How to Write Like a Storyteller

Writing your college application essays can feel stressful and confusing. What do colleges want to see in your essay and how can you make yourself stand out from the crowd? What if your essay isn’t good enough, isn’t different enough or answers the essay topic in the wrong way? It may be easier said than done, but the truth is, you’re much better off if you stop worrying about what colleges expect from you and start thinking more about how you can tell your own story. But your college essays aren’t the same as the latest Y.A. novel series your friends have been reading. How can you use storytelling techniques to make your essay stand out? Read on to find out.

Tell Your Story

College admissions officers aren’t looking for some perfect, one-size-fits-all college student. They’re looking for a student who will be a great addition to the school — a student who will make the class, as a whole, better by becoming a part of it. You might be that student, and the best way for colleges to find out who you are is to be yourself in your admissions essays. More than simply answering the essay question, you need to paint a picture of who you are as a person. Think about how you can show off your personality through your writing and what makes you unique. What do you want admissions officers to know about you? Once you have your story in mind, you can use several storytelling methods to help your essay shine.

Don’t Repeat the Question

A great essay will stand on its own without needing to repeat the essay topic verbatim. Let’s take a look at a common essay prompt:

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

If you were answering this essay question, your essay’s first sentence should not read, “A time when I questioned or challenged a belief or idea was…” Put simply, this may work for standardized tests when you are younger, but it isn’t the best way to engage your reader; yet many students and adults alike often use this technique to introduce their writing topic. Allow your essay to stand on its own without relying on the topic for support by telling a story instead.

Set the Scene

How can you introduce your topic without repeating the essay question? One great way is to set the scene of your story. From the example above, instead of restating the question, you could think about what that moment was like for you. Think about the specific time you are writing about and describe the moment. Set up your answer like a story you would want to read yourself. What were you doing just before it happened? What did the room look and feel like? There are countless details you can include to make the reader feel like they are there in that moment with you. Setting a scene not only makes your story more memorable, but it also builds suspense, keeping the reader interested in learning more.

Write First, Edit Second

When writing essays, many people find it helpful to write their first draft without pausing to compose perfect sentences, which is often referred to as “free writing.” Try thinking of your story, and writing as much as you can about the events before, during and after the moment you are writing about. Write what you think, as soon as you think it, and try to answer the essay question to the best of your abilities. Then, once you have it all written down, it’s time to go back and edit. Ask a parent, teacher or guidance counselor to read over your essay, and ask that they check for errors and make suggestions. You can also try reading your essay aloud to yourself to catch any spelling or grammar errors you may have made. Keep in mind that good writing has as much to do with how well you edit as it does with the story itself, and your essay will stand out in the admissions process if it is free of mistakes.

Find Your Conflict, Then Raise the Stakes

Once you’ve edited your first draft, you can finally see the shape your story takes. Hopefully, you have a complete story with a beginning, middle and end to your essay. Now is the time to ask yourself if there is more you can do to make it better. One easy way is to identify the conflict in your story.

Every good story has a protagonist (good guy) and antagonist (bad guy) in some form, working against each other to create conflict. Just because your essay isn’t a piece of fiction doesn’t mean you can’t have conflict in your own story as well. Using the same example from the essay prompt above, this conflict might be a person who holds an opposing belief or idea that you then challenge in your story. Identify your conflict, and ask yourself if your reader will feel tension as they read about it. One great way to increase tension is to raise the stakes. Have you accurately portrayed the consequences of your actions in the story? What happens if you don’t succeed in this moment? Will the reader feel tense as they continue reading and wonder what is going to happen? Raise the stakes and you’ll keep your reader engaged to the very end.

You don’t have to be the next great American author to write a memorable and interesting college admissions essay. Give these techniques a try, and even find some more of your own to make your essay stand out from the crowd. And most importantly, remember to let your own personality and experiences shine through — because yours is a story no other student can write.

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