How to tell your story like a pro
Expert essay advice that will help elevate your application to higher levels with ease
A good story is one thing, but when that story is told by a good storyteller, it becomes something altogether different. It becomes a source of inspiration; a source of joy or a source of sorrow. A good story is unforgettable and because of that, we as people are hardwired to remember stories. In fact, that is how much of history was passed down from one generation to another – through the stories of adventures, struggles, victories, and even stories of everyday life from a time long ago.
Stories are central to us not only understanding others. They can also tell us a lot about ourselves. We are all living a story, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and we are the main characters of our story. As we meet people and get to know them, we share bits and pieces of our story with them and also learn about their story. The story is EVERYTHING because it’s unique to the person behind it.
So what do stories have to do with college applications? Well, when you think about it, the application itself is an invitation for you to share your story with the college, right? It’s not just filling in a bunch of blanks and providing information on boring stuff like your name, date of birth, class schedule, and mailing address. It’s a spotlight looking for a great story to focus on and illuminate!
When you see the application as a chance to tell your story, it becomes much more meaningful. And if you’re not to the point yet where you filling out applications for college, look ahead to this wonderful time and reverse engineer your story so when your time comes you can’t wait to blow them away with an awesome, unforgettable story!
Alright, so you may be thinking, “If the college’s admission process is really at its core a story telling contest, how do I prepare to win and get the results I’m looking for with my application? I’m glad you asked. Here’s what you need to know.
Get the basics right First of all, let’s think through what the college will be able to see on their own. They will get a copy of your transcript from your high school and/or from another college if you’ve dual enrolled or if you’re transferring from another college. They can see on those transcripts what classes you’ve taken, how much rigor you’ve taken with AP classes and Honors classes, and they can see your overall GPA. That’s good. Well, hopefully that’s good – because the colleges can tell what kind of student you are and how much you have challenged yourself academically up to that point. Some colleges really lean on grades as a determining factor for admissions, so the general rule of thumb in this category is the higher they are, the better!
So colleges can see your grades. What else will they get a copy of that will also show how you’ve done academically? Yes, they will get copies of ACT and SAT scores. There are roughly 25,000 high schools in the country and some are very different than others when it comes to how rigorous they are. You could be the valedictorian at one high school and not even place in the top 25% at another. So the colleges have to filter your grades and rigor through the lens of how difficult and competitive your particular high school is compared to another. That’s not the case with test scores. After all, they are supposed to be STANDARDIZED test scores, right?
Colleges will review your test scores as a part of your application and weight them with your grades, both on a relative basis to your high school and as a measure of the relative benchmark the colleges use on their end to try and level the playing field for applicants from different backgrounds.
The application for admission will have basic identifying information on it, like contact information, details on the members of your household and what classes are on your schedule for this upcoming year – since they aren’t on your transcript just yet. The key here is to not make any mistakes. Typos can be minor, but with very competitive schools, I’ve heard of colleges accepting one student over another because she didn’t have a typo in her application like the other candidate did. Details matter, so pay attention to them at this stage of the application.
Now for the juicy stuff It seems like everything we’ve added so far is not really very story worthy, and that’s partially true. For students, school is a major theme in their story and when you are telling that story to a college, they are very interested in that part of the story. Build a good GPA and work on achieving strong test scores while you have time. You don’t want them to be the weak link that causes you to get passed by before they get to hear the rest of the story where you really shine.
The first part of the application that really allows you to start tailoring your message to the college’s preferences is the section that asks you to list your Activities and Awards. I won’t go into too much detail here on that since much of what I shared with you in episodes 7 and 8 of my Making College Affordable podcast about how to build a winning resume gives you a nice lead in to this part of the application. If you’ve built your resume properly and done it first, you will be able to easily complete this section of the application and share the highlights of your best accomplishments here to set up one of the best, most important parts of the whole application – the short answer questions and the essays.
By now, the colleges can see pretty much everything you’ve done up to this point, but one important thing is still missing from the story. They don’t know WHO you are. Good grades, test scores, and activities tell a lot about the person who’s done them, but nothing says more than a personal story showing who that person really is. And that’s what can bring about a tipping point in your favor with the story you are telling.
See most people get to this part of the application and dread having to write essays. They may be good writers, but it’s different writing a college essay. The prompts can be obscure and most students have not written much about themselves, especially in a persuasive format like the college essays are. Fortunately, there is a way that we’ve found to master this part of the process and tell your story like a pro. But it doesn’t start with the essay prompt. It starts with the student.
I advise students to jot down a list of 3-5 key characteristics about themselves. These are the things they feel are the essence of who that are, or who they aspire to be. Usually the things on this list are related to their character, defining moments in their life, or remarkable achievements they’ve done. These are often things that they recognize people saying to them about a particular talent or ability they have. Regardless of what it is that unique about that particular person, the first step is to jot them down somewhere and then prioritize them in the order of importance based on what characterizes that person best.
Next, once you have that list finalized, you think of stories that illustrate times when the student has demonstrated those qualities. If it’s something they aspire to, tell someone else’s story, but be careful not to use up too much precious real estate in the college essay talking about someone else. The student is the star of the show and someone else’s story is only there to provide context or set the stage for the real feature presentation.
Putting the pieces together With a couple of stories in mind for each point, you can now look at the college essay prompts. Look at ALL of them at the same time and write them down together along with which schools who will see them. Also jot down any word or character limits you need to remember for each prompt.
Now it’s time to compare your points and stories with the essay prompt. Match up the prompts with the stories you have and see which ones fit where. If you have a really good story that can be used to reach multiple colleges on your list, like through the core essay on the Common Application, now you can see what it is and plug it in more easily. If there is something on your list of attributes that compliments the rest of your application and ties in to your core essay, use it as material for a short answer question. When you see the full inventory of what is being asked alongside the full inventory of your material – the very best of who you are in story form – you can begin to connect the dots easily and very effectively. It allows you to make sure you are telling your full and complete story to the best of your ability to the audience who needs to hear it the most.
Gaining an unfair advantage Very few people take this approach to writing essays and even fewer people think of their college application as an entry in a story telling contest. But, I promise, if you’ll take my suggestions here and implement them into your college application process a few very important things will likely happen.
1. You’ll deliver a final product to the college that is substantially better than if you not taken this approach.
2. You’ll finish your applications faster and improve your chances for success by getting everything in early and looking good.
3. The college will recognize the effort you’ve put into making your application stand out and reward you for your diligence and creativity.
4. You will get the best Admission results and scholarship results of which you are capable because you had a solid game plan in place that gave you an unfair advantage compared to your peers.
Let me say this in closing. You can have a great story and still get rejected by the colleges on your list. They usually have thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands, more applicants than they have seats available. Sometimes things just don’t work out, and you have to be prepared for that. But to the extent that you can control the inputs they consider and be in charge of the time table by which they see them (and by that I mean apply early!), you can set the table well and improve your chances for success.
Use this approach for any application you’re completing, whether it be for school or otherwise. And, if you can learn in advance more about your audience wants to hear and then tailor your message to their preferences, you’ll do even better! I’ll talk about that some in my next article about the Top Ten College Admission Essay Mistakes people make.
But in the meantime, think about your favorite stories and what makes them so special. Is it the central character of the story or the way you remember hearing the story told? Maybe it’s both.
Think about it. Got it? Okay, good.
Now work on telling your story with just as much clarity and excitement so that the story of you will be one people will want to hear over and over again. A good story can’t be kept quiet, and if you can share your story with the college of your dreams in a way that makes you irresistible to them, you will create a magnetism that irresistibly draws them to you. Now who doesn’t want that?
Listen to good storytellers often. Pay attention to how they tell the story and also listen to what’s in the story itself. Stories have been around for a long time and the best ones last forever. As you’re making choices and living your life, live one that’s remarkable and worth remembering. And tell your story with confidence so people can see the very best of who you are and who you’re becoming. If you don’t tell them your story, how will they know? You have to tell them and you owe it to yourself to prepare for that opportunity ahead of time. It may be the only chance you get – so make the most of it!