The Personal Essay


After the Goals essay, Personal Essays are often the most difficult to write because the range of subject matter is your entire life, and searching the fabric of your life for the strongest and brightest threads is a daunting but rewarding challenge.

Personal essay questions can take several forms, with the following being the most direct:

Describe how your background, values, academics, activities and/or leadership skills will enhance the experience of other Kellogg students. (Kellogg MBA, 2008-09 application)

Tuck seeks candidates of various backgrounds who can bring new perspectives to our community. How will your unique personal history, values, and/or life experiences contribute to the culture at Tuck? (Tuck MBA, 2008-09 application)

Is there anything about your background or experience that you feel you have not had the opportunity to share with the Admissions Committee in your application? If yes, please explain. (500 words) (Wharton MBA, 2008-09 application)

Unlike other essays such as goals, accomplishments, and failures, which tend to follow a similar structure, personal essays can cover almost anything, including childhood memories, serious hobbies, volunteer activities, and international travel. I even remember an excellent personal essay someone wrote six or seven years ago about a book his grandfather gave him that determined the direction of his life. The approach was unorthodox, but the fact that I still remember it is a reflection of its power to “echo” in a reader’s mind. This echo is what you want from all of your essays, but especially from your personal essay because, while career backgrounds, goals and accomplishments can appear similar, individual lives are unique. In other words, your personal essay can really distinguish you in a crowded MBA field.

Other excellent personal essays I remember:

1) How a client learned to alternate between relaxation and tension in her arms while swimming freestyle, a lesson she brought to her stressful work life. 2) How a client learned the importance of shared responsibility on a team through team cycling, where each rider takes a turn at the front. 3) How a client’s mentally handicapped sister, who she resented at first, inspired her own unique life and brought her family close together 4) How a client ignored his disapproving peers at an elite, conservative college and took a job working at a bar in a rough part of town that served criminals, prostitutes and transvestites.

What makes these essays memorable is not the specific event or experience itself, but that the client knew exactly what role it played in his/her life – either as a significant turning point or a strong personality trait. Even if you’ve climbed Mt. Everest, it won’t mean anything to an admissions committee unless you can explain why you did, how you did it, and what you learned about your self, your life, and your values.

I recommend to my clients that they initially conceive of this essay in terms of turning points, which are usually the most interesting experiences in anyone’s life.

This doesn’t always

Even if an MBA program does not ask about your personal life directly, there is almost always a chance to incorporate personal information in other essays and your interview.

Turning points Insights to core skills Not professional