college application essay

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.

In other words, if you don’t care about the character(s), you won’t care what happens to them, or you won’t learn a thing from them. It will be boring.


So how do you make your readers—college admissions counselors—care about you? Tell a great story, and use some of these narrative (storytelling) writing techniques and devices:

1. Collect Your Real-Life Stories: In his recent TED talk on the clues of stories, Stanton says to tap parts of your life, your real-life “stories” and experiences: “Use what you know. Draw from it. It doesn’t always mean plot or fact. It means capturing a truth from your experiencing it, expressing values you personally feel deep down in your core.” Use anecdotes. (Prompt 1 for The Common Application asks you directly to “share your story!”)

2. Have Something Happen: Sharing a problem works wonders in injecting drama into a story. (Hey, isn’t that what Prompt 4 for the Common Application wants?)

3. Be Likable: “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you heard their story,” Stanton said in his TED talk, quoting something on a card that legendary T.V. children’s host Mr. Rogers used to carry around with him. In your college application essay, don’t be afraid to get personal—share how you feel, think, believe and value.

4. Open Up: Recount something that happened, but make sure to include how it made you feel, how it changed you in anyway, and whether if affected what you believe or value. Readers connect more when you reveal a vulnerability than when you tout a strength. (Prompt 2 for the Common Application sets you up for this perfectly by asking you to talk about a time you failed at something.)

5. The Unexpected:  “The best stories infuse wonder,” Stanton said. Give your stories a twist or reveal something unexpected, something the readers wouldn’t have thought you would do, or care about or think.

6. Have a Clear Theme: “A strong theme is always running through a well-told story,” Stanton says. It’s not often stated directly in the story (or essay), but there’s a core idea at the root of it. If you have a clear sense of your theme or main idea, you will stay focus and not try to include too many ideas in your essay.

 Here’s Stanton’s entire TED talk: The Clues to a Great Story 

(Warning: The joke he tells at the opening has a profane punchline with the F-bomb, if this bothers you. But it is funny.)