Everyone wants to see a hero win.
We want to see Frodo to destroy the One Ring. We want to see Anna punch Hans in the face and melt her kingdom of ice. We want to see Harry defeat Voldemort (before Harry even wants to himself), and when he turns off his targeting computer, we desperately hope that Luke Skywalker can use the force and blow the Death Star to smithereens.
The hero has to win. We want it so much.
It doesn’t matter that the hero isn’t the strongest or most brilliant character in the story. In fact, if they were, their stories would be terribly boring. How mind-numbing would it be to watch Azula cackle for three seasons while throwing lightning bolts that Zuko can’t ever deflect? How crappy would it be if invincible Ivan Drago knocked out Rocky Balboa with a single punch? That wouldn’t be a story at all, would it? No one would ever watch that movie and say to their friends, “Oh man, you have to see this!”
No, our heroes are never invincible, and this is exactly why we love them so much:
There’s a chance they might lose.
When he first arrives at Hogwarts, Harry is a bum compared to Hermione. Anna has no magical ice powers like Elsa. Frodo is a hobbit in a world of warrior kings, and Miles Morales is just a kid from Brooklyn who wants to be cool like his uncle.
Yet, we want to see them all win. We root for them, desperately. And as we accompany them on their journeys across dimensions, icy wastelands, and quidditch pitches, we fall in love with their quirks and failures. Their mistakes are our mistakes. Their bone-headed bungles are our bungles too. And that is why they become our heroes, because in them, we see ourselves.
For this is the key to being a hero, to being the chosen one: despite mistakes and youthful failures, despite lack of talent or privilege, a hero is someone just like us, who rallies our hearts and minds and inspires us to dream of being heroes too.
So, what does this have to do with college admissions essays?
Because if you can learn to become a flawed hero, you can write essays that make admissions readers’ hearts beat faster. You can make them clutch the edge of their chairs. You can make them see themselves in your own journey, and pause for a moment as they say to themselves, “Oh man I want to see this kid win.”
Become a hero.
It’s powerful stuff.
Let me show you how it’s done.
The Elements of a Heroic Essay
- A hero
- A crisis
- A mentor (often, but not always)
- A victory
- Hero is changed or transformed
…a broad category of tales and lore that involves a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.
We can use the hero’s journey to understand what makes certain stories (and application essays) memorable in a timeless way. Screenwriters have used this template for decades. You should recognize it as the outline of every single Pixar movie, as well as the structure for the character arcs of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Why is it so popular? Because these stories always, always, ALWAYS make people FEEL something.
It’s practically a magic trick. Let me explain.
In 5,000 years of recorded history, humans have done a great deal of writing. Lots of speeches, plays, essays, stories, songs, and fables. Most of them we have forgotten. Why? Because they sucked. They were boring as hell. They didn’t make people feel anything, and so they were left to rot on the wayside of history (just like the thousands of boring admissions essays submitted each year).
But some of them…oh, they were good. You’ve read many of them. Oedipus Rex. Journey to the West. Petrarch’s sonnets. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Beowulf. The Sword in the Stone. And my personal favorites: Avatar: The Last Airbender and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
The one common thing among these memorable acts of writing is that they consistently make people feel strong emotions. Curiously, everyone feels the same thing. We all feel anxious when Frodo wrestles with Gollum above the fiery pits of Mount Doom. We all get goosebumps when Miles Morales finally learns to swing.
The hero’s journey, thus, isn’t an arbitrary set of rules that some stuffy, ancient Harvard professor declared and sent out across the land attached to carrier pigeons. It’s the patterns we’ve found in the stories our ancestors couldn’t help but remember. It’s the hidden subconscious language that affects human hearts in a universal way.
Likewise, in university admissions essays, it’s these patterns that makes readers feel what we want them to feel: that they’ve found a gifted, charming person, someone like them, a little conflicted, dorky at times, potentially a friend, someone who, I don’t know, just fits in this university that they call home. A Tony Stark. An Anna. A Frodo. Someone that they just want to see win. Someone in whom they see themselves.
Someone who might be…a hero?
But How Do These Elements Work?
You know this already. You know it implicitly. A flawed hero encounters a conflict. She goes on a journey of self-discovery. Often a mentor will help her see her talents in a new way, before she wins a life-changing victory and then returns home transformed.
One way to achieve this emotional arc in an application essay is to use ABDCE structure:
Section 1 – Action
We see HERO in the middle of a CONFLICT. Lots of strong concrete nouns, action verbs, and imagery. Think of a movie scene. Usually only one paragraph. Often this paragraph isn’t even needed.
Section 2 – Background
HERO briefly explains how this CONFLICT arose. Keep it brief. Again, usually only one paragraph. Think of a movie flashback (or how each of the heroes in Into the Spider-Verse continually retell their origin story).
Section 3 – Development (and possibly Deep Thinking)
Something compels HERO to change and she goes on a journey. Sometimes this begins with a MENTOR who sees potential in HERO. Think of a training montage. This is the longest section, often up to three paragraphs, and sometimes it includes an internal monologue where HERO tells us how this journey relates to everyone else in the world.
Section 4 – Climax
In a decisive moment, HERO achieves a VICTORY by resolving the CONFLICT from section one.
Section 5 – Ending
We see that HERO has experienced a TRANSFORMATION. The imagery in this section mirrors the imagery from section one, except that it’s changed to symbolize the TRANSFORMATION.
Let’s look at an example. The following essay was written by a student who (though an un-hooked international with unremarkable stats) was admitted to his top-choice T-25 university. As you read, try to pick out the elements of the hero’s journey.
The street lamp is disturbingly lonely. Located beside a crowded cafeteria, it waits for three thousand students to pass by everyday. Nine other street lamps also wait for the daily crowds, but only this one, with its hazy cloak of light and tireless bulb, seems forlorn. I’m not sure why.
Moments like this puzzle me. Maybe they’re caused by hormones in my veins, or even more dangerously, by the verses of the Chinese poet, Li Yu, who likened his sorrow to the flowing waters of the Yangtze River. Poems, after all, have almost always driven me insane.
My father wasn’t pleased the first time I showed him a poem I’d written. He unfolded the paper, skimmed through my words, and frowned. Sentimental work like that should be left to women, he said. Six years would pass before I showed him my work again.
Fortunately, I didn’t endure those six years alone. My mother, whose family was so poor they could barely feed her as a child, still regrets being forced to study science. Literature wouldn’t help her to earn a living, her father said. So she indoctrinated me, all my life, with fairy tales, novels, and poems. Even today she constantly talks of the translated foreign novels she read thirty years ago, and the English versions I’m reading now in school.
There was also my junior high Chinese teacher, a renowned songwriter. Her lyrics are known all over China, and she could have earned a fortune working for pop stars and record companies, but she chose to teach junior high instead. Unlike the other, frantic teachers who focused on standardized tests, Ms. Xu taught us all the emotions we could extract from the golden image of the sun. So too she taught us poems of heartbreak, suicide even, assuring us that art has room for every feeling we might come to know. My mother still wishes that she could live a life akin to Ms. Xu’s.
Yet learning from such miraculous women doesn’t fully explain why I feel sorry for a stick with a glass bowl of light on top. It is winter, and I can feel the dry, fierce wind. Beneath the fan of light, dust dances madly. Each small particle is visible in the brittle air. It gives me the impression that the lamp is frustrated. A cold winter evening will do that, especially when the only reward for your work is darkness and dust that never appreciate your luminosity.
My mother suggested I show my father how much my work has improved, to melt his iceberg of bias. When I handed him the magazine, my heart strained. Sweat beaded on my neck. My father took the booklet impatiently and started reading, as though he was in a hurry to get it done. This time, however, the uplifted corners of his mouth revealed a strange sense of satisfaction. A person who almost never reads, my father probably wasn’t the best critic. But still. “Not bad,” he said.
I think I’ve finally figured out the loneliness of the lamp. It was born in the painful memory of a girl, one of whom I was fond, calling me a clown who hides behind poems. It’s wrapped in the memory of my father insinuating that my feelings were not worthy of a man. It’s carved in my mind with the compromises my mother made, and Ms. Xu’s refusal to do the same. Indeed, I am sick of the looming presence of the future that looks nothing like the stories my mother used to read by my bed, where I formed my childish dreams.
For two years I’ve seen this melancholy street lamp, standing around, doing nothing but giving off its light. Strangely, it seems a little brighter now. Almost like a tiny, golden, complex rising sun. I hope it keeps up its work for a very long time.
Where are the elements of a hero’s journey?
Do we have a hero? Yes, obviously. He’s the guy standing by the lamppost.
Do we have a conflict? Yes, the author feels uncertain about whether he should write poems.
Do we have a mentor? Two, in fact! The author’s mother and literature teacher.
Do we have a victory? A great one! His father might not have been enthusiastic, but we’ll take it as a win.
Do we have a transformation? A beautiful one, symbolized by the lamp which now seems just a little brighter: our author has grown confident in himself.
How about ABDCE structure?
Action – Clearly in paragraph 1
Background – Right there in paragraph 3
Development – Paragraphs 4-6
Climax – Paragraph 7
Ending – Paragraph 9
Also note how the author broke form and included a little Deep Thinking in paragraphs 2 and 8. This is great, because it shows how ABDCE structure and the hero’s journey are NOT cookie-cutter templates. A story, or an essay, will shape itself and it’s these nuances that make our writing unique.
But why don’t I like this essay?
Great question. Let’s think about perspective.
You are a student rifling through examples of “essays that worked” on the Internet. Maybe you’ve read three or four. Maybe you’ve read twenty. But either way, you only see the good ones, and you’re a snarky kid raised on memes who is actively looking to be impressed. That makes you a little critical. “This essay isn’t that good. It doesn’t make ME feel anything.”
But consider the admissions reader. They don’t just read five or six good essays and feel entitled to an opinion. They have to read HUNDREDS of essays, they have to do so in a very short period of time, and the vast majority of the essays they see are absolute illiterate hogwash crap. They’re swimming in a sea of juvenile immaturity, of preposterous overconfidence, of clichés so abominably unaware that it sometimes makes the AOs want to scream.
Now, imagine how THEY feel when reading an essay that tells a simple story of a humble hero. It doesn’t have to be a Nobel Prize-worthy work of art, it just needs to be self-aware enough, and interesting enough, to make the admissions reader pause and say, “Hey, this kid is different. I like this one.”
And when that happens, something deep and universal within the reader recognizes that this author might be a hero.
And what do we want to see a hero do?
We want to see them win.
That’s how you get an admissions reader on your side.
But Don’t Be a Villain!
Let’s assume that, like all heroes, you’re going to change the world (or at least a small piece of it). Maybe you want to be a neurosurgeon. Maybe an astronaut. Maybe you want to build wells for the Pygmies of the Congo, or maybe like our humble author above, you just want to write meaningful poems. Whatever your goal, we assume you’re going to change the world.
Wait, what’s that you say? You don’t have an amazing passion that will save the world? Awesome! Heroes NEVER start out with a glittering trophy in mind. Like Harry Potter or Zuko, they don’t exactly know what their heroic fate will entail, nor how it might conflict with their current goals. They only have flaws and a nagging feeling that they’re destined for some greater purpose.
In fact, if you do have a powerful, focused purpose…you’re probably the villain. Think about Darth Vader, Voldemort, Thyon Nero, Fire Lord Ozai, or Thanos for a moment. They’re all supremely talented people with deadly certain goals. They’re villains. And no one wants to see a villain win.
Want proof? Think of all the “perfect” applicants you’ve read about online. Those sneering kids with uber-high SATs and 4.6 GPAs. Those three-sport varsity captains who read Latin and cure cancer all while maintaining a pristine Instagram account.
They’re impressive, certainly. We give them that.
But do we LIKE them?
No! They make us jealous. They make us feel that the world is unfair. They make us feel inferior and hopeless, and that’s why they can only be villains. Because whether we admit or not, we don’t want to see them win. Anakin Skywalker. Azula. Prince Lothor. They’d all be perfect college applicants. They’d all write essays bragging of their amazing extracurriculars, how they conquered galaxies and enslaved millions and thus showed tremendous leadership skills.
And they’d get accepted. Because they’re one-in-a-million talents.
But…we still want to see them fail. Deep in our hearts, we want them to fail. (Unless, of course, they figure out how to redeem themselves and become heroes too…which, come to think of it, is probably why universities accept them in the first place.)
Don’t be a villain. Instead, be a hero who confronts his own demons then goes out to conquer the villains of the world.
Heroes are in short supply, after all. Listen to the universe. It’s calling out to you right now.
How to Get Started
You’ve already learned about ABDCE structure. It’s a powerful tool. But instead of spending 10,000 words teaching you about dramatic structure and how to seamlessly transition between scenes, I’m going to give you the most powerful trick I’ve ever found for crafting heroic essays. In about ten minutes, it should generate all the building blocks you’ll need for a respectable first draft.
Are you ready?
We’re going to do a free write. Get out a pencil or fire up Microsoft Word. Take a deep breath. Now, I want you to finish this prompt:
“Let me tell you how weak I used to be…”
I just did this myself, and this is what I wrote:
Let me tell you how weak I used to be. When I was younger, I had a terrible temper. I’d throw things or bang chairs whenever I felt frustrated, and it’s ridiculous that I didn’t realize how awful this made people around me feel. I think I learned this from watching my dad, who once, after hearing me and my brother fighting, ripped our Nintendo out of the wall and threw it out in the yard. (My dad was/is actually an awesome guy – he’d just had a royally bad day.) Luckily, I’m no longer such a jerk, and I think I owe it all to my old secretary, Vivian. Once I was grumbling and pounding my desk, and she just stared at me, terrified. That was it. That was all it took. I guess in some ways I wanted people to see me, to see how angry I was, as if I was some perfectionist who never got anything wrong. Maybe it was just a way for me to hide and ignore my own failures? I don’t know. But either way, when Vivian looked at me like I was some terrible villain, worried that I might throw something AT her, I guess I realized how people ACTUALLY saw me. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling. I felt like a creep.
Maybe it’s just growing older and (hopefully) more mature, but crazily enough, I almost never get angry anymore. Never. I get frustrated, yes. I scold and argue with imaginary people in the shower, sure. But outside, nothing ever bothers me anymore. I think I owe this to Vivian. She doesn’t know it, but she allowed me to see a version of myself that I loathed, and I thank her for that. She’s the boss of her own company now, and I really wish I could work with her again. She taught me something powerful about myself without even saying a word. I wish I could tell her that I’m now becoming someone like her, calm and rational, always helpful. Maybe I can. Maybe she’ll see this article. Or maybe I’ll just email her right now.
What do you think? It’s fuzzy and messy and probably a terrible application essay (pro tip: don’t tell universities that you used to throw chairs around). Yet…without even planning or outlining, the free write generated all the elements of a heroic essay.
A hero? That’s me!
A crisis? My temper. I’m sorry.
A mentor? Vivian. I miss her so much.
A victory? Subtle, but yes, it’s there. I’d definitely want to flesh that out more.
A transformation? You tell me.
Now, answer these questions. Do you feel like you know me at all? Do you feel like I’m a real human being? Do you feel like you and I are similar in any way? Do you feel like I might be on the path toward achieving something meaningful one day? Do you think I might, just might, become a hero?
Lastly, how would you feel if I’d concluded by saying, “Thus, by cooperating with Vivian, I have shown tremendous leadership skills!”
Uh oh. That sounds like a villain, doesn’t it?
“What a jack wagon,” you’d say. “I hope he gets rejected.”
Pro Tip! Avoid all abstract qualities.
A great many students write essays believing that they need to talk about their leadership skills, their teamwork skills, their compassion, their political consciousness. How they aim to alleviate mental illness and make education more accessible. How they seek to create a positive impact.
This is nonsense. It’s terrible writing and I’m not going to explain why. (That’s another article for another day.)
If you ever mention these abstract qualities, you’re the villain. Plain and simple. And no one will want to see you win. (Remember how often Zuko used to talk about his honor?) You might still get admitted, sure. But it won’t be because of your essay.
(Yes, I know there are plenty of counterexamples. Settle down in the back. If you want to copy some other student’s essay about leadership and determination, go right ahead.)
If you have a very good reason for wanting to show your leadership skills, the best way to do so is by writing about the exact opposite.
By now we all know that the point of a hero’s journey is that they eventually transform.
“Let me tell you how weak I used to be…”
That’s the beginning of an ancient tale, one everybody loves, about a boy who transforms into a leader.
“Let me tell you how angry I used to be…”
That’s the story of a girl who becomes the most compassionate person in the world.
Don’t focus on the quality you want to show. Focus on the transformation. Focus on the struggle that came before your ultimate victory. That way, everyone who reads your story will believe you 100%. Because, through the power of a well-told story, they will have experienced your transformation too. And they will see themselves in you. And you will become their hero.
By the way. If you never experienced any transformation, then you’re not a real hero. You’re Azula. You’re Thanos. You’re a dastardly villain and I hope you redeem yourself (transform!) very soon.
Here are the tools at your disposal, hero:
- “Let me tell you how weak I used to be…”
Locate the elements of your…
- Hero’s Journey: Hero + Crisis + Mentor + Victory + Transformation
- ABDCE Structure: Action + Background + Development + Climax + Ending
Finally, revise until perfect.
I mean it. Revise until it’s perfect. Write a messy draft. Let it be ugly. Have the courage to write poorly. Then give it to your English teacher to read and give you feedback. You’ll probably spend too many words writing flowery description, or focus too much on your transformation without spending enough time showing us how weak you used to be. But keep at it. A hero isn’t born overnight.
(I do NOT, however, suggest you show your essay drafts to your friends at school. Much like you, they’re largely clueless and poisoned by an elitist admissions process that makes everyone desperate to prove how smart they are. Usually that means subconsciously tearing down their peers. It’s not cool, it’s rarely helpful, and you’re better off talking to your teachers who have some expertise and who really want to see you win.)
Use these tools wisely. Become a hero with flaws and doubts. Confront a conflict, and overcome it. Transform into an older, wiser hero gazing hopefully toward the horizon.
It’s not the only way to write a college application essay. It’s not the only way to tell a story. But it worked for Shakespeare and J.K. Rowling. It’s worked for Pixar and dozens of Oscar winners. The devil is in the details, of course, and you’ll have to edit it at least a few times. But if you heed the call and step out into an adventure, I know that you can become the hero you were destined to be. Or at least tell us the glittering story of how you became the hero that you already are.
Let’s end with a quote from the final seconds of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, shall we?
My name is Miles Morales. I was bitten by a radioactive spider, and for like two days, I’ve been the one and only Spider-Man. I think you know the rest. I finished my essay. Saved a bunch of people. Got hit by a drone. I did this with my dad. Met my roommate. Finally. Slapped a sticker where my dad’s never going to find it. And when I feel alone, like no one understands what I’m going through, I remember my friends who get it. I never thought I’d be able to do any of this stuff, but I can. Anyone can wear the mask. You could wear the mask. If you didn’t know that before, I hope you do now. Because I’m Spider-Man. And I’m not the only one. Not by a long shot.
I’d be remiss not to mention a few of the most powerful (and free) resources available to college applicants as they write their essays. After all, if you’re going to be a hero, you’re going to need some sweet kit, right? Maybe a sword? Maybe web-shooters?
I’m NOT, however, going to inundate you with extra homework. Below you’ll fine one free book, one free app, and one free worksheet to help you in your mastery of the written word.
This very short (40 pages?), very free, very downloadable-right-now book is the ONLY college-essay book you should ever read. I say this as someone who has read virtually every such book ever written, and even authored his own! This is the book I wish I’d written. It’s powerful in a subtle way.
The thing I love the most about Mr. Dewis’s book is that it doesn’t drown you airy-fairy brainstorming exercises and endless examples of saccharine essays from A+ Phillips Andover students. It just gives you powerful advice, teaching you how to dig into your life and write the essay that only you can.
John G. Maguire is a man obsessed with teaching clear writing. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist, and a former writing professor at a number of colleges in Boston. His “College Writing Guide” is an unbelievable, miraculous textbook for teaching students how to write profound English prose, and if you ever get the chance to take one of his classes, you should. He might be the best writing teacher in the country.
But you’re not a teacher, so you don’t need his book. What you DO need is his short eBook on writing in the concrete style. Follow the exercises in that worksheet, and you’ll be light years beyond your peers. Your first essay drafts will be ten times better. Even if you don’t do the exercises, just reading through the PDF will teach you magical lessons about writing well. Best of all, those lessons are immediately practical. No useless nonsense like the crap in Strunk & White. Just immediately actionable lessons. Think of it as old Peter Parker giving Miles Morales his first web shooter. Awesome.
Hemingway App makes your writing bold and clear. It says so right there on the website!
Seriously. Grammarly sucks, and Hemingway is awesome. Copy and paste your essay drafts into Hemingway to get brilliant AI-driven feedback on the clarity and readability of your writing. There are dozens of grammar and language checkers out there on the Internet, and I’ve never discovered a single one that worked very well. (Okay, Grammarly works well for non-native English speakers, but it’s utterly lame otherwise.)
But Hemingway works well. It works really well. It won’t correct everything for you, but it will tell you exactly which sentences are clunking along like a 1996 Ford Bronco.
Use it wisely hero, and go forth and change the world.