Telling Your Story: 3 College Essay Tips

Mark (my 6-year-old): That book you finished reading today was not very good.

Me: What do you mean? It was amazing!

Mark: But you were crying.

Me: I know! It was amazing!

I went on to explain that what makes a fiction book good isn't that it's all happy. It's that it makes you feel. It makes you suspend disbelief and forget that the words on the page didn't happen to real people. You're drawn in.

Mark, my little literalist, was still skeptical, but he accepted it and then moved on to tell me that sixteen minus six is ten. He's very at home with facts.

While a college essay should certainly not be fiction, it should (oftentimes) read like a story. It's a little slice of memoir. And, in the context of college admissions, students should certainly want to draw their readers in--not an easy task when competing for your reader's time with thousands of other applicants.

But how? Here are some of my tips:

  1. Don't stress about the topic. You want to write about The Legend of Zelda? Go for it. You want to write about how your favorite word is "vendetta"? Go for it. "But won't they think I'm frivolous if I write about a video game? Won't they think I'm a psychopath if I write about a blood feud?" They will think whatever you tell them. It's not so much about the topic, but about what you say about the topic and how you say it. Students often ask, "Do you think I could write about X?" My answer is frequently, "It depends on how you write it."
  2. Stay ahead of the prompt. Another book that recently made me cry (although only slightly, at the prospect of the vastness of the future and space and Mars and all that) is Scott Kelly's Endurance. In it, he talks about learning to fly fighter jets, and his instructor tells him something to the effect of, "Don't let the plane get ahead of you." Let's replace "plane" with "prompt," and you've got a great rule for college essays! Sometimes students get so hung up on telling a story linearly that they don't really get to the meat of their answer until the very end. Staying ahead of the prompt is a subtle skill that requires the student to write in a way that not only jumps on the prompt right away but also sticks to the prompt until the end. It's a tighter, more active type of writing.
  3. Come out swingin'. Closely related to #2, this tip is basically the idea of "hooking" the reader right from the beginning. A test for whether or not you have a good hook: Read just your first sentence or two to a friend or parent and stop. If they say, "Wait! Is that all?! I need more! What happened? Why did you say that? How did you end up like that? [Fill in additional curious question here.]?" then you have a good hook. If they stare at you blankly or just say, "That's nice," or something along those lines, try again.

Let's put these together in a quick example, using a prompt a lot of my students are working on right now: 'UGA's 2017 Commencement speaker Ernie Johnson (Class of '79) told a story from his youth about what he refers to as blackberry moments. He has described these as "the sweet moments that are right there to be had but we're just too focused on what we're doing ..., and we see things that are right there within our reach and we neglect them. Blackberry moments can be anything that makes somebody else's day, that makes your day, that are just sweet moments that you always remember." Tell us about one of your "blackberry moments" from the past five years.'

  1. I'm thinking of writing about how we let our square foot garden get taken over by one dinky strawberry plant that we failed to pull up two years ago. This summer, we were surprised to find our 4'x4' box filled with a lush strawberry plant that gave us at least a quart of strawberries every day for 2 1/2 weeks. But will they think it's cheesy to write about strawberries in a prompt that talks about blackberries? Is that being too literal? Answer: It depends how I write it. I will use the story to show my creative solutions to a happy problem: trying out lots of different recipes with strawberries. Each taste was a blackberry moment, unexpected and happy.
  2. & 3. Let's look at two different ways I could start this essay:

Option A: In the spring of 2017, my family built a square foot garden box, which we planted with tomatoes, corn, bell peppers, kale, and even one little strawberry plant. It was a lot of work, but it was rewarding to eat food we had grown ourselves.

Option B: Strawberries = Blackberries. You may be happy to know that I'm not planning on being a math major, but I can still prove this claim.

Option A probably induced a yawn and "That's nice," while Option B likely drew you in and had you thinking, "Where is she going with this? I want to read more!" This second opening is quite unique and even has a dash of personality about it.

Not only does Option B come out swingin', but it also stays ahead of the prompt. My reader knows that my Blackberry Moment has to do with strawberries, and the strawberries will be the focal point of the essay. In Option A, the reader might suppose that gardening in general has something to do with my Blackberry Moment, but it's unclear. There's something to be said for suspense, but it pulls a bit in the direction of, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, get to the point."

Hopefully these tips and the illustration can help students get going on their drafts. Remember, college essay writing is a process and it is a rare, glittering unicorn who writes her final version as her first draft. And, of course, contact us if you'd like any support or feedback on college essays!

PS - The book referred to in the beginning story is Us Against You by Fredrik Backman, but you really should read Beartown before that one. Really, anything by Fredrik Backman is very good. Want to know what other books I'm reading? Follow me on Goodreads! (Because you're actually reading this blog for book recommendations, amiright?)