The Superhero Exercise: A College Essay Exercise
Updated: Mar 22
You might not think it, but superheroes would be great college applicants. Why, you ask? Well, each of them have an origin story where they are the star. They also clearly show their values and how each value was forged by overcoming, enduring, and growing from obstacles. They realize that, while they are heroes, they stand for something more. Their names, costumes, and symbolism express who they are, how they think, what they value, and their role in the community. So, I challenge students to explore their own superhero origin story to gain insight on who they are, what they stand for, and what problems they want to solve in the world.
There are few things that cause panic in a student like mentioning the words, "college essay." It's understandable; our educational culture has shed an unflattering light on the word "essay." After all, in popular culture, what are "bad" students forced to do? Write. They are forced to write on the chalkboard, write an apology note, or write a reflection essay. When students are asked to write in class, they are usually forced to conform their vision to a set of rules or standards such as word counts, page minimums, page maximums, specific citation styles, or an inflexible essay structure that acts like more of a recipe than an expression of a student's thoughts and ideas.
College essays are different from any essay most students will ever write in their English class, and that's why I love them. I've spoken at length about how the college search is so much more than just an acceptance letter. The college search offers an incredibly valuable opportunity for students to turn their gaze inward and begin an important journey of self-reflection and growth. If a student approaches the college search with an open mind, they will find themselves analyzing who they are, how they became themselves, and what they hope to be in the future. That introspection provides the resources for crafting compelling and unique essays that show both authenticity and vulnerability.
Some college essays have very specific prompts that can be skillfully dissected and deciphered to discover what sort of response the college is searching for. Students tend to have an easier time with prompts, but in my experience, real growth comes from the moments where a student must choose their own topic. It saddens me to say it, but many students go through their entire K-12 education without ever writing an essay on a topic of their choosing with no restrictions on style or formatting. Because most students learn writing while confined within a cage of rules, very few know where they should even begin to compose something that is uniquely theirs. I've seen this scenario countless times with students, so today I'm going to breakdown a simple, but effective, exercise to help brainstorm ideas, topics, and themes for a college essay.
The Superhero Exercise
We created the nifty infographic above for students and families, but this blog post will delve a little deeper into explaining this exercise.
Why a Superhero?
Who doesn't like a superhero? They come from all over the world (and galaxy) and represent different ideals, creeds, backgrounds, and obstacles that many people can relate to. Superheroes have been with humanity for a very long time. We could even make the argument that ancient religions, mythology, and folklore were the basic building blocks of our modern superheroes. More recently, we tend to associate the modern superhero with comics, television, and movies. Once upon a time, Iron Man was a relatively unknown character and the Avengers team of superheroes was even lesser known. Nowadays, you can hardly pass a movie theater or browse a streaming service without running into a television show or movie based on the widely popular Marvel or DC Comics universes.
Most commonly, children use their imaginations to pretend to be a hero or have a superpower. Even if you weren't a kid who played pretend with superpowers, chances are you have at least been asked the question: "If you had a superpower, what would it be?" This common question is partly based around the idea of having fun imagining a world in which you could do something exceptional with ease. More importantly, this question allows others to make assessments on a person's values, beliefs, and character. A quick example:
Person A: If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
Person B: I would want mind control!
Person C: I would want the ability to heal!
Now, if I asked you to judge Person B and Person C, what would you say? Most people don't like the idea of their mind being controlled, so you can bet there's going to be some pushback and judgement toward Person B. At the same time, most people would see Person C's answer as selfless, noble, and magnanimous, perhaps even associating the choice with being a medical professional helping others. But, what if Person C had the ability to heal, but chose to only use the power to heal themselves or secure eternal life? What if Person C wants to use mind control as a form of therapy to help people confront their traumas or fears? All of a sudden, Person C is looking a lot less charitable than Person B. It's important to realize that it's the person's intention with the power, not the power itself, about which we want to gain insight.
What is the Superhero Exercise?
When asking students to participate in the Superhero Exercise, I'm looking to help them discover details about themselves. In particular, I'm looking for three pieces of insight:
How has your past helped shape you in the present and the potential future? Who were you? Who are you? And who do you want to be?
What do you care about? What are your values, ideals, and beliefs? How do these ideas influence your decisions, and how do you express these ideas?
How do you think? Are you creative, thinking outside of the box? Are you logical, thinking in systematic and clearly defined bounds? How much have you really explored your life and personality?
While working on this exercise, it is important to keep in mind that the questions about superpowers and superheroes are only surface-level. The real insight we're hoping to gain comes from analyzing responses to those questions. When a student is digging deep to uncover answers or insight, the single most beneficial question that can help them is: why? Why that superpower? Why a purple costume? Why the name Bubble Person?
How to Use the Superhero Exercise?
One drawback to the Superhero Exercise (as opposed to the Animal or Prism Exercises) is that participants need to know at least a little about the fundamental nature of superheroes and their stories. If you are a superhero neophyte, then I'm going to give you a breakdown of a typical superhero story:
The Origin Story: Every hero has an origin story. These stories can vary widely in starting point, length, subject matter, emotional responses, etc. Likewise, every person has an origin story. We're not looking for a biography. Rather, we are looking for a theme that ties the past to the present, or we are looking for a specific moment that caused a significant change in a person's life. Here are three classic examples:
Superman's origin story typically begins as a child fleeing from a dying alien planet. When he arrives on Earth, he is only an infant, but already has superpowers. He is raised by Johnathon and Martha Kent, who help establish the moral compass that Superman is so well-known for. Unlike many superheroes, Superman's journey is not about growing in strength, but rather learning to control and conceal his strength. His origin story is about learning to accept his differences, developing the restraint to not use his powers, and grappling with being a Kryptonian (Superman's people) raised by Earthlings.
On the other side, we have Peter Parker (AKA Spider-Man). Peter begins life as a normal person raised in Queens, New York by his loving Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Peter is your typical high schooler without any notable athletic or social aptitude, although he does have some innate talent in science. Peter is bitten by an experimental radioactive spider, which gives him the superpowers we traditionally associate with Spider-Man: superhuman strength, speed, sticking to surfaces, generating webbing, and the famous heightened Spidey Sense. While the spider bite might turn him into a superhuman, it is not the event that makes him a superhero. It is only after Peter intentionally lets a criminal escape, and that same criminal murders Uncle Ben, that the superhero core of Spider-Man is formed: "With great power comes great responsibility."
Lastly, we reach Bruce Wayne (AKA Batman). Unlike the other examples, Batman isn't born with a superpower and never acquires one. Batman is born to a wealthy family and raised by his two loving parents, Dr. Thomas Wayne and Martha Wayne (no relation to Martha Kent). As a boy, his parents are murdered by a criminal and thus begins his journey to becoming a superhero with no superpowers. Batman could have spent the rest of his life burying his sorrows via his trust fund, but instead he chooses to hone his physical, mental, and technological prowess in the pursuit of justice. While he might not be lifting trains or swinging from webs, rest assured that Batman is one of the most capable superheroes to ever grace comics.
The Superpower: An important part of the origin story is the discovery of a superpower. There is an abundance of superpowers in fictional worlds, but I often encourage people to create new ones from scratch. Here are some superpower questions to consider:
What superpower would you want?
What would be your weakness?
How would you use your superpower?
Would you want complete control from the beginning, or have to practice to get stronger?
How would this superpower reflect your origin story, values, beliefs, character, or personality?
The Costume: You'll be hard-pressed to find a superhero without any semblance of a costume. The costumes may change or adapt over time, but they are a core part of a superhero's identity and recognizability. Here are some costume questions to consider:
What colors would your costume be? Why those colors? How do you think others will interpret your costume's color?
Will you hide your identity? Why or why not? How will you hide it? Will you use a mask, makeup, helmet, etc.?
If you hide your identity, what will your superhero name/persona be?
Will you have a cape? Why or why not?
Will you have an image or symbol associated with you as a superhero on your costume?
Will your costume only be for show or will it help you use your superpower?
What is your real life superpower? What makes you unique amongst others?
What do you stand for? You can have superpowers and not be a superhero. What do you stand for? What do you believe in? Who, what, or where would you focus your energies? Here are some examples of what superheroes stand for:
Superman defends both Earth and the city Metropolis because both are his home (despite his alien origins) and his adoptive Earth parents helped established a strong moral code to protect the innocent.
Because Spider-Man tends to be more localized, he is commonly referred to as the "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man." Spider-Man is looking out for the "little guy" and historically fights criminals on the city or regional level, as opposed to a global threat.
Batman fights crime and corruption in Gotham City because a criminal murdered his parents. He chooses to protect those who can't protect themselves, and pursues those who are outside the reach of the law.
Who is the antagonist of your superhero story? Most superheroes have an arch-nemesis, villain, or societal-level problem against whom they are fighting. The answer to this question often mirrors what a superhero might stand for. For example, if Captain Planet is fighting for the planet, then he is fighting against things like reckless industrialism, pollution, and possible man-made natural disasters. Here are some antagonist-based questions to consider:
What is your antagonist? Is it a person? Is it an idea? Is it a part of yourself that you are looking to improve on?
How does your antagonist hinder your progress?
Have you beaten your antagonist or is the antagonist still an obstacle you face?
While an antagonist might hinder your journey, it also has the potential to help you grow. In what ways has your antagonist helped you grow?
Two of our core principles at Virtual College Counselors are authenticity and transparency. We believe that the college journey requires some vulnerability on the student's part. How can we ask students to demonstrate vulnerability if we don't do the same in return? So, as an example, I have created my own Superhero Exercise to give students an idea of what the final product might look like:
Some of the answers are very revealing of my values, personality, and ways of thinking, while others might not seem to provide too much information. If an answer feels surface-level, hollow, or inauthentic, that is when it is most important to dig deeper and ask "why." Look at your answers that have no explanation and explain your thought process and reasoning. Think of some hypotheticals that might occur for a superhero to see how you think and react to certain scenarios. Lastly, look for common themes or elaborate on formative events in your past. After the exercise, you should have a better idea about how your values tie into the past, present, and future, while also uncovering personal anecdotes to help support your beliefs.
The goal of this post is to give students, parents, and college counselors another tool in their toolbox to help craft an authentic application that promotes self-reflection and growth for a student. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to reach out or schedule a free consultation through the link below. As always, I wish you the best of luck with your journey, wherever it might take you.
With all my support,
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors