A student who I will call Ryan arrived for his tutoring session yesterday, and showed me what he had written for his English class.
His essay started with how he worked with Habit for Humanity and a trip he took to work with Native Americans.
Not the old mission trip essay.
Way too overdone. Usually dull as dirt.
So I suggested we start fresh.
Example of One of My Tutoring Sessions
I asked Ryan to jot down some of his defining qualities.
He wrote down conscientious, reliable, consistent and relaxed.
I noticed that several of his qualities overlapped, so I asked him about his sense of responsibility—fishing for his interesting stories, moments or small experiences that could “show” how or why he is “a responsible guy” in his essay. (more…)
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: Tell a Story to Answer Prompt 2
When Messing Up is a Good Thing
I almost like Prompt #2 as much as Prompt #1 of the new essay questions for The Common Application: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn.
This essay prompt is music to my storytelling ears!
Why? Because first it literally asks you to tell a story (“recount an incident or time”) in your essay, which I think creates the most engaging and meaningful essays!
And secondly, it wants you to tell a story about a time you “failed.”
I know you might think the last thing you want to tell your college about is a time you screwed up, but it’s actually perfect.
I’ve talked many times in this blog how problems make the best stories.
Well, a failure is a type of problem, and a terrific one at that.
Problems (including failures) are naturally interesting to read about—who doesn’t love a juicy problem?
It’s much more fun to read about things that go wrong than when they go smoothly.
Think about the news, or your favorite movie or T.V. show! (more…)
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.
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Gary Provost via Punctuation.com
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.
― Mark Twain
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: Search For the Perfect Topic
It’s Closer Than You Think
I’ve learned a lot about what makes a great essay topic over the last six years I’ve helped students with their college application essays.
If you’re just starting the process of writing your essay, you might be surprised what I’ve discovered about the best topics:
They are not what you would expect.
1. The best topics do not include what might be considered your best accomplishments or achievements. In fact, the opposite is true.
2. They often are the very thing you think would never make a good topic.
3. Good ones can be right in front of your nose. In fact, they might be on your face.
No matter what the prompt asks for, almost any effective college essay should showcase one or several of what I call your “defining qualities.”
If the prompt asks you to write a personal statement (for The Common App), tell about yourself or wants to know why you are a fit for their university, you will need a clear idea of the core qualities or characteristics that make you who you are—that “define” you.
Once you know those, you can write an essay that helps the reader understand how you are that way, and why it matters.
Of course, along the way, you will also mention your related interests, passions, idiosyncrasies, talents, experiences, accomplishments and even your endearing flaws.
(If you are confused at this point, you might want to check out my Quickie Jumpstart Guide to better understand the role these “defining qualities” play in a college admissions essay or personal statement.) (more…)
College Admissions Essays
It’s Official: Get Creative!
Colleges tell students that they want their essays to show them what sets them apart from the pack and what makes them unique. Yet most of the college application essay prompts do a poor job of helping students find topics that help them reveal their true personalities and character. The Los Angeles Times just wrote an article about how some colleges are finally crafting prompts that do a better job of encouraging students to feel comfortable taking a risk and showing their idiosyncrasies and quirks, rather than showcasing only their accomplishments and hardships. The main point of the article: Get creative!
This is an exciting trend, in my opinion, one I’ve encouraged for years now. My advice is to try to write about these more creative topics even when answering prompts that still aren’t creative. (Such as the list of Common App prompts, especially now that there will not be the Topic of Choice option.) I have lots of tips and advice all over my blog on how to find these types of topics. The point is that college admissions folks are starting to change their prompts because they are sick of reading about the same topics where students recount mission trips and sports victories. Take a risk. Get creative. Tell a story. Write about something mundane, rather than impressive. (more…)
UPDATE: as of March 23, 2016 The University of California announced NEW essay prompts for 2016-17. Read about how to answer them HERE.
This post is now outdated. The information is no longer relevant!!
College Admissions Essay:
How to Nail Prompt #2 for UC Essays
If you want to be a freshman or transfer student at one of the University of California schools, you will need to answer this question to write one of their two required personal statement essays, also known as Prompt #2:
“Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?”
In essence, they want you to write a personal statement.
A personal statement is an essay that shows the reader what makes you tick, what you care about, what sets you apart from the crowd.
Yes, it’s pretty wide open. Almost any topic can work—it’s all about what you have to say about it.
This entire blog has advice on how to write these.
But I’m going to map out a specific plan that should help you target this exact prompt. (more…)
College Admissions Essays:
How to make sure you come across as likable
“Think of something you might boast about and turn it into an entertaining flaw.”
College expert and blogger Jay Matthews on self-deprecation
In the typical list of hot tips from college counselors for crafting a winning college application essay, “Be likeable” is usually near the top.
This advice is usually followed up with “Don’t impress.”
But it’s a fine line when you are basically writing a marketing piece trying to sell yourself to the college of your dreams.
You feel the need to impress your colleges by describing your best achievements, qualities and talents, but one wrong word or phrase and you instantly sound like a braggart.
No one likes a braggart, and even a whiff of entitlement or unchecked ego can send your essay into the “No” pile.
The best way to avoid sounding like a braggart is to focus on what you did, how you did it and why, and not just on the fact that you did it.
The trick is to highlight the quality behind your accomplishment, and then relay a specific example of how you developed that quality or furthered it somehow.
My Jumpstart Guide and other posts on finding topics can help you with that approach.
College Admissions Essays: Samples
Samples of College Admissions Essays and Personal Statements–
and Why They Can Help You Write Yours!!
I always tell my students that one of the best ways to find great topic ideas is to read the essays of other students.
One great idea often triggers another! Reading other student’s essays also can give you an idea of the narrative style or voice of these essays, which is looser and more conversational than your typical academic essay.
I recommend several book collections of sample essays in this post, but if you can’t get your hands on those, here are a few I found online:
- My favorite online collection is on John Hopkins’ web site. Most use a narrative style and write in a direct, natural voice. And they even have a short analysis from the admissions folks about what they liked and why. This is invaluable info for you guys! Click HERE to read them.
- Click Here to see some that Connecticut College shares on their web site, describing them as “Essays That Worked.” Some are a bit stiff, in my opinion. Trust your own reaction. If you like an essay, borrow ideas from that one. (At the top of the page is a drop down menu with all the essays, titled “Choose an Essay.”)
- Click HERE and HERE to read some of the inspiring narrative sample essays from my collection, Heavenly Essays.