Autobiographical College Essays

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Many scholarship applications – like most college applications – require an autobiographical essay, which is basically a personal statement that describes who you are. It gives the judges an idea of your background, your personality, your character – details about you that you can only describe in an essay (unless you have an interview).

Oftentimes, the prompts for these personal statements are worded like this: “Tell us a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.” To write a powerful and effective autobiographical essay, there are several key ideas to keep in mind.

Choose a Convincing Story and Focus on a Theme

When you choose the story to write about, think about unique experiences that make you who you are. If you’re thinking about writing about your short-term mission trip to Mexico or how you became your school’s student body president, keep in mind that students from all around the United States will be submitting unique and individual stories. Instead of writing about topics that are cliché or canned (like canned goods that are ready to be opened and used), think deeply into your experiences — what events throughout your life have shaped how you think and act today.

Ask yourself, “If there’s something about me that others would not know through my academics, extracurricular activities, and resume, what would that be?” Imagine sitting down with a scholarship judge or admissions counselor who asks, “If there is one thing you want me to know about you, what would that be?” You want your story to make sense and to capture your reader’s attention. Choose an aspect of your life that you want to focus on and shape your essay to reflect that theme. For example, if you have overcome tremendous hardship that has shaped your character, then focus on how your adversity helped build your character. Specifically, relate this event to the broader lessons of life so that the reader can better understand your development.

Capture the Reader’s Attention

The first step in actually writing the essay is to begin with a creative way of capturing the reader’s attention. Write in a style that you are most comfortable with. Some ways of writing your intro are by narrating a specific event from a first person point of view that reflects the theme of your essay or by describing a certain scenario from a third person point of view. Regardless of your approach, remember to end your intro with a sentence that leaves the reader excited to continue reading and learn more about you.

Strengthening the Body

After a strong intro, the body of the essay continues to tell the story of your experiences. It takes the snapshot you present in the intro and supports it with necessary and specific detail. Don’t overwrite and include information that is irrelevant or wordy. Keep it simple and straightforward. The body of the essay should show – not tell – the story, meaning you should demonstrate your own personal growth and development through relevant examples. As you write, make sure to share how you felt so the reader can really see your character development. Emotions matter. Keep organization and logical sequence in mind as well. Judges take notice of your conventions and organization. As you move toward your conclusion, the tone of your writing should become more positive and optimistic. It should lead right into your conclusion.

Conclusions That Circle Back

If you want a nicely balanced essay, the beginning of your conclusion should put the cap on the story portion of your essay. It should emphasize a sense of hope in the context of your writing and demonstrate a positive change that continues into today. Following that, you might want to restate that it was “through this specific (you want to state it explicitly) experience” that you learned the specific lessons. Regardless of how, make sure to state specifically the lessons you learned and tie them into a big picture outlook. I have found it effective to use a powerful quote that relates to your theme and content, but this is, of course, a personal choice. Use the writing tips from Writer’s Block to craft a conclusion that resonates with the reader.

To complete the essay, tie back to the opening lines/event/experience in the intro to create a more cohesive and well-rounded essay. Your last sentence should reflect and state the most profound lesson you have learned throughout your experience and give the reader a sense of empowerment and awe. It should leave them thinking and pondering about their own lives, experiences, and struggles; yet, provide them with hope and optimism. A scholarship is an organization’s financial investment in you, so your essay should reflect why they would be investing their money wisely by awarding you the scholarship.

Tips to Keep in Mind

It is natural to want to use large vocabulary words to flex your intellectual muscles; but, when you’re writing a personal statement about your life, it’s best to stay simple and straightforward. Avoid using five words where three will do. If you have to use a thesaurus, chances are the reader’s not going to know exactly what the words mean so stick with simple vocab. Just be yourself, not who you think the judges want you to be. Your personal statement is an autobiography that speaks about your life, your experiences, and your reflections, so remember to tell the truth. You don’t have to make up situations or add fluff to tell a poignant story. Remember, the essay is a marketing piece that tells judges why the scholarship organization should invest their money in you.

With that said, maintain a certain level of sophistication in your writing so that the judges recognize your skills. Don’t fall into a casual conversational tone, but keep in mind that your writing should reflect your voice. The reader should be able to see your personality in the essay through your style, tone, and voice. After you’ve written your autobiographical essay, remember to edit and revise your essay several times. Have your teachers, peers, and family read over it and give you feedback and suggestions for improvement. As always, feel free to email us through the For Students page if you’d like some help brainstorming or if you’d like a Scholarship Junkie to read over your essay and give you comments and feedback.

Resources

What is it? An autobiographical essay introducing yourself, the way you think, and the way you express yourself. When do I need one? Usually required with application to graduate or professional schools.  Also required with some scholarship applications.

There are 2 kinds of personal statements:

  1. Comprehensive- you write about yourself and have the most freedom in what you write.
  2. Responses- you answer specific questions asked on an application.

Goals of a Personal Statement:

  1. Set yourself apart from other candidates.What makes you unique?
  2. Engage the reader.  Be creative and interesting.
  3. Be concise.

Remember:

  1. This is a sample of your writing ability.
  2. This is often your only chance to set yourself apart.  Most law schools don’t have interview processes, and test scores, GPAs, and résumés tend to look alike.
  3. This is your only opportunity to explain any circumstances that have adversely affected your academic record.

Getting Ready to Write your Personal Statement:

Taken from Donald Asher’s Graduate Admissions Essays: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why. What makes you unique? Different? Unusual?
  1. Who/What have your intellectual influences been?  Think about:

  • Writers and articles you have read in your field that have influences your development
  • Who were your favorite professors in college and why
  • The best paper you ever wrote (in your major) and why it was good
  • What was the most important book, play, article, or film you have ever read/seen, and how has it influenced you
  • What is the single most important concept you have learned in college
  • Any other educational milestones that seem relevant
  1. Career Choice:

  • Think about the reasons why you are choosing to go to grad school, and to what career you hope it leads.
  • Why are you choosing grad school rather than some other path?
  • What are the options you have without going to grad school?
  • When did you first become interested in your current career direction? How has that interest evolved?
  • How did you become certain of this choice?
  • How have your work/internship experiences, volunteer activities, and/or family or life experiences led you to pursue grad school?
  1. Academic background:

  • How have you prepared yourself to succeed in grad school?
  • What body of relevant knowledge will you take with you?
  • What study or laboratory skills have you honed to date?
  • What personal attributes or characteristics would help you succeed in your career choice/field of study?
  • What research have you completed to date? Any publications?
  • What role did you play in any research project?
  • What was the outcome or purpose?
  • What did you learn (Really learn) from your research? It may not be just facts, but concepts, techniques, or skills.
  • What is your biggest accomplishment to date?
  • Are there any professors at the school you are applying to that have influenced your work, or who you’d like to work with? (You MUST be sincere!  Name-dropping isn’t cool.)
  1. Goals:

  • What are your specific career plans?
  • How will graduate education facilitate those plans?
  • What is your five-year goal? Ten-year goal?
  • Will you be pursuing additional education beyond the program you are applying to? (Think hard before you write about this one. Would the admissions officials really want to hear that you’ll be getting moreeducation?)
  • Finally, remember: Tact, Sincerity, Honesty. Be clear and concise, but don’t leave out the obvious!

Writing Personal Statements

“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”-William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Don’t try to guess what the admissions committee wants to read. Don’t try to outsmart them nor impress them. Just write honestly, simply, and clearly about yourself and your aspirations.

Understand your motivations for applying and include them. Attending grad school is a huge commitment of not only money but several years of your life. You should know why you want to attend a certain school.  Let them know what those reasons are too. A compelling personal statement enables you to stand out in a field with other high-achieving persons and helps you overcome any gaps or inadequacies in your record.

Get a mentor or critic to help you with your personal statement.Think strategically about yourself and your candidacy.  Ask yourself: “What are the most important characteristics and values, goals and ambitions, life experiences and service activities that define who I am?” Then decide which of these you wish to emphasize in your personal statement. Don’t try to cover every aspect.  Keep in mind that while you might not have had any traumatic experiences nor come from a financially challenged family environment, you still have likely had experiences that are interesting to relate and that have been formative in your development as a future leader.

Read good personal statements to see how effective and revealing they can be. Come to the writing consultancy for some, or go to the library- there are lots of books about writing personal statements with lots of examples.

Decide on a story line for your personal statement. In telling your story, use your responses to bring out some dimensions that are not obvious from reading your list of activities. Reveal why you are committed to making a difference in the world. Tell the story in an interesting, compelling, and perhaps amusing way. But remember: it must be authentic.

Maintain focus. Don’t try to share every interest, every societal concern, every accomplishment, every ambition, and every passion.

Show what makes you tick. Reveal your career goals and the source of the motivations for your ambitions. Show how you are already well along the path for success.

Build a good case for your chosen path. Make clear what you want to study/do, why you would be an excellent student in this field, and how it will benefit you in the long run. Consider having fun and lightness in your personal statement.

Explain ‘understandable’ gaps or weaknesses. If you had a serious illness or unusually heavy family obligations that temporarily affected your grades or limited your participation in various activities, share it. Just don’t use a ‘sob story’ in an attempt to advance your candidacy. An effective personal statement reveals clearly and memorably your uniqueness with particular attention to your intellectual interests, passions, leadership potential, personality, and creativity. From “The Rhodes Scholarship: Notes for Truman Scholars and Other College Students” by Louis H. Blair, Executive Secretary of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation, <www.rhodesscholar.org> ____________________________________________________

Structuring your Personal Statement

A typical 2 page personal statement will consist of the following:
  • An introductory paragraph that provides your essay’s controlling theme.
  • 2-4 body paragraphs that develop your theme through examples and detailed experiences and build upon each other.  The final body paragraoh will contain you most poignant information.

A conclusion that widens the lens and wraps up your essay without summarizing or repeating what has already been written.
Advice from Professor Judge (who used to read Personal Statements for Admissions Commitees):

    1)Personal Statements are read and they are weighted in the decision process.  Don’t blow them off: put serious thought into them. 2) Personal statements at most schools are typically read by faculty and staff. Professors are critical and carefully review the essays. They are looking for focus and clarity. They want to see if you are focused and understand the topics studied in their programs. It is always beneficial to add a paragraph on a specific feature of the program that you find interesting. Also, if students have read articles or books by a professor on the faculty of the institution, include that in the personal statement. However, faculty can see through flattery. They want to see that students have a genuine interest in the field and are ready to make a commitment. 3) Personal statements should be carefully crafted for each school to which students are applying.   That means no general personal statements (NO mail merges that simply change the name of the school). Faculty and staff spot this type of personal statement very quickly. General personal statements reflect a lack of interest by the students and a lack of respect for the academic institution and academic field. Faculty do not have time to read nonsense -- they want to see that students have researched the program and are interested in the academic discipline. 4) Carefully read the application and the directions provided on the application. If an institution asks very specific questions on the application, students must answer the question, NOT the question you want to answer. If faculty/staff admissions committees receive personal statements and essays that do not address specifically the questions posed on the application, this may affect their decision.

Dos and Don’ts for Writing Personal Statements

DO:

  • Grab your reader’s attention.  Does it pass the 20 second test?
  • Find a “hook” for your essay, a controlling idea that ties it all together.  It could be a story or an interesting characteristic.
  • Be positive and upbeat in tone.
  • Be as selective as possible.  Avoid listing or too much detail.
  • Use concrete examples from your life experiences to support your thesis and distinguish yourself from other applicants.
  • Ask friends and family to help you remember the details of past experiences.
  • Include information that is personal in nature when appropriate.  It is apersonal statement.
  • Be honest.  The admissions people want to find out who you really are.
  • Write about what really interests or excites you.
  • Show you know more about the field than what you have seen on TV or movies.
  • Explain your weaknesses.  Succinct explanations work best.
  • Fit your essay into the big picture of your application.  If you declare a lifelong interest in a career but have no supporting evidence, your words will be suspect.
  • Visit the Writing Consultancy.  If your consultant is bored by your essay, so will the admissions committee.
  • Ask your friends and family to read it.  Ask them if it sounds like you.

DON’T:

  • Just tell a story.  If you use a story, be sure to analyze it and explain why it is important, what you learned, etc.
  • Just repeat your résumé.  Your application already includes one.  This is your chance to fill in the blanks.
  • Dwell on something from the distant path.  High school happened too long ago to make an impact.  Exceptions are lifelong struggles, such as disability or economic hardship.
  • Assume the names of places will be understood by the reader.  Describe your school, workplace, etc.
  • Write what you think they want to hear!  They can detect BS!
  • Use clichés or generalities.
  • Try to be too creative (writing poems) or controversial.  You never know who’s reading this.
  • Brag.  Statements like “I plan to win the Nobel Prize” or “I am a caring person” do not reflect well on you.
  • Try to impress the readers with your vocabulary.
  • Rely solely on your computer for spell-checking.
  • Make proofreading errors.  They say a lot about you and how much effort you put forth

Still having trouble getting started?

Having trouble determining what makes you unique or why you would be a good candidate? Try asking family, friends, professors, employers, or anyone else who knows you well what they think your strengths are. One idea is to hand out a “Preparatory Questionnaire” to help you get started. (Just remember to start early enough to give them time to think out their responses and get back to you!) Here is one example:

Preparatory Questionnaire

I am applying to ­­­_______________ and must prepare a personal statement as a part of that process. I want to be sure to include all relevant data about myself and my background, so I am soliciting information from various individuals who know me and whose judgment I value. Thank you for your help.
  1. What do you think is most important for the admissions committee to know about me?
  2. What do you regard as most unusual, distinctive, unique, and/or impressive about me (based on our association)?
  3. Are you aware of any events or experiences in my background that might be of particular interest to those considering my application to graduate school?
  4. Are there any special qualities or skills that I possess that tend to make you think I would be successful in graduate school and/or the profession to which I aspire?
Questionnaires taken from Richard J. Stelzer’s How to Write a Winning Personal Statement fro Graduate and Professional School. After completing your personal statement, you may want to give copies of it back to the people who helped you get started to get another opinion. Here is an example of an “Evaluative Questionnaire” you may want hand out with your personal statement to give your evaluator an idea of what to comment on:

Evaluative Questionnaire

I have composed the attached personal statement(s) for submission to _______________, which I hope to attend.  If you could take some time to read what I have written and answer the following questions, I would be most grateful for the benefit of your perspective.
  1. Did my opening paragraph capture your attention?
  2. Did you find the statement as a whole to be interesting?
  3. Did you find it to be well written?
  4. Did it seem positive, upbeat?
  5. Did it sound like me?
  6. Do you regard it as an honest and forthright presentation of who I am?
  7. Did it seem to answer the question(s)?
  8. Can you think of anything relevant that I might have inadvertently omitted?
  9. Is there material within the statement that seems inappropriate?
  10. Did you gain any insight about me from reading this?
  11. Did you notice any typos or other errors?
  12. Do you think the statement has in any way distinguished me from other applicants?
  13. Do you think my application to ­­­_______________ is logical?
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