Students and parents come to me with big worries started by well-meaning comments from various experts. Students and parents are worried that the topic they’ve chosen for an important college essay is somehow boring, typical, or wrong.
Here’s what they’ve heard:
- “Don’t write about the sports win after a difficult season. Don’t write about overcoming a sports injury. Everybody does that.”
- “Don’t write about your mission trip. Everyone’s doing that.”
Actually, none of these topics is wrong, verboten, or even problematic to schools if you tell your own story.
Use just the right amount of personal detail and make some observations that are uniquely you, and you will be just fine.
You can still hook a reader with your own story, no matter who’s told a similar version before. You can anchor your writing with individual details and conclusions. Turns out, you are new, uniquely new, under this sun.
No one else has lived your life, I tell students. No one else sees the world the way you do. Trust in that, and the right story version will follow.
Here’s a less common twist on an old tale:
- You might be an athlete who’s watched the coach and the team captain for a long time, and during that endless, tough season that you all gutted out, you began to draw some conclusions about winning. In fact, you decide to write an essay that’s essentially a manual: How to Survive an Ugly Season.
- You might be a person who has tried to recruit more friends to go with you on mission trips. You’re all about them. Instead of telling a story about The Big Trip, you decide to talk about how you got your friends to join you on the second one.
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If you press the experts who make these sort of claims, they say the same thing I’m saying: “Sure, I mean, you CAN tell the story if it happened to you and truly answers the question and is really want you want to write but you’d better say something unique.” Uncommon, like College Essay Guy Ethan Sawyer says, who’s always advocated for sharing your most authentic self.
How do you write something uniquely you? Start with the following:
- Generate a list of unique, resonant, personal details (“little movies,” I call them) of moments you have experienced, answering the question.
- What are the images, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches unique to this situation? (sensory detail)
- What are the feelings and thoughts you had during these moments, again, special to you?
- Generate a list of unique generalizations (your “truths,” I call them) answering the big “So What?” question application readers ask: “So what? Why are you telling me this?”
- What perceptions, interpretations, and conclusions do you draw about this incident or moment that are your particular angle?
- What values and beliefs are core to you and that you see reflected in this story?
- Also ask yourself, Are there other moments that link up with this one? In other words, do you have several little movies you could share? Is your mission trip one of many acts of service? Is your injury one of other sports challenges you’ve weathered? Connecting these dots could be the secret sauce for taking a somewhat “average” event and making it truly unique.
Students understand storytelling; they’re swimming in it, whether with TikTok or Instagram or Youtube or video games or streaming services. They’re living in an era of great storytelling and entertainment. Students understand why it’s important in a college essay once I show them how students before them have used hooks, images, sensory detail, and myriad other writing strategies to make their own feature films.
It’s a bit hard to believe at first that schools actually want this type of personal detail, but if you tell your own unique story with storytelling flair, you’ve got this–trust me.
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Students understand what it means to stand out from a crowd and all of them have had unique takes on a situation. Sometimes we have to dig to get there, but I’ve never met a teen who didn’t have a surprising, refreshing take on an old tale.
There are no two ACL injuries exactly alike, nor are their two trips to Tijuana uniquely the same. The questions you must grapple with are
- Are these stories wholly yours, and
- Are your sincere reflections unique to you?
At Success Story I find a lot of joy in helping a student find their authentic answers.
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For the poets among us, take a lovely detour to meditate on Shakespeare’s words on this subject of “nothing new under the sun.” (I feel you, Ecclesiastes author, but you were a bit down when you wrote that, I am sure of it.)
I truly believe there’s nothing like each unique student I encounter, and “this image…this composed wonder of your frame.”
If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child!
O, that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whether better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
O, sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.