College Application Essays
Fun Reads to Inspire your Storytelling Skills
Nothing helps you channel the style and voice of narrative writing than reading it. Writers, like Cupcake Brown, are masters of telling true stories in a fictionalized style. This is what you want to do in your college application essay–tell your stories. As you read any of these recommendations, notice how they bring everyday moments to life using sensory details, strong verbs, scene-setting descriptions and dialogue. Listen to their voices, and see how they write like they talk.
Here are some of my favorites. Most are on the lighter side (except A Piece of Cake and The Glass Castle) so they are also great for the beach, poolside or any lazy summer day:
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed.
If you want to write about an adventure, nature or grief.
The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls
If you want to write about your crazy family.
Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
If you want to write about a personal flaw (eg., a lisp), dogs, the French, almost anything.
Tender at the Bone, Ruth Reichl
If you want to write about cooking or following a passion.
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? Mindy Kaling
If you want to write about your fears, opinions, romance or pop culture.
Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand
If you want to write about animals, racing, training or gambling.
Drop Dead Healthy, by A.J. Jacobs
If you want to write about health or a personal goal.
Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer
If you want to write about religion or family pressures.
Bossypants, by Tina Fey
If you want to write about coming of age, feminism or personal hang-ups.
Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt
If you want to write about gender, sexuality or a unique town, city or place.
Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Erhenrrich
If you want to write about a job, working or life struggle.
If you are interested in some other excellent non-fiction books, here are a few narrative masterpieces that are on the heavier side:
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
Hiroshima, by John Hersey
The Best and The Brightest, by David Halberstam
The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean
Almost anything by John McPhee, Joan Dideon, Anne Lammott, Tracy Kidder and Tom Wolfe.
If are you ready to tell your story, check out my Jumpstart Guide and posts about how to find a great topic, tell a story and write an anecdote.
For a step-by-step guide to writing a college admissions essay, check out my new ebook, Escape Essay Hell!
It’s the end of August and I can feel the tension among parents, and their college-bound seniors, starting to build. It’s great they are thinking about their college essays and future schools. But the rising stress levels can actually harm their ability to find the right school next fall.
I’m no college counselor, but as a parent of a college sophomore and a high school senior, I found a couple of guide books that helped me put the crazy process into perspective.
The first was called “Colleges that Change Lives.” (Click this link to go to their super helpful web site!) The author basically highlighted small liberal arts colleges that were under the radar and all had strong academics, a clear sense of purpose and a friendly student body. He was all about finding the “right fit” for students, as opposed to pushing them into the most prestigious school they could get into or afford.
Another book with a similar theme and balanced sense of mission is called, “You’re Accepted.” (Click this link to view short video of author-and yoga instructor!-Katie Malachuk, talking about the college application “journey.”) It’s about keeping a focus on the “whole-life” and overall “peace of mind” of students, and keeping the process in perspective for the long-run.
A third title, which I haven’t read but comes highly recommended by reasonable parents I know is called, “Harvard Schmarvard.” Again, it’s about finding the right fit for the student instead of worrying about what is the most impressive school to name-drop to your friends.
I have mentioned these titles before, but these are my three favorites:
There are a jillion of these how-to books on the market, and all have helpful things to say. However, the advice in these books is spot-on, and they include helpful sample essays and are inspiring to read. Both are available at Amazon.com and are inexpensive.
Reading sample essays is one of the best ways for students to get ideas for topics for their own essays, as well as get a feel for the more casual style and tone of these pieces. I also believe both authors do a good job of taking some of the pressure off these dreaded assignments. The Harvard collection also includes wonderful analyses at the end of each sample essay.
Here’s a little book of essays written by graduates of Berkeley High School, which has a truly diverse student population and moves through about 700 seniors every year. (“As you will see from these stories, some live on their own, while others come from well-off families,” states the foreword.) And they all found compelling stories to tell about themselves. The essays, which targeted mostly California state schools, UCs and select private colleges across the country, were collected for this book by a savvy college counselor there named Ilene Abrams.
The book includes the name of the authors of each essay, along with what year they graduated and where they ended up going to college. It’s clear that these students were well-counseled in the process, since almost all the essays met the goal of their advisors: to tell a story “only you can tell.” The stories are rich in details, as diverse in topic, style and tone as their writers, and most tell some type of story. The best thing is that I believe they can help students see that they could write a similar essay!
In case you can’t read the title in the image: The Berkeley Book of College Essays: Personal Statements for California Universities and Other Selective Schools, compiled by Janet Huseby.
And I have to mention my own collection of stand out college application essays: Heavenly Essays.
Roy Peter Clark was a famous writing coach when newspapers started directing their reporters to tell the news through a story-telling format in the late 70s and 80s, a genre called New Journalism and made famous by Tom Wolfe.
(The main difference between New Journalism stories and your college essays is that your stories are told in the first person, as opposed to the third person. It’s all narrative writing.)
Here’s a link to his 50 tips, and podcasts: http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=78&aid=103943
My favorite tips, when it comes to writing college essays, are numbers 1, 8, 9, 10, 14, 20, 21, 22, 24, 32 and 34.
(With each podcast, Clark elaborates on the tip with examples and further insights–if you have the patience and are a good listener. I’m getting the book!)
I remember wanting to improve my writing in high school, and feeling frustrated by all the “tips” in the popular how-to-write books: “Be concise,” “Use action verbs,” and the all-popular, “Show, don’t tell.”
OK, but how do I write better?
Later, I came upon one writing book that made a little more sense, called “Writing Down the Bones,” by Natalie Goldberg.
Here is what she said about “Show, don’t tell,” that helped me:
“‘Don’t tell, but show.’ What does this actually mean? It means don’t tell us about anger (or any of those big words like honesty, truth, hate, love, sorrow, life, justice, etc.); show us what made you angry. We will read it and feel angry. Don’t tell readers what to feel. Show them the situation, and that feeling will awaken in them.”
And she goes on: “Some general statements are sometimes very appropriate. Just make sure to back each one with a concrete picture. Even if you are writing an essay, it makes the work so much more lively.”
One great way to “show” readers is to be specific with your writing and use details! I talk about how to be specific when writing your college application essay in this post.