Application Essay Tips from a Filmmaker

Why not learn application essay tips from a filmmaker? After all, an application essay, like a film, is a story. In this presentation, Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, WALL-E) gives some storytelling pointers.

6 Application Essay Tips

What are Stanton's application essay tips? Here are six to consider:

Application Essay Tips | Tip #1: Storytelling is like joke-telling, so know your punchline.

This application essay tip is simple. Figure out your destination before you start driving. Before you start writing, you have to know what your main point is.

Application Essay Tips | Tip #2: Make the reader care.

Sometimes, students overlook this application essay tip because they assume the reader will automatically care about what they have to say. Instead, students should assume an apathetic reader, someone who will ask, “So what?” Remember, an admission officer reads dozens of essays a day and hundreds over the course of a season, and she will only spend a couple minutes reading your essay. If you don't give her a reason to care about you, she probably won't.

Application Essay Tips | Tip #3: Make the reader work.

This application essay tip is somewhat at odds with our normal writing goal, which is to make the reader's life easy by being clear. But Stanton's point is that the absence of information engages the reader because it forces her to puzzle out what’s going on. As Stanton says, “Don’t give [the audience] four, give them two plus two.” Withholding information to make the reader work is especially effective in the introduction, where you can use incomplete information to provoke the reader's natural inclination to figure out what's going on.


Application Essay Tips | Tip #4: Find your spine.

This application essay tip might seem a bit odd, but by spine, Stanton means a character’s dominant, unconscious goal. Again, you have to remember that you're not just summarizing your activities in the application essay; you're summarizing who you are. Think of yourself as a character. What drives you? An admission essay that fails to answer this question probably isn't personal enough.

Application Essay Tips | Tip #5: "Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.”

This application essay tip seems to me like a a summary of points #2 and #3. Anticipation implies you've made the reader care; she wants to know what happens next. Uncertainty means you're making the reader work; the next part of the story isn't obvious.

Application Essay Tips | Tip #6: Use what you know - capture a truth from your experience.

This is another helpful application tip. Write what you know. You don't need to write about an exotic topic (if there is such a thing) to be profound. Here’s the thing. The most exotic topic is you. It’s not The Big Game, The Death of a Relative, or That Trip to an Impoverished Country. It’s you. Focusing on your values and your take on life - and on the circumstances that gave rise to that perspective - is a great starting place for the essay.

As you watch Stanton, study how he maintains your interest. As you watch his presentation, I challenge you to see what other application essay tips you can glean. Note what Stanton does to engage the audience, and consider whether you can employ any of those techniques. From what I noticed, he shares unexpected punchlines about goats, pithy quotations about drama, examples from his movies, and stories about his past. As you enjoy a story - whether in a book or on TV or wherever - get in the habit of asking yourself, “Why do I like this?” or “Why do I hate this?” The more you understand what techniques a good storyteller uses, the better your application essays will be.

If you liked today's application essay tips, please recommend them to your friends. Thank you!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.