A student who I will call Ryan arrived for his tutoring session yesterday, and showed me what he had written for his English class.

His essay started with how he worked with Habit for Humanity and a trip he took to work with Native Americans.

Oh no.

Not the old mission trip essay.

Way too overdone. Usually dull as dirt.

So I suggested we start fresh.

Example of One of My Tutoring Sessions


I asked Ryan to jot down some of his defining qualities.

He wrote down conscientious, reliable, consistent and relaxed.

I noticed that several of his qualities overlapped, so I asked him about his sense of responsibility—fishing for his interesting stories, moments or small experiences that could “show” how or why he is “a responsible guy” in his essay.

“Was there a time in recent years when you were not responsible, and it maybe even got you in trouble?” I asked Ryan, trolling for “a time” we could use as an anecdote (mini-story) to start his essay.

He thought about it, and quicker than I expected, he said, “Well, when I forgot to water my dad’s plants.”

Bingo! Shazam! Yippee!

I’ve been doing this long enough that I can usually spot a great topic when I hear just an inkling of one.

(I’m confident you can tune your own ears to great topic material. Just pay attention to what catches your interest. Hint: problems, or when things go wrong.)



Like a lot of moments like this, Ryan’s story only got better as we dug for details. His father had gone on vacation, and assigned Ryan certain responsibilities while he was away.

Ryan was supposed to care for his dad’s tropical fish, maintain the hot tub chemicals and above all, water his beloved plants.

To help the reader get why it was such a huge ordeal, Ryan had to help us understand how much his dad cared about those plants. Again, we dug for details.

Turns out, his dad is a passionate gardener, and grows all types of rare tropical plants in his yard.

He gave Ryan explicit instructions on how to water and even feed his prized plumeria trees, as well as tend other plants.

Then the big question for Ryan. What happened? How did you forget?

“Well, there was a really big swell that week…” he said. “I surfed every day, all day, came home and slept, for the entire week. I spaced the plants.”

You almost have to live in a beach town with a surf culture to understand what this means.

Surfers can only surf if there are waves, which isn’t always. So when the wave patterns (swell) are huge, as in “Surf’s up, Dude,” even the most responsible people ditch their jobs (or school or college application essays…), grab their boards and hit the water.

I thought to myself, “Great, that’s the last thing we want to show colleges–that Ryan is one of those ‘flaky’ surfer guys.” But I knew this was a terrific, mundane topic, and true to Ryan.

 (I’ve written a lot about how mundane, ordinary, everyday topics–such as dead plants–make better topics than those that sound impressive.)

Not to mention, can’t you just wait to hear about his dad’s reaction?

Yes, it was bad.

The dad wasn’t the type to rage and yell, but instead delivered seething lectures in a calm voice that made Ryan want to crawl into a hole.

But do you see how sharing a problem (which happens to line up perfectly with Common App Prompt #2?) makes us instantly relate with Ryan and want to read more? This empathetic connection is exactly what you want with your essay.

Now Ryan is perfectly set up to go onto to share how he reacted to this problem, and what he learned from it.

The fallout couldn’t have been more perfect (at least for Ryan’s essay). Ryan said that his entire life his dad had emphasized being responsible the most. Ryan said he always told him, “Work first, surf second.”

Can you see the larger life lesson here, which Ryan learned the hard way? It’s really a case of learning priorities and the old universal truth of putting “First Things First.”

Ryan even said that his dad, a successful entrepreneur, had two brothers and that both uncles were surfers and both now worked for his dad–something that made more sense to Ryan after this incident.

Apparently, those guys still put surfing first.

Ryan said he now works hard to put first things first, including chores and homework. He even earned back his dad’s trust, and was put in charge of plant watering again just last month, and everything survived this time. (This last fact was a perfect way to wrap us his essay–coming full circle with his topic.)



When Ryan reflects in his essay on this mistake, and what he learned from it, he will include all these great details, observations and insights.

I think one of the most powerful features of this essay is how we can all relate to what happened to Ryan, and that gives his essay a huge appeal. It’s all about connecting with the reader.

I wanted to share this process with you since this is how I work with students to discover engaging topics, and help them learn to present them in a narrative style essay.

I have a mini-version in my Jumpstart Guide post, and I take students step-by-step through this process in my ebook guide, Escape Essay Hell! (available here on my Web site or at Amazon.)

This is not the only way to write a great personal essay, but maybe it can help you get started!