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


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

How to Define a Strong Narrative for Your College Essay

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


What’s Covered



Why Your College Essay Needs a Strong Narrative


One of the most common and successful approaches to writing a college admissions essay is to tell a story about yourself. It engages the reader immediately and shows them how you could fit into their campus community. 


There are two main components of a narrative to consider: the “what” and the “who.” The “what” is about what you are doing right now, including your extracurricular activities, your passions, or your daily life. The “who” is about who you are at a fundamental level and your ethos. The reader wants to be airdropped into your life to learn something more personal about your character and values.


How to Organize Your College Essay as a Narrative


Like all good stories, the narrative of your admissions essay should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.


The Beginning


The beginning should be about your “what.” This backstory and timeline will serve as the basis for your introduction.  


For some people, finding the “what” is easy. Incredible one-time experiences, such as running a marathon for charity or going on a two-month, off-the-grid camping trip, conveniently provide the foundation of their narrative. 


We all have incredible stories, however. Even without an extraordinary experience, you can write an amazing narrative that tells the story of who you are. 


If you are stuck, it can be helpful to have close family and friends write down what they think that you are passionate about in categories like academics, athletics, civic issues, faith, or your daily life. 


Once a common theme appears, it becomes something that could make a good essay topic. Then, develop the timeline. When did you become interested in these things, and why? Was there an event that sparked your interest, or is this something ingrained in your background? 


Maybe something that began as a volunteer opportunity grew into an internship and now is what you want to study in college. That would be considered a specific event. Alternatively, maybe you have Irish heritage and spent a year studying abroad. Although that is not a specific event, it is still clearly fundamental to your life. 


The Middle


The middle should center on your growth and ethos. It’s an opportunity to talk about how you view the world and what you believe in as it relates to the passion that you have established. 


For example, perhaps your spirituality motivates you to excel in your passion project. Maybe you love watching television shows because it helps you reflect on the world, and that contributes to your desire to study film. 

This part of your essay is particularly important. Even if your passions and interests are typical, your ethos is unique and the key aspect of your essay that sets you apart.


The End


Once you have decided what you are passionate about, developed a timeline of growth, and explained the connection to your ethos, the end should be about the future. 


How is everything that you have explained going to impact your college career? You want to explain how this will inform your college experience.


Since your essay will likely be sent to multiple schools, this portion should remain broad. Think about where you envision yourself in five years, regardless of the school that you attend. By discussing those goals instead of college-specific aspirations, your narrative will remain genuine and widely applicable. 


If you are still stuck, check out these articles for more ideas: “50 Engaging Narrative Essay Topics for High Schoolers” and “19 Stellar Common App Essay Examples to Inspire Your College Essay.”