Personal essays pop up across admissions processes, from high school admissions all the way through graduate admissions. They often feature open-ended prompts or encourage you to dig deep into your core values and beliefs. This is a daunting task - so where do you start?
Authenticity is the foundation of persuasive personal writing. A personal narrative shows the writer honestly and clearly, in a particular context. Writing in this form is about the truest version of yourself and should not be approached like an analytical essay. It is not a sustained attempt to prove a point; it is a grand revealing of yourself for a particular purpose. Whether writing a memoir or a college admissions’ essay, it is crucial to peel back your layers and capture your essence in a finite number of words. It is like a redacted version of your journal. We all struggle to talk and/or write about ourselves because contemplative time spent alone in silence, meditating, or journaling is not encouraged or taught in society. However, I believe those practices can help unlock self-expression and provide clarity when asked to speak about an obstacle and how you overcame it, to describe how you would change the world, or to write a memoir (once you are famous).
A compelling story about what defines you often necessitates an identity beyond yourself: the community. We each have some group, based on family or faith or activity or culture, that plays a significant role in shaping who we are. Sometimes our community leads us in the opposite direction (e.g., my father’s family is Dominican, but they did not teach me Spanish because they wanted to assimilate in the US as English-speakers). This dynamic is still part of my story and helps show who I am and how I fit into the world. Community can also mean a recurring activity a few friends do together like playing a sport together or having jam sessions as amateur musicians. The thing that defines the community does not really matter; what matters is that you share your community with your reader as part of your story and show why they are important to you.
Throughout the personal piece, you are unveiling your identity and community. Ideally you will also introduce a particular topic that elicits strong feelings in you and is closely related to your identity and community. Together these components capture a reader so that they understand you and can share in your excitement and curiosity. For example, I could conceivably write a personal essay on identifying as Dominican, yet not speaking Spanish and feeling distant from my culture, yet now learning and loving various cultural dances and dishes and connecting with heritage in my own way. The identity draws an audience in, but the passion expressed sustains the readers’ attention.