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West Vancouver Grade 9 student wins New York Times essay contest

Ashley Zhang’s ‘How to befriend an introvert’ was one of 11 essays selected from thousands of entries
Collingwood Grade 9 student Ashley Zhang found out she won a New York Times essay contest while she was at school on Tuesday. | Paul McGrath / North Shore News

If you’ve ever seen someone sulking in the corner of a party, or just being quiet, you might have made the mistake of thinking they’re an introvert.

“Once you understand that introversion is just a preference for solitude rather than a fear of social interaction, you have already figured out introverts better than most of the population,” writes West Vancouver high school student Ashley Zhang in a winning essay chosen by the New York Times.

Her piece, How to befriend an introvert, was one of 11 winners chosen by the world-famous newspaper out of more than two thousand submissions in a “how to” essay contest for high school students.

Zhang said she decided to enter the contest after an argument with her mom about whether she was better at science or essay writing.

“So I was just searching for any competition and came across this, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s fun,’” she said.

For her topic, Zhang said she wanted to write about something relatable, and initially chose “how to stop procrastination." But soon she scrapped that idea and turned to introversion as her subject matter, with the aim of correcting misunderstandings about the personality type.

“I guess that one related to me more,” Zhang said. “I had one of my classmates be the quote-unquote expert for me. And then, it was a very fun process to keep writing about.”

After writing a first draft, she showed it to one of her teachers at Collingwood School, where Zhang is a Grade 9 student. She got some feedback, re-wrote the entire thing and finished it just before deadline in February.

Last week, Zhang got an email from a contest co-ordinator at the New York Times, telling her she was a finalist and checking some facts in the essay.

Then Zhang didn’t hear anything until her principal came to her class on Tuesday to say that a reporter from the North Shore News wanted to interview her about the winning essay.

“I was really surprised – like, wow,” she said. “I guess I never really expected that to happen.”

Zhang said she’s done a lot of writing: short sci-fi and fantasy stories in particular. “But this is the first time I actually did something more formal.”

While her mom conceded to being wrong in the dispute over her daughter's writing ability, Zhang said she learned something from the experience too.

“If you have an idea about something, it’s best that you share it,” she said. “Just because you’re misunderstood … doesn’t mean you have to stay that way.”

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