Tag Archives: Essay

Essay Topics

It is impossible to predict what will appear in the essay section. However, certain topics have come up more than once since the new course began in 2000.

  • TEENAGERS (responsibilities / stress / culture of youth) x 4
  • THE PAST X 5 (memory was the theme in 2012)
  • HEROES X 2 + Debate: we live in an “unheroic” era
  • TRUTH / LIES  x 2
  • CLOTHES x 2 (how they reveal your personality)
  • MUSIC x 2

Other topics that have only appeared once include tv & radio, celebrating ordinary people, tourist attractions, urban vs rural lifestyles, family, sport, performance, travel, laws, gossip, discrimination, smoking ban, mobile phones, technology, time, marvels in the world today, glimpsed moments.

Feelings come up almost every year but they always name a specific one – so far they’ve included: freedom, indecision, daydreams, imagination, hope, wonder and the ones that came up twice listed above (happiness, love, truth).

Some topics that haven’t appeared yet but that MIGHT come up (& I’m just guessing here!) include:
THE PRESENT (the importance of living in the moment) –  *I WAS RIGHT!!! This came up in 2012! (Write about having “all the time in the world”) & 2013 (“the everyday treadmill & the gilded promises of life”).

Some feelings that haven’t appeared yet but that MIGHT come up (& again I’m just guessing here!) include:

You could collect ideas for topics without having to write the entire essay. See below!

TOPIC: _________________






VIVID IMAGERY: Picture the scene….

ANECDOTE: (don’t forget the hyperbole)

Trust Your Voice

Lots of you are afraid of Paper 1. You fear the moment that you open the exam and discover that you have to have an opinion. Your opinion. Not your teachers or the revision course booklet’s or your parent’s. Your own. It’s just you, a blank page, a biro and the light of your imagination. So I ask myself what are you so afraid of?

And to be fair I remember this fear myself, the desire to do well balanced against the uncertainty of not knowing what I would face on the day. But I don’t recall the same level of anxiety that I see on a daily basis in my classroom. I don’t recall complaining about how unfair it all was (maybe that’s just because I was lucky enough to love English) Or asking ‘How could the examiners expect us to make it up on the spot?’ as though thinking on your feet were somehow a ludicrous proposition. I do remember being infuriatingly opinionated about pretty much everything – I still am – but I also thought it was part and parcel of being a teenager. Stick it to the man. Tell it like it really is. Perhaps I was just naive.

So let’s try to get to the bottom of it. What has happened in our education system to make you so afraid?

Well first of all, education is increasingly a business with you as the client and us as the provider. Because of the demands students and parents make on teachers and because teachers make those demands of themselves – let’s face it, we all want you to get good results – you are being spoon fed. You are being told what to learn but all too often you are not being taught how to learn. And you are not innocent in this process so don’t fool yourself – you tell the teacher, I want notes. I need notes. At home you condition your parents to think that the more notes you get the better the teacher is. Even the teachers start to believe this. When you get a corrected test or a piece of homework back all too often (and of course there are plenty of exceptions) your message to us is ‘I don’t care what I did wrong. I don’t need to think about that. I just need you to fix it so that when I’m rote learning it off for the exam I’m not learning something with mistakes in it’.

But the mistakes inevitably appear in the exam because you have to demonstrate that you understand what you’re talking about.

Or maybe not. Maybe few mistakes appear because this is, after all, the  Leaving Cert & it caters all too well to rote learning.

Maybe it’s only when you go to college that the wheels fall off the wagon because now you are expected to think for yourself, to figure it out, to have an opinion. To go to the library and wade through reams of information because no-one around here is going to hand you a neatly photocopied summary of the topic, you have to come up with that yourself. But nobody’s ever asked that of you before and you don’t know how. You HATE having to have an opinion of your own, because there are no guarantees that it’s RIGHT. And you want guarantees. And notes. And predictable exams. And good grades. And a good job afterwards, thank you very much. You can always ask someone in the year ahead for their notes. For a price of course. Education is still a business after all.

But then the wagon falls apart completely when you start working because suddenly someone else is the client and YOU are the provider. Your boss wants you to write a memo, make a presentation, compile a report. Hell, even before you get to that stage you need to write a letter of application to get the job. You vaguely remember your teacher trying to get you to do this when you were at the peak of your teenage hormonal obsession with that boy with the nice skin and the broad shoulders who smelled like a Lynx ad. You were probably in 2nd yr. But then exams kicked in and then more exams kicked in and eventually you decided it was easier to give your voice away to someone else. You became a kind of talking puppet for other people’s notes and opinions – all of which you were able to learn off verbatim because you’re good at that – but you lost yourself. You lost your own voice.

Not every student feels like this. Lots of you have a wonderful voice on paper that you trust, that you feel confident in unleashing on the world. But even you are still filled with doubt, with uncertainty because there is no predicting what will come up on the day. You have to prove that you know what you’re doing. Pick the right words, use the right techniques, choose the right format. And for some of you, for many of you, this is terrifying. It’s like entering a burning building with no insurance.

I want none of you to feel like this. I’d like you to trust your voice. Have an opinion. If there are all sorts of topics out there that you don’t have an opinion on, there’s plenty of time to read more about them, to form an opinion. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind. I will not ridicule you – when have I ever done that? I might make suggestions about how to edit your work, how to make it better. And that isn’t a threat to your voice. That is professional help to clarify your thoughts and words and ideas. But your voice is still your own and you need to own it. Because one day you will be asked for your opinion – at work, or when you are raising your children, or when you are caring for your elderly parents. And I don’t want you to feel the same panic then that you feel now when I ask you to write a speech or an article or a personal essay or a short story. I know you feel uncertainty. But you always have your voice. And no-one can take that away from you.

Except if, like me, you’ re suffering from chronic laryngitis.


Let me repeat – the system stinks. That’s not your fault.

It’s natural to feel anxiety about Paper 1 – especially if English isn’t one of your better subjects and you have no aspirations to be a writer. Ever. It’s the equivalent of asking me to be enthusiastic about maths -wasn’t my strongest subject at school and you’ll never make me enthusiastic about it.

So it’s ok to be nervous. And it’s not your fault the system is so flawed. But we’ve got plenty of time between now and then for you to gain some of the confidence you need for Paper 1. Can we do it? Yes we can.

Sample Personal Essay

This is a personal essay (I found it in an old foolscap a few years ago) from when I was in Leaving Cert. It’s not terribly original and the ending just kind of tails off pathetically but rather than fix it up I decided to leave it as I had written it at 17. It should give you a strong sense that there is a real difference between personal essays and short stories.

A Farewell to Adolescence

One of the scariest things about being in Leaving Cert. is realising that you are the oldest pupils in the school. In the first couple of days it gently hits you that the people who once intimidated you so much are all gone. Any intimidation that goes on now is probably your esteemed self complaining (loudly) in the presence of first years about how cheeky and wild they are. At this stage you usually find yourself commenting on the fact that your own year were NEVER that rude and boisterous, and you begin to despair for the youth of today. Where, oh where, did they ever go wrong?

It is about now you realise that you’re beginning to grow up. Talking about the ‘youth of today’ sets off alarm bells in your head because you’ve started to distance yourself from this section of society. You no longer include yourself in the category of ‘teenager’ or ‘adolescent’. Technically, you’ll be a teenager until the end of your nineteenth year, but being as mature and responsible as you are, you handily disregard this fact!

After the first couple of days in Leaving Cert, it not-so-gently whacks you full-in-the-face that other people have also started to regard you as a young adult. Teachers, parents, and adults in general expect you to think and act more responsibly, as befits your new position in society. THAT’s when you discover the role of young adult has as many drawbacks as advantages.

The first problem encountered is that of choosing a career! Of course, you’d always realised that EVENTUALLY you’d have to decide what to do with the rest of your life. But never in your wildest dreams or worst nightmares did you imagine just how difficult it would really be. The careers teacher bombards you with information about points, open days, college prospectus’, CAO-CAS forms, subject choices, apprentices and requirements. It vaguely registers somewhere in the back of your mind that you’ve heard all this before (perhaps in last years careers class???) but you weren’t really listening (at the time) because it was just kind of boring and irrelevant. Right now it’s about as far away from irrelevant as it can possibly be, and your head is in a whirl. Oh, to be back in first year when everything was simple and all anyone seemed to talk about was how wild and cheeky you were!

Added to this burden of deciding what to do with the rest of your life, is the workload of the average Leaving Certificate pupil. You seem to spend at least three hours every night doing homework alone. Wondering when you’ll get around to revising fourth year work is useless – you simply DON’T HAVE THE TIME! Every teacher seems to have some comment to make about how little work you’ve done, and how much you’ve left to cover. Being fulfilled, happy individuals, however, you don’t despair and it never even enters your head how hopeless everything is…

The last (and in my opinion the worst) part of saying farewell to adolescence is that of being responsible for your own destiny. Every teacher and parent in the country seems to adopt the policy of constantly telling you that how you do in the Leaving Certificate Examinations in June is entirely up to you! Teachers remind you daily that they’re not afraid of work and they’re doing the best they can for you. If you don’t pull up your socks and get down to work there’s nothing they can do about it. Their most commonly used phrase abound this time is “I can’t do the work for you!” You almost begin to believe the unspoken, follow-on-statement “I would if I could but I can’t”. Thus the weight of the world merrily thuds down onto your shoulders and this ‘growing-up’ process, this ‘farewell to adolescence’ seems less and less attractive every minute.

All is not doom and gloom however, and whilst the negative side of growing up is alive and well, there is also another, more desirable side blossoming satisfactorily, if you look at the other side of the coin. You begin to notice the extent to which your family life changes. Apart from a few sensitive areas, you’re pretty much a free agent. Your parents no longer freak out if you leave the house for more than half an hour. You don’t ask them any more if you can go out, they ask you if you are! It’s not childish teenage disco’s you’re going to either – it’s pubs and nightclubs. For the lucky minority who are already 18, it’s not even illegal! The smoker who started smoking in national school suddenly realises that he’s no longer breaking the law. You can even legally have sex!

A whole new world of possibility opens out before you, and somehow, life doesn’t seem so bleak anymore. You don’t get asked what age you are going into the cinema! Your mother doesn’t wait until you’ve gone to bed to watch the video she’s hired out – unless of course it’s an “adult” movie of the coloured kind that you don’t really want to watch anyway. And definitely not with your parents! Another advantage is the summer job which provides money, but more importantly, independence. I personally HATE having to ask my parents for money, and if I do, I have to tell them what it’s for. When you’ve got your own money, you can do what you like with it and are answerable to no-one.

All in all, growing up has both advantages and disadvantages. The process is both rewarding and painful, joyous and sad. Luckily this transition must only be experienced once in every lifetime because being “stuck in the middle” is quite an awkward confusing time. Overall my ‘farewell to adolescence’ will be a thankful one. I’ll be saying my goodbyes happily enough!

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: