After years of helping students write the old UC1 prompt (my favorite college essay prompt), I decided it wouldn't be a bad way to describe why I love what I do. Here's that prompt:
Describe the world you come from—for example, your family, community or school—and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
Here's my 500 word response:
"I'd been to ten countries by the time I was four."
That was the first line of my college essay. Fourteen years later, it’s still a pretty good intro to me. I was a missionary kid, first in Spain, then Ecuador and Colombia, eventually graduating from high school in Miami, at my thirteenth school. I learned pretty quickly how to make adaptability my home.
I also got pretty good at making friends. I learned that, deep down, people wanted to connect. It helped to share something personal about yourself and just wait. Once people saw that nothing happened to you after you shared--that it was safe--people felt more comfortable giving a piece of themselves too. So I shared. I learned to give away pieces of myself. That nothing bad was going to happen.
I also learned to ask good questions. Most people ask boring questions when they first meet. But because I moved around so much I became impatient with small talk. Life’s short, I’d think, How’s your relationship with your dad?
And along the way I fell in love with language. Cummings, Rimbaud, Emerson. In high school I was the kid at the party writing down what people said in his notepad, writing poems, writing anything.
But I think my love of movies informed my love of college essay work more than
anything. I worked at a videostore when I was in high school, sometimes seven days a week. I’d watch three movies a day sometimes, twice that on weekends. I’d wake up at 5am to get one in before the 7am bus to school.
When I got to college I studied screenwriting. I became obsessed with film structure, and even piggybacked on my best friend’s USC Screenwriting classes when he and I moved to LA after college. I read every book I could get my hands on, collaborated on dozens of scripts that never saw the light of day, and continued writing down in my notepad what people said at the party.
A few years ago I had a revelation: almost everything I’d learned about screenwriting applied to college essay writing. The principles of good storytelling applied across the board. But no one had really written a book about the connections. That’s a book I could write, I thought.
I knew from experience you didn’t have to be an accomplished writer to be a great writing teacher. So I began teaching my college essay students some basic writing principles. They wrote great stories and those stories got them into great schools.
I love this process deeply. To me, there’s almost nothing better than helping students shape the chaos of their lives into 500 word personal statements. Why? Primarily this:
As storytellers--and that’s everyone, by the way, including you--we’re constantly trying to make sense of our lives, to give shape to the chaos. Telling stories helps us understand our place here.
That’s what I do with my students.
That’s what I’m doing with you.