tips for tackling the US College personal essay

It's all about you! Tips for tackling the US College personal essay

Susie Cochin de Billy
February 9th 2018

The US College Admissions essay is the place in an application where your personality can shine through. It is your chance to tell the admissions committee about your character, passions, achievements, and values – while demonstrating how you think and communicate ideas in writing. This is persuasive information not revealed in test scores and grades.

Choose a topic you care about and will enjoy exploring. When you are motivated to write about something, it will engage your reader.

This doesn’t mean you will nail it in the first draft. Achievement entails practice and a well-written essay is the result of numerous rewrites and edits.

Start NOW, before the beginning of the school year.

Explore the Common App Essay prompts and narrow your choice to one or two. Make notes, create a rough outline and attack the first draft.

Let yourself go, get into the flow and don’t stop to reread or edit.

Before you know it, you are on your way!

Step-By-Step Suggestions:


  • Think about who you are and what makes you tick.
  • Jot down thoughts and words that come to mind. Imagine how friends, teachers, and family would describe you.
  • List meaningful experiences, qualities, activities, goals and achievements.
  • Zero in on the subjects most connected with your core identity.
  • Expand outward to include your worldview and opinions on topical issues. This could spark ideas relating your experience to the complexities and issues of your community or the world at large.
  • Finally, select the Common Application prompt that resonates best with your story and begin to weave all the elements together.

Find your Voice:

  • Be natural and genuine. Don’t project an inauthentic ideal. No one is interested in a generic persona.
  • Develop a persuasive, sincere viewpoint.  Strong leaders can be empathic and self-deprecating. 
  • If you read your essay out loud and it doesn’t sound like you, it won’t be convincing.  

Leverage your difference:

  • Universities seek diversity. An unusual upbringing helps you stand out.
  • Reflect on how family traditions, ethnicity, national or regional culture shaped your identity.
  • How did your roots or environment impact your dreams and aspirations?

Tell a story:

  • Don’t discuss a topic. Create a compelling narrative.
  • Experiment with dialogue, suspense, hooks and active verbs.
  • Try incorporating a prompt such as a quote that inspires you. It could be something said by someone you know and admire.
  • You could write about family situations, school or community events that marked you, people who influenced you, intellectual interests, personal aspirations, or ideas that spring from your imagination.
  • Or, write about a person, event, or experience that helped define one of your values or altered how you approach the world.
  • Think about a favorite book or movie. How does it unfold? Is the ending revealed at the beginning? Usually not... Keep your reader engaged right through to the conclusion!

Review, Polish and Repeat:

  • Is your essay coherent?  Is there a clear message?
  • Do you have a catchy introduction, engaging paragraphs that develop the narrative and a strong conclusion?
  • Your conclusion could underscore your values, priorities or goals. Contemplate or elaborate on lessons learned or tie themes back to your place in the world or viewpoint.
  • Cut out the fat. Eliminate clichés.
  • Verify grammar and spelling. Grammarly is a useful app for this.
  • Seek the advice of a teacher, or someone with solid experience whose opinion you respect.
  • Armed with constructive feedback, get going on your next draft!


Remember that writing an essay is a process, not an event. Getting started early is liberating. Procrastination prolongs rather than postpones anxiety.

We all have stories to tell and often seemingly modest events create the greatest impact.


This article also appears on Arcus Advisory Blog.