“Proof the darn thing”: How to Conquer the Personal Essay

“Proof the darn thing”: How to Conquer the Personal Essay

Written By Kayla Mykeloff

I had the opportunity to sit down with Matt Sauer, a ’16 alum who now works as an admissions counselor, to discuss the personal essay section of the undergraduate application. He explained to me that the purpose of the personal essay is to make sure that the admissions office isn’t just reviewing applications, but human beings who are articulate, interesting, and exciting.

The essay is the only part of the application that is entirely under your control. It’s not dependent on what you’ve done in the past (like your GPA, for instance) or the extent of your knowledge. It’s about the quality of your mind. It gives you a chance to sift things over and narrow your thoughts down to the core idea that you want to communicate.

This exercise not only helps the admissions counselors understand how you see the world but also pinpoints where you are on your journey with writing. According to Matt, one of the projects of a liberal arts education is supposed to be learning how to use words well. While the admissions team doesn’t expect you to be a master wordsmith, the essay helps them discern if you would be willing to put in the work to improve.

“The personal essay pulls the quality that says, ‘I know I am imperfect, but I can work on it, and I think I am going to get better,’” Matt explained.

So now we know why we have to write the essay. Let’s talk about how to write it.

When you first sit down to write, Matt advises a good brainstorming session. Think about the things you know well and that mean a lot to you. If you are not committed to an idea, then it’s okay to start writing two or three essays and figure out which one is going to present you well.

Avoid writing the “generic injury” or “overly traumatic experience” personal essay. Students who write these essays typically forget to include how they grew from the situation and so accomplish nothing more than making the admissions counselor uneasy.

As Matt explains, “Let’s say you got your arm bitten off by a shark. You write this essay that perfectly details the amount of blood you lost and the temperature of the water while you were swimming, but you neglect to talk about what you learned from this experience, and your grammar is horrible. Then you’ve just traumatized me, and I can’t even grade it well.”

Should you choose to write this kind of essay, show the admissions team how you’ve overcome that situation or how you’re still working through it. The point of the personal essay is not to present a problem for admissions to solve, but rather to present a problem that you’ve solved.

Matt says the most important advice he can give is for you to use your own voice, not the voice you think admissions wants to hear. Pick a topic that you know and care about, not something so outlandish that you miss yourself in the bigger picture.

I asked Matt about the most memorable essay he’s come across during his time in admissions, and he told me about an essay written by a young man who babysat his five-year-old sister. Even though the essay simply described their relationship, it was charming, humbling, and revealing of the young man’s character.

“I appreciate how he didn’t try to go over the top, and I kept thinking to myself, I need to meet this guy. I think he’d be awesome at Hillsdale,” Matt said.

So now the writing is done. It’s time to proof the darn thing. Matt said he cannot stress the following enough: Have someone proof your essay multiple times, but don’t let them change what you’ve written.

“The first day you’re on campus, you’re told at Convocation that college is supposed to be a partnership,” Matt said. “This isn’t going to work unless we’re working together on it, and it starts here with the application. And then it will just continue to happen throughout the next four years. So let’s start out on the right foot.”

With that, I leave you with these final words of advice from Matt:

“Be you. Be personable. Be authentic.”

Happy writing!


Kayla Mykeloff,‘19, is a politics major and business minor from Frisco, TX, and is a member of Pi Beta Phi. When she isn’t studying or working for the marketing department as a web tech, you can find her eating gummy worms or Pi Phi Nachos and binge watching Criminal Minds or House of Cards.