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What is a personal essay?

Whether as part of coursework, in a college application, or for professional employment opportunities, the personal essay is one of the most challenging papers you may ever have to write. While there is no universal consensus on the precise definition, the personal essay is a broad piece of writing that often includes various styles. In most cases, personal essays require students to write about an event, time period, person, or object in the student’s life. The goal of this type of essay is to narrate the event so well that the audience can fully understand and experience. Often used to refer to personal statements, personal essays generally adopt both descriptive and narrative approaches to essay writing.

The personal essay often allows the student to create a more complete picture of who you are as an individual, in relation to the object or the period. In other words, your personal essay ought to tell a story, your story. In summary, a personal essay can be referred to as an anecdote from your life, connected to an event or an idea. The main objective in this type of writing is to use your experience as a tool to explore a larger question or theme.

A personal essay is different from the traditional personal narrative in the sense that it is driven by ideas, instead of stories or images. As such, while stories and images may be present in the personal essay, they have a less central role. A personal essay is essentially a short, flexible autobiographical work, and is thus unique to who you are.

A personal essay is an invitation, inviting the reader to know you personally. Narrow the assumed distance, and make your reader feel welcome to share in your personal story. A personal essay is also a picture. A well-structured and well-written personal essay ought to produce an image of you as a person and a student, and even someone beyond the education. It is also a demonstration of your judgement and priorities. What you choose to include in your essay tells your audience what you value. In essence, therefore, what you say is as important as how you say it.

However, a personal essay should not be approached as an academic paper with you as the subject. In most cases, your other academic papers will require you to reflect research, interpret data, and analyze readings or events, all at a detached distance. On the contrary, personal essays are just that, personal. You are writing about you. What makes you unique, and what you like. A personal essay should also not be confused with a journal entry. Although it may help to draw on experiences and observations you may have captured in your journal entries, it is critical to make sure that your essay does not read like a diary. Only share with your audience what you consider important, using your experiences to offer useful context to your writing. Only include what you are comfortable sharing with your audience, and would be prepared to share in a face-to-face interview.

Since personal essays are personal and, therefore, subjective, there is no style or type of writing that can be set out as a model. While the freedom can be liberating, it can also be maddening in the sense that you may have no clue where to start. However, while each personal essay is unique in terms of style, the purpose remains the same.

Here are some tips on how to improve on the quality of your personal essay:

Pay attention to detail

Your job when writing a personal essay is to show, rather than tell. It is often tempting to dilute the strength of your essay by attempting to do too much. The key to writing a good personal essay is focusing on a single theme, as having too many ideas to explore make it difficult for your reader to tell what you are trying to communicate. Ignore the peripheral insights and experiences, and don’t get distracted. Focus.

Plan before you write

Most students assume that, since personal essays are about the author, then they can be written spontaneously. This is a grave mistake. All forms of writing require preparation and planning. You will probably be working on a restricted word count requirement, meaning that failure to plan could see you leave out some important details. Before you sit down to write your essay, start by interviewing yourself, and noting down aspects of yourself that make you appear in the most positive way. Note down important milestones relating to the essay question.

Start with a catchy introduction paper structure

Like most forms of academic writing, personal essays can easily follow the five-paragraph structure. In this format, the writer begins with an introduction in the first paragraph, before proceeding to the body and ending with a conclusion. The introductory paragraph is, arguably, the most important element of your personal essay, as can either attract or repel your audience. Your audience probably has other papers to read, and may not have the time to go through all the papers, a poor introduction increases the chances of your paper being dismissed without a second glance. A sound introduction is one that gives your readers a clear understanding of what the paper is about.

Open your personal essay with an introduction that is interesting and engaging to your reader. In other words, your opening ought to introduce the main characters in you essay, as well as the main themes of the essay. It is also in this section that you present the main question of problem addressed in the essay.

An important tip when writing the introduction is to avoid starting with a line that explains exactly what is discussed in the essay, such as “In this paper we are going to look at…”. Instead slowly draw your reader into the writing, while still offering the information needed in your introduction. Instead, you could open your essay with a scene that comprises the main characters in the essay, and which allows you to introduce your audience to the characters and the main conflict straight off the bat. For instance, say you were writing an essay about your damaged relationship with your father, you could start with a memory of a scene where you and your father were involved in an altercation. Throughout your paper, try to use the active voice rather than the passive voice as much as you can.

Draft a comprehensive, yet concise thesis statement

Like all forms of essay writing, personal essays must have a thesis statement. In fact, the thesis statement could be the most important element of your entire essay. This short statement not only controls the subject matter, but also gives the audience a preview into the rest of the essay, letting the audience know why the paper is worth their time. Writing an essay that lacks a well-crafted thesis statement runs the risk of your paper lacking focus. Make sure that your thesis statement, included at the end of the introductory paragraph, identifies a particular purpose, and a specific way of attaining that purpose. The thesis statement must also be easy to identify and ought to be clear and concise.

Each body paragraph should deliver a new message

Paragraphing offers a way to break down the contents of your essay in ways that your audience will find interesting and fluent. In most cases, and depending on the length of your paper, the body of your personal essay will consist of between one and three paragraphs, where you offer more information on the topic. To help organize your thoughts, prepare an outline of the main message in each paragraph before beginning to write.

Each body paragraph has the same structure as the rest of the essay, starting with an opening sentence, followed by supporting sentences, and ending with a concluding sentence. The opening sentence serves to draw the reader in, and introduces the point. The sentence could also be a transition from the previous paragraph. The following sentences offer support to the main idea in the paragraph. The final sentence either sums up the entire paragraph or offers a transition to the next paragraph. When writing a personal essay, make sure that the paragraphs are relatively short and intriguing. Too long paragraphs are boring, and too short is bumpy.

Close your personal essay with a concise conclusion

In the final paragraph of your essay, offer closure to your writing. The concluding paragraph summarizes the points made in the essay, stating your final position. In a personal essay, this is where you indicate any lessons you may have learned. To make the best out of your concluding paragraph, tie it to the introduction.

In this article, we have looked at the definition of a personal essay, as well as some tips on quality writing. It is important to reiterate that quality writing cannot exist without careful proofreading and editing to eliminate costly grammar and tautology errors. Revise your paper, until you are convinced that you have the best possible draft.

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