“Whoosh, whoosh.” Laura leaned back in her swing, pumping as hard as she could, her eyes squeezed shut. Maybe if she went high enough, she wouldn’t be able to hear what the girls over by the slide were saying about her.
That morning when she remembered that it was the first day of school, Laura was excited. She would wear her favorite shirt, and at recess she would jump double Dutch with Sara and Ava. Last year the three girls jumped rope almost every recess.
Then at breakfast Laura remembered that she was going to be in Mrs. Shepherd’s class again this year. Laura felt a fluttery feeling in her stomach. Mom and Dad said she needed to be a better reader before she was ready for fourth grade. Laura knew reading was important. But it was still hard for her to sound out some of the longer words.
Mom finished tying a ribbon around Laura’s shiny brown braid and gave her a kiss on the top of her head. “You’re so friendly and kind,” Mom said. “I know you’ll make friends. Maybe you’ll even find a golden friend.”
Laura hoped Mom was right. But then she remembered a little song she knew: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, and the other’s gold.” Didn’t that mean a new friend could only be silver, not gold?
When she walked into Mrs. Shepherd’s room, Laura looked at the pictures of students on the bulletin board. She recognized most of the girls from recess last year, but there were a few faces she had never seen before. Laura sat down in her old desk and opened her reading book. She turned to one of the stories at the back. The words seemed a little easier to read than they were last year.
When it was time for recess, Laura checked out a jump rope from the equipment closet and hurried outside. She saw Sara and Ava standing by the slide with another fourth-grade girl. Then Laura heard her name and the words held back and dumb. The girls laughed. Laura thought Sara and Ava would look at her, but they kept talking to the other girl.
Laura’s face felt hot as she ran to the swings. She dropped the jump rope, sat down, and began pumping with all her might. A few hot tears rolled down her cheeks. After a little while, the feeling of flying up toward the sky and back down again made her feel a little better.
Laura opened her eyes. Someone was sitting on the next swing over. It was one of the girls she didn’t know from Mrs. Shepherd’s class. She had a kind face, and she was looking at Laura in a friendly way.
Laura dragged her foot to stop her swing. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Laura.”
“I’m Christy,” said the girl. “I heard what those girls were saying. But don’t worry. You’re not the only one.”
“What do you mean?” Laura asked.
“Last year in my old school I missed a lot of days because I was sick, so I’m in third grade again too,” Christy said.
“It’s too bad you were sick, but I’m glad you’re in my class,” Laura said. Then she smiled. “Do you know how to jump double Dutch?”
Christy smiled back. “No, but I can bounce a basketball while I’m jumping.”
Laura jumped off her swing. “Maybe we could learn to jump double Dutch and bounce a basketball at the same time!”
Laura’s heart felt happy. Maybe a new friend really could be a golden one after all.
Here’s a tip: Choose a topic you really want to write about. If the subject doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to the reader. Write about whatever keeps you up at night. That might be cars, or coffee. It might be your favorite book or the Pythagorean theorem. It might be why you don’t believe in evolution or how you think kale must have hired a PR firm to get people to eat it.
A good topic will be complex. In school, you were probably encouraged to write papers that took a side. That’s fine in academic work when you’re being asked to argue in support of a position, but in a personal essay, you want to express more nuanced thinking and explore your own clashing emotions. In an essay, conflict is good.
For example, “I love my mom. She’s my best friend. We share clothes and watch ‘The Real Housewives’ of three different cities together” does not make for a good essay. “I love my mom even though she makes me clean my room, hates my guinea pig and is crazy about disgusting food like kale” could lead somewhere
While the personal essay has to be personal, a reader can learn a lot about you from whatever you choose to focus on and how you describe it. One of my favorites from when I worked in admissions at Duke University started out, “My car and I are a lot alike.” The writer then described a car that smelled like wet dog and went from 0 to 60 in, well, it never quite got to 60.
Another guy wrote about making kimchi with his mom. They would go into the garage and talk, really talk: “Once my mom said to me in a thick Korean accent, ‘Every time you have sex, I want you to make sure and use a condo.’ I instantly burst into laughter and said, ‘Mom, that could get kind of expensive!’ ” A girl wrote about her feminist mother’s decision to get breast implants.
A car, kimchi, Mom’s upsizing — the writers used these objects as vehicles to get at what they had come to say. They allowed the writer to explore the real subject: This is who I am.
Don’t brag about your achievements. Instead, look at times you’ve struggled or, even better, failed. Failure is essayistic gold. Figure out what you’ve learned. Write about that. Be honest and say the hardest things you can. And remember those exhausted admissions officers sitting around a table in the winter. Jolt them out of their sugar coma and give them something to be excited about.
10 Things Students Should Avoid
REPEATING THE PROMPT Admissions officers know what’s on their applications. Don’t begin, “A time that I failed was when I tried to beat up my little brother and I realized he was bigger than me.” You can start right in: “As I pulled my arm back to throw a punch, it struck me: My brother had gotten big. Bigger than me.”
LEAVE WEBSTER’S OUT OF IT Unless you’re using a word like “prink” (primp) or “demotic” (popular) or “couloir” (deep gorge), you can assume your reader knows the definition of the words you’ve written. You’re better off not starting your essay with “According to Webster’s Dictionary . . . .”
THE EPIGRAPH Many essays start with a quote from another writer. When you have a limited amount of space, you don’t want to give precious real estate to someone else’s words.
YOU ARE THERE! When writing about past events, the present tense doesn’t allow for reflection. All you can do is tell the story. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. Some beginning writers think the present tense makes for more exciting reading. You’ll see this is a fallacy if you pay attention to how many suspenseful novels are written in past tense.
SOUND EFFECTSOuch! Thwack! Whiz! Whooooosh! Pow! Are you thinking of comic books? Certainly, good writing can benefit from a little onomatopoeia. Clunk is a good one. Or fizz. But once you start adding exclamation points, you’re wading into troubled waters. Do not start your essay with a bang!
ACTIVE BODY PARTS One way to make your reader giggle is to give body parts their own agency. When you write a line like “His hands threw up,” the reader might get a visual image of hands barfing. “My eyes fell to the floor.” Ick.
CLICHÉS THINK YOUR THOUGHTS FOR YOU Here’s one: There is nothing new under the sun. We steal phrases and ideas all the time. George Orwell’s advice: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
TO BE OR NOT TO BE Get rid of “to be” verbs. Replace “was” in “The essay was written by a student; it was amazing and delightful” and you’ll get: “The student’s essay amazed and delighted me.” We’ve moved from a static description to a sprightlier one and cut the word count almost in half.
WORD PACKAGES Some phrases — free gift, personal beliefs, final outcome, very unique — come in a package we don’t bother to unpack. They’re redundant.
RULES TO IGNORE In English class, you may have to follow a list of rules your teacher says are necessary for good grammar: Don’t use contractions. No sentence fragments. It’s imperative to always avoid split infinitives. Ending on a preposition is the sort of English up with which teachers will not put. And don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction like “and” or “but” or “because.” Pick up a good book. You’ll see that the best authors ignore these fussy, fusty rules.Continue reading the main story