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Essay Lessons From a College Applicant Superstar

I must have watched the viral video of Michael Brown learning he got into Stanford at least 3 times in a row.

Such a feat and well-deserved accomplishment for what appears like an all-around great kid!

Not just was Michael accepted to 20 of our top learning institutions including Harvard, Stanford and Yale but he got a full ride to all of them. As well as more than a quarter million dollars in scholarships.

LEARN MORE: Michael’s Full Story

These stories about students getting accepted into all the Ivies or perhaps a crazy number of elite schools hit the media this time of year.

They bother some folks in this crazy college admissions industry since the uber-achiever message fuels the pressure, stress and unreal expectations of students still looking to get into college.

There’s means too much emphasis on getting into elite colleges, I agree.

Anyone who may have seen it play out knows without a doubt that it is that which you do in college, any college, which makes the difference that you experienced.

At the same time, in my opinion these exciting success stories may be worth sharing.

Michael beat the odds.

More than half the 3,300 students at his Houston public high school were considered in danger of dropping out.

He and his supportive single mom credited programs, such as Breakthrough Houston and Emerge, which help low-income and underprivileged students find approaches to go to college, with his multiple acceptances.

The majority of it ended up being Michael, however, who learned early on how best to set goals, work hard and persist regardless of the odds. Bravo, Michael!


Now, let’s talk about his essays since that’s why most of you read my web log.

Apparently, Michael wrote three ‘core’ essays and used them for different applications.

He shared that one with Forbes magazine.

If you want to hear my opinions and ideas about exactly what I think worked and what you can study from it, read that essay first.

One of the misconceptions from these success stories is the fact that these students’ essays are all perfect and really should be held up as shining examples.

From the ones I’ve read within the past, this is not really true.

Yes, it’s proven fact that their essays did not keep the students out of the schools (since they got in), however you really have no idea what role their essays played within the acceptance decisions.

That goes for ALL essays. You just have no idea just how much they mattered, though it’s believed among most in the college application world they usually can and do matter, especially one of the most competitive schools.

However, simply just because a student got into Harvard or Yale does not always mean her or his essay ended up being brilliant. There are frequently other factors that may override even a mediocre essay.summary the bell jar

So, bottom line, write the best essay you can.


With all that said, I believe Michael’s essay ended up being well written and hit many of what in my opinion would be the crucial markers for an effective college application essay, such as a personal statement for the most popular Application, Coalition Application or others that require a student to reveal by themselves and what they care about.

At exactly the same time, it isn’t the best essay I’ve ever read, and in my opinion you will find approaches to bump it up.

Remember, I’m super picky and after working with literally several thousand essays, I have A lot of opinions.

I believe you can learn something about your own essays by reading and analyzing sample essays written by other students, including Michael. ( More Sample essays)

What did Michael do right? A LOT!

First, I believe he’d a clear concept of the MAIN POINT he wanted to produce about himself in this essay.

In his essay, we learned Michael was involved, passionate, empathetic, observant, moral, funny, idealistic and above all somebody wanting to find out more about himself, others while the world at every opportunity.

Second, I love just how he revealed his personality and passions through sharing several real-life moments, which I call anecdotes. (Learn More About Anecdotes)

Third, and this is certainly always my personal favorite, he STARTED his essay with one of these everyday moments, by means of an anecdote, which can be among the best ways to quickly ‘hook’ or engage your reader at the very start of your essay.

It also did not hurt that much for the theme of his essay ended up being timely and extremely relevant the indisputable fact that individuals are so divided these days along partisan lines while having trouble even talking about current issues.

Also, notice how lot of the essay ended up being focused on Michael sharing WHAT HE LEARNED toward the end associated with essay. This kind of analytical, introspective and reflective writing is exactly what all effective essays need to be meaningful. (How to Go Deep In Your Essay)

Above all, Michael made certain his essay was highly personal. He shared a personal, everyday experience where he found himself in a vulnerable situation, and ended up being open and reflective about that experience. This ended up being his essay gold! (Learn The Secret of Personal Essays)

Now, could it have been better?

I believe so.

Remember, I’m a professional editor, and I can’t help myself searching for ways to enhance essays.

If Michael had shown me this draft, and he was still game to get ways to make it better, I might have had recommendations for him.

I would have assured him it ended up being a very solid essay, and he could stop there if he wanted.

There’s was nothing wrong with it.

However, I believe he did exactly what newspaper editors call ‘bury the lede.’

This implies that the author ‘buried’ the most interesting example of the topic down lower in the story, rather than starting with it to grab the reader in the introduction.

I loved that he used the anecdote about ‘the time’ his hero Barrack Obama ended up being elected president.

But I think he may have crafted a much more relevant, personal and impactful anecdote from the more interesting moment that he shared reduced in the essay.

I would have told him something like, ‘OMG, the bloody steak! The idea of you with that ‘rare, soupy steak’ having to talk politics having a conservative mom would make an incredible anecdote!’ (Yes, I really talk like that.)

In so far as I love using anecdotes (real-life moments) to illustrate larger points in essays, the best ones involve some type of problem. (Problem = obstacle, challenge, conflict, embarrassment, error, setback, phobia, obsession, change, … )

If a moment doesn’t involve an issue, it could fall a bit flat and be on the dull side. (Example: When Obama won, that ended up being all great to Michael…but there was not a problem.)


Just because a problem creates tension, and tension creates drama it’s interesting!

Michael intuitively understood the power of a problem because almost half his essay shared a tense connection between liberal him while the conservative mother of his friend, and featured the moment he wrestled with an undercooked steak and talked politics.

I might have suggested that Michael START his essay with that change, and use the dramatic tension to engage the reader.

Then he may have shifted back to the Obama moment as part of the ‘background’ or context of his personal story to take the reader back and understand his liberal leanings and passions.

The moment with the steak was so relatable. The reader can easily picture Michael there in that awkward moment, utilizing the raw steak and the steak-and-potato mom in her Texas holiday home.

Talk about tension! You want to know what goes on next.

Also, issues usually have an underlying tinge of humor.

The image of Michael staring down that steak, and intimidating traditionalist mom, struck my funny bone. If you can make an admissions officer smile or chuckle to by themselves, you have made a lasting impression and that’s exactly what you want!

It was ‘funny’ and relatable because we now have all been there!

The other beautiful thing about beginning with a problem is that you can naturally explore just how you handled it, which Michael did beautifully, and then explain that which you learned from this, which Micheal also did.

I also talk a lot in this blog and my writing guides about the mundane, or ordinary, on paper. Michael’s essay was a great example of this.

What is more ordinary that a cookout at a friend’s home?

And what is more mundane, or concrete, than trying to choke down a raw steak.

One of your main goals with your essay is for it to ‘stand away,’ or be memorable.

The best means to achieve this is not look for topics that impress the reader, but those that stick in their mind.

I’m able to just hear the admissions officers dubbing this essay and talking about Michael’s essay as ‘The Bloody Steak’ essay.

Learn More: Just How Will They Dub You?

So, yes, I’m picky about essays, and push young writers to keep looking for ways to make their essays engaging, especially in the beginning, as well as full of meaning by sharing what they learned, how they think and what they care about the most.

Michael did all this with his essay. And it clearly worked for him.

My goal in critiquing it here was to share a few of the ideas and tips I believe you can use to craft and knock your essays from the park.

If you would like write an essay that’s of the same quality, if not better, than Michaels, try this approach featured in ‘3 Steps to an Outstanding Essay,’ which showcases how you can use the tips and ideas shared in this post.

Remember, issues are your friend.

And don’t be afraid to be open, and obtain personal!

Good luck!

If you’re starting to brainstorm that perfect topic to craft your dreaded college application essay, I have a brand new writing method many times helpful.

I’m big on tapping mundane topics to encourage essays.

That means writing about everyday or ordinary experiences compared to those that try to impress or wow readers (aka college admissions folks).

Mundane topic example: My obsession with karaoke.

Trying-to-impress topic example: The time I played the star role within the school musical.

See the distinction?

Which may you rather read about?

So when I discovered the brilliant author and cartoonist Lynda Barry recently, and saw she also taps the mundane in life to help her students discover their personal stories, I couldn’t wait to share with you her ideas with those of you on the prowl for college application essay topics.

It can take practice to let yourself return over time and scroll through your busy, overloaded mind to unearth your best personal moments and experiences.

If you’re like the majority of us, when you try to will yourself to consider those golden moments, you draw a blank.

Add the force of finding the main ONE SUPER DUPER STORY from your past that may help you pound out an outstanding college application essay to land you in your dream school, well, all your lovely creative memory will seize up into a giant ball of stress and dread.

Enter Lynda Barry.

(Did I mention she’s bffs with Matt Groening? Hello! Who tells better entertaining, mundane personal stories than The Simpsons?)

She states,’Thinking up stories is hard. Getting them to arrive at you is easier.’

And in her bestselling cartoon-style book, What It Is, she teaches YOU how to do this.

Here’s the most useful writing method Lynda shares in exactly What It Is that in my opinion can assist you to learn to tap your most meaningful, and colorful, real-life stories you can spin into awesome college application essays.

Even if you don’t develop the perfect story for your essay at first, you can expect to learn just how to use the mundane that you experienced to begin digging them up.


( Here’s a mini-version in graphic kind from Lynda’s book, exactly What It Is)

Give yourself about a half hour.

Grab a pen or pencil and piece of paper.

Number it 1-10.

Lynda loves to tell her students to start by relaxing by themselves and minds.

Breathe in, breathe away. (Whatever works for you.)

Then she has them think about a very ordinary noun or object.

Like, a vehicle.

Then she has you set a timer ( three minutes) and quickly list the first 10 vehicles you remember from your past.

Then pick the one that you like the best.

Hint from Lynda Barry: ‘Pick one that found you, rather than one you thought up.’

Picture it (in this instance, the automobile) in your thoughts. (Set time for 3 more moments)

Jot down that which you see with your car-related image.

Where were you?Why were you there?Who were you with?What were you doing? Exactly What does it appear to be?What do the thing is?What would you smell? Exactly What would you hear?

Just scribble your notes.

Next she has you ‘orient’ yourself with this image or moment.

Set time for 3 more minutes.

Shut your eyes and try to ‘see’ that which was all around you.

Look to your right. Write what you see.Look to the left. Write what you see.Look down. What’s there?Look up. Write it down.

The idea is you have now collected notes of particular, random details about that image (memory) from your past.

Now, you’re ready for the last step.

Get fresh bit of paper, with your notes handy.

Set timer for 7 minutes.

You will write the entire time without stopping about that image/memory and whatever comes to mind about this.

Lynda’s Rules:

Start with ‘I am…’Utilize present tense’Tell the us what is occurring,’ Lynda states.’No detail is too little to incorporate.’


If you get stuck, Lynda Barry indicates writing the alphabet (A,B,C…) or draw little spirals until the words start again.

The target is to write continuously about that image/memory or experience for seven minutes without lifting your pen.

Don’t worry about complete sentences, punctuation, spelling or some of that stuff.

Now read exactly what you composed.

Opportunities are that you have captured a little story from your past.



Additionally a good chance that your story has some form of special meaning to you.

It is also highly likely it ended up being extremely personal (these the THE BEST ONES!) and/or amusing or entertaining (especially if you captured some ‘that happened.’)

I’m big on finding real-life stories from your past where ‘something happened,’ because which means you experienced some type of problem.

I write a lot on this blog about how problems are your friends with personal essays.

Issues obstacles, challenges, phobias, obsessions, changes, flaws, mistakes, setbacks, failures, conflicts… are what make things ‘happen’ in life.

When nothing occurs, life may be effortless but in the boring side.

I challenge you to think of any story you can recall a movie, book, event, experience, joke, memory and I guarantee it involved some sort of problem.

If it didn’t, I bet your story ended up being dullsville.

For your college application essays, you want and need great little stories for multiple reasons:

A fantastic little story can hook your reader. (Especially if you begin with one, call an anecdote.)

A fantastic little story can assist you to show how you handle a problem, and provide you a platform to explore and share just how you handled it.

A fantastic little story can assist you to show how you learned, and that which you care about, value or believe.

A great little story can be memorable (Hey admissions officers please remember me!! I’m supposed to STAND OUT, remember!)

A fantastic little story makes you want to continue reading. (How does it turn out?)

A great little story keeps you humble. (You are telling a story as opposed to speaking about yourself.)

As opposed to fretting about finding that awesome topic for your college application essay, start digging for your own great little stories.

When you land on a good one, you’re set.

Remember, the best ones don’t play the role of impressive.

They are simply those each and every day moments from your past when something happened. (Read some Sample Essays to see just how this works.)

I would suggest focusing in on conjuring stories from your high school years so they would be most relevant for your college application essays.

Here’s a few ideas for mundane, yet potentially personal nouns you might decide to try (stick to high school years, if at all possible):

Names of teachers

Names of pets

Names of ‘other mothers’ (one of Lynda’s ideas for nouns) or ‘other fathers’

Names of coaches

Names of kids in your favorite class

Names of weirdest people in your high school

Names of shoes or other footwear

Names of where groups hung away together

Names of vehicles that got you around

Names of individuals you were teamed with

Name the stuff you carried around in backpack or purse

Names of things you posted on Instagram.

Names of unhealthy foods you ate.

Don’t just take this too seriously or overthink it all.

Just do one at a period.

Collect all your little stories.

You want one your primary core essays, for the Common Application or other applications, that need a personal statement type of essay.

These little stories can be utilized in other essays, too, such as for instance the supplemental essays or scholarship essays.


One of my favorite things about Lynda Barry is the fact that she believes every person can write.

It isn’t a gift, but something you learn.

I’ve been preaching this web log for the last decade.

There are just a couple ‘How-to Write’ books that I have found helpful over the years.

The main reason I like them is that they offer particular tools and processes to both help readers believe they can learn to create and also teaches specific tricks and techniques to start practicing.

One is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

The others is Writing Tools by Peter Clark.

Now I’m excited to add Lynda Barry’s What It Is to this list.

If you certainly are a student who perhaps not only needs to crank away your college application essays, but is also thinking about improving your writing GET THIS BOOK!

If you’re a helpful parent who will do anything to encourage your teenager, GET THIS BOOK and leave it in your child’s desk.

In What it’s, which can be presented in a playful, cartoony style, Lynda Barry weaves in her fascinating and frequently hilarious personal story into a fun series of writing exercises.

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