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The Power of Using Small Details in Your College Essay

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small details in your college essayWhen someone says, “I love you,” how can you tell if it’s true? It’s possible that no one actually knows the answer to this question, but if you were to take a stab at it, what would you say. Do those three words say it all? Or do you need more? A long day spent teaching you how to drive (and never getting mad). A shared joke that no one else understands. There are so many little things that people do to show they love each other, all of them unique, and it’s these details (or the lack thereof) that make the statement “I love you” ring true or hollow.

To make an admissions officer fall in love with you through your college essay, you’ll also need to tap into the details of your life. The little things you do and say and notice all speak volumes about who you are, and they help validate statements like, “I’ve always been a quiet, observant person.” To show you what we mean, we’ve picked out a few of our favorite examples of personal and real admissions essays whose details sing.

Barbara Kingsolver, “High Tide in Tuscon”

In her charming essay about living with a hermit crab, master storyteller Barbara Kingsolver describes how she came to have the crab by writing, “I had spent a week in the Bahamas, and while I was there, wishing my daughter could see those sparkling blue bays and sandy coves, I did exactly what she would have done: I collected shells.”

This sentence says so much more than “While I was in the Bahamas, I collected shells” or “I missed my daughter when I was in the Bahamas.” Kingsolver simultaneously explains why she was collecting shells and demonstrates how much she missed her daughter. Not to mention she deftly sets the scene of “sparkling blue bays and sandy coves,” helping us feel her connection to nature and it mediates her relationship with her family.

Brittany Stinson, “The Costco Essay”

Okay, so that’s not the official title of Brittany Stinson’s essay, but it is how it will go down in history. Earlier this year, Stinson’s clever admissions essay went viral after it helped her gain admission to Stanford and several Ivy League schools. We love this essay not just for its personal take on an unexpected topic, but for the vivid details that Stinson uses to transform Costco into a world seen through her eyes.

Check out how this passage plucks specific details from her surroundings to transform a trip to Costco into an exercise in intellectual curiosity: “Just as I sampled buffalo¬ chicken dip or chocolate truffles, I probed the realms of history, dance and biology, all in pursuit of the ideal cart-one overflowing with theoretical situations and notions both silly and serious. I sampled calculus, cross¬ country running, scientific research, all of which are now household favorites.”

Kelly Porter, “En Español, Por Favor”

This spring, we held our own “Bragging Writes” college essay competition and were blown away by the submissions we received, but Kelly Porter’s story really caught our eye. Weaving a joint narrative about studying Spanish and coping with her mother’s serious illness, Porter selects personal and physical details that make her story unforgettable.

She paints a striking scene of her mother in the hospital, “[I]n the spring of my freshman year, it wasn’t Spanish exhausting my brain; instead, it was the brain abscess pressing on my mom’s. Spending my evenings in the hospital, I watched as the abscess paralyzed the left fingers she had intertwined with mine, weaken the legs she had ran marathons with, and constrained my shopping partner to a hospital bed.”

There is so much to say here, but notice how Porter draws an immediate parallel between herself and her mother by describing their brains. The physical connection becomes an emotional one as she connects physical details like her mother’s “paralyzed fingers” to memories that heighten the sense of loss she expresses.

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