What Books Should I Read To Help Me Write my College Personal Statement?

Posted by Adrienne Raphel on 9/14/15 9:00 AM

You don't have to feel this way when writing your personal statement! 

What is a personal essay? What does a college personal statement sound like? You’ve looked at tons of sample personal statements, but none of them are particularly inspiring. How do you find your voice as a writer?

The most important part of a personal statement is trusting your own voice, which is why these examples of confident, strong writers will help you find out who you want to be.

Here are three beautifully written, fascinating books of essays that will help you discover how to turn your life into a compelling story. These aren’t examples of personal statements that were written for college applications: they’re books by writers who have discovered how to turn nonfiction into a compelling story. Reading these essays instead of, or in addition to, your stereotypical “admissions essay” collection will help show you how you can come alive on the page by having the guts to write from confidence, rather than to try and fit into some sort of “perfect” college applicant mold.

John McPhee, Pieces of the Frame.

McPhee has been a New Yorker writer for decades, and he’s mastered the form of the long-form, well-researched, narrative, nonfiction essay. Even though McPhee usually writes pieces that are far longer than your personal statement will be, every essay is a masterpiece in structure and concision: he tells the full story, but he doesn’t include anything that doesn’t need to be there.

Important tips to take from McPhee’s writing:

1. Write about places that are important to you.

Check out “The Search for Marvin Gardens” (about Atlantic City, New Jersey) and “Travels in Georgia” for two examples of essays that tell stories by focusing on particular locations. If you have a place that’s particularly important in your life—your grandparents’ ranch in Montana, the community theater where you auditioned for your first show, your elementary school that burned down—try describing the location itself, and what makes it so special.

2. Use direct quotations.

Part of what makes McPhee such a compelling writer is how gracefully he brings in other people’s voices. Like a great dance partner, he makes other people look and sound terrific, and the quality of dialogue makes the people in the essay come to life. Instead of summarizing what people say, let them say it directly.

3. Senses are your friends.

McPhee often makes an scene pop by suddenly putting in a smell, or a sound, or a texture, when every image until that point has been visual. Remember that we exist in the world in three dimensions. What does the salt water in the ocean taste like? What do the weathervanes on the barn sound like? What’s the texture of the gravel driveway?

Leslie Jamison, The Emphathy Exams.

Jamison balances clarity and laser-sharp prose with harrowing, deeply personal subject matter: her writing never flinches from brutally honest self-examination, but she also never relies on sentimentality or clichés to get her emotions across. Check out the title essay, “The Empathy Exams,” for a brilliant example of writing gracefully and delicately about a very intense subject matter: that is, the author’s abortion.

Important tips to take from Jamison’s writing:

1. Let the subject matter speak for itself.

When you’re talking about something very private, write as specifically as you can, without zooming out to give morals or justify your actions.

2. Details are important, but always keep the point of the story in mind.

The only person who can tell your story is you, because you were the only one on the ground for it. So you want to bring us into the scene of the action. But you’ve also got to remember that you only have a really limited space. Why are you telling this story? What’s its purpose? What takeaway message are you sending?

3. Chronological order is your friend.

Often, when you’re trying to craft an essay, it can be easy to fall into the trap of trying to find the one best way to tell the tale without even being aware of what the story you’re telling is.

Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus.

Gould was a groundbreaking biologist who made major discoveries about the way evolution works, but he was perhaps most famous for his essays, which made complex scientific issues accessible to all readers. You don’t have to come up with new theories of evolution to write a personal statement -- but you can let your own passions, whatever they are, shine through as you write.

Important tips to take from Gould’s writing:

1. Don’t underestimate your reader.

Gould is a master at explaining very complex concepts in simple terms, but he never dumbs down his argument for the masses. The very thing that makes him so engaging is the way that he’s unafraid to present unfamiliar ideas. If you’ve worked hard at something -- lacrosse, trumpet, Rubik’s cubes -- and you’re passionate about what you do, let that come through in your college personal statement!

2. Write about what you love.

Gould has a terrific prose style—he’s witty and light without going overboard—but what shines through most clearly in his writing is that he’s passionate about his subject matter.

3. You don’t need to be complicated to sound smart.

The most knowledgeable writers are often the ones who are the clearest to follow. Writing coherently about something very technical or very theoretical doesn’t mean that you don’t get it—actually, it means just the opposite.

While it might seem like the best books to read before you write your college personal statement would be books of other admissions essays, these can get claustrophobic and paralyzing. You might feel like everything under the sun has already been written, or you might come up with some sort of cookie-cutter false “ideal” version of a college applicant. Reading well-crafted personal essays by writers unafraid to let their voices shine will help inspire you to let your own passions come through, which will help you pop on the page.

For more tips and tricks on expository writing, check out these other blog posts written by our writing tutors in New York and Boston: The Vital Importance of Writing Badly, Transitioning From One Paragraph to the Next, and How Do I Write a Good Thesis? Looking to work with an expository writing tutor on your essays? Feel free to get in touch! Cambridge Coaching offers private in-person tutoring in New York City and Boston, and online tutoring around the world.

Browse our tutor team!

Tags: college admissions, creative writing