Many scholarship applications – like most college applications – require an autobiographical essay, which is basically a personal statement that describes who you are. It gives the judges an idea of your background, your personality, your character – details about you that you can only describe in an essay (unless you have an interview).
Oftentimes, the prompts for these personal statements are worded like this: “Tell us a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.” To write a powerful and effective autobiographical essay, there are several key ideas to keep in mind.
Choose a Convincing Story and Focus on a Theme
When you choose the story to write about, think about unique experiences that make you who you are. If you’re thinking about writing about your short-term mission trip to Mexico or how you became your school’s student body president, keep in mind that students from all around the United States will be submitting unique and individual stories. Instead of writing about topics that are cliché or canned (like canned goods that are ready to be opened and used), think deeply into your experiences — what events throughout your life have shaped how you think and act today.
Ask yourself, “If there’s something about me that others would not know through my academics, extracurricular activities, and resume, what would that be?” Imagine sitting down with a scholarship judge or admissions counselor who asks, “If there is one thing you want me to know about you, what would that be?” You want your story to make sense and to capture your reader’s attention. Choose an aspect of your life that you want to focus on and shape your essay to reflect that theme. For example, if you have overcome tremendous hardship that has shaped your character, then focus on how your adversity helped build your character. Specifically, relate this event to the broader lessons of life so that the reader can better understand your development.
Capture the Reader’s Attention
The first step in actually writing the essay is to begin with a creative way of capturing the reader’s attention. Write in a style that you are most comfortable with. Some ways of writing your intro are by narrating a specific event from a first person point of view that reflects the theme of your essay or by describing a certain scenario from a third person point of view. Regardless of your approach, remember to end your intro with a sentence that leaves the reader excited to continue reading and learn more about you.
Strengthening the Body
After a strong intro, the body of the essay continues to tell the story of your experiences. It takes the snapshot you present in the intro and supports it with necessary and specific detail. Don’t overwrite and include information that is irrelevant or wordy. Keep it simple and straightforward. The body of the essay should show – not tell – the story, meaning you should demonstrate your own personal growth and development through relevant examples. As you write, make sure to share how you felt so the reader can really see your character development. Emotions matter. Keep organization and logical sequence in mind as well. Judges take notice of your conventions and organization. As you move toward your conclusion, the tone of your writing should become more positive and optimistic. It should lead right into your conclusion.
Conclusions That Circle Back
If you want a nicely balanced essay, the beginning of your conclusion should put the cap on the story portion of your essay. It should emphasize a sense of hope in the context of your writing and demonstrate a positive change that continues into today. Following that, you might want to restate that it was “through this specific (you want to state it explicitly) experience” that you learned the specific lessons. Regardless of how, make sure to state specifically the lessons you learned and tie them into a big picture outlook. I have found it effective to use a powerful quote that relates to your theme and content, but this is, of course, a personal choice. Use the writing tips from Writer’s Block to craft a conclusion that resonates with the reader.
To complete the essay, tie back to the opening lines/event/experience in the intro to create a more cohesive and well-rounded essay. Your last sentence should reflect and state the most profound lesson you have learned throughout your experience and give the reader a sense of empowerment and awe. It should leave them thinking and pondering about their own lives, experiences, and struggles; yet, provide them with hope and optimism. A scholarship is an organization’s financial investment in you, so your essay should reflect why they would be investing their money wisely by awarding you the scholarship.
Tips to Keep in Mind
It is natural to want to use large vocabulary words to flex your intellectual muscles; but, when you’re writing a personal statement about your life, it’s best to stay simple and straightforward. Avoid using five words where three will do. If you have to use a thesaurus, chances are the reader’s not going to know exactly what the words mean so stick with simple vocab. Just be yourself, not who you think the judges want you to be. Your personal statement is an autobiography that speaks about your life, your experiences, and your reflections, so remember to tell the truth. You don’t have to make up situations or add fluff to tell a poignant story. Remember, the essay is a marketing piece that tells judges why the scholarship organization should invest their money in you.
With that said, maintain a certain level of sophistication in your writing so that the judges recognize your skills. Don’t fall into a casual conversational tone, but keep in mind that your writing should reflect your voice. The reader should be able to see your personality in the essay through your style, tone, and voice. After you’ve written your autobiographical essay, remember to edit and revise your essay several times. Have your teachers, peers, and family read over it and give you feedback and suggestions for improvement. As always, feel free to email us through the For Students page if you’d like some help brainstorming or if you’d like a Scholarship Junkie to read over your essay and give you comments and feedback.
How to start an autobiography can be a tricky issue.
Do you begin with your birth? With a description of your parents, or maybe even your grandparents?
With the first notable thing you did? With the biggest crisis point in your life, and then go back to the beginning?
While there is no single “best” way to start an autobiography, there are different approaches. The key is to find the one that works best for your story.
How To Start an Autobiography: 4 Examples
Here are excerpts showing four interesting ways that have been used to open an autobiography. One author uses his birth name to foreshadow the life that lies ahead; one paints a simple sketch of his parents; one talks about the beliefs that shaped him; and one reflects on the influence of chance. Each is different, and each is just right for its subject. Perhaps one of these approaches will be right for you! (I’ve linked the titles of each book below to Amazon.com so you can click on the “Look Inside” button and read more.)
In the opening paragraph of Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa hints at the tumultuous life that lies ahead:
Apart from life, a strong constitution, and an abiding connection to the Thembu royal house, the only thing my father bestowed upon me at birth was a name, Rolihlala. In Xhosa, Rholihlala literally means “pulling the branch of a tree,” but its colloquial meaning more accurately would be “trouble maker.” I do not believe that names are destiny or that my father somehow divined my future, but in later years, friends and relatives would ascribe to my birth name the many storms I have both caused and weathered.
In Take Me Home: An Autobiography, singer-song writer John Denver uses only a few words to sketch a portrait of his parents:
“They met in Tulsa. Dad was a ploughboy from western Oklahoma; Mom was a hometown girl. He was in the Army Air Corps, studying the mechanics of flight at the Spartan School of Aeronautics, and she had been first-prize winner in a jitterbug contest the year before. It was 1942: She was just turning eighteen, a high-school senior; and he was twenty-one.”
Chris Kyle begins his American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, by listing the life-long beliefs he inherited from his family and environment:
Every story has a beginning.
Mine starts in north-central Texas. I grew up in small towns where I learned the importance of family and tradition. Values, like patriotism, self-reliance, and watching out for your family and neighbors. I’m proud to say that I still try to live my life according to those values. I have a strong sense of justice. It’s pretty much black-and-white. I don’t see too much gray. I think it’s important to protect others. I don’t mind hard work. At the same time, I like to have fun; life’s too short not to.
Former President Ronald Regan opens An American Life by talking about the effects of chance:
If I’d gotten the job I wanted at Montgomery Ward, I suppose I never would have left Illinois.
I’ve often wondered at how lives are shaped by what seem like small and inconsequential events, how an apparently random turn in the road can lead you a long way from where you intended to go—and a long way from wherever you expected to go. For me, the first of these turns occurred in the summer of 1932, in the abyss of the Depression.
How to Start An Autobiography?
There is no single best way. The goal is to draw your readers in with your first sentences; to make them want to read more by telling them something about you that makes you and your life story irresistible. If you can do that, you’ve figured out how to start an autobiography.
Before deciding how you’d like to open your autobiography, go back and review the purpose of the autobiography and what it must contain. See: “What is an Autobiography.” Once you know where you’re headed, you’ll be able to zero in on the “right” opening more effectively.
If You’d Like to Learn More About Writing Your Life Story…
…see my “Memoir Ghostwriter” page.
I’m Barry Fox, a New York Times bestselling author and ghostwriter. If you need help writing your autobiography or memoir, give me a call at 818-917-5362.
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