Using Sex Appeal to Write a Killer College Essay

In College Admissions, Personal Statements by Peter PengLeave a Comment

Want to know a secret? I’m going to let you in on a big one today—the surprising secret for men to attract women. No, it’s not height, looks, or money. No, it’s not even style, confidence, or humor, though those are up there.

If you’re not looking to impress a woman, don’t worry, this article still pertains to you too. But sorry, I can’t reveal to you what attracts men (*cough cough* food…the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach *cough*).

Anyway, I read the secret to men’s sex appeal the other day. A team of University of North Carolina and University at Buffalo researchers did a study and published their results in the journal Personal Relationships.

The key to a man’s sexiness, apparently, is his storytelling ability. Hallelujah, writers rejoice!

Now wait a minute. What exactly is so attractive about that? Well, powerful storytelling conveys a whole host of impressive traits:

  • Intelligence
  • Leadership/authority/presence
  • Creativity
  • Connection and empathy
  • Excitement
  • Ability to persuade and captivate

Hmm, I wonder who else looks for these kinds of traits. Oh right, colleges! Of course! A great story touches people, inspires them, moves them to tears and even action. That’s why great journalism is so noble—it calls out the unrighteous, exposes the truth, highlights the heroics, and gives voice to the voiceless.

Admission officers want to see evidence of any of the traits signified by exceptional storytelling. Remember, one of the three things colleges look to answer in your essay is, “Can you write?” Part of that comes down to how well you can get people interested. So, if your story captures their attention, then right off the bat you’ve demonstrated your ability to captivate. This is a powerful skill because leaders must be able to get people to listen. Throw in some creativity and connection and you’ve got the makings of a fantastic college essay.

But here’s the important thing: being a good storyteller isn’t an inborn gift. It’s a learned skill—practiced, cultivated, and developed. I want to share with you one of the most effective elements of captivating storytelling today: the power of anecdotes.

An anecdote is a mini-story, a short scene used to illustrate a point. An anecdote is often a part of a larger story.

I’m sure your teachers have beat “show, don’t tell” into your heads by now, but how do you do so? Visual imagery, yes. Specific examples, sure. But really, HOW EXACTLY do you show, right?

Many people just vomit their anecdotes with little regard to prioritization, organization, or meaning. They just spill the events as they happened with indiscriminate details. Worse, they don’t know WHY they’re including their anecdote. But every sentence should have a purpose, helping you make your point. If you don’t know what message you’re trying to convey, then you’re simply telling us what happened, which is meaningless.

Let’s check out an anecdote makeover. Pretend you want to make the point that you are courageous, someone who is willing to take a risk or action for the better.

A typical student’s approach might be something like this:

Growing up, my family would visit Martha’s Vineyard every summer. It was my safe haven, my home away from home. Not only was the Vineyard a beautiful, peaceful place, but I loved how it was so different from the fast-paced life of the city I was accustomed to. Even in elementary school, I could sense the stress lift off me as we drove closer and closer to the Vineyard. But the Vineyard was also a place to test my limits within safe boundaries.

There is a special landmark there, the famous Jaws bridge from Steven Spielberg’s hit film. For the longest time, I wanted to jump off of it. I watched my friends and even my younger sister do so with reckless abandon. But every time I tried, I would grow nervous and back out. Each summer was the same, until one day, I said, “Enough is enough!” I jumped! And it was the most exhilarating moment. I had conquered my fear of heights and taken action even as my heart beat faster than I could ever remember. Even though it was just a small accomplishment, it represented my continual courage to take action in the face of challenges. I would not let anything stop me.

Okay, it’s not terrible. But tell me honestly, did you actually feel any emotions here? Or did it come off flat? Do you think you would remember this tomorrow? I would wager no. There’s no imagery here. The drama is buried deep. The entire piece just recounts what happened and not even in much detail.

Here’s the AFTER transformation:

Hoisting myself over the railing, feet trembling, I pressed my toes into the rickety wood planks. “You go first,” I cried to my sister. Giggling, she crowed back, “I thought we agreed to go together! Bye, chicken!” With reckless abandon, she launched herself like a graceful Olympic diver into the lake. And suddenly there I was, alone atop the famous Jaws bridge at Martha’s Vineyard.

I bit my lips in silent protest. No, I would not look back and see what I had not done. My fingers loosened millimeter by millimeter. My body arched forward. No more missed opportunities. Sometimes, caution must be thrown to the limit.

For twenty minutes I hovered, petrified. My heart beat like a hummingbird’s. Then quickly, I sucked in a breath, prayed I would not land on a pond creature, and hurtled myself off the bridge.

In that horrifying moment, I realized the momentousness of what I had done. Visiting the Vineyard every summer has been a family tradition, but now I look forward to the challenges it pushes me to achieve. In the simplest of environments, I had overcome. Conquering the bridge was a testament to the courage I would continue to develop.

Do you notice something different here? The actual events themselves aren’t too special, but if you highlight the right details, even ordinary events suddenly sound 10x more interesting. Anecdotes should get right into the action. There’s no space for fluffy lead-ins.

The key is not to just recount, but to describe! Use active, engaging verbs and gripping imagery.

Build suspense, throw in some dialogue if it feels appropriate, and include some drama. Anecdotes are a wonderful way to open your essay because they suck readers right now (as long as you start with the action).

If you have trouble getting to the exciting stuff right off the bat, then try the “write and slice” exercise. That simply means go ahead and write your fluffy introduction if it helps you ease into the action. Write your anecdote as long as you need to capture all the details. In fact, give yourself the liberty to get as visually detailed as possible. Give us all the juicy sensory images. Paint how you feel through physical details, rather than simply telling us your emotions. Then go back and slice off all the fluff. Slice as close as possible to the action.

Remember, much of the context or backstory isn’t necessary upfront (or sometimes, ever). Intentionally leaving all the details off builds anticipation and expectation, which keeps the admissions readers reading.

If you start your essay with an arresting anecdote filled with sensory details, you hook the readers immediately. Don’t ramble for too long though before you introduce your reflection on the experience. Tell us the meaning behind your anecdote. That’s the other key to these essays. It’s half narrative, half reflection. Most successful essays feature a small collection of thematically related anecdotes, so you should weave back and forth between anecdote and reflection until you’ve made your point clear. Then close your essay off with a memorable conclusion (that’s another article), and you’re done!

TIP: For 100 to 350-word essays, you’ll probably only have space for one (maybe two) good anecdote. For 351 to 400-word essays, I’d shoot for two anecdotes. For 401 to 650 words, you can include three to five (maybe more if they’re super short and are really necessary; just don’t get too repetitive about the same point).

Practice your storytelling skills and attract those admissions officers. Alright, go get ’em!

If you liked this tip, there’s a lot more where that came from. I’m hosting two upcoming live programs in Arcadia, CA with Q&A College Admissions to help you with your essays.

College JumpStart Workshop (July 11, 2016): a one-day workshop designed to equip you with the best essay and application strategies. We’ll prepare you with the major insight and tools so you can successfully write a killer essay and create an impressive college app. Includes a guided brainstorming session to find your perfect college topic. Supercharge the college process HERE.

College Essay Studio (July 12, 14, 19, & 21, 2016): a four-day workshop focused exclusively on developing your main Common App essay or University of California Personal Insights. Discover what colleges are looking for in the essays and the strategies to write brilliant essays. The goal is to go from conception to completion. Get live, personalized feedback to brainstorm, write, and polish your college essays HERE.

If you’d like 1-on-1 essay mentorship, you can contact me directly at peter@youngprodigy.com

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