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
My family left Nigeria in 1998. After winning the immigration lottery, my father sold his father’s lands and moved his pregnant wife and five children from the village of Umuele in Imo State to Detroit, Mich. I returned to our village nine years later and became the godfather to my uncle’s youngest child.
I gave him his baptismal name, Pascal. I went back for a second time at the beginning of August. When I arrived at our house, a child stood by the door staring at me. I met his gaze and he said, “Do you know who you’re looking at?” I shook my head. “I’m your godson.”
My godson, Chiedozie, sees the world as a simple thing. He believes that planes are small because when he sees them in the sky, he can fit them between his thumb and forefinger. He loves to ask questions, and he loves soccer. When I tell him that I played professionally, his eyes light up. Because I’ve done it, he knows that he will achieve his dream of playing professionally in the United States or in Europe. After all, I once lived in a village like he does, and he is as good a player as I was before I left.
There aren’t too many clocks or phones in a village, so one has to have a physical awareness of time. You have to know that the roosters come out at about 6 a.m. and that it gets dark at 7 p.m. during the rainy season. You need an innate feel for the passage of hours to function. Jet lag keeps you from feeling quite at home.
Unable to sleep, I would sit on the balcony at night and watch the August rain. Chiedozie always showed up carrying a soccer ball. He would sit, spin the ball in front of him, and ask me questions about my playing days. And he’d listen to the answers until the ball inevitably became his pillow.
Chiedozie believes in the absurd. Most villagers will live and die in the same social class and environment in which they were born. To make it to the big cities, like Abuja and Lagos, and live a better life than the one you inherited is to be an exception. To go beyond those cities, to leave Nigeria and make it to the Western world — by immigration lottery, as an asylum-seeker, or as one of the few soccer players to be discovered by scouts — is to be an exception. A miracle.
It’s hard to explain to a child that what he sees as destiny is mostly the product of luck and privilege.
My father worked to be a professional soccer player as a child, too. When he was studying and playing at Port Harcourt University, his father died. Because his two older brothers were also dead and he only had one older sister and a younger brother left, he became the man of the household. When he finished his studies, he packed up his dreams and returned to the village to take care of the rest of his family.
My father married, and both of my parents became secondary school teachers and then principals. One day my mother — pregnant with her fifth child — was walking to a women’s meeting with a friend who was rushing her. Her friend was in a hurry to deliver immigration forms to her family. My mother joked “oh, because I’m not your family is why you won’t give me one?” Her friend brought her one of the forms the next day.
The first form was lost, and the friend replaced it with her brother’s — who had filled it halfway and gave up in frustration. He had been denied a visa eight times before.
When the acceptance letter came, my father dismissed it as a hoax. Every year, millions enter a lottery to win immigration visas, and only a fraction of a percent win. It was only after a conversation with a friend who returned from the States that he understood what the letter meant. The man told my father that leaving Nigeria would be a personal loss but a greater gain for his children.
Because we already had cousins there and it had a big Nigerian community, we moved to Detroit in Sept. of 1998. Winter came as a shock. My father — wearing a long Raiders jacket given to him by our landlord — walked through the snow every night to stock inventory at Rite Aid. When he found time between work and exhaustion, he took us to a park in Dearborn to play.
My brother and I played soccer in that park with Mr. Sani’s kids. Mr. Sani was an immigrant from Saudi Arabia, and he soon became my soccer coach. He paid for my registration fees and bought me cleats because my father couldn’t afford to. He picked me up for practice and games, and when I was too worn out afterward, he let me sleep at his house.
I scored a lot of goals and won a lot of trophies. Some men representing professional academies asked my father if I could join their systems. My father told them no in his best first-generation immigrant and teacher voice: “He has to get his education first.” Angry at having my dream denied by my own father, I responded by declaring that I would never play soccer again. And from the age of 14 until college, I didn’t touch a ball.
At University of Detroit Mercy, I thought of other things — things like engineering, frat parties, and one Lebanese girl with eyes like stars. One day as I was walking my best friend to his track practice, we saw the soccer team going through preseason training. I told him that I was better than everyone on the team. He laughed it off. When I insisted, he asked me to prove it.
I went out that day and bought cleats. A few days later, I asked to train with the team, and I was a walk-on member by the end of the practice. (I would tear the cartilage in my right knee a few weeks into the season, and my life would go on to become an unending cycle of dribbling defenders and suffering injuries.)
When I was done with college soccer, I bounced around several semi-professional and lower league professional teams. While playing in Connecticut, an old coach messaged me saying that there would be European scouts at a combine in Chicago. I went and tried out, and I was offered a trial in Antalya, Turkey. It wasn’t until I was on the plane headed to Antalya that it dawned on me thatafter all these impossible things had happened, that I could make a life playing soccer.
After Chiedozie left with his ball/pillow on the third day, my uncle, Kyrian, came and sat on the balcony with me. He had also dreamed of playing soccer as a child. He played for his secondary school, for Port Harcourt University, and for a few semi-pro teams, but he wasn’t one of the lucky ones. The farthest he has ever traveled is to Lagos. He knows Europe and the States only from television and stories of those who have been.
We talked about Arsenal beating Leicester City, then Kyrian said to me, “football has always been my life. I knew that no matter what was happening, I could always just take the ball to the field and I would be happy.” I challenged him to a game of one-on-one for the next day and he responded, “The accident ruined my legs. You see the way I walk now; my legs aren’t good anymore.”
Last December, Kyrian was on the way to visit my older brother — who had come back on his own — when his car flipped over. His driver approached a curve too fast. Kyrian spent the early part of 2017 in a hospital and hasn’t touched a ball since then.
He asked me why I ultimately turned down a contract offer in Turkey. I told him that the athletic life was a prison to me. I wanted my life to be more than a regimen of training, eating, rehabbing, and working out while only sometimes playing a game. It took for me to reach the dream to realize that I wanted something else. He thought that I was crazy, but he understood to an extent.
I remember after Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, she ended her speech by saying that the award was an assurance to herself and children all over the world that “your dreams are valid.” She didn’t mean that all their dreams should come true. Chiedozie doesn’t have to become a soccer player, but he should believe in and work toward that dream. To dream is the most important thing. You have to dream big, because between the person you are and your ideal self is the person you will become.
Kyrian is the last son of my father’s sister. He has a wife who is pregnant with their second child. The first was stillborn. He runs a few businesses and is the stabilizing force in our extended family, which is to say that he is who everyone calls when they’re in need. When my father wanted to build a house, he wanted Kyrian to be in charge of it. When my mother’s father was sick, it was Kyrian whom she called to take them to the hospital. It was my father who called him to go attend to my brother when he went home.
But as important as he is to everyone’s peace of mind, Kyrian feels incomplete. After his accident, my brother visited him in the hospital every morning. In intensive care, he asked my brother to work with my father to help him leave the country. When I was at home, he asked me several times to work with my brother and father to help him leave the country. What Kyrian wants — more than for his legs to work as they used to, more than his health, more than anything else in this world — is a chance to be something more than he is.
Because my uncle never left the village, he had to deal with the truth of his ambitions. If his dream was only to be a soccer player, then failure would have been debilitating. He wants what I want: fulfillment. I achieved the dream he once had, but on that balcony, we longed for the same thing. The difference was that I have the privilege to pursue that fulfillment while he’s trapped where he was born. To Kyrian then, every passing minute in the village feels like a small death. On the balcony, he said to me, “I don’t want to die here. I want to be somebody.”
Kyrian told me the names of all of his friends who had chanced into an opportunity to leave. “Small kids” who had made something of their lives. They had traveled, worked, made money, and returned to build big houses. He named them as if he were naming his enemies. He said, “I need a plan.” Then he poked the left side of his chest, “because this, this is paining me so much.”