What is a Personal Essay?

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

A personal essay is a short written work that lets a writer describe a personal experience or significant event based on their experiences or worldview. It is a short piece of creative nonfiction, and it's often written in the first person.

Personal essays provide you with the chance to create a piece of writing about a life experience, personal accomplishment or worldview. They're also a literary form of expression that many non-fiction writers use when considering an experience, idea or event.

It is not a memoir or academic essay requiring detailed citations. If you have ever applied for a job or college admission, this type of essay is necessary to help those making decisions about you.

In short, learning how to write one is a valuable skill for many different types of writers. Here is everything you need to know about writing your personal essay, with examples.

What is a personal essay?

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. Typically it's:

  • Entertaining
  • Revealing
  • Informing
  • Inspirational
  • Contrarian

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 101

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

Choosing Essay Topics

A personal essay is not a biography. That's because an essay is usually much shorter than a book or a memoir. Plus, and essayist focuses on a topic and not themselves. 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 e.g. a birth, death, passage or turning point
  • How you learned from a mistake or error or personal set back.
  • The impact of someone specific, like a mentor or family member, 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
  • A pivotal moment in your life like a near death experience, addiction or crisis.

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.

Sedaris is an unusual essayist in that many of his essays start as journal entries. He writes several thousand words about what happened to him any given day. Then, he takes on of these anecdotes and edits and rewrites it until a personal essay takes shape. Finally, he performs his personal essay in person, on stage and on tour to gauge what parts readers respond to.

To read some other personal essay examples, I'd recommend checking out some of the personal essay compilations edited by Philip Lopate.

Structure of a Personal Essay

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

Introduction

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. Start with a strong sentence, an image or an inciting incident.

If you're struggling with the introduction of a personal essay, leave this section until last as it's easier to set up a piece, once you know what it's about.

Body Paragraphs

Most academic essays will have at least three paragraphs, but you can have more or less depending on the main topic of your essay. Literary personal essays can span thousands of words or dozens of pages. 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. Take the reader along a journey so that you can tell your story and present an argument of some sort.

Conclusion

Finish your essay with a memorable conclusion that calls back to the introduction. 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. A good personal essay conclusion leaves a reader wanting more or encourage them to reconsider their worldview.

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. That said, if you're writing a literary personal essay, you can always explore these main points through free 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. 

The reader doesn't have to agree with your universal truth, but it should still inform the central argument of your essay. When in doubt, write this truth as if you're speaking or writing a letter to a good friend.

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.

If you need help, check out our self-editing checklist.

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 your writing goal.

No matter what order or sequence you choose, stay consistent. If you're a new essayist, going out of order may confuse the reader, so keep things in order through your writing. More experienced writers and essayists regularly play around with narrative structure and time to keep things interesting for the reader.

5. Write Your Personal Truth

Don't embellish your story to make it larger than life. Pull meaning from the events that happened, and stay true to those while writing your essay. That said, you can focus on a single detail or event and magnify it for the reader.

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

Good personal essay end with strong conclusions. If it's an academic essay, summarize the lesson learned and your overall journey.

In the conclusion, summarize your thesis statement or main idea and your overall essay points. Bring the reader to a satisfying conclusion. It's sometimes helpful to callback to an image, metaphor or a moment from the introduction. Again, it's easier to do this if you write the conclusion and introduction last.

Literary essayists sometimes like to end an essay by leaving the reader a point, image, scene or piece of dialogue to ponder.

A Final Word on What Is a Personal Essay

A personal essay showcases your writing skills to readers, editors, academics and interviewers. It takes the reader on a journey that is personal to you because it is your journey. It's a popular form of literary expression for many non-fiction writers, across genres. And confessional personal essays are increasingly popular online too.

The personal essay is often an important part of both college admittance and job selection. It demonstrates your abilities with the written word and reveals who you are as a person, which is why it's a vital skill. Learn how to write a personal esay 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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  • Nicole Harms has been writing professionally since 2006. She specializes in education content and real estate writing but enjoys a wide gamut of topics. Her goal is to connect with the reader in an engaging, but informative way. Her work has been featured on USA Today, and she ghostwrites for many high-profile companies. As a former teacher, she is passionate about both research and grammar, giving her clients the quality they demand in today's online marketing world.

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