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.
For this exercise, you’ll need three columns and seven rows. Label the first column “who/what.” Label the second column “where.” You choose whether where means location or destination. It doesn’t have to be the same for each who/what. Label the third column “why.”
Complete your chart. You will have seven who/what‘s partnered with their own where‘s and why‘s.
Write one sentence for each, using your most magnificent sentence-structuring skills.
Prompt #23 – Challenge:
Select a mood that you feel works well with the concept of scurrying. Write a scene that includes 3-4 of the who/what‘s from the base prompt. Keep the where‘s and why‘s too.
You don’t have to use the same sentences you created earlier, but you certainly may. Choose diction that best conveys a scurrying mood. Craft imagery that makes your reader feel, well, scurried.
Hint: You might even want to look up scurry to maximize its meaning(s).
Fall is the season for college applications and teacher recommendations. While students are snowed under the back-to-school course load, extracurriculars, and senior activities, teachers are slammed with parent communications, lunch-hall-carline-whatever duties, lesson plans, in-class engagement, and grading.
Adding a stack of college recommendations to a teacher’s otherwise overstuffed life is a necessary burden. Most teachers who have been around the block a time or two have a go-to formula to help save time and still write insightful information that is helpful to the admissions offices.
For those teachers who are new to the teacher rec-writing game, here are a few suggestions to help develop guidelines for writing college recommendations that give admissions readers crucial information in their decision-making process and also save the teacher a little time in completing this added blessing on the fall to-do list.
1. Be sincere. Your personal integrity with colleges and universities is riding on your honesty and authenticity. Not every student you teach is in the top one-to-two percent of your career or the top ten percent either. Overestimating a student’s ability or character could get that student into a college that is not a good fit. Moderate your language and try not to write everything as a superlative. On the other hand, if a student is at the top of all the students you have taught through the years, break out your strongest endorsements and superlative statements for them.
2. Be up-front. In everyone’s best interest, if you feel like what you can sincerely say about a student will not help their chances of getting into a college or university, let them know so they can ask a different teacher to write the recommendation. One year, I agreed to write recommendation letters for two editors on our student magazine staff. Shortly after, these two students started showing up for class a few minutes after the tardy bell a couple of times a week. Each time, they would apologize profusely and say it was because they were coming from an AP lab course and their lab ran long. When I began to doubt that their AP science class would be doing labs that often, I pulled them aside and told them I could no longer excuse their tardies. They apologized, as usual, and started getting to class on time for about a week. The next time the students were tardy, they came wandering into class halfway through the period, without excuse notes. I asked them where they had been and one student said, “Well, you know, boy problems. We had to have a little girl talk.” I looked at the other student and she said, “Well, I couldn’t tell her no.” Nope. That moment was not one of my better teaching moments, but ultimately, I let both students know that, in their own best interest, they should probably find a different teacher to write their recommendations. Nothing I could say about their character would be helpful in their college admissions process.
3. Be concrete. Open the letter with a significant narrative. Explaining the situation that first made the student stand out to you is a good way to start. Maybe it was a class discussion. Or maybe that student stepped in to defend another student who was being bullied. Or maybe the student routinely spends all of lunch hour tutoring a friend who is struggling to understand a complex concept. Maybe the student’s research project was so well-researched and written that it had an impact on your personal beliefs about the topic. Whatever the story is, tell it. Let your opening paragraph be a verbal “video” of what you remember as most remarkable about this student.
4. Be thorough. Follow your opening narrative with a discussion of one or two character traits that best describe the student. Again, the strength of your own writing will come in your ability to help the reader “see” the student’s character by sharing narrative examples. Tell the story. Tell the story. Tell the story. Don’t shy away from sharing examples of growth… situations in which you’ve seen a student become more confident, kind, or hard-working. While it is easy in the body of the letter to recite the student’s resume, that information is already on the application. What is most helpful for the admissions team is knowing the person behind the accomplishment. Therefore, if an honor or award has a story behind it that shows the student’s character, then tell the backstory. The journey to success is always more interesting than simply knowing there was a success. While most teachers want to paint a picture of perfection, the authenticity of a struggle that leads to growth is often more valuable in identifying whether a prospective student is a good fit with the university’s culture.
5. Be clear about what you see for the student’s future. Try not to end the recommendation letter with something like this: “Therefore, I highly recommend this student for admission to this university.” If you can see that student spending summers as an undergrad volunteering as an office assistant for a pro bono legal services agency near campus in preparation for law school where you are confident they will become a civil rights attorney, then say that. If you believe that the student will be more successful in college than high school because your school has few technology course options, and the student spends every free moment reading coding books and just needs an environment rich in technology to thrive, say that. Get into the specifics of why this student is a good fit for this college and this college is a perfect environment for this student.
Once you get a few teacher recommendation letters written, you will develop your own style and rhythm. Be careful not to slip into autopilot, though. Make sure your recommendations are genuine and thorough.
If your school’s college counseling office does not provide students with a personal information form to give you the details you need to write a spectacular personalized recommendation letter, you can use this one. Feel free to copy, modify, and share. Use these resources in whatever way makes your life a little easier.
Wallpaper. It’s the background to everything that happens in a room. Sometimes it is so muted that no one notices. Other times, it’s so loud that it drowns out everything else.
Good designers coordinate everything that goes into the room with the wallpaper. Harmony abounds. Bad designers ignore it altogether so that sometimes the wallpaper and the objects in the room clash, creating the visual equivalent of cacophony.
Think about your life. What is the wallpaper? What do you have going on in the background? Take a few moments to write a visual description of how the wallpaper looks in the entryway of your life right now. This space represents the part of you that people see when they first meet you. What are the colors? Patterns? Images?
Add details about the objects you’ve collected, the things you give time and space. To what extent do they harmonize or clash with the things you do?
For this part of the prompt, stick to sensory descriptions––sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures.
Prompt #20 – Challenge
Let’s go deeper. Explain the meaning behind the wallpaper and the objects that adorn your life’s entryway.
Why those colors, textures, designs, and objects? What is their significance? Is there obvious meaning in these things, or is their nature hidden? Why?