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.
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 (www.writingprose.org), and directs college essay workshops and courses for Circe LLC (https://circeconsulting.net/services/).