Writing the personal essay for college applications

JMJ5  *Unknowingly at the time, our camping trip to the rocky shores of Malibu, provided inspiration that would provide bountiful material for one of Sabrina’s college application essays a few months later. Creative thought was awakened in the solitude of the ocean waves lapping against the cliffs…


Ring the School Bell 5/180- The Rocky Shores of Life

Still at the beach and loving it!  The girls are having a blast with their homeschool comrades. The colorful tidepools are beautiful beyond words.  We hopped through the massive tidepools using nature’s stepping stones for footing.  The colors of the sea urchins, anemones, and sea stars were a lovely sight in the clear coastal waters, and the hermit crabs with their selected shells brought a smile to our faces.

Wasted instructional minutes at the beach?  I think not.  We climbed a ragged, rocky cliff to view the setting sun.  Sabrina imagined herself to be the character Elizabeth, from the book Pride and Prejudice looking over the majestic sea, her hair blowing wildly in the wind.

Unknowingly, this experience would provide bountiful material for one of her college application essays a few months later. Creative thought was awakened in the solitude of the ocean waves lapping against the cliffs.  I have included the essay at the end of this post.  As her mom, I don’t tire of reading it.  I try not to get emotional every time, but I do, and I did, again. It’s kind of like the artwork saved in a child’s memory box.  So full of meaning, beyond the art.  We ended the day sharing smores, and singing absolutely goofy campfire songs together with our friends.

Elements of a Well-Written Personal Essay

Personal essays are often required as a component of the college application.  They can be useful when applying for scholarships also.  I would recommend including writing the personal essay as part of a child’s junior year language arts curriculum, to relieve a little of the stress during the senior year.  Actually, writing several personal essays, with varied topics, would be an even better idea.

Some elements of a well-written personal essay, include:

  • Be candid and listen to your heart, when choosing a topic.  Pick an instant, something which impacted you, a slice of your life, a memorable event and expand on that.
  • In the early parts of the essay, make certain that you create a point of view, an argument, to give the reader a sense of where the paper is going, the thesis. A lot of times this is where the reader, sadly in some respects, is deciding whether or not your essay is worth the time to read.  The opening paragraph should set up the context for the rest of the essay.  In the Rocky Shore below, the two opening paragraphs set up for an interesting comparison of an experience at the rocky beach, to the developing story of Sabrina’s life.
  • Instead of using an excessive number of adjectives, as colorful as they may be, imagery can be even more powerful. In this way, the reader has the opportunity of experiencing some of the same sensations as the writer.  “I could hear the waves striking the rocks below.  Then, splashed on the feet by a cold, wet wave, I suddenly felt very cold and numb by the wintry wave’s welcome and the wind biting my face.” This dialogue has the effect of mentally transporting a person to the rocky shores.
  • This one is a bit obvious.  Make certain that grammar and spelling are on the mark.  Nothing is more annoying than coming across blatant errors while reading an essay.  The best way to ensure this, is to reread the paper multiple times, aloud to yourself.  Also, ask friends and family to be “editors”.  Sabrina asked a family friend, in this instance, for feedback on her essay.
  • A meaningful quote adds so much.  Sabrina ended up writing quite a few personal essays in her senior year, to different colleges and for different scholarships. One tactic she used, which would add beauty to her compositions, was to open up with a quote.  One of her “winning” essays (no spoilers here) opened up with an Audrey Hepburn quote, for instance.
  • Cite work appropriately, if outside sources are used.  Give credit where it is due.

Of course, being Sabrina’s mom, I am admittedly subjective, but I do believe that her essay below, contains the elements above, of a well-written paper.

The Rocky Shore by Sabrina

In early September, my family and I went to a Malibu beach.  Looking into the distance, we spotted some rocks and decided to climb them.  After wading through the water to reach the mid-sized beings, I started to climb, but had to be careful because the dark brown rocks were sharp. I could hear the waves striking the rocks below.  Then, splashed on the feet by a cold, wet wave, I suddenly felt very cold and numb by the wintry wave’s welcome and the wind biting my face. “Is the sea mad at me?” I wondered. Finally, I reached the top of the cliff and looked at the view before me.  It was picturesque. There was the sea, a dark, proud, brooding blue that was calm in the distance but rough at the shoreline. And there was the sky, a calm grey color, watching over the vast ocean below. Sitting on the top of a cliff, there was not much I could do but admire the atmosphere around me and let my mind work.

There were many things I liked about that location. Being a dramatic setting, it felt it should be one of the rocky shores in a Jane Austen book or a dramatic scene in Wuthering Heights. It was immersive; it made one feel as if he/she had just stepped into another time, another place, another mindset.  But there were other things I like about that particular beach.  Unlike other beaches I have been to where the people crowd the place as if it were one, big, party, this beach was secluded. It was quiet; the only noise was the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks.  Things that would have been blocked out by the noise, the commotion of everyday life, revealed themselves there. I imagined myself in one of the books I mentioned, and then wondered where my own story would take me. That rocky shore gave me confidence; when I left that rocky beach I felt ready to face the rest of my story.

Thinking back on that day, I realize that the rocky shore and I are quite similar.  The sea is emotional and filled with life, so am I.  The waves and I both create music; the waves sing and I play piano. We both have rocks, challenges, that hold us back and sometimes, we crash into them only to recede and try again, knowing that with every wave a little stone is removed from the obstacle; we are both ambitious.  Just as the big rocks may seem overwhelming to the waves, a difficult piano piece is daunting when I first begin to practice it. But even though I might not notice at first, every time I play the piece, it becomes easier and easier as the little difficulties are removed and my fingers overcome the notes.  It may take a while, but my fingers will eventually be able to move freely over the notes. Similarly, it may take a while for the waves to level the rocks, but eventually the waves will move freely over the sand.

No matter who we are, these places remind us that while it is important to have sunny beaches where we can have fun and play, it is indispensable for us to also have “rocky shores” where we can dream, reflect and let our imaginations run wild. Whether it is in a library, on a stage or in a chapel, if we don’t find these places, we will lose track of who we are and forget our true goals and dreams; these places encourage self-discovery and empower us to face the challenges ahead, no matter what they may be.  I hope that in the years to come, especially in my college years, I will never forget the significance of the “rocky shore.”

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** Note to the Reader- Today’s narrative is an excerpt of our family’s school journey from a few years ago, during my eldest daughter’s senior year in high school, a rather emotional year, with its many ups and downs.

May God shower blessings on your family as he has on mine.    Annette



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