Essay Lessons From a College Applicant Superstar

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 x in a row.

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

Not merely was Michael accepted to 20 of our top learning institutions including Harvard, Stanford and Yale but he got a full ride to every one 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 even a crazy number of elite schools hit the media this time of year.

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

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

Anyone who’s got seen it play out knows without a doubt it’s everything you do in college, any college, that produces the difference in your lifetime.

At the same time, i really believe these exciting success stories are worth sharing.

Michael beat the odds.

More than half the 3,300 students at his Houston public high school were considered at an increased risk 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 techniques to go to college, with his multiple acceptances.

Nearly all of it had been Michael, however, who learned early on the best way to set goals, work hard and persist inspite of the odds. Bravo, Michael!


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

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

He shared this 1 with Forbes magazine.

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

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

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

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

That goes for ALL essays. You just do not know exactly how much they mattered, although it’s believed among most in the college application world which they usually can and do matter, especially being among the most competitive schools.

However, simply must be student got into Harvard or Yale does not fundamentally mean her or his essay had been brilliant. There are usually other factors that will override even a mediocre essay.theme statements for racism

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


With all that said, I believe Michael’s essay had been well written and hit many of what i really believe will be the essential markers for an effective college application essay, such as a personal statement for the normal Application, Coalition Application or others that require a student to reveal on their own and what they care about.

In addition, it is not the best essay I’ve ever read, and i really believe you can find techniques to bump it up.

Remember, I’m super picky and after working with literally a huge number of essays, I have A lot of opinions.

I do 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 previously a clear notion of the MAIN POINT he wanted in order to make about himself in this essay.

In his essay, we learned Michael was involved, passionate, empathetic, observant, moral, funny, idealistic and above all some body desperate to find out about himself, others as well as the world at every opportunity.

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

Third, and that is always the best, he STARTED his essay with one of these everyday moments, in the shape of an anecdote, that will be one of the better ways to quickly ‘hook’ or engage your reader at the very start of your essay.

It also don’t hurt that much of this theme of his essay had been timely and very relevant the proven fact that folks are so divided these days along partisan lines and now have trouble even speaking about current issues.

Also, notice how lot of the essay had been specialized in Michael sharing WHAT HE LEARNED toward the end of this essay. This sort of analytical, introspective and reflective writing is just what all effective essays need to be meaningful. (How to Go Deep In Your Essay)

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

Now, could it have been better?

I do believe so.

Remember, I’m a professional editor, and I can’t help myself wrestling with ways to boost essays.

If Michael had shown me this draft, and he was still game to locate ways to make it better, I would personally have had ideas for him.

I would have assured him so it had been a very solid essay, and he could stop there if he wanted.

There’s was nothing wrong with it.

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

What this means is that the journalist ‘buried’ the most interesting example of the topic down reduced 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 had been elected president.

But I think he might have crafted a far more relevant, personal and impactful anecdote from the more interesting moment that he shared low 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 by having a conservative mom would make a wonderful anecdote!’ (Yes, I really talk like that.)

As 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, blunder, setback, phobia, obsession, change, … )

If a moment doesn’t involve a challenge, it may fall a bit flat and be on the dull side. (Example: When Obama won, that had been all great to Michael…but there was no issue.)


Must be 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 conversation between liberal him as well as the conservative mother of his friend, and featured the moment he wrestled with an undercooked steak and talked politics.

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

Then he might 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, aided by the raw steak and the steak-and-potato mom in her Texas getaway home.

Talk about tension! You want to know what are the results next.

Also, dilemmas frequently 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 on their own, you have made a lasting impression and that’s exactly what you want!

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

The other beautiful thing about you start with a problem is that you can naturally look into exactly how you handled it, which Michael did beautifully, and then explain everything you learned as a result, which Micheal also did.

I also talk a lot in this blog and my writing guides about the mundane, or ordinary, written down. 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 down,’ or be memorable.

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

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

Learn More: Exactly 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 from the beginning, and in addition 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 demonstrably worked for him.

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

Should you want to write an essay that’s nearly as good, and sometimes even 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, dilemmas are your friend.

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

Good luck!

If you’re starting to brainstorm that perfect topic to craft your dreaded college application essay, I have a fresh writing strategy you may find helpful.

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

That means writing about everyday or ordinary experiences in contrast 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 into the school musical.

See the huge difference?

Which will you rather read about?

So when I discovered the brilliant journalist 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 fairly share her ideas with those of you on the prowl for college application essay topics.

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

If you’re like nearly all of us, when you try to will yourself to keep in mind those golden moments, you draw a blank.

Add the stress of finding usually the ONE SUPER DUPER STORY from your past that will help 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 claims,’Thinking up stories is hard. Getting them to visited you is easier.’

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

Here’s the most readily useful writing strategy Lynda shares in just What It Is that i really believe can allow you to learn to tap your most meaningful, and colorful, real-life stories which you can spin into awesome college application essays.

Even if you don’t produce the perfect story for your essay at first, you may learn exactly how to use the mundane in your lifetime to start out digging them up.


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

Give yourself about a half hour.

Grab a pen or pencil and piece of paper.

Number it 1-10.

Lynda wants to tell her students to start by relaxing on their own and minds.

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

Then she has them consider a very ordinary noun or object.

Like, a car or truck.

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

Then pick the one that you like the best.

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

Picture it (in this situation, the vehicle) in your head. (Set time for 3 more mins)

Take note of everything you see with your car-related image.

  • Where were you?
  • Why were you there?
  • Who were you with?
  • What were you doing?
  • Just What does it seem like?
  • What do the truth is?
  • What can you smell?
  • Just What can 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’ the thing that was all around you.

  • Look towards the 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 which you have now collected notes of certain, random details about that image (memory) from your past.

Now, you’re ready for the last step.

Get fresh little bit of paper, with your notes handy.

Set timer for 7 minutes.

You are likely to write the entire time without stopping about that image/memory and whatever comes to mind about any of it.

Lynda’s Rules:

  1. Start with ‘I am…’
  2. Make use of present tense
  3. ‘Tell the us what is taking place,’ Lynda claims.
  4. ‘No detail is too tiny to add.’


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

The aim 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 any one of that stuff.

Now read just what you penned.

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



Addititionally there is a good chance that your story has some sort of special meaning to you.

Additionally it is highly likely so it had been very 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 this means you experienced some type of problem.

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

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

When nothing takes place, life are simple but regarding 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 style of problem.

If it didn’t, I bet your story had been dullsville.

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

Outstanding little story can hook your reader. (Especially if you focus on one, call an anecdote.)

Outstanding little story can allow you to show how you handle a problem, and present you a platform to explore and share exactly how you handled it.

Outstanding little story can allow you to show how you learned, and everything 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!)

Outstanding little story makes you want to read on. (How does it turn out?)

A great little story keeps you humble. (You are telling a story in the place of discussing yourself.)

In the place of fretting about finding that awesome topic for your college application essay, start digging for your own great little stories.

As soon as you land on a good one, you might be set.

Remember, the best ones don’t act as impressive.

They are simply those every day moments from your past when something happened. (Read some Sample Essays to see exactly 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 take to (stick to high school years, when 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 down together

Names of vehicles that got you around

Names of men and women you were teamed with

Name the stuff you carried around in backpack or purse

Names of things you posted on Instagram.

Names of processed foods you ate.

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

Just do one at an occasion.

Collect all your little stories.

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

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


One of my favorite things about Lynda Barry is she believes everybody else can write.

It is not a gift, but something you learn.

I have already been preaching this weblog for the last decade.

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

The reason why I like them is that they offer certain tools and ways to both help readers believe they can learn to publish 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 are a definite student who maybe not only needs to crank down your college application essays, but is enthusiastic about improving your writing GET THIS BOOK!

If you should be a helpful parent who will do almost anything to motivate your teenager, GET THIS BOOK and leave it on your own son or daughter’s desk.

In What it really is, that will be presented in a playful, cartoony style, Lynda Barry weaves in her fascinating and usually hilarious personal story into a fun series of writing exercises.