I love smooth words, like gold-enameled fish
Which circle slowly with a silken swish.
Of the thousands of personal essays I’ve read over the past 20 years, one of my favorite introductions is from an application to law school, and it opens thus:
My interest in the law began with donuts. As a child, I developed early persuasive skills during family disagreements on how to divide boxes of the treats. My parents belonged to the “biggest people deserve the most donuts” school of thought; while as the youngest family member, I was a devout believer in the “one person, one donut” principle. The debates were often cutthroat, but when it came to donut distribution, I sought justice at any cost.
This opening, taking from a sample essay in the book, How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement, by Mark Allen Stewart, isn’t just effective because of its cleverness. It’s also efficient in detail, humorous and surprising in delivery, focused in theme, universal in appeal, and even moralistic in meaning. This writer is concerned with justice, even at an early age when decisions of right and wrong could be reduced to the distribution of donuts. Obviously, the paragraph that follows the opening discusses justice at a more advanced level, and gradually this law school applicant addresses social issues such as poverty, nationalism, and prejudice, and he emphasizes his passion to address them through law. As he later sums up near the close of his essay, “My identity rests on these convictions”—and we believe him.
This example shows just how much can be accomplished in even a short personal essay by the introduction alone. It also demonstrates that stylistic creativity is not always about flashy word choice or complex sentencing—sometimes the best style is the most artfully simplistic, the most pithy. Whatever else readers think of the content of a personal essay, if they can take delight in the style, they are more likely to assess the writer as worthy of being read and re-read, and thus more likely to plop the application into the acceptance pile.
This chapter is about helping you write stylish personal essays, with an understanding that style is revealed through everything from mechanical correctness to efficiency of presentation to nuances of tone. Put simply, to write with style is to invite and earn your reader’s respect.
Two websites with excellent advice about how to find your creative voice when writing personal statements reside here: