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Choose what to include in your college essay

Choose!

This is

where you choose the stories and content for your college essay. Woo hoo!

Do this because

it’s about time?

Naw. It’s because you’re ready to take this big step. You’ve done the work; you’re in a position to make a deliberate, informed choice about the content of your essay.

Now, do this

1

Know what you’re looking for.

You are looking for an essay option that:

  • fits your strategy
  • communicates your intentions
  • has the potential to be an engaging story (be generous with yourself—we’ll teach you how to bring this to life)
  • includes the three types of content (stuff that happened, in-the-moment experience, deep thoughts)
  • avoids the common college essay patterns (service trip, didn’t make the team, teach little kids, etc.)

You may be able to communicate part of your intention in supplemental essays.

For example, if you can show your love of animals in a supplemental about the pet shelter you work at, your main essay doesn’t have to include the intention, I’m nuts about cats and dogs!

The trick is to communicate as many of your intentions as you can to every school while working efficiently.

2

Read the option Connor chose and his final essay.

Read through the option quickly, then slow down and read his final essay. 

Connor started with 41 Story Starters and wrote seventeen blocks of raw content—about 8300 words total.

He created five options and chose this one with four blocks of raw content.   

Connor's 2311-word option, made up of four blocks of raw content

One of my biggest fears is fireworks. It sounds irrational but its real.

When i was a toddler i went to a seafair parade in Seattle. At this parade there was a pirate ship which shot off extremely loud cannons. Since then ive been scared of loud noises. I know they wont harm me but it still scares me and causes me anxiety. I was even scared of balloons till about 6th grade. Not good looks.

I had to go to a therapist about it and we tried a few different things but none seemed to help. However, the older ive gotten the better ive gotten. Yes im still very scared of fireworks and jump whenever i hear them, but ive overcome my fear of balloons and can pop them myself. I also have much less anxiety on the fourth of july, which has always been an interesting holiday for me. I love the day but hate the night.

But this year i had work. I worked at Kellys resort from 2:30-9. I was excited for the tips and sun and fun, but I was not looking forward to dusk. I still felt like there was something less anxiety filled for me tho. I felt more calm.

I told my boss that i am scared of fireworks and she laughed at me and said what. She didnt believe me. She asked me why and i explained my experience as a kid and how i knew they wouldnt hurt me vut they still shocked me and hurt my ears. She continued to laugh and said she doesnt understand but either way there will be fireworks tonight. I laughed and said i know.

Somehow that eased some of my tension about it. I worked my whole shift with ease and without fear. I heard one or two small fireworks and jumped a little but nothing too bad. As i got home i was even more comfortable being outside. Although when asked if i wanted to drive and watch the big show, i remained with the answer i choose every year- no. I sat at home in peace.

But there was still something alittle different. My fear whittled down a little. I was still scared of fireworks but not as bad. They didnt make me as anxious and i didnt enjoy them but i could do a lot more on the fourth. My closest friends still will make fun of me but i know they will be a little proud. They know its always been one of my strangest fears. Everyone has fears but im trying to conquer mine even if its only a little bit at a time. Maybe one day i can set off fireworks on my own. The fourth is such a fun experience with friends and i want to be able to enjoy that to its fullest. Although the unexpectedness of fireworks makes me jump and their loudness hurts my ears, its mental. Focus can change anything. I just need to focus on the right things and have the right mindset.

Im scared of fireworks and some people may laugh but deep down im a little proud of it.

I didnt expect to work over 30 hours a week every week of my summer. However, there wer only four of us working the dock during a busy summer. one of my coworkers came in contact with someone who had covid and didnt return for 3 weeks. The other two had stretches of 4 days which they needed to take off for varying reasons. That left me. To be honest at the start of the summer i was hesitant to work 25 hours a week. Now im to the point where im used to 35 a week. I want more time off but i know the struggles it would cause for my pregnant boss. I know i committed to something even if its more than i expected. Part of me is just outright scared to say i cant work this much. So i do.

I work and i work and i work. Yes i know adults work way more- they also get payed more. Plus im not an adult. Plus its summer.

I know the opening and closing routine by heart. I know the passcode to deactivate the gas pump. I know exactly when to do each necessary thing so i can spread them out and not be bored out of my mind. Since ive had to take a brunt of the workload these things are my nature now. Ive developed new habits.

One prominent habit is listening to music and audiobooks. Obviously when Im filling up customers gas or helping guests take out kayaks i dont do taht. Thats relational. Thats fun. Thats my favorite part of my job. I get to meet new people and improve my small talk (which before the summer was terrible). Buttttttt.. When im raking the small rocks on the homemade beach to look like a zen garden or closing the pool in the warm shadows at 9, its something that helps the time go by much quicker. Ill connect to a cabins wifi- although sometimes inconsistent since the resort is a thinner lot which climbs from the water up the hill. Ill then pop in an airpod- one at the beach and both at the pool. And ill listen. Sometimes to the voices and lyrics of kanye or j cole and sometimes to the voices of old men reciting a captivating book. Either way its better than silence. I can multitask. With so many hours working im still able to incorporate something else. I like it.

I like feeling productive.

Another habit ive picked up is saying the same thing to every boat as they first approach the dock: “hi guys, hows it going”. Then i proceed to ask where they are from and talk about that. If theyre dry i talk about the weather. Sometimes i talk to myself for a bit until they warm up. Im not usually like this. Im usually reserved until you get to know me.. Then im like this. However, boredom changes that so i just lust for a conversation.. And a tip. Either way ive developed a habit from so much work.

I wouldnt have expected it.

Im still reserved at first tho. I only changed that habit at work.

All in all ive developed new things from my work i didnt expect. Yes im working more than i want, but its not gonna kill me and at least im doing something. Ive gained things which will help me forever such as work experience and social experience. And ive gained things such as random splurts of knowledge or my enjoyment of music and audiobooks as i work.

This is all kinda a random blurb about my work but oh well its all crap anyway.

Crap.

My personality is usually quiet until i get to know you and then I talk and I talk – that’s something I’ve improved on recently over the past year or two – before I’d be really shy

I wear a specific gonzaga bulldogs shirts and also bright pink shorts (not together) because people compliment me about them and then tip me more.

I love sports- both playing and watching. The intense thrills which i get from it and the excitement intrigue me so much. So it is no doubt that i love watching football and thus love fantasy football.

Fantasy football combines my love of sports with my love of definite evaluation and results. I analyze players stats to decide which players i want on my team to earn me points with their good stats. Then on game days i constantly check ESPN to see if my players are producing like i hoped. This thought process is exciting and rewarding for me.

I played fantasy football while i was in elementary school first and thats ow i knew i loved it so much. However I moved in sixth grade and therefore in sixth and seventh grade i didnt play. I missed it and although i still loved watching football i still felt like i missed it. AS eighth grade came along i wanted to bring it back. So i talked with my closest 9 friends and asked if they would be interested. They loved the idea.

hOWEVER i had to execute it. I was going to have to set up the league and plan the draft and make sure everyone stayed committed. But this would be fun for me as i knew what it would yield. I found a date right before school started which was close enough to the season but not when we were too busy. We also set it up to be at my house and ordered a draft board from amazon. I was so excited. My friends were too. I also made sure we had pizza and lots of good food.

Then came my research. My dad and i got two magazines for both of us to share (my dad was in a league of his own). I read the magazines through and looked at the different stats and opinions and weighed out in my head which players i would ideally pick.

My friends came. I had a strategy. Some of my friends did as well. Others just wanted to pick and had no idea. It was all for the fun but i truly wanted to win. The draft began and I got some of the players i wanted and others which wree more backup. There were surprising picks all across the board but i was satisfied with my team. The draft seemed to fly by too. The end result of the board with the players names was so appealing to me. I was proud of the fun event which i had organized and led.

My team ended up falling short of my original projection. My team name: hot tamales did not disappoint tho. I ended up making the playoffs but i got out first round and a different one of my friends won. However it became a huge point of discussion at lunch and breaks and everyone was into it. This made the experience even better for me and i would always look forward to sundays. The fantasy football draft became a tradition which we still continue at my house every year. Its always something to look forward to right before we go back to school at the end of august.

Kellys resort lies on a hill. The resort is cleaved by the road. On one side of the road is the water and main office- on the other side is most of the units and the pool.

As i pull my car into the driveway on the water side i turn my car slightly into a small gravel strip next to hedges. I hop out of my car, gather my things, and head to the main office to sign in on my timecard.

The main office is just down from where i park. Its located on the right side of the lot with a nice patch of grass on the left. People like to lay blankets there and soak in the sun. On top of the main office is a living area. Nobody sleeps there but my boss goes there often. On the water side of the main office is ivy. And i mean lots of it. The whole side of it is covered in ivy, a trademark of the place.

By the water theres a gas dock with a small shed at the end. Thats where i spend a lot of my time.

Even further left of the patch of grass is an apricot tree. Thats what i want to focus on. The tree is big. The apricots didnt ripen until mid july. Once mid july hit tho the tree became laden with them. It droops over now. Some apricots a golden orange, others starting to shade red, and then the ones that are green still waiting to turn.

I enjoy the apricots. The first day i came to work and they were actually ripe it surprised me. I had only be gone two days and all the sudden the tree had tons. That day i was also working a nine hour shift. So i would naturally get bored. Everytime i got bored i went and picked apricots. When i got really bored i slid on my vans and climbed to the top of the tree and jumped. This shook down many apricots and was lots of fun. I made it into a game trying to see how many i could get. I figured out the best parts of the tree to shake and jump. Time passed by. Eventually the shift was over and felt the same length as a 6 hour shift. Not many boats even came.

It turned into a habit. Now, every time i get bored i go pick apricots. There are so many ripe ones now i dont even have to shake the tree. I collect the most apricots out of any of my coworkers. My boss dehydrates the apricots. I tasted one and it wasnt bad but it was sour.

She said to me “these are literally the fruits of your labor”. I laughed.

That has stuck with me.

At the beginning of my work there were no apricots. Now there are many. Just like the apricot tree i have started to bear fruit.

Honestly i just wanted to write about the apricots because i like them and even though its not a story they have meaning to me and i didnt know what else to write about at my work.

I like the apricots because its satisfying to complete the task of picking them up and having a reward.

Connor's final essay

An apricot a day keeps the boredom away. As I work my nine-hour shift, I gravitate to the apricot tree at Kelly’s Resort. Some apricots are a golden orange, others crimson, and the rest a premature green, waiting to turn.

I enjoy the apricots. The first day they were ripe, it surprised me. Every time I get bored, I pick apricots. When I get really bored, I slide on my Vans, climb to the top of the tree, and jump on the branches. I make it into a game, seeing how many I can get to fall. Time passes by. Eventually the shift is over – who would’ve known it was nine hours?

“Chad’s out, schedule’s changed,” my boss groaned.
“What happened?”
“I don’t fully know man, but you’re working overtime now.”

I was hesitant to work 25 hours a week. Now, it’s going to be 35. I want more time off, but I know the struggles it would cause my pregnant boss. I know I committed to something, even if it’s more than I expected.

I listen to music and audiobooks to pass the time. Obviously, when I’m fueling customers’ boats or helping guests borrow kayaks, I keep my ears open. That’s relational. That’s fun. That’s my favorite part of my job. I get to meet new people and improve my small talk (which before the summer was subpar).

But, when I’m raking the small rocks on the homemade beach to look like a zen garden, or closing the pool in the warm shadows in the evening, music and audiobooks help the time go by. I’ll pop in my airpods – one at the beach and both at the pool. And I’ll listen. Sometimes to the voices and lyrics of Kanye or J. Cole and sometimes to the voices of old men reciting a captivating book. Either way it’s better than silence. I like it.

I like feeling productive.

“It’s the Fourth of July!” I exclaim as I skip into work. “Too bad I’m scared of fireworks.” I slow down my skip.

One of my biggest fears is fireworks. It sounds irrational but it’s real. On the bright side, at least I’m not scared of balloons anymore.

“Seriously??” My boss laughs. “Have fun today.” She pauses. “You’ll be busy enough, you’ll never notice.”

I was anxious, sure, and some may laugh, but deep down I’m a little proud.

Having worked for over a month now, I was comfortable with conversations like this. Even if I was frightened, as long as my boss was amused, could I really care?

I’m slow to warm to new people, but once I’m warm, I’m warm.

“Football is starting again, time to get your butts kicked!” I joke. I’m overly warm with my friends.

Every year, I execute a plan with my nine closest friends to form a fantasy football league. We poke fun, win and lose some, but in the end it’s all just for kicks.

We gather at my house and draft players for our teams. My strategy is to rely upon the research. I read magazines, analyze stats, and envision a scale in my head, tipping towards the better player. My friends use a cheat sheet. The banter is extraordinary. At least ten times throughout the night you’ll hear “why would you take him??”

Once the season starts, we debate at school like we’re on sports radio. I’ve never won. My team is analytically good, but too average. I won’t be deterred from my statistics though; one day I will win.

Whether I win or not, the tradition means something to me. Everything I do means something to me, or why would I do it?

I gain the most from life not through success, but experience. I succeed by learning from experience. Every tradition or activity I take part in – it’s intentional.

Even picking apricots.

No matter how horribly written and disorganized your options are, they can turn into polished, effective essays, just like Connor’s.

3

If there’s an obvious option, start with that.

Is one of your options just perfect?

Sweet!

Go to step 6: Self-review your option.

4

If you don’t have an obvious choice, pick the tab that fits where you are now.

I have an option that's close, but not quite there

That’s great!

If you like this option, go for it. Go to step 6: Self-review your option. You can add placeholders for anything that’s missing (even if it’s something’s missing and I’m not sure what).

I like more than one and can't decide

First, ponder these few questions:

  • Could the content in one of the options be useful in supplemental essays?
  • Does one option communicate more than the other?
  • Do you think one would be easier to write well?

Does that make the choice more clear? 

This is an excellent time to get a fresh perspective. Find someone to talk this over with—make sure they know where you are in the process, and share your intentions and strengths.

Sometimes, you just have to choose. It’s ok to go with your gut or, if everything seems equal, with a flip of a coin.

I can't imagine how any of the options could turn into a good essay

Think back to Connor’s horrible 2311 words, and the fantastic essay he submitted to colleges. Every sample essay you’ve read went through this stage.

Go to step 6: Self-review your option. As long as you can answer umm, yeah, more or less to all of the questions, you probably have what you need.

This may be a good time to get a fresh perspective. Find someone to talk this over with—make sure they know where you are in the process, and share your intentions and strengths.

The one I like is way too long and I'll never get it to 650 words

There’s no incentive in high school to write efficiently: if you have a three-page paper, you’re not going to spend time polishing it down two pages. That’d be dumb.

There’s a whole world of writing tools and tricks that will work like magic. We’ll show you the first one in the next step.

 

I don't want to do this anymore. Can I go home now?

Yup.

Take a break. Maybe an hour, maybe a week. You’ve done great work, and you may need to give yourself some time to reset. 

If your application deadline is coming up, don’t take too long.

And if the deadline is months away, be sure to come back soon—keep the momentum!

5

If none of your essay options work, make one that does.

If you don’t have an option you think will work, make more options.

In other words, play a little more with your baby chicks.

By now, you should be getting close; the thinking you’ve done may help you see new possibilities.

It’s better to have too much content than not enough.
It’s ok to go way beyond the word limit—sometimes, that’s the best thing you can do. 

Aim for 2-3 times the word limit. For a 650-word essay, most people at this stage have 1800-2200 words. Some get close to 3000.

Add blocks of content until you have an option that meets the criteria. 

Pro tip: Use placeholders
You may want to include something you haven’t written yet. Maybe it’s an event or a story you want to add, or some deep thoughts. 

Don’t write it yet! Instead, use what we pros call a placeholder.

Make it crazy simple obvious for everyone (especially you) to see. We make placeholders like this:

[[[Add the story about getting lost at the park]]]

[[[Connect the stories with how I think about knitting]]]

[[[Talk about how I realized that it would all work out]]]

Red, bold, and brackets—no one can miss this on a screen or printed on paper.

Keep playing until you have an option you think is at least reasonable. You’ll make it stronger in the Writer phase.

 

6

Self-review your option.

Do one more self-review of your option. 

You may not see how this will turn into a well-written essay. That’s ok. We’ll keep taking you step-by-step until you get there.

It doesn’t have to be perfect or complete.
This is one step in the process. There’s more magic to come.

For now, ask yourself these questions: 

  • Does it follow one of the common patterns Tina Fey doesn't want to read again? 
  • Is this potentially an engaging short story?
  • Is it authentic?
  • Which of your top ten strengths come through?
  • Which of your personal intentions come through?
  • Does it have the three types of content (at least a little bit of each)
    • Stuff that happened: it could be a conversation or an event. This can include details about a place as well (what it looked like, the weather, etc.).
    • In-the-moment experience: what you were thinking or feeling at the time. Sometimes this is hidden in dialog or a description of how you reacted to something.
    • Deep thoughts: your after-the-fact observation, insight, or understanding. These are the things you see today that you probably didn’t see (or at least weren’t thinking about) at the time.
Common college essay patterns Tina Fey doesn't want to read again

You can write about the same topic in many ways. Make sure you’ve avoided the most common patterns in college essays. You can include some of the events, but often you don’t need a lot of detail.

The most common patterns are:

  • I didn’t make the soccer team/get a part in the play/get elected to student government in the ninth grace, but…
  • I went to Guatemala to build an orphanage/Tanzania to help a rural village/the food bank to feed the hungry, and I learned..
  • I love playing piano/tennis/math/summer camp and want to pass it on to younger kids, so now I’m…
  • I had (or have) a serious illness/had to deal with my parents’ divorce/lost a family member or friend, and I’ve learned…
  • And in 2020, I was quarantined because of Covid-19…

You can include the events or experiences, but they’ll play a smaller role in your essay. Another way to think of it is that you include them for context, to illustrate something you want to communicate, or for a bit of flavor.

For now, if you want to include something like this, go for it. Just try not to make the entire essay one of the common patterns.

If something is still missing, add placeholders:

[[[need deep thoughts about my family]]]

[[[Add something to bring out my creativity]]]

[[[Tell the exploding bridge story to show problem-solving]]]

    7

    Create a new document with your raw essay content.

    Create a new document called Storyteller Draft.

    Paste in the option you chose (including the placeholders).

    This is what you’ll work on through the end of the Storyteller phase.

    This is a big deal!! You’ve got the raw content for your essay—congratulations!

    Your document should look something like this

    This is the beginning of Connor’s Storyteller draft

    You're ready to move on when

    • You’ve chosen an option—at least 2-3x the word limit—that fits your strategy, communicates your intentions, and has the potential to be an engaging, authentic short story.
    • You’ve created a new document (Storyteller Draft) with the content for your essay, including [[[placeholders]]] if you need them. There should be nothing else in that document.