Personal Essay and How to Write One Quickly

personal essay
  • Published Date: April 7, 2017

What is a Personal Essay

The personal essay is, for many students, the easiest type of essay that they will be asked to write in their academic careers.  Drawing on personal experiences, and usually written in the first-person perspective, personal essays are more similar to our daily writing than many other essay or term paper assignments, which means that they come naturally to many students.  However, for other students, this type of essay is a nightmare assignment.  Taken outside of the traditional five-paragraph structure, asked to write about something personal, and freed of the conventions of traditional academic writing; many students find themselves overwhelmed by choices, scared to put parts of themselves down on paper, and simply unable to figure out how they should approach the personal essay.

If you are one of those students, we are here to help you.  In this article, we will define this type of essay as well as provide you with the tips and hints you need to write an outstanding personal essay.  From picking a topic to ensuring that your essay is formatted correctly, we have the information that you need to write an A+ essay.

Understanding the Essay Prompt

Professors can take a wide variety of approaches when assigning the personal essay, and your first challenge will be understanding exactly what type of essay you are being asked to write.  Many people refer to the personal essay as creative non-fiction, a genre that is almost defined by its non-linear approach to writing.  Some professors will expect that type of out-of-the-box approach to writing in a personal essay.  Other professors will expect your personal essay to fit a standard essay format, but simply be written about a personal experience and from the first hand perspective.  Therefore, you need to be able to answer the following questions about your essay before you begin:

How long should my essay be?

Am I limited to a range of topics?

Am I limited to writing in the first-person, or can I take a second-person approach?

Do the events have to be absolutely true, as in an autobiography, or may I embellish, like in a memoir?

What academic style should I choose to write my essay?

Should I use outside sources in the essay?

Are there any topics that are off-limits?

One type of personal essay is the college essay.  We have an article on college essays, where you can find tips specifically geared towards admissions and scholarship essays.  However, some of the common themes one encounters in college essays are themes one finds in other personal essays, as well, therefore, they bear repeating.  These themes include:

-Describing a person you admire;

-Describing a time you overcame a challenge;

-Describing a time you changed your perspective or opinion of something;

-Describing how you handled some type of adversity;

-Describing a time you failed;

-Identifying a problem and describing how you would solve it;

-Why you want to attend a particular school;

-Why you deserve a scholarship;

-Your vision of your future;

-Extracurricular or volunteer activities; and

-Favorite books or classes.

Of course, specific coursework may ask you to describe other types of experiences that directly or indirectly relate to classroom material.  In college or scholarship essays, your topics generally reflect personal growth.  In the generic personal essay, you may not need to describe personal growth, but describing some type of change is interesting.  The change may be a negative one, depending on the topic of your essay, but the event described should be significant enough to have changed you.

Types of Personal Essays

The specific instructions for your essay will probably help you determine what type of essay you will write.  Almost all personal essays will be in the personal narrative format; they will be written in the first-person about things you personally did or experienced.  However, not all personal essays are going to fall into the personal narrative format.  You can use first-person voice and perspective to write other types of essays including: persuasive essays; expository essays; and argumentative essays.

Personal Essay Topics

You may be given a specific prompt for a personal essay, or you may simply be told to write about something you have experienced.  Generally, even when you are given topical guidelines, because they draw upon your personal experiences, you are going to be able to choose from a large number of topics.  Picking one can be very difficult.

While we recommend brainstorming as a writing technique in several different types of academic writing, brainstorming can be particularly useful when trying to develop personal essay topics.  As with other essays, we like to recommend the use of the bubble map when trying to develop topics for personal essays.  However, for a personal essay, we suggest starting with you at the center of the map.  The bubble map is an incredibly simple tool; you place what you are trying to describe in a circle and then words that describe it branch off from that original word.  A bubble map about yourself might have your name, then branching out from it you would describe yourself.  However, instead of physical descriptors or personality traits, a bubble map for a topic-idea brainstorming session would have significant events like deaths, births, vacations, mentors, special people.  Do not expect any of those things you generate on your bubble map to be your actual topic; instead, they should help get you thinking about potential topics.

Of course, if you have experienced something exceptional that relates to the topic you have been given, you may want to share it.  Exceptional events can make very compelling narratives and engage readers.  However, they can be difficult to write, emotionally.  You may also find yourself struggling to ensure that details are absolutely accurate.  Before writing about a hurtful personal experience, you may want to ask your professor about confidentiality and whether other students will have access to your work.

Because these essays are about you, as a person, the range of potential topics is limitless.  What makes you interesting and unique?

-Unusual or difficult accomplishments;

-A life changing experience;

-Your family;


-An unusual approach to adversity; or

-A story that shows you helping another person through a difficult time;

Personal Essay Thesis Statements

Your thesis statement is a small roadmap for your essay.  Generally, a concise one or two sentence statement that tells the reader what you are going to write about in your essay, the thesis statement should also foreshadow how you will support your assertions.

Because personal essays can explore such a wide range of topics, their thesis statements can be equally broad.  Some example personal essay thesis statements are:

-The most amazing experience I ever had was a cruise; it was the first time I had been out of the country; it was the first time I went snorkeling; and it forced my family to spend quality time together because our cell phones did not work at sea.

-An oft-repeated question in animal rescue is “who rescued whom?” and, as the proud owner of a rescue dog, I know my dog, Fido, rescued me.  Since adopting Fido, I have seen a reduction in my depression, I have lost 10 pounds, and he helped protect our home from a burglar.

– As a woman, I never truly felt beautiful until I had a daughter; looking at her I was able to see my own beauty and knowing that my body had nurtured her I found it impossible to hate how it looked.

Personal Essay Sources

Most personal essays are going to be first-person recollections of personal events that will not rely heavily on third-party sources.  However, there may be times when you need to back up information with a source. In those instances, you want to use the same type of high-quality, reliable, scholarly sources that you would use in other types of academic writing.  The general rule is to use current sources (no more than 3 years old, when possible), from reputable sources such as academic publications, newspapers, magazines, and .org or .com websites.

Many people want to know what we think of Wikipedia?  Wikipedia gained a negative reputation when it was initially released because, as a crowd-sourced encyclopedia, people could be wrong or push an agenda with their input.  However, time as cured many of Wikipedia’s problems.  We believe that  Wikipedia is a great source for information if you need to understand a topic, but caution you not to use it as an actual cited resource in any type of academic writing, unless your professor or university explicitly permit you to use it.   Encyclopedia Britannica is another great site for an overview of a topic.  If you are unsure where to find information on your topic Google Scholar is a great place to start; it is a search engine that restricts results to quality academic resources.

Citing Sources

If you do choose to use any references in your college essay, then you want to be sure and cite them in a commonly recognizable and acceptable academic style.  The two most frequently used academic writing styles for undergraduate level writing are Modern Language Association (MLA) and American Psychological Association (APA).  Unless your instructions specify which format to use, choose the one you find easiest.

APA Style:

In-text Citation:

“Every 2 minutes an American is sexually assaulted.”

Source Format for References:

RAINN.  (2016). Victims of sexual violence: statistics. Retrieved September 30, 2016 from

RAINN website:

MLA Style:

In-text Citation:

Estimates of the number of women raped each year vary from 300,000 to 1.3 million (Chemaly).

Source Format for Works Cites/Bibliography:

Chemaly, S.  “50 Actual Facts About Rape.”  The Huffington Post.  October 26, 2012.  Web, 30

September 2015.  <>.

Custom Written Personal Essay

Hopefully, you feel better prepared to complete your personal essay after reading this article.  If you are still overwhelmed by the process, we can offer further help.  Our tutors can work with you and a personal experience you describe to write a custom personal essay example that you can use as a template for your own writing.  If you are interested in learning more about this very popular student assistance program, click here.

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Cite This Resource:

Latest APA Format (6th edition)

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Personal Essay and How to Write One Quickly. (2017, April 7). Retrieved from

Latest MLA Format (8th edition)

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"Personal Essay and How to Write One Quickly." Student Network Resources Inc, 7 April. 2017. Web. 15 June 2024.

Latest Chicago Format (16th edition)

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Student Network Resources Inc. "Personal Essay and How to Write One Quickly." (accessed June 15, 2024).


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