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How to Complete College Essays: You Make the Rules

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Jul 26, 2021 11:33:53 AM

Your personal essays play a unique role in the admissions process, revealing your unique character to colleges, as admissions officers build a community of diverse students who will make the most difference on their campus--and for the rest of their lives. How do you write that magical essay that shows colleges who you will be once you get there?

The good news is that your brain already knows how to write a personal essay--because it’s a story about your life--and it’s a lot easier than the 5-paragraph essays you write for English class. And even if you haven’t started, we have a process that will help you get your essays done this weekend.

How do you get started?

Really, you can start anywhere--it’s your life you’re writing about, and you’re the expert. But before you start, take a few breaths and clear your mind of distractions and other work. This activates the creative part of your brain, so you can remember and write about your past in your real, speaking voice.

Next, sit quietly and make a list of at least 8 moments when your life changed. Or 8 moments in the last year when you were challenged or confused. The magic number is 8; the first 7 ideas you come up with will be the things you always say. Keep going until you find things that surprise you. Once you have your list and you’re ready to start writing, check out StoryBuilder, our software that makes writing fun and simple.

How do you find that magical story that reveals your character?

Forget everything you think you know about good "topics." Here are some stories that students discovered in our Story2 courses that helped them get admitted to Harvard, Princeton, Chicago, Stanford, and other great schools.

  • Getting lost in Madrid
  • Choosing which photo to submit to a national contest
  • Dumpster diving
  • Cooking for friends
  • Playing yahtzee at McDonalds

These are not Superman stories. They are stories of everyday life. Everyone has these stories, and everyone connects with these stories. In fact, they are what connect us as human beings. You want to be vulnerable in your college admissions essay, in the sense of telling something that is honest and real--not some sanitized version of what you think colleges want you to say. That is about your approach, not your topic.

Once you're ready to write your essays, StoryBuilder guides you step-by-step from your spoken story to a finished essay. And for examples of great student essays, check out our e-book 4 Student Essays and Why They Worked.

How do you know when you’re done?

We’ve been talking to students and parents this summer, and we’ve found a big disconnect between what counts as a great essay and what most parents think that students are supposed to write. Many parents are worried about grammar, and whether their child’s writing is “good enough.” So they hire editors to check and fix the writing. But in this process--students say--they lose their voice. Sometimes even when people give well-intentioned and loving advice, students say they lose their sense of purpose and even why they are applying to college in the first place.

At Story2 we never write or edit students’ essays. You can count on us to ask you questions that give control of your essay back to you. Because it’s your story, your admissions process, and your choice.

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!

Topics:college admissionscollege essaysessay writing tips