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How to Write a Strong Personal Essay

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  • 0:05 Reasons for a Personal Essay
  • 0:56 Identify Your Purpose
  • 3:16 Three Important Guidelines
  • 5:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Bonn

Amy has taught college and law school writing courses and has a master's degree in English and a law degree.

At some point, you may be required to write a personal essay. Watch this video to learn how to turn your personal experiences into an effective essay.

Reasons for a Personal Essay

Have you ever met someone at a party, and within the first few minutes, they've given you way too much personal information? You may have thought, 'Hey, I don't even know you, and I definitely don't need to know all of those details!'

Well, when you're assigned a personal essay, your job is to do what our friend there didn't do, and that's strike a good balance. You need to give glimpses of yourself - your personal experiences, observations and views - but you need to do so with a specific purpose in mind. Your job isn't to throw out a ton of details, but rather to achieve a certain goal by using a select few of those experiences, observations, and views.

You may be asked to write a personal essay as part of the application process for a college, or you might be given the assignment of writing a personal essay for a writing course or a test. Whatever the case may be, there are a few things that you should keep in mind in order to keep your personal essay on track.

Identify Your Purpose

There are three major types of personal essays, and we can identify each by its purpose. Some personal essays are meant to entertain, some are meant to inform, and others are meant to support or oppose a specific position. So when you're writing a personal essay, the most important thing to do is to identify your purpose.

Perhaps you're writing a narrative essay that tells a story about a significant event that happened to you. If that's the case, you need to ask yourself whether your purpose is to entertain, as some stories do, or perhaps to do something altogether different.

If you're writing a narrative essay as part of an application, for example, your goal should ultimately be to inform, to let your reader know something important about yourself - to underscore a specific feature like your athleticism, your artistic abilities or the fact that you're well-traveled, for example. If this is the case, remember our friend from the party, and think about which details are important to flesh your story out. Which details capture the message that you're trying to convey? Remember: stay on track, and don't ramble. Use your personal experiences and observations to support your main point or main idea.

If you're writing a personal essay that's meant to inform the reader about some specific aspect of your life, like the fact that you do a lot of volunteer work, it can be a good idea to carefully choose a few specific anecdotes that help illustrate your commitment to volunteer work, and to describe each of those anecdotes briefly, spending roughly the same amount of time on each short story.

Remember that there is a third major type of personal essay. You may be asked to write a personal essay that requires you to support or oppose a specific position, supporting your reasoning with experiences and observations from your own life. Keep in mind that this type of personal essay differs a bit from the typical persuasive essay because with a typical persuasive essay, you'll often rely on external evidence - facts, statistics, expert opinions - to build your case, much like a lawyer would.

But in a personal essay that supports or opposes a specific position, your job will be to support or oppose an idea based on your own experiences, observations, and views. Remember our friend from the party, though. Your job isn't just to throw out random, overly-detailed stories. Instead, you should think carefully about what experiences or observations you want to share to support your position.

Three Important Guidelines

Keep in mind these general guidelines:

1. Narrow Your Scope

Especially when you're writing a personal essay with the purpose of supporting or opposing a particular point, it's best to stick to a specific theme with the personal experiences and observations that you bring up in support of your position.

For example, if you're writing a personal essay in which you support the position that public schools should require students to wear school uniforms, you might explain your personal experience of having worn school uniforms, and explain that it helped you focus on your school work. Explain how it helped, using a few concrete examples.

If you bring up several completely different examples in a relatively short personal essay, you might feel that you're providing ample evidence in support of your point, but you may actually be creating a real problem: an essay that feels scattered and that lacks focus. So instead, work on achieving a narrow scope in which you offer one major example or a few related examples.

2. Edit Your Ideas

As you think about how to use your personal observations and experiences to show your support for or opposition to a position, keep your eye on the ball. (The ball here is the main point of your essay.)

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