When high seniors first encounter the Common Application, most have little to no experience with the personal essay, but this is exactly what colleges expect you to deliver in your application. It’s a format that requires both a conversational tone and polished, insightful storytelling, but most students haven’t had many opportunities or reasons to proactively turn the lens inward and self-examine. (This is true of so many adults too, just FYI.) And for that matter, most students probably haven’t even had the opportunity to read many good examples of personal essays. How can you write something meaningful without a roadmap?
To address this question and calm your nerves, we bring you the Personal Essay Spotlight Series, which will introduce you to some of the greatest personal essays ever written (in our humble opinion) and also show you how you can do this too, using the techniques of the greats.
This week, we’ll address the most common misconception when it comes to college essays: “I am boring. I have nothing to say.” As you stare down the college essay rabbithole you might start to feel like you have nothing to offer, but you’re wrong. Don’t forget that everyone has to start somewhere, and showcasing what you bring to the table can come through in your accomplishments, but also in your vision, your outlook on life, and your style.
Before she was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Eudora Welty was a broke 23-year-old trying to survive in New York City. With little to no work experience, she applied to the New Yorker, transforming her relative lack of experience – and breadth of passion and humor – into this charming (and convincing) letter of application.
March 15, 1933
I suppose you’d be more interested in even a sleight-o’-hand trick than you’d be in an application for a position with your magazine, but as usual you can’t have the thing you want most.
I am 23 years old, six weeks on the loose in N.Y. However, I was a New Yorker for a whole year in 1930-31 while attending advertising classes in Columbia’s School of Business. Actually I am a southerner, from Mississippi, the nation’s most backward state. Ramifications include Walter H. Page, who, unluckily for me, is no longer connected with Doubleday-Page, which is no longer Doubleday-Page, even. I have a B.A. (’29) from the University of Wisconsin, where I majored in English without a care in the world. For the last eighteen months I was languishing in my own office in a radio station in Jackson, Miss., writing continuities, dramas, mule feed advertisements, santa claus talks, and life insurance playlets; now I have given that up.
As to what I might do for you — I have seen an untoward amount of picture galleries and 15¢ movies lately, and could review them with my old prosperous detachment, I think; in fact, I recently coined a general word for Matisse’s pictures after seeing his latest at the Marie Harriman: concubineapple. That shows you how my mind works — quick, and away from the point. I read simply voraciously, and can drum up an opinion afterwards.
Since I have bought an India print, and a large number of phonograph records from a Mr. Nussbaum who picks them up, and a Cezanne Bathers one inch long (that shows you I read e. e. cummings I hope), I am anxious to have an apartment, not to mention a small portable phonograph. How I would like to work for you! A little paragraph each morning — a little paragraph each night, if you can’t hire me from daylight to dark, although I would work like a slave. I can also draw like Mr. Thurber, in case he goes off the deep end. I have studied flower painting.
There is no telling where I may apply, if you turn me down; I realize this will not phase you, but consider my other alternative: the U of N.C. offers for $12.00 to let me dance in Vachel Lindsay’s Congo. I congo on. I rest my case, repeating that I am a hard worker.
Source: Letters of Note
Stay tuned for posts to help get you warmed up for your own journey into the personal essay!