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Episode Notes

Episode Title: Segment #4 on College Essay: What to Write? A Guide to Build a Standout US College Application.

Episode summary introduction: Segment #4 of the 10-Segment Podcast Series to help students in 11th Grade build standout US College Applications. This segment describes a framework for students to figure out what to write in their college essay. Subscribe for Assignments.

In this segment, Athena Lao and Rob Franklin of Admissionado lead us through the discussion.

In particular, we discuss the following:

  • What is a College Essay?
  • What to write in a College Essay?

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • Introduction to the Segment #4 [1:14]
  • What is a College Essay? [4:48]
  • What to Write? [9:28]
  • Pick 2 Traits or Attributes [10:22]
  • Substantiating Narrative & 4 Buckets [11:45]
  • Example: Ian [14:27]
  • Inciting Event  [16:58]
  • Investing in your Passion [18:16]
  • Tangible Outcomes [19:55]
  • Larger Impact and Tying Back [21:05]
  • Essay: What Next? [22:23]
  • Example 1: Annie [23:01]
  • Example 2: Debi [25:34]
  • Gobi Dasu on his Stanford Essay [28:12]
  • Call 2 Action - Subscribe for Assignments [31:09]

Our Guests: 

Memorable Quote: “If you don’t have a good ‘What?’, you won’t be able to get to the next part…”, talking about the College Essay.

Episode Transcript: Please visit Episode’s Transcript.


Episode Transcript

Transcript of the episode’s audio.

Athena Lao  0:20  

The way that I came up with my personal statement was that I tried to think about something that felt really unique to my experience. And one of those was my name, and where my name came from.

So my, my first name is actually composed of two names Athena Louise, and Athena is from Athens where I was born in Athens, Georgia. And Louise comes from Louisiana, where my parents were married.

So I was able to tie in my name with my larger interest and language, this connection to geography, to travel and to understanding people, and how it sort of opened me up to the world and made me a more curious person. All thanks to my name.

So apparently Harvard liked that, because that's the essay that I wrote about.

Venkat  1:14 [Introduction to the Segment #4]

You just heard Athena Lao, graduate of Harvard University tell us what her College Essay was about.

Today, you will learn that Your Essay needs a Great “What?” as in ‘What to write in a College Essay”.

Hello, I am your host, Venkat Raman.

Hard to believe we are on our 4th Segment of our 10-Segment Podcast series - A Guide to Build a Standout US College Application.

As you may remember in our March Segment on College Application Strategy, we learned about something called “Working Vision”.


Here’s a Pop Quiz based on Segment #3. Listen to this and we will talk on the other side:

Athena  ??

  • The second sentence is on extracurriculars, what you're doing outside of the classroom, and why you're interested in that
  • And then the third part is ?

Venkat Raman  3:17

Ok. Athena is talking about the 3 categories that make up the Working Vision. We want you to tell us what the 3rd part is.

The first 10 Correct answers will receive a FREE 30-min Counseling session over Google Meet.

Email your answer to “podcast at almamatters.io”, with the Subject: WorkingVision. Good Luck!


Now, on with Segment #4.

Within the College Application realm, the Essays have a mysterious quality about it. Students view it with some level of apprehension - unsure what it is all about.

According to one survey, almost half the applicants think the Essay is the most challenging part of the College Application.

So, our goal in this segment is to take some of the  mystique out and give you a framework to help you with the essay in our ongoing mission of helping you build standout applications.

In this Segment we will address

  • What is a College Application Essay?
  • What should you Write in your essay - by building on your Working Vision - so that you can put your “best-self forward”,
  • To make the case for why the college should pick you.

The “What to Write?” is a 2-Step Process:

  • Step 1: Select 2 Traits or Attributes from the “Working Vision” you want to highlight;
  • Step 2: Create, what is called, a Substantiating Narrative based on the Traits from Step 1 by following the recommended structure.

Let’s jump right in with our dynamic duo you’ve met in Segment #3

  • Athena Lao, Head Mentor at Admissionado, and
  • Robert Franklin, Mentor at Admissionado.


Venkat Raman  4:32

So Athena, I think today we are going to talk about College Essays. So maybe you can kick it off by answering the big question - What is a College Application Essay?

Athena  4:48  [What is a College Essay?]

I totally understand that students sometimes freak out when they have to think about the college application essay, because it seems like this long and arduous task. And it seems like there are many, many things to write about.

Fortunately, we can. When we say the college application essay, we can break it down into two buckets.

So the way that I like to think about it is that the first bucket is usually the main essay of something that we commonly call a personal statement.

The other bucket is what we call supplemental essays. So these are shorter essays that explore the mutual fit between the student and school.

So I'm just going to talk very briefly about these two buckets so that we have an idea of the questions that we need to answer when we're focusing on those essays.

On So in the first bucket, the personal statement, the main essay, so this is the longer essay, but most schools are going to see, when you apply. And so I like to think of this as “the movie”. This is the essay where you need to think of a gripping story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. And if you're basically responding to the prompt, “tell me about yourself”. So this is a time that you're going to really dig deep, think about some information, some story that really shows your heart, your personality, all of that. And that can't be found anywhere else in your application. So this is the movie that if you do it right, you're going to grip the admissions officers attention and make them more interested in all the other parts of your profile, because they see the story behind all of your different accomplishments and interests. So that's the movie bucket.

In the second bucket, this is what I like to jokingly call maybe half jokingly call the “marriage proposal”. And the reason I call it this is because we're in these supplemental essays. And this is the marriage proposal bucket. It's very similar to a marriage proposal in the sense that you're trying to make to figure out, you know, what's the fit between you and me? What makes us great for each other?

So when you're doing that the questions that fall in this essay bucket are asking, What is it about this school's academic program that you're really interested in? Why are the academic opportunities right for you? Other essays might ask about community, what is it that you will bring to the school community? And what is it, what opportunities does the schools extracurriculars and outside of classroom opportunities offer for you?

So when you think about these two buckets, I think it'll help make it easier to understand what kind of information you need to prioritize.

You need to show the school who you are in a gripping way, catch their attention. And then you need to help them understand what is it about you that you can bring to the school and make it a better place? And what is it about the school that makes it the perfect fit for you.

So in order to tackle these buckets, make sure you fill them with the appropriate information, you have to think about what we've been talking about in past episodes, which is the working vision, the strengths that you have in your own personality that you want to highlight.

So this is where I'm going to turn it over to Rob because when you can take that information and categorize it in the right way, then you can understand what it is you need to write in these essays.

Venkat Raman  8:26  

Here is Gobi Dasu, a computer science graduate from Stanford University, talking about his college essay,

Gobi Dasu  8:35  

[The essay] It was all about my summer intern internship experience at UC Santa Cruz in astrophysics. And so it started out just with me saying, “This summer I discovered Planet X” was how I intended the essay to begin with. So that was the first line of my essay. And then the second line on my essay was, “however, I can't claim that opener”.

So essentially, the essay was all about how I was setting out in this internship to find this planet. And I didn't find it and it was a very humbling experience for me.

Venkat Raman  9:15  

Rob, I think if you can pick it up from here, and you don't talk about what to write, which is at the heart of every essay from what Athena just mentioned.

Rob Franklin  9:28  [What to Write?]

Yeah, absolutely. Thank you Athena for setting it up like that.

So in thinking about kind of, what to write, First, I mean, it should be mentioned that there will be essay prompts provided.

So on the 2021 application on the Common App, there were seven essay prompts. But the thing about these prompts is that they're structured basically to allow the student to speak about whatever they want, from their personal backgrounds of their talents, their heroes, their hardships and their vision for the future. And that course can be intimidating, because you basically have an entire universe of things that you can you can write about.

Rob Franklin  10:22  [Pick 2 Traits or Attributes]

So we have an exercise that we would like you all to perform, to start to get a sense of what the best version of your essay might look like. So as Athena mentioned, in order to perform this exercise, we want you to have your working vision from last episode in front of you. And that's that statement. That's about why you're destined for future success that incorporates your academics, your extracurriculars and your personal attributes or your SPARC.

Now, once you have that in front of you, you're going to want to ask yourself two questions.

And the first is what personal attributes do you want to highlight. So that could be anything from if you happen to be a risk taker, slash Rule Breaker who kind of has a propensity for challenging antiquated systems and rules with an eye toward the collective good, that can be something you might want to highlight.

Or if you're a really well rounded student who kind of excels in leadership positions, that can be something to highlight.

Alternatively, if you have a very specialized skill set, and you're extremely passionate about one thing, that can be something to highlight. So take a second to write down the two personal attributes or traits that you feel most interested in highlighting.

Rob Franklin  11:45  [Substantiating Narrative]

Great. So now that you have that, the second part is that you're going to want to develop a substantiating narrative.

So we have the trait that you, you want to highlight are the two traits you want to highlight. But for each of those traits, you want to think about the story.

As Athena mentioned, this is, this is the movie. This is the hero's journey about how you arrived at that place. So in this activity, we're going to have you kind of jot down some notes for substantiating some substantiating narrative that turns your attribute into a character arc.

So, for instance, it's not really enough to say that you love chemistry, your story needs a beginning. So we want to think about the first time that you became interested in chemistry, the first experiment you witnessed, the first class you took, write down those memories, and kind of any information about what initially drew you in. So that's the beginning.

And then we want to think about how that interest developed, how you invested in it, what classes you took throughout, throughout high school, that allowed you to deepen that interest, how you engaged it outside of the classroom? How did you join any communities that were also committed to that interest? And how did you add to those communities.

And then as far as an end, there isn't one really, because you're still 16/17/18, there shouldn't be a clear end to the story around this passion or trade. We want to position it more as still just beginning, right to be explored and deep into, on a college campus.

So I think the best essays really managed to say without explicitly saying what the applicant would add to a given college. And so I think to do that you can you can really meditate on your future, how you intend to incorporate that passion, or lessons you learned, on your way towards whoever it is you are today. How you intend to bring those those lessons into the next stage of your life.

And I think this last link often separates mediocre essays from excellent ones.

Rob Franklin  [4 Buckets for Substantiating Narrative]

Great. So within this substantiating narrative, there are really four buckets that I want you to think about.

  • So the first is the beginning or inciting event.
  • The second is how you invested in a passion or a trait that you noticed early on.
  • The third is the tangible outcomes of that investment.
  • And the fourth is tying this investment, and the tangible outcomes back to the inciting event or a larger issue.

Rob Franklin  14:27  [Example: Ian]

So thinking about a more kind of robust example, we want to bring back our friend Ian from the last episode.

So just as a reminder, here was his working vision:

I am bound for future success because in my academics, I'm a high performer across the board with a specialized skill set and interest in STEM, particularly math and computer science. I'm interested broadly in sustainability and the practical applications of CS and have shown that by participating in sustainability council, robotics, putting an immense amount of work and research into building a robot that can sort out recyclable materials like plastic from the trash bin at school. We came first in Northeast Regional competition with hundreds of entrants.

My strongest character traits are asking intellectual, intellectual curiosity that led me to teach myself programming languages beginning in middle school, and pursuing taking on the challenge of college level coursework relevant to my interests as a high school student.

[“Simple Essay”]

Taking that profile, we know that the person's personal attributes that Ian wants to highlight are primarily his intellectual curiosity. So not only this lifeline, this lifelong passion for CS and programming, which he individually invested in by teaching himself programming languages, online forums, but also this burgeoning interest in environmental science.

And I think that there are obviously infinitely many approaches to, infinitely many approaches to this essay.

So for instance, Ian could go kind of straightforward chronologically, and document how he first discovered his love of programming, then how he, he invested in that, and then how he discovered his passion for environmental science, and how he invested not and then how he got married the two.

[Better Approach to Essay]

But I think that a more interesting structure to the essay, could be kind of considering his skill set in CS through the lens of environmental science.

So with eyes toward that, which might be the most unique version of that essay, here's some, some starting steps that will help Ian develop his hero's journey, their narrative arc.

Rob Franklin  16:58 [Inciting Event]

So thinking about a beginning, he needs an inciting event, something that kind of creates the action. So for Ian, it happens to be that he watched a YouTube documentary about the plastic ocean, OCEAN, or the plastic Island, in the middle of the ocean, to basically a bunch of piled up plastic. That is kind of evidence of, of a great deal of human plastic waste. And I would say if, if that once, if he Ian wants that to be his way into the story, he should go ahead and rewatch that documentary, and jot down some specific notes about which images or statistics speak to him most. Then he should free write on how it made him feel to watch that the first time.

From speaking to him, we know that following the first time he watched that documentary, his eyes were completely opened. And in the following weeks, he noticed all of these instances of human waste, and kind of unsustainable use of plastic. So we should write down those instances as well. And start to get a sense of what would be the most compelling narrative opening to his story.

Rob Franklin  18:16 [Investing in the Passion]

Then we want to think about the relevance of his CS skills. So we know that the CS powers is super-central to the story, I would say that he should practice how we can best distill that background and learning programming into one to two sentences.

So he should assume that the admissions committee whoever is going to be reading this essay doesn't have a high degree of technical knowledge, I think that that's a really helpful thing to remember. No matter what your kind of passion or specialty is. Don't assume that whoever's reading the essay is going to have the same same degree of like jargon or, or kind of know how to keep all of you should keep all of his language oriented toward his individual actions, and their tangible outcomes, rather than technical minutiae.

So he'll describe how he gained this kind of technical prowess in programming languages. For him, it's that he took these high level courses starting at a fairly young age, eventually leading him to take college community college level courses during his junior year, and then how he was able to translate those lessons into building this robot.

So he taught himself using online forums, how to successfully program an infrared sensor that would detect the presence of plastic objects in say, a paper recycling bin with a fairly high degree of accuracy.

Rob Franklin  19:55  [Tangible Outcomes]

Next, we want to see in his story some tangible outcomes for his his time investment and the way he kind of nurtured that trait that passion that interest. So in Ian's case, he won this robotics competition, which is a really great example of not only kind of tangible outcome of how we invest in that passion, but a way that he's been publicly recognized for it to kind of attest to his skill set.

So I would say, again, he should be thinking about this in a narrative way, thinking about the weeks that were leading up to that robotics competition, as well as the day of. How did his team support him and vice versa? How did he feel on the day of the competition? What was it like to hear his name announced as winner? All of these are the types of things he should be writing notes about, or free writing. So that he can really develop, kind of, a compelling, in a way climax to his story.

Rob Franklin  21:05 [Larger Impact, Tying back to the Inciting Event]

And besides that, I wonder if there was a larger impact on his community beyond just this competition, for instance, that he rolled out the recyclobot in his high school? And if so, does he have any even anecdotal information about what the impact of that was on, on student waste on campus.

And following that, we want to tie back to this kind of inciting and inciting event that that brought us into the story, or the larger issue of sustainability.

So he should make sure to tie his story, his growth and his success to a larger narrative. And I think he could tie it to a narrative around how he developed a passion for the practical application of computer science.

But he could also tie it to kind of a higher minded message about how everyone needs to use every tool in their arsenal, to combat the destruction of our planet.

I think, you know, the best version of this essay probably does some of both, and really leaves the reader with a sense that Ian is destined for greatness, and even inspire them if you can.

Athena  22:23  [Essay: What Next?]

So what Rob just walked you all through was the “What”, because if you don't have a good what, then you won't be able to get to the next part, which we'll talk about in a future episode, which is the how you bring the story all together.

So look out for that in coming episode. But for now, we'd really love for you to focus on translating that working vision into the four parts that he talked about. So that you now have this outline that you can turn into this magical piece of writing that you'll ultimately submit to college admissions committees.

Athena  23:01  [Example 1: Annie]

In addition to Ian’s story, what you heard in depth, what how what the process was for getting to the outline, I wanted to provide two other examples of students who are able to successfully translate their working vision into a compelling story.

So the first profile that I'll pick is Annie from America, all the names have been changed for this segment, just FYI.

So Annie from America wanted to study geology when she went to college, the working vision was that she was this passionate, intellectually curious and passionate student in terms of the STEM fields. She was very active in Girl Scouts and other volunteering activities. She'd even traveled to other countries to engage in archaeological and geological research in those areas.

[Annie - Substantiating Narrative]

So what we wanted to do in her essay was to bring out that intellectual curiosity, The Ask from SPARC, if you'll remember that and how she pursued. So how she assumed challenges in her life.

Another important part of her profile was that she had a speech disorder and another medical condition, which she had to overcome, in addition to all of the other achievements that she had during high school.

So when we thought about the inciting event, how she invested in her passions, and what the outcomes were from that we ended up writing a story, it was a serious story about how she overcame her medical condition. So the event that we started out with was how she had to teach herself to walk by practicing walking towards a tree step by step.

And from that inciting event that expanded into a bigger story about how she was able to overcome the odds, teach herself how to walk And how that resilience translated into other areas of her life.

And so in addition to that, in her supplemental essays, she was also able to talk about the depth of her research in the STEM fields and how she was just really passionate about studying the earth, and wants to engage with that topic in her college major and in her future career. So that outline that that brief profile is one example of a student who's successfully able to translate that working vision.

Athena  25:34 [Example 2: Debi Working Vision]

The second profile that we want to feature is Debi from India. So Debi wanted to study economics with a focus on environmental science in college. And Debi was a leader in many clubs at school, including on the debate team model, United Nations, and a variety of different organizations.

And he had also pursued economics research on his own by contacting a professor and doing an independent study with him, and also writing articles about his favorite econ topics for different online journals, and publications.

So Debi, is a little different from Annie in that he was able to cover this, this leadership and this different independent intellectual curiosity and opportunities in his supplemental essays.

So in his main application statement, his main personal statement, he wanted to touch on something a little bit bigger, and that wasn't covered in his, in the rest of his application. He wanted to show his way of thinking and how he had grown and developed in that way.

Athena  26:39  

So in his essay, he talked about, a, his struggle with religion, but he took it on in a more comedic way.

So the inciting event of this essay was how he was forbidden from eating a certain vegetable, because of his religion. And by thinking about this vegetable as his mortal enemy, he was able to draw the readers in into this sort of hero's journey of trying to overcome this, this fear and hatred of this vegetable.

And that comedic story then became a bigger story about how he had to change his relationship to that religion, how he had to question certain facets of that religion that he did not before. And in the end, the outcome was that he had a more nuanced relationship with that religion, and was able to think more pragmatically and more openly about deeper topics than he would have otherwise.

So someone who is reading that would be able to understand how he is a deep thinker and is ready for college and ready for bigger problems and complex situations that he might encounter in the future.

So that's another way that you can approach the college application personal statement, is by thinking about how you can tell a story that is not told anywhere else.

Venkat Raman  28:05  

Here is Gobi Dasu of Stanford University to talk to us some more about his essay.

Gobi Dasu  28:12  [Gobi Dasu on his Stanford Essay]

In the essay, I sort of structured it - it was four paragraphs of structure, the first one was sort of that starter, where I start off with I discovered, I was gonna discover this, but I didn't. And the truth is, I didn't, I wasn't able to do this. And it was a humbling experience.

It was an essay that now when I look back at it, it's full of emotion. It's full of this emotion that you come in thinking that you got good grades in high school, you're going to do well, you're doing a cool internship at a university.

But at the end of the day, you don't know most things, you only know a very small fraction of knowledge that there is.

And, you know, my professor would come in and I go on and talk about the struggles in more detail, the in the middle of the essay talking about how I would look at different types of astronomy jargon and, and different types of astronomy file formats and telescope, source catalogs and things like that.

And in the end, I would tell the professor, “what's going on, why is this such a struggle, and I have a few exciting candidates”. And then he'd say, That's awesome. You probably found Planet X, and then he call up word probably with

Well, probably defined as a 1% probability!

And the way I ended it was a little bit interesting, though, and that was, I was getting into more emotions. I used words like frustrated, confused, outright unhappy 99% of the time, and I was talking about this very, very frustrated experience. Going into a professor's office and telling him about how I'm not happy with my research. And then I talked about This insight that the professor gave me where he says, well, that frustration 99% of the time is what makes the 1% of the time that you actually succeed so phenomenal!

It was just very humbling.

And I sort of ended the paper with a very short paragraph saying, you know, “Science is this truthful report of how Mother Nature behaves. And paradoxically, you know, struggle doesn't have to be successful, in order for research to be.”


Venkat  30:35

Hi again!

Hope you liked Segment #4 of the Podcast Series and found it useful.

In this Segment on College Essay, we covered

  • What is a College Essay?
  • What to Write in a College Essay?

As mentioned earlier, based on this Segment we have an assignment for students in the 11th standard/grade. You can get our Counselors feedback on your assignments.

[A lot of talk about buckets today - we should have called it “The Buckets Episode”...]

Venkat  31:09   [Call to Action - Subscribe for Assignments]

Now, You have to Subscribe to get the assignments.

It’s easy To Subscribe.

Just email to podcast at almamatters.io [podcast@almamatters.io] with the Subject: Assignments.

We will send you an email with instructions on the assignments.

As before,

Here’s a great deal for you:

Submit your Completed Assignments before our next Segment is published,

AND you will get a FREE review by Our Counselors.

So, hurry up!

And by the way, if you missed the previous Segments, get on it. It will get harder to catch up as we keep moving forward!

Our May Segment will be on College Selection & the

June Segment on ??.

So stay tuned.

Venkat  30:04

This series is for high school students in their 11th Grade/Standard and who plan to apply to US Colleges at the end of this year.

This series is being created in collaboration with Admissionado, a US-based college counseling company.

Transcripts for this podcast and previous podcasts are on almamatters.io forward slash podcasts [almamatters.io/podcasts].

To stay connected with us, Subscribe to Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify or visit anchor.fm forward slash almamatters [anchor.fm/almamatters] to check us out.

Thank you again for listening to this podcast.

Till we meet again, take care and be safe.

Thank you!

Summary Keywords

US Colleges, College Admissions, Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern University, Extracurricular, International Students, SPARC, Seizes, Pursues, Asker, Risker, Creates, Assignments, SAT, Summer Pre-College Programs, Yale University, Union College, University of Wisconsin Madison, Counselors, Admissions Officers, Wisconsin Idea.

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