Along with time at the lake, a job at Bahama Bucks, and mornings spent sleeping in, the college essay is the often a fixture of summer for rising seniors. Many students, however, run into a mental wall shortly after starting. What sort of topics are best to write about? How can I make my writing hold the reader’s attention while showcasing the types of qualities that will support a competitive application? How do I keep the essay from sounding braggy?
Writing the college essay is often the first time students are confronted with the task of writing a personal narrative. It’s an essay unlike anything they’ve written in school thus far, and if students try to approach it like an essay they would write for English class, there’s a good chance they will submit something rather mediocre. We wanted to start your summer off right by putting together a bunch of FREE resources your student can use to write a compelling personal narrative that strengthens their application instead of dragging it down.
What’s a personal narrative?
First, let’s define a personal narrative. A narrative is a fancy literary term for story. Your college essay is a personal story. A well-written personal narrative has focus and uses one story from the student’s life, allowing room or a deep dive so the reader can understand more of the student’s nuances and complexities.
What does a strong personal narrative with focus and complexity look like?
Great question. Example here, and here, and here. Oh, and try this one on for good measure.
Ok, so where do I start?
My best advice? Go sit at the top of a mountain for an hour and think about who you are. Want something more practical? Use this values exercise to clarify what matters to you most as a person. There are a couple pieces of advice that if you do nothing else for your college essay I’d want you to do these things:
Which prompt do I choose?
Want to hear something crazy? My students don’t write to prompts (at least at first). I tell them to just write me a essay that tells me a story from their lives that teaches me something important about who they are. That’s it. That’s the heart and soul of the personal narrative anyway. Don’t limit your thinking by introducing a prompt prematurely. Also ignore word counts until the editing phase.
Once the first draft is done, then go back and see which prompt it best aligns with from the Common App and Apply Texas.
Struggling? Just write. Put pen to paper or fingers to keys or even voice to recorder if you think aloud like I do and let the story flow, perhaps in a stream-of-consciousness the first time to see what’s there, perhaps in something a little more formed, but either way, just write.
Ready to edit? Great. We have some handouts.
First, see if the topic of your essay is falling into one of the categories for things we suggest not to write about. There are exceptions to this, but most students are well-advised to steer clear of the things listed here.
Here are some suggestions on how to turn good writing into great writing. This handout was put together by Wendy Reimann, a professional writer who also partners with us for our essay workshops.
Are your students younger and this is not quite on your radar yet?
Have them keep a summer journal. Journaling is one of the greatest precursors to writing in the style of a personal narrative. Pick up a book of journal prompts from Barnes and Noble (and stop by my favorite place, The Flour Shop, while you are there!). Have your student do three prompts a week, with a paragraph minimum.
Want to run through all of this together? We can do that.
Option 1: Essay workshop (camp focused solely on the college essay)
Option 2: College App Camp (essays + most everything else you need to apply)
After just short of ten years, the Apply Texas prompts changed, all three of them. And that meant some new, interesting, and sort of funky prompts, the funkiest of which is the new Topic C.
Topic C looks like this: “You've got a ticket in your hand - Where will you go? What will you do? What will happen when you get there?”
And many high schoolers reacted like this:
Fear not, we have some ideas to get you started. To begin, brainstorm a list of stuff you need tickets for. Come up with at least FIFTEEN ideas. Why fifteen? Because we want you to move past the stuff everyone else is going to write about. Yes, you need a ticket for a plane to the Bahamas. I can only imagine how many vacation essays the UT Admissions Office is going to read this year… keep thinking.
And thinking. Are you at fifteen yet? Good. See if you can come up with three more (How does that saying go? If it doesn’t challenge you…?). :)
Ok, so you have your list. Think about your most honest answer to the questions in the prompt. Where is it you would go? If, after brainstorming, it truly is the Bahamas, so be it. But beyond that answer is a why question -- why would you go there? What is it you would gain from the experience? How will your life be different after that experience? It's the depth inherent in your choice that's interesting (meaning what your choice says about who you are rather than where it is you will go).
So, next to each answer for where you will go with your hypothetical ticket, write down a few words about why you would go there, and think about what your choice says about you. Then, here’s the trick, move the essay forward. That same big idea about why you would go there? Think about how that idea will influence your life in the future. Where else will that idea take you in the proverbial journey of life?
This isn’t an essay about where you want to go, it’s an essay about who you are.
We are a full-service academic advising and college planning team. We started up shop in 2013 because we are passionate about helping students pursue opportunities for elite higher education. Need help? Want to know more? (972) 755-9507