Diaries & Memoirs: The Best Essays

DiaryI’ve always thought diaries-turned-memoirs are fascinating reads.  The willingness of writers to share vulnerable moments and to be authentic, even if only within the pages of their books.  It’s their introspective nature that really grabs me.  A writer’s willingness to be open, to be honest and to be fair.  Fair about acknowledging character flaws, likes, dislikes, things that anger them, things that frustrate them, things that bring them great joy.  There is a level of honesty and candor in a diary that most people don’t permit in other forms of writing about themselves.  I’m sure it is that honesty that makes them so fascinating. I mean, we all are flawed.  We all have bumps and bruises on our personalities.  “Baggage” if you will. There are quirky, not-so-flattering stories to tell about things we’ve done and experiences we’ve enjoyed, and most of us (if we’re lucky) also have delightful stories of joy to share which have added levity to our lives.  We are all human and life is a complex jumble of fantastic, good, bad, interesting and bruitful moments. It’s amazing what one can learn about one’s self when she acknowledges the mix of those experiences in her life.

It’s probably no surprise then, that I’m drawn to students who are willing to treat their college application essays a bit like a diary entry; a window into something completely honest about themselves.  It’s those students that use the writing process as a time for self reflection and introspection that usually get the A+ from me.  Now, let me qualify that statement.  There are certainly a few topics that I would flesh out in a diary which would never make their way into any college application essay I would write, and I think knowing what those things are for yourself is important.  But, it is the free writing exercise of thinking openly and expressing your true self that can serve as a great way to start the application essay writing process.   Share a piece of who you are.  Put it into words.  Try not to worry about whether there’s a “right” answer to an essay question, or that admission officers are expecting to be wowed by an applicant’s interpretation of politics in the European Union EVERY time they start to read.  They are far more interested in hearing about the real you.  The you who wrote a diary rant about the guy in the car who merged late on the highway earlier this morning. The you who was disappointed by a friend and learned something about people and relationships as a result.  Even the you who absolutely cannot stand fruit cake despite a great love of the holiday season.  It is a willingness to be genuine that I am moved by.

If I were honest, there are more than a handful of times each year when I am brought to tears by a student’s willingness to share in an unrefined, raw way.  Robert Frost once said, “No tears in a writer, no tears in the reader.  No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”  Take the time to really think about yourself as you write. Stuck for a topic that fits?  Think of the brainstorming as a diary exercise and write down five things people don’t know about you.  The list might help you find the “thing”- the thing that tells an admission officer why you are a perfect puzzle piece for the Class of 2018.  You might surprise yourself, you might laugh, you might even cry.

None of those emotions are bad and they all make you human. That all make you- you.

Jennifer Scott, Senior Associate Director of College Counseling,
Norfolk Academy
Fall, 2013