Personal Issues Essay

“For more than four hundred years, the personal essay has been one of the richest and most vibrant of all literary forms.” (The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate.) The personal essay is also one of the most popular forms of creative nonfiction. A personal essay can be based on a personal experience that results in a lesson that you learn. A personal essay can also be a personal opinion about a topic or issue that is important to you. This article defines the personal essay.

Personal Essay versus a Formal Essay

The personal essay is different than a formal essay. In the personal essay, the writer writes about experience without having to prove the point. The author needs only to introduce the subject and theme. It is based on feeling, emotion, personal opinion, and personal experience. It is autobiographical. On the other hand, in the formal essay, the writer states the thesis, and then attempts to prove or support his point with facts—to provide proof. To do this, the author must do research.

Definition of the Personal Essay

A personal essay is either a personal narrative in which the author writes about a personal incident or experience that provided significant personal meaning or a lesson learned, or it is a personal opinion about some topic or issue that is important to the writer.

The Personal Essay as a Personal Narrative

A personal narrative has the following elements:

  • It is based on a personal experience in which you have gained significant meaning, insight, or learned a lesson. It can also be based on a milestone or life-altering event.
  • It is personal narrative. The writer tells the story by including dialogue, imagery, characterization, conflict, plot, and setting.
  • It is written in the first person. (“I” point-of-view)
  • It is an autobiographical story in which the writer describes an incident that resulted in some personal growth or development.
  • A personal essay is a glimpse of the writer’s life. The writer describes the personal experience using the scene-building technique, weaves a theme throughout the narrative, and makes an important point. There must be a lesson or meaning. The writer cannot just write an interesting story.
  • It does not have to be objective. However, the writer must express his/her feelings, thoughts, and emotions.
  • The writer uses self-disclosure and is honest with his/her readers.
  • The writer writes about a real life experience. The incident or experience must have occurred. The writer must use fact and truth.
  • The writer must dramatize the story by using the scene building technique. A scene includes setting/location, intimate details, concrete and specific descriptions, action, and often dialogue.

The Personal Essay as a Personal Opinion

A personal essay can also be an opinion piece, an opinion that is based on a particular political or social concern or topic of interest. In this type of personal essay, the writer can states the problem, provide solutions, and then write a conclusion—which must state an important point. Whatever the writer discusses, the topic is of interest to the writer. The writer frequently seeks to explain the truth or reality has he/she views it. Sometimes the writer ponders a question. Other times the writer explores a topic from his own perspective. The writer must not lecture, sermonize, or moralize. In other words, the writer must present his/her opinion in such a way that allows the readers decide for themselves.

In Writing Life Stories, author Bill Roorbach provides an excellent definition of the personal essay, one that is based on a personal opinion. He states that the personal essay that is based on a personal opinion has these attributes:

  • A personal essay is a conversation with your readers.
  • The personal essay is an informed mixture of storytelling, facts, wisdom, and personality.
  • The personal essay examines a subject outside of yourself, but through the lens of self.
  • The subject of the personal essay may be the self, but the self is treated as evidence for the argument.
  • Passages of narrative often appear but generally get used as evidence in the inductive argument.
  • The personal essay strives to say what is evident, and to come to a conclusion that the reader may agree or disagree.
  • A personal essay can wonder through its subject, circle around it, get the long view and the short, always providing experience, knowledge, book learning, and personal history.

It should also be noted that a personal essay doesn’t need to be objective. It can be purely subjective. You don’t have to prove a point or show both sides of the argument. But you must express your own personal feelings, thoughts, and opinions on a topic or issue in a logical manner.

Subjects for the Personal Essay

Your subject can be about anything that you are passionate about. You can write about a “turning point” in your life, or a milestone, or adversity, such as death, illness, divorce. The subject you choose must have provided you with significant personal meaning or a lesson that you have learned. But, keep in mind, you are not just reflecting or remembering, you are going to make a point, some universal truth that your readers can appreciate. Otherwise, your story is just a story. So, write about the following:

  • Personal experience
  • Incident
  • Anecdote
  • Topic
  • Issue
  • A memory

Your subject can also be a personal opinion on an issue or concern that is important to you, such as the garbage strike, crime, or unemployment.

How to Choose a Topic

Choose a topic in are interested in and passionate about, and that resulted in a lesson that you learned or personal meaning. Here is how:

  • Your writing needs to be a process of inquiry. So answer the 5-Ws: Who? What? When? Where? Why?
  • Brainstorm your topic. Create a list of topics. Then create subtopics.
  • Mind map your topic. For more information on mindmapping, search the Internet. This is a popular form of creative thinking.
  • Narrow your topic. Instead of writing about global warming, you can narrow your topic by writing about “going green” or “how you should recycle in your home”.
  • Think of a milestone, or something memorable, or a turning point in your life. What were your impressions? What did you learn? What meaning came from the personal experience?
  • Be sure that your topic has a universal theme—such as hard work, love, death, bravery, wisdom.
  • Your goal is to make others laugh, learn, hope, empathize, sympathize with what you have written. Your readers must be able to identify with what you have written.
  • If something happened to you that was interesting, humorous, sad, and so forth, you can write about it.
  • Write about personal experiences that have taught you a lesson.

Make the Most of Life Experiences

  • Your goal is to make others laugh, learn, hope, empathize, sympathize with what you have written. Your readers must be able to identify with what you have written.
  • If something happened to you that was interesting, humorous, sad, and so forth, you can write about it.
  • Write about personal experiences that have taught you a lesson.
  • Include your opinions, point of view, feelings and thoughts.
  • Be truthful and honest. In other words, state the facts and evidence.

Resources for Writing Personal Essays

There are some fantastic books available to help you learn to write a personal essay. Here are the books I recommend:

  •  Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoir, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature by Bill Roorbach
  • Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Philip Gerard
  • The Art of Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind
  • The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lapote

The personal essay has loose structure and conversational tone. It is usually written in the first person. The writer uses self-disclosure, honesty, and truth. The writer can write about any subject, topic, or personal experience. But the personal essay must have a universal theme and conclude with a major point. Otherwise, the reader says, “So what?” It was a nice story, but so what is the point?

In the next post, I will explain how to structure/organize your personal essay and what to include.

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Tags:Creative Nonfiction, Creative Writing, Personal Essay, personal narrative, personal opinion, Resources, The Art of Creative Nonfiction, The Art of the Personal Essay

By Dave Hoodin Creative nonfiction Writing, Creative Writing, Personal Essay on .

College applicants often write essays about personal struggles. Sometimes, those stories provide great insight into the human being behind the grades and test scores, revealing strength, resilience, and the ability to overcome challenges, all of which are valuable traits that can help those students be happy and successful in college.

But in other cases, tales of personal struggle raise red flags to the point that an admissions officer is reluctant to offer the applicant a space in the class. How can students, parents, and counselors tell the difference between a personal struggle story that helps—and one that hurts— a student’s admissibility?

There is no irrefutable list of “OK” and “Not OK” topics. But the litmus test we use at Collegewise when students ask our opinion is, “Will this story give an admissions officer cause to worry about your health, stability, or safety if you joined their class?”

First, it’s important to remember that a college application—even one with essays, letters of recommendation, and interviews—is an imperfect instrument of measurement. You’re far more complex and interesting than any application can possibly communicate. And that’s exactly why it can be risky to mention some particular challenges.

For example, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, suicide attempts—these are very real challenges, and no admissions officer I’ve ever met will think you’re less worthy as a human being just because you’ve faced these types of demons.

But college can be a challenging adjustment for even the healthiest, best-supported students. And these stories can raise very real concerns for a reader who does not know you like your friends and family do.

Are you ready for the challenges of college life? Do they need to be concerned about your health and safety? Is there a chance you could be a danger to yourself or others?

It might seem unfair for an admissions officer to consider those questions, especially when you aren’t necessarily given the chance to offer a response. But that’s their job. They have a responsibility—to you and to the students who would be joining you in the campus community—to raise those concerns.

I would never tell a student not to write a story she felt strongly about sharing. But I think every applicant deserves to understand the risks of some particular topics.

If you’re a student (or the parent, or counselor of one) who is considering writing about a struggle like these, please consider including the following information.

Have you successfully overcome this challenge?

When mentioned in college essays, struggles like these are often less concerning when they’re followed by triumph. What evidence is there that you are happier and healthier today than you were before? Spend the appropriate time in your essay to show what life on the other side of this struggle looks like.

Are you offering, or will you be able to offer, support or guidance to other students who might be experiencing the same thing?

We once worked with a student who spent six months in a drug rehabilitation center, but her story (which she did discuss in the essay) included that she was not only two years sober, but that she also now worked in that same center counseling other teens who were in the throes of addiction. What once might have been seen as a liability now becomes a very real asset to her fellow students and to the college.

And finally, whatever story you choose to share—personal struggle or not—please don’t choose it based on what you think colleges want to hear. There’s a common admissions myth that hardship is inherently rewarded, causing many applicants to exaggerate or even manufacture it. There’s no such thing as admissions extra credit based on your essay topic. Choose a story that helps them get to know you in a way they could not have done by the application alone.

And most importantly, make sure that you’re proud of what you share and what your story says about you. If your story passes that test, the right colleges will appreciate it, too.

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