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Teacher Tips and Answers

Writing a Personal Essay

After listing events on a time line and gathering different details about them, you are ready to write your personal essay. But a personal essay is more than a chronological list of events. It is a true-life story with you as the hero, so you need to build it like a story. The activities on this page will help.

Writing the Beginning

The beginning of your essay has a number of jobs:

  • Catch the reader's attention
  • Introduce the character (yourself)
  • Describe the setting (time and place)
  • Create conflict

You can click on the side notes of this excerpt to see how the sample student essay does all of these things in a compact space:

Catch Attention Winter wouldn't let go. Tired gray snow clung to the curbs. Tired gray clouds clung to the sky. The lion of March still prowled, growling its storms and hissing its sleet, and Introduce Character I wondered why Mom ever chose to move to Wisconsin.

Create Conflict A job. I got it. A break-up. Yeah. Life happened. She started over, and so did I. Again.

Describe Setting This time, I changed schools mid-semester, which meant I lost half my credits and had to play catch-up in every class. I knew nobody and didn't have any real desire to make friends. How long would we be here? I trudged to school and trudged home and sat in that gray apartment flipping through Snapchats to see the full-color lives of my friends back in Florida.

"I'm taking a second job," Mom told me one night. "So I won't be home most evenings."

This excerpt catches the reader's attention by creating an intriguing mood. You can experiment with other opening strategies.

Write the beginning.

Experiment with strategies for capturing the reader's interest. Use the examples below for inspiration. Then develop a beginning that introduces you, describes the setting, and creates conflict. Make a copy of this Google doc or download a Word template.

  1. Start in the middle of the action.

    A lump in my throat, I grabbed a script and took the stage in front of a theater filled with strangers. Old strangers. How did I wind up here?

     

  2. Use interesting dialogue.

    "If you get cast in this show, you're going to have to swear. Onstage. Loudly."

     

  3. Pose a fascinating question.

    Do caterpillars know what they are doing when they entomb themselves in a chrysalis, or do they just figure they've finally gone crazy? I felt slightly crazy when I buried myself in two months of rehearsals for On Golden Pond.

     

  4. Make a startling statement.

    Sometimes guts are smarter than brains.

     

This lesson is a part of the Writing Personal Essays unit.

Click the title to view more information about this unit and a full list of lessons that are included.

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