Monday, August 10, 2015

It's Personal Essay Time!

Get excited! It's time to write that all-important personal essay for your college applications!

Note: I tutor/advise students for this essay. I'm not trying to be a show-off, but I am an award-winning essayist. It's what I do. 

No, I won't write the essay for you, but I will coach you and help you to write the best possible essay for your application. This essay is your story, but I will help you see how to present it in the best possible way.

Here are some personal essay writing tips:


Before you begin writing a personal essay, you should plan the impression you want to make. I like to tell my personal essay students to jot down a short list of five adjectives that they hope apply to them. Examples: persistent, thoughtful, compassionate, daring, curious. (Avoid the obvious terms such as “hard-working” or “intelligent.”)
   Knowing the impression you want to make before you begin writing can help you shape your writing without reverting to “telling” instead of “showing.” The trick to the personal essay is that you must convey these adjectives without stating them outright.


Choose the strangest story you have. The key to writing a memorable personal essay is to be memorable. Show your readers something surprising.
 You might brainstorm a list of the weirdest things you’ve ever seen, done, said. Think in terms of extremes (terrible, wonderful). Also consider what is oxymoronic about yourself (how can you be terrified of eating fish, for example, yet one time you willingly drank liquid charcoal?).


Stay focused. Try to limit yourself to one meaningful anecdote, one succinctly described life-changing event. Don’t worry: we can learn everything we need to know about you based on that one little story.
   Also, limit your story’s timeline as much as possible. No one can really write a great five-paragraph essay about her entire life. Even a slightly narrower topic such as your junior year is too much to cover in one little essay.

Write using your five senses. If you want to write a good personal essay, it needs to be bursting with vivid, true-to-life, specific images and sensory details. To help with your planning and writing, you might start by brain-storming  a "memory list" of sensory details that you remember about the event you’ve chosen to describe. You might try to recall what the weather was like, what the house smelled like, what your mother said to you and what you responded. How did your voice sound to you when you spoke? What were you thinking about, remembering, seeing?


Keep the point in mind. A personal story should always demonstrate growth and insight without overtly stating those points. Be sure to explain how you recovered, how others reacted, and what you learned. That's the point of the essay in a nutshell.
 It does take skill to do this in a subtle (not heavy-handed and obvious or maudlin) way.


Get creative with organization of details. You might immediately get to the tension in the story. You might start at the climactic point and then flash back. 
   If you want to tell the story about the time you accidentally ruined  a holiday dinner you had tried to cook, begin with an image of a turkey carcass on fire, move on to the scorched potatoes no one could choke down, and tell us about the rest of the failures; don't try to build up to them and then suddenly end. (Strict chronology is usually not the most effective organization, and your essay won't feel fresh.)


Be humble. Better yet, be self-deprecating. Remember: we are most inclined to like and believe people who aren’t afraid to show us the imperfect truth of their lives.
   When you're thinking of topics to write about, give some thought to parts of your life that you wish you could re-do. Avoid personal essay clich├ęs such as kicking the winning goal, going on a mission trip, or remembering deceased grandparents. While these can all make for excellent essays if done well, it's difficult to stand out telling a story that many readers will feel they’ve read before.

Consider your impact. What are we supposed to be noticing about this story that you're telling us? How should we feel by the time we finish reading your essay?
   Don’t tell the reader what to think or how to feel, but try to imagine how your reader will think of you, the final impression you will leave.


If you’ve done your job as a writer, then an objective reader will be able to use the same adjectives to describe you as the ones you hoped to convey when you first planned this essay.