When you write a college application essay, you want to “grab” the attention of your reader from the start.
My favorite writing technique to hook readers is to engage them with an anecdote, which is a real-life moment or incident.
You might have already written your essay, and not noticed that you have one of these magical anecdotes down low.
Chances are you started your essay telling about yourself in your essay, and missed the opportunity to reach out and grab your reader with a real-life anecdote that illustrates your point. (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).
These are not easy to write. They take practice. The best way is to write out an account of the moment, and then go back and try to trim it down to a paragraph or two, leaving only the details that you need
to recreate the moment. One of the best ways to learn how to write anecdotes is to read them. A great source are newspaper and magazine articles, especially feature stories, and other sample college essays
I thought it was funny that it was similar to the little moment that my student used in her anecdote! (Note that this is how he starts his essay.)
On the flight to Raleigh, I sneezed, and the cough drop I’d been sucking on shot from my mouth, ricocheted off my folded tray table, and landed, as I remember it, in the lap of the woman beside me, who was asleep and had her arms folded across her chest. I’m surprised that the force didn’t wake her—that’s how hard it hit—but all she did was flutter her eyelids and let out a tiny sigh, the kind you might hear from a baby.
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!
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
How To Answer the New Common App Questions
The best news about his year’s Common Application (2015-16) is that you can still write about almost any topic you want—these prompts are very open-ended. And they also added a new prompt (#4) that is perfect for helping you tell a great story!
Because the prompts present such broad questions, it’s up to you to focus the point of your essay. If you try to answer one of these questions with a broad, general essay, it will end up dull, cliche and in the reject pile.
Here’s my attack plan for you. First, read all the questions (listed below). If any of them generate an idea for you, that’s great. Go for it. If not, my advice is to stick with prompt one, two or four of the five prompts. To me, each of those prompts is trying to help you to write a personal narrative–that is a story-like essay that shows the reader something about what makes you tick, what you care about, what sets you apart from the crowd. This blog is packed with helpful posts on exactly how to find a relevant story, such as How to Write an Anecdote, and tell it in a compelling way. (more…)
College Admissions Essays and Personal Statements:
How to Make Your Topic Fly
The New York Times sponsors a blog exclusively for college-bound students. It’s called The Choice. Just last month, a student shared the topic she chose for her Common Application essay, and why she stuck with it even when friends and family didn’t share her enthusiasm. The student, named Sush Krishnamoorthy, is hoping her essay will get her into Stanford. Her topic: a 24-hour plane flight she took by herself. Sush didn’t share many other details about her topic (or essay), but I think it’s a good one. Here are five reasons why I love her idea:
1. Her topic is “mundane.” In her post, Sush said she felt pressure to find an “offbeat” topic for her CommonApp essay. Often, students believe they need to write about topics or experiences that would impress their readers. The opposite, however, is true. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but writing about “mundane” or everyday topics almost always results in more engaging and memorable essays. Learn more about how to find everyday topics and why they are so powerful in my post, The Power of Mundane Topics. (more…)
College Admissions Essays
How to Write an Anecdote
For Your College Application Essay, Personal Statement or other Essays
If you can write an anecdote, you can write a powerful essay.
But a lot of students don’t know what an anecdote is, let alone how to write one.
It’s really just a weird word for a little story or animated description of something that happened.
Usually they are very short.
If done well, they make excellent introductions for all essays since they grab the reader’s attention.
In essays, an anecdote is an example of a point you want to make that uses a little story or animated description.
Example: You want to make the point in your essay that you are a creative person.
So you write an anecdote to illustrate your point: You could describe something creative that you made, or you could describe yourself making something interesting.
During a walk near my home, I found a long stick that looked like the letter “Y.” I smoothed the surface with sandpaper and covered it with blueberry blue paint I found in the garage, then wrapped it with twine and colored yarn. From my junk drawer, I tied seashells, a couple old keys and a bent fork to the ends and hung it in my room.
“What’s that?” my little sister asked.
“Art,” I said, even though I wasn’t even sure what I had made.
(Then background your interest in art, how you think about it, why you value it, how it has affected you, changed you, and what your plans are for it in the future…)
College Admissions Essays
How to Find “The Unexpected” in Your College Application Essay or Personal Narrative
One way to add snap, crackle and pop to your college application essay is to give it a little twist.
What’s a twist?
It can be many things, but usually it offers some sort of surprise, an irony or something unexpected.
When writing about yourself, be on the lookout for your own personal life twists.
In simple terms, a twist can be anything that isn’t what you would think or expect.
Why do these work so beautifully in college application essays?
Because they a. are delightful to read because they break away from the predictable b. they often involve a problem, which needs solving and provokes personal change, and c. they show how you respond, adjust and learn.
All rich essay compost!
One client wrote a personal statement about how she was always at the top of her game, whether it was in her classes, sports or her favorite extracurricular activity, drama.
She told about the time she was certain she landed the lead role in the school musical, and her shock when someone told her someone else got the part.
Her essay focused on how she learned that supporting roles in plays, as well as in life, can be as valuable as being the leading lady. What was the twist?
In this case, she didn’t get what she expected.
It was a surprise for her not to be the star. (more…)
So you have a rough draft for one of your college essays.
You answered the prompt, read it many times and believe it’s a solid piece of writing.
And you may be right.
But even a solid essay can have one fatal flaw–-it’s boring.
The last thing you want is for the admissions person to toss your well-written essay in the “read later” pile. Here are a couple tips on how to bump it up:
1: Your introduction is the most important part of the essay, since it will either grab the reader or not.
Often, writers start by providing background on their topic and then get to the good stuff. Try to take out the first sentence, or two, and see if you can start farther into your story.
You might have to rewrite it a bit, but often you just don’t need that general background right at the beginning.
It’s best to switch it up and get right to your best example or point, and then provide the background later. If you can start with your most interesting examples or points, you will grab your reader all the faster, and that’s exactly what you want.
EXAMPLE: “When I was in high school, I played the violin in the school band. It was my favorite activity and I never missed a practice or performance. But one day, to my horror, I left my thousand-dollar violin on the school bus…”
You are building up to something exciting here. Try to start right at the heart of the action, the moment you left the violin and your reaction: “As I stepped off the bus, I had the vague feeling I was missing something.
But I was late for my orthodontist appointment, and ran to meet my friends. It was only later that night that it hit me: I left my thousand-dollar violin under the seat.” (And then you can go on to background your history playing the violin, etc.)
College Admissions Essays:
How To Fine Edit Your College Application Essay
You are finally finished with your essay. It’s time to copy it into the online application and send it off. You’ve worked hard. Why not make sure it’s fabulous? Follow this checklist to double check that it’s as good as it should be:
- Read your prompt (the question) one more time. Often a prompt will ask you to answer more than one question, or address several points. Make sure you address or answer them all!
- Did you make your point? (Yes, that’s the same thing as your “main point.”) You should be able to state it in a sentence or two. And it should be stated somewhere in your essay as well. If you can’t do this, chances are your essay is too broad, and too broad means boring.
- Do you prove the (main) point you are making in your essay? Did you provide examples as “evidence”?
- When you give examples in your essay, or describe something, are you specific? Use details!
College Admissions Essay
Title or No Title?
I like titles. But they need to be good. A title should be short and witty. Not cutesy. The tone of the title and essay should match. The best ones don’t give away too much about the essay, and only hint at what’s to come. Do not use questions. And don’t even think about a title that sounds anything like “My College Admissions Essay.”
Now, how do you think of a title, a good title? Brainstorm ideas by playing off words that link to your theme, message or topic.
Example: A student wrote an essay about how he broke his wrist playing football, and how he learned more about the game sitting on the bench that season. Theme: How bad things can result in good things/How you can learn from a new perspective. (This “theme” is also a Universal Truth or “life lesson”. Check out this post on Universal Truths to see if you have one hidden in your essay.)
Make a quick list of words from the essay that you could play around with: break, benched, football, sports, view, injury, hurt, new perspective…Let yourself “free associate,” which means you list key words and sayings that come to mind when you say one of them, such as “break.” Try the word in different tenses, in common phrases, in pop culture phrases (titles of movies, books, songs, etc.) and even clichés can work. Also, skim your essay for catchy phrases that might work. Try mixing up a couple keys words to make your own phrase. You can also use the Internet to brainstorm ideas–just Google your keywords or phrases. Have fun with it.
Breaking Away (movie title)
The Big Break