The College Applicant Personal Essay:

A Case for Re-naming of the College Essay

by Jim Joyce and billy lombardo

The three labels most commonly used for the essay that high school seniors write for their college application are the Common App Essay, the College Essay, and the Personal Statement.

None of them are perfect.

The term Common App Essay gets its name from The Common Application, the non-profit organization created to simplify the application process for college candidates. It started with 15 member organizations and now represents something like 900 higher learning institutions. The title describes, in two words, exactly what the function of the essay is; it refers to the writing portion of the Common Application. But it provides no other information about the essay.

And the term College Essay is even less effective in its ability to describe the document. In addition to the use of the phrase for our purposes, here, College Essay also refers to analytical essays written by college students.

As for the final label, the personal in Personal Statement is good, but the statement in Personal Statement doesn’t quite do the work. “I stand for justice” is a personal statement, but in your application to get into the school of your dreams that sentence probably won’t tip the scales in your favor.

It will do you good to think of this essay as The College App Personal Essay because the best of college essays are personal essays.

And because the best of college essays are personal essays, it makes a great deal of sense to look at characteristics of the personal essay. The following checklist of personal essay characteristics was gleaned from Phillip Lopate’s introduction to his book The Art of the Personal Essay.

All of these elements can (and arguably should) be included in the college essay.

Characteristics of the Personal Essay

–the personal essay has an APPARENT subject and a DEEPER subject

In every good story, there are at least two stories; one is on the surface, and one is submerged. The poet, Jane Hirschfield, says that, “Every good poem wrestles with something that matters.” We can extend this statement to good stories and good personal essays. At the heart of every good personal essay is something that matters. The writer, Amy Bloom, says, “You should write about things that matter to you.”

The deeper subject is the one the writer is hoping to get at. The deeper subject is the one the reader is waiting for.

–the personal essay is intimate (close authorial presence and distance).

Though the college essay is likely to include a story, it is certainly not like the Once upon a time stories of your childhood; it’s personal. No one but you could tell this story.

–the effect of the personal essay is artful, literary, well crafted

Like personal essays, the college essay is included in the genre of creative nonfiction; which is to say, the college essay is nonfiction (it’s true) and it’s creative.

–the voice and tone of the personal essay are conversational

Phillip Lopate says that “Personal essayists converse with the reader because they are already having dialogues with themselves.” The college essay may have elements of the formal, but generally speaking, the tone of the personal statement is meant to be informal, casual, personal.

–the personal essay is not afraid to be emotional

Though there is no requirement that the personal statement be emotional, we are first and foremost emotional beings; our everyday habits are influenced by our emotions. In the admissions officer’s eyes, there’s nothing emotional about your grades, your class rank, your stats; but your essay can go there.

–the personal essay shares a range of emotions

Happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, surprise—the best of essays touch on more than one.

–the personal essay yearns reveal the truth

…even if one of the truths revealed in your college essay is that you’re not perfect.

–the personal essay examines limitation and inconsistency

Limitation and inconsistency are two more truths that the college essay should not be afraid to reveal. Lopate says, Essayists are “intrigued by their limitations,” and they admit things that you’re not always supposed to tell strangers. Cases in point: Eula Biss admits to punching her younger sister in the stomach, Brian Doyle thinks God is sometimes a crook, and Chuck Klosterman sometimes eats napkins.

–the narrator of the personal essay is reliable

Your reliability as an essayist says something about your reliability as a student.

–the personal essay explores what it doesn’t know

Though college essayists often take this an opportunity to tell college what the applicant knows, the often overlooked essay explores a problem that the student doesn’t know how to solve.

–the personal essay is not afraid to examine the small things in life

Phillip Lopate says “[the personal essay] is writing that “takes a seemingly trivial or everyday subject and then brings interest to it.” Sometimes, it is your reflection on the smaller, perhaps unexpected subjects that distinguish you from the rest of the applicant pool.

–the personal essay leans toward the comic

Comedy isn’t easy to sustain in an essay, but don’t be afraid to dip in and out of it in your personal statement.

–the personal essay isn’t out to be loved by the reader

This may be a result of the essay, but it’s not the goal. Lopate says “The personal essayist is not necessarily out to win the audience’s unqualified love but to present the complex portrait of a human being.”

–the personal essay thinks against itself, challenges its own conventional thought

If the essay is an exploration, an examination, a reflection, a search for truth, then it’s very likely not a certainty. It’s okay for it to question, to argue with itself. Let it be a perhaps.

–the personal essay is flexible in form and style

Though stories may follow a fairly recognizable arc, the essay isn’t expected to. Though it needs to come together by the end, the reader will be okay with some meandering on its way. The same thing may be said of the next characteristic of the personal essay…

–the personal essay is digressive, associative

–the personal essay tells a good story

Like all good stories, though, we expect it to lead to a grander idea, a loftier purpose, something perhaps even beautiful.

–the personal essay is elaborate, explanatory, thorough

Granted, Phillip Lopate wasn’t thinking about essays that have a 650-word limit, but even with that threshold, you’ll be served well if your goal is to produce something elaborate, explanatory, and thorough.

–the personal essay is individual and universal

Though the best of college essays are profoundly individual and unique, a worthy essay ought to give the reader “that shiver of self-recognition…which all readers of the personal essay await as a reward.” – Lopate

It doesn't quite matter what you call this essay that can be one of the most meaningful works of your young life, but one of the best ways for you to distinguish yourself from the rest of the applicant pool is to at least think of it as the College App Personal Essay.

Jim Joyce is a writer, teacher, illustrator, musician, letter press aficionado, and workshop leader.

billy lombardo is a writer, editor, writing coach, baker, and furniture maker. He is the founder of Writing Pros/e (, and directs college essay workshops and courses for Circe LLC (

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Updated: Mar 27, 2020

Everyone with a Memory, Now has This

As the spread of the coronavirus continues, every day that passes I think of how another sector of the community is being affected by COVID-19. From musicians to business owners, to dog walkers, students, teachers, medical personnel, babysitters, maintenance workers, postal workers, babysitters, maintenance workers, writers, the homeless, waiters, the elderly, expectant parents, Olympic athletes—no group has escaped its reach. Unlike so many historical events—natural and otherwise—from hurricanes and floods to 9/11 to presidential elections, this one has impacted every living human. And everyone with a memory now has this.

As I’ve worked closely in secondary and post-secondary education for parts of five decades, my thoughts are also very much with young students. I’ve been thinking about college and high school seniors whose current academic histories have come to a sudden end.

There’s a passage in the first chapter of The Catcher in the Rye that I’ve thought about a number of times this month. Holden Caulfield is on the top of that stupid hill “trying to find some kind of good-by.” Such a human need–to feel a proper goodbye.

I’ve especially been thinking about high school juniors. The uncertainty and anxiety of this time in history are unprecedented, and as this group approaches the edge of the college application process, the sting of uncertainty is at an all-time high. SAT and ACT tests have been canceled. College visits, yearbook camps, debate camps, band camps, writing programs, winter and spring sports seasons, tutoring sessions, athletic showcases, musical recitals, auditions, art exhibitions, theater productions, rowing competitions, tennis tournaments, and countless other activities and programs have been canceled and postponed. It's hard to fathom watching a high school wrestling match or a basketball game. And everything that hasn’t been canceled is TBA.

It should come as some consolation, though, that more and more colleges and universities are already reaching out to high schools to support and reassure juniors that their institutions will adjust their admission standards and requirements accordingly. Some are going test optional for next year, and as the days unfold, we'll be hearing more and more about the accommodations being considered at post-secondary institutions. Here are a few things you can count on at an otherwise uncertain time.

Colleges and Universities the world over, recognize that high schools everywhere have moved from on ground to online and other non-traditional methods of learning. They're also aware that not every high school is fully prepared for this shift. Some schools may close without offering any online or structured replacement opportunities. Admissions teams are also aware that high schools will be moving from letter/numerical grades to alternative grading methods, that student activities from have been curtailed or canceled, and that the spring and summer plans of juniors everywhere have been canceled at a critical time.

Because of these drastic and unforeseen measures that high schools around the world have had to take in order to protect themselves, their constituents, and the greater community, colleges and universities understand that the applications they receive next fall will look markedly different from applications they’ve received in the past, and most colleges and universities have made some attempt to assure prospective students that they will not be at a disadvantage because of developments beyond their control.

But Now What?

In a very general way, your responsibilities as a student over these next critical months won’t change. Your colleges and universities hope that you will rise to the occasion, that you’ll continue to engage with whatever educational methods your school is able to offer, and that you will do so to the best of your ability.

High schools that have been preparing for a thorough and meaningful education in the digital world, will be better prepared for educating their students through this crisis. But if your school is ill-prepared for life in the time of COVID-19, this is not the time to sleep in and take advantage of what may seem like a lighter academic load. It is time, rather, to seek alternative methods of educating yourself, it’s time to push yourself to grow, time to read more, time to find other ways to accelerate your learning, to find other vehicles for exploring your interests. In many ways, technological advances have made it easier for people to get through crises such as this.

Some things have not changed

Colleges and universities will be as accommodating as they can be. But you can also count on them to be just as thoughtful about the makeup of their student body as they've always been. They still want to enroll the best students, the best humans, they can. They’re not likely to lower their standards because of these extraordinary times. If they’ve held themselves to rigorous standards pre-COVID-19, they’ll hold themselves to similar standards during and after the crisis.

And in their attempt to enroll the best students they can, they will continue to expect great things from you.

The College Essay

Colleges and Universities everywhere will continue to modify their admissions policies as their understanding of COVID-19 and its effects come clearer in the months ahead. They’ll make accommodations for alternative grading systems and methods of credit notation. They’ll see to it that prospective students are not placed at a disadvantage due to circumstances beyond their control.

What they won't do, is modify their thinking about the college essay. The college essay will remain a critical part of the college application process. Schools will always look to the essay for a deeper understanding of the student. In fact, because of the many accommodations they may have to make in other areas, I can imagine admissions teams reading college essays more closely and carefully than ever before.

Everything you’ve already done since day one of high school—your academic, athletic, and extra-curricular history—is already done, is beyond your control. The college essay, though, is still in your hands. And though it is perhaps impossible, to measure the effect it can have on your college application, the skills inherent in the essay can provide colleges with a great deal of information about who you are as a person. The essay speaks to your capacity for reflection, for self-expression, for precise, effective, clear, and coherent writing.

This doesn’t mean that you have to be a brilliant writer with three novels under your belt by the time you graduate from high school. Even if writing isn’t your strong suit, college admissions teams still expect you to have personality, to be reflective, thoughtful, and interested in others; and they still expect that you have a voice.

The Topic

There are counselors out there who will advise against essays that have to deal with emotionally charged issues such as death, divorce, and disease. In no way is this meant to diminish the emotional freight of these occasions. The counselors who advise against these topics do so, because it’s not easy to write about them in a way that informs the reader about the essayist. Essays on the these issues often speak more to the sadness of the event than to the person behind the essay.

Still, I’ve read great essays and terrible essays about each of these topics. I’ve heard admissions officers scoff at The Costa Rica Essay and the Climbing the Mountain Essay. And despite the fact that admissions teams are already being trained to not prejudice themselves against the COVID-19 Essay, it's bound to be a common essay topic, over which there will undoubtedly be some eye-rolling. But in the right hands, in the right voice, essays on these topics could shine. I'm already thinking about the humanities student stuck at home who steps out of his comfort zone and builds a computer or a rocket or tool shed or a kitchen table.

As with death, divorce, and disease, if the central campaign of the essay is more about the sad thing that happened to you than it is about how you move and behave and make meaning in this world, it won’t be of great interest to the admissions team at the University of Your Dreams. The purpose of the essay is for the reader to learn about you, about your personality, your passions, your initiative, your love of learning, your likability, your interest in other humans. If the admissions officer finishes reading the essay and has a feeling that she knows you, then you’ve done your job.

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