Writing about events from your own life can be difficult, even painful. But it’s necessary if you want to get into college.
For the Common Application essay, students are asked to write a 650-word essay in response to one of five essay prompts. These prompts ask students a range of questions about themselves, from their background, identity, or talent, to the lessons they’ve learned from failure, to their core beliefs and their major life dilemmas. Each question, in its way, asks students to write the first chapter of their memoirs.
If you have a painful or uplifting story to tell, then you’re in luck: you have meaningful material for your college admission essays.
But if, like many high school students, you struggle to find meaning in the relentless cycle of school, homework, extracurricular activities, after-school programs, and college applications, then your first challenge is to dig into your life to find a story worth telling.
If you’re struggling to find your story, here are some tips to get you started:
Nothing is Too Embarrassing
To get started brainstorming, first allow yourself to consider the parts of your life you’re hesitant to share with others. Some of the most meaningful aspects of your personal life are likely also the most embarrassing. Perhaps you’re embarrassed by what your parents or guardians do for a living, or by your living situation, or by some element of your family dynamic, or even by your name. We all have aspects of our lives that we wish could be different. These wishes often cloud our thoughts during the day and fill our dreams at night.
Start here. Everyone’s life is messy. Whatever you find too embarrassing today will very likely become a fundamental part of who you are tomorrow. It’s from this space of embarrassment that you’re most likely to tell a compelling story of personal growth.
There are limits, of course. In general, avoid sharing that you’ve broken the law or cheated on a test, for instance.
Also, if you do elect to write about a difficult personal topic, it’s important that you feel comfortable writing about this subject in detail. If you just can’t bring yourself to be detailed on a given topic, then skip it. Without details, you’re unlikely to write a meaningful essay.
But, with a detailed account of your own unique story, you’re sure to impress admissions committees.
Nothing is Meaningless
Often the best writing is spun from the most mundane circumstances. James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), for instance, is widely heralded as perhaps the greatest novel of the twentieth century, but its 700 pages focus on a single day of a 38-year-old advertising canvasser who does nothing overtly heroic or remarkable. What’s remarkable about Ulysses is less the content of its plot than its form—not what Joyce wrote about, but how he wrote it.
Your college admissions essays aren’t experimental novels, of course, but they can be similarly focused on finding and expressing meaning in everyday circumstances.
Take this essay for admission into Johns Hopkins University from 2015. Isaac is a teenager from Vermont who loved reading the morning announcements over his high school’s intercom. Look at how he describes his first day on the (seemingly boring) job:
Fortunately, there is not much going on this week, which means I have some wiggle room with what I can say. The loud buzz of the intercom whines throughout the school, and the silent apprehension of the day is met, somewhat unexpectedly, with a greeting of 20 “yo’s” and a long, breathy pause. I artfully maneuver someone else’s writing into my own words, keeping the original intent but supplementing the significant lack of humor with a few one-liners. I conclude by reminding everyone that just because the weather is miserable today does not mean that we have to be as well.
Isaac takes time to linger over what most would take for granted: through his imagination, the sound of the intercom becomes a “loud buzz” that “whines throughout the school,” interrupting the “silent apprehension” of his schoolmates. Consider how this paragraph might sound with a less imaginative approach:
Fortunately, there is not much going on this week, so I can say what I want. The intercom turns on and I say “yo” 20 times. I read the words written on the script and add some jokes. I conclude by saying we don’t have to be sad like the weather is.
The content is essentially the same, but the second version fails to communicate the essential spirit of the moment. It fails to give us something interesting to savor, and it keeps us at a distance from the texture of Isaac’s unique experience. Isaac’s writing succeeds not because of his rather mundane content, but because of his ability to re-inhabit the life of the moment through vibrant words and images.
To paraphrase Isaac, you might feel as if there is not much going on in your life, but that just means you have more wiggle room with how you can write your story.
It’s just a plain matter of fact that most readers are more compelled by concrete images and specific stories than by vague assertions and generalizations. Typically, the best essays tell a single story. The trick is to find a story that represents something essential about you.
So, instead of generally describing your school’s social dynamic, tell that awfully embarrassing story about your first social interaction in high school. Instead of vaguely suggesting that you’ve never seen eye-to-eye with your parents, tell your reader about a time when you argued with them. Instead of describing the frustration you’ve felt from losing high school sports competitions, relate the story of a single, meaningful loss.
In other words, show your reader specifics, then tell them how this story provides insight into your essential sense of yourself.
Your essays should be open, interesting, and detailed. But above all, they should be you. As director Shekhar Kapur says, “We are the stories we tell ourselves.” Getting into college requires that you share just one of those stories with others.
Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and critical reading at Elite Educational Institute since 2010.