What’s Happening In Your College Essay?


Since we’re in the midst of college essay season, I wanted to share some wonderful advice about how to write a great college essay. Janine Robinson, my go-to-person for the best college-essay tips, who shares her tremendous knowledge on her website – Essay Hell.

What’s Happening In Your College Essay?

Here’s one way to check if your college admissions essay it will engage your reader: See if something happened. If not, good chance it’s a snoozer.

I’ve written a lot about how you can bring an essay to life if you relay a story. And to find a good story, you usually need to find a problem to share. If you shared a problem, you most likely relayed something that happened. That is all good stuff!

Think about the last time you asked someone “What happened?” It probably meant that you wanted to know something from the past, usually the not-so-distant past. The story. The details. The scoop.

four scoops of ice cream

If your essay starts by relating something that happened, the reader is going to dive right into it and not stop until they are satisfied–until they know what happened.

What is an example of something that happened? Here are a few essay topics from my former students (See if you can find the “problem,” or what went wrong.):

  • A girl wrestled a store mannequin into skinny jeans while changing the window display and the arms fell off.
  • A boy hoisted himself up in a tree, but tied the knot wrong and got stuck.
  • A boy pronounced words in his native German accent and got laughed at by classmates who thought he was dumb.
  • A girl got separated from her parents while visiting Rome.
  • A girl made her bed every night before climbing in for the night.
  • A boy dragged home a discarded trampoline by the side of the road.
  • A boy sang a rock song while lying injured on a gurney in the ER.
  • A boy waiting tables mixed up an order and ended up picking up the entire bill for the family.
  • A girl who always got the lead role in school plays learned she didn’t make the staring role.
  • A boy loves nothing more than sitting with his mom and sister and watching soap operas together.
  • A girl forgot to water her mom’s prized geraniums while away on vacation.
Yes, these are just examples, and I know it might be hard to imagine where they took these little “problems” to write great narrative essays. But I’ve read them all, and they are all terrific. They started with something that happened, and then shared how it made them feel, how they handled it and what they learned. Simple Simon!
essay hell
On some level, it doesn’t even matter what story you tell. It’s all about what you have to say about it–again, how you thought about, what you did about it and what you learned. The thoughts, insights, explanations and commentary are what reveal your values, passions, fears, goals and dreams in your essay. That’s exactly what you want.

One last tip:

Another way to check your essay to see if anything happened is to make sure you used a large handful of strong action verbs. Duh, right? But it’s amazing how easy it is to write 650 words and not use a single one. (I’m guilty myself a lot of time!).
Example of action verbs:
  • Gargled
  • Slippedwaste basket
  • Thought
  • Trembled
  • Sat
  • Picked
  • Snored
  • Shattered
  • Braced
  • Dreamed
  • Watched
  • Heard
  • Cleaned
  • Gripped
  • Draped
  • Broke
  • Panted
  • Fixed
  • Plopped
Verbs in the passive tense (Passive: “There was trash on the ground” versus Active: “Trash covered the ground.”) or linking verbs (“to be”) don’t count.

Stop Fretting

So quit fretting over what you are going to write about. Find something that “happened” to you or in your life, share it with the reader and take it from there. If you want more help, you can either scroll through other posts on this blog (which will give you further guidance) or you can buy my book (Escape Essay Hell!), which will step you through the process.

A Word to Parents

Okay, for you parents out there. Do you remember that amazing Jesus Christ Superstar Rock Opera turned movie from the ’70s??
This post reminded me of a song with these lyrics: “What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s a-happening. What’s the buzz…” I know. I’m kind of going a little batty in Essay Hell right now. Bet you are, too. But I loved that song! (Found a YouTube video for you version of that song for you nostalgic types out there like me.)


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  1. Hi.. the above post gives ideas about writing a college admission essay. Really a lot of help for students who are facing problem while writing an essay. Thanks for sharing this useful information.

  2. Nice, practical suggestions except your example of passive voice is wrong.

    Passive voice would be: “Trash was thrown on the ground” (passive) instead of “They threw trash on the ground” (active).

    Using the linking verb “to be” in sentences like “There was trash on the ground” is perfectly acceptable. This verb is often the most natural one to use when describing things. For example:

    I am sick.
    It is dark outside.
    There is a big dog in the back yard.

    None of these are passive voice. Please don’t perpetuate silly English rules!