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The Personal Essay Leaving Cert

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:

When an interest becomes an obsession …

The adrenaline is pumping through my veins, as that familiar rush I have grown to love so much engulfs me once again. I notice that the ripples alongside me in the water begin to swell just as my helm screams ‘Gust!’ and I lower myself carefully down on the wire. I feel the icy-cold sea spray and splash against my legs. We have to win this one, we simply have to. It is the final race of the afternoon, and from our results so far – our first and second placings over the past few days – we need it to ensure our winning title. We bear around the windward mark and I am back inside the boat in a flash, forcing the spinnaker pole out as my helm hoists the sail. By the time the third sail fills we are truly flying! Now I am in my element ...

It is said that a person never forgets their first real experience of sailing alone in a boat and I can personally vouch for this. I was introduced to the water from a young age as my family always opted for sailing holidays in either Ireland or France, and consequently I have always thought of myself as a ‘sailor’. So when my father finally agreed, after persistent nagging, to let me join our local sailing club on my tenth birthday, I couldn’t wait to get started. But my excitement quickly waned as having been used to one-on-one training with my dad, I found this to be very different. I was in a fleet of ‘Oppies’, small boats for mostly beginners. I am almost ashamed now to admit how much I hated it at first. There were times out there on that wild, freezing sea that I felt a profound sense of terror and wanted to be anywhere but alone in a boat in those conditions. But I persevered, and as I became a more confident sailor everything changed. I remember well the year I got my second Oppy, only this time it was fiberglass, not wooden. It was white with a pale blue rim and had the word ‘Oops!’ written in bubbly red writing along the side. It was a magnificent vessel and it wasn’t long until losing became a thing of the past for me. I can’t remember how many times I passed the finish line to be greeted by someone singing Britney Spears’: ‘Oops I did it again’. I think that it was around this time that my addiction started.

It is true that once you really become passionate about any sport or hobby, it becomes a kind of addiction. You crave it and find it hard to think of little else. There have been so many times on returning to school after an entire summer of non-stop sailing, that I have little else to talk about. My friends have learned not to bring up the topic unless they’re prepared to listen to me rambling on endlessly, recalling my numerous maritime adventures. To be fair, they usually listen patiently, although I know that either half the time they have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about or else they try to understand but it’s me that gives up trying to explain it to them. Those Septembers are always the worst. All of us sailors seem to cling together in the hope of a sailing date at the weekend, making promises to ourselves that we’ll bring our boats back down to the club as soon as we can for the autumn season, but it is only the dedicated diehards who survive the winter. It is often a whole year before I see some of them again as there are always those who only want to sail in the fair-weather summer months. Although admittedly winter sailing isn’t as pleasant, with the bitterly cold seas of February and the icy winds blowing in your face, the upside to it are the warm dinners and hot chocolates waiting to be consumed back in the club. Another positive is that the inclement weather during these winter months greatly improves people’s boat-handling skills, so that when those summer sailors return in June, it is clear whose confidence has grown and whose has not.

Sailing is not like many other sports where you simply pick up a racket or a stick and either get the hang of it quickly or soon realize that it’s not for you. With sailing there is so much you must learn before even setting foot in a boat. There are so many safety measures and checks to be done, and regrettably too often we hear about people who have been critically injured simply because they didn’t take the necessary precautionary steps. I have so many stories of incidents that have occurred over the years. I remember on one occasion passing an Olympic sailor who had badly injured his leg and, with no rescue boat around for miles, we took charge of getting him to safety. On another occasion we got a radio call telling us our friends’ boat had been washed up (both crew members fortunately unharmed!) miles away from where they had started out. Initiative is always essential in these situations. But it is because of this, not despite it, that sailing is such an interesting sport. Every day is different, the weather is never the same, and one never knows what might happen next.  

Sailing is one of those sports that you need time, money and energy. Often people say that all you need is money and more money to sail, but in my opinion time and energy are equally as important. There are many truly dedicated sailors who may not be competitive or wealthy but nevertheless still really enjoy what they do, fixing up boats with old parts and just simply pottering around. When a person is doing something they love and enjoy, they will give it their all. Another common misconception is that you can just pop into a boat and off you go, but it’s so much more than that. The number of hours and energy spent off-water, packing and unpacking boats, de-rigging and re-rigging them, does nothing to deter the dedicated sailor. People who don’t understand this, and can never be convinced, tend to resort to mockery, but to be honest it doesn’t really bother me anymore; if they’re not interested then they are the ones losing out in my opinion. I have never found anything more enjoyable than being out on the sea on a windy day. There’s nothing more satisfying to me in life than a smooth running boat, cleaned and rigged up to perfection, and, of course, that adrenaline rush that pumps through my veins every race day …

It is here I am in my element, out on the wire, busy stretching to fill two sails. I can sense we have this race in the bag as we round the gybe mark skillfully. We are at least five boat lengths ahead by the leeward with only our last beat to the end remaining. Nothing can stop us now – nothing! And when that blaring horn confirms our victory, as we sail triumphantly across the finish line, it is the greatest feeling in the whole world.