The Best Way to “Show”
in Your College App Essay
When I started as a young reporter at my first newspaper job in Illinois, I was assigned to cover a half dozen small farm towns.
I didn’t think much would happen out there.
But after about a month, there was a gruesome double murder in one of the towns on my beat. (more…)
I love anecdotes.
Especially for starting narrative essays for college application essays.
They can take a little practice to compose, but what a deceptively powerful writing tool.
Actually, if you start almost any type of writing with an anecdote–from a college essay to a book report to a press release–your message will instantly rise and shine above other written messages competing for readers’ attention.
They are engaging, accessible and they have a wow factor. Even though you don’t mean to be impressive, people often think you are so creative and accomplished when you wield them. (more…)
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).
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
Sorry, Artificial Intelligence Won’t Save You
From the Dreaded College App Essay.
When I first heard about ChatGPT, and how this new artificial intelligence bot could write college essays for students, I thought, “Ugh oh, looks like my no one is going to need my services anymore” for help with their college application essays.
Apparently, the bot generates essays that can fool teachers and even Turnitin.com. Yikes!
Of course, the education world is freaking out. There’s talk of returning to pen and paper for essay assignments.
At the moment, the ChatGPT model by Open AI is free. So I tried it out.
(See below what it wrote when I entered: “Write a college application essay”)
My goal was to see if ChatGPT could write a viable college application essay.
Based on my results, it failed.
I’m excited to work with students this summer who get to attend the My Pathway to College pre-college experience in sunny San Diego. During the weeklong conference, which will be held on the gorgeous campus at the University of San Diego (the private liberal arts college; not to be confused with the University of California at San Diego campus), I will take students through the process of writing their college application essays.
We will start with my popular, interactive brainstorming exercises that help students find that magic topic to help their applications stand out among the pack. Then I guide them to craft narrative-style, slice-of-life essays that showcase their unique personalities and character.
They will practice the most effective writing techniques, such as anecdotes, to power their essays and bring depth and meaning. At the end, they will learn tips and advice on self-editing and polishing their work. The goal is that students come home with a completed personal statement essay (often known as the “CommonApp Essay,” which they can use with their Common Application and other college or university applications.
To me, one of the best ways to help students decide where to apply to college is to spend time on campuses. This conference goes one step further, and invites students to actually live at one of the top liberal arts college campuses with other college-bound friends, where they will live in student dorms and dine together.
I have had the pleasure of working with the sponsor of the conference, Jennifer MacLure, an independent college admissions counselor from My Pathway to College, in the past, and am confident she and her team will create an exciting, supportive and productive environment for her lucky students.
Check out the video (above) that she put together on this conference so you can learn more about it, and if it’s something you or someone you know would be interested. Good luck!
How to Background an Anecdote
(Includes 5 writing examples at the bottom!)
If you’ve done your homework on how to write an effective college application essay, you probably know the place to start is with your real-life stories.
The idea is to find moments, incidents and experiences from your past that illustrate a larger point you want to make about yourself in your essay.
Often, the best place to share an engaging mini-story (also called an anecdote) is at the very start of your piece.
The anecdote (mini-story) serves to “hook” or grab your reader’s interest at the start—something you always want in a standout application essay.
However, once you share that little moment, incident or mini-story (anecdote) that you have plucked out of time with little to no introduction, where do you go after that first paragraph or two? (more…)
What You Can Learn From
Michael Brown’s College Application Essay
I must have watched the viral video of Michael Brown learning he got into Stanford at least three times in a row.
Such a feat and well-deserved accomplishment for what seems like an all-around great kid!
Not only was Michael accepted to 20 of our top learning institutions—including Harvard, Stanford and Yale—but he got a full ride to each of them. As well as more than a quarter million dollars in scholarships. (more…)
Let Lynda Barry Help You Find and Tell Your Best Stories!
Try One of Her Awesome Brainstorming Exercises
If you’re starting to brainstorm that perfect topic to craft your dreaded college application essay, I have a new writing technique you might find helpful.
I’m big on tapping mundane topics to inspire essays.
That means writing about everyday or ordinary experiences as opposed to those that try to impress or wow readers (aka college admissions folks).
Mundane topic example: My obsession with karaoke.
Trying-to-impress topic example: The time I played the star role in the school musical.
See the difference?
Which would you rather read about?
So when I discovered the brilliant writer and cartoonist Lynda Barry recently, and saw she also taps the mundane in life to help her students discover their personal stories, I couldn’t wait to share her ideas with those of you on the prowl for college application essay topics. (more…)