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College Essay Tip: Use ‘Joy Verbs’ to Discover Your Meaningful Nouns

As a rising senior applying to college, you’ve heard everybody ask about your nouns: future career, future college major, greatest passion, favorite subject, etc.

Here’s a secret: not many 17-year-olds have a long list of meaningful nouns like that. Or if they do, it’s surely not written in indelible ink.

What we do have are verbs: actions that bring us joy. The easiest thing in the world is to feel joy. The second easiest thing is to identify the action we are doing when we feel it.

Think back on your most recent moment of joy. Were you hiking in the woods with a friend? Singing along with your favorite song? Laughing until you couldn’t breathe?

Now dig deeper. Try to think of moments when you felt that kind of joy doing something ‘productive.’ Something that felt like work — until it didn’t anymore. It became fun.

Maybe it was rehearsing a school play, or cooperating with teammates to beat a strong opponent.

Or creating an art project, or writing a great argument.

Perhaps it was peaking with confidence during that presentation you worked so hard to prepare.

It could even have been talking a friend through a tough emotional time (or perhaps, more accurately, listening).

The more verbs you list, the more you’ll start to see a pattern emerge: creating, collaborating, listening and relating, singing, speaking, leading, and more.

Pro tip: Capture your verbs as they’re happening

I make it a habit to keep the Notes app displayed prominently on my phone’s main screen. While I am out there living my life, ideas happen. Joy happens. So I’m ready.

While the experience fresh in my mind, I open the app and write it down. People think I’m texting, but w I’m really doing is mining for gold – grabbing those precious nuggets that make writing come to life. Once you start to pay attention, joy becomes a habit.

One of the biggest buzzwords today is ‘mindfulness.’ From CEOs to Super Bowl MVPs, many of the most successful people are practicing mindfulness in one form or another.They are working hard to be present in the moment. They are hyper-aware of what they are doing. Basically, they are keeping track of their verbs.

If you make this a habit now as you prepare to write your college essays, or pick a major, or zero in on a career, you will be miles ahead when you are their age.

And it’s easy. Just focus on what’s making you happy right now, and write it down. You’ll have a long list of verbs in no time, with a lot of repeat entries. The next step is to narrow it down.

Pick the ones that always seem to turn work into fun, those moments when you feel what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘Flow’ — being in the zone, losing yourself in what you’re doing.

These verbs will also tend to appear in the descriptions of skills associated with one of the biggest nouns in everyone’s life: Jobs.

Just for fun, I plugged the verbs from above (creating, collaborating, listening, relating, singing, speaking, leading) into the keyword search on www.onetonline.org, an occupational search engine.

1,054 jobs came back!

We don’t have room for that whole list here, but some were surprising: Multimedia Artists and Animators, Military Officer/Tactical Operations Leader, Human Factors Engineer, and many more.

Verbs help you realize that wildly different jobs and majors sometimes involve similar activities. They help you see those things in three dimensions.

They also help you see yourself in three dimensions, and help you realize that you might really love something you’ve never even considered before.

The more you track your ‘joy verbs,’ the easier it will be to zero in on the most meaningful nouns in your life. And the easier it will be to write with confidence about them in your essays.

It’s not always clear which path leads to happiness and fulfillment, but if you take a methodical approach to understanding what brings you joy, and seek more of it, you will find your way.


Mike D’Emilio is a college essay coach based in Atlanta, GA. A graduate of Princeton University, he was a novelist, freelance writer and software entrepreneur before finding his true calling, working with students. For more information, please see www.demilio.com or email him at mike@demilio.com.


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