Biography Essays & Help Writing an Autobiography Essay


(Updated on June 2, 2020)

An autobiographical research paper is a text that blends the writer's own experience with scholarly research in order to present an idea, point, or argument about a particular topic.  Autobiographical research papers aren't common assignments outside of a student's English composition course; however, they're a common form of writing that's frequently found in popular magazines and journals.  Therefore, students may be more familiar with autobiographical research writing than they may think.

Biography Essays & Help Writing an Autobiography EssayAn autobiographical research paper is very different from a standard project that seeks to present a claim about a specific topic through the use of external sources.  In an autobiographical research paper, the majority of the text deals with the writer's own experience.  Research is used only to support the author's opinions or clarify his/her experience.  For example, an autobiographical research paper may be about a student's experience with discrimination.  Because the project is an autobiographical research paper rather than a standard research paper, much of this paper will discuss events and experiences that happened directly to the student, and recount those events from the point-of-view of the student.  In other words, the autobiographical research paper will use the first-person voice ("I" and "me").  This is another characteristic of autobiographical papers that sets them apart from standard research papers: in most standard research paper writing, the use of the first-person voice is discouraged or even forbidden.

The research element of autobiographical research papers is used as support for the student's claims and as validation for his/her recounted experiences.  For instance, if the student were a Latina writing about discrimination against Latinos in the workplace, he/she wouldn't only mention his/her personal experience, but indicate how his/her experience compares to other Latinos by pointing to research studies citing statistics of discrimination against Latinos in the workplace.  In this way, the writer's own experience becomes not only a personal expression of his/her individual life, but one instance among many illustrating a trend of discrimination.

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The type of research used in autobiographical research papers will likely depend on the topic.  For instance, in an autobiographical research paper about traveling in Tibet, a student wouldn't incorporate statistical data, but scholarly studies that examine Tibetan cultural practices.  Regardless of what type of research is included, however, it should be used to supplement the writer's own personal experience—not speak for it.

Biography Book Reports

Beginning in elementary school, students learn to write simple book reports, discussing things like setting, characters, and good vs.  evil in fictional stories.  As students progress through each academic level, writing a book report often becomes less about sharing one's favorite story and more about critically analyzing an assigned reading or non-fiction book.  One of the most challenging non-fiction assignments is the biography book report.

Biography book reports are, as the name implies, surveys of biographical books.  Because many learners aren't fans of reading biographies, especially those that are assigned as part of academic reading rather than elective reading, biography book reports aren't favored assignments.

A biography book report requires analysis of not only the author and the person who is the focus of the book, but also literary elements such as setting, characters, tone, symbolism, etc.  In a biography book report, the main character is obvious; it's the individual about whom the biography has been completed.  Other important characters are those individuals who have existed as major players in that person's life.

Since a biography chronicles the events of the subject's life, or a portion of that life, the setting may change throughout the course of the book.  In biography projects that detail a short time during a person's life, or that concentrate on a certain event, the setting becomes easier to determine.  Still, it's acceptable to indicate how the setting changes during the course of the biography.  Unlike a third-grade book report, a biography book report assignment assumes that students are capable of identifying multiple settings at their current academic stage.

The content, or events, contained within a biography are also far more detailed than they were when the assigned reading was Goodnight Moon.  In college, biography book reports might be on such readings as Mein Kampf or Stalin: The Glasnost Revelations.  These readings are far more challenging.  However, even though the writing and interpretation of the material that a college student presents in his/her biography book report are expected to be far more mature than that which was expected in elementary or even high school, the basics of how to write a biography book report haven't changed much at all.

Autobiographical Essays

At some point in his/her college career, a student will likely be required to complete an autobiographical essay.  In fact, most college admissions applications require the prospective student to complete an autobiographical essay (otherwise known as a "personal statement").

Students often find writing autobiographical essays difficult for multiple reasons.  First, many learners have a hard time talking about themselves.  Second, students often have difficulty with finding a topic for their document.  Third, students often misinterpret the purpose of completing a biographical paper.

To make the process easier for students and to ensure that they don't receive autobiography essays that are vary so greatly that they're difficult to read, clear instructions are provided.  Many universities give specific guidelines for length, format, and topic.  So, although the subject is the student him/herself, the topic might include something such as "The most important moment of your life," or "What is your dream career?" 

Still, many learners fall short of submitting a riveting autobiography essay.  Instead, they submit a piece which fails to differentiate them from the multitude of other students who have been given the same assignment.

The point behind autobiographical essays is to give students the opportunity to present their own unique sense of themselves.  For this reason, a student should select a topic that hasn't been overdone.  One's experience on the student council, winning the district semi-finals, or that last family vacation aren't what college admissions counselors want to read.  They want to know what makes each student unique.  What makes each one different from the thousands of other students who apply to that same school each year?

It is important that an autobiographical essay steer away from a rote dictation of the student's life or activities.  Such essays are not only dull, they do not—in any way—differentiate the student from the masses.  The report should also be easy and entertaining to read.  It should have personality and it should reflect the personality of the writer.  Students don't do themselves justice by writing in a way that they aren't comfortable with.  Such writing is obvious to the reader.

The best autobiographical essays are a clear snapshot of a part of the writer's life.  Whether that snapshot is a one-time event or a brief synopsis of a series of events, the reader should be able to visualize the events.  They should come to life and animate the writer him/herself for the reader.

Biography Term Papers

A biography term paper is a lengthy text that presents research on a particular individual.  A term paper is typically around ten pages, and is intended to present a student's comprehensive understanding of the course material of the class for which the project is being composed.  Therefore, biography reports should always present the individual subject in context of the topic of the course.  For instance, if the biography term paper were about Martin Luther King, Jr., and it were for a race relations course, the biography would likely focus on King's experiences and achievements regarding his civil rights work.  If, however, the class were on prominent 20th century religious leaders, the focus of the biography would likely shift to King's religious teachings and messages.  Of course, both biography term papers would include information regarding both King's role as a civil rights leader and Baptist minister; however, the subject of the course will determine the overall focus of the biography itself.

Biography term papers are different from other types of biographical sketches or texts that a student may write because they will likely require him/her to present his/her opinion or interpretation of some aspect of the individual on which the biography term paper is being written.  This means that it will not simply be an overview of the person's life such as one that may be found in an encyclopedia; rather, it will address a specific aspect of that person's life and analyze and interpret it.  The writer should therefore present a clear thesis statement identifying what particular aspect of the individual's life he/she will discuss and what his/her opinion is on it.  For instance, a main argument for a biography term paper on Martin Luther King, Jr.  completed for a race relations class may be as follows: "Dr.  King's upbringing and the influence of civil rights leaders that went before him formed both his/her approach to achieving equal rights and his/her style of leadership."  This thesis presents a very specific aspect of King's life, and also presents the writer's opinion, which is that King's leadership style and approach to civil rights were a result of both his upbringing and the influence of his civil rights predecessors.

Biography reports shouldn't rely on one or two sources for their research, but should investigate multiple sources on the individual on which the paper is about—even sources that don't present that individually favorably.  In this way, the report will be able to present a multi-dimensional view of both the individual and the writer's opinion about that individual.

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