Mulan 3-Part Growth

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

Over summer, I got into singing Disney songs with my friends Ian, James, and Westley. I looked up "I'll Make A Man Out Of You" on YouTube and watched the music video—and it completely changed how I think about writing college essay! This applies to all essay types: Common App, UC PIQs, supplements, you name it.

You see, this video actually plays a very clever trick on us. When we watch it, we assume that Mulan and her friends (coworkers? not sure what to call them) experience linear growth. But that's not what happens at all. The video is organized along three discrete points!

This is what I mean:

  • Point #1 is the before: everyone being terrible at everything, from the beginning to 2:20.

  • Point #2 is the mechanism of change: (how did they get better?), from 2:20 through 2:46.

  • Point #3 is the after: the opposite of "before." This lasts from 2:47 to the end.

Why does this matter?

This is the most efficient possible way to show growth/change, and you only have a few paragraphs to show that in your essay! Many students try to show improvement little by little over their essay, but this is more difficult, less effective, and requires more words.

How do I do it?

1. Decide your Y-axis

This needs to be two opposites that are important to solving your goal/problem. You need to be able to describe these as [A] and [-A].


  • shy & confident (shy & not shy)

  • arrogant & humble (arrogant & not arrogant)

  • can't do [X] & can do [X]

  • [X] can be something like "public speaking," "make a risotto," etc., but it has to be really important and represent personal growth in the context of the story

This is basically an easy way of developing a theme for your character.

2. The point on the X-Axis

The X-Axis itself is just the order the story is told in.

The point on the X-axis is the mechanism of change. Here's where the "trick" really comes into play: in Mulan, Mulan climbs a pole to get an arrow, and then she (everyone, actually) is way better at fighting. But climbing a pole doesn't have anything to do with getting better at fighting...

This will be your case study: you solving a goal or problem in a way that requires you to improve that the thing along your Y-axis. It will be about 60% of the essay. This moment represents a broader personal growth (that probably took place in a much more complex way over many years).

3. Use the Action Essay format!

The three discrete parts are the intro, middle, and conclusion of the action essay.

  • Point #1 = Intro: 25ish% of the essay; establishes the "before" ([A])

  • Point #2 = Case Study: 60ish% of the essay; explains the process of change

  • Point #3 = Conclusion: 15ish% of the essay; establishes the "after" ([-A])

That's it!

Go watch "I'll Make A Man Out Of You" and see how it fits into this 3-part structure (and how tricky it is)! Plus, it's a fun song to sing with your friends.