5 Steps to Shine Through Your College Admissions Essay

college admission essay tips

For the Class of 2016 summertime is college admissions essay time. And I promise—from helping thousands of students complete selective college admission and scholarship essays—your essays don’t need to be a chore!

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Follow these 5 proven steps to find college admission essay topics that convey who you really are, and to complete essays that convey who you are—in your authentic voice—before the Common Application is released on August 1.

1. Refresh

Great essays come from a different part of the brain than the neurons that chase test scores and GPA. To tap into the creative centers of your brain—the place where your memories and emotions reside, the place that connects you to other people—first you need to clear out the clutter and junk of junior spring. How do you Refresh? This can be as simple as taking a shower or a walk outside. Some people like to write a bit every day to start their creative juices flowing. Looking for essay topics that are hiding in plain view? Check out Storyscape, our daily writing prompts for unique college essays.

2. Build a Bridge

One key job of your college essays is to show who you will be in college. Since what you have already done is the most likely indicator of what you will do in the future, you show colleges who they can expect to show up on campus by revealing your unique experiences. For example, you want to show colleges that you are a creative problem solver, you might tell the story of a time you made a great meal out of some so-so leftovers. Or you want to be admitted to a really competitive 6-year medical program, so you show what you learned helping to care for a friend who had a serious illness. Download our Bridge Chart to help you get organized.

3. Tell it Out Loud

Forget everything you learned about writing in English class because college essays have nothing in common with the 5-paragraph critical essay. Great essays are born in real life experience, not in great ideas or judgements. So you’re looking not so much for topics, but for stories from your own life. When you tell your story out loud, three things happen at once–your memories open up, your emotions are unleashed, and you want to act–triggering the powerful and unstoppable neuroscience of successful communication. And you are probably telling stories all the time: on Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr. Start there. Or check out the stories behind other students’ successful college essays at Story2. Remember you’ll need a variety of stories to complete all your admission and scholarship essays, so keep exploring your memories.

4. Map It

Once you’ve told your story out loud, you can start to work with it. Try this three-sentence map to provide a strong story:

  • Magnet: Start in the action, drawing your reader into the story from the first sentence.
  • Pivot: At some point, something changes, inside or out. Find that moment of change—which you may not have realized until much later—but find it, and explore  how you or the world looked different before and after that change.
  • Glow: End in the action (that means no happily ever after moral or “this is what I learned”), leaving your reader wanting to know more—and especially to know you.

When your essay has this clear, three-beat story structure, it makes sense to the reader, intuitively. And it makes sense to you too, so you know which details to leave in and which ones to edit out. Want more practice? You’ll find lots more examples and help in the Story2 EssayBuilder.

5. Focus Out

The last step is to work through your essay draft, sentence by sentence, and replace things that happen in your mind—thoughts, emotions, judgments—to details, dialogue and description from the world of shared human experience. This morning I could say “I am excited” or “I love to write”—both of these are scripts that many people can say—or I could start, “I’m sitting at my kitchen table, my heart pumping from my second cup of coffee, and it’s still dark outside…” Which essay would you be more likely to keep reading?

It’s really that simple, and your brain knows how to do this; you were born with these mental muscles and they are ready to work for you every time you follow these steps.

Still worried? Not sure where to start? Access the proven Story2 online college admission EssayBuilder FREE through June 30, 2015. And #AMA at @carolbarash. I’m here to help you cross that bridge from high school to college.

college admissions essay tipsDr. 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 15,000 students and 650 teachers to write authentic admission and scholarship essays. She has been building digital communications tools for over 20 years, and through Story2 teaches the art and science of storytelling to expand college access and career readiness for all people. Have questions about storytelling, college admissions, and life choices? Ask her anything on Twitter @carolbarash.

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