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…)
Yesterday, my son sent in the last of his college applications (just hours before many of the Common App Deadlines, might I add). YEA!!! I’m not sure which of us is more relieved. He is the youngest of my two children (my daughter is a sophomore in college), so this is it for me in terms of a personal role in the college application and essay writing process. Of course, I will continue writing this blog and tutoring college-bound students and parents on how to write powerful admissions essays. But boy does it feel great to be on the other side!
If you are still on the dark side, and have either just started thinking about your college essays or still have a couple to polish and send in for 2011, you, too, will someday be on the bright side with my son and I! The one thing you do not want to feel at the point where we are is regret. No matter how stressful and overwhelming the process, it is worth sticking with it to make sure everything is as good as you can make it. Otherwise, what’s the point?
And when you are done, you can step back and let what happens happen. There’s nothing else you can do at that point. But if you are still cranking on these essays and supplements, take a deep breath, collect your thoughts, remember your goals, know that it will be over soon, and JUST WRITE THEM!
Congratulations to all of you who have all your applications in, and best of luck to those of you still plugging away!
UPDATE: 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 Essays
How to Answer Prompt #1 for the College Application Essay
for the University of California:
“Describe the World You Come From”
Only read this if you are applying to a UC (University of California school, such as UCLA, Berkeley, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Irvine, Santa Cruz, etc.).
There are two college essay prompts for their required personal statements for incoming freshmen.
Here is some advice regarding the first one:
Prompt #1 (freshman applicants)
Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
Read this closely. Note that it asks you to describe one thing and then tell about another–so there are two points you need to address in your essay.
When you describe the world you come from, think of this in a figurative sense.
Do not just write about your hometown.
Instead of the word “world,” try substituting it for the word “community” or “background.”
As a “community,” almost anything can be your world (a mini-community of shared activities, people, passions or places), from your yoga class to your bedroom to your job washing dishes to your grandmother’s kitchen making tortilla soup to your two moms.
It’s wide open. Just pick a topic.
Also, the examples they give, “family, community or school” are just that, examples.
Do not write a little about each of these.
And do not just write about “my family” or “my school.” Way too broad.
Write about your uncle’s magic shop in an underprivileged neighborhood, or the Scrabble club you started at your school even though you are the world’s worst speller, or the old movie theater in your town where you first fell in love with cinema and the power of a visual story.
(Check out the link at bottom of this post to my Tumbler blog with images and quotes to spark ideas for what makes your world.)
Quickie World-As-A-Community-Finder: What do you like/love to do? Where do you do it? Who do you do it with? Bingo! You have just landed on one of your worlds!
Another way to think about your world would be to show how your background has been challenging on some level–and how that has shaped and defined who you are.
In a way, your world is your life with its unique set of issues, obstacles or challenges.
Think of the saying: “Welcome to my world.”
If you have one piece of your life that shapes your “world” in a major way—something from your personal, cultural, educational, etc. background—and that colleges would understand you better if they knew what that was like, consider writing about it.
The world of living with two gay dads.
The world of living with an autistic sister.
The world of living with a bi-polar mom.
The world of living with immigrant grandparents.
The world of living on food stamps.
The world of living with perfectionists/slobs/religious nuts/alcoholics/seven siblings/foster home/military parents/home-schooling/white parents and you are asian/constant moving/famous mom, etc.
To write this type of “world” essay, pick a real-life example of a “time” in your life/world when that issue affected you, start your essay describing that specific incident or moment, then go into how dealing with that reality has affected you.
You might be surprised what comes out of you–and how it makes you feel.
I have had students who have written about almost all of these “life” issues.
Their essays have been intense and often soul-searching, but also memorable and meaningful.
Although I think the bulk of your college application essay should focus on this world, and how it has affected you, also address the second part about your dreams and aspirations.
This has the potential to be general and boring, so make sure to talk specifically about how you will apply the lessons (values, skills, ideas, insights, etc.) you have learned in your world to your future.
(Hint: It wouldn’t hurt if you can show how these dreams and aspirations link to your specific college goals. For example, if your “world” is hanging out in your parent’s garage fixing an old truck, mention how the problem-solving skills you learned there will help your aspirations to be some type of engineer one day.)
If you are one of those A-type overachievers (hey, it’s OK, these UCs are insanely competitive!) who still feels insecure about understanding the UC prompts, check out this 50-minute video of a counselor guru spelling it all out at a convention for college admissions folks.
Just don’t let her freak you out too much. Definitely good info here, but I say overkill.
MY MOST RECENT WORLD POST! Check out some of the comments from other students trying to figure out a “world” to write about in their UC essay in A Peek into the Many World of Prompt 1, where I share some of the questions students asked me to see if their world was interesting, or would make a great essay. Reading through these comments is a GREAT WAY TO FIND YOUR OWN WORLD TO WRITE ABOUT! (Yes, I was shouting at you!)
See if this video from the UC Admissions Department helps.
I think it might give you an idea of what they want from the two personal statements, but not a lot on how to deliver it. That part is left up to you, as far as I can tell.
(Tips from video: “Be thoughtful, clear, succinct and provide depth.” “Just be honest.” “Focus on a strength.” “Write about what makes you different.” “I wrote from my heart.” All great stuff—the only thing missing is any direction, instruction or support for students on how to do all this in 500 words.)
*Also, if you are still looking for a “world” to write about, there are lots of ideas in the comments. Definitely worth scrolling through to see what others are thinking of writing about. Thanks for sharing all your ideas!
I believe you can write these UC essays on your own. But if you feel like you would like my personal help with them or other college application essays, find details on my Services page.
Shoot for mediocre if it takes the pressure off. Just find a little story to tell about yourself, something that happened one time, and pound it out.
Stick to the first person; describe what happened.
Then, explain what it meant to you, how you thought about it, what you learned, how it changed you (even if just a little bit.)
Voila! An essay!
Of course, if you can go back, re-read it, take out the boring parts, amp it up with colorful details, cut extra words, carve out a main point, read it out loud, listen to the flow, find a nifty metaphor to life, allude to interesting ideas, fix it up, work on it—you will have an even better essay.
And did I mention all my other informative posts on this blog are designed to help you write a killer essay?
(Look for specific topics in the “Find Help By Topic” listing on the right.)
Check out my super helpful Jumpstart Guide to help get you started on your college application essay or personal statement!
Interesting post on the New York Times’ blog on college admissions, called The Choice.
The article was about whether to include your random interests–ranging from an obsession with Lady Gaga to riding 100 bus routes in Seattle to a collection of old National Geographic mags–in your college applications.
The post quotes college counselors advising students to include their “hidden extracurriculars” in the “interests” section, as though that’s really radical. Depending on the interest, I believe it could work best as an essay topic.
In my opinion, what you care about, and spend your time pursuing, tells more about you than recounting your mission trip to Costa Rica or the time you won the big cross country race.
If you write an essay about an offbeat topic (a passion, an obsession, a hobby…), chances are you not only will reveal a telling piece of your personality, but also show the reader how you think and what you value.
WARNING: Do not simply try to be cute, odd or quirky. Not matter how offbeat your topic, make sure your points remain serious and thoughtful. Show restraint.
It feels like a set-up. First, you are supposed to reveal how wonderful you are in 500 words–about the number you can cram onto a postcard in your teensiest handwriting. Second, you must sell yourself to the college of your dreams—setting yourself apart from the thousands of other equally wonderful students–but appear humble and likeable at the same time. Third, no one has ever taught you how to write this type of essay, called a personal narrative. No one. Ever!
I call this impossible challenge the Catch 22 of College Essays, at least the part about saying how great you are and staying meek at the same time. You know, make an impression but don’t dare try to impress anyone!! No wonder you are stressed out!!!
The best way to handle this challenge–and I have detailed how to do this all over my blog–is to stick with a story. And it doesn’t have to be a life-changing, mind-blowing event, either. In a weird way that I don’t quite understand, the less impressive the story—the more basic, simple, everyday, mundane it is—the better it will go over. (Learn more about the power of mundane topics.)
Here’s how it works: When you tell your story, you naturally show the reader about yourself. You can avoid that awkward tone of voice that sounds boastful when you describe yourself: I’m a really creative person. I’m really passionate. I’m really great at solving problems. For some reason, when you hear someone say something like that, your first reaction is to think, with great sarcasm, “Oh, you are, are you? Well, good for you!” Whereas, if you just describe the time you built a ten-foot sculpture out of driftwood, feathers, dryer lint and goat hair, the reader might think, without a hint of sarcasm, “Wow, that’s pretty cool. That girl sounds creative.” See the difference? More on Show, Don’t Tell.)
I know I’ve hammered on this, but find your anecdotes, your examples, interesting moments, and just describe what happened—and then examine what you learned from them. It’s hard to go wrong with a story.
In journalism, writers often use “anecdotal leads,” that is, starting a news or feature story with a mini-story about a real-life event, one that puts the reader in the middle of the action.
Usually, the anecdote only describes a single moment or incident.
But it’s usually a highlight.
Anecdotes make great introductions for college essays. (I believe there’s no better way to “grab” your reader than to start a story–or your essay–at the most exciting part!) So how do you write an anecdote? Here are some tips.
Start at the peak of the drama or excitement or conflict. Jump right in! (You will just back up and explain it later.)
Set the scene: Describe what you see, what you hear, what you feel (both literally and figuratively), what you smell and taste, if relevant. These are called sensory details.
Use the 5 Ws—Who was involved? What happened. Where did it happen? When did it happen? Why did it happen? ( “H”: How did it happen?)
Paint a picture with your words, or even better, describe a snippet of video. Zoom in on the action.
Usually the “action” in your anecdote takes place in a matter of a few minutes.
Throw in a line or two of dialogue to add drama or move the action forward.
Use “concrete details.” Be specific! Instead of saying, “The dog ran up to me.” Say, “the neighbor’s bull terrier, Brutus, charged me…”
In general, use short sentences or mix up the short and long.
Don’t worry about the background or explaining the larger context of the moment. You can back up and explain that in the next paragraph.
Borrow techniques you find in fiction writing: concrete details, dialogue, proper nouns, descriptive language, emotion, strong characters, etc.
Use simple language (avoid SAT vocab. words). Write with nouns and action verbs. Go easy on the adjectives.
If your mini-story (anecdote) takes three paragraphs to relate, try to go back and see if you can cut it down to two or even one paragraph by keeping only what you need to re-create the moment. You will be surprised how you can shorten them, and actually make them better!
“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cut out all the wrong words.” Mark Twain
Finding the Life Lesson
in Your College Admission Essay
A key component of a powerful personal narrative (essay) is what’s called a “universal truth.”
They are also called “life lessons.”
Basically, when the writer starts to reflect upon the personal lessons learned from an experience, she or he needs to make sure to show why the lesson is important to everyone else as well—that is, why it is true on a universal level.
What is a universal truth?
Often, they are so “true” that they seem almost silly to say out loud.
Be true to yourself.
What goes around comes around.
Cheaters never win.
Never say never.
Sometimes you have to lose in order to win.
You can’t always get what you want.
Face your fears.
What goes around comes around(eg Karma).
You reap what you sow (you get out of life what you put into it).
(Try putting, “In life, …” before the universal truth to test it out.)
Read some sample essays and see if you can find the “universal truth.”
In your own college application essay, you don’t necessarily have to state the universal truth, however, at some point you should at least touch on it, usually toward the end.
If you need help getting started with your college application essay or personal statement, try my Jumpstart Guide.
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.
I just went back over college essays my clients wrote over the last several years.
Despite the classic list of what not to write about (see previous post), I would say many wrote about mission trips, volunteering activities and sporting experiences anyway.
Some pulled it off, however, because they focused in on specific incidents and what they learned from those.
Others, however, were pretty flat.
My favorite essays, I noticed, almost always involved something unexpected, whether it was something that happened to the writer or how they reacted and learned from it.
They also included anecdotal leads. For example, here are two topics that resulted in strong essays:
1. One student wrote about how things always went his way, and how he was always top of his class, the star athlete and picked for leading roles in the drama program.
His essay told the story of how he expected to get the star role in his senior play, and was stunned to learn he got a lesser role. (this was the “unexpected”)
In his essay, he developed what he learned from that experience.
In a natural way he was able to highlight his talents, yet come across as humble and likable at the same time.
(He also started his essay with a simple anecdote of the moment a friend shouted out to him that he did not make the lead role. This short, narrative introduction included dialogue and captured with high emotion his huge disappointment. A perfect “grabber” intro!)
2. Another student wrote about how she injured her ankle playing soccer on the varsity team, and was out for the entire season, yet learned more sitting on the bench that season than she would have playing. (also, the “unexpected”)
Her essay focused on how she discovered a new perspective on her team and the game by simply watching.
Again, she showcased her talents, but showed how she was able to turn something negative into a positive.
(she also started her essay with a short narrative anecdote—with strong imagery on the setting, dialogue, etc—focusing on the moment she was injured, which added emotion and drama to his essay.)
What these effective essays had in common:
They both included something unexpected and how the writer learned something from the experience.
They both focused on one incident and expanded that into larger lessons learned.
They both pulled the most intense moment to describe in their introductions, which made their essays full of lively writing (vivid details, descriptive language, colorful dialogue, etc.) highly readable.
As a professional writing coach, I help students, parents, counselors, teachers and others from around the world on these dreaded essays!
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