"Behind every big moment, there are lots of small ones."

In case you missed it, that's the theme of this ad. It's why every time I now see the TDAmeritrade logo, my eyes brim with sentimental tears. It also happens to be a great framework for thinking about how to approach the application essay.

The "big moment" trap.

For many students, the first instinct is to write about a big moment. You won something, like a game or an award. You overcame some challenge, at last. Big moments are impressive, right? Maybe.

The problem is that many big moments are similar. Whatever big moment you have, other applicants have had it, too. I'm not taking anything away from the effort it took you to get your big moment. I'm observing that while big moments are impressive, they are rarely unique.

The "small moment" solution.

Though they might not be unique, big moments can be great starting points as we think through possible topics. Think about how this ad worked. It started on the podium, the biggest moment of all, and then it went backward through many small moments.

If you have a big moment you want to write about, a reasonable next step is to identify a few small moments that contributed to that big moment.

Forget about what sounds impressive. If it's random, or even if it's ordinary to everyone except you, that's fine. In fact, it's good, since that's what makes it unique. As you think about your essay, remember the small moments!

Good luck writing!


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.