Finding a Story to Tell

by Annalese Duprey

Last week, I discussed the importance of detailed stories in Common App essays. But how, exactly, does one decide what story colleges want to hear? The vague and open-ended nature of the prompts offers students an almost infinite number of ways to respond; this can be as terrifying as it is freeing.

So how do you choose what story to tell about yourself? You brainstorm. A lot. And you practice. A lot. Telling stories in conversation comes naturally to many people; it cements our relationships with friends and family. Telling stories on paper—to strangers!— is a different beast entirely. To that end, you should not approach the prompts with the expectation that you will select one, call up the most appropriate memory, and then write it down in 650 words or less. Start by trying out many stories. Next, narrow it down to the story that you want to tell. And then, finally, write it as a response to one of the prompts. With these steps in mind, here are some brainstorming ideas and prompts to help you think about stories you might want to tell your colleges.

Ask yourself personal questions.
Keep your notes in a journal, or a file on your computer. If writing isn’t your strong suit, talk through the answers, recording yourself on your phone. Or get a family member or friend to interview you and ask them to take some notes on your answers.  There are many lists of questions on the internet like “journaling for self-discovery” and “journaling for deeper self-knowledge” which can offer you some places to begin, but here are a few options:

  • What accomplishment are you most proud of?
  • From what failure did you learn the most?
  • What will you never regret?

Think outside the box.
The common app prompts center around a few basic themes, such as overcoming challenges (obstacles encountered or surmounted, problems solved, beliefs questioned) or achievements earned (problems solved, accomplishments or realizations that lead to self-discovery). However, there are other interesting ways to think about identifying your unique and interesting character traits, which can then be incorporated into your essay.

  • If you had to select one book from your shelf as an introduction to you, which would it be, and why?
  • What does your desk say about you as a person? Your locker? The items that are in your car or backpack?
  • If you were a famous painting, which would you be and why?

Vary your approaches.
In addition to using various means of recording your thoughts (writing down, recording, having conversations), try some approaches that don’t require expressive language. Make a collage of images or words that appeal to you first, and then write (or narrate) your rationale for choosing them. Draw, or collect items that are personally meaningful, and then decide what connects them. Make a mind map of your strengths and weaknesses. Draw a timeline of your life experiences.

Above all, be prepared to throw ideas at the wall for a while before you come up with something good. Deciding on a topic with no pre-writing then attempting to craft an essay in one sitting is not a recipe for success. It can take time to settle on a story that is both entertaining and insightful and that can be crafted to suit the purposes of the application essay, so it’s worth spending some effort up front playing around with ideas.

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