Here’s a tip: Choose a topic you really want to write about. If the subject doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to the reader. Write about whatever keeps you up at night. That might be cars, or coffee. It might be your favorite book or the Pythagorean theorem. It might be why you don’t believe in evolution or how you think kale must have hired a PR firm to get people to eat it.
A good topic will be complex. In school, you were probably encouraged to write papers that took a side. That’s fine in academic work when you’re being asked to argue in support of a position, but in a personal essay, you want to express more nuanced thinking and explore your own clashing emotions. In an essay, conflict is good.
For example, “I love my mom. She’s my best friend. We share clothes and watch ‘The Real Housewives’ of three different cities together” does not make for a good essay. “I love my mom even though she makes me clean my room, hates my guinea pig and is crazy about disgusting food like kale” could lead somewhere
While the personal essay has to be personal, a reader can learn a lot about you from whatever you choose to focus on and how you describe it. One of my favorites from when I worked in admissions at Duke University started out, “My car and I are a lot alike.” The writer then described a car that smelled like wet dog and went from 0 to 60 in, well, it never quite got to 60.
Another guy wrote about making kimchi with his mom. They would go into the garage and talk, really talk: “Once my mom said to me in a thick Korean accent, ‘Every time you have sex, I want you to make sure and use a condo.’ I instantly burst into laughter and said, ‘Mom, that could get kind of expensive!’ ” A girl wrote about her feminist mother’s decision to get breast implants.
A car, kimchi, Mom’s upsizing — the writers used these objects as vehicles to get at what they had come to say. They allowed the writer to explore the real subject: This is who I am.
Don’t brag about your achievements. Instead, look at times you’ve struggled or, even better, failed. Failure is essayistic gold. Figure out what you’ve learned. Write about that. Be honest and say the hardest things you can. And remember those exhausted admissions officers sitting around a table in the winter. Jolt them out of their sugar coma and give them something to be excited about.
10 Things Students Should Avoid
REPEATING THE PROMPT Admissions officers know what’s on their applications. Don’t begin, “A time that I failed was when I tried to beat up my little brother and I realized he was bigger than me.” You can start right in: “As I pulled my arm back to throw a punch, it struck me: My brother had gotten big. Bigger than me.”
LEAVE WEBSTER’S OUT OF IT Unless you’re using a word like “prink” (primp) or “demotic” (popular) or “couloir” (deep gorge), you can assume your reader knows the definition of the words you’ve written. You’re better off not starting your essay with “According to Webster’s Dictionary . . . .”
THE EPIGRAPH Many essays start with a quote from another writer. When you have a limited amount of space, you don’t want to give precious real estate to someone else’s words.
YOU ARE THERE! When writing about past events, the present tense doesn’t allow for reflection. All you can do is tell the story. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. Some beginning writers think the present tense makes for more exciting reading. You’ll see this is a fallacy if you pay attention to how many suspenseful novels are written in past tense.
SOUND EFFECTSOuch! Thwack! Whiz! Whooooosh! Pow! Are you thinking of comic books? Certainly, good writing can benefit from a little onomatopoeia. Clunk is a good one. Or fizz. But once you start adding exclamation points, you’re wading into troubled waters. Do not start your essay with a bang!
ACTIVE BODY PARTS One way to make your reader giggle is to give body parts their own agency. When you write a line like “His hands threw up,” the reader might get a visual image of hands barfing. “My eyes fell to the floor.” Ick.
CLICHÉS THINK YOUR THOUGHTS FOR YOU Here’s one: There is nothing new under the sun. We steal phrases and ideas all the time. George Orwell’s advice: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
TO BE OR NOT TO BE Get rid of “to be” verbs. Replace “was” in “The essay was written by a student; it was amazing and delightful” and you’ll get: “The student’s essay amazed and delighted me.” We’ve moved from a static description to a sprightlier one and cut the word count almost in half.
WORD PACKAGES Some phrases — free gift, personal beliefs, final outcome, very unique — come in a package we don’t bother to unpack. They’re redundant.
RULES TO IGNORE In English class, you may have to follow a list of rules your teacher says are necessary for good grammar: Don’t use contractions. No sentence fragments. It’s imperative to always avoid split infinitives. Ending on a preposition is the sort of English up with which teachers will not put. And don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction like “and” or “but” or “because.” Pick up a good book. You’ll see that the best authors ignore these fussy, fusty rules.Continue reading the main story
When my two kids were finishing their junior years of high school, they each received the assignment from their English teacher to write a college application essay.
It sure sounded good—they could get a jump on these dreaded essays and receive professional direction on how to find great topics and write them in an engaging, memorable style.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
From what I could tell, this task of teaching how to write college admissions essays was dumped on these teachers, and they had to cram in a last-minute writing section at the very end of the year (and compete with the AP test crunch time, other end-of-year deadlines/pressures and spring fever.).
Also, as far as I could tell, no one really taught the teachers how to write college admissions essays and students had had very little practice writing in a narrative style.
I’m sure this assignment was better than nothing.
And that there are English teachers out there who do know about writing, and provide great advice and direction for their students.
But for those teachers who feel overwhelmed and under-prepared, I offer these ideas and resources that could easily be incorporated into an essay lesson plan or a unit on how to write a college application essay:
1. DAY ONE of Essay Lesson Plan: Discuss what makes a great college application essay.
The best way to help students understand what makes a great essay, and see for themselves how these essays use a different style of writing (narrative/slice-of-life), is to share some samples. (3 Sample Essays for University of CA app.)
Find some good ones, even a couple bad ones, and have the class read them together and talk about what they liked, and what they didn’t like.
Students should be encouraged to trust what they find entertaining, moving and interesting, and try to copy the literary techniques other students used in their essays.
Try to find sample essays that show the variety of topics that can work, especially those that are mundane (everyday).
2. DAY TWO of Essay Lesson Plan: Help students brainstorm their own topic ideas.
I have written a condensed, step-by-step guide on this process, but also have several posts on how students can find their defining qualities, and then search for their own real-life stories that illustrate a core quality.
It would be very easy to convert the steps I take students through into your own instruction–just step them through this process in class.
(I also have a short guide book, Escape Essay Hell, that maps these out in 10 steps.)
3. DAY THREE of Essay Lesson Plan: After each student has collected a short list of defining qualities, have them brainstorm “times” they used or developed one of these qualities in real life.
Tell them that they are looking for mini-stories, called “anecdotes,” that they can share in their essays.
One huge key to a great anecdote is if it involves a problem (this is your chance to talk about the power of “conflict” in a story.) My Crash Course in How to Write an Anecdote.
Try to find examples of anecdotes, either in sample college admissions essays or at the start of magazines or feature stories in the newspaper.
(All the sample essays in Heavenly Essays use anecdotes, and the last chapter of Escape Essay Hell showcases examples of anecdotes.)
You could even assign students to find one on their own and bring it to class.
My posts on anecdotes not only explain what they are, but have details on how to craft them.
Teach this process to your students–and you will have given them one of the most powerful writing techniques around.
Have them watch my two short YouTube videos on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One and How to Write an Anecdote: Part Two.
4. DAY FOUR of Essay Lesson Plan: Have the students write up one of their real-life moments or incidents into an anecdote (require that it involves a “problem.”)
Talk about how this anecdote shows the reader about their defining quality as opposed to just telling them about it.
Discuss why this is so powerful to grab the reader at the start of the essay.
After they write their anecdote, have them go back and try to condense it even further.
This is part of the skill of writing these, and they do take practice. (Check out this short visual guide to crafting a story.)
5. DAY FIVE of Essay Lesson Plan: Now that the students have described in a story-telling style something that happened to them, and it involved some type of problem, have them start to think about, and jot down notes in list form, these questions:
a. How did that problem make them feel?
b. How did they handle that problem? What steps they took. Where they drew inspiration to face it. (Have them be aware of how their core quality is involved in this process, or the role it plays. And write down their thoughts.)
c. What did they learn in the process of dealing with it? About themselves. About others. About the world in general.
d. Did this experience change them, or how they think about things/life, in any way? Tell them to get reflective and analytical at this point.
These notes will help them continue writing their essay, and use their anecdote to explore how they deal with life, which will reveal what kind of person they area, how they think, what they care about, etc.
One related activity to have students do in pairs, would be this simple exercise on How to Find Your Essay Voice.
I use this approach with the students I tutor, and it’s amazing how easy it is to “capture” pieces of their authentic teenage voice, and how perfectly even a few of these lines or expressions when they are in a reflective mode can enhance their essays.
6. DAY SIX of Essay Lesson Plan: Help students map out a simple writing plan.
Explain how narrative essays are written in a more casual style, and not the 5-paragraph format.
Then have them start writing out a rough draft: Have them start with the anecdote to SHOW the problem and then background the incident (a couple paragraphs); and then go on to TELL about what it meant (explain, reflect, analyze, etc.–drawing off notes from Day Five) in a couple more paragraphs.
(Depending on how much time you have to spend on these essays, I have many posts on specific parts of the process–from finding topics to how to write the conclusion to adding titles. Just browse the Index on the right side of this blog to find them.)
Homework: Have the students complete their rough drafts at home.
If they just stick to this order in general, they should end up with an interesting piece of writing that is compelling and reveals their core quality.
Now it’s up to you how you want to help them critique and revise their essays.
These pieces may be highly personal for some students, but for others, they might benefit from some type of peer review, whether in pairs, small groups or with the entire class.
It’s always great to read these out loud, and have them listen and note the “golden lines,” or parts they like, and pay attention to times the essay gets dull (time to cut it!).
Encourage the students to write as long as they want, but then have them cut their essay to a word count (650 words is limit for the Common App.) There’s no better self-editing exercise then shortening a writing piece.
I believe this assignment can be a wonderful writing assignment, and I bet the students will even enjoy it.
It’s amazing how much we all like to think and write about ourselves! Teachers should take advantage of that.
You will be amazed at some of the stories the students come up with, which will range from entertaining, moving, sad (even tragic) and funny.
I wouldn’t discourage any topic, as long as the student makes sure to use the story to show something about herself or himself.
This is just one way to teach narrative writing, and how to write a college application essay. If you have other techniques or ideas, that’s great (and I would love to learn more about them!). But maybe this will give you a place to start.
Related Resources for Creating an Essay Lesson Plan:
This I Believe: This is a post I wrote about the site called This I Believe, which helps students identify their core values, and includes thousands of sample personal essays and other helpful information. Students can use the same approach I teach on this blog and in my books, and simply replace starting with a core quality or characteristic with a core value.
Where I’m From: This site features a poet from Kentucky who wrote a poem about her roots. It includes an inspiring writing exercise that helps students capture details from their own backgrounds and homes. (It also has short video with poet George Ella Lyon reading the poem out loud.) Students can use these details in their essays to describe themselves and their backgrounds. I’ve used this with my students and they all loved it.
Top Guides on Narrative Writing: This is a post I put together showcasing what I believe are the best books on learning and teaching narrative writing.