Structuring an Advanced Personal Essay

Structuring an Advanced
Personal Essay

An advanced personal essay is about yourself but includes sophisticated ideas.

Pretend the following prompt is not just for college entrance but also for determining what writing class you are to take.

Why do you wish to attend Portland State University? [Fill in another school, program, or company]


    1. Choose a title that is specific.
    2. Make sure it is not a sentence.
    3. Capitalize the first word and all the important words.

Why I Wish to Attend Portland State University


  1. If you are responding to a prompt, then usually write a tag phrase. Here, none is necessary due to the prompt’s structure.
  2. Write a What Statement. It should be a short sentence with two variables. At least one of the variables (or their relationship) must likely be New. That means the reader must not know much about it and must probably be interested.

As you have learned, a What Statement forms an image that looks like a barbell:

In this case—

Variable 1: Old
Variable 2: Old
Relationship: New

The relationship would not usually be New for such a What Statement. No one cares why you want to attend this university or that one. However, the audience for this essay will be people paid to evaluate your essay. Your thoughts are new and interesting to them. 


3. Write a Why Statement. It tells why the What Statement is true or important.

a. Your answer will tell why the What Statement is true. You therefore can join the Why Statement directly with the What Statement with the word because.

b. Beware of tautology! (circular reasoning). For example:

I wish to attend Portland State University because it is near my home.
I wish to attend Portland State University because it has strong academics.
I wish to attend Portland State University because I need a degree to get a job.
I wish to attend Portland State University because I want to challenge myself.

c. Make the Ys consistent with the type of essay you are writing. In this case, it is meant for an academic audience:

I wish to attend Portland State University because I want to work toward Viktor Frankl’s implied challenge.

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Write the title and the hyperthesis.

Old Section

1. Decide on the general subject of the New idea.

a. New idea = I + PSU.
b. General subject 1+ college.

2. Start a new paragraph.
3. Introduce the Old Section subject. Write a Claim. It should—

a. Be short.
b. Be arguable.
c. Summarize your feelings about the Old idea.

I have intended to attend college for as long as I can remember.

4. Define, describe, and/or discuss the Claim.

None of my family attended college. My father was a decorated Army officer who achieved his rank by hard work and by attending Officer Candidate School. My mother only recently began to work outside the home, as a part-time secretary. She finished high school a year early to marry my dad.

5. Provide evidence to prove the Claim.

a. Use examples.
b. You do not have to use For example or For instance.
c. Include a few sensory details.
d. Include a little relevant dialog if you wish.
e. Do not use you, your, and yourself.

I have long wanted to be a writer, and I found a deep interest in intellectual things at an early age. I lived in Germany from the first through the third grade. There was no TV in those days, and we only had thirty minutes of American radio per day, plus movies on Saturday morning.  I began reading the World Book Encyclopedia and probably read a third of the articles before returning to the States, where I “discovered” television. 

My father died very suddenly when I was in the eighth grade. I was ashamed of myself in that I had not gotten good grades when I was in seventh, probably because I had trouble adjusting to a huge school (the largest junior high in Washington). But after his death, I made a concerted effort to study harder and, more importantly, I read a number of articles on how to study. Those points have stuck with me. I know how to study – I just haven’t lately.

My main interest in my junior and senior year has been sports, but I have longed to discuss grammar, literature, art history, history, and anthropology – not cars, a subject that obsesses my friends – without getting laughed at. Frankly, I studied very little my these last two years of school. But I did read Plato’s Republic, and my teacher in Contemporary World Problems, an elderly man and an impeccable dresser, leaned over his desk after school and said, “You’re the first student in my thirty years of teaching who has understood it.”

That very much has boosted my confidence regarding college work. So when my mom said, “You’re going to flunk out of college,” I told her, “Don’t worry. I’ll do fine. Right now, I’m on vacation.”

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Write the Old Section. Turn in this part only.

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Rewrite the title and the Summary if necessary.  Incorporate instructor’s suggestions.

New Section

    1. Insert and center one asterisk.

  2. Introduce the New Section.

a. Provide a transition sentence.
b. Tie the What Statement to that sentence. Make it a Claim if possible, by repeating the What Statement. For example:

My mom remarried at the end of my junior year. I was going to go away to school, but I have decided to stay home my freshman year of college to get to know my stepdad and to save money. I therefore wish to attend Portland State University.   

3. Define, describe, and/or discuss the first sentence.

The school is not well-known for its sports, except for wrestling, which is my favorite sport. But it is very well-known for its academics. It is growing – there are several buildings under construction – but it is currently overcrowded. There are 15,500 students and, according to estimates I have read in several places, there is only room for 8500.

4. Provide evidence for the Claim.

I like those numbers. I am looking forward to large classes where I can hide … yet fight. Academically, of course. PSU’s reputation as a highly academic school that is especially adept at training part-time students means that my work will be cut out for me. When things are easy, I become bored. At PSU there is no room for slacking off. The average PSU student is in their mid-twenties and often are vets just home from the war. Such students are serious students, not those who treat college as an excuse to get away from home. I intend to graduate close to a 4.0. What better way to do that than to be forced to apply myself?

Further, four PSU students just won five straight competitions in College Bowl, my favorite TV show. They not only won; they defeated their opponents by such margins that the show’s ratings started slipping dramatically. The show’s producers, not knowing what to do with the PSU students, retired them. Even more dramatically, one of the students, George Smith, was dying of leukemia at the time. It has just been announced that one of the buildings will be renamed in his honor. That gladdens my heart, and makes me even more convinced that PSU is the right school for me.

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Write the New Section.

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Rewrite the Old Section.  Incorporate instructor’s suggestions.

Why Section

1. Insert and center one asterisk.

2. Introduce Y1.

a. Constructing a Claim for a Y is simple.
b. Start with “One reason” or something similar.
c. Then insert the hyperthesis.

One final reason I wish to attend Portland State University because I want to work toward Viktor Frankl’s implied challenge.

d. Insert is before because.

3. One final reason I wish to attend Portland State University is because I want to work toward Viktor Frankl’s implied challenge. His Man’s Search for Meaning really spoke to me. A psychiatrist, neurologist, and Holocaust survivor, he maintains that we cannot search for happiness. Rather, it is a byproduct of searching for meaning in our lives. Without meaning, we engage in hedonistic and criminal behavior or fill our days with materialism, hatred, obsessions, and compulsions.

4. Provide evidence.

What particularly struck me was his saying that, luck aside, what most enabled people to survive the Nazi camps was the drive to finish some unfinished task they had left behind. It is thus more than animal instinct that brought people through such horror. Much of that ability stems from our shedding the idea that we want more time, more education, more money to get away from our troubles and, instead, to “make the decision for,” as he puts it, a life path whose treading should fill our days.

I found that path my sophomore year. My friends and I had gathered around a kitchen radio, listening to the Clay-Liston fight. So many sports pundits said that Clay would get clocked. Me, I loved the man. “I am the greatest!” he said. Lest we forget, he said it before the fight. He was trying to psyche out Liston. But he was also, it occurred to me, raising his own game. Clay wasn’t bragging. He was willing himself to greater resolve. Having said such a thing publicly, there was no backing down.

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Write the Why Section.

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Rewrite the New Section.  Incorporate instructor’s suggestions.


    1. Insert and center one asterisk.

2. Keep the conclusion very short in personal essay.
3. Do not write, In conclusion or In summary.
4. Do not tell readers what they already know.

A resolve tugs at my heart. Sometimes it seems to fill my entire body, and my pulse pounds. The resolve did not happen the night of the fight but shortly thereafter.

I want to be, just once, just for one day, the best in the world at something.

No, that is incorrect.

I will be, just once, just for one day, the best in the world at something.

I know where the path goes. I do not know exactly what is at the end, only that it’s a world-beater. That vision makes all the side paths and brambles fall away and all the obstacles able to be overcome.

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Write the Conclusion.

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Rewrite the Why Section.  Incorporate instructor’s suggestions.

Formatting the Essay

Teachers will often have a way to format a paper. The most accepted format, though, is as follows:

1. Highlight the entire paper.
2. Set the paragraph. Move the top half of the ruler’s cursor to the ½” line. Not five spaces.
3. Format the spacing—

a. In Home, go to Paragraph. Click on the little dialog box on the lower right.
b. Set BOTH left-hand scrolls to 0.
c. Set the right-hand scroll to Double.
d. Click the little box on the bottom of the page.
e. Click OK.

4. Go into Insert. Click on Page Number. Put it upper-right.
5. Add your name, class, and date as your instructor sees fit.

Small-Group or Class Activity

Rewrite the essay. Check grammar and spelling.

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Complete the exercise:    New Brunswick

Optional Activity