How PIE Can Lead to a Great College Application Essay

For years I’ve been wrestling with this question:  What is the quickest, clearest way to describe what colleges want to learn about a student in his or her college application essay?

Some words seem to encapsulate the answer:


This is what University of Michigan says in their “Tips for Writing a Great Essay”

Be authentic. We want to hear your voice in your response – the experiences, opinions and values that have shaped you. Feel free to write on something you are passionate about so we can get to know you better.

I explain to students that a voice with passion can be exciting to read. I say, “If you don’t care about what you are writing, why would anyone else?”  But passion and feelings alone aren’t enough. Feelings and thoughts within us are linked to our life’s actions and experiences, as described in this popular quote:

“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”

So you can understand how David Coleman, the controversial President of the College Board (the organization that administers the ACT and SAT tests) put his foot in his mouth in this video, when speaking about our feelings and thoughts:

Yes, Coleman really did say, “as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a *** about what you feel or what you think.”

Coleman realized that people DO care when his remarks went viral.  To his credit, he removed his foot from his mouth to eat some humble pie.  According to the New York Times Magazine of March 9, 2014,

“He apologized and explained that he was trying to advocate on behalf of analytical, evidence-based writing, an indisputably useful skill in college and career.”

Unfortunately, Coleman lost an opportunity to clarify the important connection between thoughts and feelings and actions, as part of analytical, evidence-based writing. This connection is essential to understand how to write a strong college application essay. I tell students they need to back up their ideas with talking about what they’ve done. They have to show, not tell.

Instead of saying, “I’m a hard worker,” I tell them to say something like “I work in a grocery store twenty hours a week to save for college…or “I mucked out the stalls for the horse next to mine for two months after the owner sprained her ankle.”

Coleman could have said that people don’t care ONLY what you think and feel, they also care what you do about it. And so do college admissions officers when reading your college application essay.

We remember stories. We remember images. We WANT to feel. Feeling is memorable. And feeling gets us off the sofa—to work, to achieve, to learn.

The connecting door of what is happening inside of us: our thoughts and feelings, opinions and values — and what is happening outside of us: actions and experiences — is an important door.

Not only is that door important, but the door swings both ways between the inside of our body and the rest of the world.

  • Feelings make you act (“I was so angry that the kids were making fun of Jimmy and his tight pants that I walked over and told them to leave him alone.”)
  • Actions make you feel (“It turned out that the club I started had organized the biggest fundraiser in the city for our food bank, and I felt really happy about that.”)

The door between feelings and actions shows passion, motivation, initiative, restraint, judgment and character.  That is what colleges want to know about students in their essay.

This all relates to my own formula for “PIE,” when describing an effective college essay.

Evaluating Your Essay Draft—Easy as P-I-E!

P—What’s the POINT of the essay?  What does someone learn about you from reading it?

I—What INTERNAL information do you reveal—your thoughts and feelings?  Balance this information with your external information.

E—What EXTERNAL information do you reveal—your actions and your experience outside of your body.  This is sometimes referred to as “Show Don’t Tell” or “The fly on the wall view.”  Use sensory information to reveal this part of the experience:  describe smells, sounds (including dialogue), touch, taste, sights (use colors!). Be specific, quantify, use titles, names, places, dates.

PIE can lead to a great college application essay. It’s unfortunate that David Coleman ate humble pie, instead of using the PIE to explain to students what people in this world, including college admissions officers, care about.