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  • Bentham Team

College Essays are Personal Essays - Learn the Conventions of the Genre

When most students are confronted with a college essay, they encounter a conflict - should the personal statement be like the essays they’ve written in classes, or should it be a story? Usually, students reach the conclusion that it should be a combination of the two. But how to combine them? In the course of trying to mash together this awkward hybrid, students tend to err on both sides of the equation - an insipid anecdote that doesn’t show anything important about them, coupled with a bland and generic mini-essay about why the admissions committee should choose them. The two don’t fit together, and the student despairs.

But there is an essay form that lights the way: the personal essay, a form that dates all the way back to Seneca, is still very much alive and blends the narrative (telling what happened) and the expository (explaining what happened) with ease. Here are some characteristics that most personal essays have in common.

Be conversational

Yes, the conversation will be a little one-sided, but write as if you’re having a conversation anyway. Instead of thinking about using an appropriately formal tone (which will sound stilted and pretentious), begin your essay like you’re beginning a conversation - “They say you can start over at a new school, but it isn’t that easy.” This is how we often begin conversations, with an interesting observation we then illustrate with a story. Talk like yourself, minus the profanity.

Use a hook

Beginning in the middle of a scene can be a good hook, but only if the scene is interesting. Sitting in class thinking about something you’re going to do after class isn’t interesting. Walking down the stairs and smelling your grandma’s dumplings… it makes you feel warm inside to remember that, but is it interesting to the reader?

You can hook a reader by saying something contrarian, something that people don’t usually think is true. Seneca starts an essay by stating that you can study just as easily in a noisy room as in a quiet one, and we’re curious to find out why he thinks so. Where is the contrarian idea in your essay? You think of your college essay reader sitting in judgment of you, but in fact, the admissions officers, bored out of their mind by generic essays, is rooting for you, hoping that you, at last, will tell them something unexpected, or at least make them smile.

Placing us in the middle of a suspenseful or embarrassing situation - a situation where the stakes are high - that hooks the reader also. But if it isn’t truthful, if you try to put yourself in a good light, then there isn’t much at stake and it isn’t interesting.

Use highly specific examples

Personal essays find the universal through the particular. The more specific and truthful you are in describing a moment or a feeling, the more people will relate to you. If you say that you are sad about a loved one passing, readers will feel for you, but not with you - you haven’t done anything to provoke the reader’s own memories and feelings. But if, like J. D. Salinger in Catcher in the Rye, you write in detail about how your brother always played right field and used to write poems on his mitt because he got so bored out there, in green ink, the reader sees a real and very particular person, and if, like Salinger, you then describe how irritated you were at people during the wake, just because they were alive and your brother was dead, now the reader feels very close to you and feels like you’ve put your finger on something important about grief. This just comes from getting past the generic and ready-made, finding instead the little particular details and idiosyncrasies that make your story bespoke - handmade by you. Paradoxically, the more accurately a story depicts you, the more it depicts the reader, too.

An essay is discursive

Discursive is a fancy word for digressive. A personal essay moves between story and reflection easily, turning this way and that way, but that doesn’t mean it’s rambling. To ramble is to just keep going after you’ve made your point, but to be discursive is to be always looking for opportunities to reflect, to joke, to note something interesting even if it interrupts the flow of a story. If you are telling a story about group work, you could slip into a digression about exactly why you hate group work and the teacher who introduced it to you. A few sentences later you could slip out of the story again to talk about something you didn’t understand about group work, which sets up a realization about group work that comes to you in this story. This may feel awkward when you try it, but that is what revision is for. Better to take risks, and work out the kinks later, than to write a “flowing” but dull essay.

You might want to poke around online and read some masters of the personal essay form - Annie Dillard, Zadie Smith, Wendell Berry, Joan Didion, and Dan Barry would be good places to start. You don’t even have to read the whole essay - just get a feel for how it's done. Beyond that, if you need a helping hand with your essays or your application in general, contact Bentham. We’re here to help!


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