Once you’ve found a memorable, impactful story, you’re well on your way to an excellent college admissions essay! Now you need to add in some reflection. The narrative parts of your essay tell the story of your experiences; the reflective parts allow you to probe their meaning and offer your readers a framework for interpreting them. Many, if not most, college essay prompts are designed to encourage reflection. The Common App prompts signal the importance of reflection by asking students to “discuss” “describe” and “reflect.”
Reflections—at least in this context—are a discussion of the meaning we assign to events in our lives. Thus, the first step is having assigned a meaning to an event. Go back to your brainstorming notes, and explore why your essay story stands out to you. Start by asking yourself, very simply: “What does this experience mean to me? What did it teach me about the world, or about myself?” Take a step back, pretending to be an outside observer, and ask yourself what the moral or lesson of the story is. If you can’t come up with one easily, you need to refocus your story and try again. If you can single out a moral or lesson, then use that as the basis of your reflection.
Using story and reflection to respond to essay prompts means that you don’t have to answer questions word for word. For example, one of the 2017-2018 Common App prompts asks writers to “Reflect on a time you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?” If you’ve been following the advice in these posts, you probably won’t start your essay by quoting the prompt as in this example: “I challenged a belief that disabled people aren’t as good as other people when I stood up for my cousin with Down’s Syndrome to the kids in my neighborhood.” You’ll lead with your story: “Sean was the cool kid in the neighborhood and I wanted more than anything for him to like me. Well, not quite more than anything; although my knees were shaking and my palms were sweaty, I was about to stand up to him. “Don’t make fun of my cousin!” I yelled.”
Therefore, you aren’t going to want your second and third paragraphs to start out with “My thinking was prompted by…” and “The outcome was that…” A good reflection flows outwards from the story naturally. In the above example, a writer could enter the reflective mode by describing his or her relationship with the cousin in a way that emphasizes their similarities rather than differences: “My cousin and I both love to play soccer. We both volunteer at the animal shelter. It is important to take care of the animals that need our love and protection.” This begins to give you what prompted the writer’s thinking: he or she wants to protect loved ones, and believes that the cousin’s worth is not defined by Down’s.
Writing in this vein allows the story and reflection to happen in the same voice, so the different parts of the essay flow together smoothly. There is no single ratio of story and reflection that is “right” for these essays; there are as many ways to balance and switch between the two modes as there are writers. A good place to get a feel for the balance between story and reflection is to read successful college essays—check out books like Is It Easy Being Green? Writing the New College Essay by Justin Nevin or Fiske’s Real College Essays that Work to read a bunch. See if you can label when the essay is actually telling the story and when it is talking about the story—reflecting. Then, return to your story and ask yourself what it is really about, and what you want it to be saying to your readers. And write about that meaning.