What essays should I read to help me write a personal statement?

college admissions
Who said writing your personal statement had to be boring?

When you’re writing your personal statement, you want to write in your own voice as honestly and clearly as possible. Of course you want to write a personal statement that will stand out from the pack, but you don’t want it to stand out for the wrong reasons: you still need to follow the rules of the form, but you don’t have to forget how to have fun and be yourself.

Here's how you can write a personal statement while having fun!

Personal essays provide great inspiration for the personal statement, since the most important aspect of a personal statement is your own voice, and how you get yourself to shine on the page. The two essays described below balance telling a story about a thing with discovering a story about the narrator himself. These two essays are much longer than the space you get to write a personal statement. But each one has an extremely distinctive, engaging, charismatic voice from the very first sentence. Each of these authors writes about a passion, and he does so in a style and form that is completely true to his experience without trying to be too tricky, or too clever, or make too many big, broad points. This is about telling your story.

Important note: Please be advised that some of the content in these two essays is not appropriate for very young children. These two essays are not written for admissions committees: the authors use swear words and discuss behavior that’s not appropriate for a college application essay.

David Foster Wallace, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”

Wallace ratchets a trip on a cruise ship to hilarious proportions—but he never strays from telling the truth. Wallace makes the experience of traveling on the cruise enthralling precisely because it’s not exciting at all. What’s riveting about the essay is how he perceives the world and how he opens up the innermost caverns of his mind to the reader.

“It turns out that a seasick person really does look green, though it’s an odd and ghostly green, pasty and toadish, and more than a little corpselike when the seasick person is dressed in formal dinner wear,” Wallace writes. Wallace’s trademark style includes lots and lots of footnotes, which aren’t really possible in most personal statements—but his voice stands out loud and clear even without footnotes, because he’s such an acute observer of human life.

Important tips to take from Wallace’s writing:

1. Really observe what’s going on in the world.

Pretend that you’re from another planet and have been dropped on Earth without knowing anything about the culture. Look for all the details, quirks, and patterns that you might just skim past normally.

2. Don’t be afraid to write about seemingly boring things.

If you find something really fascinating, and you can tell us why you think it’s fascinating, an essay about mowing the lawn, or working as a lifeguard, or your favorite sitcom can become totally fascinating if you can use that topic to draw the reader into your mind.

3. Use your imagination.

Wallace’s observations about the world are so terrific because they’re a hybrid of fact and imagination: he doesn’t make things up, but he doesn’t erase his opinions and feelings about what he experiences from his record of what has happened. Your imagination is your imprint on the world and how the world has been imprinted on you—let those perceptions and analyses shine through.

Ben Lerner, “Contest of Words”

Ben Lerner’s essay on his experience as a high-school debater is a master class in how to write about a topic that might, at first, seem to be a little clichéd. Thousands of high school students across the world participate in debate each year, so an essay about a debate tournament might not seem like it could possibly have a chance of standing out to the admissions committee.

But what makes Lerner’s essay pop off the page is his ability to live in the moment while simultaneously observing himself living in that moment and providing critical commentary on his perceptions.

I remember trying combinations on the main hall lockers and touching a wrestling state-championship banner in the cafeteria with the distance of an anthropologist or a ghost,” Lerner writes. These types of small details make the narrator come alive.

Important tips to take from Lerner’s writing:

1. Lots of people can have similar experiences, but no one else has had your experience.

If you’re writing about the state track meet, ask yourself: how did you really feel at the starting line? Were you having an out-of-body moment? Were you not thinking at all? How do you get yourself to keep going to practice every day? Of the moment of giving speech, Lerner writes, “I would begin to feel less like I was delivering a speech and more that a speech was delivering me.”

2. You don’t have to pretend that your accomplishments in high school will continue to be your passions in college.

Lerner was a national champion in debate, but he admits that when he was applying to college, he knew he had no desire to continue competitive debating in college; instead, he wanted to become a serious poet. You can write about what your passion is right now, or how you perceive it evolving, which will help show the admissions committee that you see yourself as a person grounded in past and future as well as present.

3. If your topic has some interesting history surrounding it, try sharing some of that information with your reader.

The last thing you want to do is leave your reader in the dark because you haven’t provided a crucial definition or piece of historical fact. Make sure that your reader knows enough of the full story to follow along.

The personal statement is your chance to put you on the page. Be yourself! Don’t be afraid to let the quirks show through. But, at the same time, it’s also really important to be clear and honest. Trying to make sweeping, grandiose points will just put both you and the admissions committee to sleep. Instead, show us how you see the world. That way, you’re guaranteed to write an essay--like these two essays--that no one else in the world could ever write.

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.

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