College Application Essays

How Anecdotes Make Them Work


One of the best ways to learn what types of topics make the most interesting essays is to check out what other students wrote about. Especially if those students had the right guidance and came up with unique, compelling ideas. Like, say, my students!

If you are new to this blog, I always encourage writers to find mini-stories (anecdotes) that they can relate in their essays to reveal and share their broader ideas, passions and values. I also advise them that everyday (mundane) topics work the best.

The idea is that an anecdote is a perfect “grabber” for an introduction, since it hooks the reader’s attention with a compelling mini-story.

It usually shares one moment or focused image, event or experience, using a fiction-like writing style.

Here are five topics that my students came up with last year. I tried to sum up their anecdote and then how they expanded that moment or experience into an essay.

RELATED: How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps

See if you find these helpful in understanding how you can use this format:

Anecdote: The writer described “the time” he hoisted himself up in a tree using ropes and his knot-tying skills, but got stuck.

Larger theme: He then wrote about how his passion for knot-tying reflected his ability to solve problems, using logic, patience and imagination.


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Anecdote: The writer described her lifelong obsession with the color yellow using descriptive images of various yellow items in her life over the years—from her dresses to bedroom wallpaper to her Beetle car.

Large theme: She explored how yellow expressed her positive outlook, but also how yellow illustrates her “insightful” side and ability to shine light on tough subjects.


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Anecdote: The writer—who was about 6’7” and about 300 pounds—described “the time” he sat around a restaurant table with sports teammates and how some players avoided him.

Larger theme: He wrote about how he dealt with people thinking he was a “mean guy” because of his size, and the nature of assumptions and stereotypes.


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Anecdote: The writer described “the time” he was riding around town with friends and spotted a trampoline someone was giving away for free, and the humorous lengths he went to to bring it home.

Larger theme: He wrote about how he loved old stuff and reclaiming discarded items, and expanded upon how and why he finds value in things that others don’t. 


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 Anecdote: The writer described some of the landmarks she saw during the weekly half hour car trip between her divorced parents homes over the years.

Larger theme: She used this image to talk about how she had changed and grown during these trying years, and how her perspective of the journey also changed. 




You might notice how all these examples took a simple moment or “time” and then developed it into something more abstract, metaphorical or figurative (ie, it stood for something deeper).

The trick is to start with something specific, like an anecdote, and then explain, reflect and analyze what it means to you.

This way you get both a highly readable essay that also reveals how you think and what you care about.

Ready to try this yourself? Learn how by reading How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps.