My Personal Essay: A Big Story or a Small Story?

Choosing a topic for your personal essay can be… daunting. The questions are so inspiring! And yet challenging! And also numerous! And super important! One of the hardest questions to figure out as you wrack your brain for material is how “big” your story should be. Should you dissect a single moment from your playoff baseball game? Or summarize your whole life as an internationally ranked Ukrainian-Moroccan violin player?

Ultimately, it depends on the kinds of stories you have. Let’s say you had a great time at some outdoorsy leadership camp last summer and you want to write about that. The problem is, everyone and their brother has been to camp. When your big picture is cliché, you need to resize it: don’t tell us about the lifelong friends you made or the amazing memories… Use your magnifying glass to find us one single, fascinating moment, like when you decided to try out for the school musical after watching a gargantuan spider crawl up your canoe paddle towards your white-knuckled hand. It’s the personal details that will make your story unique and memorable.

If you’re the type of person who sounds interesting on paper – “I played Hermione Granger in eight of the highest-grossing films of all time” – you can probably afford to tell a “bigger” story from a more zoomed-out perspective. Consider movies: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button spans an entire lifetime in only two or three hours, while Ferris Bueller’s Day Off spans a single day in roughly the same amount of time. Benjamin Button is interesting on paper – “Guy ages backward!” – while Ferris Bueller is… not. (“Guy skips school one day!” Hooray?) Therefore, Benny Button can afford to play like the highlight reel of a long and eventful life, while Ferris has to really dig into the minute details to capture (and hold) our attention.

Having said all this, keep in mind that “big” and “important” are different adjectives. Whether big or small, any story you tell should matter because of the significance you ascribe to it. Spider crawling up your paddle? Not important. Inspired you to overcome fear and begin theatrical career? Now we care. The same goes for big stories: maybe you are an internationally ranked Ukrainian-Moroccan violin player… but unless we see how that’s shaped you as a person, your essay about it is a wasted opportunity. The bottom line when it comes to personal essays is just that: reveal yourself as a person. Size doesn’t matter.

(But when in doubt… veer small.)

By Katherine Kendig, Admissionado Senior Consultant

 

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