The College Admissions (Essay) Story

The college admissions essay. Just the mention of it is enough to create a pit in the stomach of any rising senior. And by senior year, while most teens have gained plenty of experience writing essays on assigned topics, this may be the first time you find yourself writing a personal story. And it can be uncomfortable.

I use the word ‘story,’ rather than ‘essay,’ for a reason. The best college application essay reads much more like a short, compelling first-person narrative then a dry recounting of adolescent accomplishments.

What are the experiences you love to laugh about with friends? What are the stories your family members relish telling about you? What are the first three words that comes to mind when people describe you? What are you ‘into’? Are there examples from your life that demonstrate each of these?

These are the topics that result in a college admissions essay that demonstrates your ability to write, tells the admissions reader more about who you are and what makes you tick, and conveys it in a way that is genuine to you (btw, that is pretty much all the essay needs to accomplish.)

Unfortunately, most teens (and their well-meaning parents) place far too much emphasis on the college admissions essay. This can be utterly paralyzing. Instead, keep it simple. The essay is a 650-word story that tells a tale about you, not the memoir of your life up until age 17.

Do not feel the need to recount your high school honors and accomplishments, since those will be listed elsewhere in the application. Do be true to who you are, or as one student put it, “Don’t overthink it. No words will be the perfect words. As long as the writing is yours, your personality will shine through, especially if you choose to write about something that you’re passionate about.”

Ready to dip a toe in the water, or still need a little push? Scan the common app or coalition app essay prompts. Both include a prompt that gives you the freedom to write about a topic of your choice.

Still seeking inspiration? Ask a few friends or family members to describe three qualities about you, including anecdotes of when they think you demonstrated those attributes. Or instead, write about an object from your life, and its special meaning to you.

Alternatively, give yourself a ten-day, ten-topics assignment. The rules: nothing is out of bounds, the topics must be different, and you must resist self-editing. Take a look after ten days and see if something speaks to you.

Or pretend for a moment that you are a seminar day speaker, leading a teen TED Talk, or are a stand-up comedian, doing your bit on stage. What story would you tell, and how would you tell it?

Write as you would speak, and be descriptive. Be in the moment: show or demonstrate, rather than describing as an observer. Consider the reader, and how they are “hearing” your story.  Free write without editing in your first draft.

Only then consider the conclusion. Summarize your story and the personal qualities you want to highlight. Land on how you’ve changed, the insight you gained, how this experience has shaped you as a person, or even how this experience has inspired you to contribute to your future alma mater.