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Demystifying the Personal Essay

Exploring the Components of College Essay Writing

Elizabeth Simison

on 15 September 2014

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Transcript of Demystifying the Personal Essay

The Personal Essay
(cc) photo by Metro Centric on Flickr
(cc) photo by Franco Folini on Flickr
Discover your strengths...do a little research about yourself: ask parents, friends, and teachers what your strenghts are.
Find patterns and connections: group similar ideas and events together.
Create a self-outline: Next to each strength, list five or six pieces of evidence from your life-things you've been or done-that prove your point.
This is NO EASY TASK....it's always difficult to brag about yourself...well, for most people.
There are three basic essay styles you should consider...
Standard Essay: Take two or three points from your self-outline, give a paragraph to each, and make sure you provide plenty of evidence. Choose things not apparent from the a standard resume or light up some of the activities and experiences listed there.
When you have a good draft, it's time to make final improvements to your draft, find and correct any errors, and get someone else to give you feedback. Remember, you are your best editor. No one can speak for you; your own words and ideas are your best bet.
Edit Down: Your language should be simple, direct, and clear. This is a personal essay, not a term paper. Make every word count (e.g., if you wrote "in society today," consider changing that to "now").
Let It Cool: Take a break from your work and come back to it in a few days. Does your main idea come across clearly? Do you prove your points with specific details? Is your essay easy to read aloud?
Wise Words from an English Teacher (me!)
Feedback Time: Have someone you like and trust (but someone likely to tell you the truth) read your essay. Ask them to tell you what they think you're trying to convey. Did they get it right?
You, in fewer than 650 words
The personal essay is a chance to explain yourself, to open your personality, charm, talents, vision, and spirit to the reader, whether it is a teacher, or an admissions committee. It's a chance to show you can write clearly about your thoughts. Don't let the chance disappear.
 Less-Is-More Essay: In this format, you focus on a single interesting point about yourself. It works well for brief essays of a paragraph or half a page.
 Narrative Essay: A narrative essay tells a short and vivid story. Omit the introduction, write one or two narrative paragraphs that grab and engage the reader's attention, then explain what this little tale reveals about you.
Let's look at some of the best essays written by BACON students.....
Set a timer for ten minutes and make a list of your strengths and outstanding characteristics. Focus on strengths of personality, not things you've done. For example, you are responsible (not an "Eagle Scout") or committed (not "played basketball"). If you keep drifting toward events rather than characteristics, make a second list of the things you've done, places you've been, accomplishments you're proud of; use them for the activities section of your application.
Proofread Two More Times: Careless spelling or grammatical errors, awkward language, or fuzzy logic will make your essay memorable in a bad way.
When asking for editing help, only approach ONE teacher who knows you well. Since we all have individual styles, we are all going to be reading your work and editing it in different ways.
Instead of asking this:
"Will you edit my college essay FOR me?"
Ask this instead:
"When is a good time for you to edit my college essay WITH me?"
This shows the teacher that you are personally invested in your essay, and that you are willing to do the work. Also, having a conversation while editing is better than trying to interpret pen marks on a page.
The Common App Provides You With Five Choices:
1. Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there and why is it meaningful to you?
5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family.
Inside the Admissions Office
Don't Tell Them What You Think They Want to Hear
Don't Write a Resume
Don't Wait Until the Last Minute....
Procrastination will NOT work in your favor.
(cc) photo by medhead on Flickr
If your essay is for a college, most admissions officers read plenty of essays about the charms of their university, the evils of terrorism, and the personal commitment involved in being a doctor. Bring something new to the table, not just what you think they want to hear.
Don't include information that is found on a resume. Your essay will end up sounding like an autobiography, travelogue, or laundry list. Yawn.
Keep Your Focus Narrow and Personal
Your essay must prove a single point or thesis. The reader must be able to find your main idea and follow it from beginning to end.

Essays that try to be too comprehensive end up sounding watered-down. Remember, it's not about telling the reader what you've done- —they can pick that up from your resume- —instead, it's about showing them who you are.
Prove It
Develop your main idea with vivid and specific facts, events, quotations, examples, and reasons. There's a big difference between simply stating a point of view and letting an idea unfold in the details:

Okay: "I like to be surrounded by people with a variety of backgrounds and interests"

Better: "During that night, I sang the theme song from Casablanca with a baseball coach who thinks he's Bogie, discussed Marxism with a little old lady, and heard more than I ever wanted to know about some woman's gall bladder operation."
Be Specific:
Avoid clichéd, generic, and predictable writing by using vivid and specific details.
Okay: "I want to help people. I have gotten so much out of life through the love and guidance of my family, I feel that many individuals have not been as fortunate; therefore, I would like to expand the lives of others."

Better: "My Mom and Dad stood on plenty of sidelines 'til their shoes filled with water or their fingers turned white, or somebody's golden retriever signed his name on their coats in mud. I think that kind of commitment is what I'd like to bring to working with fourth-graders."
Information courtesy of The College Board, The Princeton Review, and the English Department at Bacon Academy
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