College Essays, Personal Statements, Supplemental Essays, Teacher Resources

How to Write an Engaging College Essay: A Cheat Code

I was driving down a winding road and pondering college essays, like you do, when Carrie Underwood came on our local “Mix of the Decades” radio station.

And I thought: That’s it! That’s how you write an engaging college essay!

Let me explain.

The song was “Before He Cheats,” a tribute to women’s empowerment mixed with a little vandalism. In it, songwriters Chris Tompkins and Josh Kear give us a stellar tutorial on using specific images and concrete actions to create an engaging college essay. The song’s a throwback, but hang with me. There’s a reason it won so many awards.

How it Works

Sensory Imagery

You might not have noticed, but there are just two verses, and in them, the song hits all five categories of sensory imagery. Look:

sight: slow dancing with a bleached-blond tramp

taste: buying her some fruity little drink ’cause she can’t shoot a whiskey

touch: behind her with a pool-stick showing her how to shoot a combo

sound: singing some white-trash version of Shania karaoke… saying, “I’m drunk”

smell: dabbing on three dollars worth of that bathroom Polo

Sensory details pour into the description of the boyfriend cheating inside the bar. Concrete verbs fire up the narrative of the furious girlfriend exacting revenge in the parking lot.

Concrete Action

They’re not just any ol’ verbs. In the parking lot, concrete action words loaded with devastating denotations (dictionary definitions) and connotations (feelings and ideas associated with the word) work to carry out revenge. Watch this:

Action 1: dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive

This isn’t a light graze on the paint that dude can buff out later. When you dig something, like dirt, you break it up and move it somewhere else. That paint is ruined.

Action 2: carved my name into his leather seats

When you carve something, you’re creating art, whether it’s an inscription on a monument or a whistle made of wood. With care, the girlfriend leaves her mark for the long haul.

Action 3: took a Louisville slugger to both headlights

In formal English, took isn’t a specific verb, but in the vernacular, taking a baseball bat to anything is synonymous with violent destruction.

Action 4: slashed a hole in all four tires

There’s a whole horror subgenre called slasher, which involves intentional violent acts with sharp objects. You know she means to kill those (probably very expensive if they’re on a souped-up four-wheel drive) tires.

And how do the writers bring it all together to leave the listener with a lasting impression? All the imagery and all the concrete verbs add up to the main point, a life lesson or insight.

Insight(s)

For the protagonist of “Before He Cheats,” the main point is this:

I might’ve saved a little trouble for the next girl

‘Cause the next time that he cheats

Oh, you know it won’t be on me

No, not on me

“Before He Cheats” Genius lyrics

Did you notice the language shift at the end? Can you figure out what’s different?

It’s pretty generic. No mention of what kind of trouble. No description of the next girl, other than she’s next. No hint of when or where the next time will be. Do you see that? We’re piling on next‘s, as if he’s, maybe, a serial cheater.

Going general in the bridge gives universality to the ex-girlfriend’s lessons. Women have the power to get out of bad relationships, and they have the power to rescue others too.

Why it Works

So why does Carrie Underwood’s No. 1 smash hit from 2006, “Before He Cheats,” serve as a stellar model for college essays? The techniques these writers use to create one of the most memorable songs of its decade involve brain science. And they will help you tell your story in a way that engages college admissions readers instead of leaving them wishing for the end when they’re only halfway through.

In her ebook Write Now: Essential Tips for Standout College Essays, Maura Allen explores the role of neuroscience in crafting an engaging college essay:

With advanced brain scans, scientists can now identify exactly when and where …story/brain connections occur. Importantly, these responses aren’t something the reader (or listener) is able to control; the reactions are spontaneous—part of our nature… By understanding the different areas of the brain that factor into the science of storytelling you will become a better communicator. Keep in mind, the more areas of the brain your writing stimulates, the more memorable and impactful your story will be (19-20).

One of the reasons high school English teachers say over and over again, “Show, don’t tell,” is that when you draw the audience into your story, allowing them to experience your world through your words instead of just telling them about your life, you engage their brains more fully.

Allen continues,

Writing in a way that triggers these natural responses is a fundamental first step to engaging your audience:

Sensory Cortex + Cerebellum. Fires up with tactile, texture and sensations (wind, shards of glass, etc.)

Motor Cortex. Triggered by action verbs and movement (run, slog, fly, etc.)

Olfactory Cortex. Activated by smell or memories of smells (burnt toast, chocolate chip cookies in the oven, lavender, etc.)

Visual Cortex. Sparked by colors, shapes (orange, triangle, etc.)

Auditory Cortex. Prompted into action by sounds (screeching brakes, woodpecker on a pole, etc.)

Insula. Triggered by emotions (joy, fear, comfort, pride, etc.) Take note… this area of the brain trumps all others when it comes to the science and power of storytelling (20).

In MRI scans, active areas of the brain light up, right? Your goal is to light up different sensory centers in your reader’s brain through your writing. If you present a lifeless overview of your story instead of bringing your reader into your experience, they will probably finish by skimming your statement, relieved to survive another lackluster personal narrative.

However, if you walk your reader through your experience, showing in concrete terms what happened, how you responded, and what you learned, you have a pretty good shot at keeping their attention through the end of your essay.

A quick word of caution: engaging the reader through a high level of detail is best used in moderation. Like an overpowering fireworks display, too much causes your audience to cringe. But just the right amount of flash and pop and smoke and heat keeps readers rolling from one sentence to the next.

While you don’t have to launch an all-out assault on the admission team’s sensory receptors, appealing to multiple areas of the brain using a variety of specific images and concrete verbs creates an engaging experience.

How You Can Light Up Your Admissions Reader’s Brain

Using the lessons we’ve learned from Tompkins and Kear via Carrie Underwood, let’s create a cheat code for college-essay writing. It goes like this:

•When talking about what happened, use descriptive imagery, which by definition appeals to the senses.

•When explaining how you responded, use action words with robust connotations to show what you did.

•When analyzing the impact of the experience, go general in identifying timeless life lessons. These insights weave together your past, present, and future. And the point of personal statements is to tell the reader your story—where you’ve come from, where you are, and where you’re going. Mission accomplished.

Following these steps, you will engage different areas of the reader’s brain and help them see your story to its conclusion. Your essay may even linger in the reader’s memory, and that certainly bodes well for your admissions chances.

Are you ready to get started? Download the free “Planning an Engaging College Essay” PDF and start the writing process for your high-impact essay. Already started drafting? Use the planning worksheet as a revision tool for refining your story.

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