College Application Essays

A Mini-Lesson from a Storytelling Pro


I found this brilliant little example of how to understand what makes up a good story today in a column written by the talented sportswriter and journalist named Tommy Tomlinson. If you are writing your college application essay, and want to use the narrative style to tell a “slice of life” story or use an anecdote, this mini-lesson can help you a lot. Tomlinson wrote: “First, I’m gonna draw three objects.


photo-6   This is a sympathetic character. It’s probably someone you like, but at the very least it’s someone you’re emotionally invested in. You care what happens to this person. (In your college application essays, this person is almost always you–unless you are writing your essay about someone else.)
photo-7   This is a hurdle. It’s an obstacle of some kind — could be a bad guy, could be a physical challenge, could be some sort of internal emotional demon. (In my Essay Hell blog, I call these “problems.” Same thing.)   photo-8   And this is the pot of gold — some kind of goal, some kind of reward, physical or emotional or whatever. (It can be as simple as dealing with your problem.)

story is the journey of this character you care about (yourself), confronting and dealing with this obstacle, to reach this pot of gold. In addition to these three pictures, you need to answer two questions:

1. What’s the story about?

2. What’s it REALLY about?

Here’s what I mean.  What the story’s about is literally what happens in the narrative — who this character is, what goal he or she is trying to reach, what obstacle is in the way. The unique set of facts. What the story’s REALLY about is a way of saying, what’s the point? What’s the universal meaning that someone should draw from this story? What’s the lesson? (What did you learn in the process of dealing with your problem?)

Think about the first Rocky movie. What’s it about? It’s about a no-name boxer in Philly (sympathetic character) who gets a chance to fight the champ (obstacle) and goes the distance (pot of gold). He doesn’t win the fight — they saved that for Rocky II. The goal isn’t always the ultimate prize. Sometimes the goal is completing the journey. Proving you can go the distance is a worthy goal in itself.

But what’s the movie REALLY about? In a larger sense, the obstacle is not Apollo Creed. The obstacle is Rocky’s own self-doubt. The goal is making something of himself, not just out of pride but so he can prove himself to Paulie and feel worthy of Adrian’s love.

Why is that second layer of meaning important? Because not everybody is a professional boxer. But all of us have doubted ourselves and had other people doubt us. All of us have had the universal feeling of knowing that going the distance is a victory in itself.

That’s what makes stories matter: when you read or watch or hear a story about a total stranger, in a completely different world, and you recognize that story as your own. Stories connect us as human beings. In fact, they’re part of what MAKES us human beings.”

Hope this helped you start to think about your own stories. If you want a fast and simple guide to finding and telling your own “slice of life” story for your college application essay, consider my book, Escape Essay Hell!.