College Application Essay Narrative Topics

Tell my story? Fine, but how?

The common advice to "tell your story" has probably been around as long as the admission essay itself. But since when have high school students been afforded the time and feedback to practice telling their stories? And how are you supposed to approach this advice? What parts of your story are you supposed to share in your college essay, how, and why?

When I left teaching high school English a little more than two years ago, the curriculum even then was too packed with everyday academic concerns and standardized testing preparation to invite seniors to practice personal narrative with the same level of structured feedback that they received for academic writing. I have heard from high school teachers that this condition has only intensified since the rollout of the Common Core.

The five-paragraph essays and thesis statements they are accustomed to writing for class do students little good in personal writing, including on their college applications. These are inventions designed for American students to practice national conventions of argumentation—despite the fact that expectations for academic writing change from high school to college. Yet they are what high school students have to work with when put on the spot in their college applications.

In a way the college admission game is a standardized assessment, but it differs in that students are suddenly supposed to write not academically but personally. Given this lack of training in personal writing and the stresses of college admission, it’s important that students find a structured yet creative way to tell their own stories when dealing with low word counts.

So here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Only you, the student, can determine what is worth writing about. While family may have suggestions, it’s ultimately your story to tell and how.
  • In personal writing, there is no need to justify why you are writing about one thing or another. This is the academic habit of proving a thesis. When it seeps into personal writing, it limits the creative potential of the personal essay.
  • Choose one or two narrative moments and tell them in the moment. These moments are representative of your story.
  • It’s important to accept that any story you attempt to tell will necessarily be incomplete. Avoid the temptation of recounting your memory “exactly” as you remember it. Rather, remember that you are being assessed on the quality of your personal essay, not the quality of your memory. So use the memory as a starting point for the essay, but make sure you end up with a narrative that stands solidly and creatively on its own.
  • Try free writing without a prompt and without worrying about the word count—at least at first. A narrative will likely suit at least two of your college’s prompts.

The college personal statement is a strange beast. To my knowledge, college applicants are the only personal essayists who have to write about themselves because someone else expects them to and because big stakes are riding on it. From the birth of the personal essay—typically traced to Michel de Montaigne in the 16th century—the tradition of the genre is self-exploration and discovery, the personal somehow tied to universally human concerns, driven by the curiosity to know more about both. Yet this American rite of passage has given rise to a peculiar kind of de facto national literature.

In short, despite students’ ever-intensifying pressures, schedules, and responsibilities, I hope that by engaging with the genre of the personal essay, students can write for themselves with this sense of curiosity—first, for themselves.

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Students prepare for applying to selective colleges by taking rigorous courses, participating in extracurricular activities, studying for standardized tests, and more. All of this preparation, however, can distract attention from one of the most notorious sections of the college application: the essays.

The essay is both the most and the least visible part of the competitive admissions process. Everyone knows that the essay is critical, but few actually get to see what “successful” essays look like. Some online resources, like The College Board, post examples of college application essays, but they often lack the necessary context for a reader to truly assess how accurately that essay conveys a student’s personality and interests.

When choosing a topic for an essay, students need to consider what the essay prompt is asking, the universities to which they’re applying, their goals, and, ultimately, what the essay says about them as a student and as a person.

Why the Essay Matters

Before you can choose a compelling essay topic, you first need to understand why there’s an essay in the first place. When evaluating college applications, most colleges use a “reading rubric” to evaluate the different components of each application. Aside from the “hard factors,” like grades, GPA, and test scores, colleges also look at the “soft factors,” such as extracurriculars, recommendation letters, demonstrated interests, and essays. The point of evaluating all these factors is to enable colleges to holistically build a well-rounded class of specialists. The essay (or essays) is a great way to learn more about an applicant, her motivations, life experiences, and how she can contribute to the campus community.

According to NACAC, 83 percent of colleges assign some level of importance to the application essay, and it’s usually the most important “soft factor” that colleges consider. The essay is important because it gives students the chance to showcase their writing and tell the college something new. It also allows admissions officers to learn more about students and gain insight into their experiences that other parts of the application do not provide. Just like any other admissions factor, a stellar essay isn’t going to guarantee admission, but students do need to craft compelling and thoughtful essays in order to avoid the “no” pile.

Related: How a Great College Essay Can Make You Stand Out

Types of Essays

Let’s talk about the different types of essays that a college may require applicants to submit. Over 500 colleges and universities use the Common Application, which has one required essay, called the personal statement. There are five new prompts to choose from, and this essay can be used for multiple colleges.

Related: Why I Love the New Common Application Essay Prompts

Beyond the Common Application essay, many colleges also have supplements that ask additional, university-specific questions which applicants must respond to with shorter-form essays. While topics vary from supplement to supplement, there are a few standard essay formats that many colleges use:

Personal Statement

This is the most common essay and is used for the main Common Application essay. In this essay, the applicant talks about a meaningful life experience that helped shape who she is today. The book “Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting into College” has a great section on the personal statement and how students can craft effective essays.

“Why This College?” Essay

Many colleges, including Columbia University and Duke University, use the supplement to ask applicants to explain why they have chosen to apply to this particular college. In this essay, students need to be detailed and offer specific examples for wanting to attend this school. Not only does it help students reiterate their passions, it also serves as a gauge for demonstrated interest and a vehicle for students to better articulate how they will contribute to the campus environment.

Activity Essay

In this essay, students write about an extracurricular activity or community service project that was especially meaningful to them. This essay was previously on the standard Common Application, but was removed starting in the 2014–15 application season. Instead, some colleges, like Georgetown University, choose to include a variation of this essay among their supplements by asking students to discuss an activity and its significance to their life or course of study. In this essay, students should choose an activity they’re most passionate about and include details about how they expect to continue this activity at the particular college.

Related: Using Your High School Internship as Inspiration for Your College Essay

Quick Takes

In an effort to challenge students to think creatively, some colleges include short, “quick take” prompts that require only a few words or sentences for the response. Some examples include University of Southern California’s “What’s the greatest invention of all time?” and University of Maryland’s sentence completion prompts like “My favorite thing about last Wednesday…”

What NOT to Write About

In order to stand out, it’s important to realize that there are a number of essay topics that are cliché and overused. Avoid writing about things like scoring the winning goal, topics of public consciousness like natural disasters, or something that happened to you in middle school. Also, avoid gimmicks like writing in a different language, presenting your essay as a poem, or anything else that is stylistically “out of the box.” Your focus should be on the message rather than the presentation.

It’s also important to avoid inappropriate or uncomfortable topics. Some students choose to write about things like sex or romantic relationships in order to stand out; yet, these topics fail to add substance or depth to an application. There’s a fine line between interesting and trite — don’t stand out for the wrong reasons.

Successful Essay Topics

A successful essay will reveal something about you that the admissions reader may not have already known, and will show how you interact with family and friends and demonstrate your beliefs or explore your passions. This doesn’t mean you have to regurgitate your resume — in fact, you definitely shouldn’t.

For example, a student whose number one extracurricular activity is swimming should not write an essay about “the big meet.” Instead, she could explore a more personal topic, such as something she is learning in class that conflicts with her religious beliefs. She can discuss the intersection of religion and education in her life and how she reconciled the differences — or didn’t.

A great essay also provides readers with a vivid picture. When crafting an essay, think of it as offering admissions readers a window into a certain event or story. Focus on the most meaningful moments, not the irrelevant background details.

For example, a student once wrote an essay about feeling out of place culturally during an internship. Instead of giving a general description of the internship and his conflicts, he opened the essay with a vivid description of what he saw when he first arrived, and used this scene to frame the feelings of alienation he underwent — giving the reader a striking image of his experience in great detail.

Remember, your college application essay is about you. There’s a lot of pressure to be “unique” and “interesting,” but at the end of the day, the key to standing out is to just be yourself. Admissions officers can tell when students are embellishing or being insincere in their essays, so it’s best to keep it simple and tell a story about you and the person you are today. In the end, with careful planning, research, and a thoughtful essay, you’ll get into the best-fit college for you!

For further guidance and examples, check out Noodle's collection of expert advice about college essays.

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