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College admissions storytelling 101

By March 4, 2019March 28th, 2019College Admission, Parent Resources

In my 10 years as a college admissions tutor, one of the recurrent questions coming from parents and students has been, “what should I write my essay about?”

There is an entire industry built around college essays, including anthologies of essays written by students who were accepted into their schools of choice. If you’ve ever read one of those books, or have done a Google search about the topic, you’ve seen that essay topics range from thoughts about global politics to idiosyncratic accounts of a person’s relationship with buttons. Recently, a high school senior got into Stanford after submitting the sentence “Black Lives Matter” 100 times. It’s no wonder parents and students are confused: What are the standards, who comes up with them, and how do we make sure that our applicant’s submission is up to par?

Tell a story

My approach to admissions essay writing is very much fueled by my career as a filmmaker – I’ve learned that the only way I can get my audience to care about a character is to put in the effort to tell a genuine story about them.

Think about this analogy: to people who have never met you, you are like a movie character whose story unfolds in the essay, mini-essays, CV, GPA, and ACT/SAT test scores. Your job is to tell a story about yourself to a group of people who have never met you, will most likely never meet you, and who have to make a decision about your future at their institution. As with a movie character, it’s essential to make sure this committee knows something authentic about you in order to get a sense of who you are.

The story you choose should articulate – either in content or form – what you value and, if relevant, how you choose to spend your time.

Be vulnerable

What I’m suggesting here is quite challenging for a lot of students.

Understandably, we all want to make a great impression – we want others to see us as composed, mature individuals who can make the most out of the opportunity of higher education. I, however, have repeatedly encouraged my students to share something vulnerable that shows their imperfections — and the ways in which they overcame them.

For example, one of my students told a story about finding out that his best friend was inflicting self-harm. He deliberated for months about how to handle the situation and eventually chose to share his friend’s secret with the school’s staff. The focal point of the story he told existed in the moral ambiguity of his position; this brave student worried about being perceived as immature and reckless for not reporting his friend’s risky behavior sooner, but was also concerned that he would be seen as a disloyal confidant who betrayed his friend’s trust.

Instead of shying away from this ambiguity, we dove into it by unpacking those uncomfortable feelings and giving them names. This story ultimately helped the student get into one of the best schools in Pennsylvania, which was also his top choice.

Highlight an achievement

Of course, not everyone needs to write an essay that thematically deals with moral ambiguity. In fact, it doesn’t hurt to include one of your achievements in the essay.  If what people need to know about you is that you’re a really good cook and that one day you’d like to open a catering business, you should mention any cooking contests you might have participated in and any accolades that resulted. However, it’s imperative to keep in mind that your essay still has to communicate who you are, not just what you achieved.

Read for inspiration

I would encourage you to do a Google search of “successful college admissions essays”, not to copy them, but rather to be inspired by the stories other students have told. Every essay is different because every applicant is different. The challenge – and the reward – is translating that which makes you different into a story you can share with people who have never met you.

Your goal is not to have everybody on the admissions committee like you or be impressed by you; rather, it is for your essay to reach one person who will relate to you and fight for you. If you manage to convey a real picture of your life experience, your values, and your personality, you’ll have a leg up on the competition.

Brooklyn Math Tutors works extensively with college applicants. If you are interested in our services, do not hesitate to write us at

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