Putting the Personal in Personal Essays

by Annalese Duprey

This summer, I had the privilege of designing a new Common Application Essay Workshop curriculum for LAS. I thought about writing, I thought about editing. I read the prompts, and I thought about life writing. I read books of successful college application essays. I pondered how help students respond to open-ended prompts rather than answer questions, as they are trained to do in High School.

After all, in the space of 650 words, each essay needs to be engaging enough to catch the attention of an admissions officer, be concise enough to say what it needs to in the allotted space, and convey something essential about the student. “It’s about being honest and eye-catching, about having a good hook into your story, and a good reflection on what you learned,” I told my students in the first workshop. To that end, I had students practice telling stories. I’d ask them to think of one of their personality traits, then have them tell the group a story illustrating it. Then we’d guess the trait; usually the rest of the group would get it right. Knowing that their narratives were interpretable by others gave students confidence in their abilities as storytellers.

The more detailed the stories were, the easier it was to hone in on the characteristic its teller was trying to share. The details of a story are what make it yours. We could all tell a story about our first day of school, or the first time that we got lost. But yours will be different from mine, because I wore red shoes to kindergarten, or because I got lost in an amusement part during my cousin’s birthday party. Specifics make the story good, but they can also be what makes it hard to share, because they are what ties it to only you of all the people in the world.

Even anonymously, baring one’s soul is a tremendous task to undertake. In draft after draft, students tried to distance themselves and hid behind generalizations. They wrote stories that could have belonged to any number of people. “My parents’ divorce was hard for me,” or “I went through a period of depression,” or “I learned that I was stronger than I had thought,”  they would write. And I would ask “why?” I would push for examples, I would dig for details. Don’t tell people that it’s hard to have your parents divorce; tell the story of the first day you realized you had to split your life between two homes. Tell me about what it felt like to train for that half marathon. When you hit the wall, what made you keep going? How much did it hurt?  

Over the summer, I’ve helped students to celebrate their own successes, while walking the line between sounding arrogant and sounding self-conscious. I’ve helped students who wrote with insight and maturity about painful experiences. I’ve coached students who wrote about transitions that might seem small to others but are, in fact, big. I’ve read reflections about changes that the author wants adults to think are no big deal, but which are enormous. The best stories are the richest in specifics and details. The most personal essays are the ones that could be told by no one else in the world but you.

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