Writing a Personal Essay

Learning Objectives

  • Describe techniques for writing an effective personal essay

How to Write a Personal Essay

One particular and common kind of narrative essay is the personal narrative essay. Many of you have already written at least one of these – in order to get to college. The personal essay is a narrative essay focused on you. Typically, you write about events or people in your life that taught you important life lessons. These events should have changed you somehow. From this choice will emerge the theme (the main point) of your story. Then you can follow these steps:

Someone writing on sticky notes and in a notebook.

Figure 1. Brainstorming the details of a personal experience can help you to write a more complete story with elements like vivid details, dialogue, and sufficient character development.

  • Once you identify the event, you will write down what happened. Just brainstorm (also called freewriting). Focus on the actual event. You do not need to provide a complete build-up to it. For example, if you are telling a story about an experience at camp, you do not need to provide readers with a history of my camp experiences, nor do you need to explain how you got there, what we ate each day, how long it lasted, etc. Readers need enough information to understand the event. So, you do not need to provide information about my entire summer if the event only lasts a couple of days.
  • Use descriptions/vivid details.
  • Use active voice/action. Active voice puts readers in the moment. They experience events as they happen. Think of a horror story where you experience running from the psychotic murderer right along with the hero. Here is an example of active voice from Tobias Wolff’s story “On Being a Real Westerner”:
    • “Nothing moved but a pair of squirrels chasing each other back and forth on the telephone wires. I followed one in my sight. Finally, it stopped for a moment and I fired.”
    • The verbs are all in active voice creating a sense of immediacy: moved, followed, stopped, fired.
  • Use passive voice sparingly. It can be used to add variety and slow things down. Here is an example of passive voice:
    • “I had been aiming at two old people, a man and a woman, who walked so slowly that by the time they turned the corner at the bottom of the hill my little store of self-control was exhausted” (Wolff).
      • Passive voice uses the verb “to be” along with an action verb: had been aiming, was exhausted.
  • Develop your characters. Even though the “characters” in your story are real people, your readers won’t get to know them unless you describe them, present their personalities, and give them physical presence.
  • Use dialogue. Dialogue helps readers get to know the characters in your story, infuses the story with life, and offers a variation from description and explanation. When writing dialogue, you may not remember exactly what was said in the past, so be true to the person being represented and come as close to the actual language the person uses as possible. Dialogue is indented with each person speaking as its own paragraph. The paragraph ends when that person is done speaking and any following explanation or continuing action ends. (If your characters speak a language other than English, feel free to include that in your narrative, but provide a translation for your English-speaking readers.)
  • Be consistent in your point of view. Remember, if it is a personal narrative, you are telling the story, so it should be in first person. Students often worry about whether or not they are allowed to use “I.” It is impossible to write a personal essay without using “I”!
  • Write the story in a consistent verb tense (almost always past tense). It doesn’t work to try to write it in the present tense since it already happened. Make sure you stay in the past tense.

Sample Personal Statement

One type of narrative essay you may have reason to write is a Personal Statement.

Many colleges and universities ask for a Personal Statement Essay for students who are applying for admission, to transfer, or for scholarships.

Generally, a Personal Statement asks you to respond to a specific prompt, most often asking you to describe a significant life event, a personality trait, or a goal or principle that motivates or inspires you. Personal Statements are essentially narrative essays with a particular focus on the writer’s personal life.

The following essay was responding to the prompt: “Write about an experience that made you aware of a skill or strength you possess.” As you read, pay attention to the way the writer gets your attention with a strong opening, how he uses vivid details and a chronological narrative to tell his story, and how he links back to the prompt in the conclusion.

Sample Student Essay

Alen Abramyan
Professor X
English 1101-209
2/5/2013

In the Middle of Nowhere Fighting Adversity

A three-punch combination had me seeing stars. Blood started to rush down my nose. The Russian trainers quietly whispered to one another. I knew right away that my nose was broken. Was this the end of my journey; or was I about to face adversity?

Ever since I was seven years old, I trained myself in, “The Art of Boxing.”  While most of the kids were out playing fun games and hanging out with their friends, I was in a damp, sweat-filled gym. My path was set to be a difficult one. Blood, sweat, and, tears were going to be an everyday occurrence.

At a very young age I learned the meaning of hard work and dedication. Most kids jumped from one activity to the next. Some quit because it was too hard; others quit because they were too bored. My father pointed this out to me on many occasions. Adults would ask my father, ” why do you let your son box? It’s such a dangerous sport, he could get hurt. My father always replied, “Everyone is going to get hurt in their lives, physically, mentally and emotionally. I’m making sure he’s ready for the challenges he’s going to face as a man. I always felt strong after hearing my father speak that way about me. I was a boy being shaped into a man, what a great feeling it was.

Year after year, I participated in boxing tournaments across the U.S. As the years went by, the work ethic and strength of character my father and coaches instilled in me, were starting to take shape. I began applying the hard work and dedication I learned in boxing, to my everyday life. I realized that when times were tough and challenges presented themselves, I wouldn’t back down, I would become stronger. This confidence I had in myself, gave me the strength to pursue my boxing career in Russia.

I traveled to Russia to compete in Amateur Boxing. Tournament after tournament I came closer to my goal of making the Russian Olympic Boxing team. After successfully winning the Kaliningrad regional tournament, I began training for the Northwest Championships. This would include boxers from St. Petersburg, Pskov, Kursk and many other powerful boxing cities.

We had to prepare for a tough tournament, and that’s what we did. While sparring one week before the tournament, I was caught by a strong punch combination to the nose. I knew right away it was serious. Blood began rushing down my face, as I noticed the coaches whispering to each other. They walked into my corner and examined my nose,” yeah, it’s broken,” Yuri Ivonovich yelled out. I was asked to clean up and to meet them in their office. I walked into the Boxing Federation office after a quick shower. I knew right away, they wanted to replace me for the upcoming tournament. “We’re investing a lot of money on you boxers and we expect good results. Why should we risk taking you with a broken nose?” Yuri Ivonovich asked me. I replied, “I traveled half-way around the world to be here, this injury isn’t a problem for me.” And by the look on my face they were convinced, they handed me my train ticket and wished me luck.

The train came to a screeching halt, shaking all the passengers awake. I glanced out my window, “Welcome to Cherepovets,” the sign read. In the background I saw a horrific skyline of smokestacks, coughing out thick black smoke. Arriving in the city, we went straight to the weigh ins. Hundreds of boxers, all from many cities were there. The brackets were set up shortly after the weigh ins. In the Super Heavyweight division, I found out I had 4 fights to compete in, each increasing in difficulty. My first match, I made sure not a punch would land; this was true for the next two fights. Winning all three 6-0, 8-0 and 7-0 respectively. It looked like I was close to winning the whole tournament. For the finals I was to fight the National Olympic Hope Champion.

The night before the finals was coincidentally the 200th anniversary of the city. All night by my hotel, I heard screams of laughter and partying. I couldn’t sleep a wink. The morning of the fight I was exhausted but anxious. I stepped into the ring knowing that I was tired. I fell behind in points quickly in the first round. I felt as if I were dreaming, with no control of the situation. I was going along for the ride and it wasn’t pleasant. At the end of the second round, the coach informed me that I was far behind. “?You’re asleep in there,” he yelled out to me, confirming how I felt. I knew this was my last chance; I had to give it my all. I mustered up enough strength to have an amazing round. It was as if I stepped out and a fresh boxer stepped in. I glanced at my coaches and see a look of approval. No matter the outcome, I felt that I had defeated adversity. My opponent’s hand was raised , he won a close decision, 6-5. After I got back to my hotel, I remembered Yuri Ivonovich telling me they expected good results. “How were my results,” I asked myself. In my mind, the results were great, with a broken nose and with no sleep, I came one point shy of defeating the National Olympic Hope Champion.

Even from a very young age, I knew that when my back was against the wall and adversity was knocking on my door, I would never back down. I became a stronger person, a trait my family made sure I would carry into my adult years. No matter what I’m striving for; getting into a University; receiving a scholarship; or applying for a job, I can proudly say to myself, I am Alen Abramyan and adversity is no match for me.

Link to Learning

Sandra Cisneros offers an example of a narrative essay in “Only Daughter” that captures her sense of her Chicana-Mexican heritage as the only daughter in a family of seven children.

Do Personal Essays have Thesis Statements?

While many personal essays include a direct statement of the thesis, in some personal essays the thesis may be implied rather than stated outright.

Imagine, for example, that in your personal essay you decide to write about the way someone influenced you. The influential individual could be a relative, a friend or classmate, an employer or a teacher. As you shape your essay, you would not simply assemble a collection of miscellaneous observations about the person; instead, you would be selective and focus on details about this person that show his or her impact upon you.

Let us say that the person who influenced you is a grandparent. You may know a lot about this individual: personality traits, family and marital history, medical history, educational background, work experience, military experience, political and religious beliefs, hobbies, tastes in music, etc. But as you shape your essay about how this individual affected you, you wouldn’t try to catalog all that you know. Instead, you would try to create a dominant impression by including details that guide your reader toward the idea that is central to the essay.

For example, if you developed certain habits and attitudes as you and your grandparent worked together on a project, that experience might provide the focus for the essay. If you chose details consistent with that focus, then you wouldn’t need to state that this was the point of the essay. Your readers would understand that that was the governing idea based on the details you had so carefully chosen.

Whether the thesis is stated outright or implied, then, the personal essay will have a governing idea—an idea that is “in charge” of what you decide to include in the essay in terms of content, vocabulary, sentence structure, and tone. In short, the personal essay may not have a thesis statement, but it will have a thesis.

Consider a personal essay in which a student was asked to write about a person she admired, and she wrote about her cousin. She wrote:

  • I admired my cousin’s decision to enlist because she had to withstand criticism from people who thought women shouldn’t be in the army and because in basic training she had to stand up to physical and mental challenges that I don’t think I could face.

The thesis statement provides quite a lot of guidance for both writing and reading the essay. Writer and reader are equally able to see what the subject of the essay is and what is being stated about the subject, and both writer and reader can see how the essay should be organized. No matter how many body paragraphs there are, this thesis implies that the paper will be divided into two sections. One section will group together the paragraphs on this topic: cousin “had to withstand criticism from people who thought women shouldn’t be in the army.” Another section will group together the paragraphs on this second topic: “in basic training she had to stand up to physical and mental challenges.”

Are Narratives Persuasive?

In a personal essay, you may not think of your thesis as “arguable” in the same way as a claim in a persuasive essay would be arguable, but in fact, you can think of it as something that should need to be demonstrated—backed up through explanations and illustrations. Usually, the idea that should be demonstrated is that you are a thoughtful, reflective person who has learned from the events and people in your life.

If the thesis does not need to be demonstrated, then there may not be much purpose in writing the essay. For, example, a statement that “George W. Bush was the forty-third president” or the statement that “Senior proms are exciting” would not be considered arguable by most people and likely would not spark a reader’s interest and make them want to keep reading.

On the other hand, the thesis statements below would need to be explained and illustrated. In that sense, these personal essay thesis statements are equivalent to claims that are “arguable.”

  • The evening was nearly ruined because parents acting as dress-code vigilantes threw several people out of the prom.
  • My team spent hours planning the prom and managed to head off a repeat of the after-prom drinking that caused some parents to question whether the prom should be held this year.
  • Everyone was able to attend the prom proudly because our prom committee got several stores to loan outfits to make certain everyone would feel like they fit in.
  • I opted to attend an alternative prom because the principal refused to allow a same-sex couple to attend.

Keep in mind that the actions or events in your essay do not have to make you look heroic. You could write a convincing and powerful essay about how you attended the school-sponsored prom, even though the principal refused to allow a same-sex couple to attend. Your essay, in this case, might, for example, focus on your regret over your decision and your subsequent understanding of how you think you can best challenge the status quo in the future. In other words, you can write an effective personal essay about a moment of regret.

When writing a personal essay for an application of some kind (scholarship, internship, graduate school), remember that the ultimate purpose of the essay is to make you, the essay writer and applicant, look good. That doesn’t mean that you need to describe you doing great things. If your personal essay is all about your grandfather and what an amazing role model and person he was, you still need to think about how your essay can make you (and not just your grandfather) look good. One way to make yourself look good is to make clear that you are a thoughtful, reflective person (and someone smart enough to learn from a man like your grandfather).

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