I don't mean the London Bridge pictured above. I rather fancy that one. I mean the "London Bridge Is Falling Down" song.

My knowledge of YouTube "London Bridge Is Falling Down" music videos is both unrivaled and unfortunate. I have watched at least 25 versions a combined total of at least 1,000 times. I could blame my kids for choosing the same bedtime songs every night. Actually, I do blame them. They're the reason I can tell you which versions of London Bridge have goofy sound effects, which have nasal vocals, which have flying pigs, which have animation lacking any sense of proportion, which have pleasing instrumentation, and which have cars falling off the bridge (exciting! according to a four-year-old). In other words, I am uniquely qualified to tell you why most London Bridge videos are so terrible.

A Conversation with My Fair Lady

Here's the plot of most of these videos: "Uh, My Fair Lady?" "Yes?" [English accent, always.] "London Bridge is falling down." "Oh, is she now? Well run along and build her up again." [Building commences and ends.] "My Fair Lady?" "What now?" "I'm afraid it's falling down again." "Oh, bother."

But that's just it. It's not a bother to My Fair Lady at all. The bridge keeps falling down and getting built up, but My Fair Lady just doesn't care. She carries on. She's completely not bothered, or, in modern parlance, she is unbothered. She doesn't care about the bridge. That means I don't care about the bridge, either. I wonder, "Why are we so caught up in this bridge, anyway, if its falling down brings no consequences?" We shouldn't be caught up. We shouldn't be wasting our time.

London Bridge, Improved


I have found exactly one "exciting" London Bridge video, and this is it. Oh, relax. I'm not rambling about this London Bridge video just because. If you understand what makes this London Bridge video work, then you'll know what makes a college application essay work, too.

This video features a robot girl named Springy as My Fair Lady. Springy is building a miniature version of the bridge. When the waves wash away her sand bridge, or the rain washes away her sticks and stones bridge, or the crab wrecks her bricks and mortar bridge, Springy isn't just like, "Whatever." She cries. She suffers. I don't know why she wants so badly to build this bridge, but I can see that not finishing it puts some part of her being at risk. Therefore, I am interested. Springy's London Bridge is a good story because we know she stands to lose something.

Take a Risk

I know what some of you are thinking. Some of you are thinking that you're blessed to have lived fairly smooth lives. You haven't overcome illness, poverty, disability, or prejudice. I count myself in this category. Smooth ride so far, counting my blessings, thanking my lucky stars, and invoking other cliches 24-7. But having a smooth life doesn't excuse dull writing. You think the admission officer reading your essay is going to be like, "Oh, that was really boring, but I guess it's totally fine because he's had a nice life, poor guy." I don't think so.

If you can't find the risk in your life, then maybe you're not zoomed in enough on your timeline. We can't just assess the years, the months, the weeks, the days. We have to zoom in on the hours, the minutes, the seconds. To show you what I mean, I will narrate thirty seconds of my life to you.

Thirty Seconds That Changed Me

One evening last December, I was home with my kids. I see my son, age 4, shove my daughter, age 2, to the ground. She is crying but holding her head. I pick up my daughter and ask my son to apologize. He yells, "No!" Then he runs off. I set my daughter down and chase my son to the pantry. Tough breaks for the younger sibling, always. My son stares at me with a look that says he would rather gouge out his own eyes than say he is sorry. I wonder where that comes from. I have a 5-second fuse, and we are past 5 seconds. I kneel down so we are eye to eye. "Say sorry!" I am raising my voice. "I am not going to say sorry!" He raises his voice. "You need to say you're sorry!" Our faces are are six inches apart. I am yelling. Later he will tell me that this scared him, which, well, really isn't that surprising to a calmer me. "No! No! No!" He is yelling. This isn't working. My patience gone, I reach out with my right hand and flick his left ear. Then it's a flash flood of tears. He looks at me as if I'm a stranger. I wish I could take it back. I say, "I'm sorry," and I gather him up in my arms until he stops sniffling. At this point, I don't really know what my daughter is doing. Again, tough breaks for the younger kid. I was sorry less for the physical pain I had caused than for the promise I had broken. Until a couple months earlier, I had flicked my son's ear whenever he shoved his little sister. But one day, after hearing him tell her, "If you don't listen, I'm going to flick your ear," I realized that perhaps this experiment wasn't yielding the results I intended. So I took him aside and told him, "I'm not going to flick your ear anymore. If you do something wrong, you'll have a timeout, or you'll lose privileges." Then, in a storm in the pantry, I cheapened those words with a flick of my finger. If the people I love can't trust what I say, then I've lost everything. I had put that trust at risk. And all this happened in thirty seconds.

My Thirty Seconds, Illustrated

Now, you can say what you will about this anecdote, but I want you to notice I didn't try to write about "my relationship with my son." I wrote about thirty seconds. Relationships were, at least in some small sense, at stake. There was risk. There was conflict my son and me. Also, between myself and myself -- which wins out, standing up for my daughter, or keeping my promise to my son? But obviously, in retrospect, there were other options. It was not either-or. In the moment, that insight eluded me.

I put together this sketch of my thirty seconds, just so you can see all the elements of the story laid out together:

  • Topic: That decision cost me. Breaking a promise put my son's trust in me at risk.
  • Setting: Home. Specifically, in the pantry.
  • Emotion: Conflicted. I wanted to teach my son the right way, but I also wanted to keep my promise to him.
  • Motive: Family. To me, how we as a family handle conflict says a lot about our character, whether good or bad.
  • Time: When I least expected it. I was surprised. 99% of my time in the pantry is spent sneaking jelly beans or chips. When you have kids, you become a fugitive, flying to secret places to consume secret junk food you deny them.
  • Opponent: Relative. My only son. Also, to some extent, myself. Maybe my daughter, too, in that not standing up for her would create conflict. Not Christa, who offered immediate reassurance.

Surely you have 30 seconds to write about?

Good luck writing!


I have a B.A. in English from Stanford and a J.D. from Harvard, and I've been helping students with their college applications since 2011. Let's take a risk. Write about something uncomfortable. Offer up real you, not perfect you.