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How Storytelling can Build a Bridge to Your Future

by Story2 Guest Author, on Jun 8, 2016 5:00:00 AM


I grew up believing in the power of a great story—I was the child who refused to go to bed without a book and later became a person who is infatuated with the idea that we all have something to say.

Nevertheless, as a student who had a nontraditional high school experience, I was smacked with something worse than writer’s block as soon as I plopped down to fill out college applications, unable to summarize myself using the drop-down list of activities and awards provided. I wrote my way into college, relying on the essay as the single opportunity to explain who I was, what I had done, and why it mattered to my education.In retrospect, the brewing uncertainty I felt while applying snuck its way onto campus with me: Despite trying to conform to the traditional college experience, like joining clubs and making the Dean’s List, I spent most of my time feeling out of place, unable to find connections between what I was learning in the classroom and how it related to my life. I opted to stray from the prescribed plan, leaving school following my freshman year with the intention of taking one gap year that turned into two.

Although little of the work took place in a classroom, the two years I spent out of school where some of the most educationally invigorating and challenging of my life: You realize how much you rely on your story when it is the life-raft to which you’re clinging. Left to my own devices, I had to create opportunities to learn, which meant being able to articulate my skills and situation to potential employers, as well as crafting solid stories and material because I wanted to write. The setbacks were plenty, but eventually, I found myself pursuing work I felt mattered that, funnily enough, revolved around what I would consider storytelling: I held internships and eventually scored jobs working in Communications for nonprofits, co-founded a yoga studio, spoke at a TEDx event, and wrote continuously. Storytelling played in invaluable role in each step I took.

When I decided to return to school, I purposefully sought an institution that was writing-intensive, and whose application consisted of multiple essays rather than one fill-in-the-blank for standardized test scores. Having been at The New School for two years, storytelling has shaped my education: I participated in their Prior Learning assessment, where students put together portfolios outlining their work or life experience to earn academic credit. These portfolios consisted of thirty pages detailing what I learned and specifically how I had learned it, in addition to a personal essay that had to connect my experiences. Again, I found storytelling altering my education: Because of those stories, and this program, I will graduate a year early.

As I finish school, I’ve also been working full-time in public relations for an arts organization, which involves telling a story in an entirely new way in order to bring a community together. More literally, writing encompasses everything I love, from creativity, to sharing stories, to leaving someone better than you found them or offering a fresh perspective.

One of my greatest convictions is that we are telling our stories simply by living our lives. Even if writing, specifically, isn’t your interest, storytelling makes its home in who we are, what we do, and how it fits together. With that in mind, I have learned a few lessons in terms of how we tell our stories…

Be as concise as possible.

The first drafts of my college essays, pitches, and even emails regarding jobs all share one similarity: They are far too long and way too wordy. As someone who loves words, learning to say it simply is one of the most valuable skills I have picked up. Come up with a sufficient way to summarize or introduce yourself (for example, mine currently reads “student, writer, and education activist”) and let that inform the rest. Great stories don’t have to be long or complicated, but they do have to be clear.

What’s the one thing you want people to know about you?

Particularly in terms of application essays, where we’re trying to achieve collegiate success, it is easy to turn your story into a laundry list of high points in an effort to fit everything in. If possible, avoid listing your skills, accomplishments, or other notable moments of your life. Instead, it’s more effective to ask what you want the reader to walk away from the essay knowing, and allow your stories to relate back to this one idea.

Don’t be afraid to be different.

Often, when we realize our stories (literally, with applications, or figuratively, with our lives and careers in general) don’t look the same as other peoples, we panic. In terms of storytelling, allow what is most personal and different about you to be your strength. For a long time, I avoided putting “gap year” in any personal essay or resume, due to fear of it looking haphazard. I realized that my experience was actually an advantage, and set me apart from others. These moments we’re unsure about, or seem out-of-the-box, are often our most significant strengths.

Keep hold of your pen.

Hands-down, the most incredible part of storytelling is the fact that you’re holding the pen, you, with all these fantastic and challenging experiences individual to yourself and your life. When bridging where you want to be with where you are, I found it helpful to approach decisions as chapters: For the next chapter of my life, what do I want to see happen? What is missing from my story that I need in order to get there? While stories shape our lives, never forget that you are shaping your story—you have the power to write the ending. If you’re standing back looking at the narrative of your life, how do you want it to read? That idea has informed every decision I’ve made.

I grew up believing in the power of a great story—I was the child who refused to go to bed without a book and later became a person who is infatuated with the idea that we all have something to say.

Rainesford Stauffer is a writer, student at The New School, and education activist who believes learning should be more creative and personal.

Topics:college admission