How to Tell Your Story With Your Application Essay

Author, Educator

Tell my story? Fine, but how?

The common advice to "tell your story" has probably been around as long as the admission essay itself. But since when have high school students been afforded the time and feedback to practice telling their stories? And how are you supposed to approach this advice? What parts of your story are you supposed to share in your college essay, how, and why?

When I left teaching high school English a little more than two years ago, the curriculum even then was too packed with everyday academic concerns and standardized testing preparation to invite seniors to practice personal narrative with the same level of structured feedback that they received for academic writing. I have heard from high school teachers that this condition has only intensified since the rollout of the Common Core.

The five-paragraph essays and thesis statements they are accustomed to writing for class do students little good in personal writing, including on their college applications. These are inventions designed for American students to practice national conventions of argumentation—despite the fact that expectations for academic writing change from high school to college. Yet they are what high school students have to work with when put on the spot in their college applications.

In a way the college admission game is a standardized assessment, but it differs in that students are suddenly supposed to write not academically but personally. Given this lack of training in personal writing and the stresses of college admission, it’s important that students find a structured yet creative way to tell their own stories when dealing with low word counts.

So here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Only you, the student, can determine what is worth writing about. While family may have suggestions, it’s ultimately your story to tell and how.
  • In personal writing, there is no need to justify why you are writing about one thing or another. This is the academic habit of proving a thesis. When it seeps into personal writing, it limits the creative potential of the personal essay.
  • Choose one or two narrative moments and tell them in the moment. These moments are representative of your story.
  • It’s important to accept that any story you attempt to tell will necessarily be incomplete. Avoid the temptation of recounting your memory “exactly” as you remember it. Rather, remember that you are being assessed on the quality of your personal essay, not the quality of your memory. So use the memory as a starting point for the essay, but make sure you end up with a narrative that stands solidly and creatively on its own.
  • Try free writing without a prompt and without worrying about the word count—at least at first. A narrative will likely suit at least two of your college’s prompts.

The college personal statement is a strange beast. To my knowledge, college applicants are the only personal essayists who have to write about themselves because someone else expects them to and because big stakes are riding on it. From the birth of the personal essay—typically traced to Michel de Montaigne in the 16th century—the tradition of the genre is self-exploration and discovery, the personal somehow tied to universally human concerns, driven by the curiosity to know more about both. Yet this American rite of passage has given rise to a peculiar kind of de facto national literature.

In short, despite students’ ever-intensifying pressures, schedules, and responsibilities, I hope that by engaging with the genre of the personal essay, students can write for themselves with this sense of curiosity—first, for themselves.

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