Like most people, you probably have many stories that you can tell about your life. You’ve done things, gone places, had triumphs and taken nosedives. As the saying goes, “life happens.”
The best college application essays, however, don’t merely tell what happened to you; they also let admission officers understand why what happened matters.
How do you do that in 650 words or less? Think like a screenwriter.
Regardless of whether they’re writing comedies or dramas, screenwriters all use the same underlying story-telling elements. A hero (or heroine) sets out to achieve a goal. Along the path, he discovers there are obstacles in his way. He takes action and gets around the obstacles, and in the process, he has an epiphany about himself. Perhaps he learns he’s stronger than he thought, or realizes that something he thought matters, doesn’t. In the end, the hero usually triumphs, but the viewer has also been let in on a secret: the hero is not the same person at the end of the film that he was at the beginning.
Let’s look at how these story-telling elements might apply to writing your personal essay.
Hero – The central character in your college essay is always you. After all, when an admission officer sits down to read your essay, you’re the person they want to get to know, and, hopefully, root for. Every good hero needs a goal: something that he or she wants or needs. Let’s say, for instance, that your essay topic is about a math class in which you had a tough time. The hero’s goal in the essay is to get a passing grade in the class.
Obstacle – If the central character of a story just breezes through to his goal, he isn’t going to be much of a hero.
So, in writing your essay, make sure your reader will understand the obstacles you faced or the problems you had to solve before reaching your goal.
Heroes can face two types of obstacles: external obstacles and internal obstacles. External obstacles are things that happen to you. Internal obstacles are roadblocks that you’ve created for yourself.
External obstacles and struggles both can have their role in essays. Most of us have faced problems that were not of our making. We’ve been lost in a strange place, had to deal with rude people, or faced the illness and death of loved ones. Often, external obstacles like these form the backstory in an essay.
However, to an admission reader, the most interesting and revealing obstacles in an essay are usually internal obstacles. We lack confidence to ask directions, have trouble being assertive with a difficult person, or we are scared of seeing our loved one sick so we avoid them. Internal obstacles – and our struggles to resolve them – let admission readers peek inside your mind and learn something more important about you than just “what happened.”
Getting back to our essay about math class, an external obstacle could be having a bad math teacher. On the other hand, if you were afraid to ask your math teacher for help, or have always had doubts about your math abilities, that’s an internal obstacle (fear) that must be resolved before you can reach your goal of passing math.
Action – Faced with an obstacle or problem in his way, a good film hero always takes action. The “action” part is just as important in your college essay. Admission committees are interested in getting to know who you are as a person. While the obstacles or problems you’ve faced in life are certainly part of your story, how you dealt with those obstacles or problems is really where the story becomes about you.
In our math essay, perhaps you got up the courage to ask your math teacher for extra help after school. Or you put your fears about math aside and began to spend more time on your math homework each night.
Epiphany and Resolution – The epiphany in your essay is your “Aha!” moment. You face a problem successfully (or unsuccessfully) and you change in some way. Your perspective shifts or you decide to take a new direction. The resolution tells the admission reader what happens after the story ends: what your new direction was, or how your new perspective changed your actions going forward.
The most successful personal essays usually include both an epiphany and a resolution. Although the problem/ obstacle/goal and your struggles/actions may be outwardly directed in your essay, a strong epiphany and resolution always have an internal element.
For instance, in our math class essay, an epiphany might be that as you started to do better in math, you realized that math can actually be fun and interesting. And a resolution for the story might be that you not only ended up earning an A in the class, but also decided to become an engineer.
While these story-telling elements won’t work for every type of application essay, keeping them in mind as you brainstorm essay ideas can help you identify the most interesting and important stories you have to tell about yourself and provide a framework for telling your story.