What is it?

The setting is more than the location and time of your story. Good setting enhances and supports your plot and characters, helping to reveal and advance important points and themes.

Why is it Important?

Many writers swear that setting is the most important element of any narrative work. Whether you agree or disagree you will want to spend time considering your story’s setting before you begin to write. Your goal is to craft an essay capable of transporting admissions officers to a time and place showered in such vivid detail it is as if you have personally invited them into your past, to experience your life first hand. If you are asking them to go there with you, make sure it is a place worth going.

How do I create it?

Start by Asking Yourself The 6 W’s.
Where did the story take place?
When did the story happen?
What’s the weather or climate like?
What are the social or community conditions?
What is the landscape like?
What particular or special details make it stand out? 

Be as specific as practically possible.
Located on East 4th Street, NYC, the Bijou theatre sits in the middle of the block; there are no identifying features, just a large graffiti covered metal door. On the other side, a brightly lit staircase leading down to a landing and turnstile where a large, chain smoking, gold wearing Russian man sits behind a window resembling that of bank drive-thru. 

Use characters to describe setting.
My earliest memory is of my first day at preschool. I am standing in front of the sliding glass doors which lead to my classroom, and I am wailing–wailing like Mary and Martha at the crucifixion. And, just like Jesus, I’m about to be sent home. 

Describe setting through action.
It is 7:45 in the morning on an already humid mid-August New York City day, and I am standing on the corner of 25th and 1st, hailing my first cab. 

Use the character’s experience to describe setting.
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted nothing more than to be beautiful. Not that inner beauty crap. The kind of beautiful where simply walking into a room throws a hush over the crowd. The kind of beauty where it is okay to show up at parties empty-handed because your beauty is gift enough. 

Build the setting through a character’s mood.
The Karen Horney Eating Disorder Clinic was located on New York’s Upper Eastside. There, my treatment consisted of breath exercises, finger painting, and both individual and group therapy. Though not a fan of either, if I have to choose I prefer group to individual, as I find individual therapy a little too client focused. 

Use the five senses.
Touch, sight, smell, sound, and taste. Many writers only use sight, but this is a mistake because it makes the writing two-dimensional. Of course, you should describe the way something looks, but you also need to include descriptions from the other senses as well. To do this use vivid language. Show don’t tell. In my first play, Sitting in Circles with Rich White Girls: Memoirs of a Bulimic Black Boy, I use all five senses to describe a pivotal moment:

I have never looked more ridiculous than right now. I’m wearing a bright red wrestling sling, stretched tighter than the skin on an African drum. Adding insult to injury, my fat face is in a fight of its own with my oversized headgear. Given all this, I can’t help but wonder if choosing the one sport in the world where every eye in the room would be on me was such a wise idea.. If I ever had a plan, I assure you wrestling in the district tournament title match would not have been part of it. — Three, two, one, wrestle: it’s clear from the beginning he’s stronger and knows more moves than me. — As we flail around on the large blue mat, which reeks of bleach and sweat, I can feel both my body and breath growing tired. –I want this match to be over. –I want sixth grade to be over. — Still, something deep within me wants to win. Quiet as it’s kept, I’ve never won anything, except for a cakewalk. 

Prompts/Exercises

Use these exercises to help you begin and/or analyze your admissions essay.

  • Recreate the setting of an important event of which you were a part. 
  • Answer the following prompts then recreate their setting: 
    • The First Time I…
    • The Last Time I…
    • The Next time I… (create a setting in which this might occur) 
Setting
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