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 three times in a row.

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

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

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

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

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

At the same time, I 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 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.

Most of it was Michael, however, who learned early on how to set goals, work hard and persist despite the odds. Bravo, Michael!


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

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

He shared this one with Forbes magazine.

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

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

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

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

That goes for ALL essays. You just don’t know how much they mattered, even though it’s believed among most in the college application world that they usually can and do matter, especially among the most competitive schools.

However, simply because a student got into Harvard or Yale does not necessarily mean her or his essay was brilliant. There are often other factors that can override even a mediocre essay.

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


With all that said, I believe Michael’s essay was well written and hit many of what I believe are the important markers for an effective college application essay, such as a personal statement for the Common Application, Coalition Application or others that require a student to reveal themselves and what they care about.

At the same time, it’s not the best essay I’ve ever read, and I believe there are techniques to bump it up.

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

I think 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 had a clear idea 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 someone eager to learn more about himself, others and the world at every opportunity.

Second, I love 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 always my favorite, he STARTED his essay with one of these everyday moments, in the form of an anecdote, that will be one of the best ways to quickly ‘hook’ or engage your reader at the very start of your essay.

It also didn’t hurt that much of the theme of his essay was timely and highly relevant the idea that people are so divided these days along partisan lines and have trouble even discussing current issues.

Also, notice how lot of the essay was dedicated to Michael sharing WHAT HE LEARNED toward the end of the essay. This type of analytical, introspective and reflective writing is what all effective essays need to be meaningful. (How to Go Deep In Your Essay)

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

Now, could it have been better?

I think so.

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

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

I would have assured him that it was a very solid essay, and he could stop there if he wanted.

There’s was nothing wrong with it.

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

This means that the writer ‘buried’ the most interesting example of the topic down low 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 was elected president.

But I think he could have crafted an even more relevant, personal and impactful anecdote from the more interesting moment that he shared lower 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 with a conservative mom would make an awesome anecdote!’ (Yes, I really talk like that.)

As much 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, mistake, setback, phobia, obsession, change, … )

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


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

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

Then he could 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, with the raw steak and the steak-and-potato mom in her Texas vacation home.

Talk about tension! You want to know what happens next.

Also, problems often 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 themselves, you have made a lasting impression and that’s exactly what you want!

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

The other beautiful thing about starting with a problem is that you can naturally delve into how you handled it, which Michael did beautifully, and then explain what you learned from it, which Micheal also did.

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

The best way 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 referring to Michael’s essay as ‘The Bloody Steak’ essay.

Learn More: 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 at the start, and also 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 obviously worked for him.

My goal in critiquing it here was to share some of the ideas and tips I think you can use to craft and knock your essays out of the park.

Should you want to write an essay that’s as good, or 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, problems are your friend.

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

Good luck!

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

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

That means writing about everyday or ordinary experiences as opposed 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 in the school musical.

See the difference?

Which would you rather read about?

So when I discovered the brilliant writer 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 go back in time and scroll through your busy, overloaded mind to unearth your best personal moments and experiences.

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

Add the pressure of finding the ONE SUPER DUPER STORY from your past that will 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 says,’Thinking up stories is hard. Getting them to arrived at you is easier.’

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

Here’s the best writing technique Lynda shares in What It Is that I believe can help you learn to tap your most meaningful, and colorful, real-life stories that you can spin into awesome college application essays.

Even if you don’t come up with the perfect story for your essay at first, you will learn how to use the mundane in your life to start digging them up.


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

Give yourself about a half hour.

Grab a pen or pencil and piece of paper.

Number it 1-10.

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

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

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

Like, a car or truck.

Then she has you set a timer ( 3 minutes) and quickly list the first 10 cars you remember from your past.

Then pick the one that you like the best.

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

Picture it (in this case, the car) in your mind. (Set time for 3 more minutes)

Write down what you see with your car-related image.

Where were you?Why were you there?Who were you with?What were you doing? What does it look like?What do you see?What do you smell? What do 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’ what was all around you.

Look to 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 that you have now collected notes of specific, random details about that image (memory) from your past.

Now, you’re ready for the last step.

Get fresh piece of paper, with your notes handy.

Set timer for 7 minutes.

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

Lynda’s Rules:

Start with ‘I am…’Use present tense’Tell the us what is happening,’ Lynda says.’No detail is too small to include.’


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

The goal 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 of that stuff.

Now read what you penned.

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



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

It’s also highly likely that it was highly 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 that means you experienced some type of problem.

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

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

When nothing happens, life are easy but on 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 type of problem.

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

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

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

Outstanding little story can help you show how you handle a problem, and give you a platform to explore and share how you handled it.

Outstanding little story can help you show how you learned, and what 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 keep reading. (How does it turn out?)

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

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

Once you land on a good one, you are set.

Remember, the best ones don’t try to be impressive.

They are simply those everyday moments from your past when something happened. (Read some Sample Essays to see 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 try (stick to high school years, if 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 out together

Names of vehicles that got you around

Names of people you were teamed with

Name the stuff you carried around in backpack or purse

Names of things you posted on Instagram.

Names of junk food you ate.

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

Just do one at a time.

Collect all your little stories.

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

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


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

It’s not a gift, but something you learn.

I have been preaching this blog for the last decade.

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

The reason I like them is that they offer specific tools and techniques to both help readers believe they can learn to write 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 not only needs to crank out your college application essays, but also is interested in improving your writing GET THIS BOOK!

If you are a helpful parent who will do just about anything to inspire your teenager, GET THIS BOOK and leave it on your daughter or son’s desk.

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