“Know Thyself.” This phrase is often attributed to Socrates, although the exact author remain a topic for debate. Knowing who you are and the experiences you have had, however, is knowledge that only you possess, and it is often the topic of a number of essay assignments given to students from elementary school forward. Personal essay topics may range from the simple elementary school page that addresses, “What do you want to be when you grow up and why?” to far more sophisticated topics and prompts that a student encounters as they move through their academic careers. There are a couple of different purposes for such assignments, but the common element of all of them is the requirement that you look at experiences and events in your life, reflect upon them, and speak to how they have impacted who you are in some significant way.
English teachers like to assign personal experience essays for two reasons: 1) they force a student to organize a sequential timeline to present a specific experience, and 2) they require that a student speak to the impact of that experience on his/her maturation, beliefs, and/or priorities, etc. They are looking for student ability to provide a narrative that is sequentially organized and then to provide a reflection on that experience.
Because the personal experience essay is, in many ways, a narrative, the best organizational tool is a timeline. If you use a timeline, each of the sub-events of the total experience can be placed upon that timeline, and this provides the skeleton for the paragraphs of the essay. The reflection part usually is introduced in the introduction and summarized in the conclusion. How has the experience changed you? How will you approach similar experiences in the future? These questions will give you your thesis, which should be stated in your introduction.
Typical topics for personal essays based upon experiences include such things as:
Generally, you will not be able to come up with your own personal essay topic ideas for these essay requirements. Instead, you will be writing essays in response to prompts that are already provided by the common application, the specific university or grad school department, or by the individuals who determine scholarship awards. You should not panic, however, because there are usually several prompts and you are allowed to select among them. The common application for college admissions, for example, currently provides 5 options for your personal essay, and, among these options, you will easily find one which you can easily address. They are general in nature and require to reflect upon events in your life which had a significant impact and contributed to who you are today, how your beliefs may have changed, etc. For grad school admissions, topics will relate more specifically to your personal experiences or events in your life that have prepared you for the field of study you wish to pursue.
Writing about yourself is a topic for which you will have to do no research and also allows for humor and creativity that cannot be used in more formal essays on objective topics. Have fun with your personal essays, and engage your reader with unique and/or inspiring insights into yourself!