Personal Essay




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Describe the life experiences, personal factors and notable challenges that have influenced you most as a student and a person. (no more than 600 words)



1While your subject will be significant to you, it need not be something that would be significant to everyone, and you need not choose the most meaningful person, place, word, object, or event of your life. Sometimes a seemingly insignificant subject offers a fascinating avenue of inquiry. For instance, a reader may be sympathetic but ultimately unsurprised to learn that a grandparent’s struggle with a degenerative disease impacted you; on the other hand, they might be intrigued to discover why a certain bench in the subway station is worth learning about. Be strategic, but don’t feel pressured to choose something obviously or universally “Important.”

2The significance of your topic in this essay must emerge not through explicit assertion (i.e. “This is meaningful to me because…”) but through strategic description and narration. Your goal here is to help readers experience the subject as you do/did, allowing them to derive meaning from the rhetorical choices of the narration itself, rather than merely being told that something is important to you and why. Bear in mind that personal writing can still be analytical, and it therefore requires thoughtful choices about diction, syntax, organization, etc. In other words, how you discuss your subject is the primary mode of argumentation here. For example, describing a cat as “sooty” has a different effect and thus makes a different claim than saying the cat is “inky,” “dark,” or “black.” Search out patterns, tensions, or anomalies in your experience, as you would when analyzing any object. Subtly conveying those patterns or creating purposeful tensions in your narrative will help generate meaning for your reader as you engage your subject. For inspiration you can look back to O’Brien, or to these authors in The Writer’s Presence: Dubus, Baldwin, Didion, Gates, Cofer, Vivian, Orwell, Strayed, Fadiman, Staples.



• Showing > telling. Your audience does not know your topic as you do, and your goal is to help your reader experience your subject through language, which is most effectively achieved with concrete details. It’s one thing to simply tell your readers that you were nervous while swimming in Lake Michigan last spring; it’s another to show them the seemingly bottomless, murky depths, making them feel the fish nibbling your toes, hear the wind whistling in the folds of your ear, and taste the tuna sandwich you ate before swimming. Be concrete and appeal to the senses.


• Make sure your language is clear and precise. Favor concrete, sensory diction (see above) over abstract, vague terms like “fear,” “pain,” “love,” etc. There is, of course, room for abstraction in this essay, but language is more powerful and more personal when it’s concrete.


• Use fresh, purposeful prose. When writing about things that are personally meaningful, the tendency is to rhapsodize with tired and/or florid phrases. Carefully edit your essay for clichés, worn-out metaphors, euphemisms, and/or overwrought comparisons. Figurative language must be vivid, and diction should contribute to the overall impact of the essay. Aim for specificity and originality, but avoid pretension. In other words, don’t describe your subject’s eyes as “verdigris” if a simple “green” will do; however, if you come up with a metaphor that carries important meaning, use it. For instance, novelist Nicola Griffith describes a character’s eyes as “the color of cement,” which provides not just sensory detail, but also significant insight about a character elsewhere represented as a ruthlessly violent police officer. Be similarly strategic. 


• Aim for concise-ness. Avoid “filler” and vague intensifiers, (e.g. “lovely,” “interesting,” “nice,” “very,” “really,” “extremely,” etc.). Favor simple verbs over verb phrases (e.g. “sprints” > “runs quickly”) and simple verb forms over progressive forms (e.g. “goes” > “was going”; “drinks” > “is drinking”). Whenever possible, convert passive constructions to active ones (“He was taken to the hospital by me” à “I drove him to the hospital”).


• Experiment with organization. The way you encountered your topic may not be relatable or even useful in trying to communicate its significance to an unfamiliar reader, so don’t feel you must be totally autobiographically authentic. Personal narratives do not always have recognizable introductions, body paragraphs, and conclusions, but they do often have conclusive beginnings, middles, and endings, so think carefully about how you can use these conventions to your advantage. Where and how should your inquiry start? Do you want to forecast its resolutions, or let them emerge linearly? Would creating suspense serve you well in the delivery of this message? Where and with what details do you want to leave your reader? How can you best guide them to an understanding of your subject?



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