Writing A Good Autobiographical Essay

How to start an autobiography can be a tricky issue.

Do you begin with your birth? With a description of your parents, or maybe even your grandparents?

With the first notable thing you did? With the biggest crisis point in your life, and then go back to the beginning?

While there is no single “best” way to start an autobiography, there are different approaches. The key is to find the one that works best for your story.

How To Start an Autobiography: 4 Examples

Here are excerpts showing four interesting ways that have been used to open an autobiography. One author uses his birth name to foreshadow the life that lies ahead; one paints a simple sketch of his parents; one talks about the beliefs that shaped him; and one reflects on the influence of chance. Each is different, and each is just right for its subject. Perhaps one of these approaches will be right for you! (I’ve linked the titles of each book below to Amazon.com so you can click on the “Look Inside” button and read more.)

In the opening paragraph of Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa hints at the tumultuous life that lies ahead:

Apart from life, a strong constitution, and an abiding connection to the Thembu royal house, the only thing my father bestowed upon me at birth was a name, Rolihlala. In Xhosa, Rholihlala literally means “pulling the branch of a tree,” but its colloquial meaning more accurately would be “trouble maker.” I do not believe that names are destiny or that my father somehow divined my future, but in later years, friends and relatives would ascribe to my birth name the many storms I have both caused and weathered.

In Take Me Home: An Autobiography, singer-song writer John Denver uses only a few words to sketch a portrait of his parents:

“They met in Tulsa. Dad was a ploughboy from western Oklahoma; Mom was a hometown girl. He was in the Army Air Corps, studying the mechanics of flight at the Spartan School of Aeronautics, and she had been first-prize winner in a jitterbug contest the year before. It was 1942: She was just turning eighteen, a high-school senior; and he was twenty-one.”

Chris Kyle begins his American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, by listing the life-long beliefs he inherited from his family and environment:

Every story has a beginning.

Mine starts in north-central Texas. I grew up in small towns where I learned the importance of family and tradition. Values, like patriotism, self-reliance, and watching out for your family and neighbors. I’m proud to say that I still try to live my life according to those values. I have a strong sense of justice. It’s pretty much black-and-white. I don’t see too much gray. I think it’s important to protect others. I don’t mind hard work. At the same time, I like to have fun; life’s too short not to.

Former President Ronald Regan opens An American Life by talking about the effects of chance:

If I’d gotten the job I wanted at Montgomery Ward, I suppose I never would have left Illinois.

I’ve often wondered at how lives are shaped by what seem like small and inconsequential events, how an apparently random turn in the road can lead you a long way from where you intended to go—and a long way from wherever you expected to go. For me, the first of these turns occurred in the summer of 1932, in the abyss of the Depression.

How to Start An Autobiography?

There is no single best way. The goal is to draw your readers in with your first sentences; to make them want to read more by telling them something about you that makes you and your life story irresistible. If you can do that, you’ve figured out how to start an autobiography.

Before deciding how you’d like to open your autobiography, go back and review the purpose of the autobiography and what it must contain. See: “What is an Autobiography.” Once you know where you’re headed, you’ll be able to zero in on the “right” opening more effectively.

If You’d Like to Learn More About Writing Your Life Story…

…see my “Memoir Ghostwriter” page.

I’m Barry Fox, a New York Times bestselling author and ghostwriter. If you need help writing your autobiography or memoir, give me a call at 818-917-5362. 

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How to make your autobiographical essay stand out

When applying for a scholarship, you typically will have to add an autobiographical essay. If you want to stand out as an applicant, it is important to show more than good grades. Here is some advice on how to use one sheet of paper to make a lasting impression and be invited for an interview.

1. Polish your writing style

If you are at the point of applying for a scholarship to study abroad after your first cycle of higher education, chances are small that you've been going through application or interviewing processes before.
Likewise, chances are small that you have experience in writing, other than homeworks and essays related to your study course.

Writing an autobiographical essay takes more than just summing up what you've been spending your past years on. It requires a style of writing you might need to get used to. Even though I've always enjoyed writing, composing my autobiographical essay took me a lot of frowning, rewriting and rephrasing.

Make sure you allow enough time to go through this process, don't write it out the night before the deadline.
To give you an idea: I spent two months between my first trials and the final version in my application.

2. Ask a senior academic for advice

Look for a professor or senior academic with a clear writing style to whom you can turn to for advice. I was lucky enough to receive great ideas from one of my professors, which took my essay five levels up.

3. Show the link between your extracurricular activities and your studies

You might think that fellowship institutions are not interested in your talent for sports or music. However, you can use your extracurricular activities to show how it reinforces some of your talents in your studies.

In my essay, I linked composition courses to math. Following the classical rules of composition requires indeed a lot of "calculating" and counting distances between notes to come up with allowable chords.

4. Let your personality shine through

If you're applying for a prestigious fellowship, you are most likely already a very good student. To show that you are ready to take most advantage of the opportunity which might be offered to you and to become an ambassador of a sponsoring institution, it is important to show that you are a fully grown individual with a personal range of talents and interests.

5. Point out the skills you've learned from your extracurricular activities

Depending on the extracurricular activities you've chosen to spend your time on, you will have developed certain skills. Use the description of your activities to point out which skills you've learned.

Playing team-sports or playing in an orchestra teaches you how to work in a team, for example. Combining several activities with demanding studies teaches you time management skills.

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