Storytelling: The secret to writing unforgettable college essays by Carol Barash, PhD, CEO and Founder, Story2

seven steps imageWhat’s the secret to writing great college essays? The answer might surprise you; and no, it’s actually not perfect grammar (although that is certainly important). It’s storytelling. There is a Native American proverb, “Those who tell the stories rule the world.” What makes stories so powerful?

Stories ignite a chemical reaction in the brain. Neuroscience research shows us that when you tell, read, or listen to a story, it ignites a process called mental mirroring and three things happen:

1. Your story sparks the reader’s memories.
2. Those memories activate the reader’s emotions, allowing them to experience the moment with you.
3. Those emotions connect you to the reader, and make them want to take action.

Mental mirroring only happens when you bring the reader into your moment, and allow them to experience it from your perspective. When you use generalizations, cliches, or summaries, the process of mental mirroring breaks down.

So when it comes to completing college admission essays–which colleges and the Common App say is about “telling your own story”–why is our first instinct to completely ignore storytelling and start talking in big, grandiose ideas that have nothing to do with our everyday experience?

Storytelling skills are like muscles: everybody has them, but if you don’t exercise them through practice, they atrophy. When we are young, our storytelling skills are strong, because we are taught to communicate through stories. But as we grow older, our innate storytelling capacity weakens as we develop writing skills that emphasize analytical and critical thinking.

So, as you prepare to complete your college essays, keep in mind that when you reveal who you are through a story, you will establish an authentic connection with admissions officers, and they will want to advocate for you.

That authentic connection distinguishes you from the vast pool of applicants who have similar grades and test scores. Telling your story effectively can be the difference between “we’ve got to have this student” and “this student could be a good fit here.”

So how do you tell a unique story in your college admission essay? Here are 5 secrets that work every time:

1. Find a moment: Great stories are about moments that matter to you. Think about the moment in your life when things changed. What happened? Who else was there with you? How were you different before and after that moment?

2. Magnet: This is your essay’s first sentence. It should immediately draw your reader into the story. Don’t start your essay with a quote, “This is an essay about…” or “Hi, I’m a senior in High School, and I’m writing this essay so I can get into college.” Start in the action, and draw the reader right in. Here’s an example: “I woke up to a splash of water on my face. ‘Get up,’ Juan said to me, ‘We’re moving.’”

3. Pivot: This is a turn in the action of your story when you risk something, learn something, or try something new. It’s where you change or take action in some different way. The pivot draws your reader into your perspective by showing you in action.

4. Glow: The glow is the final sentence of your essay. It should end the story without summarizing it, and leave the reader wanting to know more. Here’s an example from one of our students: “And though it was no masterpiece of genius it was a working robot by definition.” See–now aren’t you curious what happens next?

5. Details, dialogue, and description: You can make every sentence of your essay more powerful by replacing general ideas, as well as thoughts and interpretations, with elements of what happened in the world of shared human experience. Sensory details, dialogue (what people said), and physical description (where are you? who else is there?) make your essay uniquely your own–not formulaic.

Once you find a moment that’s important to you, use the Story2 online EssayBuilder™ to turn that moment into a powerful personal essay. You’ll start by telling your story out loud to activate your creativity and memory. When you do this, you’ll find specific details without even trying.

In working through EssayBuilder™, you’ll move from general ideas that many people can say to a story that reflects your unique character and point of view. Revealing your character is your best bet for winning admissions and scholarships at the most selective colleges.

About the author

Dr. Carol Barash, former English professor and advisor to the admissions committee at Douglass College, Rutgers University, author of Write Out Loud, and founder and CEO of Story2, has empowered over 20,000 students to write authentic admission and scholarship essays. She has been building digital communications tools for over 20 years, and through Story2 teaches the neuroscience of storytelling to expand college access and career readiness. Have questions about storytelling, college admissions, and life choices? #AMA on Twitter @carolbarash.