Revising the “Toy Story Method” of Essay Writing

July 24, 2015

toy_storyA few weeks ago, I wandered across a blog post titled “How Understanding ‘Toy Story’ Can Get You into College.” As a lifelong Pixar fan, I was intrigued by the title and eager to see how the author advised college-bound writers to apply a well-known plot structure to writing an admissions essay. While the author makes some fantastic points about what has worked for his students, I wanted to share my ideas for how to use the “‘Toy Story’ Method” to write an admissions essay with the College Transitions crowd.

The original blog post concludes by highlighting a deceptively simple question – “So what?” The author advises his students to “write that question at the top of your essay, in the margins, and at the end,” but he doesn’t explain what you’re supposed to do if you can’t answer it! I agree that it can be a useful question – in fact, it was one of my graduate school colleague’s favorites in seminar discussions – but if you can’t answer why it’s important or how to revise your work to say “This is what!”, you’re sort of stuck! What if the “insight” the question is supposed to lead you to eludes your tired, essay-fatigued brain?

Instead of asking “So, what?” at the end of each sentence or paragraph, you might have better luck with something like, “What does this say about me?” or, alternatively, “What do I want the reader to know about me?” Of course, you could interpret either of these questions as a convoluted way of asking, “So, what?”, but I would argue that it actually does very different work.

In my opinion, “So, what?” assumes that every sentence has an objective that needs to be met, as if there’s a right way to express a point or that every sentence must be linked to a specific argument. That may be true in an analytical essay, but the same rules don’t apply to narrative writing. Even in a short essay, you should feel free to stretch your creative legs, especially when you’re asked to write about yourself. Don’t hold yourself accountable for rationalizing every sentence!

In fact, by asking what each sentence says about you, you allow yourself to be multiple things at once and to tell more than one story at the same time. A particularly descriptive sentence may underscore your imaginative qualities while demonstrating your mastery of the metaphor. An alliterative phrase may illustrate your whimsical nature and flair for language. A poignant conclusion may showcase your knack for distilling complex ideas into a single sentence while highlighting your sense of humor. In other words, it matters what you say and how you say it. Answering “So, what?” may only show you half of that equation.

Lastly, in my opinion, the key feature of every Pixar film is the memorable cast of characters. From a superhero going through a mid-life crisis, to a rat cooking fancy French cuisine, to runaway emotions lost in the labyrinth of long-term memory, the films teach us about ourselves and what it means to be human by telling a universal story. We care about the characters because we see our experiences reflected in their encounters with the rest of their world, even if we’ve never been “to infinity and beyond.” We connect to them because at some point in our lives we’ve felt like they did. We recognize ourselves in the stories they tell.

With that in mind, rather than trying to write a “strong narrative” or to “make it new” like the author of the blog post suggests, just tell the admissions committee what it’s like to be you! I would argue that that is how you can apply the lessons of “Toy Story” storytelling to compose a memorable admissions essay.