Secrets of the Personal Essay

Secrets of the Personal Essay
'How many times have you been in love? Talk about relationships: Who? How long? Where? How old were you?' 'Describe something that you tried one time that you would never try again, like drugs.' These questions will not appear on your TOEFL test. They were in training materials for English language teachers. Are you surprised, as I was, by the highly personal nature of these questions?
Here is a personal question that really could appear on your TOEFL test: 'Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Television has destroyed communication among friends and family. Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.'

Such a question puts you at a disadvantage. In school you learned academic types of writing, not how to write about yourself and family relationships. Maybe nobody ever asked you for your personal opinion, either at home or in school.

Your first reaction when asked about whether television destroyed communication in your home or between friends, for example, might be that you are angry. After all, 'destroyed' is a word highly charged with emotion. It might prompt you to remember that your older brother only wants to watch sports, and he controls the TV set. You can never watch the programs you want to see. But why would you want to complain about your brother while taking a test? Also, you may have been raised never to talk with outsiders about what goes on inside your family. So what are you supposed to write?

One strategy is to re-think the question in order to find a more emotionally neutral way to approach it. You might decide to avoid the highly charged issue of who controls the TV set in your home. You might focus instead on the benefits and disadvantages of technology, using cool, neutral words.

For example, you might say that when the TV first arrived in your home, communication decreased, because everybody wanted to watch TV. But now, when you want to talk with family members or friends, you use a cell phone, a form of technology that makes communication more mobile.

We are not required to limit our viewpoint to our initial emotional reactions. We are always free to take a wider and more inclusive view of any subject under discussion. With this in mind, learn to distinguish the connotations of words. Some words, like 'destroy,' are intense, implying the presence of danger. Other words, like 'decrease,' are emotionally cool and neutral. Words have positive, negative, and neutral connotations. Electronic dictionaries do not usually provide the connotations of words.

Another strategy for improving your personal essay is to prepare a simple story in advance. This involves looking up and memorizing vocabulary words for at least one essay of 300 to 350 words giving a straightforward, objective personal opinion on a subject of your own choosing. You will need to learn more vocabulary words that describe the inner feelings we all share as human beings. But you are never required to say anything that would make you uncomfortable. You would use your story as a template, pattern, or form to manage personal essay questions.

If asked on an exam about your affectionate relationships, for example, you might write about how your favorite aunt gave you a camera for your birthday; how you could not be parted from it and carried it everywhere you went. You might remember how in middle school you joined the music club and fell in love with the flute, the drums, or the piano. You might write about how you learned to cook, collecting recipes and baking cakes, puddings, and pies. You might write an essay about your pet dog or cat. You might write about your love of sports and how you won a trophy in a competition.

Lastly, read essays written by published authors. Observe how they start off sentences with 'I think,' 'I feel,' or 'my opinion is.' Starting a sentence with 'I' is called making an I-statement. Writing this way takes practice, especially if your sentences do not usually begin with the word 'I.' It is important that you read how other people have used I-statements to express their thoughts and feelings.

It is true that you must become better at giving your own opinion on a variety of subjects in order to pass the TOEFL test. But you will never be required to embarrass yourself in order to prove your proficiency in the English language!

The personal essay section comes at the end of the day, when you might be tired after many hours of test-taking. Prepare well in advance, and I am sure you will sail through the writing section of this test with flying colors!

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