“’I should have stayed at the dance.’” That’s what I was thinking as I sat in my friend’s car. The mood was tense. Julie had insisted on leaving the dance right after Homecoming Queen was announced. She hadn’t won like she’d hoped. I had.”

These are the beginning lines of my daughter’s college admission essay. She’d been trying to come up with ideas for what to write about for weeks. Like most kids, she felt the pressure to make herself look good – no, better than good – incredible – out of this world – yes, she felt she’d need to appear more amazing than she actually was in order to capture the attention of a college admissions director.

But the night she came up with those lines she felt like mashed up dog meat – and there’s nothing tantalizing about that.

How can one of the best nights of your life also be one of the worst?

My husband and I had heard that she’d won Homecoming Queen hours before when her sister called from the dance screaming, “she won! Ruby won!” My husband and had been rebels and misfits in high school.  We didn’t know from Home Coming, yet there we were bouncing up and down on the couch like we’d just won the lottery.

The thing was, when Ruby dragged her sorry self home two hours later she didn’t look half as happy as we were. Her mascara had run down the sides of her cheeks, she wobbled in her high heels as she crossed the threshold of our home, her black heels scuffed, her tight fitting blue dress hiked up a little in the back.

“The Queen!” we shouted as she came through the door. “Tell us everything!” we begged.

“Give me a minute,” she said, wearily heading to the kitchen.

And then the whole story came out; the incredible moment her name was called, the roses, the tiara, the glow of the lights, everyone coming up to her to tell her they’d voted for her. It was the classic Carrie high school moment– the thing a girl dreams of – a total popularity contest. And then it all went bad. Her friends, who were also in the running, were upset and wanted to leave. Watching them gather their things from the stage, Ruby panicked, because if there was one thing my girl couldn’t handle, it was being alone. Home Coming queen or not, Ruby felt she had no choice but to follow the pack.

The next things she knew she was sitting in the back seat of a car, no one speaking, the mood unseasonably sour, as the group headed to Nations for a greasy old burger.

“I should have stayed at the dance,” she thought to herself as she fingered her sash and lightly touched her crown. She’d traded her moment of glory for a ride to the burger place because she was afraid to be alone.

“Looks like you found you college essay kiddo,” I said after she told us the story.  And she had. She ended up writing a powerful piece about what Home Coming night taught her about herself and the impact of her choices.

In The Story of You: Write a Winning College Essay in One Week,  the workshop for High School seniors that my friend Ellen Fondiler and I created, we hone in on moments like these, helping kids discover the stories that are alive in their lives and that define who they are and what they care about. Through brainstorming and writing exercises, we look for simple moments like the one Ruby had on stage that night, and we crack them open to understand what they’re all about and what they mean to these kids. Every kid has a story that is waiting to be told. The Story of You is all about drawing those stories out and getting them on paper.

If you know a high school senior who would appreciate working with us, it would be our pleasure to take them through this life enriching process. www.thestoryofyou.info