I recently received an email from a student named Daniel Ryu, who is a sophomore at Harvard University. Daniel said he was stressed out his senior year of high school during the application process and had found my blog helpful. He offered to share what worked for him. No matter where you are aiming to get in, I would listen closely to what Daniel has to say. Obviously, it worked!
Here’s Daniel’s guest post:
4 Tips for the College Essay
So you’re a high school senior or maybe even a junior; the thought of applying to college has been on your mind for some time. It seems that every moment of your high school career has been building up to this point. Your GPA is mostly set and you are already involved in all the clubs and extracurriculars that you will ever join, at least in high school. There is now one thing that stands in your way. The college essay. read more…
A couple weeks ago, I shared on LinkedIn a New York Times column about “annoying, overused and abused” words from 2013, and asked a group of college admissions experts for the most common offenders they found in college application essays.
The idea is that when you are editing a draft of your essay that you can try to spot words that don’t work, whether they were over-used, inaccurate, unnecessary, redundant or even not a word. And improve your essay.
When you first sit down to pound out your first draft, however, don’t even worry about what words you use. Just get it all out. This list is mainly for the process of self-editing, when you re-read your work and make changes to improve the clarity, flow and meaning. read more…
Many students have trouble finding their “voice” while writing college application essays.
One of the biggest problems I see is that students want to sound smart and impressive, and they often lose their natural story-telling voice by forcing in big words and long, formal sentences.
Most students understand the narrative voice when they read it, but have a hard time capturing their own.
I always advise students to “write like they talk,” but this can be hard to do.
Here’s a technique I use to help them capture their natural language to use in their essays.
This is hard to do alone, but if you can rope someone else into helping you—a friend, teacher, college counselor, tutor, parent, etc.—it can be so helpful. read more…
If your essay starts by relating something that happened, the reader is going to dive right into it and not stop until they are satisfied–until they know what happened.
With all those early decision-type deadlines closing in at the end of this month–and regular college application deadlines not far behind–I can feel the energy out there.
Students are writing essays like mad, but many are still wondering if theirs are any good.
Here’s one way to check if your college admissions essay it will engage your reader: See if something happened.
If not, good chance it’s a snoozer.
If you shared a problem, you most likely relayed something that happened. That is all good stuff! read more…
The University of California CHANGED its essay prompts for 2016-17.
Learn about the all-new requirements by clicking HERE!
THIS POST IS OUTDATED!
How to Describe a Place
in a College App Essay
If you are applying to the University of California, you need to write two college application essays.
I wrote about how to Describe the World You Come From three years ago, explaining how to think about the first prompt and brainstorm ideas for your essay.
It would help you to read that advice first, then come back.
This time, I want to give you some ideas on how to SHOW the world you decide to write about when describing the setting of your world.
Since in the UC essay your world will be some type of community, I believe you might need to describe where you experienced it. In writing, that’s called the setting.
If you want a powerful essay, you will use descriptive language, sensory details and specific examples to help us see your world. read more…
A smart dad sent me an email recently asking how college-bound students could work in related achievements and accomplishments into their personal, narrative-style essay, without sounding like they were blowing their own horn.
It’s definitely a fine line. Students write these first-person essays as part of the application process to convince colleges to admit them.
How can they not strut their best stuff?
The whole challenge reminded me of humblebragging.
If you live on a different planet (or don’t use social media) and haven’t heard of this word for phony humility, it’s basically the fine art of boasting about yourself and making it sound like an accident.
The trick is to cloak your bragging with other comments, which make it seem as though the impressive part just kind of slipped out.
The more subtle, the better.
Did I mention how much my hand hurts from signing copies of my new book? read more…
I already featured this list of my favorite books on how to write essays–narrative-style, “slice of life,” personal essays–at the end of an earlier post. These are exactly what you want to write for your college application essays. (Don’t let anyone talk you into writing a stiff, formal academic style essay for your college admissions essay!) I didn’t want you to miss them in case you want to learn more about how to write in this style.
Needless to say, I also believe my own guide on writing college application essays, Escape Essay Hell!, has great advice on writing these essays, because it’s specifically geared toward helping students find unique topics, and then write them using this story-telling style. But I drew many of my ideas from these other guides. When it comes to writing, you can never learn enough. read 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. read more…
College Application Essays
Yes, You Can Go Too Far
This is great.
However, I think students should be careful of trying too hard to showcase their creative writing skills.
Rather, I believe they should put those creative writing tools to work to write an engaging, meaningful essay.
There’s a difference.
Some people think creative writing is a goal in itself.
They think it’s when a writer gets kind of wild, breaks the conventional English language rules, and cuts loose with what they have to say and how they say it.
The essays start to read more like rambling poetry.
The goal of a college application essay is not to create a “piece of creative writing.”
Instead, the goal is to use creative writing techniques to express yourself better. read more…
College Application Essays
Humility Goes a Long Way
Many of the students I work with are from privileged backgrounds. (Hey, it’s expensive to hire a tutor!)
They live in affluent communities, go on extravagant vacations and enjoy pricey hobbies and activities.
There’s nothing wrong with being privileged (a humble way of saying wealthy or rich).
But when you are writing about yourself in your college application essay, and want to come across as well-adjusted and likable, it helps to know if you are.
That way, you can make sure you don’t include topics, or comments, in your essays that might imply that you are spoiled, snobby, materialistic or entitled (think that you deserve more than others). read more…
College Application Essays
How to Write An Anecdote About Almost Anything
Before one of my college application essay writing workshops yesterday, I skimmed over some of the rough drafts the students had written last semester for their English classes.
The writing was solid, the ideas strong.
Yet the essays were all on the dull side.
If only someone had taught these kids how to use anecdotes, I thought.
They are the ultimate writing technique for Showing (an example) rather than Telling (explaining) about a point you want to make.
Nothing powers a college application essay like an engaging anecdote in the introduction.
Often, you can pull an anecdote ( a mini true story) out of what you’ve already written and instantly transform it into an engaging read. And it can be a very everyday, simple event or moment. read more…
One of the best ways to connect with your reader in your college application essay is through emotion.
In my new book, Escape Essay Hell!, I share writing techniques and devices you can use to bring pathos to your essay, and forge a bond with your reader.
(With my following suggestions, I’m assuming you already have an introduction—probably an anecdote or mini-story—for your narrative essay, and have moved on to explain what it meant to you.) read more…
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. read more…
College Application Essays
Write Like You Talk
The voice and tone of narrative essays usually is “looser” or more “casual” than the typical academic essay. To do that, however, you often have to break the rules. Bend them gently and stay consistent. But if it sounds right, go for it!
The best tip for striking a more familiar tone with your college application essay: Write like you talk!
Harry Bauld, who wrote what I think is the best book on how to write college application essays–On Writing the College Application Essay–advises students to stick with an informal voice. He likens this voice to “a sweater, comfortable shoes. The voice is direct and unadorned.” Stay away, he says, from language that is too formal, which he dubs, “tuxedo talk.”
This stiff , pedantic type of writing is used by people who want to sound smart and important; most popular among scholars (including English teachers!), lawyers and other professionals who want to sound like they know their stuff even when they don’t. It’s a dead giveaway that you are trying to impress–something you don’t want to reveal in these essays, even if that’s one of your goals. read more…
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.
For a step-by-step guide to writing a college admissions essay, check out my new ebook, Escape Essay Hell!
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
College Application Essays:
What They Mean When They Ask for a Story
Most students have never written narrative essays, which are so different from most essays taught in English classes.
The classic 5-paragraph essay has a formal style, uses the third person, includes a main point or thesis statement in the introduction and has three supporting body paragraphs.
These college application (narrative) essays are the opposite.
The style is more casual, the structure looser and no one is counting the number of paragraphs.
They are told in the first-person and the main point is usually not stated directly, but implied by the essay itself.
What Is An Anecdote?
They are called “narrative” essays because they often use a story-like style—you are the narrator. (Many college counselors will advise you to “tell a story” in your essay. I do, too!)
However, there seems to be confusion between whether these narrative essays are the same as stories, or if they just contain mini-stories from real life. In general, they only contain small pieces of stories, called anecdotes.
These are used in the introductions because they grab the reader’s attention with a compelling description of an interesting moment or experience.
However, the entire essay is not one complete story that starts at the beginning and runs through the entire piece until the end.
Writers start with an anecdote to engage the reader by describing a moment, which tries to illustrate a larger point in their essay.
The rest of the essay is used to explain the broader meaning of the anecdote.
I know it can be confusing.
But I think people who resist the idea of narrative-style writing in these essays don’t understand the difference, and think narrative means the essay relates one long story. It doesn’t.
The narrative, or story-like style that reads like fiction, is mainly used only in the beginning of these essays. (In news or magazine stories, they are called anecdotal ledes.) The rest then shifts into a more explanatory mode.
So you do not want to tell one long story in your essay.
But you do want to look for mini-stories, or moments, or “times,” that you can relate as examples of something you want to illuminate in your essay.
In my new ebook, Escape Essay Hell!, I explain how you can use a Show and Tell structure to write a compelling narrative essay about yourself. The first part, using an anecdote, is the Show part.
The second part, where you explain what the moment or experience meant, how you thought and felt about it, and what you learned, is the Tell part.
Find examples of narrative writing in college application essay in my favorite collections of sample essays.
College Application Essays: Best Writing Advice
Five Hot Tips to Use on Your Essay
It’s hard to find good advice on writing. Here are five of my favorite tips from the best of the best:
1. If you are just starting to write your college application essay, take writer Anne Lamott’s advice and give yourself permission to write a “shitty first draft.” This is how all writers work–and you should, too. Just get a loose plan, and then write. Get it all out. Don’t worry about finding the exact right words, or the correct spelling, or landing your commas in the right place. Just let it rip. You can go back later and worry about those details. (This doesn’t mean that you try to write a shitty rough draft; it just means that if your rough draft is shitty, that’s okay. You can edit it later.)
If you are one of those straight A, honors and AP class types, she’s probably talking to YOU:
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.
2. So you have pounded out a rough draft, and you are trying to make your essay more engaging and readable. The easiest way to pick up the tempo is to go back and vary the length of your sentences. And include lots of short ones. Read this amazing paragraph by writing instructor Gary Provost to quickly see how this works:
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
3. Here’s another way to clean up your essay and make it stronger. This advice is as brilliant as it is simple. I’m still learning to trim my adjectives, too. It’s hard to resist them. You think they make your nouns stronger, better, more accurate. But not always. Take it from the man who knows how to grab and punch you with his words. Here’s a sentence overdosing on adjectives: When I was in my darkened, unkept bedroom, I took my small, fluffy striped pillow and threw it out the square,screened-in window. The idea is if you take out a few of these adjectives, the others have more impact.
When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart.
4. Another type of word to avoid over using is the adverb. Those are words that mainly describe verbs, and usually end in -ly. Quickly, happily, stupidly, normally, angrily, etc. The idea is that we usually don’t need them to make our point. Here’s what horror writer Stephen King has to say about them:
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.
If you want to read King’s entire diatribe about them, click this link. The idea is that when you proofread something you wrote, look for these and take them out if you use them too often.
5. Finally, if you want one of the best tips to writing–including your college application essay–try this one. Nora Roberts, a popular novelist, was asked about her key to success during an interview for a profile in The New Yorker magazine. Her answer? Ass in the chair. That’s right. Just sit down and write something. You don’t have to spend hours. Just start and write for fifteen minutes. Then come back the next day for a half hour. Before you know it, you will have a draft. It’s the same idea as putting on your running shorts to go for a run. Just do it.
If you want help starting your college admissions essay, try my Jumpstart Guide.
College Application Essays
How Anecdotes Make Them Work
One of the best ways to learn what types of topics make the most interesting essays is to check out what other students wrote about. Especially if those students had the right guidance and came up with unique, compelling ideas. Like, say, my students!
If you are new to this blog, I always encourage writers to find mini-stories (anecdotes) that they can relate in their essays to reveal and share their broader ideas, passions and values. I also advise them that everyday (mundane) topics work the best.
The idea is that an anecdote is a perfect “grabber” for an introduction, since it hooks the reader’s attention with a compelling mini-story.
It usually shares one moment or focused image, event or experience, using a fiction-like writing style.
Here are five topics that my students came up with last year. I tried to sum up their anecdote and then how they expanded that moment or experience into an essay.
See if you find these helpful in understanding how you can use this format:
Anecdote: The writer described “the time” he hoisted himself up in a tree using ropes and his knot-tying skills, but got stuck.
Larger theme: He then wrote about how his passion for knot-tying reflected his ability to solve problems, using logic, patience and imagination.
College Admissions Essays Must Be Interesting
How To Stay Bold And Avoid the Trap of a Dull Essay
After six years working with students, parents and college counselors on writing college admissions essays, I’m more convinced than ever that students must find their unique stories and tell them in a direct, authentic voice. These are the kids who are getting into the best schools.
However, a lot of parents, counselors and teachers don’t trust this approach.
I get it. So much is riding on these essays. Who wouldn’t want them to be perfect? The problem is that parents start believing that the essays need to impress the readers, and they get anxious and start stripping out all the interesting parts of their kids’ essays. They doubt that something as simple as relating a story is the best way to show colleges how great you are. As students writing them, you start to get nervous, too, and freeze up and start throwing in big words and mentioning your accomplishments and trying to sound really smart and before you know it you end up with a DULL ESSAY.
If you don’t believe me, read this column written by a columnist who writes regularly for the Huffington Post’s college blog. He reports that the word among college admissions counselors from last year was that they read way too many boring essays. And he has some great advice on how to avoid that. And it echoes mine: Tell a story. Write like you talk. Be careful who you let read your essay.
Here’s my advice for your college admission essay:
- Use you own logic. If you were reading hundreds of these essays, which ones would you want to read–boring ones where the student tries to make herself or himself sound really impressive, or the one that tells an interesting story?
- Read sample essays. See what ones stand out in your mind. Was it the boring one? Probably not. Try to copy the style and approach of the ones you liked the most–not the ones you think you were supposed to like.
- Now that you get what works, spend a little time trying to bring your parents up to speed. Talk to them about what you are learning and hearing about what essays are the most effective. Have them read some of my blog posts for themselves.
- When you are writing your essay, and you let others read it, beware of those who don’t get it and try to get you to take out the colorful parts.
- If telling a story for your essays feels like taking a chance, remember the real risk is a dull essay.
Ready to find your story?
Start with this post.