The Five Things Exercise

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.

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