The Power of a One-Liner in Your College Essay

Hope you had a wonderful July 4th! This holiday always brings me back to the 1996 Will Smith movie Independence Day. The classic story of an alien invasion and Will Smith kicking some serious extraterrestrial butt. (No, I didn’t go see the new one because I heard it stinks.)

But here’s the quote I’ll always remember the original ID4 movie by: “This is our victory dance. Not until the fat lady sings.” –Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith)

Everyone loves a good quote, right? A witty comeback. A hilarious joke. An irresistible pun. A tweetable swaying.

I love quotes because they boil complex, deep truths into a salient, eloquent point.

One-liners are the best because they are easily remembered, and thus, easily spread. Good one-liners become viral. Your college essay would do well if it were to become viral among the admissions committee.

The problem is, people aren’t going to remember the details of your story in most cases. If you have a favorite movie that you watched over 5 years ago, are you going to remember all the little plot details or lines of dialogue? Probably not.

But the good quotes will stick out.

“Why so serious?” –the Joker in The Dark Knight

“I’ll going to make him a deal he can’t refuse!” – Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather

“Shut up. Just shut up. You had me at ‘hello,’” –Dorothy in Jerry Maguire

“Life is like a box of chocolates” –Forrest in Forrest Gump

Political quotes are immensely popular as well:

“Ask not what the country can do for you, but what you can do for the country!” –President John F. Kennedy

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” –President Franklin D. Roosevelt

“I have a dream!” –Martin Luther King Jr.


You need to craft your story with a one-liner in mind, so that your reader can remember to root for you.

But you don’t necessarily need a quotable line. When I say “one-liner” I mean your essay should be able to be summed up in one line. And doing so should be easy and obvious.

This one-liner might only written in your head, but its message should be powerful and succinct. Here are some examples:

“I never give up because I know the power of persistence and grit.”

“I’m an adventurous guy willing to take action to make things happen.”

“I always seek out the unconventional path—creativity and innovation are guiding forces in my life.”

“I’m an ambitious worker and dreamer.”

You probably wouldn’t include any of those lines directly in your essay, but the story would convey those thoughts. Your one-liner is the portable takeaway admission officers need to walk away with.

You’ll probably reveal other things about yourself too, but they should be side points. If you have more than one main point, you dilute its power. It’s better to have one major idea that works superbly than three main ideas that all compete with each other.

The goal of a college essay is to get admission officers to remember your ONE DEFINING ESSENCE, not a slew of various traits. If they notice other things about you, great, but those are nice-to-haves (but not essential). Don’t try to win all the bonuses while losing out on the main object.


One of my favorite quotes by the great American poet Maya Angelou sums up my biggest advice about college essays:

“People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” -Maya Angelou

Sooooo true. Admission officers won’t remember the details of your essay, but they will remember how it made them feel.

Having a one-liner itself isn’t enough. You can’t just claim that you are “a creative guy” without proof. No one would believe you. Even if you tell us about a time when you were creative, people won’t necessarily be convinced. Not until you make them FEEL your creativity. That means giving us drama and painting us a vivid picture.

That’s why it’s doubly important to have a focused one-liner.

1) It’s easier to remember ONE main point (versus three or four).

2) You need all the words you can get to create the sensory details and the emotional buildup to get your readers FEELING your message.

People don’t want to be told what your one-liner is; they want to experience it. If you have too many competing points, then all of your claims will be unconvincing. The admission officers won’t have truly experienced any of them.

It doesn’t matter if your essay is 100 words or 1,000 words. They all need a one-liner because that’s what people are going to remember. This is the KING of all essay tips.

Coming up with your one-liner also forces you to do some deep self-discovery. All of us are infinitely complex beings, but what is the ONE trait or value that captures you best? Your one-liner needs to convey that in your core essay (like the main essay for the Common App).

If there isn’t a single main essay (like how there are 4 equally weighted essays for the University of California app), then go ahead and pick multiple traits/values. But make sure there’s only ONE main idea per essay, a single one-liner per story.


The best way to ensure you have a memorable essay is to ask several people what they think the MAIN point is. If you get too many different answers, then you need to go back and clarify your story.

Another great exercise you should do is figure out the one-liner for real student essays that worked. This will give you a sense of the variety of successful messages. Johns Hopkins University does a great service by collecting a few of their best essays each year, which you can read HERE.

As you check those out, ask yourself what each of their one-liners are. Don’t be distracted by the side points. What’s the MAIN thing you learn about each of these students?

And notice how different each person’s trait or value is. There isn’t ONE quality that you absolutely must show to be accepted. Many people believe this myth that colleges care about, say, leadership more than anything else, and that’s just not the case. If you’re not a leader, don’t focus your one-liner on leadership. Think of your actual strengths, and focus on one of those.

Colleges want a diverse student body, so have faith that the defining essence you’d bring is worthy. Just make sure to refine your one-liner, then throw your story entirely behind that message without apology.

Good luck out there!

REMINDER TO RSVP (Free Masterclass & Essay Studio)

Also, this is a reminder that I’m hosting a FREE 1-hour masterclass in Arcadia, CA this Thursday, July 7th, from 7:30 – 8:30pm. Many people have already RSVPed, so there are only 10 spaces left. Head on over HERE quickly to reserve your spot.

And on July 8th 11:59pm PST, I’m closing the doors to the Arcadia College Essay Studio, a four-day intensive workshop to get personalized strategies and mentorship on your personal statement. The goal is to go from conception to completion for your main Common App essay or two of your University of California essays. You can sign up HERE.

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