Essay Lab: A Reading List

One of the most challenging aspects of writing college application essays can be finding and writing in the first-person voice. This is partly because the type of academic writing required of high school students is often heavy on the passive voice and expository -- or third-person – writing. So what you have learned in your English class can sometimes get in the way when it comes to writing the personal statement or essay required in the application process. You will have to move beyond what you have learned to write for class to a more personal kind of essay in which you write about things from your unique perspective in a style closer to your speaking voice. We are not fans of "essays that worked" whether found on the web or bookstore shelves.  It's hard to write an essay about who you are when you have someone else's ideas fixed in your head. But we do believe that reading great first-person essayists -- authors like David Sedaris and Annie Lamott -- can help you find your authentic voice and your story.  And they're terrific reading in any case. Here are our recommendations:


If you have a favorite writer who has helped you find your voice, please share it with us at


I love your list of narrative-style books. It can be hard to find your voice for these college essays, and I wholeheartedly agree that reading other works can help tune your ear to this first-person, conversational style. One book I might add would be the graphic novel: Fun Home. Other wonderful narratives: In Cold Blood, The Orchid Thief, The Glass Castle, Into the Wild, Hiroshima, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, on and on. I tell my students, however, to keep in mind that these are written by authors who have spent years learning this style. It also helps to read sample essays by other students, which can spark ideas for both style and structure, but not be as intimidating. Thanks for sharing this list!

LOVE your suggestion of a graphic novel! Thank you!

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