College Application Essays

In Search of an Anecdote


Just yesterday, one of my tutoring students, a high school junior, wanted help on her English assignment: To write a practice college application essay.

One tip from her teacher was to tell a story. (I first explained to my student the important difference between telling a story and using an anecdote.)

After a few minutes brainstorming, we honed in on the topic of how she values the relationship with her “little sister,” who was really the daughter of her mom’s boyfriend.

The mom and boyfriend had recently broken up, and my student was going to share how she intended to maintain this special friendship even though it would be very difficult from now on.

I asked her to think of some examples of her close friendship with her “little sister.”

She said they loved to laugh together.

I asked if she could think of an example of “a time” when they shared one of these silly moments. I was fishing for a “moment” or “time” that she could use as an anecdote to her essay.

This is how you find anecdotes: Look for real-life examples that illustrate or demonstrate a point you want to make.

RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One

She told me about a recent visit to a restaurant where they shared a laugh together.

I asked her for details–where were they, what happened, how did they react, etc.

She needed to set the scene, and start the description of that moment right in the middle of the action, instead of building up to it.



Here’s the anecdote she crafted to use as the introduction to her essay:

While waiting for our blueberry pancakes and omelettes to arrive, my little sister decided to pick up one of her crayons and toss it at me. Instead of hitting me, it flew past the side of my head and hit a man sitting behind us at another table at our local IHOP.

My sister’s blue eyes flew open. “Oh my God,” she mouthed at me, her hand covering her mouth. Fortunately, the man didn’t seem to notice, but we both doubled over laughing. We had to bury our faces in our sleeves so no one would hear.

(After anecdote, she shared background) It was just one of the typical silly moments that we have shared together since I first met Molly Bowen almost six years ago. She is the daughter of my mom’s longtime boyfriend. Even though she is four years younger than me, we hit it off the first time we met. I even call her my sister.

In the rest of her essay, my student would go back to explain when she first met her “little sister” and talk about their friendship, other things they enjoyed doing together, the impact of their parent’s break-up, how she felt and thought about it, what she had learned from it, etc.

How To Craft an Anecdote

If you are going to try an anecdote in your essay, here are some of the common elements that my student used in hers—and you can use them in yours, too. My student:

  • told about one experience, which only lasted over the course of several minutes. Most anecdotes only capture a little moment in time.
  • chose a moment that was an example of the larger point of her essay. In this case, this moment showed us the type of silly interactions that seal their friendship.
  • set the scene using descriptive language and details (blueberry pancakes, IHOP, crayon); and told us the 5Ws (who, what, when, where, and why).
  • included a little snippet of dialogue to give it a fiction-like style.
  • described a moment that had some action, and involved a problem (the crayon hit a stranger) to create drama.
  • wrote in the first-person (I, we, us).
These are not easy to write. They take practice. The best way is to write out an account of the moment, and then go back and try to trim it down to a paragraph or two, leaving only the details that you need to recreate the moment. One of the best ways to learn how to write anecdotes is to read them. A great source are newspaper and magazine articles, especially feature stories, and other sample college essays.
RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One
I tried to find a good example online and this little classic anecdote from a master humorist and memoir writer, David Sedaris, popped up. He wrote this as the introduction to a piece he wrote in The New Yorker magazine, called Turbulence.
I thought it was funny that it was similar to the little moment that my student used in her anecdote! (Note that this is how he starts his essay.)
On the flight to Raleigh, I sneezed, and the cough drop I’d been sucking on shot from my mouth, ricocheted off my folded tray table, and landed, as I remember it, in the lap of the woman beside me, who was asleep and had her arms folded across her chest. I’m surprised that the force didn’t wake her—that’s how hard it hit—but all she did was flutter her eyelids and let out a tiny sigh, the kind you might hear from a baby.

See how his anecdote uses all the same elements that my student’s did? Starts in the middle of the scene, lets us know the 5Ws, includes a little action, is an example of the larger point (if you read the entire piece you will see this), and describes a moment that only lasts a minute or so. And that they both were funny sure never hurts when you are trying to “grab” your reader!


David Sedaris
RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One