The Action Essay

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

The action essay works for almost any type of prompt, including all UC PIQs.

The intro/middle/conclusion of the action essay map onto the Mulan 3-Part Growth.


Example action essay prompts:

  • Give an example of a time that you demonstrated leadership.

  • Talk about a time you had a positive impact on your community.

  • Write about a significant educational problem you’ve faced or opportunity you took advantage of.

  • What is your greatest skill? How did you develop this over time?

The three characteristics of a quest

Philip Pullman (author of His Dark Materials) says in Daemon Voices that a quest (the thing you have to do) should be three things:

  1. easy to understand (necessity premise)

  2. hard to accomplish (win/lose conditions)

  3. important to the character or world (stakes)

We need to explain all of these in our intro.


Intro: Necessity Premise (25% of the essay)

1. Necessity Premise: the main goal or problem


The necessity premise is important because it helps us easily understand the context for why you're doing everything that you do in the essay.

  • Goal: I want to get at least a 3.5 GPA so I can get into a good college.

  • Problem: I need to get at least a 3.5 GPA or I will be kicked out of marching band.

2. Win/Lose Conditions


The easiest way to show that a necessity premise is hard to accomplish is to give us a way to track how close you are to succeeding or failing.


Let's take a simple example:

"I need to raise $100 by midnight!"

We've learned how to track this in two key ways:

  • Progress: how far are you from $100?

  • Countdown: how much time is left until midnight?

Not every necessity premise will have something this easy to track. It can be more abstract.

  • Necessity premise: I want to become fluent in French!

  • Example win/lose conditions (you would pick only one of these for your essay):

  • can you order something on your own at a restaurant?

  • can you pass your French class?

  • can you talk to your French relatives at your family reunion?

3. Stakes (part 1): why does this necessity premise matter to you or a group?


There needs to be a reason why this necessity premise is important. Let's use our original example:

  • Goal: I want to get at least a 3.5 GPA so I can get into a good college.

  • Problem: I need to get at least a 3.5 GPA or I will be kicked out of marching band.

Middle: Process (60% of the essay)


If you're thinking about the Mulan 3-part growth, this is step 2. We need a case study: a key example of you overcoming one obstacle that represents your change.


The thing you're doing can’t be too easy. Otherwise, we won’t feel satisfied when you finally do it. The process of completing your goal or solving your problem should contain an obstacle that you overcome, and this obstacle should be related to the main way that you improve (the Y-axis of the Mulan 3-part growth).


In the French example above, any of those bullet points could be a case study to represent your increased fluency.


Don't fall into the "I realized" trap!


Conclusion: Stakes (15% of the essay)

The stakes are “why does matter?” Ask yourself:

  • What happens if I’m successful vs. unsuccessful?

  • How did/can this impact me or others?

You do not have to be successful for the essay to be good, as long as you changed!


We want a specific change, not just "this changed my life forever" or "this is the most important thing that's ever happened to me."


Good Luck!

As always, let me know in the comments below if you have any topics you'd like me to address.


–Aaron

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