What is a Personal Essay?

Are you wondering what is a personal essay? Discover more about personal essay, its examples and structures.

Personal essays provide you with the chance to create a piece of writing centered on yourself, a life experience, or a personal accomplishment

If you have ever applied for a job or college admission, you may have found yourself wondering “What is a personal essay?” This type of essay is often necessary to help those making decisions about you, and learning how to write one is a valuable skill.

Here is everything you need to know about writing your own personal essay.

What is a personal essay?

A personal essay is a short written work that lets a writer describe a personal experience or significant event from his or her life experience. It is not a memoir, as it does not cover the entire life experience.

Instead, it is a short piece of creative nonfiction, often written in the first person, that describes the event from the writer's point of view.

Examples of Personal Essays

Personal story
A personal story summarizes something that happened in the writer's life

Some examples of personal essays include:

  • College essay. The college essay is typically written in high school as part of the college admissions process.
  • Personal statement. A personal statement may be part of a job application or resume.
  • Personal story. A personal story summarizes something that happened in the writer's life, without the particular purpose of getting a job or getting into college.

What Makes a Strong Personal Essay?

A strong personal essay is one that grabs the reader's attention, explains the main problem or challenge the writer faced and takes them to a turning point and conclusion. It is short, which means every word has a purpose. It uses compelling language to encourage the reader to keep reading.

A strong personal essay also depends on choosing the right topic. While the overriding topic is the individual's life, personal essayists must learn how to pull an event or topic from their life to write the essay on. Personal essay topics drive the writing and keep it focused on a particular point, which makes the essay strong and effective.

Personal Essay Writing

To write a personal essay, you will need to understand how to choose personal essay topics, the structure of a formal essay and how to make your writing compelling. Looking at examples of personal essay writers can also help.

Choosing Topics

A personal essay is not a biography. To write one, you will need to brainstorm specific topics from your life. Ideas may include:

  • An incident you view as a turning point in your life
  • How you learned from a mistake or error
  • The impact of someone specific who taught you an important lesson
  • How you made a major life improvement or change a personality trait that was causing negativity in your life

Examples of Personal Essayists

Anyone can write a personal essay, but some authors have been able to make a career out of it. 

Annie Dillard's famous work “Total Eclipse” is an example of a personal essay. In this short work, Dillard masterfully tells her experience of watching a total eclipse. From the very first word, she engages the reader with sensory-rich language.

David Sedaris is another popular personal essayist. His collections, including Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim all show his ability to take his personal life and weave it into engaging nonfiction writing.

Structure of a Personal Essay

Personal essays follow a specific structure. They should include these elements:


Your introduction will help you grab the reader's attention and provide an interesting tidbit bout yourself or your personal experience. This can be a fact or short story, but it should give the reader a reason to engage with your essay. 

Body Paragraphs

Most essays will have three paragraphs, but you can have more or less depending on the main topic of your essay. Include descriptive details and go through the events in order to reach the defining moment of the story.

In the body paragraphs, make sure you keep the main point of your essay in mind. You aren't just telling a story about your life. You are using the essay to make a specific point. 


Finish your essay with a conclusion. This should summarize what you have written about, bring closure for the reader and give you the chance to reflect on what the life event taught you.

Tips for Writing a Personal Narrative Essay

When writing a personal essay, these tips will help you stay on track.

1. Know Your Main Points

Before you start writing, know what your main points will be. Structure an outline that determines what each part of your essay structure will talk about. This will drive your writing.

Your main points may simply be the order of events, or they may be more specific facts that drive the details of your story. Choose the main points before you start writing.

2. Consider a Universal Truth

Is there a universal truth you wish to convey with your essay? For example, you may want the reader to come away feeling as though they can do anything if they work hard and push through obstacles, or you may want to explore the impact that one person can make on another's life.

If your essay has a universal truth, state it in the introduction and use it as you plan your outline. Keep this truth in mind as you write, ensuring that every sentence continues that truth. 

3. Grab Reader’s Attention

Effective personal essays grab a reader's attention from the first sentence and keep it through the conclusion. Use words that appeal to the senses to craft your writing, but avoid dipping into cliches or overly flowery language, which can detract from your meaning.

You can grab the reader's attention with an interesting anecdote, common quote or shocking statistic in your introduction. Then pull from that attention grabber to naturally draw the reader into your essay.

4. Establish a Sequence of Events

Because personal essays discuss something that happened to you, you will need to have a clear sequence of events. This will usually be the order that you saw the events happening, but a different order may make sense depending on the goal of your writing.

No matter what order or sequence you choose, stay consistent. Going out of order will confuse the reader, so keep things in order through your writing.

5. Stay Truthful

Don't embellish your story to make it larger than life. Pull meaning from the events that actually happened, and stay true to those while you write your essay. 

The key to writing a successful personal essay is taking an event that may seem trivial and transforming it into an essay that keeps the reader engaged. Embellishing the truth is not necessary if you are using your writing skills well.

6. Summarize Your Essay

Every personal essay has a conclusion, and this is the place to summarize the lesson learned and your overall journey to get there.

In the conclusion, summarize your thesis statement or main idea and your overall essay points. Bring the reader to a satisfying conclusion. 

A Final Word on What Is a Personal Essay

A personal essay can be an effective tool to showcase your writing skills and engage readers in your writing. It takes the reader on a journey that is personal to you because it is your journey. 

The personal essay is often an important part of both college admittance and job selection, which is why this skill is so vital. Learn how to write one well, and you will be ready for whatever the future holds.

Need help? Check out our guide to the best essay checkers.

FAQs About What Is a Personal Essay

What is a personal statement essay?

A personal statement essay is a type of personal essay used to introduce yourself to people who are making a decision, such as potential employers or a college selection committee. It contains many of the same features as a resume, introducing the reader to who you are and what your accomplishments are. 

What is a personal essay for college?

A personal essay for college is what an admissions team or selection committee looks at to determine if they will accept a student into a program. It should include academic achievements and some career goal information. 

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