The Simple Secret

After you’ve distilled your list of prompts, it may resemble the following –

  • experiences
  • background
  • a person who influenced you

As we’ve said before, the word ‘experience’ suffices. It innately includes all other components.

For the next step, print out this worksheet PDFor work directly on the spreadsheet XLSX.

1. In the first column, make a list of experiences in your life that were interesting to you. 

That’s it! Fun is a bonus. Outrageous or ordinary, long-term or once-in-a-lifetime – all ideas are fair game.


  • Learning to surf in Hawaii
  • An unusual cello performance in Austria (It was -10C in this huge cathedral, and my fingers felt like frozen fish sticks)
  • Growing up skinny, and getting into weightlifting
  • A year in a wheelchair
  • Starting a boxing club behind a supermarket
  • Changing schools with a classmate (by coincidence) and becoming best friends
  • Building planes with legos and erector sets
  • Hosting weekly cook-offs with my friends (we were all pretty terrible, but it was still fun anyways)
  • Mailing in cereal box tops for prizes when I was younger
  • Learning from my dad to make pizza-sized chocolate chip cookies and super-eggy French toast 

Your list can contain mundane, simple things, or the unusual and unique. What’s important is that each individual experience interests you.

Ceramics GuyFilm Photography GirlCompsci Guy

Tennis Girl

Breakdance Guy

Viola Girl

Talk about the things you like.

Enthusiasm makes (or breaks) the cake

How excited are you about your topic?

Be real with yourself. There is no obligation to write about extracurricular or academic activities. In fact, your story will feel more personal if you can talk about your off-time instead of repeating what is already in your application resume. Prioritize one-time events.

Once you are done with your list, show it to a friend or a close relation, and see if that person can help you add a few more items. Sometimes, we overlook certain aspects of our lives that we’ve gotten too used to.

Consider the Following

  • Being an identical twin
  • Growing up with an incarcerated family member
  • Having a chronic disease
  • Working as a teenager to support your family, or working in a family business
  • Living in multiple countries because of your parents’ work
  • Growing up in another country
  • Raising younger siblings
  • Growing up in a single-parent household
  • Growing up on a farm, or in an extremely rural area
  • Running a business
  • Experiencing your parents’ divorce

Behold the circumstance list. This is also, potentially, the heavy emotional baggage list. It doesn’t mean that these ideas are bad, or impossible to talk about, or inappropriate for college admissions. You’ll just have to exercise more tact.

Situational experiences are probably not as charming or witty. You may struggle to write in the face of overwhelming emotions. You will second-guess yourself at times. And guess what? That’s perfectly fine. This is your chance to prove how you adapted to unique and difficult circumstances. There’s no better way to respond to the ‘background’ question . If unexpected, uncontrollable events have impacted your life, take a stand and show how you regained control.

Challenge Conquered

Coming out on top.

Most of all, get cozy and comfortable with your ideas. A topic that feels natural lends way to natural writing.

Once you have a list of ideas, continue below.

2. In the second column, reinforce your story ideas.

‘Personal significance’ is a finicky concept to work with. At the sound of the phrase, people often go into try-hard mode and end up with ideas that sounds contrived, clichéd, or melodramatic. ‘Personal significance’ also happens to be the first thought that enters people’s minds when they read a regular prompt. For these reasons, we ditched prompts all together and created a list under the ‘interesting experience’ tag first.

Create good, wholesome content, and then add meaning to it. People usually work in reverse, and wonder why it gets so hard to come up with good ideas! A simple switch makes life much simpler.

Happy Guitar

Know where it counts.

As you work on your second column, look at each individual topic and ask yourself the following –  did this experience change you or your perspective? Does it shape who you are? Was it a big deal? You don’t have to dig super deep – just be straightforward, practical, and honest. Most importantly, be specific.

On some occasions, you’ll have interesting experiences that seem a bit light under the hood. Don’t fret – there’s still a way to make use them.

You can take any aspect of your personal growth, or change in perspective, and fuse it to an interesting activity.

Remember our entry about learning to surf in Hawaii? It wasn’t exactly philosophical – it was just plain fun.

However, the escapade did coincide with a period in the author’s life when he got his first glimpse at how it felt to be proud and victorious. By thinking along these lines, it becomes apparent that the surfing experience has catalyzed a sort of self-discovery, and was much more than just a simple day out on the beach.

You have untold flexibility in the planning stage. As long as your source material is good, you can take it in any direction you want as far as ‘significance’ is concerned. You can work with a fun pastime, a random event that sticks out in your memory, or a circumstance in your life that you’ve spent significant time dealing with. The bottom line is that the experience interests you. Establish the content first, and THEN go after its significance. It’s much easier to create meaning than it is to create good stories.

To close, here’s an example of a planner with the first two columns filled out – Example XLSX

Summary of 3.4 The Simple Secret

  • Make a list of experiences that stand out in your memory. Ignore college for a second, and just think about things that interest you.
  • How did these kinds of experiences affect you? Be as personal as possible. Make a second column for your responses.
  • If there is no obvious significance in a given experience, search further. Think of other aspects of personal growth and change that can be tied into the given narrative.