The assignment always seems simple enough: write a personal essay about some topic that applies to the class. But the adage that looks can be deceiving may have been created just for the personal essay.
Generally speaking, a personal essay is designed to offer the reader some insight into the mind and character of the writer. The essay offers a chance to make a point, tell a story and just be yourself. So why is it so hard?
Make an outline
One of the fatal flaws of most personal essays is that the writer doesn't plan what he is going to write. Just like any other writing, a personal essay should start with an outline. The problem is that for some people, the concept of outlining can be intimidating. This doesn't have to be complex, with Roman numerals and full sentences like the outlines you did for your basic research writing class.
Jot down a few ideas about your response to the question. Don't have a question? Then start there. Figure out what you want the essay to tell the person you are writing it for. If the essay is for a class, the question might be something about the class topic, but if it is part of an application process, the question generally is, "Why should you be chosen for acceptance?"
Knowing what question you are answering makes it easier to create a brief outline. List three or four, more depending on the length, answers that you want to include in the essay. Then, look through the list to determine which point is the strongest. You may also want to consider anecdotes about your life or facts that help support the argument.
Cite the evidence
Although personal essays rely primarily on your thoughts and ideas, it never hurts to back up your opinions with facts. Whether they are instances from your own life that illustrate the point you are trying to make or hard facts culled from hours of research, offering your reader some evidence to back up your ideas increases the credibility of your narrative.
Readers want to connect with the writer, so think about evidence that would convince you. If a sentence or paragraph in your essay leaves you thinking, "So what?", leave it out.
Be true to yourself
Another common mistake in personal essays is trying to be something that you aren't. Some people try to be very formal, searching the thesaurus for just the right word. Others try to be funny when they, generally, are not. Choose a writing style that reflects who you are. While the grammar and punctuation should be correct, the language you use tells the reader about you too. Your personal essay should be as unique to you as your fingerprints. People reading it should know you better after they are done.
The true art of a personal essay is capturing something special about yourself and then communicating it to everyone who reads the piece. It's definitely a lot harder than the initial assignment ever seems to be.