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Three Ways to Write a College Essay That Will Be Remembered!

by Zach Kwartler, on Aug 22, 2013 9:48:00 AM

Let’s face it - most students have no idea how to write an essay that actually helps them in the college admission process. The number one reason for this is that schools focus so much on teaching argumentative writing and five-paragraph essays that students never learn to write a compelling narrative essay. This issue was heightened with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, which focus mainly on argumentative and expository writing, this trend is unlikely to change. As a result, college admissions offices are going to receive more essays that end like this:

This e-book has examples of four great college essays.

“My summer trip to France showed me how people from different cultures can connect with each other. It showed me that we all have things in common and that I am a person who likes to take risks. These are lessons that I will take with me for the rest of my life.”

News flash: ending your essay like this will not help you get into college. Fortunately, a writing strategy exists that helps you write essays that actually stand out. At Story2,  we call this strategy “Focus Out.” My Princeton history professor called it “Show Don’t Tell.” Whatever the name of this strategy, your main focus when writing a college essay should be to write a story that describes actions that happened in the real world, not events that took place in your head.

Without further adieu, here are the three easiest ways you can “Focus Out” and write an essay that people actually remember.

1. Add Dialogue
People naturally remember conversations. When you put dialogue in your essay, you are creating a situation in which the reader feels like they are a part of your story. For example, instead of writing an essay in which you say, “I knew that we had practiced for this moment.” Add a piece of dialogue such as “I turned to my best friend on the team and said, ‘This is why we practiced free throws for 30 minutes after practice each day.’”

Students often ask me if it is appropriate to “make up” dialogue. My response to this is, “Yes and No.” Yes, it’s appropriate to add dialogue that approximates what was said in that moment. Memory is inherently subjective and you shouldn’t hold it against yourself if you don’t remember the exact words that you said to your friend. No, it’s not a good idea to make up dialogue to embellish your story. This will make your story appear inauthentic and defeat the purpose of adding dialogue in the first place.

2. Add Sensory Details
Adding sensory details to a story is the most effective way to take a story that could be about anyone and turn it into a moment that is unique to your life. When you are setting the scene for your essay, make sure to add information about what you saw, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched. Obviously, not all of these details will apply to every experience, but in general, it is better to add memorable details about one experience than it is to write in a generic manner about three experiences.

To give you an example of how this works, instead of writing, “I was stuck in a crowded subway car,” write “I stood shoulder to shoulder with three people dressed in black and each time the subway stopped, a red handbag slammed against my chest.”

3. Add Physical Description
Adding physical description to your essay is a great way to avoid using generic adjectives such as “nervous,” “scared,” and “tired.” Similar to adding Dialogue and Sensory Details, using Physical Description makes your essay more authentic and increases the chances that an admissions officer will remember your story after a long day of reading 100 different college applications. To add physical description to your story, slow the action down and write about what actions you were taking in that moment.

For example, instead of saying “I was nervous before the big test,” write “As I tried to write my name at the top of the paper, my hand shook and the yellow number-two pencil slipped out of my hands and onto the floor.”

As you revise your college essays, look for places where you can add details, dialogue, and description to ensure that your story reveals the unique qualities that you bring to the college that’s lucky enough to be your next home.

Download Success Stories, a collection of four successful annotated student essays, from the Story2 web site.

Topics:college admission