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3 ways to write College Admission Essays in your own authentic voice

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Jul 26, 2021 5:26:05 PM

I was cleaning up my study recently, clearing the decks to write a new book about storytelling, and I found my notes from the road trip I took with my daughter in 2011, the summer before she applied to college.

“85% of the students who apply to Harvard,” I dutifully transcribed as I listened to the admissions officer, “are academically qualified. You will live here for four years, so we want to know who you are. Use your essays to show us who you are.”

It’s not just Harvard. Every year, NACAC completes a study of over 10,000 college admissions officers, and essays were the most important factor in college admissions after grades and SAT/ACT scores. The essay plays a key role in helping admissions officers choose between thousands of students with similar test scores and GPAs—your essays are what take you from the 85% who could be admitted to the 5% who are admitted.

College application essays play a unique role in college admissions, more important than another 100 points on your SATs or a couple of decimal points on your GPA. Your application essays -- both the 650-word Personal Statement and the supplemental essays for each college -- reveal your character. Your essays show admission officers who you will be on their campus and in their community.

In a survey of 48 admissions officers from selective private colleges, that informed how Story2 approaches the essays, admissions officers said that they look for three things when reading your essay: a unique perspective, strong writing, and an authentic voice.

Let’s look at the three keys to admissions essay success more closely:

1. Unique perspective

A unique perspective reveals how you see the world and what difference you have made through your actions. To get started on your essays, brainstorm 20 moments when you learned a key lesson, changed in a fundamental way, or made a difference in the lives of others. These can be simple moments, like a family meal or late night conversations with friends. Narrow the list down to focus on things you did, not concepts you realized or believe in. And remember: admissions officers aren’t looking for expensive trips or fancy experiences—in fact, sometimes that kind of extravagance can be a little off-putting and it doesn’t tell your story. Share personal moments that reveal who you are as a human being.

2. Strong writing

You might think admissions officers are looking for essays like you write in English class with a strong argument. Not so! Successful college admission and scholarship essays are based on stories, not arguments. For most students, personal narrative writing requires new skills. Your brain already knows how to do this, but you need to clear out the critical writing cobwebs you collect in school and learn to tell stories instead. Story2 enables students to explore the experiences that have shaped them into who they are, and to share those moments honestly in college admission essays and interviews. It’s important to proofread your essays and clean up any grammar snafus, but it's even more important to write with the power of storytelling.

3. Authentic voice

Your authentic voice is the voice you use when you are speaking out loud. To access your unique voice, tell your stories out loud into a phone or computer -- or you can use StoryBuilder to tell your story out loud, and then turn it into a finished essay. If you can gather a group of friends and tell your stories to one another—even better. Telling your stories out loud is your authentic voice. Storytelling builds a powerful emotional bridge between you and your audience and connects you to the people who read your applications. Many students find their authentic voice while writing their college essays, and then through over-editing turn the essays back into something generic that is no longer theirs.

For more info about college admission and scholarship essays and interviews, sign up for self-paced courses and our award-winning StoryBuilder writing platform FREE. Want to stay up to date on the latest tips and resources? Follow us @story2 on Instagram!

Carol Barash, PhD, is the founder + CEO of Story2, a community of over a quarter million storytellers across 4 continents. Carol innovates at the intersection of education, technology + community. A graduate of Yale, UVA, Princeton, Goldman Sachs 10KSB + Techstars, Carol created the Moments Method® and built Story2 to empower people to share bold, authentic stories in safe, intersectional communities.

Topics:college admissionscollege essaysessay writing tips