Tell Me a Story: The Common App Essay for College Admissions

Inside a once freshly cleaned oven, clung the remnants of a pizza dough recipe my mother and I were hoping would yield a thick, chewy, crispy crust. Shortly before my mother opened the door to check on the pizza, the phone rang and I answered it, but I couldn’t concentrate on what the speaker had to say because I could clearly see that the dough inside the oven had exploded. Since exploding pizza dough, in my opinion, is comedy at its finest, I had to fight the urge to not laugh, but I failed. The man on the other end of the phone was a client of my father’s and he could hear me trying to stifle my laughter. Since I wanted to remain professional, I just didn’t think I could tell him about the pizza dough. I figured that a businessman would not care to know about such things, so when he asked me why I was laughing, I simply said that I wasn’t. “Yes, you are laughing,” he said. “I’m really not,” I tried to assure him. My mother quickly caught on to what was happening, so she grabbed the phone in an attempt to be the adult in the room, but she couldn’t stop laughing either. At this point, my father’s client, who was from Italy, assumed we were making fun of his accent, but nothing could be further from the truth. When he hung up, Mom called my dad in order to explain what happened and my dad was able to relay the story to his client, who found it funny. Later, I told this story to a group of friends in my high school cafeteria and they just stared at me blankly. “Why did you tell us this story?” they asked. I had no idea. I simply thought it was funny. However, for my friends, a story that was “just funny” wasn’t enough. It had to have a point. They wanted to know the lesson behind the story.

In a similar manner, the college admissions committee members who read the Common Application essay love a good story, but they also want to know the message behind it. When drafting a personal essay, identify several stories you could tell. When choosing your stories, you might consider events or moments outside of the items you’ve already listed for extra-curricular activities, service projects, classes, or sports. Admissions counselors may have already taken note of these things and now, they want to know more about you, your personality, and your insights. For this reason, you could choose stories that show readers how insightful, funny, motivated, accepting, adventurous, determined, disciplined, creative, inclusive, strong, or hard working you are.

To find your story, you could think of specific moments in your life that were the funniest, proudest, most embarrassing, or most challenging. A specific event or experience doesn’t have to be earth shattering. It could simply be a memory with friends or family. It’s not necessary then, to have a “big moment” to share in order to write an effective personal essay. All that’s needed is a story you can tell. The most “ordinary” moments sometimes shed light on the larger lessons your readers could share.

Once you have your story in mind, tell it. You could tell your story to a friend, or simply say it out loud to yourself and record it. Then, listen to it so that you can hear it as an observer or outside listener, rather than the speaker or author. Next, pick the element you really like about the story and ask yourself: What do I like about this story and how might I make it come alive? Using sensory details related to sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell can bring readers closer to your experience and if other people are a part of your story, you could re-create the dialogue as well.

After narrating your story, ask yourself: Why did I tell this story? What’s important about it? How does the lesson relate to what I hope to achieve or learn in college? Answering these questions could help you arrive at the lesson or purpose for your story.

If I were to return to the exploding pizza example I used to open my essay here, I might see that even though I thought the event was “just funny,” the story also holds a significant lesson. First, the client on the other end of the phone wanted to understand why I was laughing and instead, I tried to deny that I was laughing in order to maintain my composure. I didn’t want my dad to lose his client. However, in denying the laughter, I led the client to believe that I was making fun of him. I should have just told him the truth. Remaining true to the circumstances in which we find ourselves can lead to greater understanding and a deeper connection with others. Also, there’s something to be learned about comedic timing. It’s incredibly inappropriate for exploding pizza dough to intersect with a business call and the juxtaposition of these two situations was just too much for me at the time. I couldn’t hold in the laughter. I couldn’t pretend to be professional in such an absurd moment. This event then, has caused me to reflect on something I value greatly: comedy in the classic sense of the word. A comedy ends happily. The laugh coincides with the truth of a situation and calls it out for what it is. The laugh is ultimately what saves the professional relationship between my dad and his client and it’s this laugh I can’t live without.

Now, it’s your turn. What’s your story? Contact me today for help with your personal essay.  Cecilia Kennedy,

Manuscript Editing Now Available At Paper/Rock Writing Consultation

Dark landscapes, romantic settings, and futuristic plots are all welcome at Paper/Rock Writing Consultation.  I’m expanding my services to include manuscript editing. If you have a novel, short story, novella, or memoir you’d like to revise, I’m more than happy to read it and suggest edits/changes. With a literary analysis background and more than 20 years of writing/teaching experience, I can help you craft and refine your story. Specifically, I can help identify weaknesses in the following areas:

–Word choice


–Development (plot/characters/setting/conflict/climax/resolution)


–Overall structure

–Grammar, mechanics, and sentence structure

Of course, I’ll also tell you exactly what I like about your draft—and I’ll help you build on your strengths.

So, if you have something you’d like to revise, please contact me today for a quote.


Cecilia Kennedy


Tracing the Edges of Clouds: Brainstorming Methods

The tail end of a bumpy cloud passes over Mount Baker as I drive into town and I think I see the shape of a dragon. The cloud moves, shifts, changes, and becomes something else by the time I wait for the light to change. This process—of watching shapes change in clouds—of distinguishing features and lines that seem unrelated to one another—is much like the process I use for brainstorming almost any kind of writing I do. I find the edges of things—of almost anything around me—and I discover a way to relate them to the topic at hand. Traditional forms of brainstorming a topic then, never really worked for me—except for “freewriting” or making lists. Sometimes those methods of brainstorming help me along. However, methods like cubing, clustering/mapping, or using charts or diagrams just seem to lead me to dead ends. If you find that you’re having trouble with traditional forms of brainstorming, you might try some of the following methods:

1) Looking at photographs you’ve posted to Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, or other forms of social media. You could describe these photos systematically in detail—from left to right or from top to bottom or center out. To get the creativity flowing, you might even give yourself a few minutes to come up with “serious” or “funny” captions for each photograph. Then, you could ask yourself, “How might this image or picture apply to my topic?” Answering this question could lead to a list of steps or approaches you might take to move from the description into your topic.

2) Play a board game like Catch Phrase or Pictionary. Sometimes word and board games can lead to interesting ideas and word choices for a topic or for an introduction.

3) Each day, create a list of headlines or stories from the news that catch your attention. In this way, you have several topics on hand if you ever need to come up with an idea for an essay or a project. You could write these ideas down in a “thought diary” and keep them in a notebook or in a file on your computer so that you can access them readily.

4) Take walks through nature or through your neighborhood and ask yourself, “How does what I see relate to my topic?” Or, you could listen to conversations around you and try to write them down. Sometimes, beginning an essay with an interesting piece of dialogue or conversation can catch your readers’ attention and help them anticipate the thesis statement or topic you will present.

5) Draw. If you enjoy drawing or painting, you might try sketching out your topic. Asking the question, “What would this problem or idea look like as a sketch or drawing?” could lead to interesting angles or ideas others might not have thought of before.

When using any of the methods outlined above, you could still follow the “standard rules” for brainstorming: Don’t dismiss any idea that pops into your mind because it may be useful. Upon further reflection, you might catch the edge of a cloud, which could lead to a new discovery.



Bowls of Cereal and Comma Splices

Bright specks of fruit-flavored cereal, in various colors, showed through the plastic containers a marketing researcher lined up on the desk before me. I was in the sixth grade and I was about to take part in a product testing at my school. Thinking I could just dive into the tempting rainbow colors of the cereal, I picked up a spoon, sat down across from the researcher, and reached for a container. She quickly stopped me so that she could tell me the rules first. She explained that the samples should be tasted in a certain order and, between each one I had to take a few sips of water in order to cleanse my palate. In other words, the sips of water would act as a strong break between each variety of cereal, so that I could accurately taste and reflect on each product. In a similar manner, separate thoughts in an essay need strong breaks in between in order for readers to fully understand them. If a sentence contains two or more complete thoughts that could stand alone on their own and still make sense, a small break, such as a comma, won’t be strong enough to separate them. Using a comma between independent clauses—or complete thoughts that could stand alone on their own and still make sense—is a called a comma splice. Comma splices can be confusing to readers who have to figure out the different parts of the sentence. Fortunately, there are several ways to fix a comma splice. Here are a few options below:

1) Use a period between the complete thoughts. The easiest way to fix a comma splice is a to use a period between the independent clauses or complete thoughts that could stand alone on their own and still make sense.

Example of a Comma Splice to Fix: The elephant in the room won’t go away, it will remain there until someone does something about it.

In the example above, there are two complete thoughts that could stand alone on their own and still make sense:

A) The elephant in the room won’t go away

B) it will remain there until someone does something about it

Placing periods after each clause will fix the comma splice:

Revised: The elephant in the room won’t go away. It will remain there until someone does something about it.

2) Use a semicolon between the complete thoughts. Using a semicolon is another easy way to fix a comma splice. Semicolons can help show relationships between complete thoughts or independent clauses—as well as provide a strong break.

Example of a Comma Splice to Fix: When I moved the green leaves of the plant aside, I could see bright red strawberries, they were perfect for picking.

Revised: When I moved the green leaves of the plant aside, I could see the bright red strawberries; they were perfect for picking.

In the revised version above, the semicolon separates the two complete thoughts in this sentence. It also helps readers understand that the appearance of the strawberries leads the writer to conclude that they are ripe for picking.

3) Use a conjunction after a comma, if a complete thought follows. A conjunction is a word that can connect the parts of a sentence. Examples of conjunctions are: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So. (Many grammar and textbooks use the acronym FANBOYS to help students remember these conjunctions.)

Example of a Comma Splice to Fix: It was raining outside, we went to the movies.

Revised: It was raining outside, so we went to the movies.

In the example above, the combination of the comma and the conjunction (so) helps readers understand the two separate thoughts. Because it was raining, we went to the movies.

The methods for revising comma splices, listed above, are only meant to be used after a draft is completed. Comma splices occur when writers try to get their thoughts down on paper and the ideas start to flow into one another. This stage of the writing process is creative and productive. Interrupting this process to look for grammar issues could lead to a draft that that might be grammatically correct, but that also lacks adequate reflection, analysis, or insight. Instead, writers could first look for opportunities to get a draft done. Later, they can go back to find the places where the breaks between could be stronger—the places where they want their readers to fully note the subtleties of each idea.





Online Tutoring Options

The cat snoozes on the window ledge behind my desk as I quickly type away on my keyboard to return essay comments to students. My “tutoring center” is not a room full of cubicles and desks, but rather just one room and one desk: mine. In this space, I can be just as effective as one in which students might meet with me face-to-face. Online tutoring options, in my opinion, are just as valuable as in-person services. Sometimes, they can be even more efficient because I can compose my thoughts, organize them, and send them back to students without a lot of empty phrases, such as “hmm. . .” or “well . . .” or “let’s see” in between. While many different kinds of online tutoring options may exist, here are a few “low-tech” and “higher tech” options that I like to use:

1) Email submissions, followed up by phone calls/discussions. Email submissions are my “low-tech” option for students who have access to a tablet or laptop or computer with internet/email capabilities—and/or a Smartphone. Students can send me their drafts—and the assignment instructions—and I can mark the drafts up with in-depth comments and suggestions for revision. Typically, I like to spend about an hour with each draft—even if only a paragraph is written. Even with just a paragraph, I can help students brainstorm the rest of their paper and ask questions that might help them think of new ideas. Using the assignment instructions that students also send, I can remind them about techniques and strategies for approaching the kind of paper they are writing. After I return the marked up sample, I can then follow up with a phone call to discuss questions or any other concerns.

2) Video conferencing through free software such as Zoom. Zoom is a product that was introduced to me by a friend and it doesn’t cost anything to download. This program allows me to share my computer screen, documents, and tutoring materials such as videos, audio recordings, and Powerpoints. Students and I can talk to each other and see each other through the use of our webcams on our computers, laptops, tablets, or Smartphones. If students send drafts of essays ahead of time—along with the assignment instructions—we can go over them in “real time” through the video conferencing software. There is even an option that allows me to record the session for students so that they can go back and review if they wish.

With either option above, students still receive personalized feedback in language that’s human, encouraging, and confident. If driving to a tutoring center or an instructor’s office is time-consuming or simply not an option, students can rest-assured that online tutoring can be just as satisfying and helpful. It may even prove to be a better choice for those who prefer to compose their thoughts and reflect in spaces they can call their own.