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How to Write the Perfect College Essay–Tell a Good Story

a cartoon girl writing in a notebook

Nearly all essay prompts ask you to tell a story.  They ask you to relate an incident, recount a significant event, or recall an episode that led to some action on your part.  These incidents, events, and episodes are stories, each of which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Your primary job, then, is to tell an interesting and entertaining story that your reader will enjoy reading.

This does not necessarily mean that the story has to be full of dramatic action, excitement, or tragedy.  Admissions offers do not expect that you will have climbed Everest or cured cancer (remember how fun that was?), or fought off Voldemort (now THAT is entertaining…!).  It is the telling of the story—even it is relatively mundane—that must be interesting.

Let me say that again. It’s the way you tell the story that matters more than the actual story. The actual narrative might be about a meal with your family, the motel you stay in when you visit your grand parents, a visit to the zoo.  But the event or incident can be conveyed in a way that draws your reader in, and that communicates a message about who you are, what you believe, or how you live your life.

What are the elements of an interesting story?  Let’s focus on two for now.

A Clear Plot Line

As mentioned, any good story has a beginning, middle, and an end.  Before you tell the story, you need to map out the essential elements that bear emphasizing. What are the main points?  Once you identify those, then you can string them together in an interesting way.  Is it best to present the story chronologically?  Or should you provide a little “spoiler” at the beginning that gives away part of the ending—but not all of it…as you want your reader to read the whole thing!  However you construct the plot, be sure to keep your reader firmly in mind.

However you structure the plot line, you need to be sure that the story is clear, that your reader can follow the thread, and can extract meaning from it. The more you focus the story on a very discreet event or happening, the more manageable your plot line will be. For instance, if the story takes place over decades, it may be more difficult to construct a coherent plot than if you brought your focus down to a pivotal moment ore experience. With only 650 words to play with, you may do better to narrow the plot line.

Interesting Characters

Your personal statement or primary college essay is a story in which you are the principal character.  There may be other people in the story, but you need to ensure that the action revolves around you.  If you find yourself focused on other interesting characters, like your grandfather, your coach, or your best friend, then you are probably headed in the wrong direction for this particular story.  For your story to work as a college essay, you need to be at the center.
Once you are focused on the right character, you need to develop the character. Given the brevity of this assignment, you cannot overdo it on the descriptions, but physical details that directly relate to the plot of the story will be helpful, and will help draw your reader into the scene.

More important, however, are those demonstrations of your personality that you reveal as the story unfolds. How are you reacting to events?  What are your feelings?  What thoughts and ideas flow through your mind?  Again, you are the star of this story, and the more you can reveal of your character, the better you will be able to communicate to your reader both how and why this story has been important in your development as a human being.
College admissions officers are interested in your story:  this is why they ask you to tell it. So tap into your inner novelist or favorite essayist. Bring your story to life!
For more on writing the best college essay, see these posts about the importance of answering the prompt and considering your audience.
You can also read these guides for answering each of the Common Application prompts:
Your background story
A instance in which you failed
A place that means something to you
Standing up to a belief or idea
Your transition to adulthood



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