Personal Essay Samples Leaving Cert 2016

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.

Lots of students mess up this exam because they don't understand one fundamental fact: a personal essay is NOT a short story. So what are the main differences between them?

  • Evelyn O'Connor: Personal Essay vs Short stories

    Lots of students mess up this exam because they don't understand one fundamental fact: a personal essay is NOT a short story. So what are the main differences between them?

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1. A personal essay is always written by and about you – a teenager who lives in Ireland, goes to school and hates having to do the Leaving Cert. A short story can have anyone as the narrator – a rally driver, a model, an inanimate object, a frog.

2. A personal essay can roam across your entire lifetime, including thoughts, opinions, hobbies, anecdotes, quotes and ideas. A short story, on the other hand, has a specific setting, a limited number of characters and usually happens over a very short space of time.

3. A personal essay reflects on life, the universe and everything. A short story has a tight plot, character development and generally ends with a twist.

If you are asked to write a personal essay and you write a short story instead, you will be excommunicated from the Church of Leaving Cert English and can never again worship at that temple. Or at the very least, you'll do really badly in the exam.

Tips for writing personal essays:

1. If you don't find yourself interesting then how can anyone else? You need to think about what it is that defines you as a person, what marks you out as different, unique, special. The reader needs to want to get to know you.

2. What events from your distant and more recent past stick out in your mind? Sometimes seemingly insignificant events teach you something unexpected or funny or profound about life. These are the moments that are worth recounting to reveal your true personality to your readers.

3. What are your passions, hobbies and interests in life? The quirkier, the better. Every examiner is fit to vomit when they see yet another essay on your desire to be a premiership footballer or the next X Factor winner (yawn!). Remember, personal essays reveal your uniqueness so anything that makes you sound like every other teenager on the planet is not worth including.

4. Are you opinionated? What issues do you feel most strongly about? Religion, politics, education, history, science, space travel, global warming, human rights, celebrity culture, technology? Do you have any areas of specialist knowledge? Is there any way you can work these into your essay?

5. Who are the people you find most fascinating in life? They don't need to be famous but they do need to be worthy of our time if you're going to write about them.

Plan in advance. Organise your ideas. Use some of the following techniques:

* Quotes from bands/singers, writers, philosophers, 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 that 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. Students tend to be pokerfaced and overly serious in the exam, then you meet them in real life and they're a total scream but somehow they didn't manage to get this across in their writing. So sad ;-(

* Hyperbole – take the truth and exaggerate it. Make your writing dramatic.

* Observations about life, love, and lemonade. Here is your chance to muse about everything.

* Identify problems and offer solutions. Don't be a Moaning Myrtle!

Sample question: "Imagine 20 years from now you win a prestigious award and everyone wants a piece of you. Write a personal essay describing how you became the person you are today (2034)"

Elsewhere, see Donal Ryan's personal essay on how he became a writer.

Short Stories

I think it's incredibly challenging/completely unfair to ask anyone to write a really engaging, original short story in one hour and 20 minutes. As well as writing descriptively, the three elements which must be present are plot, setting and characters.

Please avoid melodrama. I've read stories where characters get shot, escape in a speed boat, rescue a kitten from a burning building and then get diagnosed with cancer, all in the space of three pages!

Stories should provide a slice of life, not the plot of a three-hour movie. The titles also tend to be very specific ('write a story about a reunion', 'write a short story in which a young person is eager to leave home'), so writing a pre-prepared short story in the exam has become less and less of an option in recent years.

Descriptive Essays

The new kid on the block is the descriptive essay, which appeared on the exam papers in 2011 and 2013. I see it as a great option because it requires a descriptive style but doesn't insist on the plot and character development that a short story demands.

You can write about one single event or about a series of different events that are tied together by a common thread. The 2013 essay title asked students to "write a descriptive essay based on a variety of glimpsed moments".

A sample descriptive essay is provided to the right. Just one word of warning: it is probably a little on the short side.

For the exam, your composition (whether it's an article, a speech, a personal essay, a short story or a descriptive essay) should be around 1,000-1,200 words. Obviously, quality is always more important than quantity but anything fewer than 900 words will leave the examiner feeling that you just haven't written enough for them to really judge the quality of your writing.

Fragments from a Lost Weekend

Even as I leave, I know there is the funeral. Even as I climb into our cheap convertible, and the rain comes down and the roof goes up, I know. You have been a good friend, even though our lives are so busy now we are sometimes like strangers. You have been a good friend, and now your dad is dead.

The road is long and windy and wet. The Wicklow hills call from the far coast, and in between the car is stuffy and hot to keep the windshield fog off, and I shuffle to get comfortable and try not (for my dear driver's sake) to nod off. But I have never been good with staying awake, and, besides, although I talk for Ireland, a passenger seat is the one place I get lost in my thoughts, climb into my self and am silent, then asleep ...

I jolt awake with a smack to the head, and the sound of a smile in my ears. We cannot have my head collapsing on him as he drives our cheap convertible with no airbags. We cannot have it. So I fight the battle with my eyelids who go on strike so often I think of hiring a crane to prop them up. The light is green tea and amber now, the trees form a canopy. A light mist has replaced the rain and sleep rises from me as contentment settles down.

We pass a house with horse-head pillar stones, and a lady with squeaky wipers, and a three-legged dog ambling along, and he drives me deeper into the heart of nothing. We have other friends who need us this weekend, it's all arranged. Unlike the funeral, and I've been told that up the North they do things strange, it can take longer for the carcass to be primed and changed into 'the corpse'. So we leave you to your death and carry on with life somehow, though really it's not all that difficult, which seems both logical and wrong.

Hours later, my legs are danced to jelly, my throat is raw. The rain ricochets off the roof of our stuffy tent, insistent staccato beat, but I still fall asleep. Sleep and dream of water. Sleep and dream of swimming in a lake of milk, then fire, as a heat between my legs wiggles forth.

Whilst I was sleeping, my organs conversed, my ears heard the rain and my bladder's fit to burst, but I will not get up, I will not get up, I will not get up. I lever open one eyelid, and my claustrophobic-self bursts roaring from her cave. Canvas too close to face, no air, no air, trapped, suffocating. I rip open the tent flap, devour space and air hungrily. Resolve: tomorrow we will be there for you.

Morning dawns bright and beautiful. We have a long drive ahead. We put down the roof, become part of the landscape, which begins with billowing smoke. A woman with a cross arm planted on her hip. A dead badger. The Bent Elbow Hotel. Then a lake. Two men in a mint green rowboat. Those weird white wind-spinners on the hill. A man on a scooter with a red helmet. A buttercup yellow sun smothered in Vaseline, smeared across the sky. Life's minutiae thrill and happiness comes in starburst moments.

Even as we arrive, we know there is the funeral. Even as we climb out of our cheap convertible, and the sun beams down and the roof goes back up, we know. Remind ourselves: Your Dad is Dead. We wait for the service to end. We wait for the queue to dwindle. We wait to take you in our clumsy arms. Your eyes are so lost. Your pain is so real. Your sorrow wraps its hands around my throat. All I can see is a black cat stalking through an empty house, but no clever image can transform this dead man into a dancing corpse. It's over.

A deep sadness settles on your soul, never to be removed.

Evelyn O’Connor, Mount St Michael Secondary School, Claremorris, Mayo

Irish Independent Supplement

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