Wild Dogs and Cattails: The Secret to Getting Your College Admission Essay Noticed

Writing is always tough, if awesomely rewarding, stuff. Add the pressure of getting into college to the equation, and it’s no wonder that “college application essay” is a phrase that can put butterflies, Coke, and Pop Rocks, into the stomach of even the most confident writer. But not to worry, Figs, we’re settling anxious stomachs with our online College Essay Writing Class, taught by Hillary Frank, a seasoned journalist and radio producer, who uses her journo skills to teach students her students at Dog Star Tutoring to write captivating admission essays that will get-them-in. Read her thoughts below on why writing your application essay is similar to good old-fashioned story-telling, and then sign up for our class to get ready to head to college application station.

Back when I graduated from college I lived with my friend Jamie, who went jogging every day—not for the exercise, really, but just in case the world ended and he needed to run from wild dogs. Jamie knew about things like solar energy and what part of a cattail you could eat if you needed to. And Jamie, it turned out, would be my ticket to getting on my favorite radio show, This American Life.

I had tried to get on the show a lot—submitting new essays every couple of months. After about my fifth rejection letter I decided to approach things differently. I had caught wind that the show was looking for apocalypse stories, and I knew Jamie would make a great interview subject for that theme. I wanted to create an audio segment that would sound like it belonged on TAL, but I had no experience whatsoever with audio, so I worked with tools at my disposal: I interviewed Jamie on my parents’ answering machine, read my script into a shiny red boombox, and fed clips of the interview into the boombox in between my lines. I overnighted the tape to the show and the next day got a call from the host, Ira Glass, asking me who I was and how I’d figured out how to make a story that sounded like what they did at TAL. He said that the staff was constantly inundated with pitches from professional writers and radio producers who couldn’t figure it out. I told him that I’d studied the show—taken notes on stories, read his radio manifesto online, and that I’d tried to give him what he seemed to want: fun details (wild dogs, cattails), an element of surprise (apocalypse obsession that is secular, not religious), and reflection (in the end Jamie wonders if he’s obsessed with the end of the world because he can’t imagine getting old and that the world ending would mean that he never will). My piece about Jamie never wound up on the radio but my next story—also made in answering machine/boombox style—aired two months later. That same year I got my first book deal.

People always say it’s so hard to get published but I would argue it’s actually not. The truth is, most of the submissions editors get are just not right for their particular publication or show and leave them thinking, Why should I care? If you can leave your reader with a satisfying answer to that question you will be way ahead of the pack.

It’s the same thing with college essays.

Your big Life-Defining Story should, of course, make admissions officers feel some sort of emotion—always an important element to making your reader care. But it should also include details. Memorable details. Like wild dogs and cattails. One of my favorite radio projects I’ve ever produced was a series of essays by Chicago teens telling their stories of growing up. To find stories, I asked students to, “Write in one page what growing up has meant to you. Tell me something I’ve never heard before.” The submissions that stood out to me—the ones I knew I needed on the air—were the ones that I could sum up in one attention-grabbing sentence. Some examples:

I grew up by learning to stop compulsively talking backwards.

I grew up when I found out my best girlfriends were actually . . . girlfriends.

I grew up when I had to find a realtor and look for a home for my family.

The stories behind these lines are actually pretty common. They could’ve also been summarized this way:

I grew up when I started to overcome my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

I grew up when my two best friends started dating.

I grew up when my family immigrated to the United States.

Yawn, right? The talking backwards, the girlfriends, the realtor-hunting teen—those are the things that hook you. They’re the things that make you go huh? but in a good way. As in, Huh? Tell me more…

What I’m trying to tell you is, you need to find your own wild dogs and cattails. As you’re writing your essay—or even as you’re coming up with your topic—think not only about crafting the big idea of your story but the unusual specifics that are particular to you and your unique sensibility. Pepper your essay with these details, and above all, be sure you include at least one in your first paragraph.

Do this and I guarantee you, you will make admissions officers care. Which is a big step—perhaps the biggest step—toward getting your application into the yes pile.

Want more advice from Hillary on making it into the Yes Pile? Signup for our College Essay Writing Class today!

One thought on “Wild Dogs and Cattails: The Secret to Getting Your College Admission Essay Noticed

  1. It’s all about arousing curiosity.

    A guy I know got a gig on a BBC Radio station by sending a plain postcard to them every day with the words “Roy is coming” and his phone number. They ignored the postcards for a while, but after a few weeks, “Roy the postcard guy” had built up his own mythology in the office, and one day somebody called the number out of curiosity and got chatting with him.

    They called him in to do a demo and, to cut a long story short; he’s been with the station for about 20 years now!

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