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Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

Why You Should Approach Your College Essays as Storytelling

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Christopher Kilner in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.


What’s Covered:



College essays can seem intimidating. What do you write about? How should you write it? When you think about your college essays as an opportunity to tell your personal story—your struggles, your passions, your accomplishments—they will be more memorable to admissions officers. This article will take you through the process of approaching your college essays as storytelling, from coming up with ideas to planning and writing them. 


Generating Ideas


Before you start writing your college essays and before you even start planning, you have to first figure out what you think would be an interesting story to tell.


For a personal statement essay, for example, you can start by thinking about your main passions. You might be surprised how far brainstorming about even a simple interest can take you. Maybe you really love nature or a particular animal. Where does that idea lead? What’s a story or a memory you have that demonstrates this love of nature? From there, you can begin to see your ideas and potential topics take shape.


Ideally, you should be able to come up with at least two different concepts for your personal statement. Start to sketch out where you can see these concepts going—you may want to draw in different passions or think that sharing an anecdote would work best to illustrate your point. No matter your storytelling angle, keep in mind that the essay is about the fundamentals of who you are and what you want to do.


Organizing Your Ideas


After you’ve put your ideas onto paper, you can organize them. An outline will help you see clearly where the essay will go. You might find that a narrative essay that you thought would work well is actually a bit of a dead end or doesn’t really speak much to who you are. Don’t be afraid to get feedback on your outlines. The opinions of a friend or a teacher can help you look at your ideas in a different light.


Once you have more of a plan for your essay, you can think about whether you want to add more, just to make the story more interesting. The personal statement is limited to 650 words. For a first draft, it’s better to go above the word count than come up short. Editing something down is easier than racking your brain to come up with more to say.


After you’ve come up with several different ideas, you should be able to write a large amount for your initial draft. You can even find ways to make them all work together! Your life has involved different elements; your essay can have multiple ideas in it too.


Common Themes Across Essay Types


Outlining and planning ahead will make writing your personal statement much easier, and it will also help you when it comes time to write supplemental college essays. If you’ve been able to identify and plot out your different ideas and passions, you’ll be able to see more easily how different parts of your life come together.


When you look at your supplemental essay prompts, you should try to figure out how you can tie them to your personal statement. You’re working to create a cohesive picture of yourself that you can present to an admissions committee. Sticking to common themes will make the writing process a bit easier.


It helps to know what supplemental essays you’ll be writing before you draft your personal statement. You can plan for the topic of one supplemental essay, and you’ll know to drop a line that relates to it in your personal statement.


Referring to your list of passions and ideas will provide you with essay topics for the supplemental essays. If you’re athletic and want to use a story from your sporting career as a supplemental essay while writing your main essay about something else, you can put a line or two about your athletic history in your personal statement. As an organizational tool, you can try color-coding each particular idea. Then, when drafting, highlight each idea as it comes up, so you can see what you’re incorporating into your writing. 


The common themes that you touch on in multiple essays will enable colleges to see the different elements of your personality and your journey and how they all work together. In writing your particular story, you want to present a cohesive narrative that also provides the fullest picture of yourself.


Assembling a Narrative


After you’ve listed all your many ideas and outlined a few of your essays, you’ll be able to see what kind of story you want to write about yourself.


If you’re thinking about doing many different things but feel unsure of where to begin, it’s helpful to think chronologically. What were you passionate about as a child? Where did your interests first start, and how did you act on them? Thinking about these things might help you come up with a special anecdote to share. You can then start to think about where you’ve ended up: how are you acting on your interests now, and what do you want your future to look like?


It can feel like putting a puzzle together. You’re trying to tell a story, so you want to build up a narrative in a way that makes sense. Maybe you visited the zoo often as a kid and were always reading books about animals and nature. Now, as you prepare to go to college, you’ve taken many science classes and know that you want to go into conservation and environmental studies.


Your personal story doesn’t have to be particularly unique. Don’t worry that you’re not special or that you’re sharing things that people have heard before. What matters most is that you tell a story that’s true to who you are and that you tell it well.


Your writing matters and how you structure your essay matters. If you’ve already done most of the planning, you should be able to assemble a coherent and interesting narrative. You should concern yourself with how accurately you’re portraying yourself, your interests, and your goals. That’s what’s really important in writing your college essays.


Nobody else has the exact same passions you do or the exact same life that you’ve lived. You shouldn’t be afraid to take pride in yourself and your accomplishments. That’s what college essays are for! Writing them is a great opportunity to lay out all your different thoughts and passions and gain greater insight into who you are as a person. When it comes time for you to write, you’ll know what story you want to present, and you’ll also have a better idea of who you are.