How to Write About Yourself: Getting to Your Best Personal Essay
Do you have literary imposter syndrome?
Most of my mentees did. Depending on the day, I have as well.
I understand where this comes from. Writing is, in many instances, a personal type of hell; the more you draft, paradoxically the worse your writing seems. Because we rarely get a chance to write about ourselves in a positive manner, it’s clear; being unabashedly shameless about yourself isn’t the easiest thing to do. For most people, at least.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what personal essays require.
For scholarships, fellowships, school applications and the like, the personal essay is the gatekeeper of success. Though the rest of your application might be important appendages, your essay is your lifeblood. You get one chance to speak directly to reviewers about why you deserve their resources.
What you might not realize, however, are the tools for a fantastic essay are already inside of you. One big problem the novice application writer has, however, is finding and telling the right ones.
This article reveals the secrets to the right personal stories.
Show, don’t tell
This is the golden advice.
It sounds simple, but it is much easier said than done. I’m nowhere near the first person to give this advice; my mother even reminded me to do so in my own writing a few days ago.
Application reviewers read hundreds of applicants platforms who describe themselves as the perfect candidate. They have ‘wonderful communication skills’ and are ‘extremely passionate about university ABC’ and who ‘have developed skills for success.’ You can do better.
But, how might you do so? By actually writing your story. There’s a critical, qualitative difference between storytelling, and just ‘telling,’ and it requires you to actually describe your experiences and let the description itself — your story — reveal to people who you are.
Don’t be scared of laying bare your emotion and struggles. Many believe that scholarship applications work best when you only talk about your accomplishments, but a story without struggle has no payoff. Captivate the reader with a description of your journey that details your obstacles, your issues, your reality and where they brought you.
● What was it like growing up in your household?
● Who helped you succeed?
● Who were your influences?
● What were you interested in?
● Where have you visited?
● What obstacles stood in the way of success?
● Where did you see opportunities?
● Are there lessons that you’ve learned through your experiences that others may have not through theirs?
You get the point.
Your main task for your application is to answer the reviewer’s question: Why you, of all people? Your stories show the unique experiences, skills, values, and challenges you offer this organization.
Be warned: it’s harder than simply writing about which skills you have, you have to show those skills in practice, or how you got them in the first place. You might have to grapple with a few inner demons before this is all over.
Why this is so difficult
Are you convinced yet?
Still a bit confused about the difference between ‘showing’ and ‘telling’?
Let me give you an example. Take this first passage:
“My community service experience is without parallel. By volunteering with my peers with my church to help in our local park, I showed my ability to think on my feet, to lead as a peer who respects my fellow classmates, and I learned from the communities that I helped. I even learned about the diversity of religious beliefs by debating sarcastic atheists during community service about the power of spirituality in our society.”
It’s well constructed, but it’s also a bit pompous. Yes, he’s given a vague example of his experience, but most of his passage is grandstanding.
Now, take this passage:
“One day, while volunteering in the park for the homeless, some vitriolic atheist community members confronted our church group and began shouting epithets about Christianity. Though I was scared, I saw the opportunity for impassioned debate. I used my best efforts to keep my tongue in check and encouraged both sides to listen. Once each side was calmer, we were able to engage in an hour-long discussion about the merits and failings of industrialized religion. We all learned that we still had a lot to learn.”
See the differences?
The second passage had all the information from the first, sans arrogance, couched in an anecdote.
Here’s the kicker: you exert psychological control on the reader. By telling the story of your experience, you don’t have to tell the readers your skills. They come to realize your skills of their own accord through your brilliantly told story!
Pretty genius huh? It’s also exceptionally hard to do. This is why it requires practice.
The core of any application is the personal essay, and the core of the essay is telling your story. Spinning your experiences into the narrative that captivates reviewers isn’t easy, I admit. However, pulling out your own story gives you an unexpected superpower: it’s a springboard to your personal elevator pitch.
You now have a direct cache of stories applicable to almost any professional need, in written or oral form. Even deeper than that, by tapping into your stories, you start to understand your own identity. Trust me.
Get to work.