To write powerful personal essays, make it a habit to use your voice early and often
Immersing yourself in reading personal essays is a great way to develop range. The following sample personal essay was written by my former student Awa D. She is a truth-dropping 8th grader at The TEAK Fellowship, where I teach some of NYC’s most dazzling public schoolers who are hellbent on shaping their futures through education.
After reading Junot Diaz’s short story, “How to Date a Brown Girl, (Black Girl, White Girl or Halfie),” the students were prompted to write their own “How To ______” personal essays about something in which they consider themselves an expert or authority.
Awa wrote hers about being “that one black girl” at an interview for an NYC private school. She is observant, tough and tender, gentle in person, rigorous in word. Her personal essays have never shied away from the beauty or difficulty of being a person of color. Her family immigrated here from Mali, and she observes us all with special eyes.
If you want to know how to help students write awesome personal essays for college admissions, I say: just start them writing personal essays earlier. Teach the hot skills of observation and reflection, and let them practice til their hands, minds and hearts catch fire.
If you’re looking to help yourself get stronger at writing personal essays, I’d say: pay attention to your life, and write, write, write what you notice, about whatever feels like a little fire under your skin.
From Sample Student Personal Essays
How To Be That One Black Girl At An Interview–by Awa D.
This interview will make you wish you just had fresh box braids done at the local Fatima’s African Salon on 125th and Park Avenue. The itchy scalp, tightly added extensions that you had to take an Advil for, and chatter of 10 African ladies gossiping about the salon across stealing their customers would have all been worth it.
But no, you just happen to have cut your hair to a TWA–or Teeny Weeny Afro as they like to call it– and are now stuck watching YouTube hairstyle tutorials videos by Naptural85 and Jaelah Majette with your supplies set out in front of you. If you do not have the ECO Styler- Olive Oil Gel, drop everything and run to your local beauty supply store that’s always on their “closing day sale”- but never actually closes. Make sure to smile brightly for a greater discount. The man behind the counter will sell it to you for 7 dollars, but on a good day for 5. The night before your interview, experiment on that curly bush of goodness to come up with a style.
Knowing you will be too lazy to set out your clothes before bed, set the alarm on your freshly cracked iPhone for two hours before you need to leave. It should ring at 5:00AM and 5:05AM and 5:10AM. Don’t accidentally put 5:00PM– and yes, you will need that many reminders.
After a shower with the Dove Shea Butter Body Wash that won’t leave you looking like you walked in ash, move on to the hairstyle you chose the night before. No matter how bad the back of your hair looks, make sure the front is presentable.
After an hour of styling your hair, go to your closet. Stop with the act, you have so much clothes for a whole country to wear.
Pick out a nice black wrap shirt to pair with some black trousers, and blue Vans- for that pop of color.
To get approval, you might go with the outfit to your mom, though she would just shoo you away from blocking her view of the TV showing CBS 2 News. What, she would start, what are they saying? What is Trump do this time? Oh, that man!
You simply shake your head and go back in the room to put away the clothes on your bed.
Be careful not to wake up your siblings– disrupting their sleep is equivalent to starting World War III.
After eating breakfast, hop on the 1 Train uptown for 242nd Street- Van Cortland. When you reach your destination, you will accidentally take the Bx9 bus too far, so your already frustrated mom will have to hail a taxi.
After arriving at the school, flatten your pants and make sure you look neat. Judgement is easier made on you as a black girl than on anyone else.
Walk into the reception area with your mom behind you. Smile brightly at the lady sitting in the desk and introduce yourself. Don’t mind the stares of the other parents and students.
Take off your coat and sit patiently, waiting for the interviewer. Don’t touch your hair too much, you don’t want to mess up the gel.
Don’t fiddle around too much, either, seem confident. Fake it till you make it. There is nothing they love more than seeing us as cowards.
Soon the interviewer will come to get you. After you finish answering all the useless questions, make sure you also ask them questions. This shows you did some research.
After you come out of the interview room, your mom will enter. Don’t get too comfortable, because after a couple seconds the interviewer will come back out. Oh, she will say, I totally forgot about language barrier. Many people do this, it’s not strange at all— and laugh.
You just smile. There’s no point of me being in this room, you think. Soon, your mom will be speaking up perfect English while you just sit back.
After your interview, you will see the other parents and students. Some will smile, while others will just stare you down.
You just smile.
Cause you can’t be seen as an angry black woman. You can’t be seen as a danger. They shouldn’t push away from you.
On the train ride back home, you will be frustrated with the glances someone the people gave you. But you will soon just learn, this is life.
Awa writes that she is “Just a young girl living in the Big Apple, slowly learning to take advantage of her world. Goofy and loud, you can find me in the front of the line with all the short people.”
The Personal Essay Saturation Effect
Just let Awa’s essay sink in for a minute. Remember, she’s 13 years old, and she’s not afraid to put her experience into words.
Think about her last line, all the more so if her experience is radically different from yours: Is this life? Does it have to be this way? When do we learn the lesson, this is just how it is? THIS is just how WHAT is?
What’s really happening in Awa’s essay? What is left unsaid?
What is she interviewing for–really? Where do you see– if at all– judgment being passed on her? What does she assume the judgment is?
Write your own “How to _______” personal essay, about anything in which you consider yourself to be an authority. It does not matter what; it matters how.
If you like what you wrote and want feedback on this or other personal essays, or want to talk about creative ways to turn this into an application essay, contact us here.