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Essay Foundations for Juniors: Discover Your Story to College

by Jocelyn Johnson, on Jan 30, 2015 12:26:00 PM


614-02392441d.jpgWhat’s the secret to writing college essays? The answer might surprise you--and no, it’s actually not perfect grammar (although that is certainly important). It’s storytelling. Neuroscience research shows that when you tell a story, you ignite a chemical reaction in the brain that prompts the listener or reader to take action. So, as you are preparing to write your college essay, keep in mind that when you reveal who you are through a story, you will be able to establish an authentic connection with admissions officers.

That authentic connection will distinguish you from the vast pool of applicants who have similar grades and test scores. Telling your story effectively can be the difference between “we’ve got to have this student” and “this student could be a good fit here.”

Storytelling skills are like muscles: everybody has them, but if you don’t exercise them through practice, they atrophy. When we are young, our storytelling skills are strong, because we are taught to communicate through stories. But as we grow older, our innate storytelling capacity weakens as we develop our analytical and critical thinking skills. Start exercising your storytelling muscles now, and you’ll be in great shape when it comes to writing your college essay. Here are three things to start doing today:

1. Write every day

Applying to college will encompass many opportunities for you to tell your story. There’s the 650-word Common App personal statement, which is most commonly referred to as “the college essay.” Most schools now have their own additional, unique prompts, called “supplements,” which they require you to respond to as a part of your application to their school. Some colleges even have the option to submit a video essay in lieu of the more traditional application approach. Then there are essays for scholarship opportunities, special programs, and more.

It will require a lot of writing, but there’s a point to it. Each essay presents a chance for you to reveal who you are as a person, what you believe in, and the reasons others should believe in you. The more you let others see your unique personality, character, and values through stories of your unique experience, the more powerfully you connect with the admissions officers reading your application.

The best essays are based on moments—the simple, everyday actions you may even take for granted—that have shaped who you are today. You can discover these moments by keeping a journal or using StoryScape™, our new online tool for daily writing. Start writing for about for 5-10 minutes every day. Focus on your actions, specifically how they exemplify your personality, character, and values. This will help you uncover your defining moments as you prepare to write your college essays.

2.  Brainstorm the 5 types of application essays

Pretty much any college admission essay that gets thrown at you falls into one of 5 categories:

Defining Moments
"Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story."

"Identify a significant influence (a person, fictional character, historical figure, or creative work) and explain that influence."

Issues That Matter To You
"Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea? What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?"

"What does community mean to you? What communities are you a part of? How do you contribute to these communities?"

Why College / Why this College?
"GW students have the opportunity to make history and to create real change -- in the university, in the community, and in the world. As a member of the GW Class of 2019, how will you make your own history?"

So in that new journal, where you’re writing every day, start exploring possible stories for each of the five categories.


3. Practice telling your story

You can actually prepare for your college essays without even writing a single word! Once a week, based on your daily journal entries, choose one moment to tell out loud. Tell your story out loud for 2 minutes. Be sure to record yourself telling the story (your phone or tablet works great) and save it so that you can come back to it later. You can tell your story out loud alone, with your friends, or at Story2. If you’re telling it to friends, get their feedback on what they liked about your story and what they wanted to know more about after hearing your story.

When you’re ready, you can also use Story2 to turn your spoken story into an essay that will distinguish you from the mass of students, whether you’re applying for college or an internship, scholarship or summer program.   

If you follow these three steps, come summer you’ll have a portfolio of stories to choose from as the foundation for your college application and scholarship essays.


Topics:college admission