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How to Write Personal Essays

By Dr. Linh Phung

Autumn leaves at Chatham University

It’s common for English learners to have to write short essays in class or to prepare for exams, such as the IELTS or TOEFL exam. However, there are many other types of writings that learners can practice to not only develop their writing skills but also express themselves and connect with their readers. One such type is personal essays.

Personal essays may include personal narratives, which usually focus on retelling one event in the writer’s life, and reflective essays, which describe the writer’s personal experiences and reflection on their experiences. The reflection may focus on personal growth, changes in perspectives, or observations about the world and life in general. Many elements of these essays are often integrated into college application essays, scholarship application essays, and other types of writings.

In the fall 2022 semester, I taught my students to write reflective essays about their experience studying in the U.S. They can focus on any of their experiences, not only academic ones. I pointed out the following features of a reflective ssay.

  • Subjective and personal: Instead of maintaining an objective and neutral tone in academic essays (such as a research report), writers describe their personal experiences, thoughts, and feelings in reflective essays. Therefore, the tone is considered subjective and personal.

  • Balance between (1) storytelling and description of what happened and (2) analysis and interpretation of what happened. After all, reflection means thinking back.

  • Vivid details: The writer may include vivid details when they tell a story or describe something. Vivid details may include actions, dialogue, and other descriptive language. I’ve written about this topic in another blog post about how to write personal narratives. Check it out HERE.

  • Meaning: The whole essay should convey a meaning beyond what happened. Similar to literature, these essays should have a message and some significance that readers can relate to.

It is definitely helpful for writers to read others’ essays before writing their own, especially when they haven’t written this type of essay before. Here are some excellent essays from students studying English at Chatham University to reflect on their experience in the U.S.

  1. Just One Day by Habibullah Sorosh from Afghanistan. Habib is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Mellon University with a specialty in screen writing and Afghan cinema:

  2. Appreciation by Mithaq Alshammari from Saudi Arabia:

  3. A Dreamy Reality by Andrea Quintero from Panama:

  4. Best Study Abroad Experience of My Life by Renda Kondo from Japan:

I hope you enjoy these essays and feel inspired to write yours. Teachers can also use these as examples for their students.

About Dr. Linh Phung: Dr. Linh Phung is Director of the English Language Program at Chatham University and Founder of Eduling International. She's been helping students from all over the world to practice many types of writing, including personal narratives, reflective essays, IELTS essays, research papers, and more in her classes. She has published academic articles as well as a children's book called Tug of Words and a free app called Eduling Speak to help students to practice speaking in pairs as well as improve their listening, vocabulary, and grammar through solo tasks. Download Eduling Speak here.

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