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This lesson covers... four possible paths for your personal statement.
By the end you should... feel like you’re at the start of a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
Time 2 minutes
College Essay Essentials paperback: pages 20-38     |     ebook: pages 21-38
Here’s a video of me leading this exercise (go to 4:47).

To set up this exercise, I ask students two questions: “Have you faced significant challenges?” and “Do you know what you want to be/do in the future?” The answers to these questions split into four types of essays and each type of essay requires a different approach.

Tips for leading this exercise:
  1. I love to ask these two questions live and have students raise their hands in response. In addition...

  2. I’ll ask any parents/teachers/counselors present to raise their hands too. Why? In order to a) show that these are questions anyone can relate to and to help combat “adult-ism” (the idea that adults have it all figured out), b) increase buy-in from the whole room, c) it’s another opportunity for folks to be vulnerable. And, as I mentioned, vulnerability begets vulnerability.

  3. I emphasize that these are not types of students, they are types of essays, each of which requires a different approach. Any student could write any of the four types of essays. Plus, who likes to be put into a box or called a “type” of anything?

  4. Once I’ve introduced the four types (usually by showing them the Four Types of Essays quadrant), I ask “Which of these types do you most resonate with--raise your hand if it’s A: you experienced challenges know what you want to do or study. (Pause, as they do this.) Okay, Type B…?” And so on. I have students raise their hands so that:
    1. I know which type to focus on when I do my step-by-step breakdown (some student populations have had like 85% of the students raise their hands for A and C and 0 students for Type D, so I skip Type D and use the time to focus on A and C) and
    2. Because doing so gets students to perk up later when I go over the Type they picked. So the student goes, “Ooh--Type B, that’s me!”
That’s it.

Then I transition by saying: Next we’re going to move into structure and I’ll share with you two structures--Narrative and Montage. Narrative works great for Types A and C (those who’ve been through challenges) and Montage works great for Types B and D (those who haven’t).


First, ask yourself two questions: 

  1. Have you faced significant challenges? (You define "significant.")
  2. Do you know what you want to study?

Based on these two answers, take a look at the chart above and see which essay approach might work for you.

Feel free to ask these two questions aloud to the group and get a show of hands. Once you do, make sure that the following point is very clear:

Get this: You can write a great essay whether you've been through challenges or not, and whether you know what you want to study or not.

The next part can be skipped, if short on time, or distilled to this:

“Besides telling a great story, the key to a great essay lies in finding the right structure. Next, you’ll learn two structures you can use for any of the four essay types.”

The question is: How?

The answer: Find the right structure.

Let me explain...

I believe a good college essay should either:

  1. go deep, discussing one moment that fundamentally changed your life, or
  2. go wide, discussing many different elements of your life.

The Narrative Structure, will help you go deep, while the Montage Structure will help you go wide. We'll discuss both structures in the next two sections.

Note that I don’t believe people can generally be reduced to “types.” So if it pains you to think of yourself as a “type” of student, just think of these as different types of strategies.

It’s also important to note that these categories are fluid and it’s possible to move from one to another. A student who has faced significant challenges but doesn’t know what s/he wants to study (Category C), for example, may discover, through a process of research or counseling, what s/he would like to study and so move to Category A. Similarly, a student who has not faced significant challenges and does not know what s/he wants to study (Category D) may discover, through self-reflection or counseling, that s/he has indeed faced significant challenges, and so move to Category C. I recommend reading all the examples; you never know what might resonate.

Finally: There is no surefire approach for essay writing. No essay will, on its own, get a student into a college. Many different students are accepted to colleges each year with many different types of essays. Having said that, the task of the college essay is to shape the student’s life into a coherent narrative. What follows are some strategies that have helped some of my students do just that.

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