9 Essential Features of the Personal Essay Format


Kate Sliunkova

AdmitYogi, Stanford MBA & MA in Education



5 min read

9 Essential Features of the Personal Essay Format

9 Essential Features of the Personal Essay Format

1. Writing Quality

‍Because personal essays hold a mirror up to the author and are also compositions, they allow for and demand some elements of originality and creativity.

The key is to craft an essay that is uniquely yours, impactful, succinct, and authentic. You’ll want to make every word count, strive to “show not tell,” and excel at improving word choice during the revision process to give full expression to your experiences and insights.

You, and someone not you (with good written communication skills), should review for final editing and to ensure the essay is carefully proofread.

2. Personal Point of View and Voice

‍Unlike expository essays or news writing, personal essays are subjective, and use first-person speech and perspective. Everything in the essay projects your unique personality, emotions, imunication style, making your college essay both “personal” and distinctive.

3. Authenticity and Vulnerability

Personal essays often explore sensitive or vulnerable topics, allowing readers to connect with YOU, the speaker. At the same time you’ll want to leave out overly personal or private details that don’t really fit the purpose or goal of the essay! Your essay is personal but it’s also shared publicly. You present an authentic self, without coming across boastful or artificial, and without being overly familiar…

PRO TIP: Respect your boundaries when it comes to what you feel okay sharing or not sharing. >Get input from an outside reader who knows you well for more input on what you’re sharing about >yourself and your life experiences before you press “submit.”

4. An Individual Value System

‍A great GPA and great letters of recommendation carry weight, but your personal essay is a way to present consequential character traits admissions officers are unlikely to find elsewhere in your application packet. A strong essay will communicate your values AND anchor them in lived experiences and reflections — making these personal beliefs more vivid, memorable, and also persuasive. Finally, look for opportunities to share how your values inform your passion for learning, your vocational interests, and your potential to contribute positively to campus life.

5. Insight

‍Personal essays aren’t just lists of experiences or lists of personality traits…Personal essays are a great format for highlighting your own level of self awareness. In an essay this often involves showing pivotal experiences or influences in your life and how you actively learn from them. Don’t feel valuable experiences need to be exceptional or fit any mold, we all learn from big and small experiences in our lives, and both successes and challenges can offer equally valuable insights!

6. Storytelling

‍Some personal essays are structured as narratives or “stories.” In fact, sometimes personal essay and personal narrative are terms used to describe the same essay format. We’ll talk more about narrative elements under “structure” below.

7. Emotional Connection‍

Successful personal essays evoke emotions in the reader. They use concrete details, imagery, or emphatic language to help the reader connect on a more personal and intimate level with the writer’s individual circumstances, experiences, joys, hardships, or challenges…

8. Universality

‍Although subjective, the personal essay is a format that lets the writer share personal insights and reflections that touch on more universal themes about life. These larger themes make the piece more memorable for the reader and allow the reader to compare their own insights and experiences with those of the writer.

9. Brevity

Personal essays, and admissions essays in particular, are usually concise and to the point. Although you’ll likely want to add color and realism with some descriptive details, dialogue, or other vivid elements, you’ll typically want to maintain a strong focus on your formative experiences and most meaningful reflections.

Since the College Admissions essay is part of the Personal Essay family, the principles we’ve just listed go a long way in helping you understand how to format a winning college essay!


When you’re ready for some additional feedback on your essay try checking with an academic advisor at your school. It is also very helpful to seek feedback from someone who knows you well - a parent, sibling, or friend would do great, even better if they have recently gone through the admissions process themselves.

Get ahead of the pack by using more sophisticated AI tools designed specifically for evaluating college application essays, such as Admit Yogi AI Essay Reviewer. Our essay reviewer is designed specifically for college admissions essays with input from experienced admissions consultants and former admissions officers, offers prompts in an intuitive format, and is keyed to read for high-impact essay components such as writing quality, personal voice, authenticity, values, and insights…

Now that you’ve got some quick insights into the essential features of a powerful personal essay, let’s go on to talk about the kinds of content, themes, and structures that work best in a college essay format.

Read applications

Read the essays, activities, and awards that got them in. Read one for free!

Profile picture

Python Chen

Yale (+19 colleges)

Profile picture

Arjan Kohli

Yale (+15 colleges)

Profile picture


Stanford (+19 colleges)

Related articles

Demystifying College Admissions Essays

This guide provides insights into college admissions essays, discussing their vital role in showcasing your unique personality and passions. It navigates through different essay types, their objectives, and examples of potential prompts to help streamline your college application process.

Demystifying College Admissions Essays

Guide to Admit Yogi AI Essays Reviewer Methodology

Learn how Admit Yogi AI Essays Reviewer functions and how to use it to craft compelling college admission essays that stand out in the competitive application landscape.

Guide to Admit Yogi AI Essays Reviewer Methodology









Based at Stanford. Copyright © Admit Yogi LLC 2024. Legal Disclaimer: Not endorsed by/affiliated with the Common App in any way.