A personal essay is more of a general domain that other essay types (argumentative, etc.) which typically follow a more fixed organization and intent. Personal essays are sometimes described as "free-spirited" or "meandering", although ultimately the degree to which this is (or should) be true depends on whether you're writing it for a grade.
Personal essays are often asked in response to a "storytelling" prompt, such as "write about a time when you ____" or "describe an experience that made you feel ___". Thus one of the key components of a personal essay is autobiographical material. Whereas other writing formats often forbid the use of the word "I", it is essential to the personal essay.
Also necessary, in order to make sense of the autobiographical material, is a narrative structure or plot. It must be clear that there is a purpose to the story; in fact this essentially takes the place of a thesis in the structure of the essay. It is often advised to build the story up to a climax of some kind, otherwise the story risks losing momentum and relevance in later paragraphs as the author runs out of fresh and interesting material.
Quotes or a speaker are often suggested as necessary in order to emphasize the personal experience; this can be the author, or another person.
Finally, reflection is necessary. This is in addition to the autobiographical material; we need to know how the material affected you.
If you're using the typical 5-paragraph structure, it might go like this:
- Paragraph 1: Introduction to yourself. Talk about what kind of a person you are, and whether the events you're about to describe fit you perfectly, are the complete opposite, or they changed you forever, etc.
- Paragraph 2: Introduce what took place. Set the scene and describe the important characters. Get the action moving.
- Paragraph 3: Bring in the key event(s) that the essay is describing. Describe them in detail. Quotes would work well here.
- Paragraph 4: Describe your immediate, and your long-term, reaction to the events.
- Paragraph 5: Reflect on the events as you have written about them; what might have happened if they never occurred? Do they still affect you every day? How do others react when you share this experience?
For a personal essay, there isn't quite as strict of a format or required structure. To me, a personal essay is much more about telling a story and relating that back to you. Some things that you'll want to discuss then are:
- Describing the story itself: This is important for your audience to know what you are talking about. If the essay is in response to a prompt, it is important to show how the story relates to the prompt as well. However, keep in mind that it is a personal essay. Even though this part is important, the story is really only serving as a tool to tell your audience something about you.
- Why this story: You probably had a ton of options in terms of what you wanted to write about, so why this one in particular? What kind of value does it have to you to make it "beat out" all the other stories? This significance will help reveal aspects about yourself, even if you don't intend for it to do so.
- What the story says about you: It is probably helpful to explicitly state what the story was supposed to tell the reader about you. This message might not have been as clear as you expected (which makes sense, since you were the author) even though this message is definitely an important component of a personal essay.