I confess: I love anecdotes. These are basically when a writer shares a mini-story about a real-life moment or experience. Usually, they are plucked out of the past, and presented without much introduction. Their power is that they draw you into a story, or college application essay, by starting with a punch of drama. Anecdotes make awesome introductions.

The key is to get as close to the action as possible. I’ve written tips and advice on how to write anecdotes, but thought I would try to model an example. They seem so simple when you read them, but they are harder than you might think to craft. The trick is to practice, and study how other anecdotes are put together. The most common place to find them is at the start of longer newspaper pieces or magazine stories, or of course, personal (narrative) essays.

I advise students to search their past for “times” or incidents or experiences that happened to them, which they can use to start their essays to illuminate something (quality, characteristic, talent, etc…) about themselves. I thought about my defining qualities way back in high school, and one was that I wanted to be adventuresome.

So here is a “time” when I was trying to be adventuresome. Like all good stories (including mini-stories like anecdotes), the best ones involve some type of problem. My problem in this case was that we were about to get in trouble.

Here’s what happened if I just tell it to you straight, as in describe it to you. Then you can compare how I re-wrote it in a more story-telling or fiction-like style to craft it into an anecdote. I’m hoping this will help you learn to convert your real-life moments or experiences into anecdotes:

I had just spent the summer after graduating high school waiting tables at a lodge in a National Park in Wyoming, and decided to hitchhike home with a friend to St. Louis, Missouri. (This was in the late 70s, when people still hitchhiked–although it was pretty stupid even then. So I do not advise this mode of travel.) Anyway, a guy who gave us a ride in Montana (we were up in Glacier Park) told us a hot tip: We should hop a freight train east. It would be a lot easier and more direct, he said.

At the time, all I thought about was how cool that sounded—and totally ignored how dangerous it could be. He told us to meet a friend of his who tended a corner bar in a tiny town, called Havre, and that guy would help us figure out the trains. The bartender told us to go to the train yard early in the morning (like 4 a.m.) and pick one of the longer trains heading east, and to get in a car closer to the engine (less bumpy.) So we did, and it was totally scary in the pitch dark around all these parked giant trains, and eventually climbed into an open freight car and tried to hide in the corner (There was no “hopping” involved.). At one point, a train worker found us, but for some reason didn’t kick us out. We road that train all the way to Fargo, South Dakota.

Ok, now I will extract an anecdote out of that “time,” and try to start as close to the “drama” or highlight of the action or tension or conflict or problem as possible. (This “moment” is from the sentence in bold above.) This is one way to write it:

Crouched in the far corner of the darkened freight car with my friend, I buried my head in my knees and waited. It had been almost an hour and the train had yet to budge. Then I heard the footsteps, which sounded like boots on gravel, that grew louder and louder.  They stopped abruptly, apparently right outside the open door. I squeezed my eyes shut, but still could tell when something, a flashlight or lantern, was illuminating our car. I held my breath. To my relief, the footsteps started again.

“Evening folks,” said a deep, soft voice, before the footsteps faded into the distance.

(Back Story) That terrifying night last summer, when I hopped my first freight train on my way home after a summer waiting tables in the Rocky Mountains, was one of the most frightening times of my life, but at the same time, part of an adventure that taught me how much I was willing to risk for a free ride….We had started out hitching hiking, but then…

If you are trying to put together an anecdote about one of your experiences or a meaningful moment from your past, start by writing it out straight like I did, just recounting what happened. Then you can extract the details that you need to tell it like a story. Identify the moment closest to the action or excitement. Find the best details that describe the setting. Where were you when it happened? Who were you with? What happened? What did you hear, smell, touch, etc… How did you feel? Include a piece of dialogue–from someone else or even quote your own thoughts–to give it that narrative feeling.

One tip is to make sure to put yourself right in the middle of the action. Notice how I started by describing myself “Crouched in a the far corner…” Begin by saying where you were, or what you were doing, then go from there. This is often a great way to get started. You want the anecdote to be from your point of view, right at the center of the action.

At first, your anecdote might run long. If so, just go back and trim out anything that you don’t need, but leave the details to help it make sense. You will flush out the “back story” or larger context later in the piece.

Like I said, these take practice. But they are very powerful writing techniques. There’s no better way to put the reader in your shoes, and feel your pain, or thoughts or emotions. It’s the perfect way to help them care about you and what you have to say right off the bat. And this is what you want with your college application essay!






Oops. Not again! We are talking about supplements for college application essays. Not vitamin supplements. Geez!

Even though supplemental essays usually are short—usually a paragraph or two—many students are stumped on how to structure them. Or on just how to start or end them.

In general, since they are so short, you don’t have to get fancy. Jump right into your points or answers. Be direct, but include details and specific examples.

Here are a couple ideas to help you get going. These are for the most common supp: “Why you at our college?” or “What will you contribute to our college?” or “Why do you want to go to our college?” My last post, 10 Tips to Power Your Supplemental Essays, can help you find great information to include in these short essays.

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Oops. Wrong SUP. We are talking college application essay supplements here. Haha.

I just gave a workshop on how to write college supplement essays to a group of college-bound students yesterday, and wanted to share some of the advice and tips on how to make them stand out. We talked mainly about the most common supplement prompt you will find this year: Why you at our college?

On applications, this prompt is stated in a variety of ways, from asking you to tell them why you are a fit, or what you will bring or contribute to their school, or just why you want to go there.

This prompt, though tiresome, is worth spending time on, especially for your top pick schools.

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The middle of August is when I first notice a dramatic spike in visitors to Essay Hell. A few students get that early start on their college application essays at the beginning of summer, but the majority seem to wait until now through fall.

I thought I would try to offer some encouragement to any student just diving into the process by extending a hot deal on my guide books. I’m offering all three of my ebook guides for $9.99. Usually they would cost more than double that. (Sorry, this deal doesn’t apply to paperback copies, which only are available on Amazon.)

So if you are ready to hunker down and start, this might be your big chance. I would suggest that you first skim through some of the sample essays in my collection of student-written personal statements from Heavenly Essays. This will give you an idea of what a narrative essay is all about, and also spark ideas for your own topics.

Then I would go through my 2014-15 Prompts Primer to get an understanding of your essay prompts, and strategies on how to find your own topics. Finally, I would read Escape Essay Hell, and systematically go through each step. It’s a short book, and before you know it you will be ready to crank out your own drafts, edit them and BE DONE WITH THIS!! And quite likely on your way to getting into some awesome schools. (For those of you who still need extra help, I also offer private tutoring in person or via Skype.)

Besides reading my guide books and posts on this blog, I also would suggest scrolling through the comments and answers from students under the posts about specific college application essay prompts, especially those on The Common App and University of California prompts. (Find them in the Topic Index on the right sidebar.)

Good luck! No more excuses! Just start!


Parke Muth, a veteran college admissions counselor and writer from Virginia, interviewed me recently about my opinions and advice regarding college application essays. I thought I would share the interview, which he featured on his own highly informative blog

It’s long, but I think it’s packed with a lot of great advice–if I don’t say so myself. Muth, who is a former Associate Dean of Admissions for the University of Virginia, knows the in and outs of the admissions game, and as a creative writing expert also understands more about college app essays than almost anyone else in the industry. In other words, he tossed me great questions, and even lobbed a few provocative ones!

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When you write a college application essay, you want to “grab” the attention of your reader from the start. My favorite writing technique to hook readers is to engage them with an anecdote, which is a real-life moment or incident.

You might have already written your essay, and not noticed that you have one of these magical anecdotes down low. Chances are you started your essay telling about yourself in your essay, and missed the opportunity to reach out and grab your reader with a real-life anecdote that illustrates your point.

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I watched this inspiring trailer video today about students from Stockton, California, who are learning to tell their stories using both poetry and investigative journalism (digging up facts.)

Since the economic downfall starting in 2008, their city turned into a virtual ghost town, leaving most teens with few resources and little hope. But with the help of some poets and investigative journalists, they found a lot to say and we all need to hear it.

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For more than five years now, I’ve encouraged students to write their college application essays using a narrative style. Sharing true-life stories to reveal your personality, character, interests, dreams and goals is the best way to tell about yourself in a personal essay.

Until recently, many “college experts” directed students to write more formal, academic essays. But now many  also are championing slice-of-life essays—which is great!

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college application essays


To help kick off the college admissions “Season,” I’m offering my new collection of inspiring college application essays–Heavenly Essays–for under a buck. Yup, you can download an ebook copy from this blog, and start reading right now, for just 99 cents.

Just enter the Discount Code: 99EssayCollection before you hit “Buy Now.” (Limited offer good through Wed., June 18.)

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Over the years, I’ve heard almost every imaginable complaint and concern about writing college application essays. Like most common fears, they are almost all in your head.

That doesn’t mean they don’t feel real. But if you can realize that a lot of your success will depend on not psyching yourself out, and staying calm and focused, you can then get to work.

Find a great topic. Map out a writing plan. Pound out a rough draft. Before you know it, you will have a knock-out essay!

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