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2.4 STRUCTURE | How to Write a Montage Essay (Types B & D)

This lesson covers... the essay structure most relevant to students who have not been through significant challenges and do know what they want to study.
By the end you should... understand how to reverse engineer your essay, starting with the end in mind (your dream) and describing how the events of your life (your world) helped shape that dream.
Time 20 minutes
College Essay Essentials paperback: pages 59-71     |     ebook: pages 58-70


The “Endodontics” essay you read (about the student who wants to be a dentist) employs the Montage Structure.

And by the way, isn’t it nice to know that you don’t have to have experienced extraordinary challenges to write a great college essay? (See that Endodontics essay.) If you know what you want to study but did not experience significant challenges, you can reverse-engineer your essay. Here’s what I mean:

At this point, some students will feel the topic they outlined in their Feelings and Needs exercise isn’t ideal for a main idea topic. For this reason, I find it useful to point out that the outline they developed in that exercise could potentially work for a supplemental essay (the Univ. of California “challenges” prompt, for example), and they need not worry about making that their main essay topic. For some students this will come as a relief--and the next exercise will be the outline they are seeking, as it will emphasize a different set of values and experiences.

Ideally, though, students will leave the workshop with two essays outlined: one narrative essay based on challenges and one montage essay based on other qualities.

In terms of leading this exercise, the bullet points below will serve as a step-by-step guide.

PART ONE: Essential Qualities

  • At the top of a blank sheet of paper in the center of the page write down the name of the career you’re likely to pursue.

IMPORTANT: If you don’t know what career you’d like to pursue, you may either write down a placeholder career (i.e. something that you’re interested in) or leave this blank (if you really don’t know). 

Side note: if you have a clear idea of your career, you’re writing a Type B essay, and if you don’t know then you’re working on a Type D essay. (This distinction is not important--I’m only pointing it out so that you know what I mean when I use those terms.)

  • Underneath the name of the career (if you wrote one) write “Qualities of an excellent [Write your career here: doctor/teacher/businessperson, etc.].” 
    • If you did not write down a career, just write the words “Qualities I Possess.”
  • If you did write a career, make a list of the qualities necessary to excel in whichever field you’ve chosen. If, for example, you want to study business, you might consider “ability to work well with others” and “leadership skills” on your list.
    • If you did not name a career, refer to your Values Exercise and write down 5-6 values that you’d like to demonstrate in your personal statement
  • Either way, list at least five qualities along the right side of the paper. We’ll call this your “tell” column (more on this later).

PART TWO: How I’ve Demonstrated these Qualities in My Life

  • On the left side of your page write at the top “How I’ve Demonstrated These Qualities in My Life.”
  • For each quality in your “tell” column, write down a specific moment/example from your life that SHOWS that you have developed this quality. (For example, if you wrote “ability to work well with others” in your right hand column, write in the left hand column a specific instance that shows you work well with others—the time you worked with a large group to organize the Dance Marathon at your school, for example. Or if you’ve written “good listener” in the right hand column you might describe how while volunteering at the hospital you found that the patients often felt comfortable sharing their life stories with you.)
  • Keep going until the left hand column is filled with examples of the qualities named in the right hand column. Remember: the left hand column will be “show” and the right hand column will be “tell.” 

How I’ve Demonstrated These Qualities  

  • After-school math tutoring 
  • Designing my own shoes
  • Taking apart machines? 
  • Always asked questions as a kid

Qualities of a Great Endodontist

  • Desire to help others
  • Detail focused
  • Interested in how human body works
  • Curiosity

Eventually you are going to write one paragraph on each element on the left hand column (this is your show).

Important: You won’t want to explicitly reveal (that is, “tell”) the qualities in the right hand column or how they connect to your future career until the last or second to last paragraph… see the Endodontics essay example from earlier to see what this looks like. Why? If you say at the beginning of your essay, “I’ve always wanted to be a doctor” and then say “...because I am a caring, hard-working and detail-oriented individual” and then you give examples of each of those, then the essay will be kind of boring.” A good guiding rule is this: show first, then tell.

What if I don’t know what I want to do in the future (for Type D Essays):

That’s okay! Keep in mind that you don’t have to use your future career as a focusing lens--you can use anything!

It’s really important to emphasize this point with students, as some students will still think (despite your having told them) that they must write about a career. And part of this, admittedly, is due to the paradigm I’ve set up, which splits students based on whether or not they’ve decided or not. So remind them:

You do not have to address your career in your essay.

Having said that--and this is between you and me--it can be a bit easier to find an ending to an essay if a student does know, as it’s easy to say, “...And that’s why I want to be an [insert career here].” It’s also a convenient way to connect all the other qualities/values in the essay together.

For those students who haven’t picked out a career, it may just take a little longer to figure out both their ending and what the “thing” is that connects all the qualities/values--and I call this “thing” the “focusing lens.”

Here are some...


  1. Make it visual. Storytelling is a visual medium. Use a lens that will help conjure images in the reader’s mind. I’ve had too many students try to write “soundtrack” or “mix-tape” essays in which their favorite songs provide the soundtrack for their lives. The problem with writing this type of essay, however, is that the reader can’t hear the music (and often doesn’t know or have the same emotional connection to the songs referenced).

  2. Write what you know. Know how to cook? Use food. Play chess? Use that! Use your essence objects list (see below) for ideas.

  3. Find a focusing lens that allows you to “go wide.” Use a metaphor, in other words, that will allow you to discuss several different aspects of who you are. Note how the scrapbooking lens allowed the writer to discuss more than two dozen different essences.

For students who have not faced challenges and do not have a career in mind (i.e. those writing a Type D essay), there is hope! My best advice to them, though, is to be patient. They may be looking around at other students in the workshop and wondering why they are the only ones without a topic. Let them know that some of the best essays (and probably most of the essays) ever written did not address challenges or a future career.

For reference, examples of great Type D essays can be found in College Essay Essentials on pages 231-232 (hard copy) or pages 235-236 (e-book).

This marks the end of the 2-Hr workshop. Again, it's very possible to complete this content in the time allotted. But I would highly recommend considering a 3-Hr workshop, if possible, for reasons that I explain in the next lesson.

If a 3-Hr workshop isn't possible, again I would suggest giving students a particular assignment due on a particular date--ideally within a couple days, but definitely within a week--so they can capture some of the ideas that have begun to stir during the workshop.