness of the mit’mt’a …
This knowledge is intrinsic. “I am Eritrean,” I repeat. “I am proud.” Within me is an encyclopedia of history, culture, and idealism.
Eritrea is the coffee made from scratch, the spices drying in the sun, the priests and nuns. Eritrea is wise, filled with ambition, and unseen potential. Eritrea isn’t a place, it’s an identity.
This is an exceptional essay that provides a window into this student’s culture that really makes their love for their country and heritage leap off the page. The sheer level of details and sensory descriptors this student is able to fit in this space makes the essay stand out. From the smells, to the traditions, sounds, and sights, the author encapsulates all the glory of Eritrea for the reader.
The vivid images this student is able to create for the reader, whether it is having the tedious conversation with every teacher or cooking in their grandmother’s kitchen, transports us into the story and makes us feel like we are there in the moment with the student. This is a prime example of an essay that shows , not tells.
Besides the amazing imagery, the use of shorter paragraphs also contributes to how engaging this essay is. Employing this tactic helps break up the text to make it more readable and it isolates ideas so they stick out more than if they were enveloped in a large paragraph.
Overall, this is a really strong essay that brings to life this student’s heritage through its use of vivid imagery. This essay exemplifies what it means to show not tell in your writing, and it is a great example of how you can write an intimate personal statement without making yourself the primary focus of your essay.
There is very little this essay should improve upon, but one thing the student might consider would be to inject more personal reflection into their response. Although we can clearly take away their deep love and passion for their homeland and culture, the essay would be a bit more personal if they included the emotions and feelings they associate with the various aspects of Eritrea. For example, the way their heart swells with pride when their grandmother praises their ability to cook a flatbread or the feeling of serenity when they hear the bells ring out from the cathedral. Including personal details as well as sensory ones would create a wonderful balance of imagery and reflection.
Essay Example #10: Journaling
Flipping past dozens of colorful entries in my journal, I arrive at the final blank sheet. I press my pen lightly to the page, barely scratching its surface to create a series of loops stringing together into sentences. Emotions spill out, and with their release, I feel lightness in my chest. The stream of thoughts slows as I reach the bottom of the page, and I gently close the cover of the worn book: another journal finished.
I add the journal to the stack of eleven books on my nightstand. Struck by the bittersweet sensation of closing a chapter of my life, I grab the notebook at the bottom of the pile to reminisce.
“I want to make a flying mushen to fly in space and your in it” – October 2008
Pulling back the cover of my first Tinkerbell-themed diary, the prompt “My Hopes and Dreams” captures my attention. Though “machine” is misspelled in my scribbled response, I see the beginnings of my past obsession with outer space. At the age of five, I tore through novels about the solar system, experimented with rockets built from plastic straws, and rented Space Shuttle films from Blockbuster to satisfy my curiosities. While I chased down answers to questions as limitless as the universe, I fell in love with learning. Eight journals later, the same relentless curiosity brought me to an airplane descending on San Francisco Bay.
“I wish I had infinite sunsets” – July 2019
I reach for the charcoal notepad near the top of the pile and open to the first page: my flight to the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes. While I was excited to explore bioengineering, anxiety twisted in my stomach as I imagined my destination, unsure of whether I could overcome my shyness and connect with others.
With each new conversation, the sweat on my palms became less noticeable, and I met students from 23 different countries. Many of the moments where I challenged myself socially revolved around the third story deck of the Jerry house. A strange medley of English, Arabic, and Mandarin filled the summer air as my friends and I gathered there every evening, and dialogues at sunset soon became moments of bliss. In our conversations about cultural differences, the possibility of an afterlife, and the plausibility of far-fetched conspiracy theories, I learned to voice my opinion. As I was introduced to different viewpoints, these moments challenged my understanding of the world around me. In my final entries from California, I find excitement to learn from others and increased confidence, a tool that would later allow me to impact my community.
“The beauty in a tower of cans” – June 2020
Returning my gaze to the stack of journals, I stretch to take the floral-patterned book sitting on top. I flip through, eventually finding the beginnings of the organization I created during the outbreak of COVID-19. Since then, Door-to-Door Deliveries has woven its way through my entries and into reality, allowing me to aid high-risk populations through free grocery delivery.
With the confidence I gained the summer before, I took action when seeing others in need rather than letting my shyness hold me back. I reached out to local churches and senior centers to spread word of our services and interacted with customers through our website and social media pages. To further expand our impact, we held two food drives, and I mustered the courage to ask for donations door-to-door. In a tower of canned donations, I saw the value of reaching out to help others and realized my own potential to impact the world around me.
I delicately close the journal in my hands, smiling softly as the memories reappear, one after another. Reaching under my bed, I pull out a fresh notebook and open to its first sheet. I lightly press my pen to the page, “And so begins the next chapter…”
The structuring of this essay makes it easy and enjoyable to read. The student effectively organizes their various life experiences around their tower of journals, which centers the reader and makes the different stories easy to follow. Additionally, the student engages quotes from their journals—and unique formatting of the quotes—to signal that they are moving in time and show us which memory we should follow them to.
Thematically, the student uses the idea of shyness to connect the different memories they draw out of their journals. As the student describes their experiences overcoming shyness at the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes and Door-to-Door Deliveries, this essay can be read as an Overcoming Obstacles essay.
At the end of this essay, readers are fully convinced that this student is dedicated (they have committed to journaling every day), thoughtful (journaling is a thoughtful process and, in the essay, the student reflects thoughtfully on the past), and motivated (they flew across the country for a summer program and started a business). These are definitely qualities admissions officers are looking for in applicants!
Although this essay is already exceptionally strong as it’s written, the first journal entry feels out of place compared to the other two entries that discuss the author’s shyness and determination. It works well for the essay to have an entry from when the student was younger to add some humor (with misspelled words) and nostalgia, but if the student had either connected the quote they chose to the idea of overcoming a fear present in the other two anecdotes or if they had picked a different quote all together related to their shyness, it would have made the entire essay feel more cohesive.
Where to Get Your Personal Statement Edited
Do you want feedback on your personal statement? After rereading your essays countless times, it can be difficult to evaluate your writing objectively. That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool , where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.
If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!
Next Step: Supplemental Essays
Essay Guides for Each School
How to Write a Stellar Extracurricular Activity College Essay
4 Tips for Writing a Diversity College Essay
How to Write the “Why This College” Essay
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The Winners of Our Personal Narrative Essay Contest
We asked students to write about a meaningful life experience. Here are the eight winning essays, as well as runners-up and honorable mentions.
By The Learning Network
Update: Join our live webinar on Oct. 8 about teaching with our Narrative Writing Contest.
In September, we challenged teenagers to write short, powerful stories about meaningful life experiences for our first-ever personal narrative essay contest .
This contest, like every new contest we start, was admittedly a bit of an experiment. Beyond a caution to write no more than 600 words, our rules were fairly open-ended, and we weren’t sure what we would get.
Well, we received over 8,000 entries from teenagers from around the world. We got stories about scoring the winning goal, losing a grandparent, learning to love one’s skin and dealing with mental illness. We got pieces that were moving, funny, introspective and honest. We got a snapshot of teenage life.
Judging a contest like this is, of course, subjective, especially with the range of content and styles of writing students submitted. But we based our criteria on the types of personal narrative essays The New York Times publishes in columns like Lives , Modern Love and Rites of Passage . We read many, many essays that were primarily reflective but, while these pieces might be well-suited for a college application, they weren’t exactly the short, powerful stories we were looking for in this contest.
The winning essays we selected were, though, and they all had a few things in common that set them apart:
They had a clear narrative arc with a conflict and a main character who changed in some way. They artfully balanced the action of the story with reflection on what it meant to the writer. They took risks, like including dialogue or playing with punctuation, sentence structure and word choice to develop a strong voice. And, perhaps most important, they focused on a specific moment or theme — a conversation, a trip to the mall, a speech tournament, a hospital visit — instead of trying to sum up the writer’s life in 600 words.
Below, you’ll find these eight winning essays, published in full. Scroll to the bottom to see the names of all 35 finalists we’re honoring — eight winners, eight runners-up and 19 honorable mentions. Congratulations, and thank you to everyone who participated!
The Winning Essays
Nothing extraordinary, pants on fire, eggs and sausage, first impressions, cracks in the pavement, sorry, wrong number, the man box.
By Jeniffer Kim
It was a Saturday. Whether it was sunny or cloudy, hot or cold, I cannot remember, but I do remember it was a Saturday because the mall was packed with people.
I was with my mom.
Mom is short. Skinny. It is easy to overlook her in a crowd simply because she is nothing extraordinary to see.
On that day we strolled down the slippery-slick tiles with soft, inconspicuous steps, peeking at window boutiques in fleeting glances because we both knew we wouldn’t be buying much, like always.
I remember I was looking up at the people we passed as we walked — at first apathetically, but then more attentively.
Ladies wore five-inch heels that clicked importantly on the floor and bright, elaborate clothing. Men strode by smelling of sharp cologne, faces clear of wrinkles — wiped away with expensive creams.
An uneasy feeling started to settle in my chest. I tried to push it out, but once it took root it refused to be yanked up and tossed away. It got more unbearable with every second until I could deny it no longer; I was ashamed of my mother.
We were in a high-class neighborhood, I knew that. We lived in a small, overpriced apartment building that hung on to the edge of our county that Mom chose to move to because she knew the schools were good.
We were in a high-class neighborhood, but as I scrutinized the passers-by and then turned accusing eyes on Mom, I realized for the first time that we didn’t belong there.
I could see the heavy lines around Mom’s eyes and mouth, etched deep into her skin without luxurious lotions to ease them away. She wore cheap, ragged clothes with the seams torn, shoes with the soles worn down. Her eyes were tired from working long hours to make ends meet and her hair too gray for her age.
I looked at her, and I was ashamed.
My mom is nothing extraordinary, yet at that moment she stood out because she was just so plain.
Mumbling I’d meet her at the clothes outlet around the corner, I hurried away to the bathroom. I didn’t want to be seen with her, although there was no one important around to see me anyway.
When I finally made my way to the outlet with grudging steps, I found that Mom wasn’t there.
With no other options, I had to scour the other stores in the area for her. I was dreading returning to her side, already feeling the secondhand embarrassment that I’d recently discovered came with being with her.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Mom was standing in the middle of a high-end store, holding a sweater that looked much too expensive.
She said, “This will look good on you. Do you want it?”
It was much too expensive. And I almost agreed, carelessly, thoughtlessly.
Then I took a closer look at the small, weary woman with a big smile stretching across her narrow face and a sweater in her hands, happy to be giving me something so nice, and my words died in my throat.
I felt like I’d been dropped into a cold lake.
Her clothes were tattered and old because she spent her money buying me new ones. She looked so tired and ragged all the time because she was busy working to provide for me. She didn’t wear jewelry or scented perfumes because she was just content with me.
Suddenly, Mother was beautiful and extraordinarily wonderful in my eyes.
I was no longer ashamed of her, but of myself.
“Do you want it?” My mom repeated.
By Varya Kluev
I never kissed the boy I liked behind the schoolyard fence that one March morning. I never had dinner with Katy Perry or lived in Kiev for two months either, but I still told my entire fourth-grade class I did.
The words slipped through my teeth effortlessly. With one flick of my tongue, I was, for all anybody knew, twenty-third in line for the throne of Monaco. “Actually?” the girls on the swings beside me would ask, wide eyes blinking with a childlike naivety. I nodded as they whispered under their breath how incredible my fable was. So incredible they bought into it without a second thought.
I lied purely for the ecstasy of it. It was narcotic. With my fabrications, I became the captain of the ship, not just a wistful passer-by, breath fogging the pane of glass that stood between me and the girls I venerated. No longer could I only see, not touch; a lie was a bullet, and the barrier shattered. My mere presence demanded attention — after all, I was the one who got a valentine from Jason, not them.
This way I became more than just the tomboyish band geek who finished her multiplication tables embarrassingly fast. My name tumbled out of their mouths and I manifested in the center of their linoleum lunch table. I became, at least temporarily, the fulcrum their world revolved around.
Not only did I lie religiously and unabashedly — I was good at it. The tedium of my everyday life vanished; I instead marched through the gates of my alcazar, strode up the steps of my concepts, and resided in my throne of deceit. I believed if I took off my fraudulent robe, I would become plebeian. The same aristocracy that finally held me in high regard would boot me out of my palace. To strip naked and exclaim, “Here’s the real me, take a look!” would lead my new circle to redraw their lines — they would take back their compliments, sit at the table with six seats instead of eight, giggle in the back of the class when I asked a question. I therefore adjusted my counterfeit diadem and continued to praise a Broadway show I had never seen.
Yet finally lounging in a lavender bedroom one long-sought-after day, after absently digesting chatter about shows I didn’t watch and boys I didn’t know, I started processing the floating conversations. One girl, who I had idolized for always having her heavy hair perfectly curled, casually shared how her parents couldn’t afford to go on their yearly trip the coming summer. I drew in an expectant breath, but nobody scoffed. Nobody exchanged a secret criticizing glance. Instead, another girl took her spoon of vanilla frosting out of her cheek and with the same air of indifference revealed how her family wasn’t traveling either. Promptly, my spun stories about swimming in crystal pools under Moroccan sun seemed to be in vain.
The following Monday, the girls on the bus to school still shared handfuls of chocolate-coated sunflower seeds with her. At lunch, she wasn’t shunned, wasn’t compelled to sit at a forgotten corner table. For that hour, instead of weaving incessant fantasies, I listened. I listened to the girls nonchalantly talk about yesterday’s soccer game where they couldn’t score a single goal. Listened about their parent’s layoff they couldn’t yet understand the significance of. I listened and I watched them listen, accepting and uncritical of one another no matter how relatively vapid their story. I then too began to talk, beginning by admitting that I wasn’t actually related to Britney Spears.
By Ryan Young Kim
When first I sat down in the small, pathetic excuse of a cafeteria the hospital had, I took a moment to reflect. I had been admitted the night before, rolled in on a stretcher like I had some sort of ailment that prevented me from walking.
But the nurses in the ward were nice to me, especially when they saw that I wasn’t going to be one of the violent ones. They started telling me something, but I paid no attention; I was trying to take in my surroundings. The tables were rounded, chairs were essentially plastic boxes with weight inside, and there was no real glass to be seen.
After they filled out the paperwork, the nurses escorted me to my room. There was someone already in there, but he was dead asleep. The two beds were plain and simple, with a cheap mattress on top of an equally cheap wooden frame. One nurse stuck around to hand me my bedsheets and a gown that I had to wear until my parents dropped off clothes.
The day had been exhausting, waiting for the psychiatric ward to tell us that there was a bed open for me and the doctors to fill out the mountains of paperwork that come with a suicide attempt.
Actually, there had been one good thing about that day. My parents had brought me Korean food for lunch — sullungtang , a fatty stew made from ox-bone broth. God, even when I was falling asleep I could still taste some of the rice kernels that had been mixed into the soup lingering around in my mouth.
For the first time, I felt genuine hunger. My mind had always been racked with a different kind of hunger — a pining for attention or just an escape from the toil of waking up and not feeling anything. But I always had everything I needed — that is, I always had food on my plate, maybe even a little too much. Now, after I had tried so hard to wrench myself away from this world, my basic human instinct was guiding me toward something that would keep me alive.
The irony was lost on me then. All I knew was that if I slept earlier, that meant less time awake being hungry. So I did exactly that. Waking up the next day, I was dismayed to see that the pangs of hunger still rumbled through my stomach. I slid off my covers and shuffled out of my room. The cafeteria door was already open, and I looked inside. There was a cart of Styrofoam containers in the middle of the room, and a couple people were eating quietly. I made my way in and stared.
I scanned the tops of the containers — they were all marked with names: Jonathan, Nathan, Kristen — and as soon as I spotted my name, my mouth began to water.
My dad would sometimes tell me about his childhood in a rural Korean village. The hardships he faced, the hunger that would come if the village harvest floundered, and how he worked so hard to get out — I never listened. But in that moment, between when I saw my container and I sat down at a seat to open it, I understood.
The eggs inside were watery, and their heat had condensated water all over, dripping onto everything and making the sausages soggy. The amount of ketchup was pitiful.
But if I hadn’t been given plastic utensils, I think I would have just shoved it all into my mouth, handful by handful.
By Isabel Hui
When I woke up on August 4, 2016, there was only one thing on my mind: what to wear. A billion thoughts raced through my brain as wooden hangers shuffled back and forth in the cramped hotel closet. I didn’t want to come off as a try-hard, but I also didn’t want to be seen as a slob. Not only was it my first day of high school, but it was my first day of school in a new state; first impressions are everything, and it was imperative for me to impress the people who I would spend the next four years with. For the first time in my life, I thought about how convenient it would be to wear the horrendous matching plaid skirts that private schools enforce.
It wasn’t insecurity driving me to madness; I was actually quite confident for a teenage girl. It was the fact that this was my third time being the new kid. Moving so many times does something to a child’s development … I struggled finding friends that I could trust would be there for me if I picked up and left again. But this time was different because my dad’s company ensured that I would start and finish high school in the same place. This meant no instant do-overs when I pick up and leave again. This time mattered, and that made me nervous.
After meticulously raiding my closet, I emerged proudly in a patterned dress from Target. The soft cotton was comfortable, and the ruffle shoulders added a hint of fun. Yes, this outfit was the one. An hour later, I felt just as powerful as I stepped off the bus and headed toward room 1136. But as I turned the corner into my first class, my jaw dropped to the floor.
Sitting at her desk was Mrs. Hutfilz, my English teacher, sporting the exact same dress as I. I kept my head down and tiptoed to my seat, but the first day meant introductions in front of the whole class, and soon enough it was my turn. I made it through my minute speech unscathed, until Mrs. Hutfilz stood up, jokingly adding that she liked my style. Although this was the moment I had been dreading from the moment I walked in, all the anxiety that had accumulated throughout the morning surprisingly melted away; the students who had previously been staring at their phones raised their heads to pay attention as I shared my story. My smile grew as I giggled with my peers, ending my speech with “and I am very stylish, much like my first period teacher.” After class, I stayed behind and talked to Mrs. Hutfilz, sharing my previous apprehension about coming into a new school and state. I was relieved to make a humorous and genuine connection with my first teacher, one that would continue for the remainder of the year.
This incident reminded me that it’s only high school; these are the times to have fun, work hard, and make memories, not stress about the trivial details. Looking back four years later, the ten minutes I spent dreading my speech were really not worth it. While my first period of high school may not have gone exactly the way I thought it would, it certainly made the day unforgettable in the best way, and taught me that Mrs. Hutfilz has an awesome sense of style!
By Adam Bernard Sanders
It was my third time sitting there on the middle school auditorium stage. The upper chain of braces was caught in my lip again, and my palms were sweating, and my glasses were sliding down my nose. The pencil quivered in my hands. All I had to do was answer whatever question Mrs. Crisafulli, the history teacher, was going to say into that microphone. I had answered 26 before that, and 25 of those correctly. And I was sitting in my chair, and I was tapping my foot, and the old polo shirt I was wearing was starting to constrict and choke me. I pulled pointlessly at the collar, but the air was still on the outside, only looking at the inside of my throat. I was going to die.
I could taste my tongue in my mouth shriveling up. I could feel each hard-pumping heartbeat of blood travel out of my chest, up through my neck and down my arms and legs, warming my already-perspiring forehead but leaving my ghost-white fingers cold and blue. My breathing was quick. My eyes were glassy. I hadn’t even heard the question yet.
Late-night readings of my parents’ anatomy textbooks had told me that a sense of impending doom was the hallmark of pulmonary embolism, a fact that often bubbled to the surface of my mind in times like these. Almost by instinct, I bent my ring and little fingers down, holding them with my thumb as the two remaining digits whipped to my right wrist and tried to take my pulse. Mr. Mendoza had taught us this last year in gym class. But I wasn’t in gym class that third period. I was just sitting on the metal folding chair, waiting for Mrs. Crisafulli to flip to the right page in her packet for the question.
Arabella had quizzed me in second-period French on the lakes of Latin America. Nicaragua. Atitlán. Yojoa. Lake Titicaca, that had made Raj, who sat in front of me, start giggling, and Shannon, who sat three desks up and one to the left, whip her head around and raise one fist to her lips, jab up her index finger, and silence us. Lakes were fed by rivers, the same rivers that lined the globe on my desk like the cracks in the pavement I liked to trace with my shoe on the walk home. Lake Nicaragua drains into the San Juan River, which snakes its way around the port of Granada to empty into the Caribbean Sea. I knew that.
At that moment I was only sure of those two things: the location of Lake Nicaragua and my own impending doom. And I was so busy counting my pulse and envisioning my demise that I missed Mrs. Crisafulli’s utterance of the awaited question into her microphone, as I had each year in the past as one of the two people left onstage.
“ … Coldest … on earth,” was all I heard. My pencil etched shaggy marks as my shaking hands attempted to write something in the 20 seconds remaining.
“Asia,” I scrawled.
So, for the third time in three years, I got it wrong, and for the third time, I didn’t die. I walked home that day, tracing the faults in the pavement and wondering what inside me was so cracked and broken. Something had to be fissured inside, like the ridges and rivers on my desk globe that I would throw out later that evening, but fish from the trash can when the sun rose the next day.
By Michelle Ahn
My phone buzzes. An unfamiliar number with a 512 area code — I later find out it’s from Texas. It’s a selfie of a 30-something man, smiling with his family, a strange picture to receive as I live halfway across the country.
For the past three years, I — a 14-year-old girl living in Virginia — have been getting texts meant for this man, Jared. Over the years, I’ve pieced together parts of who he is; middle-aged, Caucasian, and very popular according to the numerous messages I’ve received for him.
Throughout this time, I’ve also been discovering who I am. When I received the first text, I was a playful sixth grader, always finding sly ways to be subversive in school and with friends. With this new method of mischief in my hands, naturally, I engaged:
“My sweet momma just told me that BYU Texas Club is holding a Texas Roundup free BBQ dinner on October 10th! Thought y’all would enjoy,” came one of the texts.
After staring at the message for a while, I responded.
As time went on, the story of the mystery man deepened. I was halfway through sixth grade, for example, when I learned he was part of the “Elder’s Quorum,” a rather ominous-sounding group. Looking it up, I learned that it was not a cult, as I’d initially thought, but rather an elite inner circle within the Mormon Church.
This was around the same time my family had stopped going to church. I’d started to spend more time taking art classes and trying out various sports — tennis, basketball, even archery — and soon church fell to the side. Instead, I meddled in the Quorum’s group texts; when a message came about a member moving away, I excitedly responded, “Let me help y’all out, brother!”
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but after a while I started to feel guilty about this deception. I wondered if I’d somehow ruined Jared’s reputation, if his friends were turned off by my childish responses. I was also dealing with changes within my friend group at the time; the biggest change being letting go of a close but toxic friend; I realized that I needed friendships that were more mutually supportive.
Shortly after, I got a phone call from a strange woman. She started talking about the struggles in her life; her children, her job, even about how she wanted to leave Texas forever. In comparison, my own problems — the B minus I’d gotten, the stress of an upcoming archery tournament, the argument I had with my sister — all seemed superficial. I timidly informed her I wasn’t Jared, and her flustered response told me that I should have told her at the start of the call.
A while later, I got another text: “Congratulations on getting married!” It had never occurred to me how much Jared’s life had changed since I had received his number. But of course it did; over time, I’d outgrown my prankster middle school self, gained the confidence to build a solid friend group, and devoted myself to my primary loves of art and archery. Why wouldn’t Jared also be settling into his own life too?
Though I’ve since taken every opportunity to correct those who text Jared, it still happens every once in a while. Just last month, I got another random text; all it said was: “Endoscopy!” When I got it, I laughed, and then I wrote back.
“Hey, sorry, you have the wrong number. But I hope Jared’s doing well.”
By Maria Fernanda Benavides
“Mayfier? Marfir?” the tournament judge called squinting her eyes, trying to find the spelling error, although there was no error.
“It’s Mafer. It’s a nickname for my full name, Maria Fernanda.”
She stared at me blankly.
“My parents are creative,” I lied, and she laughed.
“O.K., Mahfeer, you’re up!”
I walk to the center and scanned the room before starting as instructed. I took a deep breath.
I reminded myself, “Use your voice.”
I spoke loudly at first, trying to hide the fact that I was overthinking every single word that came out of my mouth. As my performance continued, the artificial confidence became natural, and I started speaking from my heart as I told the story of my experience as an immigrant woman, and I described how much I missed my father who had to travel back and forth every weekend to see my mom and me, and how disconnected I felt from my family, and how I longed to have a place I could call home.
My performance came to an end, and I made my way back to my seat with newly found optimism as I reflected on how performing had consumed me.
I used my voice. Finally. I had found my home in the speech program.
Waiting for the speech tournament to post the names of the finalists was excruciating. I jumped off my seat every time a staff member passed by. I didn’t care about accumulating state points or individual recognition. I wanted the chance to speak again.
Finally, a girl walked up to the oratory postings with a paper on her hand, and the entire cafeteria surrounded her, impatiently waiting to see who the finalists were. Then, I saw it.
My name. Written in dense, black letters.
I smiled to myself.
This time, as I walked to the oratory final, I did so by myself, as I had finally acquired self-assurance needed to navigate the quiet hallways of the high school. I could only hear the heels of the two girls behind me.
“I heard that Saint Mary’s Hall freshman made it to oratory finals,” one of them said, obviously speaking about me. “She broke over me. I didn’t see her performance. Did you? Did you see her performance? What is her speech about?” she questioned the other one.
“It’s about being a Mexican immigrant.”
“Oh, so that’s why she broke.”
“It’s the same pity narrative, there’s nothing different about it.”
Suddenly, the confidence that I had acquired from the previous rounds vanished, and I found myself wishing that I had my older, more experienced teammates by my side to help me block the girls’ words. But no one was there.
I thought my narrative was what made my words matter, what made me matter.
But they didn’t matter. Not anymore. From that moment on, I knew I would be recognized around the circuit as the Mexican girl whose name no one knows how to pronounce. I didn’t even need to speak about my identity to be identified. Everyone would recognize me not for my achievement or my being, but by the peculiar way I pronounce words. I could speak about different topics, but it felt like it wouldn’t make a difference. It felt like my voice didn’t make a difference.
“Mafer, how did it feel?” my coach asked me after the round. “It felt amazing!” I lied.
I didn’t feel anything. Not anymore. Speech gave me a voice, but it also took it away.
By Gordon Lewis
We’re all average boys: hard working in school, spending every minute together in the summer, and doing our best to pretend we don’t have a worry in the world. The facts are no different as the sun is beginning to set on a warm July evening. Sam and I say goodbye to Ben, stepping out of our best friend’s house.
“My sister is going to pick me up while we’re walking, is that O.K.?” I ask.
“Actually, she can probably drive you home, too.”
“Sounds good,” says Sam, but lacking his usual upbeat, comedic energy. Neither of us says anything else, but I’m O.K. with it, we just keep walking. I look around, admiring the still, peaceful park as the warm summer breeze brushes across my face. The crickets are chirping and an owl sings along between the soft hum of cars rolling along nearby. It’s nature’s tune of serenity.
I almost forgot Sam was with me until he asked, “Can I ask you kind of a weird question?”
“Sure,” I say, expecting a joke in poor taste as per usual.
“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to,” he says before asking.
More hesitantly, I say, “O.K.”
“Do you have someone that you talk to about like deeper stuff … Like more emotional stuff?” Silence hits us like a brick wall: The crickets stop chirping, the owl stops hooting, even the cars stop driving by. It’s deafening. I’m only shocked at the question because it’s Sam, one of the happiest and funniest people I know.
I’m wondering. My disappointment takes over just as quickly as my hope fades as I fail to come up with a name. In the end, the closest thing I can think of is the book I occasionally write in when I’m feeling sad or stressed.
“Huh,” I say quietly, “I’ve never really thought about that, but I guess not.”
“Yeah, I didn’t either, but at camp we did activities and had talks that led to more emotional conversations.” I’m silently both jealous and proud of him, but it’s mostly jealousy.
“It’s funny,” I say, “in English we always joked about that TED Talk guy talking about the man box, but it’s actually so true. We shouldn’t feel like we can’t talk about deeper stuff like that.”
“Yeah,” laughed Sam. Silence drapes over us again, but this time it’s more comfortable. I’m lost in my thoughts trying to think of what to say next, but there’s too much. I’ve never had an opportunity like this before. However it’s not shocking or overwhelming, even though it’s with Sam of all people — instead it’s therapeutic.
The silence is broken once again by Sam:
“Like I never told you guys that my parents got divorced.”
“I’m-I’m sorry,” I say, “That really sucks.” I’m disappointed in myself for not saying more.
“It’s O.K.,” Sam says, but I know he’s lying. I can feel his sadness.
Drowning in my thoughts, I try to pick out something to say. But there’s too much to say. There are too many options after being silent for 16 years.
Headlights appear in front of us, and for a split second I’m relieved, but it rapidly turns into regret.
Knowing it’s Rose, I quickly tell sam, “If you ever want to talk again just let me know.”
I say hi to Rose, masking my solemn, thoughtful mood as tiredness. The warm breeze gives my cheek one final kiss; nature resumes her number, and the cars roll by again as Sam and I reluctantly step into the car.
In alphabetical order by the writer’s last name
“Sorry, Wrong Number” by Michelle Ahn
“Speechless” by Maria Fernanda Benavides
“First Impressions” by Isabel Hui
“Nothing Extraordinary” by Jeniffer Kim
“Eggs and Sausage" by Ryan Young Kim
“Pants on Fire” by Varya Kluev
“The Man Box” by Gordon Lewis
“Cracks in the Pavement” by Adam Bernard Sanders
“The First (and Last) Time Speedy Wasn’t Speedy Enough” by Maya Berg
“Searching for Air” by Sydney Do
“Fear on My Mind” by Daytona Gerhardy
“Under the Starry Sky” by Letian Li
“Chinatown Diptych” by Jeffrey Liao
“They” by Haven Low
“The Vigil” by Beda Lundstedt
“How My Brother Taught Me to Drive” by Sarah Shapiro
“The Six in Mid-August” by Liah Argiropoulos
“‘Those Aren’t Scratches Are They?’” by Casey Barwick
“Brown Is Beautiful” by Tiffany Borja
“I Am Ordinary, After All” by Rebecca Braxley
“Torn” by Melanie D.
“The Stupid Seven” by Madeline G.
“Speak No Evil” by Amita Goyal
“Building My Crown” by Ambar Guzman
“Me, Myself, and a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich” by Zachary Hommel
“The Tomato” by Raymond Huang
“Out” by Michael H.
“Cold Noodles With a Side of Birdballs” by Audrey Koh
“Banya in Siberia” by Arshiya Sanghi
“Traffic” by Kecia Seo
“The Power of Ambiguity” by Marcus Shallow
“Land Mine” by Geneve Thomas-Palmer
“How to Fall Asleep With the Lights On” by Caroline Wei
“The Taste of Tofu” by Amy Zhou
“The Newcomer’s Journey” by Maria Z.
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Personal Essay Topics
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- Writing Essays
- Writing Research Papers
- English Grammar
- M.Ed., Education Administration, University of Georgia
- B.A., History, Armstrong State University
A personal essay is an essay about your life, thoughts, or experiences. This type of essay will give readers a glimpse into your most intimate life experiences and life lessons. There are many reasons you may need to write a personal essay , from a simple class assignment to a college application requirement . You can use the list below for inspiration. Consider each statement a starting point, and write about a memorable moment that the prompt brings to mind.
- Your bravest moment
- How you met your best friend
- What makes your mom or dad special
- How you overcame a fear
- Why you will succeed
- Why you made a difficult choice
- A special place
- A place you try to avoid
- When a friend let you down
- An event that changed your life
- A special encounter with an animal
- A time when you felt out of place
- An odd experience that didn't make sense at the time
- Words of wisdom that hit home and changed your way of thinking
- A person that you do not like
- A time when you disappointed someone
- Your fondest memory
- A time when you saw your parent cry
- The moment when you knew you were grown up
- Your earliest memory of holiday celebrations in your home
- Times when you should have made a better choice
- A time when you dodged a dangerous situation
- A person you will think about at the end of your life
- Your favorite time period
- A failure you've experienced
- A disappointment you've experienced
- A surprising turn of events
- What you would do with power
- What superpower you would choose
- If you could switch lives with someone
- How money matters in your life
- Your biggest loss
- A time when you felt you did the wrong thing
- A proud moment when you did the right thing
- An experience that you've never shared with another person
- A special place that you shared with a childhood friend
- A first encounter with a stranger
- Your first handshake
- Where you go to hide
- If you had a do-over
- A book that changed your life
- Words that stung
- When you had the desire to run
- When you had the urge to crawl into a hole
- Words that prompted hope
- When a child taught you a lesson
- Your proudest moment
- If your dog could talk
- Your favorite time with family
- If you could live in another country
- If you could invent something
- The world a hundred years from now
- If you had lived a hundred years earlier
- The animal you'd like to be
- One thing you'd change at your school
- The greatest movie moment
- The type of teacher you would be
- If you could be a building
- A statue you'd like to see
- If you could live anywhere
- The greatest discovery
- If you could change one thing about yourself
- An animal that could be in charge
- Something you can do that robots could never do
- Your most unfortunate day
- Your secret talent
- Your secret love
- The most beautiful thing you've ever seen
- The ugliest thing you've seen
- Something you've witnessed
- An accident that changed everything
- A wrong choice
- A right choice
- If you were a food
- How you'd spend a million dollars
- If you could start a charity
- The meaning of color
- A close call
- Your favorite gift
- A chore you'd do away with
- A secret place
- Something you can't resist
- A hard lesson
- A visitor you'll never forget
- An unexplained event
- Your longest minute
- An awkward social moment
- An experience with death
- Why you'll never tell a lie
- If your mom knew, she'd kill you
- A kiss that meant a lot
- When you needed a hug
- The hardest news you've had to deliver
- A special morning
- How to Write a Narrative Essay or Speech
- What Is an Autobiography?
- 7 Law School Personal Statement Topic Ideas
- How to Ace Your University of Wisconsin Personal Statements
- Expository Essay Genre With Suggested Prompts
- Tips for the Pre-2013 Personal Essay Options on the Common Application
- 50 Topics for Impromptu Student Speeches
- How to Write a Personal Narrative
- 24 Journal Prompts for Creative Writing in the Elementary Classroom
- Tips for Writing an Essay on an Event That Led to Personal Growth
- Writing Prompts for Elementary School Students
- Do You Know What to Do If You Fail a Test in College?
- Bad Essay Topics for College Admissions
- Topical Organization Essay
- The 2021-22 Common Application Essay Prompts
- 61 General Expository Essay Topic Ideas to Practice Academic Writing
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Search the site, search suggestions, the personal essay.
Unlike the rest of your application, which primarily consists of filling in boxes, the personal essay gives you the freedom to essentially write about whatever you want. No rules! Show who you are! Which sounds pretty cool, until you’re sitting there looking at a blank Word document.
While the personal essay is a great opportunity to infuse your voice into the application, I think some people (cough, me, cough) can get overwhelmed by it to the point where they don’t know how to begin. What do I write about? What makes me stand out? How can I explain all of this in only a few hundred words?
Well, as someone who eventually managed to get some words down on that blank document and turn out a decent college essay, here are a few words of advice.
1. Start by writing something.
I know, that sounds really obvious. But sometimes the hardest part of writing is just getting started – if you spend too much time criticizing your ideas before you write anything down, you won’t get anywhere. Write a few sentences, jot down some random ideas, note a couple anecdotes that might be interesting… just get something on paper that you can look back to. Maybe one of those ideas will catch, and BOOM you have an essay – or maybe you’ll look back to this list after a few weeks and think of something else that you would rather write about. That’s fine! The beginning of the creative process involves coming up with ideas, judging them comes later. Trust me, I took a class on this (really: it was a psych class called “Creativity: Madmen, Geniuses, and Harvard Students.”)
2. Think about something that has some significance to you.
Many students feel like they have to write about some huge, life-changing, important event in their lives. If you have something like this that you want to write about, that’s great! However, you can also write an awesome essay about something other than The Most Important Thing Ever. It can be the littlest things, if you explain their significance well, that actually stand out. In my case, somewhere in my essay I mentioned that I got up at 5:37am (rather than 5:30 or 5:45) because I liked prime numbers – and the first thing my admissions officer said when I walked into the room for my interview was, “So, prime numbers, huh?” That being said, remember that this is a college essay, so keep this audience and goal in mind as you write. When they finish reading, what do you want the admissions officers to know about you? Does this essay demonstrate something about who you are and what you care about? If not, you might want to go back to the drawing board.
3. Don’t be afraid to start over.
After finishing my first draft, I was glad to have something, but I wasn’t completely happy with it either. A week or two later, as I was reading over my essay again, I had an idea for a totally different topic - so I opened another document and completely started over. The second attempt was so much better, and I felt happy with how it turned out. It can be hard to scrap an initial attempt after spending so much time on it, but think of that time as just part of the process of getting to what you really want to write about.
4. Get an outside perspective.
One of the most useful things I did while working on my college essay was asking a couple people to read it over. At the time, I had two drafts that I was choosing between, and I wasn’t sure which one captured “me” better. When I asked my parents and teacher what they thought, they unanimously picked one option over the other. In the end, it’s important to have an essay that you are happy with – but sometimes having a fresh set of eyes can help you see what that is.
This is an important step! Both you, and perhaps someone who knows you well, should read over your essay and make sure it is in tip-top shape before you turn it in. There should be no grammatical or spelling mistakes – that gives the impression that you did not take your time on it. I know you’ve spent a long time on it by this point, but those last edits are super important!
The personal essay is a snippet of who you are and where you’re coming from – a snapshot for the admissions officers to look at as they read your application. It will never be able to capture everything about you, but you want to make sure that you’re giving them your best angle. So sit down, smile, and get to writing!
Reflections as a senior: my favorite moments.
Finding my "Third Place"
Five Things I Learned as President of a Harvard Cultural Organization
40 Best Essays of All Time (Including Links & Writing Tips)
I wanted to improve my writing skills. I thought that reading the forty best essays of all time would bring me closer to my goal.
I had little money (buying forty collections of essays was out of the question) so I’ve found them online instead. I’ve hacked through piles of them, and finally, I’ve found the great ones. Now I want to share the whole list with you (with the addition of my notes about writing). Each item on the list has a direct link to the essay, so please click away and indulge yourself. Also, next to each essay, there’s an image of the book that contains the original work.
About this essay list:
Reading essays is like indulging in candy; once you start, it’s hard to stop. I sought out essays that were not only well-crafted but also impactful. These pieces genuinely shifted my perspective. Whether you’re diving in for enjoyment or to hone your writing, these essays promise to leave an imprint. It’s fascinating how an essay can resonate with you, and even if details fade, its essence remains. I haven’t ranked them in any way; they’re all stellar. Skim through, explore the summaries, and pick up some writing tips along the way. For more essay gems, consider “Best American Essays” by Joyce Carol Oates or “101 Essays That Will Change The Way You Think” curated by Brianna Wiest.
40 Best Essays of All Time (With Links And Writing Tips)
1. david sedaris – laugh, kookaburra.
A great family drama takes place against the backdrop of the Australian wilderness. And the Kookaburra laughs… This is one of the top essays of the lot. It’s a great mixture of family reminiscences, travel writing, and advice on what’s most important in life. You’ll also learn an awful lot about the curious culture of the Aussies.
Writing tips from the essay:
- Use analogies (you can make it funny or dramatic to achieve a better effect): “Don’t be afraid,” the waiter said, and he talked to the kookaburra in a soothing, respectful voice, the way you might to a child with a switchblade in his hand”.
- You can touch a few cognate stories in one piece of writing . Reveal the layers gradually. Intertwine them and arrange for a grand finale where everything is finally clear.
- Be on the side of the reader. Become their friend and tell the story naturally, like around the dinner table.
- Use short, punchy sentences. Tell only as much as is required to make your point vivid.
- Conjure sentences that create actual feelings: “I had on a sweater and a jacket, but they weren’t quite enough, and I shivered as we walked toward the body, and saw that it was a . . . what, exactly?”
- You may ask a few tough questions in a row to provoke interest and let the reader think.
2. Charles D’Ambrosio – Documents
Do you think your life punches you in the face all too often? After reading this essay, you will change your mind. Reading about loss and hardships often makes us sad at first, but then enables us to feel grateful for our lives . D’Ambrosio shares his documents (poems, letters) that had a major impact on his life, and brilliantly shows how not to let go of the past.
- The most powerful stories are about your family and the childhood moments that shaped your life.
- You don’t need to build up tension and pussyfoot around the crux of the matter. Instead, surprise the reader by telling it like it is: “The poem was an allegory about his desire to leave our family.” Or: “My father had three sons. I’m the eldest; Danny, the youngest, killed himself sixteen years ago”.
- You can use real documents and quotes from your family and friends. It makes it so much more personal and relatable.
- Don’t cringe before the long sentence if you know it’s a strong one.
- At the end of the essay, you may come back to the first theme to close the circuit.
- Using slightly poetic language is acceptable, as long as it improves the story.
3. E. B. White – Once more to the lake
What does it mean to be a father? Can you see your younger self, reflected in your child? This beautiful essay tells the story of the author, his son, and their traditional stay at a placid lake hidden within the forests of Maine. This place of nature is filled with sunshine and childhood memories. It also provides for one of the greatest meditations on nature and the passing of time.
- Use sophisticated language, but not at the expense of readability.
- Use vivid language to trigger the mirror neurons in the reader’s brain: “I took along my son, who had never had any fresh water up his nose and who had seen lily pads only from train windows”.
- It’s important to mention universal feelings that are rarely talked about (it helps to create a bond between two minds): “You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing. I guess I remembered clearest of all the early mornings when the lake was cool and motionless”.
- Animate the inanimate: “this constant and trustworthy body of water”.
- Mentioning tales of yore is a good way to add some mystery and timelessness to your piece.
- Using double, or even triple “and” in one sentence is fine. It can make the sentence sing.
4. Zadie Smith – Fail Better
Aspiring writers feel tremendous pressure to perform. The daily quota of words often turns out to be nothing more than gibberish. What then? Also, should the writer please the reader or should she be fully independent? What does it mean to be a writer, anyway? This essay is an attempt to answer these questions, but its contents are not only meant for scribblers. Within it, you’ll find some great notes about literary criticism, how we treat art , and the responsibility of the reader.
- A perfect novel ? There’s no such thing.
- The novel always reflects the inner world of the writer. That’s why we’re fascinated with writers.
- Writing is not simply about craftsmanship, but about taking your reader to the unknown lands. In the words of Christopher Hitchens: “Your ideal authors ought to pull you from the foundering of your previous existence, not smilingly guide you into a friendly and peaceable harbor.”
- Style comes from your unique personality and the perception of the world. It takes time to develop it.
- Never try to tell it all. “All” can never be put into language. Take a part of it and tell it the best you can.
- Avoid being cliché. Try to infuse new life into your writing .
- Writing is about your way of being. It’s your game. Paradoxically, if you try to please everyone, your writing will become less appealing. You’ll lose the interest of the readers. This rule doesn’t apply in the business world where you have to write for a specific person (a target audience).
- As a reader, you have responsibilities too. According to the critics, every thirty years, there’s just a handful of great novels. Maybe it’s true. But there’s also an element of personal connection between the reader and the writer. That’s why for one person a novel is a marvel, while for the other, nothing special at all. That’s why you have to search and find the author who will touch you.
5. Virginia Woolf – Death of the Moth
Amid an ordinary day, sitting in a room of her own, Virginia Woolf tells about the epic struggle for survival and the evanescence of life. This short essay is truly powerful. In the beginning, the atmosphere is happy. Life is in full force. And then, suddenly, it fades away. This sense of melancholy would mark the last years of Woolf’s life.
- The melody of language… A good sentence is like music: “Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow- underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us”.
- You can show the grandest in the mundane (for example, the moth at your window and the drama of life and death).
- Using simple comparisons makes the style more lucid: “Being intent on other matters I watched these futile attempts for a time without thinking, unconsciously waiting for him to resume his flight, as one waits for a machine, that has stopped momentarily, to start again without considering the reason of its failure”.
6. Meghan Daum – My Misspent Youth
Many of us, at some point or another, dream about living in New York. Meghan Daum’s take on the subject differs slightly from what you might expect. There’s no glamour, no Broadway shows, and no fancy restaurants. Instead, there’s the sullen reality of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. You’ll get all the juicy details about credit cards, overdue payments, and scrambling for survival. It’s a word of warning. But it’s also a great story about shattered fantasies of living in a big city. Word on the street is: “You ain’t promised mañana in the rotten manzana.”
- You can paint a picture of your former self. What did that person believe in? What kind of world did he or she live in?
- “The day that turned your life around” is a good theme you may use in a story. Memories of a special day are filled with emotions. Strong emotions often breed strong writing.
- Use cultural references and relevant slang to create a context for your story.
- You can tell all the details of the story, even if in some people’s eyes you’ll look like the dumbest motherfucker that ever lived. It adds to the originality.
- Say it in a new way: “In this mindset, the dollars spent, like the mechanics of a machine no one bothers to understand, become an abstraction, an intangible avenue toward self-expression, a mere vehicle of style”.
- You can mix your personal story with the zeitgeist or the ethos of the time.
7. Roger Ebert – Go Gentle Into That Good Night
Probably the greatest film critic of all time, Roger Ebert, tells us not to rage against the dying of the light. This essay is full of courage, erudition, and humanism. From it, we learn about what it means to be dying (Hitchens’ “Mortality” is another great work on that theme). But there’s so much more. It’s a great celebration of life too. It’s about not giving up, and sticking to your principles until the very end. It brings to mind the famous scene from Dead Poets Society where John Keating (Robin Williams) tells his students: “Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary”.
- Start with a powerful sentence: “I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear.”
- Use quotes to prove your point -”‘Ask someone how they feel about death’, he said, ‘and they’ll tell you everyone’s gonna die’. Ask them, ‘In the next 30 seconds?’ No, no, no, that’s not gonna happen”.
- Admit the basic truths about reality in a childlike way (especially after pondering quantum physics) – “I believe my wristwatch exists, and even when I am unconscious, it is ticking all the same. You have to start somewhere”.
- Let other thinkers prove your point. Use quotes and ideas from your favorite authors and friends.
8. George Orwell – Shooting an Elephant
Even after one reading, you’ll remember this one for years. The story, set in British Burma, is about shooting an elephant (it’s not for the squeamish). It’s also the most powerful denunciation of colonialism ever put into writing. Orwell, apparently a free representative of British rule, feels to be nothing more than a puppet succumbing to the whim of the mob.
- The first sentence is the most important one: “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me”.
- You can use just the first paragraph to set the stage for the whole piece of prose.
- Use beautiful language that stirs the imagination: “I remember that it was a cloudy, stuffy morning at the beginning of the rains.” Or: “I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have.”
- If you’ve ever been to war, you will have a story to tell: “(Never tell me, by the way, that the dead look peaceful. Most of the corpses I have seen looked devilish.)”
- Use simple words, and admit the sad truth only you can perceive: “They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching”.
- Share words of wisdom to add texture to the writing: “I perceived at this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his freedom that he destroys.”
- I highly recommend reading everything written by Orwell, especially if you’re looking for the best essay collections on Amazon or Goodreads.
9. George Orwell – A Hanging
It’s just another day in Burma – time to hang a man. Without much ado, Orwell recounts the grim reality of taking another person’s life. A man is taken from his cage and in a few minutes, he’s going to be hanged. The most horrible thing is the normality of it. It’s a powerful story about human nature. Also, there’s an extraordinary incident with the dog, but I won’t get ahead of myself.
- Create brilliant, yet short descriptions of characters: “He was a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a thick, sprouting mustache, absurdly too big for his body, rather like the mustache of a comic man on the films”.
- Understand and share the felt presence of a unique experience: “It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man”.
- Make your readers hear the sound that will stay with them forever: “And then when the noose was fixed, the prisoner began crying out on his god. It was a high, reiterated cry of “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”
- Make the ending original by refusing the tendency to seek closure or summing it up.
10. Christopher Hitchens – Assassins of The Mind
In one of the greatest essays written in defense of free speech, Christopher Hitchens shares many examples of how modern media kneel to the explicit threats of violence posed by Islamic extremists. He recounts the story of his friend, Salman Rushdie, author of Satanic Verses who, for many years, had to watch over his shoulder because of the fatwa of Ayatollah Khomeini. With his usual wit, Hitchens shares various examples of people who died because of their opinions and of editors who refuse to publish anything related to Islam because of fear (and it was written long before the Charlie Hebdo massacre). After reading the essay, you realize that freedom of expression is one of the most precious things we have and that we have to fight for it. I highly recommend all essay collections penned by Hitchens, especially the ones written for Vanity Fair.
- Assume that the readers will know the cultural references. When they do, their self-esteem goes up – they are a part of an insider group.
- When proving your point, give a variety of real-life examples from eclectic sources. Leave no room for ambiguity or vagueness. Research and overall knowledge are essential here.
- Use italics to emphasize a specific word or phrase (here I use the underlining): “We live now in a climate where every publisher and editor and politician has to weigh in advance the possibility of violent Muslim reprisal. In consequence, several things have not happened.”
- Think about how to make it sound more original: “So there is now a hidden partner in our cultural and academic and publishing and the broadcasting world: a shadowy figure that has, uninvited, drawn up a chair to the table.”
11. Christopher Hitchens – The New Commandments
It’s high time to shatter the tablets and amend the biblical rules of conduct. Watch, as Christopher Hitchens slays one commandment after the other on moral, as well as historical grounds. For example, did you know that there are many versions of the divine law dictated by God to Moses which you can find in the Bible? Aren’t we thus empowered to write our version of a proper moral code? If you approach it with an open mind, this essay may change the way you think about the Bible and religion.
- Take the iconoclastic approach. Have a party on the hallowed soil.
- Use humor to undermine orthodox ideas (it seems to be the best way to deal with an established authority).
- Use sarcasm and irony when appropriate (or not): “Nobody is opposed to a day of rest. The international Communist movement got its start by proclaiming a strike for an eight-hour day on May 1, 1886, against Christian employers who used child labor seven days a week”.
- Defeat God on legal grounds: “Wise lawmakers know that it is a mistake to promulgate legislation that is impossible to obey”.
- Be ruthless in the logic of your argument. Provide evidence.
12. Phillip Lopate – Against Joie de Vivre
While reading this fantastic essay, this quote from Slavoj Žižek kept coming back to me: “I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself. If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid. Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves”. I can bear the onus of happiness or joie de vivre for some time. But this force enables me to get free and wallow in the sweet feelings of melancholy and nostalgia. By reading this work of Lopate, you’ll enter into the world of an intelligent man who finds most social rituals a drag. It’s worth exploring.
- Go against the grain. Be flamboyant and controversial (if you can handle it).
- Treat the paragraph like a group of thoughts on one theme. Next paragraph, next theme.
- Use references to other artists to set the context and enrich the prose: “These sunny little canvases with their talented innocence, the third-generation spirit of Montmartre, bore testimony to a love of life so unbending as to leave an impression of rigid narrow-mindedness as extreme as any Savonarola. Their rejection of sorrow was total”.
- Capture the emotions in life that are universal, yet remain unspoken.
- Don’t be afraid to share your intimate experiences.
13. Philip Larkin – The Pleasure Principle
This piece comes from the Required Writing collection of personal essays. Larkin argues that reading in verse should be a source of intimate pleasure – not a medley of unintelligible thoughts that only the author can (or can’t?) decipher. It’s a sobering take on modern poetry and a great call to action for all those involved in it. Well worth a read.
- Write about complicated ideas (such as poetry) simply. You can change how people look at things if you express yourself enough.
- Go boldly. The reader wants a bold writer: “We seem to be producing a new kind of bad poetry, not the old kind that tries to move the reader and fails, but one that does not even try”.
- Play with words and sentence length. Create music: “It is time some of you playboys realized, says the judge, that reading a poem is hard work. Fourteen days in stir. Next case”.
- Persuade the reader to take action. Here, direct language is the most effective.
14. Sigmund Freud – Thoughts for the Times on War and Death
This essay reveals Freud’s disillusionment with the whole project of Western civilization. How the peaceful European countries could engage in a war that would eventually cost over 17 million lives? What stirs people to kill each other? Is it their nature, or are they puppets of imperial forces with agendas of their own? From the perspective of time, this work by Freud doesn’t seem to be fully accurate. Even so, it’s well worth your time.
- Commence with long words derived from Latin. Get grandiloquent, make your argument incontrovertible, and leave your audience discombobulated.
- Use unending sentences, so that the reader feels confused, yet impressed.
- Say it well: “In this way, he enjoyed the blue sea and the grey; the beauty of snow-covered mountains and green meadowlands; the magic of northern forests and the splendor of southern vegetation; the mood evoked by landscapes that recall great historical events, and the silence of untouched nature”.
- Human nature is a subject that never gets dry.
15. Zadie Smith – Some Notes on Attunement
“You are privy to a great becoming, but you recognize nothing” – Francis Dolarhyde. This one is about the elusiveness of change occurring within you. For Zadie, it was hard to attune to the vibes of Joni Mitchell – especially her Blue album. But eventually, she grew up to appreciate her genius, and all the other things changed as well. This top essay is all about the relationship between humans, and art. We shouldn’t like art because we’re supposed to. We should like it because it has an instantaneous, emotional effect on us. Although, according to Stansfield (Gary Oldman) in Léon, liking Beethoven is rather mandatory.
- Build an expectation of what’s coming: “The first time I heard her I didn’t hear her at all”.
- Don’t be afraid of repetition if it feels good.
- Psychedelic drugs let you appreciate things you never appreciated.
- Intertwine a personal journey with philosophical musings.
- Show rather than tell: “My friends pitied their eyes. The same look the faithful give you as you hand them back their “literature” and close the door in their faces”.
- Let the poets speak for you: “That time is past, / And all its aching joys are now no
- more, / And all its dizzy raptures”.
- By voicing your anxieties, you can heal the anxieties of the reader. In that way, you say: “I’m just like you. I’m your friend in this struggle”.
- Admit your flaws to make your persona more relatable.
16. Annie Dillard – Total Eclipse
My imagination was always stirred by the scene of the solar eclipse in Pharaoh, by Boleslaw Prus. I wondered about the shock of the disoriented crowd when they saw how their ruler could switch off the light. Getting immersed in this essay by Annie Dillard has a similar effect. It produces amazement and some kind of primeval fear. It’s not only the environment that changes; it’s your mind and the perception of the world. After the eclipse, nothing is going to be the same again.
- Yet again, the power of the first sentence draws you in: “It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass”.
- Don’t miss the extraordinary scene. Then describe it: “Up in the sky, like a crater from some distant cataclysm, was a hollow ring”.
- Use colloquial language. Write as you talk. Short sentences often win.
- Contrast the numinous with the mundane to enthrall the reader.
17. Édouard Levé – When I Look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue
This suicidally beautiful essay will teach you a lot about the appreciation of life and the struggle with mental illness. It’s a collection of personal, apparently unrelated thoughts that show us the rich interior of the author. You look at the real-time thoughts of another person, and then recognize the same patterns within yourself… It sounds like a confession of a person who’s about to take their life, and it’s striking in its originality.
- Use the stream-of-consciousness technique and put random thoughts on paper. Then, polish them: “I have attempted suicide once, I’ve been tempted four times to attempt it”.
- Place the treasure deep within the story: “When I look at a strawberry, I think of a tongue, when I lick one, of a kiss”.
- Don’t worry about what people might think. The more you expose, the more powerful the writing. Readers also take part in the great drama. They experience universal emotions that mostly stay inside. You can translate them into writing.
18. Gloria E. Anzaldúa – How to Tame a Wild Tongue
Anzaldúa, who was born in south Texas, had to struggle to find her true identity. She was American, but her culture was grounded in Mexico. In this way, she and her people were not fully respected in either of the countries. This essay is an account of her journey of becoming the ambassador of the Chicano (Mexican-American) culture. It’s full of anecdotes, interesting references, and different shades of Spanish. It’s a window into a new cultural dimension that you’ve never experienced before.
- If your mother tongue is not English, but you write in English, use some of your unique homeland vocabulary.
- You come from a rich cultural heritage. You can share it with people who never heard about it, and are not even looking for it, but it is of immense value to them when they discover it.
- Never forget about your identity. It is precious. It is a part of who you are. Even if you migrate, try to preserve it. Use it to your best advantage and become the voice of other people in the same situation.
- Tell them what’s really on your mind: “So if you want to hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity – I am my language”.
19. Kurt Vonnegut – Dispatch From A Man Without a Country
In terms of style, this essay is flawless. It’s simple, conversational, humorous, and yet, full of wisdom. And when Vonnegut becomes a teacher and draws an axis of “beginning – end”, and, “good fortune – bad fortune” to explain literature, it becomes outright hilarious. It’s hard to find an author with such a down-to-earth approach. He doesn’t need to get intellectual to prove a point. And the point could be summed up by the quote from Great Expectations – “On the Rampage, Pip, and off the Rampage, Pip – such is Life!”
- Start with a curious question: “Do you know what a twerp is?”
- Surprise your readers with uncanny analogies: “I am from a family of artists. Here I am, making a living in the arts. It has not been a rebellion. It’s as though I had taken over the family Esso station.”
- Use your natural language without too many special effects. In time, the style will crystalize.
- An amusing lesson in writing from Mr. Vonnegut: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college”.
- You can put actual images or vignettes between the paragraphs to illustrate something.
20. Mary Ruefle – On Fear
Most psychologists and gurus agree that fear is the greatest enemy of success or any creative activity. It’s programmed into our minds to keep us away from imaginary harm. Mary Ruefle takes on this basic human emotion with flair. She explores fear from so many angles (especially in the world of poetry-writing) that at the end of this personal essay, you will look at it, dissect it, untangle it, and hopefully be able to say “f**k you” the next time your brain is trying to stop you.
- Research your subject thoroughly. Ask people, have interviews, get expert opinions, and gather as much information as possible. Then scavenge through the fields of data, and pull out the golden bits that will let your prose shine.
- Use powerful quotes to add color to your story: “The poet who embarks on the creation of the poem (as I know by experience), begins with the aimless sensation of a hunter about to embark on a night hunt through the remotest of forests. Unaccountable dread stirs in his heart”. – Lorca.
- Writing advice from the essay: “One of the fears a young writer has is not being able to write as well as he or she wants to, the fear of not being able to sound like X or Y, a favorite author. But out of fear, hopefully, is born a young writer’s voice”.
21. Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation
In this highly intellectual essay, Sontag fights for art and its interpretation. It’s a great lesson, especially for critics and interpreters who endlessly chew on works that simply defy interpretation. Why don’t we just leave the art alone? I always hated it when at school they asked me: “What did the author have in mind when he did X or Y?” Iēsous Pantocrator! Hell if I know! I will judge it through my subjective experience!
- Leave the art alone: “Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities”.
- When you have something really important to say, style matters less.
- There’s no use in creating a second meaning or inviting interpretation of our art. Just leave it be and let it speak for itself.
22. Nora Ephron – A Few Words About Breasts
This is a heartwarming, coming-of-age story about a young girl who waits in vain for her breasts to grow. It’s simply a humorous and pleasurable read. The size of breasts is a big deal for women. If you’re a man, you may peek into the mind of a woman and learn many interesting things. If you’re a woman, maybe you’ll be able to relate and at last, be at peace with your bosom.
- Touch an interesting subject and establish a strong connection with the readers (in that case, women with small breasts). Let your personality shine through the written piece. If you are lighthearted, show it.
- Use hyphens to create an impression of real talk: “My house was full of apples and peaches and milk and homemade chocolate chip cookies – which were nice, and good for you, but-not-right-before-dinner-or-you’ll-spoil-your-appetite.”
- Use present tense when you tell a story to add more life to it.
- Share the pronounced, memorable traits of characters: “A previous girlfriend named Solange, who was famous throughout Beverly Hills High School for having no pigment in her right eyebrow, had knitted them for him (angora dice)”.
23. Carl Sagan – Does Truth Matter – Science, Pseudoscience, and Civilization
Carl Sagan was one of the greatest proponents of skepticism, and an author of numerous books, including one of my all-time favorites – The Demon-Haunted World . He was also a renowned physicist and the host of the fantastic Cosmos: A Personal Voyage series, which inspired a whole generation to uncover the mysteries of the cosmos. He was also a dedicated weed smoker – clearly ahead of his time. The essay that you’re about to read is a crystallization of his views about true science, and why you should check the evidence before believing in UFOs or similar sorts of crap.
- Tell people the brutal truth they need to hear. Be the one who spells it out for them.
- Give a multitude of examples to prove your point. Giving hard facts helps to establish trust with the readers and show the veracity of your arguments.
- Recommend a good book that will change your reader’s minds – How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life
24. Paul Graham – How To Do What You Love
How To Do What You Love should be read by every college student and young adult. The Internet is flooded with a large number of articles and videos that are supposed to tell you what to do with your life. Most of them are worthless, but this one is different. It’s sincere, and there’s no hidden agenda behind it. There’s so much we take for granted – what we study, where we work, what we do in our free time… Surely we have another two hundred years to figure it out, right? Life’s too short to be so naïve. Please, read the essay and let it help you gain fulfillment from your work.
- Ask simple, yet thought-provoking questions (especially at the beginning of the paragraph) to engage the reader: “How much are you supposed to like what you do?”
- Let the readers question their basic assumptions: “Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like”.
- If you’re writing for a younger audience, you can act as a mentor. It’s beneficial for younger people to read a few words of advice from a person with experience.
25. John Jeremiah Sullivan – Mister Lytle
A young, aspiring writer is about to become a nurse of a fading writer – Mister Lytle (Andrew Nelson Lytle), and there will be trouble. This essay by Sullivan is probably my favorite one from the whole list. The amount of beautiful sentences it contains is just overwhelming. But that’s just a part of its charm. It also takes you to the Old South which has an incredible atmosphere. It’s grim and tawny but you want to stay there for a while.
- Short, distinct sentences are often the most powerful ones: “He had a deathbed, in other words. He didn’t go suddenly”.
- Stay consistent with the mood of the story. When reading Mister Lytle you are immersed in that southern, forsaken, gloomy world, and it’s a pleasure.
- The spectacular language that captures it all: “His French was superb, but his accent in English was best—that extinct mid-Southern, land-grant pioneer speech, with its tinges of the abandoned Celtic urban Northeast (“boned” for burned) and its raw gentility”.
- This essay is just too good. You have to read it.
26. Joan Didion – On Self Respect
Normally, with that title, you would expect some straightforward advice about how to improve your character and get on with your goddamn life – but not from Joan Didion. From the very beginning, you can feel the depth of her thinking, and the unmistakable style of a true woman who’s been hurt. You can learn more from this essay than from whole books about self-improvement . It reminds me of the scene from True Detective, where Frank Semyon tells Ray Velcoro to “own it” after he realizes he killed the wrong man all these years ago. I guess we all have to “own it”, recognize our mistakes, and move forward sometimes.
- Share your moral advice: “Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs”.
- It’s worth exploring the subject further from a different angle. It doesn’t matter how many people have already written on self-respect or self-reliance – you can still write passionately about it.
- Whatever happens, you must take responsibility for it. Brave the storms of discontent.
27. Susan Sontag – Notes on Camp
I’ve never read anything so thorough and lucid about an artistic current. After reading this essay, you will know what camp is. But not only that – you will learn about so many artists you’ve never heard of. You will follow their traces and go to places where you’ve never been before. You will vastly increase your appreciation of art. It’s interesting how something written as a list could be so amazing. All the listicles we usually see on the web simply cannot compare with it.
- Talking about artistic sensibilities is a tough job. When you read the essay, you will see how much research, thought and raw intellect came into it. But that’s one of the reasons why people still read it today, even though it was written in 1964.
- You can choose an unorthodox way of expression in the medium for which you produce. For example, Notes on Camp is a listicle – one of the most popular content formats on the web. But in the olden days, it was uncommon to see it in print form.
- Just think about what is camp: “And third among the great creative sensibilities is Camp: the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling”.
28. Ralph Waldo Emerson – Self-Reliance
That’s the oldest one from the lot. Written in 1841, it still inspires generations of people. It will let you understand what it means to be self-made. It contains some of the most memorable quotes of all time. I don’t know why, but this one especially touched me: “Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to accomplish his design, and posterity seems to follow his steps as a train of clients”. Now isn’t it purely individualistic, American thought? Emerson told me (and he will tell you) to do something amazing with my life. The language it contains is a bit archaic, but that just adds to the weight of the argument. You can consider it to be a meeting with a great philosopher who shaped the ethos of the modern United States.
- You can start with a powerful poem that will set the stage for your work.
- Be free in your creative flow. Do not wait for the approval of others: “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness”.
- Use rhetorical questions to strengthen your argument: “I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly say a new and spontaneous word?”
29. David Foster Wallace – Consider The Lobster
When you want simple field notes about a food festival, you needn’t send there the formidable David Foster Wallace. He sees right through the hypocrisy and cruelty behind killing hundreds of thousands of innocent lobsters – by boiling them alive. This essay uncovers some of the worst traits of modern American people. There are no apologies or hedging one’s bets. There’s just plain truth that stabs you in the eye like a lobster claw. After reading this essay, you may reconsider the whole animal-eating business.
- When it’s important, say it plainly and stagger the reader: “[Lobsters] survive right up until they’re boiled. Most of us have been in supermarkets or restaurants that feature tanks of live lobster, from which you can pick out your supper while it watches you point”.
- In your writing, put exact quotes of the people you’ve been interviewing (including slang and grammatical errors). It makes it more vivid, and interesting.
- You can use humor in serious situations to make your story grotesque.
- Use captions to expound on interesting points of your essay.
30. David Foster Wallace – The Nature of the Fun
The famous novelist and author of the most powerful commencement speech ever done is going to tell you about the joys and sorrows of writing a work of fiction. It’s like taking care of a mutant child that constantly oozes smelly liquids. But you love that child and you want others to love it too. It’s a very humorous account of what it means to be an author. If you ever plan to write a novel, you should read that one. And the story about the Chinese farmer is just priceless.
- Base your point on a chimerical analogy. Here, the writer’s unfinished work is a “hideously damaged infant”.
- Even in expository writing, you may share an interesting story to keep things lively.
- Share your true emotions (even when you think they won’t interest anyone). Often, that’s exactly what will interest the reader.
- Read the whole essay for marvelous advice on writing fiction.
31. Margaret Atwood – Attitude
This is not an essay per se, but I included it on the list for the sake of variety. It was delivered as a commencement speech at The University of Toronto, and it’s about keeping the right attitude. Soon after leaving university, most graduates have to forget about safety, parties, and travel and start a new life – one filled with a painful routine that will last until they drop. Atwood says that you don’t have to accept that. You can choose how you react to everything that happens to you (and you don’t have to stay in that dead-end job for the rest of your days).
- At times, we are all too eager to persuade, but the strongest persuasion is not forceful. It’s subtle. It speaks to the heart. It affects you gradually.
- You may be tempted to talk about a subject by first stating what it is not, rather than what it is. Try to avoid that.
- Simple advice for writers (and life in general): “When faced with the inevitable, you always have a choice. You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it”.
32. Jo Ann Beard – The Fourth State of Matter
Read that one as soon as possible. It’s one of the most masterful and impactful essays you’ll ever read. It’s like a good horror – a slow build-up, and then your jaw drops to the ground. To summarize the story would be to spoil it, so I recommend that you just dig in and devour this essay in one sitting. It’s a perfect example of “show, don’t tell” writing, where the actions of characters are enough to create the right effect. No need for flowery adjectives here.
- The best story you will tell is going to come from your personal experience.
- Use mysteries that will nag the reader. For example, at the beginning of the essay, we learn about the “vanished husband” but there’s no explanation. We have to keep reading to get the answer.
- Explain it in simple terms: “You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and then your plasma”. Why complicate?
33. Terence McKenna – Tryptamine Hallucinogens and Consciousness
To me, Terence McKenna was one of the most interesting thinkers of the twentieth century. His many lectures (now available on YouTube) attracted millions of people who suspect that consciousness holds secrets yet to be unveiled. McKenna consumed psychedelic drugs for most of his life and it shows (in a positive way). Many people consider him a looney, and a hippie, but he was so much more than that. He dared to go into the abyss of his psyche and come back to tell the tale. He also wrote many books (the most famous being Food Of The Gods ), built a huge botanical garden in Hawaii , lived with shamans, and was a connoisseur of all things enigmatic and obscure. Take a look at this essay, and learn more about the explorations of the subconscious mind.
- Become the original thinker, but remember that it may require extraordinary measures: “I call myself an explorer rather than a scientist because the area that I’m looking at contains insufficient data to support even the dream of being a science”.
- Learn new words every day to make your thoughts lucid.
- Come up with the most outlandish ideas to push the envelope of what’s possible. Don’t take things for granted or become intellectually lazy. Question everything.
34. Eudora Welty – The Little Store
By reading this little-known essay, you will be transported into the world of the old American South. It’s a remembrance of trips to the little store in a little town. It’s warm and straightforward, and when you read it, you feel like a child once more. All these beautiful memories live inside of us. They lay somewhere deep in our minds, hidden from sight. The work by Eudora Welty is an attempt to uncover some of them and let you get reacquainted with some smells and tastes of the past.
- When you’re from the South, flaunt it. It’s still good old English but sometimes it sounds so foreign. I can hear the Southern accent too: “There were almost tangible smells – licorice recently sucked in a child’s cheek, dill-pickle brine that had leaked through a paper sack in a fresh trail across the wooden floor, ammonia-loaded ice that had been hoisted from wet Croker sacks and slammed into the icebox with its sweet butter at the door, and perhaps the smell of still-untrapped mice”.
- Yet again, never forget your roots.
- Childhood stories can be the most powerful ones. You can write about how they shaped you.
35. John McPhee – The Search for Marvin Gardens
The Search for Marvin Gardens contains many layers of meaning. It’s a story about a Monopoly championship, but also, it’s the author’s search for the lost streets visible on the board of the famous board game. It also presents a historical perspective on the rise and fall of civilizations, and on Atlantic City, which once was a lively place, and then, slowly declined, the streets filled with dirt and broken windows.
- There’s nothing like irony: “A sign- ‘Slow, Children at Play’- has been bent backward by an automobile”.
- Telling the story in apparently unrelated fragments is sometimes better than telling the whole thing in a logical order.
- Creativity is everything. The best writing may come just from connecting two ideas and mixing them to achieve a great effect. Shush! The muse is whispering.
36. Maxine Hong Kingston – No Name Woman
A dead body at the bottom of the well makes for a beautiful literary device. The first line of Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name Is Red delivers it perfectly: “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well”. There’s something creepy about the idea of the well. Just think about the “It puts the lotion in the basket” scene from The Silence of the Lambs. In the first paragraph of Kingston’s essay, we learn about a suicide committed by uncommon means of jumping into the well. But this time it’s a real story. Who was this woman? Why did she do it? Read the essay.
- Mysterious death always gets attention. The macabre details are like daiquiris on a hot day – you savor them – you don’t let them spill.
- One sentence can speak volumes: “But the rare urge west had fixed upon our family, and so my aunt crossed boundaries not delineated in space”.
- It’s interesting to write about cultural differences – especially if you have the relevant experience. Something normal for us is unthinkable for others. Show this different world.
- The subject of sex is never boring.
37. Joan Didion – On Keeping A Notebook
Slouching Towards Bethlehem is one of the most famous collections of essays of all time. In it, you will find a curious piece called On Keeping A Notebook. It’s not only a meditation about keeping a journal. It’s also Didion’s reconciliation with her past self. After reading it, you will seriously reconsider your life’s choices and look at your life from a wider perspective.
- When you write things down in your journal, be more specific – unless you want to write a deep essay about it years later.
- Use the beauty of the language to relate to the past: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat, although it would be of some interest to me to know again what it feels like to sit on a river levee drinking vodka-and-orange-juice and listening to Les Paul and Mary Ford and their echoes sing ‘How High the Moon’ on the car radio”.
- Drop some brand names if you want to feel posh.
38. Joan Didion – Goodbye To All That
This one touched me because I also lived in New York City for a while. I don’t know why, but stories about life in NYC are so often full of charm and this eerie-melancholy-jazz feeling. They are powerful. They go like this: “There was a hard blizzard in NYC. As the sound of sirens faded, Tony descended into the dark world of hustlers and pimps.” That’s pulp literature but in the context of NYC, it always sounds cool. Anyway, this essay is amazing in too many ways. You just have to read it.
- Talk about New York City. They will read it.
- Talk about the human experience: “It did occur to me to call the desk and ask that the air conditioner be turned off, I never called, because I did not know how much to tip whoever might come—was anyone ever so young?”
- Look back at your life and reexamine it. Draw lessons from it.
39. George Orwell – Reflections on Gandhi
George Orwell could see things as they were. No exaggeration, no romanticism – just facts. He recognized totalitarianism and communism for what they were and shared his worries through books like 1984 and Animal Farm . He took the same sober approach when dealing with saints and sages. Today, we regard Gandhi as one of the greatest political leaders of the twentieth century – and rightfully so. But did you know that when asked about the Jews during World War II, Gandhi said that they should commit collective suicide and that it: “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.” He also recommended utter pacifism in 1942, during the Japanese invasion, even though he knew it would cost millions of lives. But overall he was a good guy. Read the essay and broaden your perspective on the Bapu of the Indian Nation.
- Share a philosophical thought that stops the reader for a moment: “No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid”.
- Be straightforward in your writing – no mannerisms, no attempts to create ‘style’, and no invocations of the numinous – unless you feel the mystical vibe.
40. George Orwell – Politics and the English Language
Let Mr. Orwell give you some writing tips. Written in 1946, this essay is still one of the most helpful documents on writing in English. Orwell was probably the first person who exposed the deliberate vagueness of political language. He was very serious about it and I admire his efforts to slay all unclear sentences (including ones written by distinguished professors). But it’s good to make it humorous too from time to time. My favorite examples of that would be the immortal Soft Language sketch by George Carlin or the “Romans Go Home” scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Overall, it’s a great essay filled with examples from many written materials. It’s a must-read for any writer.
- Listen to the master: “This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose.” Do something about it.
- This essay is all about writing better, so go to the source if you want the goodies.
Other Essays You May Find Interesting
The list that I’ve prepared is by no means complete. The literary world is full of exciting essays and you’ll never know which one is going to change your life. I’ve found reading essays very rewarding because sometimes, a single one means more than reading a whole book. It’s almost like wandering around and peeking into the minds of the greatest writers and thinkers that ever lived. To make this list more comprehensive, below I included more essays you may find interesting.
Oliver Sacks – On Libraries
One of the greatest contributors to the knowledge about the human mind, Oliver Sacks meditates on the value of libraries and his love of books.
Noam Chomsky – The Responsibility of Intellectuals
Chomsky did probably more than anyone else to define the role of the intelligentsia in the modern world . There is a war of ideas over there – good and bad – intellectuals are going to be those who ought to be fighting for the former.
Sam Harris – The Riddle of The Gun
Sam Harris, now a famous philosopher and neuroscientist, takes on the problem of gun control in the United States. His thoughts are clear of prejudice. After reading this, you’ll appreciate the value of logical discourse overheated, irrational debate that more often than not has real implications on policy.
Tim Ferriss – Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide
This piece was written as a blog post , but it’s worth your time. The author of the NYT bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek shares an emotional story about how he almost killed himself, and what can you do to save yourself or your friends from suicide.
Edward Said – Reflections on Exile
The life of Edward Said was a truly fascinating one. Born in Jerusalem, he lived between Palestine and Egypt and finally settled down in the United States, where he completed his most famous work – Orientalism. In this essay, he shares his thoughts about what it means to be in exile.
Richard Feynman – It’s as Simple as One, Two, Three…
Richard Feynman is one of the most interesting minds of the twentieth century. He was a brilliant physicist, but also an undeniably great communicator of science, an artist, and a traveler. By reading this essay, you can observe his thought process when he tries to figure out what affects our perception of time. It’s a truly fascinating read.
Rabindranath Tagore – The Religion of The Forest
I like to think about Tagore as my spiritual Friend. His poems are just marvelous. They are like some of the Persian verses that praise love, nature, and the unity of all things. By reading this short essay, you will learn a lot about Indian philosophy and its relation to its Western counterpart.
Richard Dawkins – Letter To His 10-Year-Old Daughter
Every father should be able to articulate his philosophy of life to his children. With this letter that’s similar to what you find in the Paris Review essays , the famed atheist and defender of reason, Richard Dawkins, does exactly that. It’s beautifully written and stresses the importance of looking at evidence when we’re trying to make sense of the world.
Albert Camus – The Minotaur (or, The Stop In Oran)
Each person requires a period of solitude – a period when one’s able to gather thoughts and make sense of life. There are many places where you may attempt to find quietude. Albert Camus tells about his favorite one.
Koty Neelis – 21 Incredible Life Lessons From Anthony Bourdain
I included it as the last one because it’s not really an essay, but I just had to put it somewhere. In this listicle, you’ll find the 21 most original thoughts of the high-profile cook, writer, and TV host, Anthony Bourdain. Some of them are shocking, others are funny, but they’re all worth checking out.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca – On the Shortness of Life
It’s similar to the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam because it praises life. Seneca shares some of his stoic philosophy and tells you not to waste your time on stupidities. Drink! – for once dead you shall never return.
Bertrand Russell – In Praise of Idleness
This old essay is a must-read for modern humans. We are so preoccupied with our work, our phones, and all the media input we drown in our business. Bertrand Russell tells you to chill out a bit – maybe it will do you some good.
James Baldwin – Stranger in the Village
It’s an essay on the author’s experiences as an African-American in a Swiss village, exploring race, identity, and alienation while highlighting the complexities of racial dynamics and the quest for belonging.
Bonus – More writing tips from two great books
The mission to improve my writing skills took me further than just going through the essays. I’ve come across some great books on writing too. I highly recommend you read them in their entirety. They’re written beautifully and contain lots of useful knowledge. Below you’ll find random (but useful) notes that I took from The Sense of Style and On Writing.
The Sense of Style – By Steven Pinker
- Style manuals are full of inconsistencies. Following their advice might not be the best idea. They might make your prose boring.
- Grammarians from all eras condemn students for not knowing grammar. But it just evolves. It cannot be rigid.
- “Nothing worth learning can be taught” – Oscar Wilde. It’s hard to learn to write from a manual – you have to read, write, and analyze.
- Good writing makes you imagine things and feel them for yourself – use word pictures.
- Don’t fear using voluptuous words.
- Phonesthetics – or how the words sound.
- Use parallel language (consistency of tense).
- Good writing finishes strong.
- Write to someone. Never write for no one in mind. Try to show people your view of the world.
- Don’t tell everything you are going to say in summary (signposting) – be logical, but be conversational.
- Don’t be pompous.
- Don’t use quotation marks where they don’t “belong”. Be confident about your style.
- Don’t hedge your claims (research first, and then tell it like it is).
- Avoid clichés and meta-concepts (concepts about concepts). Be more straightforward!
- Not prevention – but prevents or prevented – don’t use dead nouns.
- Be more vivid while using your mother tongue – don’t use passive where it’s not needed. Direct the reader’s gaze to something in the world.
- The curse of knowledge – the reader doesn’t know what you know – beware of that.
- Explain technical terms.
- Use examples when you explain a difficult term.
- If you ever say “I think I understand this” it probably means you don’t.
- It’s better to underestimate the lingo of your readers than to overestimate it.
- Functional fixedness – if we know some object (or idea) well, we tend to see it in terms of usage, not just as an object.
- Use concrete language instead of an abstraction.
- Show your work to people before you publish (get feedback!).
- Wait for a few days and then revise, revise, revise. Think about clarity and the sound of sentences. Then show it to someone. Then revise one more time. Then publish (if it’s to be serious work).
- Look at it from the perspective of other people.
- Omit needless words.
- Put the heaviest words at the end of the sentence.
- It’s good to use the passive, but only when appropriate.
- Check all text for cohesion. Make sure that the sentences flow gently.
- In expository work, go from general to more specific. But in journalism start from the big news and then give more details.
- Use the paragraph break to give the reader a moment to take a breath.
- Use the verb instead of a noun (make it more active) – not “cancellation”, but “canceled”. But after you introduce the action, you can refer to it with a noun.
- Avoid too many negations.
- If you write about why something is so, don’t spend too much time writing about why it is not.
On Writing Well – By William Zinsser
- Writing is a craft. You need to sit down every day and practice your craft.
- You should re-write and polish your prose a lot.
- Throw out all the clutter. Don’t keep it because you like it. Aim for readability.
- Look at the best examples of English literature . There’s hardly any needless garbage there.
- Use shorter expressions. Don’t add extra words that don’t bring any value to your work.
- Don’t use pompous language. Use simple language and say plainly what’s going on (“because” equals “because”).
- The media and politics are full of cluttered prose (because it helps them to cover up for their mistakes).
- You can’t add style to your work (and especially, don’t add fancy words to create an illusion of style). That will look fake. You need to develop a style.
- Write in the “I” mode. Write to a friend or just for yourself. Show your personality. There is a person behind the writing.
- Choose your words carefully. Use the dictionary to learn different shades of meaning.
- Remember about phonology. Make music with words .
- The lead is essential. Pull the reader in. Otherwise, your article is dead.
- You don’t have to make the final judgment on any topic. Just pick the right angle.
- Do your research. Not just obvious research, but a deep one.
- When it’s time to stop, stop. And finish strong. Think about the last sentence. Surprise them.
- Use quotations. Ask people. Get them talking.
- If you write about travel, it must be significant to the reader. Don’t bother with the obvious. Choose your words with special care. Avoid travel clichés at all costs. Don’t tell that the sand was white and there were rocks on the beach. Look for the right detail.
- If you want to learn how to write about art, travel, science, etc. – read the best examples available. Learn from the masters.
- Concentrate on one big idea (“Let’s not go peeing down both legs”).
- “The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good.”
- One very helpful question: “What is the piece really about?” (Not just “What the piece is about?”)
Now immerse yourself in the world of essays
By reading the essays from the list above, you’ll become a better writer , a better reader, but also a better person. An essay is a special form of writing. It is the only literary form that I know of that is an absolute requirement for career or educational advancement. Nowadays, you can use an AI essay writer or an AI essay generator that will get the writing done for you, but if you have personal integrity and strong moral principles, avoid doing this at all costs. For me as a writer, the effect of these authors’ masterpieces is often deeply personal. You won’t be able to find the beautiful thoughts they contain in any other literary form. I hope you enjoy the read and that it will inspire you to do your writing. This list is only an attempt to share some of the best essays available online. Next up, you may want to check the list of magazines and websites that accept personal essays .
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Personal Essay Topics
Essay paper writing
Personal essay is considered to be one of the most interesting academic assignments. Writing such an essay, you are not just creating a regular text about some person but also have a great opportunity to demonstrate your views, feelings, or opinion on a given topic. In a good paper, you can influence the readers and present some new ideas to them.
Students often think that a personal essay is difficult to write. Moreover, they often get scared when they realize that they may need to prepare for this assignment longer than usual. Well, in fact, there is nothing complicated in this task. All you need to do is express the main idea clearly, discuss it, and be honest with your readers.
However, sometimes the situation gets worse when a teacher gives quite specific college personal essay topics, and you have no opportunity to touch upon some important issues that you might want to discuss. Relax and do not think of the topic as a limitation! Instead, try to provide a deeper comprehension of the issues and concepts related to the theme of your paper.
The next challenge of creating such a text is that you will need to combine a lot of writing styles. But do not panic! Look at this struggle from a different perspective, and it will become an advantage which allows you to express your thoughts more vividly. After all, it’s a fact that your writing style reflects your personality.
Of course, the success of your essay mostly depends on the topic, so you are welcome to choose one of the interesting personal essay topics presented by our essay writing service in this article. Then, working on the task, make sure that it is not a monotonous piece that will be difficult to read. Well-structured papers on relevant common personal essay topics provide an excellent opportunity to show your point of view and express your feelings regarding the subject.
How to write personal essays?
This question is pertinent among the new writers who struggle to create a whole text about a person. But there is nothing to worry about! First of all, try to collect as much information as possible. For example, look for some interviews with the individual you want to write about. If you have one of the top personal essay topics, it will be quite easy to find this kind of info.
The next aspect of a good essay is the formatting of the text. This is not the easiest part of writing, but it is definitely not the thing you should be concerned about. Make sure that you have a writing guide to refer to or just ask your professor about formatting rules at your college. By the way, mind that we are talking mostly about personal essay topics for college, so if you have to write such text for school or university, you will need to adapt it to the requirements of that educational institution.
Finally, let’s consider the structure of a good personal essay. In the first paragraph, you have to provide a brief biography of the person you are writing about. It should contain some information about their life, achievements, and some interesting facts. After that, try to find some info about the childhood years of this individual. Using this technique, you can create an interesting intro which will prompt your audience to read the text to the very end. If you have troubles with that, you can just pick one of the personal essay topics for high school students, as they should be easier to find info on. After you are done with the first section, it is time to move on to the most challenging part of writing. Here, you have to describe the outstanding years of a person’s life and analyze the most important experiences or events during that time . Do not get scared if you are assigned to write a text about yourself or someone you do not know. You may have excellent writing skills, but it is always difficult to tell personal stories or share memories. So don’t lose heart if you won’t succeed with your first personal essay.
Why choose to write on the personal persuasive essay topics
While reading the information above, you may get the following question, “Why would a novice writer pick such a complex topic to write on?” First of all, people need to do something new and challenging all the time in order to become well-versed in particular spheres. Secondly, students learn how to work on several types of texts, which not only helps them to become better writers but also reach a totally new level of proficiency. Another great thing is that if you pick one of the personal essay topics for college applications, you will be able to stand out from the crowd of those who are going to choose the easier topics.
So, now it’s time to start writing the actual essay. Do not worry if you still have no ideas what to write about. In this article, we will provide the list of personal essay topic options which will definitely help you to write a perfect paper and get an excellent mark.
College level personal essay topics
College-level personal experience essay topics are more challenging to cope with than school ones because you have to search and analyze a lot. Moreover, writing college-level essays presupposes the development of analytical and critical thinking skills. Just like writing a personal essay for college application, it requires a more in-depth evaluation of the issue under consideration. If you struggle to find a proper topic for your essay, here is a list of interesting themes for college students:
- The biggest fear in your life
- A difficult decision you have made
- When did you have the biggest argument with your sibling?
- The most interesting dream you have ever had
- Music that inspires you and makes you feel good
- Perfect family vacation
- The day you met your best college friend
- The most awkward moment in college
- Your phobias
- Things your parents have taught you
- The time you spoke out about something important to you
- How would you spend your gap year?
- What is the bravest moment of your life?
- What did you do when a close person betrayed you?
- The most important lesson in your life
- Describe the biggest failure in your life and what you have learned from it
Personal essay topics for education
These topics are slightly different from the previous ones. Educational themes are usually a bit more school-based, which means that you need to have some basic knowledge to complete them. A lot of things can be described in this essay, but it is important to include only relevant information and clearly state your opinion. By the way, these themes are considered the best personal essay topics among all. The reason is that writing this kind of essay, you have an opportunity to demonstrate your views, goals, and aspirations so that your teacher can determine your ambitions and potential in the study area. Therefore, let us move on to the actual examples:
- How can a professor motivate you to become a better person?
- What are the best methods to deliver a speech?
- Do you like doing homework, or is it a waste of time for you?
- The best lesson you have learned studying in college or high school
- Is it hard for you to prepare for school exams? How do you handle stress during that period?
- What second language did you learn and how?
- What motivates you to study hard and pursue your dreams?
- The right and wrong choices you made regarding study and education
Easy topics for personal essay
Students choose easy topics quite often because they are not willing to spend a lot of time on writing. Selecting such a theme is not a bad idea at all because these topics are usually quite broad. Make sure you know how to write the best pieces using these great personal essay topics:
- How to relax after a hard day?
- The greatest fear you have
- The best place in your house
- The best period of the history of your country
- Your favorite movie
- What would you buy right now if you had a lot of money?
- The work of art that you adore the most
- The best period of your life
- Who is your favorite singer?
- Secret talent you have
- The unexplained event that happened to you
- Your favorite season
- Your best birthday party
- Your favorite type of food
- The best childhood memory
- What would you do if you won the lottery
- Your favorite holiday
Some other good personal essay topics
If you are still out of ideas for personal essay topics, you can consider the themes listed below:
- The last act of kindness that you have made
- The job of your dream
- The most beautiful place in the world you have ever seen
- The best music band that helps you to fall asleep
- The most annoying things in your life
- A thing that reminds you of your childhood
- The role of money in your life
- The best words you have heard in your life
- Have you ever witnessed something that you will remember for the rest of your life?
- The best morning in your life
- Something that makes you feel guilty
- Your shopping habits
- A place you would go if you could travel back in time
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110 Personal Essay Topics
Though written from a lived experience, personal essay topics can be tricky to come up with because they have to be universal enough for other people to relate to.
Since the skill of writing a good essay is being able to paint an image with words, students must choose a topic that will get others interested in the story and what it has to say about life, society, or themselves.
In essence, personal essays are written from a personal point of view and express a writer’s own insights, opinions, and feelings on a particular topic. Additionally, these types of essays lead to an overall point, lesson, realization, or revelation.
Most commonly, personal essays are written by high school students as part of their college applications. However, there are many other reasons that a personal essay may be assigned or written, including:
- Scholarship applications
- Job interview
- Writing contest
- Grad school admission
Students and others struggling with a valuable personal essay topic can choose from any of the 110 personal essay topics on this list to help them get started.
How to Write a Personal Essay
Writing a personal essay will require you to follow a traditional essay’s guidelines, structure, and format. However, you will also need to ensure that your essay is personal or tells a story about yourself rather than being entirely academic.
For example, you might want to explain an experience that changed how you saw the world or share an opinion on something important to you – even if the rest of the world doesn’t agree with it.
It often helps to make a list of experiences that you may want to share before starting with the writing aspect of the personal essay.
The introduction to your personal essay will set the scene for the reader. Therefore, your personal essay needs to start with a compelling hook that will draw the reader in and make them want to read more.
This hook statement could be a humorous or poignant anecdote related to your topic or a line of questioning that the reader will be interested in following. For example, some possible opening lines for a personal essay could start with:
- “I remember exactly where I was when I first realized …”
- “What would you do if you knew the world was going to end tomorrow?
- “So, I once had this problem …”
These beginning lines will often create questions in the reader’s mind, which is an excellent way to capture their interest and keep them reading. Following this initial opening sentence, you can introduce other details as you build up the main point of the story.
Your introduction should end with a thesis statement that verbalizes the general direction the story will go.
Generally, a personal essay will have no less than three body paragraphs that detail your experience in chronological order. Each section should discuss one part of the story, including the events leading up to it, what happened during the experience, and what you learned from it.
Body paragraphs may also include examples of feelings, emotions, or arguments that support your experience. The goal of a personal essay is to share a compelling story and teach the reader something about life or themselves by using specific details and language.
Consider this formatting when creating the body paragraphs of your personal essay:
- Beginning of the story that answers questions related to “Who?” and “Where?”
- Initial attitudes, moods, feelings, and assumptions about the event or experience about to take place
- Middle of the story
- Details that show how the situation evolved over time, including any changes in mood or assumption on your part
- Ending of the story/resolution
- The final analysis on overall feelings, emotions, and mood
By sticking to this formatting for the body paragraphs, students can ensure that they are telling the story correctly and including every key detail as it happens.
The conclusion of a personal essay is optional and depends on what you want to accomplish with the telling of your story. If you want to leave the reader feeling inspired or emotionally moved, then focus on summarizing the main points in a short paragraph that ends on a positive note.
However, if this was a darker story, you may want to use the concluding paragraph to sum up your feelings after the experience has ended or explore any unanswered questions that remain.
In any event, your conclusion does need to include an overall moral or lesson of how the writer:
- overcame hardship
- rose to the occasion
- identified new traits or abilities that they never realized existed
- turned defeat into success
- followed their instincts and made the right choice
- came to appreciate something about life after the experience took place
Any of these statements can stand alone as a powerful lesson learned. However, when combined in one concluding paragraph, you will leave your reader with a profound impression.
Using any of these 110 personal essay topics will ensure that you have a strong and interesting story to tell.
Personal Essay Topics About Relationships
- What was a time when you made a friend?
- What would your worst enemy say about you?
- Talk about the death of a friend.
- How did it feel to be bullied in school?
- The time when you had to get along with a sibling despite being different ages
- What you learned from your first relationship
- Why marriage isn’t important to you
- How you discovered polyamory, and how it changed your view of relationships
- How your best friend made you a better person
- The lesson you learned from being catfished
- The first time you experienced heartbreak
- A funny story about how technology ruined a relationship.
- How did you learn to recognize love?
- Who would you consider your soulmate? What makes them that person specifically for you?
- What was your most embarrassing moment as a boyfriend or girlfriend, and what did you learn from it?
Personal Essay Topics About Hardships
- The worst thing that ever happened to me
- The roughest time in my family’s life
- The hardest challenge I’ve ever had to overcome
- How did you deal with the stress of moving?
- What was your most embarrassing moment as a kid?
- What are some reasons that I am grateful for my disability/illness/condition?
- When have you had an “Aha!” moment in life?
- What’s something terrible that happened to you that turned into something good?
- What’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my failures?
- The time when it almost felt like the world was against me
- How did I handle/recover from a severe illness/injury/accident?
- When was the first time I realized that life isn’t fair?
- What was the biggest struggle I went through in my teens?
- The most challenging situation I faced in high school
- When was a time when I made a negative impact on someone else?
- The first time I got caught stealing
- The most embarrassing mistake I ever made with money
- What was the most challenging thing about getting sober/clean/overcoming addiction?
- When did I realize that life is short and that nobody is promised tomorrow?
- How did you learn to persevere through tough times?
Personal Essay Topics About Success & Achievements
- Best moment in my sports career
- My greatest success story
- The time I overcame my fear and found strength I didn’t know I had.
- What’s the happiest day of my life?
- How did I learn to overcome failure?
- The time I knew that dreams really do come true
- My greatest triumph over adversity – and what it taught me about myself.
- What made you realize that you have to work hard in order to achieve something meaningful in life?
- When did I know that I had made it in life?
- When was the first time you were acknowledged for your achievements?
- The night when my hard work truly paid off
- My most powerful moment after overcoming a setback
- How did I become successful?
- What are some defining moments in my career?
- How did I make it through a difficult time in college/university?
- What motivated me to become the person I am today?
Personal Essay Topics About Personal Growth & Self-Reflection
- Whose lifelong encouragement helped make me who I am today
- The first time I took responsibility for my own actions
- What gave me the courage to be myself?
- The most valuable life lesson I’ve ever received. Who taught it to me, and what was the context?
- How did I get through a difficult childhood/adolescence/teenage years?
- What did I learn from becoming a yoga master?
- How has meditation helped me overcome anger issues?
- How did I recover from using drugs and alcohol?
- What’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned from quitting my job?
- When did I realize that life is too short to hate someone?
- The moment when I knew it was time for a change
- I made a mistake – and this is how I bounced back
- How did I overcome depression/anxiety/mental illness?
Personal Essay Topics About Passions & Hobbies
- How did learning a skill change my life?
- Why exercise makes me a better person
- My passion for writing
- What’s the best advice I’ve ever received? Who gave it to me, and in what situation?
- The moment when I realized my true calling in life
- The importance of keeping a journal and how it has helped me become a better person
- My biggest bucket list dream and why it’s so important to me
- What is my vision for the future?
- How did I find peace, contentment, and happiness?
- The time when I truly lived outside of my comfort zone
- When was the moment when I felt like I “got” meditation?
- My journey towards becoming vegan. What inspired me to make this change, and what were the challenges I faced?
- What lessons have been easy for me to learn, and which ones have been harder?
- The time when travel changed my life
Personal Essay Topics About Challenges & Failures
- The low point of my life and how I got through it
- How did an illness/injury/death in the family affect me?
- Why did I decide to stop going on blind dates?
- What were the consequences of losing my temper, and how did I make amends?
- The time when I was broken. What happened, who got hurt, and how did it affect me? How did I overcome this experience?
- When was the moment when I realized that my words carry weight?
Personal Essay Topics About Family & Childhood Memories
- The time when my family showed me what unconditional love means
- My most vivid childhood memory and how it has affected me as an adult
- How did I learn to be patient and kind?
- What was the moment that sparked a change in my life? What caused this change, and what happened after the changes took place?
- The moment when I realized the true meaning of friendship
- What lessons did growing up teach me about life?
- My childhood dream and what it taught me about myself
- How do I feel about my hometown after living in three different places?
- Why is it important to visit your birthplace/hometown during holidays/vacations?
- My family’s most influential life lesson and how it has affected me
- What was the moment when I realized that my parents had their own struggles?
- The time when I learned about my family history. What happened, why did this happen, and how did it affect me? How did things change after this event?
- What do I know about family traditions now that I didn’t understand as a child?
- Why are your family memories vital to you?
Personal Essay Topics About Cultural Heritage & Identity
- What does being bilingual/multilingual mean to me? Why is it unique?
- My first interaction with someone from another culture
- What’s wrong with cultural appropriation, and how did I learn to stop?
- The moment when I became aware of my race/ethnicity
- My culture’s most influential life lesson and how it has affected me
- How I learned to not be afraid of my cultural differences
- Why is diversity important in my community? In what ways do I contribute?
- The moment I realized that I am proud of my culture
- How has the immigrant/refugee experience shaped who you are today?
- How traditions have changed the way I view my family
Personal Essay Topics About Childhood Dreams & Aspirations
- What were my childhood dreams, and how have they changed over the years?
- How did I make peace with the fear of growing up?
Any of these 110 personal essay topics are perfect for students struggling to find a topic that will impress a college admission officer or any other person with whom you’re trying to connect with on a personal level through storytelling.
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How to Write a Personal Statement
A personal statement can be a key part of your college application, and you can really make yours shine by following a few tips.
When you're applying to college—either to an undergraduate or graduate program—you may be asked to submit a personal statement. It's an essay that gives you the chance to share more about who you are and why you'd like to attend the university you're applying to.
The information you provide in your personal statement can help build on your other application materials, like your transcripts and letters of recommendation, and build a more cohesive picture to help the admissions committee understand your goals.
In this article, we'll go over more about personal statements, including why they're important, what to include in one, and tips for strengthening yours.
What is a personal statement?
A personal statement—sometimes known as a college essay —is a brief written essay you submit along with other materials when you're applying to college or university. Personal statements tend to be most common for undergraduate applications, and they're a great opportunity for an admissions committee to hear your voice directly.
Many colleges and universities in the US, especially those using Common App , provide prompts for you to use. For example, "Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea" or "Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time" [ 1 ]. If the school you're interested in attending doesn't require prompts, you will likely want to craft a response that touches on your story, your values, and your goals if possible.
In grad school, personal statements are sometimes known as letters of intent , and go into more detail about your academic and professional background, while expressing interest in attending the particular program you're applying to.
Why is a personal statement important?
Personal statements are important for a number of reasons. Whereas other materials you submit in an application can address your academic abilities (like your transcripts) or how you perform as a student (like your letters of recommendation), a personal statement is a chance to do exactly that: get more personal.
Personal statements typically:
Permit you to share things that don't fit on your resume, such as personal stories, motivations, and values
Offer schools a chance to see why you're interested in a particular field of study and what you hope to accomplish after you graduate
Provide an opportunity for you to talk about past employment, volunteer experiences, or skills you have that complement your studies
Allow colleges to evaluate your writing skills
Bring life to a college application package otherwise filled with facts and figures
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How to write a personal statement
As we mentioned earlier, you may have to respond to a prompt when drafting your personal statement—or a college or university may invite you to respond however you'd like. In either case, use the steps below to begin building your response.
Create a solid hook .
To capture the attention of an admissions committee member, start your personal statement with a hook that relates to the topic of your essay. A hook tends to be a colorful sentence or two at the very beginning that compels the reader to continue reading.
To create a captivating hook, try one of these methods:
Pose a rhetorical question.
Provide an interesting statistic.
Insert a quote from a well-known person.
Challenge the reader with a common misconception.
Use an anecdote, which is a short story that can be true or imaginary.
Credibility is crucial when writing a personal statement as part of your college application process. If you choose a statistic, quote, or misconception for your hook, make sure it comes from a reliable source.
Follow a narrative.
The best personal statements typically read like a story: they have a common theme, as well as a beginning, middle, and end. This type of format also helps keep your thoughts organized and improves the flow of your essay.
Common themes to consider for your personal statement include:
Special role models from your past
Life-altering events you've experienced
Unusual challenges you've faced
Accomplishments you're especially proud of
Service to others and why you enjoy it
What you've learned from traveling to a particular place
Unique ways you stand out from other candidates
Admissions committees read thousands of personal statements every year, which is why being specific on yours is important. Back up your statements with examples or anecdotes.
For instance, avoid vague assertions like, "I'm interested in your school counseling program because I care about children." Instead, point out experiences you've had with children that emphasize how much you care. For instance, you might mention your summer job as a day camp counselor or your volunteer experience mentoring younger children.
Don't forget to include detail and vibrancy to keep your statement interesting. The use of detail shows how your unique voice and experiences can add value to the college or university you're applying to.
Stay on topic.
It's natural to want to impress the members of the admissions committee that will read your personal statement. The best way to do this is to lead your readers through a cohesive, informative, and descriptive essay.
If you feel you might be going astray, check to make sure each paragraph in the body of your essay supports your introduction. Here are a few more strategies that can help keep you on track:
Know what you want to say and do research if needed.
Create an outline listing the key points you want to share.
Read your outline aloud to confirm it makes logical sense before proceeding.
Read your essay aloud while you're writing to confirm you're staying on topic.
Ask a trusted friend or family member to read your essay and make suggestions.
Be true to your own voice
Because of the importance of your personal statement, you could be tempted to be very formal with structure and language. However, it's better to use a more relaxed tone than you would for a classroom writing assignment.
Remember: admissions committees really want to hear from you . Writing in your own voice will help accomplish this. To ensure your tone isn't too relaxed, write your statement as if you were speaking to an older relative or trusted teacher. This way, you'll come across as respectful, confident, and honest.
Tips for drafting an effective personal statement
Now that you've learned a little about personal statements and how to craft them, here are a few more tips you can follow to strengthen your essay:
1. Customize your statement.
You don't have to completely rewrite your personal statement every time you apply to a new college, but you do want to make sure that you tailor it as much as possible. For instance, if you talk about wanting to take a certain class or study a certain subject, make sure you adjust any specifics for each application.
2. Avoid cliches.
Admissions committees are ultimately looking for students who will fit the school, and who the school can help guide toward their larger goals. In that case, cliches can get in the way of a reviewer understanding what it is you want from a college education. Watch out for cliches like "making a difference," "broadening my horizons," or "the best thing that ever happened to me."
3. Stay focused.
Try to avoid getting off-track or including tangents in your personal statement. Stay focused by writing a first draft and then re-reading what you've written. Does every paragraph flow from one point to the next? Are the ideas you're presenting cohesive?
4. Stick to topics that aren't controversial
It's best not to talk about political beliefs or inappropriate topics in your personal essay. These can be controversial, and ideally you want to share something goals-driven or values-driven with an admissions committee.
Polish your writing skills on Coursera
A stellar personal statement starts with stellar writing skills. Enhance your writing ability with a writing course from a top university, like Good with Words: Writing and Editing from the University of Michigan or Writing a Personal Essay from Wesleyan University. Get started for free to level up your writing.
1. Common App. " 2022-2023 Common App Essay Prompts , https://www.commonapp.org/blog/2022-2023-common-app-essay-prompts." Accessed June 9, 2023.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.
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Casting vet tess sanchez pivots to writer with collection of personal essays.
The former Fox exec and wife to 'New Girl' star Max Greenfield will write with humor about her messy shift from “working mom-boss" to "her actor-husband’s plus-one,” per the publisher.
By Lacey Rose
Executive Editor, Television
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Tess Sanchez has found her next act.
The former Fox casting exec is set to publish a book of essays, which she’s titled We’re Going In A Different Direction . The collection has her recasting herself, in this case from “working mom-boss” to “her actor-husband’s plus-one,” according to the publisher.
The news comes three-plus years after Sanchez’s executive VP position was eliminated at Fox. In serving some 11 years at the company, she became the longest-tenured senior programming exec and the only woman of color among the network’s top creative execs.
During that time, Sanchez oversaw casting for such series as 9-1-1, Empire, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Mindy Project. Prior to Fox, she worked independently and for the WB, where she had a hand in shows including Felicity, Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The essay collection was sold on exclusive submission to executive editor Pamela Cannon at Gallery Books. The deal was brokered by Andy McNicol at AM Studio for World Rights and Jason Weinberg Untitled Entertainment.
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6 Best Business Checking Accounts of November 2023
Laura has been a freelance writer since 2018 and is excited to join Newsweek’s personal finance team as a freelance contributor. Her work primarily focuses on managing your money, navigating your career, and running a successful business. She’s also passionate about helping others explore freelancing and write more compelling content.
Claire is a senior editor at Newsweek focused on credit cards, loans and banking. Her top priority is providing unbiased, in-depth personal finance content to ensure readers are well-equipped with knowledge when making financial decisions.
Prior to Newsweek, Claire spent five years at Bankrate as a lead credit cards editor. You can find her jogging through Austin, TX, or playing tourist in her free time.
Updated November 16, 2023 at 2:35 pm
Editorial Note: Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.
As an entrepreneur, your company’s financial health is always top of mind, and one of the most important money-related decisions you’ll make is where to do your business’ banking.
Our top picks for the best small-business checking accounts offer a range of capabilities and perks. One (or more) of them may align well with your company’s operating needs.
Newsweek Vault’s banking experts have done hundreds of hours of research to present you with all the latest information about your banking options. Whether you’re interested in opening a new checking account or savings account, our research spans all the top online banks, credit unions and brick-and-mortar branches.
We assessed the following five key factors to help you choose the best account for your personal finance needs.
- Associated fees
- Balance requirements
- Customer service
- Interest-earning potential
- Best Overall: Bluevine
- Best New Account Bonus: Axos Basic
- Best Linked Savings Account: Lili Smart
- Best for Business Credit Score: Bank of America Advantage Fundamentals
- Best for Integrations: Novo
- Best for Domestic Wires: Capital One Enhanced
Best Business Checking Accounts of 2023
Bluevine Checking Account
2%, on balances up to and including $250,000
Min Opening Deposit
Monthly Maintenance Fee
Bluevine offers a fee-free, feature-rich business checking account. You can open an account fast, and your funds are FDIC-insured up to $3 million dollars.
- Earn 2% interest on up to a $250,000 balance if you meet monthly activity goals
- Get up to 20% cash back on business debit card purchases
- Get two free checkbooks per year if your account is funded
- No physical locations
- Not compatible with instant money transfer services
- Funds deposited by check may take up to six business days to be available
Best New Account Bonus
Axos Basic Checking Account
The Axos Basic checking account offers a generous $400 account opening bonus across four equal monthly installments of $100. You must maintain an average daily balance of $50,000 or more and complete at least 10 point-of-sale transactions with your connected business debit card per month to receive the maximum bonus. Other eligibility criteria apply.
- Unlimited debits, credits and deposits
- No monthly maintenance fees
- Get your first 50 checks for free
- No evening or weekend customer support
- Account only available to U.S.-based businesses
Best Linked Savings Account
Lili Smart Checking Account
4.15%, only for Savings accounts up to $100,000
In addition to a solid checking account, your Lili Smart plan features an included savings account currently paying a 4.15% annual percentage yield (APY) on balances of up to $100,000.
- Debit card transactions may earn cash back
- No-fee ATM withdrawals at 38,000 locations
- No minimum balance requirement
- $20 fee each month
- Lili’s plans are only available in the United States
- Lili is a financial technology (fintech) company—not a bank—and doesn’t provide banking services directly
Best for Business Credit Score
Bank of America Advantage Fundamentals
Your Bank of America Advantage Fundamentals checking account gives you access to your Dun & Bradstreet business credit score, helping you monitor and manage your company’s financial health.
- Easily move money with Zelle
- Manage your business and personal bank accounts with a single login
- Many branch locations nationwide
- $16 monthly maintenance fee (waivable with qualifying account activities)
- Monthly transaction and cash deposit limits apply
- $2.50+ fee for non-Bank of America ATM use
Best for Integrations
Novo Checking Account
Many other business apps, such as PayPal, Xero and Gusto, integrate with your Novo checking account. That way, you can review all of your company finances in one place.
- Unlimited debit card transactions
- No monthly maintenance fee
- No minimum balance requirements
- Novo is a fintech company and doesn’t provide banking services directly
- No phone support available
- Support is only available Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST
Best for Domestic Wires
Capital One Enhanced
All incoming domestic wires are free with your Capital One Enhanced business checking account. The first five outgoing domestic wires each month are also included at no extra charge.
- No-fee digital transactions (mobile deposits, ACH payments or online bill payments)
- Free overdraft protection with a qualifying linked deposit account
- Have up to two Basic checking accounts with no monthly fee
- $35 monthly maintenance fee (waivable with qualifying average daily balance)
- Account doesn’t earn interest or rewards
- Up to a $5 fee for ATM use outside of Capital One Bank branches
Who Should Get a Business Checking Account?
It may sound obvious, but you should have a business checking account if you own a business. For our purposes, a business is any endeavor earning an income outside of traditional W2 employment. That means side hustling, freelancing and independent contracting count.
A business checking account keeps your company and personal funds separate, making budgeting, tracking expenses and filing your taxes much more simple. Plus, the financial institution where you open your small-business checking account may make it easy for you to open a company credit card or line of credit in-house.
In addition, if you own or co-own a partnership, limited liability company or corporation, having a business checking account helps to prove the legal distinction between you and your company. Maintaining that distinction can help negate or limit your personal liability if your business gets sued.
What Is the Best Checking Account for My Business?
The best checking account for your business depends on your needs and preferences. Here are some of the factors you should consider when comparing your options:
Some business checking accounts impose a transaction limit, meaning only a predetermined number of monthly transactions are included in the base cost of your account. You’ll get charged a fee for each transaction above the limit. If you have a lot of account activity each month, you may want to choose an option that includes unlimited transactions.
Many business checking accounts charge fees for:
- Monthly maintenance
- Going over the transaction limit
- Going over the cash deposit limit
- Foreign transactions
- Banking services, such as sending or receiving wire transfers
You should think carefully about how you’ll use your business checking account. Then, calculate an approximate monthly cost for each option you’re considering. That way, if multiple accounts appear comparable other than price, you can rule out the most expensive ones.
Some small-business bank accounts pay interest on your balance. If you tend to keep a significant sum in your account, you may earn enough interest to offset bank fees or cover other company expenses.
If you plan to use your business debit card a lot, you should give bonus points to business checking accounts that offer rewards. Similar to a rewards credit card , you may be able to earn a sizable amount of cash back for using your debit card to make purchases in select spending categories.
At first glance, many business checking accounts may look the same. However, if you look a little deeper, you may find a special feature or two that sets each of them apart. For instance, your account may give you access to your business credit score, easily integrate with your accounting software and other applications or reimburse you for ATM fees you incur.
How To Get a Business Checking Account
If you’ve opened a personal checking account before, getting a business checking account will feel familiar. However, while the process is similar, there are a few notable differences. Here’s what you need to do, step-by-step:
- Officially form your business: If you want a legal business entity other than a sole proprietorship, you should form your company with your state before doing anything else. Your bank may require documentation of your business registration when you open your checking account.
- Obtain an employee identification number (EIN): You use an EIN to file federal business taxes. Your bank will need this number to open your checking account. You can obtain an EIN from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website for free.
- Research and compare business checking account options: Seek and review information about the business checking accounts available to you. Reading this article is a great way to jumpstart your research.
- Gather the necessary documents: Once you’ve selected the best small-business checking account for your needs, make sure you have all the information the bank will need to open your account. Depending on the bank and your business structure, you’ll need things like your EIN, proof of business formation and a business license.
- Open and fund your new account: Go to a local bank branch (or the financial institution’s website) and complete the required paperwork. Then, make your initial deposit with cash, an electronic funds transfer from another bank account or via another bank-approved means.
Frequently Asked Questions
Most business bank accounts are relatively easy to open—especially if you can do the entire process online. You can further streamline your experience by reviewing the bank’s account opening requirements in advance and having all of the necessary documentation on hand.
There are some free business bank accounts that don’t charge monthly maintenance fees. However, it’s a good idea to read the fine print because some account services, like wire transfers, may still cost money.
You may be able to get a business bank account with a few clicks online. If you visit a financial institution in person, you can likely complete the process in one brief visit.
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