Are you working on your college essay and wondering what to write? It’s not easy to write a great college essay that will make college admissions counselors stand up and take notice. You have to tell your story and make sure that your personality comes through so that they know you are more than just your transcripts.

Thankfully, there’s a simple format you can follow that will let you write a beautiful, captivating essay that college admissions staff will love to read.

Learning from College ProfessionalsWoman thinking about her college essay

My son is entering his senior year so we’ve been going to college prep classes, trying to get him ready. Many of those classes included presentations by college counselors telling us exactly what they are looking for in high-quality college essays. The one things they repeated over and over, in every single presentation, was ‘Tell your story!”

College admissions wants to hear about your life beyond your stats and achievements. They want to know what those accomplishments mean to you and how you have dealt with adversity.

In other words, your story.

The problem I found is that they never tell you how to tell your story. It’s always assumed that you know how to tell a good story, or how to pick the right story from your life and turn it into something readable and, most importantly, meaningful. That’s not always the case, which is why so many college essays sound the same. According to the admissions reps, the most common topics are about mission trips, sports stories, and why the student wants to go to college, but the story the students tell is often the same.

That’s a problem, but one you can fix by telling a better story in your college essay.

How to Tell a Good Story

Before you write a beautiful college essay that will be passed around the admissions office as a shining example of literary excellence, you have to know a little about how stories work. A story is simply about a character, who wants something, and has to overcome some conflict to get it and win a happy ending. If you look at any movie, book, play, or story in general, they all follow this basic pattern:

  • Katniss wants to protect her sister, so she must overcome The Hunger Games to get back to her family and live happily ever after. (Hunger Games)
  • Thomas wants to be free from the maze, so he must overcome the dangers of the maze and find the exit to leave and find out what happened to his memory. (Maze Runner)
  • Hazel wants to live a normal life, but must overcome her fear to truly love Augustus.  (The Fault in Our Stars)

So how do you write your college essay like a movie or a book? Easy, you follow the story structure and add in the components make great stories unforgettable.

Key Components of a Great College Essay Story

A Character Who Wants Something

This means you!

When have you really wanted something? And let me clarify here; I don’t mean something small. It has to be important. No one wants to watch a movie about a guy who saves up to buy a Toyota Corolla and then does, THE END. That’s an insufferably boring story. Come up with something that you pursued or wanted more than anything else. There’s a problem here of course. What if your ‘want’ is a normal life, or to go to college, or to have a happy family? How do you make a good story out of that?

Don’t worry, that’s what problems or obstacles are for.

Has to Overcome Conflict

Conflict is at the heart of every great story. It is the one thing that your story can’t be without, and if you forget to include major conflict, your story will be finished. So what stopped you from getting what you wanted? What got in your way of realizing your dream or goal? How did you defeat that obstacle? It’s okay to have an ordinary want, like going to college or having a normal life, but your obstacles have to be larger.

Get to the Promised Land

What did your success look like? Your story has to have a happy ending. Whether or not you got what you wanted, you need to have at least learned a valuable lesson that led to another happy ending down the road.

Extra Elements to Include

A Turnaround – This is a fun addition to make your story more interesting. Sometimes this takes the form of a mentor coming in and helping you see the road you need to take in order to get what you wanted. Or maybe it was a sudden inspiration that you can trace to good decisions you made.

What If I Failed? – You can also play up what could have happened if you had failed. What were the consequences of not getting what you wanted? What would have happened? What odds were you up against?

Leadership – This is less about stories and more about the expectations of the college admissions staff. They all said they were looking for leadership stories, but that did not mean exclusively student government or formal leadership positions. Leading means stepping into the role of lead character and making choices that affect the story around you. Make sure to highlight your choices and how those choices affected your story.Woman graduating because of her excellent college essay

Great Stories Matter

No matter where you want to go to college, your college application essay can make or break your admissions process. Every admissions counselor I’ve talked to has said that they want to hear good, authentic stories about the students. They want stories that tell about the student’s life and reveal who they are.

What will your story tell? Using this story formula, at least you know it will be interesting and memorable.