Writing Skills

A “Tiny” Writing Idea for your College Essay


Searching for just the right story for your college essay? A friend recently gave me a neat little book called 642 Tiny Things to Write About, from the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. It’s packed with “tiny” ideas like this one:

Write your life story in five sentences.

This is a fun exercise for anyone, and it’s a great college essay catalyst! It forces you to focus on the experiences and moments that have shaped who you are now. You can’t fit your life story into one essay—and you definitely shouldn’t try. But you can develop one of those moments into a powerful college essay.

How do you do that? Read on for tips and examples!

First, don’t waste that first sentence on the obvious. I was born on July 3 in Springfield, Massachusetts isn’t very interesting. Unless your birth story was unusual in some way—for example, you were delivered during a bank robbery, or you’re a triplet—skip past your first minutes on earth. Skip to your first extraordinary or meaningful minute on earth. The first time you remember thinking that something really important was happening. Whether you were 6 years old or 12, this moment had a long-term effect on you.

Each of your 5 sentences should focus on a specific moment or event. Don’t worry about explaining or analyzing them right away. First, just get down the essence of what happened, and describe it through specifics.

Here are 3 examples from students who tried this approach:

1—My father broke his arm and both ankles in a motorcycle crash.

2—At fifteen, I first stepped inside the decorated hush of the mosque.

3—My aunt’s pottery jitterbugs and jumps off every shelf in the room.

Let’s look at what each of these writers did. They chose specific events from their lives—an accident, a visit, and a natural disaster. Then they presented them through specific actions, images, and details.

1—My father broke his arm and both ankles in a motorcycle crash.

This writer started with a perfectly good sentence: My father had a motorcycle accident and was severely injured. Then she improved it by being more specific, presenting details that make a stronger visual and dramatic impact. Her father’s accident was a significant event that threw her family into chaos. It forced her to take on more adult responsibilities, including two part-time jobs. It marked the end of her carefree childhood and the beginning of her identity as a self-reliant young adult. This became the basis of her main college essay—how she had learned that in any tough situation, she could always count on herself. And other people could count on her, too.

2—At fifteen, I first stepped into the decorated hush of the mosque.

This writer knew that at least one of her 5 “life sentences” would be about questioning and exploring religion. The events on and after 9/11 made her curious about Islam, and she began a private, cautious exploration of her own beliefs. She focused on the powerful moment when she first visited a mosque, secretly, on a family trip.

3—My aunt’s pottery jitterbugs and jumps off every shelf in the room.

The first version of this writer’s sentence was simply My family survived an earthquake when I was 11. A significant life moment, but a pretty boring sentence. So he rewrote it and rewrote it, reflecting and revising. Finally he hit on the fantastic description above. “When the quake happened, I was just a kid,” he said. “My first thought was that something funny and magical was happening, when things suddenly started dancing.” He expanded his sentence into his experience of the earthquake, as his childlike delight quickly turned to terror. His essay recounted how he and his family’s ordeal—actually, one moment in particular—changed his perspective and life goals in a surprising way.


Two bonus tips:

Notice that you can write in present tense or past tense, like the writers above.

Avoid using “I” in at least two sentences, to give your writing variety and texture.

Think you can do this? You can!

Grab a pen and paper, your phone or your laptop, and start thinking… what are your 5 life moments?

My Favorite 5-Minute Writing Trick


This is one of my all-time favorite quickie writing lessons, from the great English teacher Fred Tremallo. It’s a super-simple trick to enhance your descriptive writing, and it consists of just two sentences:

  1. Harry was tall.
  2. Harry ducked through the doorway.

Take a few minutes to examine the two sentences, and jot down all the things you notice—try for at least five. Ready?

Let’s look at the first sentence. It tells you Harry was tall, and that’s pretty much it, right? Some English teachers like to say you should “show, don’t tell” in your writing. Actually, great writing is a skillful blend of both showing and telling. But most of us, when we write, tend to do too much telling and not enough showing.

Clearly, sentence 1 tells. The problem is, it doesn’t give you a good sense of how tall Harry really was, or suggest why it even matters. Harry was tall. But how tall, and why should we care?

Now let’s look at sentence 2. It shows you Harry was tall without stating it, and without even using the word tall. It gives you a good idea of how tall, too. Glance over at the closest doorway, and visualize how tall Harry had to be if he had to duck his head to get under it. Better yet, get up and go stand in the doorway to see how tall Harry was. Sentence 2 is a descriptive sentence that suggests some sense of how and why Harry’s height matters. (For one thing, the poor guy has to duck all the time, or he’ll bump his head; he probably draws a lot of attention too.) As one of my students put it, this sentence “does a better job of making Harry real.”

You want your writing to be real. You want it to matter to somebody. Descriptive writing does that.

Did you notice anything else? Sentence 1 uses the verb to be, while sentence 2 uses an active verb—to duck—which creates a vivid, memorable image. Descriptive sentences tend to use exciting active verbs instead of boring, ordinary linking verbs like to be, to seem, to like, and so on.

So what can we learn from this? Descriptive writing is more persuasive writing. Instead of stating an idea, it implies the idea, by using a specific image, a specific action, and a specific context that effectively persuades our imaginations to believe it. It gives Harry, and the writing itself, more life on the page.

Want to practice writing descriptively? Try coming up with sentences (or paragraphs) that imply, rather than tell, the following:

  • Harry is awesome. (remember, don’t use the word awesome)
  • Harry seemed nervous. (don’t use the word nervous)
  • Harry loves to cook. (you get the idea!)
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