How do I know if my college personal essay is any good?

Helen Chiu , May 18, 2021

What a tricky question. After all, essays are an art form. Each person’s experience of them are filtered through the lens of their own perspectives and biases. It remains true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, who, in this case, is ultimately your admissions reader. However, there are tell-tale signs of what usually works in a college personal essay, and I have detailed a few of those indicators below to help you along the writing process.

As with all advice, remember to filter the tips through the lens of your personal values, contexts, and experiences. If something does not give you more clarity and encouragement, then scrap it.

Now, without further ado, here are 4 indictors your college essay is headed in the right direction.

1. You’ve written multiple drafts 

Assessing the quality of your essay by the number of drafts you have written is a crude evaluation. Some students can write a bang out essay all in one go, or in just two or three drafts.

But in many cases, telling a meaningful, appropriate, well-crafted story takes time and multiple iterations. Rarely do students strike gold on the first or second try. Even established authors rely on crappy first drafts to eventually arrive at a crisply-written piece. It took me six or seven iterations before I arrived at the final version of my UChicago essay, but I got there! You will too.

If you find that you have not fully probed the wells of your life stories, and have more than one week before the application deadline, I recommend doing some additional digging. Who knows. You might uncover gems that take your essay to the next level.

2. Meaningful character growth

You may be familiar with the ingredients of a story: there’s plot, theme, character, setting, and conflict. Most stories revolve around a protagonist—the hero—who must overcome an obstacle before coming out the other end, changed. This change is of utmost importance.

Sure, slaying dragons or conquering kingdoms add spice to a narrative, but it’s really how a character grows that makes a story resonate with a wide audience, because struggle is a universal constant. While your major essay does not have to take the form of a story per se, I find most impactful essays include a character arc—a clear distinction between who the student was and who the student is. This makes for a dynamic personal statement that demonstrates emotional maturity and self-awareness. 

3. Tasty, descriptive language

Imagine this: your admissions officer at her desk, in front of piles of application that are stacked so tall they tower over her. The sun has set hours ago. Her back hurts. But there’s another hundred applications to review before she can nestle under the soft covers of her bed.

She pulls up a student’s file and gets to the 650-word personal essay. Every single sentence starts with an “I,” before jumping into a list of accomplishments—I this, I that, I, I, I.

Halfway through, the student writes, “I started a multinational nonprofit that has benefited the lives of 10 million children.” Though this is an awesome feat, the admissions officer might have only skimmed the sentence, not taking in its full meaning, because it got lost in a sea of clunky sentences and repetitive phrases.

Once you figure out the essay’s topic and structure, remember to edit the prose. Add color to your language and trim out unneeded words. Use descriptive language that helps readers step into your shoes, to see what you saw and feel what you felt. Where possible, show rather than tell.

4. Spotless grammar

Grammatical errors can make the wrong first impression, fast. Though they are innocent mistakes and some admissions officers overlook them, you may encounter a reader who is less forgiving. It’s best to cover your bases as much as possible.

Of course, proofreading can be hard work. It requires extreme precision to catch every typo, including misused words, extra spaces, and dangling modifiers. If the deadline is coming up soon and you have read the draft so many times the words started to blend together, catching typos can be like finding a needle in a haystack.

Remember to ask a teacher or parent with excellent grammar to read over every essay you submit. I can also be of service!