Make a list of ten things. You can choose ANY common connection for your list—places you would like to travel, chores you need to do on your next day off, theme parties you would like to host or attend, series you want to binge-watch, cars you hope to own, jobs you want to investigate, books you vow never to read/read again, groceries you need to pick up on the way home, etc.
You get bonus points if you come up with your own list not listed in the list of lists above.
Prompt #32 Challenge:
First, put your list in order. You may choose any order you wish—best to worst, most to least, favorite to least favorite, etc. What order you choose is entirely up to you.
Then identify the item at the top of the list and the item at the bottom of the list and explain why those two particular items earned those two particular spots. Don’t forget to explain your ranking strategy as you discuss your reasoning.
Each item should be the feature of its own paragraph. Each paragraph should be precisely 94 words.
Brainstorm the specifications of the app you wish someone would create to organize your life perfectly. Everything you need would be in one place: schedule, reminders, to-do list, contacts, information-organizers, essential documents, work and entertainment links, news feeds, etc. Think of everything you can across all areas of your life. In this one app, you can include anything that you need to access easily to make your life run as smoothly as possible. List what filters and notifications you need to make life as seamless as possible in the specifications for each item.
Prompt #31 Challenge:
Write an app store description of “App My Life,” your digital product that coordinates all areas of life from one tiny square on your phone screen, tablet, or computer.
Give an overview of the features and benefits.
Explain how you coordinate all that information—does it look like a desktop? A filing cabinet? A giant calendar? A multipurpose room? A house? An office? Something else?
Create a slogan or catchphrase that motivates prospective users to purchase the app.
Make a list of 15-20 events in your life that have shaped who you are. Think of the stories you could tell about each event. For each major life-shaping experience you identify, write a one-sentence summary of what happened and how it contributed to who you are today.
Prompt #30 Challenge:
Write the story of your defining moments in a poem featuring these events. Use the sentences you wrote in the main prompt as a starting point. You are welcome to arrange the events chronologically or in order of impact. You may notice a different organizational structure altogether. Go for it. It’s your story.
Your poem may be free verse, or you might decide to challenge yourself by adopting a metrical pattern and rhyme scheme. Whether you decide to embrace freedom from form or choose a distinct structure, the end product should reflect your journey to who you are today.
You have seeds. Magic seeds. They will yield a harvest of anything you want. Any ONE thing. All you have to do is whisper the name of that thing as you plant the seed. The harvest will be abundant, enough for everyone in the world. What do you whisper as you plant your seed? Share why.
Prompt #28 Challenge:
Write a narrative poem that tells the story of planting the seed and nurturing it. Conclude with a description of the harvest.
Sometimes you encounter a work of literature that makes you feel at home. You imagine yourself inside that fictitious world, and it feels secure and warm and light and comforting. It’s like you belong there.
Write about a work of fiction in which you feel at home. Who are you in that world? What is it like as you inhabit that space and time?
Prompt #26 Challenge:
Imagine a perfect day in this literary home. Maybe perfection means the absence of conflict. Perhaps it means victory in a struggle. Narrate your perfect day.
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
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.
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.
For the protagonist of “Before He Cheats,” the main point is this:
I might’ve saved a little trouble for the next girl
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.
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.
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.