Skip to Main Content
UWCSEA Libraries Logo

Writing: Finding Your Voice: Start here

Intro to personal essay writing, aimed at Grade 11 students


"Finding Your Voice" is a workshop that gives Grade 11 students the chance to practice writing in a personal essay format. It was designed for small groups, but can also be valuable for self-directed individuals who follow the program.

The goal is develop an authentic writing voice in preparation for university admission essays, internship and job applications, etc.

Ground rules:

  • Must be prepared to write for a good part of the hour; no homework.
  • Must be prepared to share their writing with others in the group -- and learn to give and accept critical feedback.
  • Must respect confidentiality of personal information shared during the workshop.
  • Attend all sessions.

Students will create and use one Google Doc as a writing journal for the workshop, which they can share with their University Advisor.

Workshop Techniques

Free writing: Writing whatever comes to mind (stream of consciousness) without bothering about grammar or spelling.  Look for stories, images, patterns, tensions, contradictions, messages, questions, metaphors, parallels, etc.

Goldmining: Identifying "gold nuggets" -- compelling words, details or passages from a free-write.

  • What was cool?
  • What sticks out?
  • What do you remember?
  • What do you want to hear more about?

Show, don't tell: The principle of avoiding abstract statements.  Finding a significant moment to describe which will reveal the self.  The 3 "U"s: Unusual details, unexpected twist, and understated tone.

Openings: Hooking the reader from the start.  This includes the title.

"Heartbeat": The quality that reflects the writer's genuine voice and self, shows personal growth, and is revealing.

Message: The lesson or point of the story; opinion; should be able to be articulated in one or two sentences.


(Culled from a number of sources online)

Peer Review / Feedback


Read text on each other's laptops

Read text via shared Google Docs / Folder

Read your own text aloud

Have someone else read your text aloud and you listen

Tell a story and have someone else scribe it

Record yourself telling a story and listen to it before trying to write it

Questions to ask

  • How well did the writing stay in the moment?
  • Did it show, not tell?
  • What was the message or theme or point of the story?
  • Ask a friend, did this sound like my voice?  Can you hear me speaking?
  • Ask an acquaintance, have you learned something important about me?
  • Constructive feedback: two roses and a thorn, a compliment sandwich, grounding comments in the text, being specific
  • Common mistakes
    • The "my grandma" essay
      • Spending too much time describing a person rather than indicating her influence on you. Instead, answer who are you now because of her.

    • The "my service trip" essay
      • Too much time simply narrating an experience.  This essay looks the same as others who went on the trip.  Instead, answer why did you want to go in the first place and how were you changed as a result.

    • The "hard race" or "big game" essay
      • Avoid simply showing your perseverance or effort.  Everyone applying to selective colleges works hard.  This cannot be your defining intellectual attribute.

(Culled from a number of sources)

Misc Writing Prompts

1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.  
2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.  
3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?  
4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
6.  Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom. 

7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?  
8. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?

(taken from the University of California site)

You might also want to see some "bizarre (but real)" application questions here

The University of Chicago is also famous for their unique essay questions. Even if you aren't interested in UChicago, you may enjoy some of these prompts!


Writing is a muscle. Smaller than a hamstring and slightly bigger than a bicep, and it needs to be exercised to get stronger. Think of your words as reps, your paragraphs as sets, your pages as daily workouts. Think of your laptop as a machine like the one at the gym where you open and close your inner thighs in front of everyone, exposing both your insecurities and your genitals. Because that is what writing is all about.

--  McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Better Than You Normally Do


Session 1 - Introduction to Free-writing


Warm up: 3-word responses writing 


Please respond to each of the following in one sentence or less; a single word may suffice. These questions have no right or wrong answers.

  • Describe yourself in three words or less
  • Favorite food
  • Favorite fictional character
  • Greatest invention of all time
  • What do you like to do for fun?
  • Role model
  • Favorite book
  • Best movie of all time
  • Favorite musical performer/band or composer
  • Dream job

Activity: Free-write for 15 minutes -- about anything.  


[If in a group, sharing & goldmining.] 


Writing process reflection - write 150 words or for 5 minutes about your writing process today - what you liked, what you found difficult, what you learned.


Session 2 - Free-writing about your Family / Finding a moment


Warm up:  Generate 10 story ideas about your family.  Choose one that you would like to write about and underline it.  Free-write for 15 minutes about your underlined idea.  


Activity:  Identify a significant moment in time in your story and underline it - now free write for 15 minutes only about that moment.


[If in a group, sharing & goldmining.] Revise.


Writing process reflection - write 150 words about your writing process today - what you liked, what you found difficult, what you learned.


Pick a photo, or other evidence of a significant person significant event, your favourite memory and ensure you have it available for next session.

Session 3 - Show, Not Tell


Warm up:  On the right in the box "Real Life Examples" are links to US colleges that have published admissions essays that worked.  Go browse a few essays and look for examples of where students used the "show not tell" technique - from the list of links to "College Essays That Worked" on this page.


Follow up with 5-minute Free-Write -- on anything.


Activity:  Using your photo as a prompt, write for 15 minutes about a significant person, moment, or experience. Be sure to include a sense of time and space, as well as emotional and sensory details.  The most important element is include its IMPACT ON YOU.


[If in a group, sharing & goldmining.] Revise.


Writing process reflection - write 150 words about your writing process today - what you liked, what you found difficult, what you learned.


Session 4 - Focus on you / Expressing the impact 


Warm up:  A series of 5-minute conversations in pairs on the Common Application writing prompts below.


After the conversations, discuss:

  • Which of these topics did you find the easiest to discuss?  Why?
  • Which of these did you find difficult?  Why?
  • Which of these prompts did you want to continue talking (or writing) about?

Activity: Choose a prompt below (taken from the current Common Application Form in the US) and write for 15 minutes:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Optional:  Later at home, choose to experiment with one of these wilder writing prompts (actually used by some US universities - see source here):
  • "Where is Waldo, really?"
  • "Celebrate your nerdy side"
  • "Think of things that fascinated you when you were 10 years old--what has endured?"
  • "A package arrives at your door. After seeing the contents you know it's going to be the best day of your life. What's inside and how do you spend the day?"

[If in a group, sharing & goldmining.] Revise.


Writing process reflection - write 150 words about your writing process today - what you liked, what you found difficult, what you learned.

Session 5 - Focus on academics / Insight Questions


Warm up:  5-minute Free-Write -- on anything


Activity: Choose a prompt below:


  • Describe your interest in, and suitability for, your chosen course of study at university.
  • Describe your academic interests and/or professional goals. 
  • Given your understanding of a liberal arts education, please discuss how you will engage academically at college.
  • How do you plan to use your [course of study] degree to benefit society?

OR choose a U California Insight Question from the sidebar and free write for 15 minutes.  Repeat as time allows.

[If in a group, sharing & goldmining.] Revise.

Writing process reflection - write 150 words about your writing process today - what you liked, what you found difficult, what you learned.

Session 6 (Optional) - Revision, revision, revision / Sharing & Celebration


Warm up:  Short-answer brainstorm (taken from a NYT article). These might inspire some free writing that will get you thinking.

  • What invigorates/inspires/angers me?
  • What do I wish we talked or learned about in school?
  • What are my most strongly held opinions and where do they come from?
  • What are the differences between how I see myself and how others see me?
  • What pieces of my life transform my thinking (whether I want them to or not)?
  • What ideas fire me up just when everyone else is cooling down?

Activity: Pick your best piece of writing over the course and revise it (around 650 words).


[If in a group, sharing & goldmining.] Revise.


Reflection on workshop: Write 200 words about how this workshop has gone for you, what you gained from it and how it could be improved.

15-Min Timer

Writing Support

About Writing

Image Credits

Inkwell designed by Adrian Park from The Noun Project

Further Brainstorming Activities

Exercises from Post Secondary Plan Assignment

What Do I Love/What Do I Know

Take a few minutes to list as many things that you love.  Next, take a few minutes to list as many things that you know (can be anything).  Once you have generated two lists, take a look at this Values page and identify 10 things that you value.

Now you will have things you love, things you know about and a list of your top values.  As you look at these lists, see if you can attach your values to your "love list" and your "knowledge list" in a web/ mind map form.  For example, someone could say that they love video games but what values can we associate with this?  Perhaps we can attach values such as competition, community, working with others, adventure, friendship, intensity etc.  Once we have created some values mind maps, themes may emerge about what we could write about that correspond to meaningful things in our lives.  Pick one word web and do a 15 minute free write.  

Memory Islands

In the film Inside Out, 11-year-old Riley holds several islands of personality in her brain. These islands were created from her past core memories, experiences, interests, and passions. Positive and negative core memories create these islands that make up our personality or sense of self. Watch Clip Here.  What are your memory islands?  Can you look at one or two of your memory islands and do a 15 minute free write about the island?

Essence Objects

Let's pretend that we had a large box in this room. Today, I would like you to fill this box with ten objects that have meaning to you.  The objects should be very significant to your identity.  List the ten objects.  Look at the objects in the box and see if a theme emerges.  Pick one of the objects or a theme and do a 15 minute free write.