Does writing about yourself feel like pulling teeth? Or maybe writing a personal essay feels like wrestling an angry cat into a tiny Christmas sweater? Or perhaps it just feels like a rainy Saturday on the first free weekend you’ve had in months?
For lots of high school students, writing about yourself feels awkward and forced. How can you share personal things without resorting to cliches or feeling braggy? How do you write an essay describing yourself and your accomplishments without making it sound like a resume?
Well, just like most things, you get better at writing about yourself … by writing about yourself. You practice. That’s it.
To help you hone your writing chops and prepare for your personal essay, here are four of the best ways to learn how to write about yourself.
How to write about yourself:
Become a better writer by journaling
It’s good to write more, period
Different types of writing help you know your audience + hone your voice accordingly
Good personal writing is vulnerable
1. Become a better writer by journaling
Journaling has been shown to help manage anxiety and reduce stress—both things that are helpful as you navigate this challenging time of standardized testing and college applications. Journaling also helps you hone your writing voice outside of academic expectations or social media’s pressure to be funny or deep.
If writing about your feelings in a notebook every night feels a little too Judy Blume/Dear Diary, there are plenty of other options. You could keep a giant Google Doc filled with bullet points or record voice notes on your phone.
You could keep a video journal—you don’t have to show it to anyone or upload it to YouTube! You could write lists on any topic that sparks your interest—fantasy jobs, favorite books, times I thought I’d ruined everything but it turned out fine.
If you’re not sure what to journal about, here are a few journaling prompts:
The two moments I’ll never forget in my life are (describe them in great detail, and what makes them so unforgettable)
The words I’d like to live by are…
I couldn’t imagine life without…
When I’m in pain — physical or emotional — the kindest thing I can do for myself is…
Make a list of the people in your life who genuinely support you, and whom you can genuinely trust. (Then make time to hang out with them.)
Regardless of the shape your journal takes, keeping a record of your thoughts helps you track important experiences in your life—something that will come in handy when you’re writing that personal essay.
2. It’s good to write. Period.
The more you write the better your writing will be.
And any kind of writing counts! Emails, journal entries, long Instagram captions—any writing that helps you tap into your voice and your experiences will prepare you for your college essays.
You’ll get in the habit of including details, crafting narrative arcs, and structuring your sentences with care. We all need junky first drafts, and the more you write, the more first drafts you’ll have that can be edited into something great.
3. Good personal writing includes interesting details.
Good personal writing, whether you’re writing a social media post or scholarship essay, includes interesting details. Specifics add color and context to a story. Telling your reader you were shy, for example, is fine. But opening your essay with this paragraph is more interesting:
The clock was remarkably slow as I sat, legs tightly crossed, squirming at my desk. “Just raise your hand,” my mind pleaded, “ask.” But despite my urgent need to visit the restroom, I remained seated, begging time to move faster. You see, I was that type of kid to eat French Fries dry because I couldn’t confront the McDonalds cashier for some Heinz packets. I was also the type to sit crying in front of school instead of asking the office if it could check on my late ride. Essentially, I chose to struggle through a problem if the solution involved speaking out against it. For the rest of this essay, click here.
Telling your readers that you took a trip to an unfamiliar place is fine. But this paragraph is better:
Day 1: “Labbayka Allāhumma Labbayk. Labbayk Lā Sharīka Laka Labbayk,” we chant, sweat dripping onto the wispy sand in brutal Arabian heat, as millions of us prepare to march from the rocky desert hills of Mount Arafat to the cool, flat valleys of Muzdalifa. As we make our way into the Haram, my heart shakes. Tears rolling down my cheeks, we circumvent the Ka’ba one last time before embarking on Hajj, the compulsory pilgrimage of Islam. It became the spiritual, visceral, and linguistic journey of a lifetime. For the rest of this essay, click here.
4. Be vulnerable.
Writing about yourself doesn’t need to reopen emotional wounds. If you’re wondering what to write your personal essay about, the answer isn’t necessarily “That thing I go to therapy for.”
That being said, being vulnerable in your writing is one of the best ways to showcase your accomplishments without being annoying or braggy. Share your own personal before and after—the challenges you overcame in order to accomplish something, the self-doubt you worked through to become good.
When you’re writing about yourself, contextualize it by providing a backstory. How many hours did you practice that trumpet solo before you auditioned? How many times did you run that lab test before you got the results you wanted? How many times did you try out for the varsity soccer team before you made it?
And good personal writing doesn’t always end with a traditional win. Maybe you never made the varsity soccer team, but you learned a lot about yourself when you tried out. Perhaps the results of your lab tests didn’t turn out the way you expected, but you discovered something important in the process. Show us the work that went into the person you are now.
Learning how to write about yourself doesn’t have to feel awkward or uncomfortable. Promise! Use these personal writing tips to practice being reflective before you start your college essays. Practice may not make perfect, but it will definitely make it easier for you to showcase yourself to colleges down the line.