Who are you? Unleashing your Core Values | Jennifer Jones | TEDxChathamKent
Who are you? Unleashing your Core Values | Jennifer Jones | TEDxChathamKent

Finding a topic for your college essay can feel understandably daunting—the prompts might feel pretty broad or vague, and there are plenty of misperceptions regarding what you’re “supposed” to write about.

For example, plenty of people seem to think that you need to write about a challenge that has fundamentally changed your life. And plenty of people just don’t have a challenge like that. So they try to force it.

Hint: Don’t. You don’t need to.

You don’t need to write about a challenge in your personal statement. Even if you’ve faced challenges. (If you have faced challenges and do want to write about them, check out Narrative Structure).

So what can you do?

Build a montage.

Montage Structure basically connects a series of moments/memories/skills/qualities/values/interests using some kind of common thematic thread. A montage is a great way to show lots of sides of yourself.

But how do you find something that connects all the parts of yourself you want to show? One way is through something called the “Five Things” exercise, and it’s so beautifully simple, you may miss its elegance. Special shout-out to our colleagues, Dori Middlebrook and Shawn Feisst, for this one.

The Five Things Exercise

Step 1: Pick five linked things in your life. (And by “linked,” we mean five things that have a thematic connection—see examples below.)

Step 2: Outline how each of the five could connect to different experiences that show different values.

Step 3: Write a short paragraph on each one.

Yeah. That’s it. Beautifully simple, no?

For example, maybe there are five pairs of shoes that connect to different experiences that demonstrate your values and aspects of who you are. Or five mountain peaks. Or entries in your Happiness Spreadsheet.

Some more “five things” examples:

  • Five Families I’ve Learned From

  • Five Photographs on the Wall Behind My Bed

  • Five Decisions That Have Impacted My Life

  • Five Things I’ve Collected

  • Five Ways Photography Has Impacted My Life

When you’re starting out, the paragraphs don’t have to be polished—this is a free write! Have some fun with it. You’ll focus on revising and refining in later drafts.

And to clarify, you may not end up with all five things in your final draft. Or conversely, maybe you end up with more than five (like eight laptop stickers). But for now, aim for five, and do some exploring.

BTW, that list above? Not just random. Each led to an essay: Here they are, with an analysis at the end of each.

Example Essays + Tips and Analysis

Five Families

When I was 16, I lived with the Watkins family in Wichita, Kansas. Mrs. Watkins was the coordinator of the foreign exchange student program I was enrolled in. She had a nine-year-old son named Cody. I would babysit Cody every day after school for at least two to three hours. We would play Scrabble or he would read to me from Charlotte’s Web or The Ugly Duckling. He would talk a lot about his friends and school life, and I would listen to him and ask him the meanings of certain words. He was my first friend in the New World.

My second family was the Martinez family, who were friends of the Watkins’s. The host dad Michael was a high school English teacher and the host mom Jennifer (who had me call her “Jen”) taught elementary school. She had recently delivered a baby, so she was still in the hospital when I moved into their house. The Martinez family did almost everything together. We made pizza together, watched Shrek on their cozy couch together, and went fishing on Sunday together. On rainy days, Michael, Jen and I would sit on the porch and listen to the rain, talking about our dreams and thoughts. Within two months I was calling them mom and dad.

After I finished the exchange student program, I had the option of returning to Korea but I decided to stay in America. I wanted to see new places and meet different people. Since I wasn’t an exchange student anymore, I had the freedom–and burden–of finding a new school and host family on my own. After a few days of thorough investigation, I found the Struiksma family in California. They were a unique group.

The host mom Shellie was a single mom who had two of her own sons and two Russian daughters that she had adopted. The kids always had something warm to eat, and were always on their best behavior at home and in school. It would be fair to say that this was all due to Shellie’s upbringing. My room was on the first floor, right in front of Shellie’s hair salon, a small business that she ran out of her home. In the living room were six or seven huge amplifiers and a gigantic chandelier hung from the high ceiling. The kitchen had a bar. At first, the non-stop visits from strangers made me nervous, but soon I got used to them. I remember one night, a couple barged into my room while I was sleeping. It was awkward.

After a few months I realized we weren’t the best fit. In the nicest way possible, I told them I had to leave. They understood.

The Ortiz family was my fourth family. Kimberly, the host mom, treated me the same way she treated her own son. She made me do chores: I fixed dinner, fed their two dogs Sassy and Lady, and once a week I cleaned the bathroom. I also had to follow some rules: No food in my room, no using the family computer, no lights on after midnight, and no ride unless it was an emergency. The first couple of months were really hard to get used to, but eventually I adjusted.

I lived with the Ortiz family for seven months like a monk in the deep forest. However, the host dad Greg’s asthma got worse after winter, so he wanted to move to the countryside. It was unexpected and I only had a week to find a new host family. I asked my friend Danielle if I could live with her until I found a new home. That’s how I met the Dirksen family, my fifth family.

The Dirksen family had three kids. They were all different. Danielle liked bitter black coffee, Christian liked energy drinks, and Becca liked sweet lemon tea. Dawn, the host mom didn’t like winter, and Mark, the host dad, didn’t like summer. After dinner, we would all play Wii Sports together. I was the king of bowling, and Dawn was the queen of tennis. I don’t remember a single time that they argued about the games. Afterward, we would gather in the living room and Danielle would play the piano while the rest of us sang hymns.

Of course, those 28 months were too short to fully understand all five families, but I learned from and was shaped by each of them. By teaching me English, nine year-old Cody taught me the importance of being able to learn from anyone; the Martinez family showed me the value of spending time together as a family; the Struiksma family taught me to reserve judgment about divorced women and adopted children; Mrs. Ortiz taught me the value of discipline and the Dirksen family taught me the importance of appreciating one another’s different qualities.

Getting along with other people is necessary for anyone and living with five families has made me more sensitive to others’ needs: I have learned how to recognize when someone needs to talk, when I should give advice and when to simply listen, and when someone needs to be left alone; in the process, I have become much more adaptable. I’m ready to change, learn, and be shaped by my future families.

— — —

Tips + Analysis

Clarity and structure. The first paragraph has a nice, simple but effective hook (“When I was 16, I lived with the Watkins family in Wichita, Kansas.”). The detail makes us curious about this family, who they are, and how they shaped the author. It also sets up the thematic thread of the essay—five families. The paragraph ends with a phrase (“He was my first friend in the New World.”) that sets the direction for the essay without giving everything away—how aspects of the “New World” will change who this author is.

Each paragraph has a clear focus, often set up by the very first sentence (for example, “My second family was the Martinez family, who were friends of the Watkins’s.”). But notice that the author avoids letting things feel repetitive by simply repeating the exact same sentence structure and phrasing each time.
Show and tell (rather than “show, don’t tell”). The body paragraphs do a nice job of setting up the values the student developed through these experiences (lots of them: family, connection, close relationships, exploration, self-reliance, healthy boundaries, adaptability … and more) by offering specific examples and details, and then the final two paragraphs directly discuss/name some of those values.

Five Photographs on the Wall Behind My Bed

Golden light streaks my bedroom. It’s 6am. Before my family rises, I’ll have completed half my day’s to-do list; but before I start, I look to my wall, where 84 (and counting) 2.4 x 1.8 glossy Polaroids hang in 14 uniform rows.

Top row, four Polaroids over: I sit beside my Chinese grandmother, speaking Mandarin. Her mouth of cracked teeth stretch into a smile, as this was our first time sharing a fluent conversation. Previously frustrated with our inability to converse, I’d tackled Mandarin classes, determined to connect with my extended family. My teary eyes twinkle as I remember nights buried in textbooks, doubting whether I’d become proficient before the cancer took her. Grandma’s wrinkled hands envelop mine, sharing mutual gratitude for my choice to make the most of our time left together.

Images of acrylic paints, calligraphy pens, and camera equipment are woven into the sea of snapshots. Whether it’s the light drizzle of Morton’s Salt, quenching the watercolor’s richness (Row 5, 7 left), or the clean-cut curves of my Tombow pen (Row 7, 2 left), art has been my outlet since the age of 2. Most influential is my passion for portrait photography, which led me to create my photography business. Typical weekends involve guiding clients through photoshoots, styling a guest’s hair/makeup, editing in Adobe Lightroom, or researching new advertising opportunities. My work has taught me the importance of flexibility; when sunny forecasts turn to dark clouds (classic Seattle), being flexible allows me to make the most of a rainy session by, for example, having a couple hold an umbrella as I capture the bride’s warm smile.

My eyes wander the rows, reliving each scene. Suddenly, I’m hurled into a warehouse, an infant’s onesie between my hands. The photo captures two friends, determined to continue their love of community service. What started as 6th graders occasionally helping at food banks soon grew into 12th graders’ weekly commitment to service. The camera’s flash overexposes my arm, wide around a crate of baby clothes, one of many that local families rely on. The crate also symbolizes consistency within my own life; these Monday evenings at Eastside Baby Corner allow me to support my community while bonding with others who share this passion.

Row 9, 8 left: a figure in red shirt and khakis, name tag reading “Target Cashier: Meili.” Little did I know my weekly 25 hours could bring so much joy and learning. Each work day provides opportunities to console frustrated guests, or simply boost someone’s Sunday Target run with a bubbly welcome. The greatest skill I’ve learned, one that will serve me well in the business world, is how to handle unpleasant customers. I’ve been insulted, yelled at, and looked down upon. Yet, I know my ability to handle these situations with grace leaves both me and the customer better off. Additionally, my job has inspired me to practice gratitude. After seeing countless families unable to purchase necessities, it’s impossible to not feel grateful for what I have. Each of my Polaroids takes me to someplace where I’m safe, loved, free; for that, I begin each day remembering life, at its very core, is a gift.

Row 14, 1 left: dark waves, licking my surfboard’s tail. May afternoon in California. Though I’m no pro surfer, my craving for adventure brings me to the water. That same yearning draws me to ziplines and roller coasters galore. My curiosity has provided learning experiences, an expanding network, and the discovery of my passions.

Not every photo carries life’s highlights. Many feature little moments: lunch with friends, watching movies with dad…but I’ve realized life isn’t just the big moments. It’s everything in between: good, bad, significant, minute. Life’s details are essential to create meaning.

My wall is far from being covered; and I know wherever I go, my Polaroid is ready to capture the next moment.

— — —

Tips + Analysis

Clarity and structure, again. Like the author of the first essay (and like the author of every sample essay you’ll see here, so we’ll stop mentioning it every time, but it applies to each), this author does a nice job using clear, direct language and effective structure (introduction with a hook that sets up theme of the essay, body paragraphs w/clear focus, a conclusion that does its job effectively).

Use detail to engage the reader. Things like, “Her mouth of cracked teeth stretch into a smile,” or “the camera’s flash overexposes my arm, wide around a crate of baby clothes,” or “dark waves, licking my surfboard’s tail,” do a nice job of pulling us into the author’s world, helping us feel as though we’re experiencing what she did (and showing a nice level of craft).

Remember writing is a process. It’s important to understand that she went through many drafts (more than five) to end up here. She experimented with other paragraphs that focused on different moments and experiences that she ultimately cut to focus on these. And some of the nice small touches (like the “Row 5, 7 left” organizing scheme) are things she found several drafts in.

Five Decisions That Have Impacted My Life
(aka An Argument for Indecision)

Note that there are three (not five) decisions that made the final draft of this essay. Again, you may end up brainstorming more than five for this exercise, and, like this student, you may end up keeping fewer than five in your essay.

Three decisions have marked important periods of growth in my life.

In 9th grade I took part in a study abroad program in Bath, England, where I experienced a sense of intellectual and social freedom that I’d never before experienced. I was exposed to a vibrant community with a diverse population of students. I felt challenged and inspired. At the conclusion of the program I had to make a choice: attend a U.S boarding school or return home? I considered both options: on one hand I would miss my family since they would be far away, but on the other hand I would miss the opportunity for a better education. After some internal debate, I decided on a third option by enrolling at a boarding school in Jordan, 1,655 km away from my family in Bahrain, instead of one 11,600 km away in the U.S. I’m so glad I did, as I’ve been able to grow and challenge myself intellectually whether through decoding Fisher King’s role in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland or learning about the implications of Keynesian economics and Adam Smith’s invisible hand–plus, I’m able to visit my parents more often.

In 10th grade when I arrived at my new school most students were already part of a defined group. There was a clear line that divided the group members especially between the Jordanians, the Arabian Gulf nationals, and the “foreigners”. At first, the students didn’t know which group to place me in because, although I was Saudi, my Syrian/Jordanian Arabic dialect from my mother led the Arabian Gulf nationals to see me as Jordanian. But since I didn’t have any relations to Jordan, the Jordanians didn’t think I belonged with them either. While they tried to decide, I refused to be labelled as part of either group and moved freely, engaging with everyone. Because, in the end, why should I have to choose? I was also an athlete and a nerd: I played basketball and swam on the weekends, while after school I spent time teaching myself to code.

But what has perhaps shaped my life even more than these decisions has been my indecision–the moments before I make a clear choice. And while I see how my deliberation sometimes takes time–something that sometimes annoys my friends and family–as I’ve grown older, I have come to see how my indecision has been incredibly useful. In those seconds before I decide I see who my choices affect, the consequences of my decision, and the variety of different views that may affect my decision.

I’ve learnt so much from these moments, as it’s in these seconds that new choices can be created, new experiences discovered, and unforeseen complications found. Without my indecision, for example, I may never have learnt to ski or gone parasailing because if I had quickly made the decision I would have only thought about the risk involved without contemplating the possibility of enjoying and benefiting from the experience.

I have also realized that there are some decisions that are simply too difficult for me to make in an instant: As the only non-Jordanian person in the room, for example, do I speak up in class during conversations on the Palestinian conflict? Or when one of my peer advisees is sharing about her homesickness, do I share how I’ve personally dealt with it, or simply listen? These moments have allowed me to acknowledge that at times, when I don’t have enough information to make a decision, I must patiently wait for the right moment at which I might come to the best resolution.

It’s fitting, perhaps, that I’ll be checking ‘undecided’ on my application. While I love economics and psychology, I am also really into biology. And I’ve come to realize that sometimes not choosing… is actually a choice. In fact, sometimes it’s the best choice.

— — —

Tips + Analysis

Show strength through vulnerability. You may be under the misimpression that vulnerability is a kind of weakness. But that ain’t necessarily so. Vulnerability requires (and can demonstrate) a kind of strength.

Notice that the complex questions the author raises (e.g., speaking up about the Palestinian conflict) and acknowledging the moments when she didn’t know the “right” answer (e.g., do I share or listen?) are as impressive as — if not more impressive than — moments when she does have clear answers.

Acknowledging our uncertainties or failings can be a great way to show vulnerability (a strong quality in a college essay) while also demonstrating strength or confidence—it takes courage to offer up those details. Conversely, people who are afraid of admitting failure or lack of understanding can sometimes leave an unflattering impression. For more on the power of vulnerability, watch this.

Five Things I’ve Collected (aka The “Rocks and Stars” Essay)

I’ve always found myself in two worlds—one that looks to the sky and one that looks to the ground, one in the future and one in the past.

I’ve collected rocks for as long as I can remember, sparked by an instinctive impulse towards discovery. They are fragments of our steady and ancient Earth, representing a past beyond all memory, and I find it amazing that it is up to us to discover them, and find stories in them. I still recall clearly my excitement to take part in my school’s cross country race held at a fossil-lined shore, and how I placed last in said race because I had filled my pockets with fossils. They are still sitting in a glass on my table, each pebble nearly identical to the other. But they remind me that on a bright cross-country day, I had discovered a painting in each pebble.

My collection fervor was more than just a literal stroll on the beach. I attended rock shows (no, not that kind, I mean actual exhibitions of rocks), and taught myself the chemical makeup and physical properties of the specimens I encountered there. Gradually, my collection changed from “translucent rock” and “dark pebble” into a procession of aragonite, hematite, malachite… But I never stopped collecting pebbles from the ground, for I now understand even clearer the pricelessness of nature’s seemingly random combinations.

Rocks aren’t the only things I collect. For just as long, I’ve collected dandelion fluff. While others despised them, I clutched them close like little pockets of opportunity, a promise for a next year with new tufts of short yellow flowers and puffy seeds. More recently, I began to collect old books. The fragile pages, the heavy scent, perhaps an owner’s name inked in flourish—they soak up time. Like rocks, they connect me to the past, but books offer up a human past.

Though I love the flowers and rocks of our Earth, I also love the cold vastness of space. It is not enough to just collect trinkets of the past when the unknown sky is above me. In “city star parties” with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, I look away from the small bright dots of the surrounding city and towards the small bright dots above. Some lights are a million worlds. Some lights have already flickered out, their demise unbeknownst to us. But I think the best is what I cannot see in a telescope’s field of view—the universe’s beginning and its possible end, black holes that supposedly vanish information, particles so small as to be affected by their observation—all of which I have just begun to explore, either in my independent study project, co-op placement, or online courses. I think that the answers to the most fundamental questions we ask today must be found in the furthest reaches of human science and thought.

When I look up, my mind jumps to find infinity in both time and space, and I find myself shrinking down to a point deep in history, next to my old books and my rocks. After all, space unfolds so slowly—the fifty million years for our Sun to form is as quick as lightning, and when Andromeda lights up our galaxy I’ll have fallen to where Earth’s beginning seems to us now. But this is why I collect these things, and why I want to study Astronomy and Astrophysics. I am finding where I am. My heart is on the Earth and my aspirations have traversed space. I stand at the forefront of time, nostalgic for the past I collect but have never known. I know that I am already a pinprick in the past, but I still want to discover things for the future to know. By remembering the past, I remember myself too, and by watching the sky, I see myself and where I stand, here and now.

— — —

Tips + Analysis

Vary your approach. While some people might worry that the “Five Things” exercise may lead to formulaic/repetitive essays, great variety is possible. In fact, this essay feels pretty different from those above (and each of them feel pretty different from one another).

Notice that this author chooses to mostly focus on just a couple of her initial “Five Things”—rocks and stars—while sprinkling in things like dandelions and books more briefly, but in ways that still add dimension to a reader’s understanding.

Show insight. This essay does a great job of showing insight through reflection. For example: “But this is why I collect these things, and why I want to study Astronomy and Astrophysics. I am finding where I am.” Beautiful.

Add a dash of humor. Lines like, “I attended rock shows (no, not that kind, I mean actual exhibitions of rocks),” are a nice touch, showing the student’s personality through humor. Don’t feel like you have to force humor into your essay (plenty of the other essay examples here don’t include it, and they’re solid), but if humor is something you value, and if including it feels organic, help us see that side of you.

Five Ways Photography Has Impacted My Life

When I summited Mount Saint Helens for the first time, all I had with me was a disposable camera, multiple sunburns, and excessive reusable water bottles, my comfort zone left far below at base camp. Though the cheap, plastic camera, the only thing grounding me to earth, barely did the landscape justice, it still displayed the small details within a magnificent landscape that I had never before noticed—dusty footprints, snow-like ash, and billowing steam, the clouds miles below.

Since then, I have grown to respect the environment that surrounds me as a place to honor, not just exist benignly alongside. These days, shooting with a Nikon D300, I see my role within the Pacific Northwest community as a natural documentarian, committed to helping others experience the same sense of wonder a volcano once showed me.

As I have continued to develop my skills, my connection to different communities has also been strengthened through photography, especially through documenting my faith. Though I was raised in a Jewish household, when I began to focus on it as a subject, I came to understand it even more personally. NFTY-NW, the youth group of the Union for Reform Judaism, has become my second home. Though tradition and rituals were always part of my life, finding my own connection to the traditions in NFTY helped me find a deeper connection to Judaism, allowing me to now dive headfirst into the opportunity to relive my customs, and mature with them as well.

As regional photographer and Communications Vice President, the responsibility to capture each moment of my second home has allowed me to further identify with my own culture by seeing how other people relate to it. While my camera lacks the ability to capture the ageless melodies of the prayers sung by one unified voice during traditional events, the feeling of my community is clearly evident in each photo. I see my role in my religious community as someone who helps others to find their connections to traditions and faith the same way I found my own.

Growing up outside of Seattle, my photography focused on the beauty of the growing skyline. But I eventually turned my camera toward the cranes building up amenities for a new wave of citizens and sweeping away the culture I had come to love. Instead of choosing to accept the changes inflicted upon my city, I decided to investigate the reasons behind them. For my AP research paper, I focused on gentrification caused by the powerhouse companies moving in. I created an accompanying photojournalism project where I documented the changes: a chain-link fence surrounding a preschool with a coffee empire’s logo casting shadows on the ground, a bookstore with a closing sale sign in the window, and newsstands full of front page articles on Seattle’s demographic shifts.

Documenting the dramatic changes helped me not only to become aware of the dangers of large-scale shifts, but, most impactfully, how the meaning behind community is created by each person who lives there. As my photography skills have developed, so has my recognition of the need for social justice. I see my role in my home community as a guide to encourage my fellow citizens to become active participants in what is happening to their neighborhoods.

As I write this, the lessons I have learned studying journalism and photojournalism at the School of the New York Times remain prominent in my mind: “The difference between a good story and a great story is patience.” I now realize that my story is one about finding the patience to linger on the little details in life, whether they be in my own or in the lives around me. And now that I have achieved that patience, to transform the details I’ve captured into documents of perseverance, empathy, and activism, my story has embarked on a new chapter, wherever it may lead next.

— — —

Tips + Analysis

Show your growth. We as readers love to see how someone has grown and changed over time. And one of the clearest ways to offer that kind of growth to a reader is to show how your actions or insights or values have shifted as you’ve developed a more complex understanding of yourself and the world.

The details and reflection here do a nice job of helping us to see the ways the author has grown and developed. Insights like, “grown to respect the environment that surrounds me as a place to honor, not just exist benignly alongside,” or details like, “But I eventually turned my camera toward the cranes building up amenities for a new wave of citizens and sweeping away the culture I had come to love. Instead of choosing to accept the changes inflicted upon my city, I decided to investigate the reasons behind them,” help us to see how the author has developed a more nuanced understanding of themselves, what they value, and the world around them.

— — —

Andrew Simpson has worked as an educator, consultant, and curriculum writer for the past 15 years, and earned degrees from Stanford in Political Science and Drama. He feels most at home on mountain tops and in oceans.

Top Values: Insight/Growth | Truth | Integrity

You are watching: The Five Things Exercise. Info created by Bút Chì Xanh selection and synthesis along with other related topics.