How to Tell Effective Stories Through College Essays

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What do successful college and graduate school applicants have in common with millionaire entrepreneurs?

Does the answer immediately jump to mind? Didn't think so.

I recently came across an article in Entrepreneur magazine discussing how startup companies are using engaging storytelling to appeal to their target audience. The article, written by Alina Tugend, titled From Bedtime to the Boardroom: Why Storytelling Matters in Business, begins with the following paragraph:

"It’s one of the biggest buzzwords in business—storytelling—and it’s how savvy companies are satisfying the public’s never-ending hunger for content. With compelling characters, relatable plots and, most important, authenticity, these innovators are connecting with consumers, colleagues and investors on an emotional level."

Let's replace a few words from this paragraph Mad Libs style to see how this applies to college and graduate school admissions: 

"It’s one of the biggest buzzwords in college admissionsstorytelling—and it’s how savvy  applicants are satisfying admissions committees' never-ending hunger for standout essays. With compelling characters, relatable plots and, most important, authenticity, these high achievers are connecting with admissions committee members on an emotional level."

It applies perfectly.

The second sentence also suggests that simply telling any story is not enough. Rather, great stories are compellingrelatable, and authentic. 

Easier said than done.

Tugend eloquently writes, "Like cooking, effective stories have recipes—or formulas—but they shouldn’t be formulaic. It’s tricky."

In other words, there's a science and art to writing great essays. Mastering both allowed me to gain admissions to an Ivy League school and the top graduate program in my field, and also to receive enough scholarships and fellowships to graduate from both debt-free.

So how do you follow the effective story formula and stand out?

The best admissions essays, like the best books, capture readers early and help them visualize and experience events and scenarios.

Think about stand-up comedians, who reframe everyday events and experiences to create hilarious jokes (like how to appreciate air travel rather than complain about it :) 

You don't need to rescue a puppy from a burning building, or sell all of your possessions and give the money to charity to have a compelling story. Like great stand-up comedians, you should aim to communicate your experiences and life events-however mundane they seem to you-in an engaging way. 

Who should the compelling character in your admissions essay be? Others (e.g., a parent or teacher) may be discussed, but you must be the central and most interesting character. Aim to demonstrate your positive qualities through your thoughts, actions, reactions to events, and feelings.

What is the relatable plot? Your thoughts and feelings throughout your essay help you relate or "[connect] with admissions committee members." A good plot has a clear beginning, middle, and end that are easy to follow and gather meaning from. Focusing on a specific event makes constructing a plot much easier, especially for admissions essays with tough word limits.

Finally, the one students struggle with the most: How do you come across as authentic? The short answer is to be honest. It's much easier to seem genuine when you're... being genuine. Essays don't need to have happy endings or contain overly positive thoughts, and they should never make you seem flawless. If you knew everything and had already achieved everything, why would you need to attend (or be accepted to) college anyway?

The bad news is that you rarely learn how to construct great stories in school. Yet, you're expected to do this during the high-stakes admissions process.

The good news, however, is that some people, like myself, have learned how to convey personal qualities and meaningful experiences in very interesting ways and have helped others do the same.

You don't have to go through the process alone.

Here's to using effective storytelling to make (figurative) millions together!