Autobiographical Essay

One of the core goals of the Rubenstein School is to get you thinking about your personal identity, as well as your identity in relation to others and to the environment. This kind of writing assignment is one designed to get you thinking critically about your identity by focusing on your interest in the environment and connecting that to explorations of cultural diversity and anti-racism. You might often consider past experiences with nature and what influenced those experiences and interactions with different people and institutions.

Getting Started

Your particular assignment is going to be looking for very specific things, so be sure to follow it. Below are some common places where writers might feel “stuck” when thinking about this kind of writing exercise. We have provided some questions to help get the wheels turning.

Having a hard time expressing what drove you to pursue an education in natural resources? Find an important or vivid memory involving the outdoors and ask yourself:

  • Why were you there ?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • Was this a single event or something you did a lot?
  • How did you find your way there?
  • Was this a shared event or were you by yourself?
  • What made this important/why does this stick out so vividly?

Having a hard time coming up with ideas because you don’t think about race or difference that much? Think critically about a time when you were around people who were “different” from you (based on race, culture, lifestyle, sexual orientation, age, etc). Ask yourself:

  • Were your actions different than usual? Why or why not? Is that a good thing?
  • Did their identity (or yours) have a significant or obvious influence on how you acted? In what way? Why do you think that is?
  • Why is it important to both recognize and understand human variation (and the meaning we give to it)?
  • Think about this phrase: it is not about difference itself, but instead the meaning(s) that we give to difference and how we act on it that is the true matter at hand.

Having a hard time coming up with ideas because you feel like you haven’t interacted with people of a different race or culture in your life much? That’s good ground for discussion as well.

  • Why were you there?
  • What’s prevented you from interacting?
  • Do you feel that this has been limiting in any way? How so/why not? Is that a positive thing or a negative thing?
  • What does anti-racism mean to you?
  • What does the environment mean to you and how might that be different from how others see it? How can exploring different cultural ideas help you to understand these differences?

Putting Your Ideas Together


Now that you’ve got some ideas, the next step most people take is to organize those ideas into a coherent whole that has some underlying theme or message. Some possibilities include:

  • Organizing important events chronologically and explaining how your ideas developed
  • Sorting your ideas based on how they correlate to a growth in your understanding.
Show Don’t Tell:

When writing a personal essay remember to show and not tell. Don’t tell the reader that you’ve “come to appreciate differences,” show them through memories of your actions. Set up a scene for the reader that shows that you acted in a way consistent with that statement. Construct your paper in such a way as to help the reader share your experience. This isn’t like your standard five-paragraph essay where you state a thesis in the introduction. You don’t necessarily have to state your main point in the beginning of the paper—in fact, many find it rewarding to put it at the end so that the reader can vicariously go through the same experiences and come to same conclusions as you, the writer.


Make sure that your personal, unique voice and experience shines through…this is an autobiographical essay, make it YOUR story.

Sample Papers

Sample Paper 1:

The purpose of this sample paper is to see some of the ways that these tips have been put into a piece of writing. While there are things that this writer did well and some things that could have been done better, remember to only use this to get you thinking. Your paper should be different and distinct to you (you did not have exactly the same experiences as this writer).

Sample Paper 2:

The purpose of this second sample paper is to give you a different perspective on the assignment. This writer chose to structure their paper differently than the first sample, but both answer the assignment in their own way. Again, it is important to remember that your essay is going to be unique.