Are you stuck in Essay Hell yet?

The season is upon us.  Woot woot!

Finding a great topic can be challenging.

And then turning that into a written piece that sets you apart from other college applicants, and reveals your unique personality and character, even harder.

But let me show you a way to make the process simple, and effective.

Start here: Think of a time you faced some type of problem.

Don’t over think it.

Avoid trying to brainstorm one that was impressive.

Stick to something simple.

It could be as basic as…

The time you had an argument with your mom.

Or the time you borrowed your brother’s electric bike and crashed it.

Or the time you got obsessed with a board game.

Or the time you got a brush stuck in your crazy curly hair.

Or the time you forgot a huge order while working at a restaurant.

Or the time you lost a dog while pet sitting.

Or the time you got lost riding the public bus.

Or the time you sang in public for the first time and everyone laughed.

Other problem ideas?

A time you made a mistake. A time you had an obstacle to overcome. A time you faced a challenge. A time you messed up something. A time that a personal “flaw” (physical or emotional) caused an issue for you. A time you dealt with a change in your life.

Okay, so got something? Don’t worry if you don’t think it’s essay material.

The point of this exercise is to learn how you can spin almost any problem–big or small–into a compelling college application essay.

Here’s how it works in a narrative (story-telling) essay style, what is known as a slice-of-life essay about yourself:

FIRST: You share the problem–tell what happened. Write it out in a paragraph or two. Try to capture the peak of the experience or moment, and summarize the rest.

Just write like you talk. Simply tell the reader what happened, when, where, what, who, and why.

SECOND: Write a paragraph explaining how you handled that problem.

What did you do about it? Don’t worry if you didn’t solve the problem–most problems we only manage anyway.

Just say what steps you took. First you did this, then you did that, etc.

So you now should have 2-3 paragraphs. Don’t make them perfect. Just get it out.

THIRD: Take a moment to think about that problem and what you did about it. Time for some reflection.

Write a paragraph (or two) “looking back” at what happened to see what you learned.

You can even start with “Looking back, I now realize that…” if that helps you get going.

There’s no wrong or right here.

Try to explain what you think you learned from dealing with the problem.

Share anything that you used (mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, etc.) to manage that problem.

See if you spot a personal quality or characteristic that you used in this process. How did it help you handle the problem?

Look for any way that this experience caused a change or shift in how you think about yourself and the world.

What you are doing here is analyzing what happened, and taking a look at yourself so you can reveal how you operate in the world, and what experiences and values guide you–and most importantly, how you think and learn.

If a personal quality or characteristic bubbles up to the surface as you do this reflection, see if you can expand even more on it. How did you get that way? Has that personal quality or characteristic (aka “the way you ARE”) helped you in other parts of your life? Consider sharing those other examples.

For example, if you shared a simple problem you faced, and in reflection, see that you are a nurturing person, that could help bring a focus to your essay. In sum, your essay could be about how this personal quality (being nurturing) has helped define who you are.

college application essay


You start the essay by sharing “a time” you had a basic problem (challenge, obstacle, mistake, set-back, conflict, change….) in your life, and how your nurturing side helped you manage the problem somehow. In this reflection, you could weave in a couple other examples of times in your life that you used this quality.

In essence, you are making a case in your personal statement about how you are, at your core, and sharing and examining and explaining, your opinions and ideas on how you got that way (in this case “nurturing”), what you have learned about yourself as someone who is this way (nurturing), and how this has affected your life (the good and bad of being nurturing, though, mainly the good.)–and the big takeaway: Why this matters. Why does it matter to you, others and the world that you are this way (nurturing.)

Your quality could be any type of personal descriptor: nurturing, competitive, disciplined, bossy, patience, impatient, creative, insightful, witty, perfectionist, clumsy, …

This is a lot to take in at once.

But if you kinda get it, go back and read this again and go through the steps.

Force yourself to write out “chunks” of sentences about yourself in this order. Work quickly and sloppy is fine!

  1. Share some problem that happened to you.
  2. Explain what you did about it.
  3. Look back and expound on what you learned from that process–mainly about yourself.

If you crank out a decent “chunk” (a paragraph or two) for each of these, you will be pleasantly surprised to find yourself with a rough draft of a personal statement essay–perfect for the Common Application and other college admissions applications.

Of course, it’s rough. So you then go through the process of self-editing. Read it, fix what you don’t like, smooth your transitions, cut out parts you don’t need, correct parts that don’t make sense, add more ideas and insights if there’s room, support general statements with specific examples and details, etc.

Hopefully, you see how you can take almost any everyday problem and spin it into an essay about who you are. If you don’t love the problem you picked, keep brainstorming.

The best problems are those that are interesting to tell. Since that makes them interesting to read as well!

The cool thing is that most problems, when we tell them to others, are relatively interesting and even entertaining. THAT IS WHAT YOU WANT!!

This entire blog is packed with more information on this exact process, so keep reading. If you want a more thorough step-by-step guide, buy my book, Escape Essay Hell, or my online essay writing bootcamp course.

If you want to see how a whole bunch of students like yourself turned their problems into awesome essays, read some sample essays. Here are more excellent sample essays.

Okay, so no more excuses! Just pick a problem and pound out a rough draft.

Yes, it can be that easy!

Good luck!!