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Focus on Yourself: How to Write an Autobiography Essay

October 2020

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Article by Elizabeth Bankston

Article by Elizabeth Bankston

Elizabeth Bankston is our staff blog contributor and the mastermind behind our content marketing efforts. Having spent 6 years at the University of Richmond, she now puts to practice her leadership skills and humanities knowledge to show students how to study more effectively and successfully.

Writing essays about yourself, however weird this may feel, has always been a part of the school curriculum. Why? Not for the cringe of it – that’s for sure! Here are just some of the legit reasons:

  • self-reflection helps to develop critical thinking
  • writing about something you know well allows you to focus on “how” and polish your skills
  • you need to know how to write a good autobiography essay for you future college application

Makes sense, right? Now let’s learn how to do it! 

What Is An Autobiographical Essay?

An autobiographical essay is a piece of writing where you describe your own experiences, self-reflect, and make observations about your life and your personality. It doesn’t have to be the full story of your life. One event is enough – for example, your first day in a new school or a story of how you learned to ride a bike. The important thing is that the events are true and you have experienced them personally.

You can still get an outside essay writing help, though. In fact, most of the people writing autobiographies consult professional writers and their initial draft goes through several rounds of editing before reaching the audience.

How Autobiography Essay Format is Different from Other Essay Types?

The format of an autobiography essay is very different from other school and college papers. Here are the main characteristics of it:

  • it’s a narrative style of writing with elements of descriptive style: you tell a story and you include vivid details to convey your experiences; you don’t argue or defend your position
  • it’s written in a first-person language: yes, here the big no-no of academic writing is broken, you can (and should!) use “I, me, my” etc.
  • the language itself is more casual and rules concerning colloquialisms and slang are more relaxed – but to a point; you should use them appropriately to the context
  • you can throw in a joke or three, make pop-culture references, use emotionally charged words – especially if the goal is to reflect your personality and convey your feelings at the time

How Long Is an Autobiographical Essay?

This depends entirely on the requirements of the prompt and the scope of your essay. Some autobiographical pieces tell one anecdote and are as short as 250 words, others describe the entire life and are long enough to fill a tome. However, the average length of a personal statement for college application is 650-700 words. You can use this number as a guideline if you don’t have any specific instructions.

What Should Be Included In an Autobiographical Essay?

Sorry, another “it depends” answer. What you include in your essay depends on why you write it. If the purpose is to outline the story of your life, then the usual milestones: who are your parents, where you were born, where you spent your childhood, when you went to school, etc.

However, most of the time, people aren’t asking you to write your own life down. Instead, they are interested in one particular aspect of your experiences and, as a rule, this should be reflected in the prompt: “Tell a story of how you faced adversity and came out victorious”, “What inspires you?”, “What is your earliest memory?”, “What your typical day looks like?” etc.

How to Start an Autobiography Essay

Before you start writing, you should decide on two important things:

  • the message
  • the story to convey this message

The message depends on the purpose of your essay. For example, when you are writing a personal statement for college admission, you usually want to focus on things that led you to your choice of major and your future career path. In supplemental autobiographical pieces, you want to demonstrate your personal qualities, such as resilience, determination, resourcefulness, curiosity, etc.

Here is how to begin an autobiography essay: you sit down and you ask yourself: “Who am I? What is it about myself that I want to tell others?” This is your message.

Then try to think about the decisions and actions you took in the past that demonstrate this quality. Depending on the target word count, choose several, or just one most illustrative. This will be your story.

You also want to come up with a catchy original title that refers to a central message or a vivid image from your essay. Don’t name your essay simply: “Me” or “My life”. Not only is it too broad and generic, but it may also come off as a bit pretentious.

Should I Write an Autobiography Essay Outline?

Although the process of writing an autobiographical essay is different from argumentative or expository essays, where you have to put in order and structure lots of information, you still should curate and plan your text.

Outline is a helpful roadmap. This way you make sure you won’t digress, won’t lose focus, and your central message won’t get swamped with fun tidbits from your life that aren’t relevant.

How to Write Autobiography Essay Introduction?

The rules of classic introduction still apply to autobiographical pieces: you should have a hook, a thesis statement, and a quick overview of what your essay will be about.

For the hook, it’s best to dive into action right from the start – drop your readers into the thick of events. For example, “My palms sweat and my heart is racing. The twelve steps I must take to go in front of the class seem like a distance to the Moon”.

Since you don’t have to defend a claim as you do in argumentative essays, your thesis statement will just contain the central message of your essay or at least a core theme, if you want to reveal the message later in an unexpected twist. For example, “I was about to face my greatest fear and I wasn’t sure I’d survive this”. Your reader now knows that the essay is about overcoming a crippling fear – that a thesis and an overview in one package.

How to Write an Autobiography Essay about Yourself: Pro Tips

Okay, now you know what you want to say and you’ve settled on the story to bring your message across. How do you write an autobiographical essay? Here are some handy tips:

  • Write in the first person and from your own perspective. This may seem obvious, but many students slip into the role of omniscient author. They seem to know everything that goes on in the heads of other people. This is a mistake. Don’t write “My mother was frantic”, write “My mother looked distraught”, or “She must have been very angry with me”. Better still, describe her face, posture, and tone of voice to make her state of mind obvious.
  • The “show, don’t tell” principle applies to autobiographies just as well. Successful essays manage to include vivid details that make the story palpable and memorable: the smell of your favorite bookshop, little white scar on your grandmother’s hand, creaking floorboards of the house you grew up in, the red notebook where you used to write everything about space. You get the idea.
  • Don’t overshare. If you feel uncomfortable with writing about anything – consider leaving it out or maybe rephrasing it if you think that this information is crucial and must be included.
  • Everything you decide to put in your text must work towards its central goal. Reread your essay after you have finished and consider trimming it down. Scrap irrelevant details and anecdotes – they might seem interesting and amusing, but if they don’t add to your message, they probably don’t belong here.

How to End an Autobiography Essay with a Bang

Writing a conclusion is often the most difficult part, but a conclusion for autobiography essay –even twice as much. You have told the story, what more can you say? “That’s all, folks”? However, the conclusion is the second most important part of your essay after the introduction. If the introduction says, “You should read this!”, the conclusion says, “Here is why you’ve read this”. It’s the last part of your text, hence – the most memorable. Make the most of it:

  • reflect on the story you have told and elicit the lesson you have learned from it
  • put this story in a wider context, tie it with who you are today
  • say why it was important for you to share this story with others
  • break another rule of essay writing and surprise your readers with the unexpected outcome of the story: for example, you were poised to take revenge on your bully, but instead, you have learned forgiveness.
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