This lesson will... be most relevant to students who have been through significant challenges and do not know what they want to study.
By the end you should... understand how much of your essay should focus on the challenge and how to identify what you learned from those challenges.
Time 7 minutes
College Essay Essentials paperback: pages 71-89     |     ebook: pages 70-87

Sample Essay C: The “Raising Anthony” Essay

Written by a student who did face challenges, but did not know what she wanted to study.

At age three, I was separated from my mother. The court gave full custody of both my baby brother and me to my father. Of course, at my young age, I had no clue what was going on. However, it did not take me long to realize that life with my father would not be without its difficulties.

My brother, Anthony, was eleven months old when my father placed us in the hands of our first babysitter. I remember being confused at first, wondering where my father had gone and when he would be back, but after a while, I became accustomed to this routine of absence and the never ending babysitters that filled in for him. These strangers consisted of college students, chain-smokers, senile women, and foreigners—all were technically adults, but not one was a suitable substitute for a parent. When my father was home, he still seemed absent; he was distant both physically and emotionally. He was busy bouncing from one girlfriend to the next, sleeping in until 1:30 in the afternoon, and sitting on the couch watching television. He took us out to restaurants every night and wasted the money he earned on expensive dinners, his current girlfriend, and liquor. This continued for ten years.

Legally, we had all the necessities to survive, but in truth our home was devoid of structure. Schoolwork went unchecked. Bedtimes were unregulated. Dust accumulated in thick layers on the paperwork that overflowed on the dining table. Often times, Anthony and I would spend hours waiting at school for someone to pick us up, and most of our dinners were served well past eleven at night.

Consequentially, and quite unwittingly, I shed my childhood and assumed the role of “parent” for Anthony before my seventh birthday. I memorized the routes we took to school and led Anthony home myself. I watched professional chefs on PBS and learned how to cook basic meals for two. Unfortunately, as I progressively developed into the parent, Anthony took advantage of our lack of true authority and grew into the epitome of a problem child. He became unruly, and his behavior soon bled into his school life. His grades suffered and he seemed to act out more often. His rash temper continued to grow until one day the school called our home because he had tried to throw a chair at his teacher.

Anthony was the only kindergartner in our school’s history to be suspended. The school counselor recommended that when my father was in town we attend therapy as a family. But that accomplished nothing—my father’s initial attempts to implement authority devolved quickly into apathy, and then he was traveling again. I, on the other hand, would not give up so easily. I became the watchful eye and mentor that Anthony and I both needed.
I soaked in the parenting videos that our family counselor had given my dad. I explained to Anthony why a structured lifestyle is important and why retribution is needed for one’s misdeeds. To further instill self-discipline in him, I would have him formulate his own penalties. I also began to follow up on his schoolwork by contacting his teachers. On one particularly hopeful afternoon I even tried to introduce him to books that I had read— but I learned I can't win every battle. I wasn’t satisfied with just giving a fish to my little brother; I wanted to teach him how to cast lines himself and learn the tools of self-reliance. Looking back at my hectic childhood, I am grateful for the insight it afforded me, and I am grateful for the effect my little brother had on me.

Inadvertently, by raising Anthony I ended up raising myself. Living with my unreliable father and reliant younger brother gave me the need and incentive to find myself and to mature quickly. At a very early age I became resourceful, independent, and responsible. It makes me proud to know that I single-handedly raised Anthony and myself. I now know that I can face any challenge with confidence. Even if I don’t succeed, I know I will be stronger just for trying.

(Word count: 690)

The Type C Essay: Use the Narrative Structure and End with the Values

Note that this essay employs the Narrative Structure.

Some students have been through some serious challenges. These may include:

  • the death of a parent or best friend
  • crossing the US-Mexico border in the middle of the night
  • having to learn English while adapting to a new culture
  • taking on huge responsibilities at home due to either absent, ill or overworked parents

If any of these things apply to you, here’s a way you might be able to apply the narrative structure to your story. Answer the following three questions:

  1. What’s the challenge I faced? (25% of essay)
  2. What did I do about it? (50% of essay)
  3. How did this make me a better person? (25% of essay)

1. The Difficulty I Faced (The Challenge)
25% of essay

Important note: though you *can* use the phrases below, I’d highly recommend you use your own words. (Or you can use these sentences to get you started and then re-phrase them in your own way.) Originality wins.

Paragraph 1: My life was forever changed when . . .

Paragraph 2: To make matters worse . . .

Transition sentences (the lowest point of the story):

Sentence 1 (the breaking point): The toughest part came when . . .
Sentence 2 (the turning point): I realized I had to do something.

2. What I Did About It (The Work I Put In)
50% of essay

Paragraph 3: So I started . . . (Describe the specific things you did to make things better.)

Paragraph 4: I also . . . (What else did you do? Describe the specifics here.)

Note: In these two paragraphs, build these from smallest to largest. (Example: “I started volunteering to do more chores around the house” should come before “I started my own club at school.”)

Transition sentence (the highest point of the story):

- Give one concrete detail/image that clearly shows that things got better. (Example: “I got straight As for the first time ever” or “My family now sits around the table laughing like we used to.” Note: This is the “stand up and cheer” moment in the movie—or essay.

3. How This Ultimately Made Me a Better Person (The Result)
25% of essay

Paragraph 5: Turn each of the difficulties into a strength.

(Example: Having to balance school work, plus chores, plus a job taught me the value of time management.) Note: If you need help on this last part, use the “What do I value?” exercise.

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