Commentary on Writing a Personal Essay

Self Essay Criticisms

I think you’re crazy for making us write an essay telling you who we think we are.  We see us as we want to see ourselves: in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. At times I am a brain, and an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal …

The broader terms you use, the fewer expectations, the less disappointment and confusion you experience in defining yourself. How do you define a person anyway? In the small, endearing, yet random, details such that they love to dance in the super market, or in their theatrical performances of Janet Weiss losing her mind ? My musical theater background makes the argument that you could measure a person by the things that they love.

But most of us hold dearest our sense of selves.

We tell ourselves we are driven, passionate, and good people who want to change the world, when in reality at the end of the day most of us fall apart if our basic needs aren’t met or we are uncomfortable. Or we over indulge in self-care and focus on making it through the day rather than fighting for the change we told ourselves we so wished to see in the world. Most of us live unremarkable lives and most of us are happy with and indeed aim for that. Why, because although we love ideals like integrity, Ut Prosim, brotherhood, sacrifice, loyalty, duty, leadership, honor and service, these ideals that we love often conflict with one another. We are forced to choose one principle over another. Or we encounter teleological versus deontological conundrums, questioning a moral code versus a moral result, and are forced to pick a spot along the axis of ethics.  Or maybe we are forced to choose between anthropocentric or ecocentric actions and find a balance as environmental engineers who must “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public”.  In fact perhaps we should be defined by what ideals we choose not to love or uphold.

So then instead of defining one by their values, shouldn’t we define them by their actions? But the lawyer in me argues with Machiavelli that intent and means must be taken into account. So then we are left with the messy problem of putting together the right brain and the left brain of each person and adding the emotions and choices into a person which is an ever evolving process.

For the past two years I have been tirelessly working towards the goal of being a Masters student in Environmental and Water Resources Engineering at Virginia Tech. Over and over writing personal statements declaring who I am and my dreams of becoming an engineer. But none of these personal statements that I wrote showed my view of ethics, or my passions for theater or grocery store dancing or my dreams of being a real life mermaid. Why? Those are all ways to look at me. But though these traits and quirks make up my personhood, not all of my personhood is relevant to a personal statement that declares my pursuit of being an environmental engineer.  Nor is acknowledging all of my personhood always something that I want to do.

Just like a well written personal statement should paint the author in a good light, a well functioning ego will let you believe that you are all those nice things you wrote in that personal statement, and nothing less.  So what do you get out of reading a personal statement? Nothing more than a glimpse into the better parts of a person and their hopes for their endeavors,  but a personal statement runs the risk of defining someone by their accomplishments rather than their habits. But maybe a glimpse into a person’s life is all you need.

After all, people aren’t static, we’re constantly evolving. In fact, I haven’t danced in a grocery store in months.  So maybe that little tidbit is not worth me holding onto. But without constantly questioning my ideals, my view of myself, and the things I value, I run the risk of it all losing meaning.

Why does it matter that I like to view myself as the type of person who likes to dance in the grocery store? Is it that I value spontaneity and creativity? (In which case I’ve danced in many a Safeway so perhaps this is more of a habit and less of a spontaneous creative gesture) Or do I value the action of dance itself? Or do I value tradition? (Since at this point it’s been a well established routine.)

Without engaging in this constant banter of an inner dialogue we run the risk of going through life half conscious of our needs and desires, but even worse we run the risk of falling into the trap of trying to define ourselves and stagnating. Without change how can we have progress?

We have to admit to ourselves that we can never only be those inspirational dynamic characters we pinned down on paper in our personal statements, that those characters are flat. A 2D snap shot in time of who we were once in a focused moment. But those characters we wrote about are not us. We are so much more, more lazy, more impulsive, more confused, and more alive.

Does that answer your question?

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-You know you love me. xoxo Ethics Girl

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