Tell a story about yourself that has meaning.


Look deeply into your experiences to find a unique story that reveals something about you that your GPA and your test scores cannot.  Consider what is important to you and why. 


Brainstorm specific incidents and events to find experiences that had meaning for you, perhaps by leading you to a defining outcome or epiphany or by underscoring your key qualities.  Reflect on a moment of personal growth or challenge. 


For example, consider how you would complete this sentence:  “I knew I was grown up when ______.”  What happened?  How did the incident impact you?  Replace ‘grown up’ with other adjectives you would use to describe yourself.  How do others describe you?  Colleges want you to make connections between your experience and who you are today.



Use vibrant language and storytelling techniques.


You’ve heard that a picture is worth a thousand words, but your task is to create a picture in a thousand words.  (University of California applicants must answer two prompts in a thousand words; Common Application essays are limited to 650 words.)


To create a picture of your story, show.  Don’t tell.  Use your five senses to describe your experience.  Close your eyes and return to the experience.  What do you smell?  Are other people involved?  What are they wearing?  Are you inside or outside?  What do you see?


Showing also means exploring the emotion of the moment.  If your experience made you proud, for example, how does proud feel?  When you show rather than tell your reader about an emotion, you don’t need to name the emotion at all.  Your reader will feel your pride, your fear, your confusion, or other emotion.


If your experience includes interaction with others, effective showing may include dialogue.   Dialogue, however, should add to your description of the experience by revealing personality or creating tension, for example, and should not be mundane.  Dialogue should also be realistic.  How do the people around you really speak? 


Showing also means using active rather than passive sentence structures.  For example,‘the musical I starred in was called Hair’ is written in a passive voice.  Why not say instead, ‘I starred in the musical Hair’?  Writing in an active voice brings your story alive and establishes style, a key feature of winning essays.


Your writing style also evokes your personal voice, another feature of successful admissions essays.  Be yourself.  If you are witty, let your wit shine forth.  If you are serious, write in a more serious tone.  The voice you use in writing your essay should reveal your personality.  Keep your language and vocabulary simple, or at least don’t use your essay to stretch your vocabulary in an effort to impress the admissions committee.


Finally, telling your story effectively requires clear organization.  English papers include a beginning, a middle and an end, and so do stories.  Story writers, however, organize around plot, which we define simply as a sequence of events illustrating cause and effect.  This happened; then this happened; resulting in this.  Don’t spend words on unnecessary background information.  Jump right into the action.



Start early!


Even the best writers don’t submit their first drafts to a publisher or other audience.  Writing your college essay should involve a process of multiple drafts, working to develop your themes, story and voice with each revision.  Read your essays aloud.  Ask trusted friends, your teachers and parents to help you proofread.  Your final essay must be polished and well-organized. 


Completing your college applications is a stressful process.  By starting your essays early, you will be able to pace yourself and submit your applications with greater confidence.  The start of your senior year is just around the corner, so why not get started before you face homework and school activities?




LIFEmaps College and Career Consultants have scheduled a series of 3-hour workshops to help Marin and Sonoma County high school seniors draft and polish admissions essays.  We also provide individual coaching and packages designed to support the college application process.  Click for more details.