This lesson covers... the style that jumps around in time, with events that aren’t based on cause-and-effect.
By the end you should... have a second option for structuring your main personal statement.
Time 10 minutes
College Essay Essentials paperback: pages 14-19     |     ebook: pages 15-20


Montage is a technique that involves creating a new whole from separate fragments (pictures, words, music, etc.). In filmmaking, the montage effect is used to condense space and time so that information can be delivered in a more efficient way.

Take the classic “falling in love” montage, commonly used in romantic comedies. We don’t see every single interaction; instead, we see: he surprises her at work with flowers, they walk through the park, they dance in the rain, they pass an engagement ring store and she eyes a particular ring. You get the idea.

A few images tell the whole story. And you can use this technique for your essay.
But which essences should you choose? That’s up to you. (It’s art, remember, not science.)

One important distinction between the Narrative and Montage Structures is this: while Narrative Structure connects story events in a causal way (X led to Y led to Z), Montage Structure connects story events in a thematic way (X, Y and Z are all connected because, for example, they all will help me become a great dentist). Put simply (and this is what I’ll write on the board):

Narrative Structure = causal connections
Montage Structure = thematic connection


The Type B “Endodontics” essay below employs what I call a focusing lens--in this case the author’s future career. Why choose a focusing lens? You can’t discuss every single aspect of your life; you can, however, show us a few important points through a single lens or metaphor. And it need not be a future career--it could be many things.

What type of focusing lens might you use to write your essay? A sport? A place? An art form? A hobby? Ask yourself: what’s something I know really well?

I also love to read this essay aloud, pausing to point out interesting structural elements. For an analysis of the points I cover when reviewing this essay, check out pages 58-70 in College Essay Essentials, or watch Lesson 2 in my pay-what-you-can How to Write the Personal Statement video course.


Written by a student who has not faced significant challenges, but did know what he wanted to study.

As a kid I was always curious. I was unafraid to ask questions and didn’t worry how dumb they would make me sound. In second grade I enrolled in a summer science program and built a solar-powered oven that baked real cookies. I remember obsessing over the smallest details: Should I paint the oven black to absorb more heat? What about its shape? A spherical shape would allow for more volume, but would it trap heat as well as conventional rectangular ovens? Even then I was obsessed with the details of design.
And it didn’t stop in second grade.
A few years later I designed my first pair of shoes, working for hours to perfect each detail, including whether the laces should be mineral white or diamond white. Even then I sensed that minor differences in tonality could make a huge impact and that different colors could evoke different responses.
In high school I moved on to more advanced projects, teaching myself how to take apart, repair, and customize cell phones. Whether I was adjusting the flex cords that connect the IPS LCD to the iPhone motherboard, or replacing the vibrator motor, I loved discovering the many engineering feats Apple overcame in its efforts to combine form with function.
And once I obtained my driver’s license, I began working on cars. Many nights you’ll find me in the garage replacing standard chrome trim with an elegant piano black finish or changing the threads on the stitching of the seats to add a personal touch, as I believe a few small changes can transform a generic product into a personalized work of art.
My love of details applies to my schoolwork too.
I’m the math geek who marvels at the fundamental theorems of Calculus, or who sees beauty in A=(s(s-a)(s-b)(s-c))^(1/2). Again, it’s in the details: one bracket off or one digit missing and the whole equation collapses. And details are more than details, they can mean the difference between negative and positive infinity, an impossible range of solutions.
I also love sharing this appreciation with others and have taken it upon myself to personally eradicate mathonumophobiconfundosis, my Calculus teacher’s term for “extreme fear of Math.” A small group of other students and I have devoted our after-school time to tutoring our peers in everything from Pre-Algebra to AP Calculus B/C and I believe my fluency in Hebrew and Farsi has helped me connect with some of my school’s Israeli and Iranian students. There’s nothing better than seeing a student solve a difficult problem without me saying anything.
You probably think I want to be a designer. Or perhaps an engineer?
Wrong. Well, kind of.
Actually, I want to study Endodontics, which is (I’ll save you the Wikipedia look-up) a branch of dentistry that deals with the tooth pulp and the tissues surrounding the root of a tooth. As an Endodontist, I’ll be working to repair damaged teeth by performing precision root canals and implementing dental crowns. Sound exciting? It is to me.
The fact is, it’s not unlike the work I’ve been doing repairing cellphone circuits and modifying cars, though there is one small difference. In the future I’ll still be working to repair machines, but this machine is one of the most sophisticated machines ever created: the human body. Here, my obsession with details will be as crucial as ever. A one millimeter difference can mean the difference between a successful root canal and a lawsuit.
The question is: will the toothbrushes I hand out be mineral white or diamond white?
(Word count: 598)

Neat essay, huh? In a bit I’ll teach you how this essay was structured.

This marks the end of the 1-Hr workshop. Is it possible to get through all this content in just one hour? Absolutely. It may require leading it several times to know what to emphasize and what you can speed through, but it's totally do-able... and it won't even feel rushed!

If you are electing to do only a 1-Hr workshop, I'd recommend giving students a very specific homework assignment at the end of the hour (i.e. read through the rest of the guide and email me a first draft by Friday). The rest of the guide will provide what they need to know--and they won't even need to be in a workshop setting.