I recently received this email query and I think the answer might be relevant to lots of you out there.
The question was as follows:
“I’m just wondering, what is your opinion on how personal a personal essay should be? Like if I was to include stories about growing up as a gay teen/ break ups/ family etc, does that just come off as a sob story or will it annoy the examiner? Also, in terms of articles, is it best to stay away from controversial issues like the church and gay rights? Obviously this is presuming its relevant to to the title given!”
And I replied:
A personal essay should be very personal. It should feel ‘real’ to the examiner. So yes, deal with your experiences of discrimination, relationships etc…
To avoid creating an annoying sob story, don’t just identify problems, offer solutions. Also, another way to get the reader onside and not sound full of irritating self-pity is to make fun of yourself. I love people who are willing to mock their own faults and failings, it makes them more human, more likable. What really matters is that your essay is WELL WRITTEN, regardless of the content, and as someone who is gay, you probably have an interesting perspective to offer that the examiner may not have read before.
However, remember, just because it’s TRUE doesn’t make it entertaining for the reader – again, self-mockery and offering some solutions as well as identifying problems are two ways to make your essay more enjoyable for the reader… plus, think not just about WHAT you write but also about HOW you write. List the techniques you intend to use, tick them off as you use them!
As for whether or not you should discuss controversial topics in your newspaper article, provided they are relevant to the title, absolutely.
Again, however, it is vital to remember that HOW you write is as important – in fact MORE important – than what you write.
All journalists when researching a story will interview eye-witnesses and/or experts on the topic under discussion. They’ll include quotes from these ‘interviews’ they’ve conducted (feel free to make them up). They’ll also prove that they know their topic & have thoroughly researched it by including relevant statistics (for example, in your case possibly the number of gay people in Ireland v’s the number who are ‘out’, the percentage of gay people in long term relationships, the number who have children etc).
Again, you can make these up in the exam but they MUST sound realistic. A good example of a stat that doesn’t sound realistic is if you say that 87% of teenagers smoke. The real stat is closer to 20% and an examiner is likely to know this (just from paying attention to the universe…)
Hope this helps some of you about to launch into exams season.