Keeping College Admission Essays Under Control: 3 Secrets to Success through Storytelling

What do college admissions officers look for in your essays? In our discussion with 48 New York State private college admissions officers, they said they were looking for three things in personal statements and supplement essays:

  • A unique perspective
  • Strong Writing
  • An authentic Voice

Here’s how the brain’s love of storytelling unlocks all three of the secrets to successful college admission essays:

A unique perspective: A unique perspective is not something you can buy or manufacture. This is what you have actually done. No one else can do this work for you, and no one else can write it for you. What does the world look like from your point of view? Start watching yourself in action, and you will discover amazing college essays nearly everywhere you go. Remember, the important thing is what you see, what you say, and what you do. Not what you think, and not what awards you win, but what you do in the world with other people.

Strong writing: Some people think strong writing begins with grammar. And while grammar matters–people who know the rules can work within them and even break them when they choose–there is no amount of rule-by-rule writing that feels strong to the reader. Strength comes from the ebb and flow of your story because the rhythms of storytelling are deep in our brains, part of our shared human experience. When you write with a strong story arc–beginning, changing, and ending in action–your reader will be naturally drawn to your experience, because they have already experienced some tiny sliver of it in their own life.

An authentic voice: Great personal essays draw on the power of your spoken voice. In admissions when you find one of those great essays, you want to read it out loud, and when you read it out loud to others they laugh or cry or shake their head. Very few 5-paragraph essays elicit that visceral response! But great stories always inspire action: drawing on memories, and the emotional power of memory, stories make both the storyteller and the reader want to do something.

So a great essay is really as simple as telling your story. It just takes practice. At Story2 you’ll find great stories in your everyday experiences. You’ll tell them out loud and shape them into college admission and scholarship essays that connect powerfully with other people–and every college on your list.

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 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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