Storytelling “Clues” from a Master
for your College Application Essay
If anyone knows how to spin a great story, it’s this guy: Andrew Stanton. Ok, I hadn’t heard of him before either, but I certainly know about his films: All the Toy Story movies, Monsters, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and a ton more. If you are working on your college application essay, you grew up with all these popular animated films.
Stanton is an American filmmaker with Pixar studios, and he recently gave a TED talk about what makes a story powerful. His greatest storytelling commandment? “Make me care,” he says. (more…)
College Application Essays
A Mini-Lesson from a Storytelling Pro
I found this brilliant little example of how to understand what makes up a good story today in a column written by the talented sportswriter and journalist named Tommy Tomlinson. If you are writing your college application essay, and want to use the narrative style to tell a “slice of life” story or use an anecdote, this mini-lesson can help you a lot. Tomlinson wrote: “First, I’m gonna draw three objects. (more…)
College Application Essays:
What They Mean When They Ask for a Story
Most students have never written narrative essays, which are so different from most essays taught in English classes.
The classic 5-paragraph essay has a formal style, uses the third person, includes a main point or thesis statement in the introduction and has three supporting body paragraphs.
These college application (narrative) essays are the opposite.
The style is more casual, the structure looser and no one is counting the number of paragraphs.
They are told in the first-person and the main point is usually not stated directly, but implied by the essay itself.
What Is An Anecdote?
They are called “narrative” essays because they often use a story-like style—you are the narrator. (Many college counselors will advise you to “tell a story” in your essay. I do, too!)
However, there seems to be confusion between whether these narrative essays are the same as stories, or if they just contain mini-stories from real life. In general, they only contain small pieces of stories, called anecdotes.
These are used in the introductions because they grab the reader’s attention with a compelling description of an interesting moment or experience.
However, the entire essay is not one complete story that starts at the beginning and runs through the entire piece until the end.
Writers start with an anecdote to engage the reader by describing a moment, which tries to illustrate a larger point in their essay.
The rest of the essay is used to explain the broader meaning of the anecdote.
I know it can be confusing.
But I think people who resist the idea of narrative-style writing in these essays don’t understand the difference, and think narrative means the essay relates one long story. It doesn’t.
The narrative, or story-like style that reads like fiction, is mainly used only in the beginning of these essays. (In news or magazine stories, they are called anecdotal ledes.) The rest then shifts into a more explanatory mode.
So you do not want to tell one long story in your essay.
But you do want to look for mini-stories, or moments, or “times,” that you can relate as examples of something you want to illuminate in your essay.
In my new ebook, Escape Essay Hell!, I explain how you can use a Show and Tell structure to write a compelling narrative essay about yourself. The first part, using an anecdote, is the Show part.
The second part, where you explain what the moment or experience meant, how you thought and felt about it, and what you learned, is the Tell part.
Find examples of narrative writing in college application essay in my favorite collections of sample essays.
College Admissions Essays
How to Write an Anecdote
For Your College Application Essay, Personal Statement or other Essays
If you can write an anecdote, you can write a powerful essay.
But a lot of students don’t know what an anecdote is, let alone how to write one.
It’s really just a weird word for a little story or animated description of something that happened.
Usually they are very short.
If done well, they make excellent introductions for all essays since they grab the reader’s attention.
In essays, an anecdote is an example of a point you want to make that uses a little story or animated description.
Example: You want to make the point in your essay that you are a creative person.
So you write an anecdote to illustrate your point: You could describe something creative that you made, or you could describe yourself making something interesting.
During a walk near my home, I found a long stick that looked like the letter “Y.” I smoothed the surface with sandpaper and covered it with blueberry blue paint I found in the garage, then wrapped it with twine and colored yarn. From my junk drawer, I tied seashells, a couple old keys and a bent fork to the ends and hung it in my room.
“What’s that?” my little sister asked.
“Art,” I said, even though I wasn’t even sure what I had made.
(Then background your interest in art, how you think about it, why you value it, how it has affected you, changed you, and what your plans are for it in the future…)
College Admissions Essays:
How to Start Your Core College Application Essay
If you are writing a college admissions essay that responds to a prompt that asks you to tell about yourself, or about “a time,” or describe a quality, background, interest, identity, talent, characteristic, experience or accomplishment (such as The Common App prompts or Prompt #2 for the UC app.), then your essay is also known as a personal statement.
The most effective personal statements are written as narrative essays, meaning they relate an experience using a story-telling style.
To share an incident or moment from your past, you only need two components to make a story: a character and a conflict.
So one magic way to create a personal narrative is to search your recent past for a conflict. (You are the “character.”)
Thinking back to English class, remember that conflicts can come from many different places—from within yourself (internal: you have a personal issue or hang-up that caused you pain or trouble) to outside yourself (external: something happened to you.)
To put it simply, a conflict is a problem.
Problems come in all shapes and sizes.
They do not need to be traumas or a crises, although those can work, too.
(HINT: Basic, everyday problems work best! Check out this post about “mundane” topics.)
Here are other words for a conflict or problem: challenge, failure, obstacle, mistake, hang-up, issue, a change, dilemma, fears, obsessions, etc.
Examples of conflicts or problems: you are shy, competitive, stubborn, were bullied, are obsessed with Twilight, didn’t make the team, got injured, have big feet, frizzy red hair, smile too much, someone quit at your work, don’t have own car, can’t spell, adhd, ocd, don’t eat meat, perfectionist, slob, lazy, drunk driving, have a mean grandparent, no money, etc…
Man, there are a lot of problems out there! But for the purposes of writing these dreaded essays, that’s a good thing for once!
Once you remember a juicy problem, follow these steps:
1. Describe the time you had a problem or describe a strong example of your problem.
(Include what happened and how it made you feel. Try to start at the moment it hit, or happened for the best impact! Include the 5Ws—who, what, when, where and why! Stick to one or two paragraphs.)
These mini-stories are also called anecdotes, and you can learn more by reading my post on how to write an anecdote.
RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One