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Supporting Students to Write Outstanding Personal Essays  

5 min read
Student reads from paper
The personal essay presents each student with a chance to shine a light on who they are—through their ideas and experiences—in an otherwise straightforward assemblage of grades, test scores and transcripts.

Each fall, many students begin working on their personal essays for college and scholarship applications. Most of these students will wonder what to write about and will ask for help from a trusted teacher, caregiver or mentor.  

While all personal essays should be unique—hence the term “personal” essay—there are some guidelines students should follow to produce the most effective and compelling submission. For guidance, Brittany LaBrie, MA, CED, Clarke teacher of the deaf, shares her experience advising students—and the adults who support them—in crafting a genuine and thoughtful personal essay.  

Read All Guidelines Carefully

Brittany’s first piece of advice is fundamental: Follow directions! “There are nuanced differences for different kinds of essays. A personal essay is geared toward yourself, while scholarship essays can have a variety of topics,” she points out. “Students need to write something that’s true to them while also meeting the requirements that have been laid out by the school or scholarship organization.” 

It’s critical that students understand what the organization is looking for in the essay and what aspects of the student’s life would help answer that. “I always recommend talking to students about the goal of the essay before they begin writing, to keep them from going too far down the wrong road,” she says.   

Brittany notes students must pay attention to other instructions and detailed requirements, such as the word count, and how and when to submit their essay. That may sound obvious, but far too many students overlook these details, which can lead to an otherwise fantastic essay not being considered.  

Help Students Present Themselves Favorably

Students may have trouble thinking about themselves objectively; it’s not always comfortable to write about yourself. This is where a family member or educator can help most. “Let students have their own ideas—don’t tell them what to write about. Support them as they look for the right ideas and words,” Brittany advises. “For example, if they’re struggling for the right word, pull up a synonym finder so they can choose instead of giving them a word.” 

Sometimes, essay prompts include vague, general topics — or leave the topic completely up to the student. In those cases, Brittany encourages students to think about what makes them unique. “Imagine yourself as a faculty member and consider the aspects of an essay that could lead to a candidate’s acceptance,” she suggests. “What will show that a student cares about their work? What has a student done in the past that illustrates the impact they’ll make in the future?” 

“I encourage students to keep in mind that part of the reason for the essay is to assess if the student is a good fit for the school,” she continues. “They should write about themselves, who they are, what motivates them, why they stand out.”  

Plan Ahead 

Time management skills and support from trusted adults can reduce the pressure a student feels when it comes time to produce an original and well-crafted essay. Brittany encourages the families and educators supporting students who are deaf or hard of hearing to help them carve out time and give themselves grace during what can be a stressful exercise. Encourage students to work backwards from deadlines and to think about manageable milestones such as brainstorming, creating an outline and completing a first draft. 

Ensure the Writing is Original 

A common piece of advice when it comes to essays is for students to have at least one trusted person review it before submission. That’s solid advice for any piece of writing but knowing that the stakes for college application and scholarship essays are high, sometimes well-intentioned educators or caregivers can cross the line from offering constructive criticism to virtually rewriting the essay.  

Brittany recalls that one student she supported shared her essay with multiple people via Google Docs. That way, the adults could make notes and suggestions in the document without actually changing anything. Then Brittany and the student discussed the suggestions so the student could decide what advice to use and how to incorporate it.  

“Supporting adults have to find the balance between review and rewriting. That feedback helps the student moving forward and gives them ideas of what to consider when working on future essays,” Brittany adds.  

While substantial editing is a disservice to the student, it’s also likely to be spotted by admissions officials who have read thousands of student essays in their careers. Writing parts of an essay for a student—whether it’s done by a well-meaning adult or AI (artificial intelligence) software —is not helpful and can even be harmful to their reputation in the long run.  

Which leads to another timely topic: How do we help students manage the allure of AI? 

‘Should I Write About My Hearing Loss?’

Personal essays can feel fraught for any student, but for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, they also must consider whether to discuss their hearing loss — and if so, to what degree. There is a lot to consider and there is no right or wrong answer. Whether the topic should be included depends on several factors, including the theme of the essay and the student’s comfort with discussing it.  

“One downside of writing about being deaf or hard of hearing is that the student may believe that’s all they’re known for,” says Brittany LaBrie, MA, CED, Clarke teacher of the deaf.   

On the other hand, hearing loss is a very real and important part of the student’s life, and they should never feel like it’s something they can’t write about. “Hearing loss is a challenge that a student has overcome. If they choose to write about it, it’s a great gateway to the topic of overcoming challenges,” she says. “They can write about how they’ve won their own battles and been able to engage more with others because of it.”  

There are some situations where it makes sense to highlight their hearing loss, for example, to highlight self-advocacy skills or if it’s relevant to career goals. “One student was applying to study audiology so mentioning her hearing loss was very relevant and helped illustrate why she was committed to this field and the unique perspective she could bring to it.”  

Some students may be reluctant to write about their hearing loss out of a concern they’ll be pitied — or perceived as wanting pity. Brittany believes those fears are unfounded. The framing of the essay can make all the difference. “That’s only an issue if their entire essay is about hearing loss,” she says. “They can give some information about this without turning the entire essay into their hearing loss journey. As supportive adults, we can encourage them to share the other amazing aspects of themselves, too.”   

Navigating AI with Students

As the use of AI proliferates, and the technology continues to improve, students may be tempted to leverage the many sites and tools now available when crafting their personal essay. However, there are good reasons to avoid it.

Being asked to write a personal essay is a student’s opportunity to share their unique perspective and the singular qualities they can offer to a specific learning community. Why squander that by using the very generic voice of text-generating software? 

Additionally, many schools are now implementing high-tech AI-detection tools. Even OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, has launched an AI-detector to spot the difference between AI-generated text and human-generated text.  

Finally, most—if not all—institutes of higher education would consider this a highly unethical form of plagiarism. Many schools have academic honesty policies and academic integrity committees which take these violations very seriously; such a misstep may cause lasting damage to a student’s academic reputation.  

The personal essay presents each student with a chance to shine a light on who they are—through their ideas and experiences—in an otherwise straightforward assemblage of grades, test scores and transcripts. Taking the time to hone and present their unique voice is a worthwhile endeavor for all students looking to continue their learning journey.  

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