What Is a Personal Essay (Personal Statement)?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

PeopleImages/Getty Images

A personal essay is a short work of autobiographical nonfiction characterized by a sense of intimacy and a conversational manner. Also called a personal statement

A type of creative nonfiction, the personal essay is "all over the map," according to Annie Dillard. "There's nothing you can't do with it. No subject matter is forbidden, no structure is prescribed. You get to make up your own form every time" ("To Fashion a Text," 1998).

Examples of Personal Essays

Observations

  • The personal essay is one of the most common types of writing assignment--and not only in freshman composition courses. Many employers, as well as graduate and professional schools, will ask you to submit a personal essay (sometimes called a personal statement) before even considering you for an interview. Being able to compose a coherent version of yourself in words is clearly an important skill.
  • What qualities does a personal essay reveal about you? Here are just a few:
    • Communication Skills

      How effective are your communication skills? Do you write clearly, concisely, and correctly? Note that many employers put communication skills at the top of the list of essential qualifications.

    • Critical Thinking Skills
      How fresh and imaginative are you in your thinking? Is your writing cluttered with cliches, or is it obvious that you have original ideas to contribute?

    • Maturity
      What specific lessons have you learned from experience, and are you ready to apply those lessons to the job or the academic program you're considering? Keep in mind that it's not enough to be able to recount a personal experience; you should be prepared to interpret it as well.

  • Self and Subject in Personal Essays
    "[W]here the familiar essay is characterized by its everyday subject matter, the personal essay is defined more by the personality of its writer, which takes precedence over the subject. On the other hand, the personal essayist does not place himself firmly in center stage, as does the autobiographical essayist; the autobiographical element of the personal essay is far less calculated..."
  • The Essayist's Persona
    "Personal essayists from Montaigne on have been fascinated with the changeableness and plasticity of the materials of human personality. Starting with self-description, they have realized they can never render all at once the entire complexity of a personality. So they have elected to follow an additive strategy, offering incomplete shards, one mask or persona after another: the eager, skeptical, amiable, tender, curmudgeonly, antic, somber. If 'we must remove the mask,' it is only to substitute another mask..."
  • The "Antigenre": An Alternative to Academic Prose
    "[T]he more personal essay offers an escape from the confines of academic prose. By using this antigenre form that in contemporary essays embodies multiple kinds of writing, many essayists in search of democracy find a freedom for expressing in their writings spontaneity, self-reflexivity, accessibility, and a rhetoric of sincerity.."
  • Teaching the Personal Essay
    "Given the opportunity to speak their own authority as writers, given a turn in the conversation, students can claim their stories as primary source material and transform their experiences into evidence..."
  • Essay Forms
    "Despite the anthologists' custom of presenting essays as 'models of organization,' it is the loose structure or apparent shapelessness of the essay that is often stressed in standard definitions. . . . Samuel Johnson famously defined the essay as 'an irregular, indigested piece, not a regular and orderly performance.' And certainly, a number of essayists (Hazlitt and Emerson, for instance, after the fashion of Montaigne) are readily identifiable by the wayward or fragmentary nature of their explorations. Yet each of these writers observes certain distinctive organizing (or disorganizing) principles of his own, thus charting the ramble and shaping the form. As Jeanette Harris observes in Expressive Discourse, 'Even in the case of a personal essay, which may appear informal and loosely structured, the writer has crafted with care this very appearance of informality' (122).

    Sources

    Theresa Werner, "Personal Essay." Encyclopedia of the Essay, ed. by Tracy Chevalier. Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997

    E.B. White, Foreword to Essays of E.B. White. Harper and Row, 1977

    Cristina Kirklighter, Traversing the Democratic Borders of the Essay. SUNY Press, 2002

    Nancy Sommers, "Between the Drafts." College Composition and Communication, February 1992

    Richard F. Nordquist, "Voices of the Modern Essay." Dissertation University of Georgia, 1991