This lesson will... be most relevant to students who have not been through significant challenges and do not know what they want to study.
By the end you should... understand how to identify your strengths and passions and see how these strengths might be shaped into an essay.
Time 7 minutes
College Essay Essentials paperback: pages 89-101     |     ebook: pages 87-99

Sample Essay D: The “Scrapbook” Essay

This essay was written by a student who did not face challenges, and did not know what she wanted to study.

I look at the ticking, white clock: it’s eleven at night, my primetime. I clear the carpet of the Sony camera charger, the faded Levi’s, and last week’s Statistics homework. Having prepared my work space, I pull out the big, blue box and select two 12 by 12 crème sheets of paper. The layouts of the pages are already imprinted in my mind, so I simply draw them on scratch paper. Now I can really begin.

Cutting the first photograph, I make sure to leave a quarter inch border. I then paste it onto a polka-dotted green paper with a glue stick. For a sophisticated touch, I use needle and thread to sew the papers together. Loads of snipping and pasting later, the clock reads three in the morning. I look down at the final product, a full spread of photographs and cut-out shapes. As usual, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride as I brush my fingers over the crisp papers and the glossy photographs. For me, the act of taking pieces of my life and putting them together on a page is my way of organizing remnants of my past to make something whole and complete. This particular project is the most valuable scrapbook I have ever made: the scrapbook of my life.

In the center of the first page are the words MY WORLD in periwinkle letters. The entire left side I have dedicated to the people in my life. All four of my Korean grandparents sit in the top corner; they are side by side on a sofa for my first birthday –my ddol. Underneath them are my seven cousins from my mom’s side. They freeze, trying not to let go of their overwhelming laughter while they play “red light, green light” at O’ Melveney Park, three miles up the hill behind my house. Meanwhile, my Texas cousins watch Daniel, the youngest, throw autumn leaves into the air that someone had spent hours raking up. To the right, my school peers and I miserably pose for our history teacher who could not resist taking a picture when he saw our droopy faces the morning of our first AP exam. The biggest photograph, of course, is that of my family, huddled in front of the fireplace while drinking my brother’s hot cocoa and listening to the pitter patter of rain outside our window.

I move over to the right side of the page. At the top, I have neatly sewn on three items. The first is a page of a Cambodian Bible that was given to each of the soldiers at a military base where I taught English. Beneath it is the picture of my Guatemalan girls and me sitting on the dirt ground while we devour arroz con pollo, red sauce slobbered all over our lips. I reread the third item, a short note that a student at a rural elementary school in Korea had struggled to write in her broken English. I lightly touch the little chain with a dangling letter E included with the note. Moving to the lower portion of the page, I see the photo of the shelf with all my ceramic projects glazed in vibrant hues. With great pride, I have added a clipping of my page from the Mirror, our school newspaper, next to the ticket stubs for Wicked from my date with Dad. I make sure to include a photo of my first scrapbook page of the visit to Hearst Castle in fifth grade.

After proudly looking at each detail, I turn to the next page, which I’ve labeled: AND BEYOND. Unlike the previous one, this page is not cluttered or crowded. There is my college diploma with the major listed as International Relations; however, the name of the school is obscure. A miniature map covers nearly half of the paper with numerous red stickers pinpointing locations all over the world, but I cannot recognize the countries’ names. The remainder of the page is a series of frames and borders with simple captions underneath. Without the photographs, the descriptions are cryptic.

For now, that second page is incomplete because I have no precise itinerary for my future. The red flags on the map represent the places I will travel to, possibly to teach English like I did in Cambodia or to do charity work with children like I did in Guatemala. As for the empty frames, I hope to fill them with the people I will meet: a family of my own and the families I desire to help, through a career I have yet to decide. Until I am able to do all that, I can prepare. I am in the process of making the layout and gathering the materials so that I can start piecing together the next part, the next page of my life’s scrapbook.  

(Word count: 809)

Analysis of the Type D Essay

Note that this essay employs the Montage Structure.

This type of essay can be one of the most difficult to write. Why? Because:

a.) if you don’t have particular challenges to discuss you might wonder, “How do I start?”

b.) if you don’t know what you want to study you might wonder, “How should I finish?”

First of all, let me say this: if you have not experienced significant challenges in your life, great! Congratulations on having had a pretty awesome life so far. Don’t be ashamed of that.

Second: if you don’t know what you want to study, congratulations again! Many people at 17 don’t know what they want to study. And many others still don’t. You have so much time to decide--or you can just never decide. Many of the most successful people I know still haven’t decided what they want to be when they grow up.

If you find yourself in this situation, here are some ways of generating content for your essay:

1. Identify a few things that are important to you.
How? Do the Objects Exercise and the Values Exercise.

Why? So you’ll have some stuff to write about.

Broadly speaking, the Objects Exercise will provide material for the first half of your essay and the Values Exercise will give you the material for the second half.

Note for example how in the first two-thirds of the Scrapbook Essay (above) the writer mentions more than 20 objects (or in this case images), each of which reveals something about her: the necklace with the dangling letter “E” from a former student, for example, the arroz con pollo sauce all over her lips, and the large photo of her family by the fireplace listening to the rain. Then in the final paragraphs she identifies what they represent to her: the desire to perhaps one day teach, travel, help others, have a family.

Taking this as a model, here’s a tip: show first, then tell. Give us the movie first, then wait ‘til the end to tell us what it means. (And there is some debate by the way on whether a student should “tell” at all at the end--some students choose to only show in their essays. While it’s possible to only show in your essay and not have a “moral of the story” at the end, I think there’s a lot to be said for offering a little insight at the end and giving a few examples of things you might be pursue in life.)

“But how do I do this?” you may be wondering. “Should I just randomly write about stuff that I like for the first half and then for the last paragraph name the values that are important to me?”

Yes, kind of.

But your details will seem less random if you can...

2. Find a focusing lens.
What’s a focusing lens? It’s a device (like scrapbooking) that allows you to frame the details you’re choosing to show. This student chose to create the scrapbook of her life. But there are many other frames you can use to set up your montage. Maybe it’s a series of flashbacks while you’re running a race. Maybe you detail the five biggest mistakes you’ve ever made. Maybe how the four elements tell your life story. The sky’s the limit.

Another thing that will help your essay feel less random is if you...

3. Include a thesis at the end of the first paragraph.
I know, I know, you thought you were only supposed to write a thesis on your AP Lang paper. Not so. Can you find the thesis in the Scrapbook essay above?

(Wait for it…)

It’s this line:

For me, the act of taking pieces of my life and putting them together on a page is my way of organizing remnants of my past to make something whole and complete.   

Why is this a good idea? Because it lets us know that you’re guiding us. That you know what you’re doing. Just to make it extra clear, she sets up the details to come with this sentence:

This particular project is the most valuable scrapbook I have ever made: the scrapbook of my life.  

Super clear.

I once had a student write about the five families he lived with over two years as a foreign exchange student. (In fact, you can click here to read it.)

So here’s a hint: If you’ve got a good solid objects list, you should have all the content you need to write the first ⅔ of your essay. And if you’ve picked 3-5 values that really mean something to you, that’s good material for your ending.

The art of the college essay is figuring out how your life experiences (represented by the essence objects) led you to develop your most important values. Simple, huh?

Final note: this is not the *only* way to write your essay, but it is a way. Give it a shot.

If you feel absolutely, completely stumped, here’s another brainstorming exercise.

And if you’ve either waited until the last minute, or are feeling just plain lazy, click here.

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