College Admission Essays Made Easy: Everything You Need to Complete Authentic Personal Essays
by Nick Fernald, M.Ed., on Jul 27, 2021 8:25:58 PM
If you're applying to US colleges that require admission essays (aka "personal statement" or "personal essay"), you are in the right place!
Story2 has helped more than a quarter million students complete essays that got them noticed in the admissions process and admitted to their top choice colleges with scholarships.
This post breaks down the essay process step by step--answering the questions students ask us most often about personal statements, supplemental essays, and scholarship essays--so that you don't need to stress.
If you have other questions, sign up for our free StoryBuilder software with the self-paced course College Essay 101. And for everything else related to college applications, download the Story2 Ultimate Guide to The Common App.
What role does the personal essay play in college admissions?
College essays are really different from the type of essays you write in English class! Colleges read your essays to get a sense of who you are as a person, what you'll do in college, and how you'll make a difference as a student in their community.
The “personal statement” or “personal essay” is the place in your college application where you show colleges who you are as a person. Colleges receive thousands of applications, and often many students have similar courses, grades, test scores, and even activities. When colleges read your essays -- both your personal statement and the specific, supplemental essays you write for that college -- they are looking for the person behind all those numbers!
Admissions readers say a great essay is one where it's as if the student is right there in the essay, speaking in their own voice. For more advice from a former admissions officer, check out our article, "How does someone in college admissions read your application?".
How do I get started on my college admission essays?
First, I recommend you take a few deep breaths and let go of all the rules you've been told about admissions essays!
Next, you want to activate your creativity to write essays that reveal your unique voice and personality. You have what you need to write strong essays in your own voice, based on your own experiences. Story2 is here to guide you through the process of turning those experiences into successful essays.
Here are some questions to help you brainstorm topics that are authentic to you:
- What would you like colleges to know about you?
- What are the experiences that have shaped you into who you are today?
- What are the key components of your identity and purpose? How have they developed?
Learn more about what NOT to write about in your college essays. Also, if you're really struggling to find topics, here are some tips to jumpstart your process!
Why are stories so important to my college admission essays?
You may have heard about how important it is to tell your unique story in your college admission essays. So how does that work?
In a survey we did with New York state public and private college admissions directors, which then informed our curriculum and software, they said there were three things they were looking for in college essays:
- It reveals your unique perspective
- It's based in action (not thoughts)
- It sounds like your spoken voice.
It turns out that storytelling unlocks all three of those things they're looking for. That's why our free College EssayBuilder courses and software are based in the science of storytelling, teaching you how to keep your writing close to your spoken voice, while heightening the specific action and details.
How can I find stories that will work in my college admission essays? And how do I build a successful essay around my personal story?
The #1 mistake students make in their college essays is writing about very general experiences, full of vague ideas and interpretations that nearly anyone could write. This type of essay tells colleges what you think, rather than what you have done.
Our founder and CEO, Dr. Carol Barash, discovered the science of storytelling in 2008, when she was working at Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York (CUNY). The Dean asked her to work with a master storyteller to help students talk authentically about where they came from and where they were going.
That experience inspired her to leave CUNY and start developing what became Story2. First, she created the Moments Method® writing system to help students find the stories that define them and shape those stories into authentic college admission and scholarship essays. We tested that system, in person, with over 10,000 students across the U.S. and in Europe and China. Then we demonstrated in studies with Yale University in Bridgeport, Connecticut and the Student Leadership Network in New York City that the Moments Method® dramatically improved students' college admission outcomes, their writing, and their confidence in public speaking.
Wanting to expand the power of those outcomes to more students, Story2 (we were called Story To College at the time) completed the highly selective Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business and Techstars accelerators to develop the College EssayBuilder® courses and StoryBuilder software, where you'll find everything you need to write authentic personal essays, in your own voice!
Start with specific moments that have shaped you as who you are now, and how you see yourself contributing to your community in the future.
Remember: you're looking for specific moments that help you to answer each question.
What's the difference between an experience and a moment?
- Experiences are broad and general, they happen over an extended period of time, and we often talk about them in terms of thoughts and feelings.
- Describing something as an experience, I might say, "I was involved in different extracurricular activities in high school; they gave me an opportunity to get involved and meet new people while also learning to balance academics with other passions and interests.
- In contrast, moments are specific to you; they happen once in the world with other people. Moments are based in action, not ideas or feelings.
- Within the experience are different moments, each with a bit of learning: when opening night of Thoroughly Modern Millie was the night before my AP U.S. History exam, when my final exam for my dual enrollment course at the local college conflicted with the last Foreign Language Club meeting, when I gave up multiple study hall periods to host a blood drive for the National Honor Society.
One of our coaches described the moment she became interested in home remedies: she was staying with her grandmother. She felt a little sore on her tongue and showed it to her grandmother. She remembered seeing her grandmother's back as she reached up into the cabinet, and she remembered her '70s cabinets and the watercolor paintings in the kitchen. Her grandmother pulled a mysterious box of white powder off the shelf and had her mix it with warm water and swish it around her mouth. Years later, after she'd found other home remedies for herself on the internet, she figured out that her grandmother had cured her tiny cold sore with baking soda!
This is a very simple, human moment--one that is completely her own and will remind many people of their own grandparents or other wise and beloved elders. These very unique personal moments are the heart of great essays. You don't have to show superpowers; you don't have to prove anything; you just have to go back into your memory and talk about the events that have shaped you into who you are today.
How can I use stories to make great essay topics?
The best essays are often built around defining moments, ones that reveal something important about who you are now. So our coach with the story about her grandmother and baking soda actually became an artist. That day she felt a bit sick, she noticed those watercolor paintings in her grandmother's kitchen and asked her grandmother about them. Her grandmother had gone to art school, and those were her paintings. She'd given up making art to become an art teacher. Later, she taught her granddaughter how to paint and how to throw a pot on a wheel and fire it in the kiln.
All these specific details draw your reader into your story and help them see the world from your point of view. If you're interested in the science of how storytelling works, you'll find more on that here, in an interview Dr. Barash did for Career Services at Princeton.
When you're ready to get started, head on over to our free StoryBuilder, where you'll complete the whole process, end-to-end, with our proven, award-winning software and self-paced courses.
Which Common App prompt should I pick?
Here are some tips for how to answer each of the 7 Common App prompts.
Most students find the first prompt easiest, and college admissions readers say it's the one students succeed with most often. And that one is the one most obviously based in storytelling; we recommend you start there!
Still having trouble figuring out which prompt? Try making a list of your skills, experiences, and character and see which prompt fits best:
- Skills: Things you've mastered and can teach to someone else! Perhaps you have taught it to someone else! There's a great topic.
- Experiences: Things you've done. This could be as simple as walking your dog every day. Helping your neighbor learn to swim. Which experiences have shaped who you are today and what you want to do in the future?
- Character: Who are you as a person? What can I count on you for? What happens when you show up? Ask your friends how they would answer that question about you!
You can narrow your topic and complete your essay with our free StoryBuilder software. Sign up here.
Here are a few Do's and Don'ts for completing your personal essay (whichever Common App prompt you choose).
What's the difference between my personal statement and the supplemental essays for each college?
Your personal statement is about you, and we recommend you don't tinker with it for specific colleges! The supplemental questions for specific colleges are a different story: they are very important, very specific, and most students don't allow enough time to complete supplements that work for each college they are applying to.
For the supplemental essays, your first task is to research each college you're applying to and write down specific details about what matters to them. Then you want to connect specific stories with those details in a way that shows your fit for that specific college. Here's a graphic organizer, created by one of our interns, to help you get on top of your supplemental essays.
+ Due Dates
|- One required
- 2 optional
|Jan 4, 2022||Early Decision
Nov 1, 2022
What about Scholarship Essays?
A scholarship is an investment in you and your future. Even more than supplemental essays, you want to make sure your scholarship essays reveal that you have accomplished and will continue to do the work they are looking for in that specific scholarship.
You'll find a ton of useful information about scholarships from a former admissions officer and the founder of Scholarships360 here.
Our two most popular resources to help you finish your essays and applications:
- 4 Successful Essays and How They Work: Here are some amazing essays from Story2 students who were admitted to their top choice colleges, with a breakdown of how each of them works.
- Ultimate Guide to The Common App 2021-2022 Edition: This guide, updated specifically for the 2021-22 Common App, walks you through how to complete each section of the Common App.
Submitting your essays
In our bootcamps we often get asked, "How do I know if my essay is ready to submit to colleges?" It's good to get feedback from a trusted advisor (perhaps your college counselor or English teacher), but beware of showing your essay to too many people, and editing it over and over to make other people happy.
It's your story, your essay, and your college journey, and at some point you need to decide for yourself. First of all, make sure it's the right length. If you can’t find that information, this article will help you.
Next, ask yourself these three questions:
- Is my essay based in action? Or is it still mostly ideas that are happening in my own mind? If it's ideas, go back to Focus Out in StoryBuilder, and replace those ideas, one by one, with specific actions and details.
- Does my essay reveal a clear moment of growth and change? Does the structure of my essay show something important about who I am as a person? If you're not sure, check out the Map It tool in StoryBuilder
- Have I checked my essay for grammar? Use a tool like Grammarly to make sure you've found and replaced obvious grammar mistakes. You don't want to turn your essay into something that sounds like someone else's voice, but you do want to make sure your basic grammar is correct.
If you answer YES to these three questions and you are within the length required, you are probably ready to go!
How to Conquer Admission Interviews
If you're applying to selective colleges or scholarships, many of them offer you the opportunity to interview with a student or alumnus of the college, or to submit a video about yourself.
Still have questions? Maybe this answers some of them: 7 frequently asked questions about writing college admission essays answered. You can also try watching this video that answers some more questions about college admissions essays. Still wondering? Ask your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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!
Nick Fernald, M.Ed. is the Director of Operations and Learning at Story2. He is a graduate of Middlebury College, Harvard University, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Prior to coming to Story2, he worked as a teacher, tutor and educational consultant in Colombia, Mexico and the United States.