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Easy exercise to get started on a terrific essay

digmediadigmedia 3122 replies209 postsRegistered User Senior Member
edited September 2010 in College Essays
I wrote this in an earlier thread in response to someone who just could not get started with an essay topic. The following is a very simple exercise to find just the right topic for you (assuming that the prompt will fit the exercise):

1. Forget, for a moment, about writing an "essay." Think instead about the important moments in your life - those that were extremely memorable. Some of these might have been pleasant, some might have been wretched, some might have been disturbing, some might even have been life changing. It might even have been boring, but it's stuck in your memory.

2. List the top two or three or four (or more), eg, "The time when so-and-so tried to get me to smoke weed" or "the time I went river rafting and could hear the roar of the rapids ahead and was afraid" or "the exhilaration I felt when I first jumped out of an airplane" or "the best present I ever got for my birthday" ... whatever!

3. Then, for each of these, think back to that moment and VISUALIZE it.

4. Now write one paragraph on each of the ones you've selected. Don't think about an essay... you are just trying your best to describe that one moment. Remember the SHOW, DON'T TELL adage. Be as descriptive as possible. Don't interpret, but only describe the moment. What were you seeing, smelling, tasting, feeling, hearing?

5. Reread each of those paragraphs and think (don't write yet, just think): How did you meet that moment? What was your response? How did that moment change you? What did you learn about yourself? If one or more of these moments tested you or changed you or made you a stronger/different person. or gave an insight into YOU as a person, then that's your topic, and the paragraph you just wrote is the first paragraph of your essay.

The rest of the essay should flow more easily now.

Here is an example using what seems like a mundane topic for a hypothetical person who wants to major in art: "The best birthday present I ever got." Let's suppose it was her first sketchpad and a set of color pastels and charcoal:

"The fourteen candles were blown out and smoke was rising above the cake. The acrid smell always reminded me of birthdays. As my mom moved the cake away to cut it into pieces for all of my friends, I turned to the pile of presents on the chair next to me. Everyone gathered around as I picked up the first one, the largest, wrapped not in the frilly paper that all the others had, but in a simple tan monochrome wrapping with a frayed cord that had been tied into a bow knot. I noticed that it was from my older sister. My friends laughed at the sound of ripping paper as I hurried to see what it was. I was a little confused when I saw the large sketch pad and the set of pastels and charcoal. What was this and why was my sister giving it to me?"
* * * *

Now the thinking back part: That was the moment that started her on her love of drawing and art. Her sister noticed that she drew a lot, and gave her a gift that she did not understand the significance of until later. Now she wants to major in art, and that gift sent her in a new direction with her life. So that would be her essay topic.

You can use the results of this exercise for several prompts:

Why this major? Perfect for that.
Someone or an event that influenced you? Perfect for that.
Describe something about you that gives us an insight into YOU? Perfect for that.
It can even be tailored for Why this school? Describe how it changed you and how you found THIS particular school to move forward with your passion.
... etc... etc... etc...

The point is that it will be something real.

With all this in mind, that paragraph above then becomes the first paragraph of your essay.
edited September 2010
25 replies
Post edited by digmedia on
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Replies to: Easy exercise to get started on a terrific essay

  • IloveLAIloveLA 1280 replies24 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    You can also try this a different way: List four or five random moments in your life. Not necessarily "memorable", just whatever come to mind. Then proceed as above.
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  • raideraderaiderade 2319 replies180 posts- Senior Member
    In A is for Admission (which admittedly is not the most credible book imo) it seemed to discourage against essays like this. They seem pretty typical and standard type of college essay that each adcom has seen countless times.
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  • CircularCircular 362 replies18 postsUser Awaiting Email Confirmation Junior Member
    ^this advice is similar to what I did about a month ago. It worked for me, every adult that has seen my essay has said it was great. This is a great post, somebody should sticky it.
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  • NorthstarmomNorthstarmom 24049 replies804 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    What the OP posted is similar to how I've taught students how to write admission and scholarship essays, and the people I taught wrote some excellent essays and got some very nice acceptances.

    It's a great method for being able to write something with specific details that reflect what's unique and of value to you.
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  • downtimerdowntimer 25 replies11 postsRegistered User Junior Member
    Thanks, I am going to show this to my son next year when it is his turn to apply to colleges.
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  • somead896somead896 421 replies32 postsRegistered User Member
    This is great for those people who had ideas but didn't know which one to pick. Thanks a lot.
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  • burnitblueburnitblue 495 replies27 postsRegistered User Member
    This advice is just like how I came up with my essay topic - my 12th grade English teacher assigned us to pairs and had us walk around the track at our school and tell each other a story from our lives that we remember especially well.
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  • mmn13ps3mmn13ps3 150 replies33 postsRegistered User Junior Member
    I guess I will give your method a try.
    Because I started my essays last week, and I am half blank about what to write
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  • LadyBeatriceLadyBeatrice 12 replies0 postsRegistered User New Member
    See, when asked about something like this, my mind just goes blank straightaway. In my English exam this summer, the essay question was "Describe a day from your childhood" and I couldn't think of ANYTHING. :(
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  • brown14brown14 589 replies219 postsRegistered User Member
    definitely a good idea.

    i did this with mine last year and got into some ivy league schools. one of the adcoms mentioned the essay in their christmas letter to me
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  • digmediadigmedia 3122 replies209 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    Not all essays essays need to work just like this. If you are a GREAT write, then write your great essay. If you are like the rest of us, having problems just thinking of a topic and getting started, then the advice above is for you.
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  • BIN157BIN157 18 replies9 postsRegistered User New Member
    Sorry, can I ask, what if the particular events that are memorable to me do not necessarily showcase my strengths? I can describe these events in great details, which I guess would make my essay more convincing and natural. But You are supposed to highlight your strengths in your personal essays right?
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  • EngineerjwEngineerjw 961 replies175 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    You can describe something not necessarily flattering, but you would have to keep it positive. Possibly describe the event and say how you have changed. Or the event could be completely random, and you make what you want of it. As long as you think it makes you marketable the college, it should be fine.
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  • NOLAhornets23NOLAhornets23 112 replies17 postsRegistered User Junior Member
    tag, i'll try this out
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  • 2bizee2bizee 484 replies15 postsRegistered User Member
    The best way to learn to write is to WRITE. Use this exercise to get started writing.

    If you can't think of anything when faced with a blank piece of paper (or screen), then talk it out with someone. Get them to ask you questions about yourself or your past. Then write about it.

    Don't let some misguided perfectionism keep you from getting started "I read somewhere not to write that kind of essay...". I am sure that plenty of people got admitted to Harvard, despite the fact that they wrote essays about trite topics. They did them well. Get started and write.
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  • digmediadigmedia 3122 replies209 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    I think that people make a mistake in thinking that the topic of an essay needs to be unique, that somehow the essay will stand out from the crowd if only one could think of a topic no one has written of before. Your essay will stand out if it is written well and lets the reader know something about you.

    Take, for example, the death of someone close to you, one of the most trite of all topics. But if it is written well, evokes the moment, and says something about you, then even that can work:

    The small chest was opened by my grandfather's frail hand and the contents began to sparkle even before the lid was completely lifted. He had called his grandchildren together that night, and we were brought into the bedroom one at a time. His leukemia was advancing daily, but there was no mistaking that he was enjoying this little ritual. His parents had run a jewelry business many years ago and this chest was all that remained of it. The antique jewelry was valuable and he wanted each of his grandchildren to take a single item. The heaping pile of shining gold and polished gemstones could have been the contents of a pirate's chest. But I saw what I wanted almost immediately: a tarnished sterling silver frog ring. It was nearly worthless, but it seemed to call to me from the tangle of treasure and I retrieved it. With the certainty of fate, it was a perfect fit for my finger, the rear legs of the frog transforming into the ring band, and the front legs reaching forward to grab my finger.

    "Don't you want something more valuable?" he asked. "No," I replied, already in love with this little silver frog.

    He died three hours later.

    I still wear the ring. Over the past few years, as I've grown, I've twice had it resized, both times requiring that it be cut from my finger. Each time, as I slipped on the ring with its larger band, the front legs of the frog reached out and grasped my finger with its comforting grip.

    My siblings and cousins may have a more valuable item stuffed away in a drawer somewhere. But I have the silver frog, holding my finger like my hands held on to my grandfather's finger when I was small and we walked together, side by side.


    It's a topic that essay readers might see many times in an admissions season, but this is unique because it happened to me and me alone.

    What does this imply about me? What does it imply about my relationship with my grandfather? Notice that I don't have to interpret everything and lay out exactly what I want the reader know. By letting that person DISCOVER some things about me on his/her own, that will make it more memorable.
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  • 1000PaperCranes1000PaperCranes 73 replies18 postsRegistered User Junior Member
    Nice thread.
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  • Aloha808Aloha808 5 replies4 postsRegistered User New Member
    How do I apply this technique to specific questions like so: Please provide a statement (250 words minimum) that addresses your reasons for transferring and the objectives you hope to achieve.

    I feel like I'm chained to write a bland essay..
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  • digmediadigmedia 3122 replies209 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    First, you need to figure out WHY you are transferring. If it's for a major, for a particular opportunity, or for a change in direction after you've figured yourself out a little more, then you're in luck. But honestly determine the why and then what you'll make of the chance if you are given it.

    Here is a small exercise. Forget the essay for a moment.

    1. Suppose you are with your best friend and he asks, "In 25 words of less, why do you want to transfer?" How would you answer that? Be as honest as you can.

    2. Now suppose you find yourself in an elevator with the admissions person making the decision, and she asks, "In 25 words or less, why do you want to change to our school?" How would you answer that?

    If the answer to #2 is the same answer as to #1 (except maybe a little more polished), then you are in good shape. If the answer to #1 could NOT be used to answer #2 (e.g., "That's where my girlfriend is."), then you are chained to write a bland essay.

    If it is for more opportunity or a change in majors or something which is substantial, then go back to the exercise in the original post and think of the moments when you were deciding to make the change. What were you thinking, feeling, etc, and start there.

    If the change is for practical reasons, I would advise to do the same (be honest), and think about the moments that led to your decision and think about describing those. For example, money is often a reason for moving to a different (cheaper) school. People might disagree with me, but if you are not honest and try to say how great the school is and make up reasons to go there, the phoniness will shine right through. I would think about being totally honest, but start the essay with those moments that you began to realize your current situation was not going to work.

    I was sitting under a tree on campus, chilled by the autumn wind, knowing that I finally had to make a decision. I could either be pragmatic about my situation, and then move on to start the process of making it this the best decision of my life. Or I could continue where I was and face a lifetime of debt....."
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  • ShilohShiloh 117 replies13 postsRegistered User Junior Member
    Thanks, digmedia. I'm going to bring up some of your suggestions to my students.
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