Does my Personal Essay Have to be Truthful?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Many high school and college students will quickly recognize a writing prompt that begins, “Recount a personal experience when…” They know immediately that they are to produce is a personal essay drawing on their life experiences and making some point or arriving at something “learned” from the experience. To a certain extent, almost every time you write, you are saying something personal, but the personal essay, where you are saying something about you, from your perspective is sometimes a challenging thing to write.

“Dramatic license” adds or deletes details to make a personal essay more significant.
“Dramatic license” adds or deletes details to make a personal essay more significant.

One hang up for many writers is the thought that they have to carefully detail every single second of a personal experience. All characters involved in the event must be painstakingly described, and the writer then becomes a “video camera,” without editing. The trouble with this idea is that most essays have time or length constraints, and it’s impossible to recount every thing and stay on track. It also can make for a highly boring essay.

It may be impossible to write total truth in an essay.
It may be impossible to write total truth in an essay.

The idea that you must be strictly truthful in a personal essay can be an additional constraint, and it certainly isn’t outside of the truth to edit a personal experience down to the main points or main action. It also is okay, according to many writers, to add a bit of embellishment, cut unnecessary details, or portray a situation in a slightly different way. The idea that your personal essay under any circumstances will be “absolute truth” is a highly contested one.

Once an experience is viewed through your personal lens, your thoughts and feelings will interpret it in multiple ways, and your own memory might not match up with the actual experience. Many things contribute to how we see or remember an event. Given the highly interpretive nature of our own minds, it may be impossible to write total truth in a personal essay. What occurred and how you saw it occur or remember it now is never likely to be the same as what actually happened.

If a writer understands that all recollections of experiences are interpretive it makes it possible to carefully edit a recount of an experience without worrying too much about truth-value. While you shouldn’t go overboard with this and invent situations that aren’t credible, you can remove unessential characters from a story, or shorten the events as needed. You can also emphasize or deemphasize various parts of the story, which will help you draw conclusions about the experience or make points about what you learned.

There is also such a thing as “dramatic license,” where you can add or delete details to make your points more salient. Again dramatic license doesn’t have to go overboard, but it can help you write a better essay. Moreover when you write an essay under time constraint for things like writing evaluations or high school or college exams, you probably won’t have time to be as “strictly truthful” as you can, and most people assessing your essays aren’t judging you on truth value.

Such evaluators are usually judging your ability to fulfill the essay requirements and prove that you know how to write a personal essay. Form is more important than total accuracy. If you have to adjust a story a bit to satisfy essay requirements, don’t lose sleep over it.

The one time you ought to avoid being untruthful is when you’re writing a personal statement essay. You shouldn’t be claiming experience you don’t have or depicting yourself as really different than you truly are. Since personal statements are frequently evaluated as a basis for granting you access to things (like college), you don’t want to lie, since you might very well end up having to prove the truth of your statements.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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I am a social work major and in almost all of my courses, we were required to write a personal narrative essay. One copy of our personal essay stays in our student file. Many students want to be social workers because of some tragic or dramatic event that happened in their lives. That can be very uncomfortable to talk about.

One student in particular wanted to be a social worker so that she could become a substance abuse counselor. She was a recovering drug addict and had several stays in jail and rehab before getting clean. She told me that the personal essay was one of the hardest things that she had ever written. However, she also said that it felt good to write about it because it showed how far she had come.

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