Don’t be afraid to be a hero!
The prompts for college admissions essays almost always ask students to discuss challenges they’ve overcome. Look at the common app, the UC apps, and you’ll see that this is the case. I can’t tell you what to write about as everybody’s experiences are different, but I can tell you how to structure such a paper. Presenting your own challenges and travails and how you overcame them can sadly come across as dull to your audience if you don’t present them in a manner that is compelling. The readers of these essays have heard every predictable and glib tale in the book. So rule number one is: Make it personal. Write about something that you actually experienced and that elicits real emotion within you. And, by all means, do not have someone else, especially an essay-writing service, write your paper for you. College admissions officials have an uncanny ability to sniff these out like pigs find hidden truffles. Don’t do it. Also, it’s critical to remember that these “essays” are really narratives. They have more in common with stories than expository or persuasive pieces. With that in mind, I would advise applying a basic hero’s journey structure to such a response. Here’s one of my favorite graphics describing this structure provide by author, Beverly Glick. Now I know what you’re thinking — “I’m writing a short essay, not a freakin’ novel!” Patience, grasshopper! I understand, and we’ll get to your college essay, but take the time to understand this structure and you will nail this type of essay. So here it is, nice and simple.
The Hero’s Journey
First there’s the call to action. Something happens in your life that instills in you a burning desire to do something, discover something, or change something. This “something” might be you aren’t good enough at a sport you love, and you want to master it. You want to be the first one in your family to go to college. You want to fight an injustice at your high school. The call to action doesn’t make you a hero yet – far from it. So far, you’re just a newbie who sort of has a plan. This is where the journey or quest begins. The quest is exciting and fun, but is very soon interrupted by an opposing force, a conflict, or an obstacle. Gang members threaten to initiate you into their crew. School administrators threaten to discipline you for speaking out. Your best friend goes down a dark path. Your dog eats a the blade from a disassembled garbage disposal (actually happened to a friend of mine). The opposing force is daunting, unvanquishable, and, in fact, may simply be too much for the prospective hero (you). Defeat seems imminent. You are then faced with two choices. Fight or flight. Guess which one you choose? That’s right, you fight. And the fight is difficult. It’s harrowing and it’s bloody. When the dust settles, you feel gross and your hair is messed up. BUT, you come out the winner. You survive the grand trial. When the victory is achieved, there’s a little time for pause, but more importantly, for reflection. The reflection part of the journey is extremely important because the hero isn’t the same after the quest is completed and this needs to sink in. The former self is discarded and you might even say a “new normal” exists for the hero. It is only at this point that the hero can sit back, smile and feel satisfied.
Back to your essay
So this is how you approach an essay about personal hardship. This is what college admissions offices want to see. They want to know that you have been on a journey, that you’ve overcome an obstacle, and that you’ve done so with grit and determination. They want to know that you’ve reflected on the experience and come away changed, better even. They also want to know that you can write, that you can structure your thoughts, and that you can use academic language. And all of this in no more than 650 words if you are addressing one of the Common Application prompts or 300 words if you’re applying to the University of California. Of course, all of this will come across in a fairly subtle way when you do it, that is, unless you’ve actually wrestled a bear or thwarted a bank robbery or something like that. Your hero’s journey will more likely fall into the category of “stuff that happens to normal teenagers”. And this is fine as long as you apply the aforementioned structure: Here’s an example from an actual student response to a Common App prompt: We begin with the hook in which the writer’s quest and reason for embarking on the journey is explained I have been the recipient of many a helping hand and kind gesture as a young Latina growing up in Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights area. My neighborhood was not an easy place to grow up, with poverty, unemployment and gang violence being a ubiquitous presence that affected everyone, especially kids. As I grew up, I took advantage of every club, team and outreach program in my community and at my school that I came into contact with. And, believe me when I say, it helped. So, when I entered Roosevelt High School as a freshman, I knew that joining a service organization would be a priority for me. The thesis statement focuses in on the final challenge realized. It sort of jumps ahead to the success and the end of the journey part. More than any other endeavor in my life, my role in rejuvenating our school’s Bridges Mentorship Club has has allowed me to give back to my school in ways that have been both meaningful to others and personally satisfying. This section gets into how the opposing forces created a daunting challenge in the form of expiring grants for the program (pretty formidable for a high school kid. It then goes into how the hero and her peers went to battle and achieved the win. Roosevelt High School serves grades 7 through 10 school, and some of our most at-risk students are our middle-schoolers. Bridges matches these kids with upperclassmen who guide these students through the rigors of the secondary school experience. It was a club that was supported by a federal grant for many years, but that grant expired, and the club began to dwindle. Without a budget and a teacher-mentor, Bridges lost its way. My group searched for and found a mentor, developed a fundraising strategy, recruited upperclassmen mentors and crafted lesson plans that would engage our at-risk, middle school population. We created a mentoring schedule that had to accommodate the calendars of teachers, administration and the mentees themselves. In time, we got the program up and running again, and even exceeded our own expectations in doing so. This interpretation piece allows the student to ponder and reflect on the her journey and the difference she has made. In bringing back Bridges, we brought back a support system for our most vulnerable students that was dearly missing from Eagle Rock, and we have recreated a program that has helped students in need find the support they need during one of their toughest, transitional times. Personally, I can’t imagine having had any of the successes I’ve had without the support of the clubs and organizations that were made available to me as an elementary and middle school kid. That I can bring such experiences to the younger students at my own school has been one of the most gratifying experiences in my life. What’s more, this experience has reinforced my commitment to study and work in areas where I can impact peoples’ lives in meaningful ways. Finally, in the closer, the hero celebrates her new self. The journey is complete. All in all, giving back what I received growing up has always been a priority for me. Resurrecting Bridges has not only allowed me to achieve this goal, but has created in me the confidence and motivation to set even more ambitious goals. As you can see, the journey is a fairly typical one for a high school student, but when the story is framed in light of the hero’s journey, it comes across as more compelling. So make your personal-narrative, college essays sing by giving them the proper structure and delivery. It will make a big difference if you do.