Episode Title: Segment #6 on College Essay: How to Write? A Guide to Build a Standout US College Application.
Episode summary introduction: Segment #6 of the 10-Segment Podcast Series to help students in 11th Grade build standout US College Applications. This segment tells students How to Write the 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:
Topics discussed in this episode:
Memorable Quote: “If the person reading the story can really imagine the action right there with you, and feel like they are going with that flow that you set, that is usually very effective”, Athena Lao on Essays that Work.
Episode Transcript: Please visit Episode’s Transcript.
Transcript of the episode’s audio.
Rob Franklin 0:12
[It] is true that you have this kind of baseline structure and then it's really a question about, a, what's going to be the most effective style to tell that story. And then the, what is the, the style, that kind of best evidence is your voice and your sensibility.
You just heard Rob Franklin talk about the elements of a College essay.
In Segment #4 on “What to write in a College Essay?”, we introduced a construct called the “Substantiating Narrative” to encapsulate what you would write.
Today, you will learn how to build on that Substantiating Narrative and write your essay.
Hello, I am your host, Venkat Raman.
This is the 6th Segment of our 10-Segment Podcast series - A Guide to Build a Standout US College Application.
In this Segment we will address
To guide us today, we rejoin the 2 experts from Admissionado
Let’s get started.
We are going to begin by discussing the Framework for the essay, commonly called “The Hero’s Journey”.
Rob, you want to kick it off for us?
Yeah, absolutely. So in thinking about kind of how we're going to adapt the substantiating narrative into an actual college essay. One of the most common frameworks for a traditional narrative essay is what we call the hero's journey. And now this is this is a term that you've probably heard in high school English class. It's, again, one of these very kind of prototypical archetypal frameworks for thinking of narrative. And it basically involves a hero.
In this case, it would be you setting out on some journey, encountering a challenge that they then overcome, and then emerging, transformed or changed. So even if your story isn't as grandiose as say, Star Wars or the Odyssey, most great essays will share some of these elements. So let's break that down in terms of Ian's story, bringing back our friend Ian from previous episodes.
So putting some of the events and kind of central component components of his substantiating narratives, the inciting event or the call to adventure and Hero's Journey terms, for him was watching a YouTube documentary about the plastic island in the ocean, which really awakened him to this kind of urgent ecological concern.
As a result of of watching this documentary, and being so deeply impacted with by it, on he began a period of preparation, which in terms of the hero's journey would be considered the tests and trials. So he kind of agonized over what he himself could do about it using his specific talents. And he had always had this proficiency for an interest in CS and robotics, but he wasn't immediately sure how that was relevant. So doing kind of extensive research online, he looked into the role of individuals in producing single use plastic waste, as opposed to say, corporations or governments.
And he eventually kind of narrowed his focus in on looking at high school and college campuses to determine what the kind of individual student what the individual student's impact was in terms of plastic waste. He found that it was pretty substantial. And that one of the main drivers of that was the fact that human apathy was kind of causing people to throw away in the trash bins items that could otherwise be recycled. With that knowledge in And he had this idea for building a robot that could automatically sort the plastic out of his school's trash bins. And in order to start work on that he consulted the faculty head of the robotics team, of which he's a member. And got some insight as to how go how to go about programming this creation.
So moving on kind of jumping ahead to the competition. Remember from his substantiating narratives that eventually he had entered into a robotics competition with this recycler bought. So in the terminology of the hero's journey, this would be the ordeal, this is the main challenge that he has to overcome. So weeks of preparation, go into building this recycle about getting it to work properly. And finally, he arrives at this regional competition with it. And arriving there, he's kind of blown away by the strength of the competition, they have robots that can do a number of really impressive things. And nonetheless, he's he's proud of his progress as a programmer, as well as a steward of the planet. But he, he's feeling less confident in in the kind of strength of his work, we see, we get to see in this scene, that the anxiety and excitement of being at this sort of competition. And ultimately, he wins. And so we get this really satisfying tangible payoff for his hard work.
After that, we get to see the aftermath of that challenge that he's overcome. So this would be called the return. He emerges from the experience transformed, because he realizes that programming doesn't just have to be for fun gadgets and games, as he always used it for when he was growing up, but that it actually has the power. It actually has the power to address using technology, the societal issues that he witnesses on a day to day basis. He is incredibly inspired by this idea of the practical application of robotics, on societal issues, specifically, ecological issues in the environment. And it gives him a new sense of direction for his life, one that has potentially boundless possibilities.
Now, given that essay framework, how can a student listening to us, make his or her essays standout? After all, there are tens of thousands of applicants to a particular college, so how does one’s essay get noticed?
Absolutely. I think that's a great question. Obviously, as we have stated, most great essays are going to contain some of these elements. But in order to make it feel fresh, and make it stand out from the 1000s of other essays, you want to do something that feels distinctive. And yeah, I mean, we'd love to bring in Athena here. Hello, there. I'm curious what you've seen work in the past, just stylistically? How do people make their essays pop?
Yeah, I and I would love to hear some examples that you've seen as well. Um, so I think the thing that I tell my students is that if you start with, I have to be unique, I have to be so unique that no one's ever written something before I have to be the first to have pen this on the page, you will probably fail because chances are, there's no way that you can write a completely 100% unique story, what makes something super unique, is actually how you're able to take existing elements that work and understand when you can push your own voice or make the either the substance different from something that someone has heard before, or you're using a stylistic element in a way that just really makes sense for your story.
I think some of the approaches that I've seen work well, one in particular is what we call in media res. So as a classics major, this is something that I had to learn a lot about. If you look at the great works like Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey, they actually he actually uses this, one of the earliest examples of that. And if you watch a lot of movies, they also incorporate this. So in media res is a phrase that just literally means in the middle of things, and it's basically when you start a story in the middle of things, and then you go back in time to give necessary Information about the plot and really get people invested in this. So I mentioned in terms of some examples of different works that you might read or or research to see how authors did this. So Homer is one of them. And in terms of movies, if you're more of a movie person, you can look at a lot of Marvel movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Forrest Gump, Slumdog Millionaire, there's a bunch of different movies where they do this really effectively. So look those up. I think what really makes that work is because work is that if you are starting in the middle of things in the beginning, you can have this sort of, you can have some sort of crazy action going on something that makes the reader think, okay, like, what is actually going on here. And then once you've put them in and grabbed their attention, and made them want to know where this all might be going, then you can then bring in that information and context for how this actually relates to you, and why you should go there college. about you, Rob, what's another approach you've seen, done successfully?
Yeah, I'm now thinking about kind of the specifics of Ian's story, as well as kind of his background and what what could appeal to him. And I wonder if, you know, as we know, his kind of call to action, was this documentary that proved immensely effective at getting into care, this issue, I wonder if you could like borrow some of those, those strategies that the documentary use, so say the documentary used kind of a data forward approach. I think Ian, similarly could bring in some of those statistics, and kind of, yeah, databased approach to the beginning of his essay, to really give it a sense of gravity, right? Alternatively, you know, he's got this science science background, it could be interesting, to kind of explore the specifics of why plastic is such a big issue, as something that doesn't really break down or decompose naturally. If he could really effectively and succinctly kind of establish the mechanics of that at the opening up his essay, it could be like an interesting entry point. For for this more personal growth narratives.
Venkat Raman 12:36
What about something like, imagine a world you know, where he could paint, sort of fast forward to a world where recycling is at its peak? And, you know, things are just humming along? Right? And sort of work from there? It's I don't know what you'd call it in terms of an approach, but it seems like painting of what could be and then how he's sort of worked his way to get put in some sort of a process or means to get there. Right. Is that is that something to consider?
Yeah, so I would say that it could work. I will be honest that when you use the phrase, imagine a world and you start talking about that, it sounds more like a setup for an argumentative essay or research essay about a scientific topic. So you'd have to, but there's a way you could do that. And you'd have to think, Okay, well, if Ian's voice is that sort of very, you know, rational scientific voice. And there's a way that he could connect that to his own personal story, he got to get to his personal story really quickly from that beginning to make sure we keep the audience's interest and keep the focus on hidden, not just the this bigger, this really super big world that he's imagining, if that makes sense. Because at the end of the day, this is a personal essay and not a, an op ed in a paper about, you know, a specific scientific topic that people need to know,
totally, I could imagine a way that he could make that work. So if he began with this kind of future vision that sounded sort of idealistic, and then he quickly brought it to the fact that he's always been somebody who thinks about things about the kind of the ideal future, rather than just the way things are today, and connects that to how he kind of had this idea for, for the recycle of art and put it into action. It could be a really interesting, interesting entry point.
Or he describes that this world and the reader as they're reading it is led to believe that this is a future vision, but actually it's the present and That makes it that helps us understand the urgency of what he cares about and what he's doing and that kind of thing. Um, so yeah, so there are ways that he can sort of bring in the unexpected, even if this is a trope that we've seen before in other kinds of essays.
Speaking of the kind of tropes, I wonder, I mean, it's something I've seen work in a number of essays is having sort of a fanatic motif. So basically having something that repeats throughout that kind of echoes the central message of what the NSA is. And I wonder what that could be for in it, they think that I think that potentially, it could be some sort of, like a piece of advice that he got from a family member or the head of his robotics team. Or, again, looking at the kind of scientific point of view, I kind of am drawn to this idea, again, of the fact that plastic doesn't break down. And they kind of double meaning of that. I think that Yeah, kind of, could be kind of interesting to look at. Yeah, the idea of breaking down. And either the fact that because plastic doesn't break down, it requires an equally aggressive approach from a policy and technological perspective. Or, yeah, just literally the fact that he persevered. He didn't break down despite kind of adversity in his own journey.
I love that. And I definitely seen that used effectively, in many other students essays where they think about some object or some concept, or you know, something like what you're talking about Rob with plastic, where you would not expect that to have maybe symbolic meaning, or some sort of metaphorical significance, an extension to one's own life, then what that thing is, but the student is able to, to, to share what that deeper meaning is, or that double that multi layered meaning. So I think that's really great. Um, I think, I guess what would make that unique, right is finding an object that not many people would necessarily choose. And so when I'm talking about this with my students, it's usually like think two levels down. So usually, the first thing you think of is something new that someone else will probably have thought of. But when you dig a little bit deeper, that next round of objects or concepts you might think of, that's maybe where the, the uniqueness will, is more likely to come out. Absolutely.
So, Rob and Athena just outlined some great approaches to make your essay pop. Now, what are some things that a student could do to showcase their personality in the essay.
I mean, I would say that with, for my students, I found that humor, the use of comedy, and having that lighter touch tends to work a little bit better. Because it's very easy to come across as a teenager who takes themselves way too seriously. And as an adult, I would also I mean, I want to be taken seriously, but not seriously. So I can't suggest that to anyone else as well. But But when you when you don't know someone in your reading that work and something seems over dramatize that can be more of a turnoff. So I would say comedy, it can be risky, because everyone has different, a different sense of humor, let's say but you'll show more of your personality that way and won't seem like you're trying to be overly to be melodramatic. But you're trying to find some sort of shared humanity and what you're saying. And so this can be, you know, shown through the kinds of language that you use that there's a recurring joke that from your life that that you find funny or the use of irony, right? These are all ways that that comedy can be used effectively. And I think the question is really like, what is your what is the story you want to share? And what would be the most appropriate voice to share that story? And so there are some stories that naturally lend themselves to a more serious tone, and it's okay, you don't have to have a joke every two sentences because that wouldn't sound right. But for other stories, maybe now as you look back at it, maybe at the time, you were very embarrassed, and you thought it was the biggest deal in the world. But now you realize that it was a part of life and you learn something from it. And you can laugh at it, or, you know, talk about it humorously and reflectively. So it's, yeah, it's really it. Those are the questions you should ask yourself, as you're thinking about your stories, as opposed to saying, I have to write with a very great sense of humor, I have to write those very seriously. Because those kinds of absolutes Don't, don't really work.
Totally. I would also say mean, you should be asking yourself, what, like, what elements of your personality naturally come out and writing and write. Like, if you are a funny person, and you are a funny writer, then that's a great thing to showcase. Because it is evidently a big part of your personality. If you have a more kind of like raw Matter of fact, just a way of thinking about the world that could also feel really fresh in an essay. And so I think it's important to remember that that ultimately, you're trying to showcase your personhood, your personality, by both telling a story that gives us kind of the content of it, of it tells us something about you. But also the style of it should tell us something about you. So you're kind of filling in elements of your personality with the way you choose to write about it.
So, you now have the Essay Framework - Hero’s Journey, a few different approaches to make it stand out, and Styles to personalize in your image.
Now, how do you figure out the most effective way to tell your story?
Yeah, I think that that's a great question, I would say like, as an assignment, something you could do is go ahead and first free, right?
The hero's journey, chronological version of whatever your substantiating narrative is, write that out as an essay. So just tell it, you know, have the climax towards the end, tell us what you learned in the most kind of straightforward, clear terms.
And then I think, here's where you can kind of experiment and play around a little bit, I often find, I can tell if an essay is going to be good, or if I'm going to like it personally, from the opening two sentences, certainly from the opening paragraph. And so if you wanted to take a few of these different approaches that we mentioned on this episode, and just try to write the first two to three sentences. So try a funny approach. Maybe try a more kind of rational or fact based approach, try and media wrists, try a couple of different things.
And read those back and see which of them is speaking to you, which felt that the easiest or most most natural to write, and which is kind of appealing to you as a direction to keep going.
Venkat Raman 23:24
That's a great idea. What do you think?
Yeah, I think that's all great advice. And I mean, really, you don't know until you try a bunch of different things and get those responses from people about how your writing is seen and how to move forward. So yeah, experiment. That's the that's the best way to go about this at the beginning.
Venkat Raman 23:52 [Athena on Essays that work]
Here’s Athena with some thoughts on Essays that work.
I think that in general, the more descriptive your story is, if you can really paint a picture, which again, sounds cliche, but it's true. If the person reading the story can really imagine the action right there with you and feel like they're going with that flow that you've set. That is more that's usually very effective. Now, it doesn't mean of course, going through the stories and using all of the hardest words to make yourself sound smarter. That's oft repeated advice. And I agree with that, you should not do that. Um, but it's, we do see that the the more effective writers are able to leverage of, you know, very extensive vocabulary, a wider array of words and in order to, to tell a story. And they're able to do that in a polished way and they're able to know they're able to be precise with their descriptions at the same time, right? So they have this rich vocabulary, but They only give us the details that we need to move the story forward.
Ok, there you have it. How to Write an Essay!
In this Segment, we covered
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