College Application Essays
How to Write An Anecdote About Almost Anything
Before one of my college application essay writing workshops yesterday, I skimmed over some of the rough drafts the students had written last semester for their English classes.
The writing was solid, the ideas strong.
Yet the essays were all on the dull side.
If only someone had taught these kids how to use anecdotes, I thought.
They are the ultimate writing technique for Showing (an example) rather than Telling (explaining) about a point you want to make.
Nothing powers a college application essay like an engaging anecdote in the introduction.
Often, you can pull an anecdote ( a mini true story) out of what you’ve already written and instantly transform it into an engaging read. And it can be a very everyday, simple event or moment.
I tried to think if anything of interest happened during our workshop to use as an example.
In general, it was pretty uneventful, even (ahem) a bit boring.
Then I remembered: The cat fell off the bookcase while I was talking. It had fallen asleep and slipped off. We all had a good laugh. So something did happen.
Now, how would I write that as an anecdote?
Is it possible to take such a mundane event like that and turn it into a mini-story? Let’s see.
How to Write An Anecdote
The trick to anecdotes is to gather some details.
Start with the 5ws—Who, What, When, Where and Why:
Myself, five students and a cat.
A writing workshop.
One recent morning.
In a house.
On a bookshelf.
It fell off because it went to sleep and slid off.
Next, gather the sensory details to try to re-create the scene or setting.
What did we see, hear, smell, feel, touch or sense?
I didn’t see it fall since it was lying behind me.
I heard a soft thud.
I heard the students’ exclamation of surprise.
I felt surprised.
I didn’t touch or smell anything.
RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One
Now put these together.
I find it helps to start with the “where,” and then put yourself into the picture as well.
Standing by the window? Sitting on the grass?
Where were you when the incident or event happened—for point of view.
Remember, I was sitting with my back to the sleeping cat.
My students watched it happen.
Here’s how I would write an anecdote about this moment.
It took me a couple attempts.
I wrote it out, then took out words I didn’t need or want, moved sentences around, shortened some sentences, added a phrase to another.
I read it aloud each time.
I tried to vary sentence lengths between short and long, sticking more with the shorter sentences.
I tried to think of this little moment visually—what it would have looked like as a piece of video.
I tried to start as close to the peak of the action as possible and still have the event make sense with some background.
Notice that I spend barely any time leading up to what happened.
I had been talking for nearly an hour straight. My five writing students, all seated around a large table in front of me, were starting to fidget. Suddenly, I heard a soft thump and a commotion behind me. The students also jumped up in unison.
“What the heck?” I said as I craned my neck behind me.
Everyone started laughing. The 16-year-old black cat, Ace, had fallen asleep on the bookshelf behind us and gradually slipped over the edge until he abruptly dropped to the floor. As the students laughed, we all watched Ace shake his head a couple times, stunned from the impact, trying to brush off the rude awakening. Then he padded into the next room as though nothing had happened.
I couldn’t help but think later how it took a sleeping cat to wake everyone up.
I know this isn’t great writing or the most compelling anecdote you’ve ever read.
But notice how it’s easy to read and keeps you moving forward.
Why? Because something happened, and you want to know why and what happens next.
I also want you to see how to take the most simple event or moment and turn it into an engaging anecdote, simply by relating the details of what happened in a direct manner.
There were countless other ways to describe this same moment, and that’s the beauty of an anecdote. It’s all in the telling, what details you share and what you want to emphasize.
RELATED POST: Writing Anecdotes: A Crash Course
If you want to practice your narrative writing skills, try crafting a couple anecdotes out of everyday incidents in your life.
They don’t need to be super exciting or impressive.
Just think of something that happened, say, when you were at the beach, or at a bookstore, or at the yogurt shop.
Describe a brief interaction you had with someone in line with you, or an exchange between a mother and child.
These take a little practice.
Remember, anecdotes are one of the most powerful writing techniques you can learn.
And they are solid gold when it comes to writing your college admissions essay!
RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One
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Without question, the most common place for writers to exercise their freedom in personal statements, as well as the most common place where writers feel uncertain about what they’ve done, is in their beginnings. Even personal statements that are scientific in tone and content might have creative beginnings. Although there’s nothing wrong with a straightforward opening simply stating your purpose, especially if you have just one page for your essay, most writers take a bolder tack. Readers of personal statements are used to openings that tell stories or borrow quotations, essays that discuss relevant current events, and even daring writers who risk a bit of well-conceived humor or surprise.
As the most common creative beginning, a personal story tells a tale by briefly setting a scene, often capturing some formative moment of your past when your interest in your course of study blossomed. Whether setting the scene in a classroom or on a mountaintop, remember that your goal is make readers feel they are there with you, and remember that the setting itself can be a character in your “short story”—influencing both the action and a response to that action.
Here is a perfect example of a lengthy creative beginning that winds its way into a formal thesis statement, excerpted from a Rhodes Scholarship essay in Chapter 5:
Soaked in sweat, I sat deep in thought on the small mound of sand and broken rocks in northern Kenya, where 1.7 million years ago a desperately ill Homo erectus woman had died. Her death had entranced me for years. KNM-ER 1808 had died of Hypervitaminosis A, wherein an overdose of Vitamin A causes extensive hemorrhaging throughout the skeleton and excruciating pain. Yet a thick rind of diseased bone all over her skeleton—ossified blood clots—tells that 1808 lived for weeks, even months, immobilized by pain and in the middle of the African bush. As noted in The Wisdom of the Bones, by Walker and Shipman, that means that someone had cared for her, brought her water, food, and kept away predators. At 1.7 million years of age, 1808’s mere pile of bones is a breathtaking, poignant glimpse of how people have struggled with disease over the ages. Since that moment two summers ago, I’ve been fascinated by humans’ relationship with disease. I want to research paleopathology, the study of ancient diseases, in relation to human culture, specifically sex and gender.
Note how this opening confidently integrates technical detail and even slips in an informal citation on the journey to the thesis. Here, setting acts as a character, moving our story’s protagonist to imagine a woman’s long-ago death, and we also recognize the writer’s seriousness of purpose about her work as she (as a character in the tale) contemplates the woman’s fate from a “small mound of sand and broken rocks in northern Kenya.” Just as she was taken to this important place and moment in her life, we are taken there with her as well through narrative.
Here is another example from an introduction to a student's application to medical school:
When I was little my grandfather gave me piggyback rides, brought me donuts every day when he came home from work, and taught me about nature. A simple farmer who survived World War II and lived most of his life under Russian occupation, he told me why trees grow so high, why I should not pull a cow by its ear, and why I should not chase chickens across the back yard. As fond as I was of him, as I grew and became more educated I also saw how this great man made bad choices about his health. I constantly nagged him about his smoking and poor diet. He loved bacon with eggs and milk straight from the cow. In response to my nagging he would simply say, "Eh, you are so young, what do you know?" One morning after breakfast when I was sixteen, he had a heart attack and died in the kitchen while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
Here we find a writer who simultaneously evokes the memory of his beloved grandfather and also introduces us to his own sensibility. Simple details about his simple upbringing make up a brief but vivid tale with a tragic end, and thus we understand a very personal motivation behind this writer's choice of career.
Other essays open with much briefer and less narrative personal stories, sometimes relying on just one line to set the context, with the writer heading to a purpose statement shortly thereafter. Here are some straightforward but artful beginnings to personal statements from Donald Asher’s book Graduate Admissions Essays:
I attended seventeen different schools before high school.
I spent the morning of my eighteenth birthday in an auditorium with two hundred strangers.
Radio has been my passion for as long as I can remember.
Clearly, the style of an opening that shares a personal story can range from the flashy to the plain—what matters most is that the opening truly is personal.
Like many writers and readers, I’m a sucker for a good meaty quotable quote, which is part of why quotations are used to open each chapter of this handbook. We tape handwritten quotes on our bathroom mirrors, clip them onto the visors in our cars, and paste them into our e-mail signature lines. In a personal essay, not only do quotes set context for the reader, they also allow you to ride on the broad shoulders of another who actually managed to say or write something that was worth quoting. Quotations might be used at the start of the essay, in the closing, or they might appear at a key moment within the body as a way to set context or emphasize a point. In Chapter 5 of this handbook, a quotation is used as an opening to a science-related essay by an applicant for a National Science Foundation Fellowship. In the same chapter, another writer uses a narrative opening in her essay to repeat a favorite quote that her mother used to say: “To find out where you’re going, you need to know where home is.”
Keep in mind that some quotations are highly overused and that quotations can also come off as merely trite and silly, depending on the taste of the reader. Some find Forrest Gump’s “Life is like a box of chocolates” hilarious; others just groan when they hear it. If using a quotation, be sure that you’re not just propping yourself up on it as an apology for a lack of substance to your text. Comment on the quotation’s relevance to your life rather than just let it sit there, and choose the most meaningful quote for the circumstances rather than one that simply tickles your fancy.
The Use of Surprise or Humor
Indeed, the weapon of surprise is a key ingredient in a Monty Python skit about the Spanish Inquisition (no one expects it, just in case you forgot). But in a personal statement humor and surprise can fall flat in the hands of a fumbling writer. Nevertheless, some writers take these calculated risks, and do so with style. Witness this passage from a sample essay in Chapter 4, as a film student explains how he spent his freshman year in a different major:
With a high school education grounded rigorously in math and science, I entered Mythic University on an academic scholarship with Polymer Science and Engineering as my intended major. I like to joke that, after seeing Mike Nichols’ film The Graduate and hearing that terrific line, “plastics,” delivered poolside to a wayward Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), I was inadvertently led into the hands of the great polymer Satan. But, by sophomore year, I quickly escaped the plastic devil’s clasp and found a new home in the film department.
Here, this student uses self-deprecating humor as many do in the personal statement: to explain what might otherwise look like a curiosity in his background. Readers need not question his devotion to film despite his beginning in the sciences—he even blends the two interests together by being influenced into his initial major by a film, aligning himself briefly and humorously with the hapless character of Benjamin Braddock.
Others use humor or surprise less expansively, but again with the purpose of revealing something personal and using intentional self-commentary. In Mark Allen Stewart’s How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement, one writer quips that his high school classmates voted him “Most likely to have a publishable resume,” which shows that this writer can simultaneously poke fun at and uplift himself. In Donald Asher’s Graduate Admissions Essays. Another writer opens her essay unconventionally with a surprising admission—“Skeletons. Like everyone else I have some hanging in my closet”—then later reveals herself as a “survivor of sexual assault.” Here, the writer’s tone is surprisingly frank, which under the circumstances could help her be viewed as mature and courageous, despite the risk she takes.
Part of what unifies these disparate approaches above is that the writers clearly know they are taking a risk with their rhetoric—there’s nothing accidental or highly cutesy about it. All of them reveal a passion for their chosen fields, and the humor and surprise are attention-getting without being too distracting.
Perhaps a good rule of thumb, then, is this: If using humor or surprise, aim it squarely at yourself without making yourself look silly or undermining your character, and dispense with it quickly rather than push it over the top. No matter how well you tell a joke, some readers may not care for it. And remember that not everyone likes, or even "gets," Monty Python.
It’s often said that one of the best ways to prepare for an interview for a national scholarship is to read The New York Times and be ready to discuss current events. If you make it to the interview selection stage, it’s already clear that you have an excellent academic record and look good on paper. What’s unclear is how you will present in person. By showing yourself to be not just committed to your field but also knowledgeable about the world, you paint yourself as a mature thinker, an informed citizen, a responsible student of life.
In a personal statement, writers typically create topical context by narrating a recent event of some consequence, citing a respected source, or simply establishing an arena for discussion. “Martial arts and medicine,” opens one personal essay from Richard Stelzer’s How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School, using an intentional sentence fragment to grab our attention and to crisply define two intertwined themes in the writer’s life. Other essays—the first from the Asher book and the second from the Stelzer book cited above—lend a sense of importance to their subject matter through topical references:
As I write this statement, Governor Mario Cuomo makes preparations to vacate the Executive Mansion in Albany, New York, after New Yorkers rejected his appeal for another term.
As the United States launched yet another small war in a distant corner of the globe, Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen returned to life and captivated a hometown audience in Pekin, Illinois, with the folksy eloquence that made him nationally famous.
As these politically savvy allusions show, writers who use topical references impress upon their readers that they are both informed and concerned. Here, the color of one’s political stripes is irrelevant—what matters is that they are painted clearly. Whether employing a political reference or citing a current event, when you create topical context you represent yourself as a keen observer of the world.