What Is The Difference Between An Informal And Formal Essay

After reading a prompt to one of essays, and then looking at this link, I realized how little I know about the actual meaning of an essay.

Here is how my definition of "essay" has become muddied over the years:

In elementary school, we learned about the simple five-paragraph essay: an introduction (lead, summary, thesis); three body paragraphs (topic sentence, examples and support); and a conclusion (restatement of main ideas). This held on until mid-middle school.

Then, our teachers told us to be a little more loose about our essays: to change the format (but not too much) from the systematic way we were taught earlier. As we started to incorporate meaningful analysis rather than monotonous and boring babbling into our essays, this became more essential.

Now, in high school, "essay" has been totally confused. It can mean:

  • in English:

    • For an book analysis: still mostly a four to six paragraph introduction, body-paragraph, conclusion format

    • For personal essays: a looser narrative or impersonal narration of an event

  • in most other classes:

    • on tests: a response, anywhere from a third of a page to a whole page (depending on the question and the number of lines provided)

    • for homework assignments: a page to five page response to an essential question

But now, I have to write a personal essay for an application for a summer program (the prompt is here), and I don't know how to write it. I'm not sure if it should be a creative essay or not (it only mentions "essay").

And now, looking at the link at top, I noticed that there can be multiple meanings to the word "essay." According to it, there are two major forms of essays:

... the essay split into two distinct modalities: one remained informal, personal, intimate, relaxed, conversational, and often humorous; the other, dogmatic, impersonal, systematic, and expository. (Foreword to The Barthes Effect, by Reda Bensmaia, 1987)

The first case is the one I saw in elementary school and early middle school. The second form is the one that began to be advocated at the end of middle school.

But now I'm wondering which would be acceptable when I have to write an "essay". It would be best if you could look at the prompt and tell me which would be best. (I know that the link points to another of my questions, but I said that it should be a "creative essay" when it didn't really say so- and now I'm doubting that it should be.)



On later searching and consideration, I found this link, about the difference between a personal essay (which I have to write) and a narrative. They both focus on story, but a personal narrative more on reflection than the plot like a narrative would. Therefore, this would highlight that it is more informal, like a story. Do you agree with this?


Informal essays have no set structure and they are typically shorter than formal essays. Informal essays also use first and second person, and often include thoughts and opinions. The subject matter of informal essays is brief and a subject does not explore the topic in depth. Rather, informal essays are usually informational in nature and only include the most relevant and basic information needed to inform the reader.

Unlike an informal essay, formal essays have a specific structure and are often very lengthy. Although the structure varies depending on the type of essay, formal essays have a defined introduction, body and conclusion. Formal essays also require the use of a professional tone and third person narrative. Since formal essays are often written to summarize research, in-text citations and references must be listed to add credibility to the document. Additionally, formal essays usually have a narrowed focus and explore a subject in-depth.

Learn more about Academic Essays

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