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College Applications: The Trusty 5-Paragraph Essay

College Applications: The Trusty 5-Paragraph Essay

By Valerie Burn

This prompt is a pretty typical one: describe a significant experience. Basically, the school wants to know a little more about you, beyond your resume, grades, and other application materials. Do not waste time here reciting any of the stuff an admissions advisor can figure out somewhere else—use this space to be creative and demonstrate something important that makes you you.

Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

I am dead. Gone is the old me, that person who was scared of showing herself to the world. I suffered from Social Anxiety Disorder. This refused me the right of putting myself out there and experiencing the world. (3) Moving to another country only made it worse, the pristine surrounding and tons of new people struck fear into my core; my school alone has over a thousand kids. It felt like I was thrown in front of a stage, and I stood there frozen, unsure of what to do. I was unable to cope, and I secluded myself, which made me extremely sad and lonely. In hindsight, it was the worst time of my life.

Burdened by melancholy,poetry became my rock; the written word was the one great escape to my psychological turmoil. The best words in the right order as they say, but for me, it was also the right time. It challenged me mentally and emotionally- be it writing or reading - it rectified my understanding of myself and the world. I came to learn about things outside my little world I took shelter in. (4) I started to realize that the world is not this big scary place and people are not out to get me, rather it is a small world, and everybody has their fears; I was not alone. I began to take little steps to beat my social anxiety. I joined a sports team to help me socialize with my peers and to improve my mental well being, I got involved in community service and joined a support group for teens coping with Social Anxiety Disorder. This was the hardest and most fulfilling period in my life. I grew up a lot in this time of adversity. I recalled what a wise man once told me “Pikin nor go tall if dem nor tinap pa e ade”; translation – “ A child will never grow up if life doesn't give them a hard time." That man was a gatekeeper back home in Sierra Leone. Ngor Joe, he was called; Ngor is a title that means wiser than your years. He was indeed wise, one of the most brilliant people I have had the opportunity of knowing, but the sad thing is he never got a chance to an education. He was constrained by geography and poverty like a thousand boys and girls in my country who still do not have the chance at an education because of where they fall on the social line. This was my greatest push to getting better. It was no longer about me and my fears. It was about the responsibility I had to those kids who ache for the privilege that I have been given being here in America, the land of the free where opportunity lurks at every corner. I just have to be brave enough to grab it and make the best of it.

Our Thoughts:

I love how personal it is, and it has great potential because you have a beginning, conflict, and a resolution—you just need to be more explicit with your reader. You can do this by relying on an old, faithful trope: the five-paragraph essay.

  1. First, add a title! It adds structure. It can be as simple as “Overcoming Anxiety.” Or, you can take some creative license and tie in some of the themes— “Brave New World” or “Life Without Constraints.”
  2. Next, break it up into more than two paragraphs. Think about the simple 5-paragraph essay structure: Intro, supporting paragraphs 1, 2, 3, and conclusion. This will make your story much clearer and easier to follow because the reader can visually see the intro and conclusion, and see how each paragraph in between supports the main idea. Within each paragraph, you should have a topic sentence at the beginning, and a transition sentence at the end.
  3. The biggest problem you have is what's called "flow." It feels a little disjointed, and is hard to follow. This can be solved with dividing the ideas into paragraphs as suggested in number (2), and then adding transition sentences between paragraphs. Change the sentences marked (3) above to this:

Moving to another country only made it worse, the pristine surrounding and tons of new people struck fear into my core; my school alone has over a thousand kids.


I was born in Sierra Leone, and moved to the States when I was [X years old]. Moving to another country only made my anxiety worse; my new school had over a thousand students.

See how that sentence, setting up that you were not born in the States, sets the tone for the paragraph? It helps the reader follow where you are going.

4. Another example (highlighted as (4)):

I started to realize that the world is not this big scary place and people are not out to get me, rather it is a small world, and everybody has their fears; I was not alone. I began to take little steps to beat my social anxiety.

Consider breaking up the sentences for better flow.

I realized that the world is not a big, scary place and people are not out to get me. Rather it is a small world, and everybody has their fears. I was not alone. Still, I knew I had to conquer my anxiety by taking concrete steps. (Insert paragraph break, start new paragraph with your concrete steps.)

Adding the “Still, I….” sentence helps the reader transition to the next idea. It is like a neon sign that says “HERE’S WHERE I’M GOING WITH THIS,” without being so obvious.

4. Watch out for run-on sentences. Each sentence should communicate about one idea. Do not be afraid to break ideas up into multiple sentences. Your goal is to be clear, not Faulkner or Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.

5. Lastly, I would add a conclusion paragraph. I felt like you left us hanging a little. I wanted to know how you were doing! Where you were going! What this means for your friends back in Sierra Leone!

You can rewrite it in your own voice, but tie it all together: how you were living with a constraint (anxiety), but it could be overcome (unlike the constraints of those in your hometown). You should also tie it back to college – since the school(s) you’re applying to will want to know what this has to do with your education. You already have that hook (your friends back home are constrained, and you are lucky that you’re not), so just make it more explicit.

Conclusion example:

This work has been extremely fulfilling, and I cannot wait to see what else I am capable of. Knowing I can move halfway across the world and conquer Social Anxiety Disorder means I can accomplish many great things. Living without that constraint means I can take what I learn back to Sierra Leone someday, and help those like Ngor Joe.

You have the benefit of a really cool, unique, compelling story—so you are going to stand out no matter what. These few stylistic changes will help make your essay amazing.

Sparklers, what would you do? What would you change? Help our friend make her essay great!

Topics: Life, College Advisor
Tags: college, sparklers, college applications, college admissions, application essays, college application essays, writing help, college essays, admissions essays, college admissions essays

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About the Author
Valerie Burn

Valerie Burn is a very cool Midwestern lady. She has lived in tons of exciting places, such as Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, and Michigan. She spends her free time snuggling her beautiful, perfect dog Teddy, and reading the entire internet every day. Valerie enjoys eating things, buying things, and writing things, as well as watching terrible TV.

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