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How to Use an Anecdote to Write a Powerful College Essay (With Plenty of Examples)

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“Tap, tap, tap. My fingers danced across the computer keyboard which, while attempting to distract myself from the task at hand, I pretended was a piano. The made-up tune was rhythmic and catchy, but I made sure never to press hard enough on the keys to actually start typing.

I remember glaring at the blank document on the screen which seemed to mock me with an ever-blinking cursor and chanted, “write, write, write.” I would eventually write the dreaded essay but not until the clock hands were well past midnight, I had sampled every snack in the pantry, and had typed “akdgja” or some other unintelligible word 37 times in my word processor.”

If you have ever stared at a blank document or piece of paper and were unsure of what to write, you might identify with the description above.

I could have simply expressed this idea to you by writing, “I understand what it feels like to be frustrated and not know what to write.” Instead, I chose to begin with an anecdote.

An anecdote is a brief and engaging story that is used to illustrate a point. Most importantly, anecdotes are true stories about your life.

College admissions committees are interested in your life experiences, what makes you different from other students, and why you would make a great college student.

By using anecdotes in your college essay writing, you have the ability to create a powerful bond between you and your audience.

These stories help convince readers of your sincerity and engage them in your life story.

Statement or Anecdote: What’s the difference?

There is certainly a time and place for using brief, non-descriptive statements in college essay writing.

When describing your family, you might note that you have two younger sisters.

Unless your essay is focused on your sisters, there is no need to launch into a story about the day your sisters were born.

However, if there is an idea or experience that you would like an admissions committee to focus on, then you might be better off using an anecdote.

Let’s look at an example:

If using a statement, you might write in your essay that failing a test was a turning point in your educational career, and that it made you a better student.

While that seems like an interesting enough statement, it is not enough to prove that you were transformed.

A powerful and convincing strategy would be to instead tell the story of how after failing your first AP Psychology exam, you started recording class lectures, taking chapter notes, and created a study group.

You might then describe the feeling after taking the next exam and finding out that you and your study group all received significantly higher scores.

This anecdote confirms the idea that you want to get across (you learn from past mistakes) by giving a specific example that your reader can imagine and with which they can identify.

What makes an effective anecdote?

Anecdotes should not be used thoughtlessly to build word count. Rather, be purposeful in the stories that you tell.

Effective anecdotes are:

  • Brief
  • Descriptive
  • Relevant

The anecdotes you choose to share in a college essay should be fairly short in order to avoid losing your reader’s attention.

Short stories also ensure that you still have space to thoroughly address a prompt.

To stay brief, remember that it’s unnecessary to tell a story from beginning to end.

  • Instead, focus on the most important event while providing just enough context for it to make sense to someone outside of your circle of friends.
  • When including anecdotes, also use descriptive writing. You want your reader to be able to use the detail in your college essay to paint an image in their mind.

In the following example, a student was asked to write about their hometown for a college essay.

Rather than describe its geographical location and basic demographics, they use anecdotal and descriptive sensory writing to evoke an emotional response from their readers.

Anyone can look up facts about a city on the Internet or in a guidebook, but only you can tell the story of your life through your own eyes:

“One road runs straight past Mann’s Red and White store, past two kids racing on four-wheelers, past a sign supposed to read Pine Acres, but is missing the C, and finally loops around to the Fisherman’s Wharf Restaurant and fishing docks. It’s evening and large fishing trawlers bring home catches of shrimp. The parking lot across the street is filled with empty eighteen-wheelers. Men in the warehouses wear knee-high white rubber boots, often called ‘Wanchese house slippers,’ and pack the catch in ice. As the sun sets, the town’s children return from their small boats and kayaks to the canals within Wanchese. They run home, covered in mud and dirt and their skin is tanned from endless hours in the sun, but they smile and are ready to do it again tomorrow.”

This brief anecdote describes the sights and sounds of the town, while also conveying the freedom neighborhood kids had to run around and play.

Finally, be sure that the anecdote you choose to include in your essay is relevant. While the story you describe might be funny or interesting, if it does not address the prompt or further the point you are making, it will only be considered a distraction.

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Where should I include an anecdote?

Structurally, there are two different parts of a college essay where an anecdote is often found.

The first is at the very beginning, and, in this case, your anecdote is used as a “hook” to engage your reader.

One of the best ways to begin a college essay is with a “cold hook.” A cold hook is an abrupt anecdote that pulls the reader into your essay right away.

Here are examples of a cold hook anecdote:

  • I was angry. I was confused.
  • “Okay, almost there! Only a few more strokes.” Upon finishing my painting, I reflected on my journey to the final round of the art show.
  • As we took our first couple steps off of the plane, the hot and humid air swarmed around us.

At the beginning of this article, I described the experience of having writer’s block and the distracting habits I turn to when I’m feeling stuck.

When using an anecdote as a hook, you want to consider what you can write that will be both relevant to the prompt, and compel your audience to continue reading.

Another way to include an anecdote in your essay is to use a story to illustrate a point.

Let’s say that you were given a prompt that asked you to write about a problem you have solved. In your response, you might include an anecdote about the time you wrote a letter to the editor to highlight an ongoing problem in your neighborhood.

You then describe the events that followed which led to a solution.

This response is an example of how you could use an anecdote to prove that you have solved a problem.  

More Examples of College Essay Anecdotes

Of course, you are probably looking for real-life examples of anecdotes in college essays that worked. Below, you’ll find a list of both pithy and detailed anecdotes for now-successful graduates. Enjoy!

Here’s a student setting the scene before giving a major presentation:

I moved centerstage of the massive arena with my two teammates by my side. Bright lights and thousands of eyes gazed at me. It’s showtime.

This is a student discussing the struggles of learning an instrument:

I had to teach myself how to read notes and play the strings. In the end, I spent hundreds of hours and countless nights watching tutorials, trying to translate the foreign language of music.  

This is a student battling anxiety and failure:

Trapped in a hurricane of doubt, I searched for the eye of the storm. I had to calm down and seek a break from the failure.

From a student who loves languages:

As I spoke with numerous professionals at the conference, I felt like French had been a part of my life since the very beginning. 

From another student who did some great charity work:

Altogether, we raised $15,000 for veterans. During the process, not only did we pair veterans with corporate mentors, but our team became more involved with veterans PTSD issues and fundraising. I had found my calling.

From a student who loves working with animals:

Outside of school, I care for two rescue dogs, a showy and energetic American Cocker Spaniel and a shy but regal English Cocker Spaniel. They haven’t let their traumtic pasts affect their moods, and neither will I. 

This is a student who writes about his love for politics:

During my first year participating in my Junior Statesmen of America chapter, I never spoke up for my beliefs or views regarding current events. Over the next two years, I changed my mindset and became willing to fail and face disagreemnt over my views. My willingness to discuss issues led me to become president of the chapter, where I involve classmates and speak to the younger students about volunteering for local campaign.

From the desk of a student who fell in love with a school after discovering an alumnus:

After concluding my visit to DC, I listened to a speech from Senator Warner, a voice for reason in a time of great confusion. I curiously Googled his history, learning that he is an alum. Senator Warner, I discovered, demonstrates why GW is the perfect university for me.

From a student who loves UPitt:

From the moment I stepped on PITT’s campus, I felt fully immersed in the community.  When I began the tour, a lively environment greeted me with students who were enthusiastically wearing PITT spirit wear and eager to help me find my way around campus.  My student tour guide seemed to know everything about the school. The student pride was inspiring, and she created a family environment I wanted to a part of.

A student and actor who loves West Side Story:

Playing Chino was the greatest challenge I have ever faced as an actor. Witnessing the pure hatred presented in the musical forced a transformation not only in my character onstage, but also in me. I saw myself and every person in Chino; for, we all work hard to achieve what is best for ourselves and for our compatriots.

From a student and EDM composer:

A pulsing drumbeat flows through my headphones, outlining the foundation for a song.  Moments later, the strong sounds of a driving base line blast through the white noise of the underlying percussion.  The melody pours onto the track making way for a wave of rhythm and flow.  Thus begins a song; my song.  Like a brush upon canvas, music notes fly across my open laptop screen.  I am the artist of this song, this blend of emotion and color, this complexly beautiful composition that is my life.  

A student reflecting on his role in the family:

I recently heard an NPR segment about the effects of the one-child policy in the People’s Republic of China.  It described how the country has essentially produced an entire generation of “Little Emperors” that command the sole attention of their doting parents. Being a male only-child in an Asian family, hearing this story prompted immediate introspection.  I began to wonder – if I could build a prototype based on the alleged qualities of a Little Emperor, how would I compare?

From a student remembering his father:

One of my earliest memories of my father’s gravy was when I performed in my first piano recital. I remember completing my simple version of Silent Night, and as I hit the last note and prepared to stand up and take my vow, my father’s face stuck out in the crowd. I remember seeing my dad laughing and clapping, that unmistakable smile stretching across his face, and his thoughts as clear as his expression: “That’s gravy!”

From a gritty student who had to take care of his family from an early age:

I vividly remember hanging onto her legs, horrified, as she hung from a third story window in an attempt to end her life. Her caustic lifestyle made her vicious, manipulative, and vindictive towards everybody in her life, pushing everybody that loved her away. She stole thousands of dollars from my mom via check fraud, which made my mother unable to afford the rent to our house, clothes, or even food. It became my responsibility, seeing as I had a paying job since I was thirteen, to step in and help make ends meet.

A student discussing his love for the beach:

Sitting against the backdrop of stars, I then noticed the boats gently drifting on the ocean, taking me back through the tides of time to my childhood. These boats reminded me of my own boating trips with my grandfather and my next door neighbor. During fishing trips we took every three weeks, my grandfather continually talked about customers and sales from his business, introducing me to the world of economics and finance.

Transitioning from an anecdote

It is important not to “drop” an anecdote into your essay without transitioning back to your main idea.

If you don’t use transition statements, your reader might be left confused as to why you used an anecdote and your college essay could seem disjointed.

Consider these sentence starters when transitioning from an anecdote back to the main body of your essay:

  • This experience led me to understand/realize…
  • This is just one example of how…
  • [Summary of anecdote] was significant because…

When writing a college essay, remember that style is often as important as content. Including these transition statements will help you to get your intended message across.

What if I don’t have any stories to tell?

Many students struggle with including anecdotes in their writing because they think nothing interesting or tragic has ever happened to them.

While “shocking” anecdotes about life-changing events can be great examples to illustrate struggle, they are not the only effective anecdotes.

Hold a magnifying glass to your life and think about a time where you were challenged and, as a result, learned something.

Your life does not need to have been in danger and no monument needs to have been erected in your honor.

Think: What events in my life (no matter how big or small) have led to me growing as a human being?

These are stories worth telling.

Conclusion: The College Essay Anecdote

Don’t be afraid to use an anecdote in your college essay. In fact, we recommend it. Keep it brief and relevant.

College admissions officers want to learn about you and your values. Anecdotes help you extrapolate important or pertinent events from your life.

Best of luck!

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