Log In
Get Started

Forget Topics! 7 Tips to Jumpstart Authentic College Admission Essays

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Jul 22, 2021 6:11:17 PM


There are many places students’ college admission essays get derailed. The first is the search for “the right topic.”

A college admission essay is a completely different beast from the 5-paragraph essay you've been taught to write in school. There is no amount of trying to write an essay that shows how great you are (a.k.a. makes you “stand out”) that will connect with admissions officers, who are responsible for creating communities of people who can live and work together.

Your essays are where colleges look for your character. What matters most in college essays is who you are and what you do with other people.

So forget topics. Stop searching for them. Start instead with your lived experiences. Very quickly you’ll notice how every moment of your life reveals a story about who you are, what you do (or don’t do), and what difference you make -- in simple, everyday ways -- in the lives of other people.

Here are 7 ways to jumpstart authentic admission essays that animate your application and show colleges what their community will miss if they don’t admit you:

  1. Amp up your attention to detail in everyday situations: Follow your senses, one by one, by dialing down the others. For instance, pretend you can’t hear. What else do you notice? Take one sharp detail -- like your worn out sneakers or your favorite soup -- and explore how it came to be. Not what it means or why it’s important, but what happens around and through that one detail?
  2. Pick a picture from Instagram: Describe that moment. Who was there? What did they say? This is where you are already telling stories, so start there!
  3. Walk outside: Many students describe to me how they become paralyzed when they “sit down to write.” Instead, walk outside, let go of your usual thoughts, and see what ideas flow from physical movement. You can use your phone or StoryBuilder to tell your story out loud and get to a first draft in your spoken voice. 
  4. Ask someone what they value most about you: Many people are so busy chasing down grades, test scores and resume-filler, that they are pretty much oblivious to all the other important things they do. Ask people from different parts of your life -- family, friends, teachers, a boss -- what they value in you, and see what patterns emerge. Which moments do they remember that are truly you?
  5. Reflect on your life in 10 moments, 5 moments, or 3: What are the big moments when your life changed? One my mom always talks about: when she was 10 her older brother died, and when she was 11 her baby brother was born. What are your Defining Moments? How did you change and grow through each of them?
  6. What is the most important thing that most people don’t know about you? This is also a great thing to ask someone you want to know better. What’s just beneath the surface you usually show people? If you peel away those predictable layers, what else do you want people to know?
  7. What’s in your drawer or closet? Literally, and what does it say about you? I collected writing paper and envelopes from every hotel I visited with my parents. I left behind those lavishly textured papers, under a metal box of crayons in my desk, and rediscovered them right before my mom sold the house and moved. What are your cherished objects? How do you keep them?

Once you have some memories bubbling up from any one of these essay-starters, head to StoryBuilder and workshop your essay. It's free! You’ll start by telling your story out loud to activate your creativity and stimulate your memory. When you do this, without even trying you’ll find specific details that bring great essays to life.

Next, Story2 transcribes your story, and that’s your first draft! Then you’ll go through two simple steps to complete your essay in your own voice: you’ll Map It, creating a memorable Magnet, Pivot and Glow; and edit each sentence by Focusing Out.

In working through this process, you’ll be guided from general ideas that many people can say to a story that reflects your unique character and point of view. Revealing your character is your best bet for gaining admissions and scholarships at your top choice colleges.

Go to College Admission Essays Made Easy.

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 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 essayscommon appessay writing tips