A biographical essay discusses the life and times of a particular individual. Most often, it is an academic essay used to paint a picture of a historical figure. In other cases, however, the term may be used to describe a short autobiographical essay. This latter variety of biographical essay is often used as part of the application procedure for grants or admission to higher education.
Every academic essay should be built around a central thesis, and a biographical essay is no different. This thesis might link certain key events in a subject's life to his subsequent actions, and by so doing offer an explanation of his motives. It might also simply describe how the subject lived his life, and the effects that he had on the world and those around him. The thesis of the biographical essay ties the various stories and facts together and places them in a single, meaningful context.
This type of essay is generally no more than a few pages long and cannot, therefore, adequately cover all of the events in a person’s life. By selecting the events to include in an essay, the writer emphasizes certain aspects of the subject’s life. A biographical essay of Lenin that focuses on the execution of his brother by the government might read like a tale of revenge, and an essay discussing the life of Winston Churchill that ends before he was replaced as prime minister will read very differently from one that covers his entire life.
As a general rule, events should not be chosen that would misrepresent the views of a historical figure. Some additional leeway in this regard exists when writing an autobiographical essay, however. These essays, as application documents, are designed to emphasize strengths and minimize weaknesses, and a failure to follow this expected form might not adequately communicate a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.
All types of academic biographical essays are embedded in the written history of the times in which they lived, and this history needs to provide some context for the essay. An essay on the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that failed to briefly discuss the history of the Depression would make no sense whatsoever. Similarly, a personal biographical essay should include key historical events if they were important in the author’s life.
An autobiographical essay follows many of the same rules as an essay written about another person’s life. This type of essay should still contain a central thesis or theme. It should also include an appropriate level of personal detail. An essay asking for admission to a religious institution should, for example, address issues of faith. One included in an application for a physics grant should not.
One of the most common objectives of an autobiographical essay is to secure admission to a university or to obtain a scholarship. The essay should include elements that speak to an applicant’s character and personality. Interests and academics will generally be covered in other parts of the application and will generally not be the focus of this type of biographical essay. Personal hardships that have been overcome, admirable life goals, or a discussion of the role played by an inspiring mentor are excellent subjects for this type of writing.