Perspective: Why It Matters to Your College Essay & Any Other Memoir Writing Venture

Perspective: Why It Matters to Your College Essay & Any Other Memoir Writing Venture

With college essay season around the corner, incoming high school seniors have a unique opportunity to write exceptional college essays this year. Not only is there a new topic on gratitude (more on that in a future post) but Covid-themed essays have been moved to an “optional” section.

You may be wondering why they’ve decided to make the Covid prompt optional and what it means for your college application. The reason stated on the common app website is pretty clear: they’re hoping this change will “reduce anxiety for applicants.” I’d like to take this explanation a little further. Doing so requires delving into one of my favorite writing-related topics: perspective. 

Perspective has a special place in my heart: it’s the first concrete writing concept I learned as an MFA candidate. I should clarify that I have the memory of a goldfish. The fact that I’m able to remember anything about perspective at all just proves what an impact this concept has had on my writing life.

Here’s a one-minute summary on perspective, as I remember it more than a decade after learning it from my first memoir teacher, Les Standiford:

Whenever we write about ourselves, we’re actually writing about two people. One of them is the “I-now”: me sitting at my desk today, writing a blog post about why I think perspective is important to memoir writing. The second person is the “I-then”: me sitting in a hot Florida classroom 11 years ago, listening to Les try and teach me about perspective in memoir writing.

Perspective is the distance between the “I-now” and the “I-then.” Perspective requires two things: 1. Time, and 2. The ability to reflect on a prior event. The “I-now” has to be able to look back on the “I-then” and try to make sense of the experience.


In the blog post you’re reading now, perspective is: 1. The 11 years that passed since I first learned about perspective, and 2. All the essays I’ve written because I had perspective, all the essays I’ve yet to write (including my own Covid-related essay) because of my lack of perspective, and all the other thinking I’ve done on perspective in my journey as a writer.

Very meta, isn’t it?

According to Les, perspective makes memoir story-telling interesting. Without perspective, the stories we write about ourselves are flat and unexciting. They sound like this: I did this, then I did that, and then I did the other. In fact, this is exactly what my early memoir stories were like. I still remember being red-flushed in the cheeks the first time I shared an essay with my memoir class, Les spluttering a flabbergasted “So what?!” at the random series of events on my twenty pages with zero perspective.

When there’s space between the event that happened and the telling of the event that happened, the event has the opportunity to become transformative. First, there has to have been some sort of action on your part between these two periods of time. If the event did not change you or cause you to take action in any way, then there’s really no point in writing about it in a college essay. 

Next, there has to be reflection. How did this experience transform you? Once there is action and reflection, then you have the opportunity to write about how this experience became a trigger for change, an opportunity for growth, a vessel for personal evolution (!!!).

As you see, I find this reflective process very exciting.

At this point you’re probably wondering, what does all this interesting information have to do with the Covid theme being moved to an optional prompt?  While Covid is certainly the kind of life-altering event that would produce change in an individual, I believe we’re still way too deep in the throes of the pandemic to produce a reflective essay on it. Without enough time apart from the experience, it’s very difficult to reflect on it in a way that makes sense for a college essay. And I suspect the common app folks feel the same way too.

You see, admissions officers want to read essays with perspective. Just take a look at the common application writing prompts and you’ll find phrases begging for reflection:

·      …a background, identity, interest, or talent that is meaningful….

·      …what did you learn from the experience?

·      …how has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

·      …a period of personal growth…

·      ….a new understanding of yourself and others…

At the same time, they understand that asking you to reflect on an experience you’re still in the process of having is pretty much setting you up for failure

Many of you are now probably wondering: should you write the optional Covid essay? Whenever there’s something optional, eager college applicants have a tendency to want to do it. Here’s my take: if your grades have suffered because of Covid in a way that is noticeable to your application, then yes, it’s appropriate to briefly state why in the 250 word optional essay. If not, take a rain check, and focus your energy on writing your central essay. 

And remember, whatever topic you choose, approach it with perspective!

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