After reading a prompt to one of essays, and then looking at this link, I realized how little I know about the actual meaning of an essay.

Here is how my definition of "essay" has become muddied over the years:

In elementary school, we learned about the simple five-paragraph essay: an introduction (lead, summary, thesis); three body paragraphs (topic sentence, examples and support); and a conclusion (restatement of main ideas). This held on until mid-middle school.

Then, our teachers told us to be a little more loose about our essays: to change the format (but not too much) from the systematic way we were taught earlier. As we started to incorporate meaningful analysis rather than monotonous and boring babbling into our essays, this became more essential.

Now, in high school, "essay" has been totally confused. It can mean:

  • in English:

    • For an book analysis: still mostly a four to six paragraph introduction, body-paragraph, conclusion format

    • For personal essays: a looser narrative or impersonal narration of an event

  • in most other classes:

    • on tests: a response, anywhere from a third of a page to a whole page (depending on the question and the number of lines provided)

    • for homework assignments: a page to five page response to an essential question

But now, I have to write a personal essay for an application for a summer program (the prompt is here), and I don't know how to write it. I'm not sure if it should be a creative essay or not (it only mentions "essay").

And now, looking at the link at top, I noticed that there can be multiple meanings to the word "essay." According to it, there are two major forms of essays:

... the essay split into two distinct modalities: one remained informal, personal, intimate, relaxed, conversational, and often humorous; the other, dogmatic, impersonal, systematic, and expository. (Foreword to The Barthes Effect, by Reda Bensmaia, 1987)

The first case is the one I saw in elementary school and early middle school. The second form is the one that began to be advocated at the end of middle school.

But now I'm wondering which would be acceptable when I have to write an "essay". It would be best if you could look at the prompt and tell me which would be best. (I know that the link points to another of my questions, but I said that it should be a "creative essay" when it didn't really say so- and now I'm doubting that it should be.)



On later searching and consideration, I found this link, about the difference between a personal essay (which I have to write) and a narrative. They both focus on story, but a personal narrative more on reflection than the plot like a narrative would. Therefore, this would highlight that it is more informal, like a story. Do you agree with this?

  • Maybe a cross-dupe in Academia: What tone to use in the personal statement?
    – Ooker
    Oct 30, 2015 at 14:33
  • @Ooker This question is talking about essays in general, whereas your question is specifically about a personal statement for school admission. The questions, and the answers are different. Nov 3, 2015 at 14:57
  • @ChrisSunami this question asks about the personal essay ... wait, it's just an essay, not a statement. You are right.
    – Ooker
    Nov 3, 2015 at 15:02
  • @Ooker. His question specified an informal prompt, so it would have been tone-deaf to create a formal response. But for your statement, it's probably best to err of the side of formality. The challenge for you will be to inject some personality and voice into the statement without losing the formal register. Nov 3, 2015 at 15:08
  • @ChrisSunami thanks. I understand now. A side note: to err on, not to err of
    – Ooker
    Nov 3, 2015 at 16:04

3 Answers 3


I endorse Chris Sunami's answer, as far as it goes, and gave it a +1 on the strength of that.

However, I'd like to take it further. To address the original question, I have a very different perspective on this: @jlam55555, you are applying for a position. This trumps any abstract question about the nature of essays.

It trumps it because when you are answering this kind of question, you have only one meaningful audience: the person evaluating your application. To this person, "essay" simply means "Free-form statement that helps me figure out what kind of prospect you'd be."

In other words, you're writing a sales document.

Now, this isn't intended to suggest that you write a pack of lies. :-) "Sales document" doesn't mean that. Often, truth is far more persuasive than false claims or shaded implications.

Properly speaking, you are writing a persuasive piece of rhetoric. You have to be the judge of what to do.

There's no guarantee of success, of course.

Make it bold; make it buttoned-down. Make it gonzo; make it timid. Try to game the reviewer's expectation; or make a defiant statement, indifferent to consequences. You really don't know for sure what's going to catch the reader's attention, and it's tough to guess what the effect will be.

It's also tough to guess how much you can compromise yourself without suffering internal consequences.

But really, "how to write a self-promotional essay" is a separate topic, and merits a separate question...

  • I haven't thought of it from a hiring standpoint at all, but it makes sense. Although my "position" isn't very serious (just a summer program), I'll take your advice. Thanks! May 27, 2015 at 4:29
  • I just wanted to thank you in hindsight for getting into that summer program. Going off to college and applying for jobs now and this really helps with essays! Jun 2, 2018 at 16:30

As with any piece of writing, the register you write in depends on the audience and the goal. Essays certainly don't have to be formal, but in some situations, formal is the right way to go.

Part of the confusion, of course, is defining "formality": In general, formal writing is associated with objectivity, well-defined structure, and the avoidance of contractions, "I" statements, and any folksy or humorous idioms or slang. Informal writing is associated with subjectivity and a strong, distinctive authorial voice.

With regards to the prompt from your earlier question, it specifically focuses on subjective, personal and speculative topics, so you can be fairly confident that they are looking for something more towards the informal end of the spectrum.

  • I have asked this answer in Academia (I'm not aware of this question before), and the answer there suggests that I should use a formal tone. What do you think?
    – Ooker
    Nov 3, 2015 at 7:57
  • I wouldn't go overboard on the informality, but that particular prompt really doesn't lend itself to a truly formal essay. Part of good writing is selecting the right register to work in. If I were writing to this prompt, I think I would go for the tone of writing a profile of a person for a reputable magazine --basically a journalistic voice. EDIT: I just noticed you're not the original poster for this question. My advice here was based around a particular prompt linked by the OP. Nov 3, 2015 at 14:27

Essays do not need to be formal, ever. Since it looks like you're working on a school assignment, the best way to get a good grade is to follow the style of the person grading, typically the teacher.

However, having gone through college and writing professionally for almost 9 years, the purpose of an essay is to express a point, often one with emotional value. Formality does little to nothing to support that. The best essays I've ever written have been completely informal. Doing so is more of a challenge than writing a formal piece because it must be done with intent. Otherwise, it's clearly a ploy to write poorly out of laziness.

  • 1
    The first sentence seems like a wrong over-generalization. What makes you think essays never need to be formal? The fact that you write better non-formal essays than formal ones doesn't mean that no situation ever demands formality. May 26, 2015 at 21:00
  • Formality is a type of speech. You don't ever need to use any type of speech. Writing with a formal tone is good in some cases, but is by no means a requirement for an essay.
    – Jamezrp
    May 26, 2015 at 21:57

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