Below is an example of a solid narrative/challenges essay. Read it first, then I’ll discuss it briefly.
Breaking Up With Mom
Written using Narrative Structure and adapted for the UC Application
Essay could have worked for prompts 5, 8, and perhaps others.
When I was fifteen years old I broke up with my mother. We could still be friends, I told her, but I needed my space, and she couldn’t give me that.
She and I both knew that I was the only person that she had in America. Her family was in Russia, she only spoke to her estranged ex-husband in court, her oldest son avoided her at all costs. And yet, at fifteen years old, I wasn’t equipped to effectively calm her down from her nightly anxiety attacks. At forty-three, she wasn’t willing to believe that I did love her, but that I couldn’t be responsible for stabilizing her life.
Moving in with my dad full time felt like I was abandoning her after tying a noose around her neck. But as my Drama teacher (and guardian angel) pointed out, my mother wasn’t going to get better if I kept enabling her, and that I wasn’t going to be able to grow if I was constrained by her dependence on me.
For the first time, I had taken action. I was never again going to passively let life happen to me.
During four long months of separation, I filled the space that my mom previously dominated with learning: everything and anything. I taught myself French through online programs, built websites, and began began editing my drawings on Photoshop to sell them online. When my dad lost his third job in five years, I learned to sew my own clothes and applied my new knowledge to costume design in the Drama Department.
On stage, I learned to empathize. Backstage, I worked with teams of dedicated and mutually supportive students. In our improv group, I gained the confidence to act on my instincts. With the help of my Drama teacher, I learned to humble myself enough to ask for help.
On my sixteenth birthday, I picked up the phone and dialed my mom. I waited through three agonizingly long pauses between rings.
“Hi mom, it’s me.”
(Length: 350 words)
Analysis: Note the simple structure here...
Challenges She Faced (first three paragraphs)
What She Did About It (beginning with the “During four long months…” paragraph)
What She Learned (rest of the essay)
I can’t emphasize enough how important this structure is. It’s especially useful if you have a complex story; come back to this simple outline and it will simplify things.
Note, though, that this doesn’t follow that ⅓ word budget I suggested--and that’s totally okay. There is no one way to write a great essay. In this case, the writer needed a bit more real estate to describe her challenges.
But notice how clearly she communicates what she did about it and what she learned. It can be that simple.
Advanced Version: For those of you who are ambitious, you may notice that the author does actually follow the five steps of Narrative Structure that I describe here:
Inciting Incident: “When I was fifteen years old I broke up with my mother.”
Status Quo: See Paragraph 2.
Raising the Stakes: See Paragraph 2.
Moment of Truth: “For the first time, I had taken action. I was never again going to passively let life happen to me.”
New Status Quo: After not speaking for some time, the author reaches out again in the final paragraph (i.e. they are re-opening the lines of communication), which is different from the opening of the story.
So it is possible to work in these elements. But is not necessary. And it is hard to do in 350 words. That’s why I call this the Advanced Version.
Keep things simple by asking yourself those three questions:
What challenge(s) did I face?
What did I do about it?
What did I learn?
You’re probably wondering: What if I’m NOT writing about challenges? I’ll explain that next.
To learn about montage structure, click below.
Part of becoming an adult is forming our own ideas and opinions about a broad variety of issues. Sometimes, this means challenging the status quo and offering a different perspective than the one shared by others. It can also mean challenging our own point of view and adopting an opposite or more nuanced understanding of things. For this article in our five part series, we’ll delve deeper into the third of the Common App prompts.
Here’s the prompt:
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
The prompt is clear that the admissions officers are looking for three distinct and well-developed sections in the essay.
1. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.
In this part of the essay, you need to tell the reader what happened. You could probably fill the entire essay just by explaining the story. Therefore, you may want to go ahead and write the whole thing out first and then trim back to give sufficient space to other aspects of the prompt.
2. What prompted you to act?
This is probably the most crucial aspect of the essay. With this question, the admissions officers are letting you know that they don’t want to read an essay about something that only happened inside your mind. Although broadening our perspectives is an important part of life, the admissions officers are looking for an experience where you took some action.
3. Would you make the same decision again?
While it can be exhilarating to challenge a belief and emerge victorious, don’t be afraid to explore times when things didn’t go so well. Despite having the better idea, others may not see things from our point of view due to differing value systems or simple fear of change. In other words, a story about challenging a belief or idea where everything went smoothly doesn’t make for the most compelling essay. If you choose this prompt, then also choose an anecdote where there was some tension or struggle. Finally, it’s okay to say that you would not make the same decision again. Either way, the admissions officers are looking for self-reflection in this section.
One of the biggest challenges of this prompt is avoiding the temptation to paint things in terms of black and white. When writing about challenging the beliefs or ideas of others, be careful not to present the other person or the other group as a caricature. Regardless of how difficult or blatantly incorrect the other opinion, you’re still writing about a real person who is much more than their views on this one issue. The most effective way to counter this pitfall is simply to acknowledge that, while you wholeheartedly disagree, you can understand the other perspective. This shows maturity and empathy – characteristics that all admissions officers are seeking in applicants.
In college, you’ll continually be expected to defend your point of view, so choosing this prompt can be a great way to demonstrate that you have the courage, humility, and analytical skills to excel in the college environment. Show understanding for yourself and others throughout the essay, and then conclude with how you have grown from the experience.
Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.
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