Personal Essay

Some students have trouble getting their heads around the difference between a short story and a personal essay. If you write a personal essay then YOU aged 17 or 18, doing the Leaving Certificate, are writing about yourself. You can exaggerate, even make stuff up, but ultimately you are tied to offering the perspective of an Irish teenager. If you write a short story, your main character can be anyone – a homeless person, princess, pilot, animal, drug addict, sportsperson, banshee, baby in the womb, spy, slave, vampire, alien or angel. So personal essays are where you write about yourself. Short stories are fictional and can be set anywhere, anytime and be about anyone. In summary:

  1. A short story has a plot, setting and fictional characters!
  2. The style of writing is DESCRIPTIVE
  3. A short story could be ONE EPISODE of a TV show.
  1. A personal essay is a series of related ideas (or anecdotes) which reveal your personality, opinions, memories & feelings.
  2. The style of writing is up to you – you can use descriptive writing in one paragraph, rhetorical questions & lists in another, humour and exaggeration in another.
  3. Each paragraph uses ONE core idea.
  4. A personal essay COULD NOT be made into a TV show.

When writing a personal essay your personality must take centre stage – your attitudes, feelings, hopes, desires and beliefs are revealed. The quirkier the better – the last thing you want is to come across as the same as everyone else!

Follow the six rules of essay writing. Plan in advance, organise your ideas. Use some of the following techniques:

  • Quotes from bands/singers, writers, philospohers, friends, calendars!
  • Anecdotes from your past. Of course you can always describe an event that happened to someone else and pretend it happened to you.
  • Descriptive style so the reader is drawn into the experiences you evoke.
  • Reflection on your experiences/beliefs/attitudes – show an awareness of how you have become the person you are.
  • Imagination – you are free to wander off on a tangent, letting your thoughts flow naturally…as long as you eventually return to the point.
  • Humour – be as funny, sarcastic and brutally honest as you are in real life. It’s so refreshing because students tend to be puh puh puh puh puh puh puh puh pokerfaced and overly serious in the exam. (Then you meet them in real life and they’re a total scream but didn’t manage to get this across in their writing. So sad ;-(
  • Hyperbole – take the truth & exagerate it. Make your writing dramatic.
  • Observations about life, love, lucozade and lemonade. Here is your chance to muse about everything.
  • Identify problems & offer solutions. Don’t be a Moaning Myrtle!

Here’a another discussion of the personal essay for a different perspective on it:

8 responses to “Personal Essay

  1. 10/10 would read again.

  2. seriously helpful

  3. Knew I could rely on you Evelyn – I’ve giving this to my LCs with directions to your site… Thanks!

  4. Here’s a clip that makes what personal writing IS really clear – thanks to Faith Whelan (English teacher) for the heads up.

    Write what you know. Be honest. Be brave.

    But don’t fall into the trap of thinking your story has to be tragic to be worthy. You don’t have to have a big dramatic trauma in your life to create engaging personal writing. Small moments which have a big impact on you work too. A student of mine wrote about a row boat she and her dad used when she was a kid and in her essay the boat came to represent her love for and connection to her dad. I told her to show it to him and she said he got a bit choked up and emotional when he read it… but she didn’t put in a “false” ending. She didn’t have some big reveal at the end (her Dad dying or something) because there was no need. It was a quiet piece of writing – a quiet tribute to their relationship. She didn’t reach for melodrama and her writing was all the better as a result.

  5. Very helpful

  6. Epic and awesome. I’ll be pointing my LCs to this on Monday. Thanks Evelyn.

  7. Great to find this half an hour before my leaving cert