“Telling Your Story: Ten Tips For
Writing Powerful College Essays
Rebecca Joseph, PhD
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Unique app: All College Application
How important are application essays?
How Important Are Essays?
What do American colleges look for?
2. Rigor of Coursework, School
3. Test Scores
5. Recommendations-Teacher and/or Counselor
6. Activities-Consistency, development, leadership,
7. Special skills, talents, and passions
Tip 1. College essays are fourth in importance
behind grades, test scores, and the rigor of
completed coursework in many admissions office
decisions. Don’t waste this powerful opportunity to
share your voice and express who you really are to
colleges. Great life stories make you jump off the
page and into your match colleges.
A New Paradigm
Tip 2. Develop an overall strategic essay writing
plan. College essays should work together to help
you communicate key qualities and stories not
available anywhere else in your application.
The package of essays counts…not just one.
It’s the message that you communicate along with the power of your stories and
It’s your ability to take the reader into, through, and beyond your stories quickly
Tell stories that belong just to you. That’s why a narrow and powerfully, personal
focus is key.
Four Major Application Types:
1. The Common Application
Many private and some public American use the
centralized Common Application with their own
Most top colleges have supplements with additional
essay requirements. Don’t start writing any essays until
you see all the essays required for your top schools.
1. Common Application Essays
The Common Application: New Prompts! 250-650 words. Paste in.
Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their
application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the
same decision again?
Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and
why is it meaningful to you?
Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to
adulthood within your culture, community, or family..
One Short If Colleges Select it.
150 words-1000 character maximum.
Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences in the
space below or on an attached sheet (150 words or fewer). 1000 character max.
The Common Application leaves room for 10 activities with limited spaced for descriptions.
The Common Application allows you to add additional information. Only use this for truly exceptional needs to share more
They range from one line to 500 words. Some schools have one, while other have three. They can overlap. If it says optional,
view it as mandatory.
Four Major Application Types:
2. Large Public Universities
Many large and most prominent public universities
have their own applications.
Universities of Arizona, California, Indiana, Maryland, Oregon,
Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin—to name just some
They each have different essay requirements.
They each have your report activities in a different way.
But there are ways to use your other essays here as well.
They have their own essays. You should gather their topics
and look for ways to use your common application essay as one
of your essays for the public colleges, and visa-versa.
Respond to both prompts, using a maximum of 1,000 words total.
You may allocate the word count as you wish. If you choose to respond to one
prompt at greater length, we suggest your shorter answer be no less than 250
You must stay within the 1,000 word count.
Prompt #1 (freshman applicants)-[Outside-In]
Describe the world you come from – for example, your family, community or
school – and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
Prompt #2 (all applicants) [Inside-Out]
Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or
experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment
makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are
Four Major Application Types:
3. Private college specific applications
Fewer and fewer major private universities are not on the common
But there are still holdouts.
Georgetown, Tulane, and MIT to name a few
Georgetown and Tulane have a long essay and one short. Use your
common application essays. Georgetown has a why Georgetown essay
also. Tulane’s Why Tulane is optional (But nothing is optional).
MIT has several 300 word essays.
Four Major Application Types:
4. Other systems
Some large public systems have their own
applications which do not require long, if any essays.
Yet their applications for financial aid or academic
support programs add in those requirements.
Washington State, for example, several short essays
which they share with other state systems.
The Universal Application is another system. It has
fewer colleges on it than The Common Application so
only use it if two or more of your colleges use it.
Develop A Master Chart
Tip 3. Keep a chart of all essays required by each
college, including short responses and optional
essays. Never start an application for a college
without knowing all the essays you must write. View
each essay or short response as a chance to tell a new
story and to share your core qualities.
I recommend three sheets.
1. Major deadlines and needs. Break it down by the four application types
2. Core essays-Color code all the similar or overlapping essays.
3. Supplemental essays. Each college has extra requirements on the common
application. Again color code similar types: Why are you a good match for us? How will
you add to the diversity of our campus?
Write the Fewest Yet Most Effective Essays…
Tip 4. Look for patterns between colleges essay
requirements so that you can find ways to use essays
more than once. This holds true for scholarship
UC 1 or 2=Common Long with Short 1
Then for example, you could use the other long for U Texas
or Yale’s supplement. Then Use Short 2
We can have different versions of the Common Application.
So we will need two to three shorts.
Where to Begin: Core Qualities
Tip 5. Plan to share positive messages and powerful outcomes. You can start with life or family
challenges. You can describe obstacles you have overcome. You can reflect on your growth and
development, including accomplishments and service. College admissions officers do not read minds,
so tell them your powerful life stories. Some states can use only socio-economic status, but not race, in
admissions, but in your essays, your voice and background can emerge.
On the back of your student sheet, think of three to five of your activities that truly stand out.
Brainstorming. Think of your resume. Think of your FW #1
Write down five of your during school year and summer activities. You can also include unique family features or your hobbies or unusual
Write down the traits you believe you show explicitly or implicitly to a college
Examples…empathetic, resilient, determined, collaborative, creative, insightful, analytic, etc.
Thinking of these two lists, what possible essay topics might you like to write? The more out of the box the better.
Great link: Essays that Worked: Connecticut
As we read the following sets of essays, I want you
see how the pieces complement each other. I want
you to identify the core qualities each student
offers a college
The rain felt like needles pricking at my skin, causing
me to wish I could have had an extra layer of
clothing. But what could have an extra layer of
clothing done? Not much since further ahead it
would have been damped and heavy. I always wished
for marathons to be on cloudy and rainy days so the
heat wouldn’t cause the runs to be harder. A year ago
during the LA Marathon, I got more than I wished
for. It poured heavily.
But this time, I wasn’t running for myself; I was running
with the five middle school students I had trained for the
past eight months. I started off the race running alongside
the coach and a student who wanted to be sure she would
have a good pace to finish. Surprisingly, by the second mile,
she had already started to speed up, and I asked her if she
would like to run ahead. The enthusiastic look in her eyes
shone through like a ray of light; she was hopeful that by
running ahead she could beat the time people expected of
her. As both of us continued on towards the fourth mile, the
rain became heavier and the chilly wind grew fierce. The
only way we could try to battle the cold and try to keep our
bodies warm was to run faster and longer.
Little by little we managed to run the magnificent “From
the Stadium to the Sea” course. It was my fourth time
running the L.A. Marathon and second time running the
course. To my benefit and disgrace knowing the path
helped and hurt me--I knew how far we were from the
finish line, the hills, streets, and places. That made the
temptation to stop when I felt sleepy and exhausted great
just like the temptation to run ahead when I had energy,
but I was aware that my partner was going to need help and
encouragement in those last and arduous miles. With her I
was able to give back the support I received in my first
marathon, and deep inside I was grateful for the
As we headed to Rodeo Drive a sudden rush of energy came over me.
The view of the stores and their elegance made me remember that the
marathon represented my struggle to achieve a better life for myself
and the people I loved. I remembered that I had my family standing in
the cold and harsh rain trying to stay dry under the umbrellas whose
flaps were weak against that ocean wind.
Remembering all this carried me through when I hit the wall on mile
22. The energy I had felt before was leaving my grasp. I felt that that
was as far as I could go. My partner had become exhausted and our
walking pace had become slower. We had met three other students who
were struggling to continue, one of them was starting to get the chills,
while another had cramps; it was at that moment that my real fear
began. I was scared that they might collapse and that I wouldn’t be able
to help them. All I could think of was to accommodate the pace to their
needs without letting them give up on running at least a little.
All five of us completed the 2011 Los Angeles
Marathon on the rainiest and coldest day we ever
experienced. My greatest accomplishment was to
help students achieve the goals they thought
impossible to complete. I learned that I have the
strength and character to accomplish and succeed,
and that though the road may not be easy, it is
Which essays topic sound interesting?
1. Riding the bus to work.
2. Overcoming a bad sophomore year.
3. Balancing acting and costume design while on skates
4. Going between a tradition (sexist) Chinese father and
liberal (feminist) Chinese mother
5. Losing a girlfriend or boyfriend.
6. Playing the cello in the band.
7. Swimming with sharks.
8. Doing play by play for a radio station that no one can
9. Visiting an old age home.
FW #2: Think of a story…
Describe a story related to one of your activities or
passions or family features or your personality. Be as
descriptive with images and active language as
1st person only.
Tip 6. Always write in the first person. Remember,
these are autobiographical essays, even when you
talk about other people. Remember the colleges are
looking to accept you, not your relatives. So use the
one third and two thirds rule. If you choose to write
about someone or something else, you must show
how it affected you for the majority of the essay. Your
essays show colleges why you belong on college
campuses and share how you will enrich diverse
Into, Through, and Beyond Essay Approach
Tip 7. Follow Dr. Joseph’s Into, Through, and Beyond approach.
Lead the reader INTO your story with a powerful beginning—a
story, an experience. Take them THROUGH your story with the
context and keys parts of your story. Make sure the reader
understands your initiative, leadership, development, and
continuity. End with the BEYOND message about how this
story has affected who you are now and who you want to be in
college and potentially after college. The beyond can be implied
in many pieces that are so strong that moralizing at the end if
It is not just the story that counts.
It’s the choice of qualities a student wants the college to know
Take the Time With These Essays
Tip 8. Use active writing: avoid passive sentences and
incorporate power verbs. Show when possible; tell
Tip 9. Have trusted inside and impartial outside
readers read your essays. Make sure you have no
spelling or grammatical errors.
So here are some creative ways to help high school seniors get started with writing active, engaging
essays that truly communicate their stories to admissions officers.
Write your resume. Include everything you can from high school. Categorize your activities,
community service, work, internships, athletics, arts, and more. Include descriptions of your leadership
and initiative. Maybe in writing the resume you will remember some key event or story that will turn into
a great application essay.
Start first with three short activity paragraphs. In writing them, make them as interesting and
exciting as possible. Start with a story. Keep them to 1000 characters. Maybe one of these can turn into a
long. Shorts are easier to throw away than longs and very useful for the Common Application and
supplemental essays. None will ever go to waste.
Write a list of your most quirky features. I love Stanford and BU’s supplemental Letter to Your
Future Roommate. These letters are often so much more interesting than the other essays. Makshya
wrote about her fetish for making lists and provided her list. Every item from her list could turn into a
great essay starter. Samples from her list include: “I have the ability to create and develop different fonts
in my handwriting” and “One of my favorite words is “ubuntu,” which means humanity in Xhosa.” Start
with a list of what makes you, you. Make that will spark an essay topic.
Look at sample essays posted on actual college websites. Connecticut College
(www.conncoll.edu/admission/essays-that-worked.htm) offers great samples. Johns Hopkins
(http://apply.jhu.edu/apply/essays.html) even provides admissions officers’ feedback after each sample
essay. Reading these, you can see the huge range of topics. At least, you can see how they all begin with an
amazing in the moment first paragraph. You can do the same.
Read George Lyon’s “Where I’m From” Poem. http://www.georgeellalyon.com/where.html.
Think of where you are from. Read the poem to get ideas to write your own and start an amazing
Read past and present supplemental essay topics from other colleges. The University of
Chicago has great supplementary essay topics every year. A couple of years ago, one topic was: “It Isn’t
Easy Being Green” by Kermit the Frog. That turned into a great long essay for several kids I know who
never applied to U Chicago. This year’s topics are great as well. Go to
https://collegeadmissions.uchicago.edu/apply/essays/ and read the topics. Tufts also has great
prompts athttp://admissions.tufts.edu/apply/essay-questions/. Perhaps one of these topics will spark
Read sample essays from older kids at your school. But don’t copy. Just get ideas. You need to
truly match your writing and style to the level of school. Admissions officers are begging for gripping,
non-general stories. Give them a gift.
Follow Dr. Joseph’s Into, Through, and Beyond Approach. With your INTO, grab us into the
story with a moment in time. That moment must reveal a core qualify. Then go into two levels of
THROUGH. THROUGH 1 provides the immediate context of the INTO. THROUGH 2 provides the
overall context. End with a BEYOND that is not sappy but powerful. Think of a metaphor that guides
you and weave through your story and into your ending.
Great, great essays can take us through an event and weave in core features. Do not feel
confined by any rules other than to engage and stimulate the admissions officers to see you come to
life before them. And yes, you must grammar edit your essays.
Don’t be bound by five paragraph essays. Your story will guide the form of the essay. You can
use dialogue, quotes, song lyrics, poetry. Let your story and message guide you.
Tip 10. Most importantly, make yourself come alive
throughout this process. Write about yourself as
passionately and powerfully as possible. Be proud of your
life and accomplishments. Sell yourself!!!
Students often need weeks not days to write effective essays. You need to push
You must ultimately submit what pleases you.
Essays cannot be manufactured. They convey truth, unique stories, and writing
Admissions officers can smell “enhanced” essays.
Students have two to five minutes to grab the attention of a essay reader.
You can find many great websites and examples but each student is different.
Admissions officers often say essays make or break an ultimate decision for
students applying to “match colleges.”
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Even though my parents are both Chinese and are from small
cities in Malaysia, their beliefs are nowhere near coherent. A
cursory glance at my father would tell everything about him.
He is a typical Chinese man who is not very tall and most
importantly, he is a traditionalist. My father practices
customs passed down through generations that include strict
filial piety and Confucian ideals. Such a glance does not tell
anything about my mother. Having lived in the United States
for over twenty years, my mother has embraced diversity and
is open to many cultures. Through my experiences with the
two influences, I have been able to accept all kinds of people
while discovering my own unique set of beliefs.
Despite having lived in the United States for my entire life, I
have a reverence for my culture and background. I have
always been immersed in Chinese culture, which has brought
me closer to my heritage. My traditionalist father saw it a
need for me to learn how to write, read, and speak Chinese
and thus, enrolled me in Chinese school. Chinese school not
only taught me to be proficient in a second language but also
allowed me to learn more about Chinese culture. Living in a
world consisting of an eclectic mixture of beliefs, my
adherence to Chinese culture has allowed me to become a
focused and driven student.
Although I am entrenched in Chinese culture, my mother exposed me to a
new world and taught me the necessity of not taking everything as
granted. After my mother married a French man and changed her beliefs,
I initially struggled to integrate to her household. However, my beliefs
changed when I learned much about how Europeans lived and interacted
with one another from double cheek kissing to respecting women as
equals. From my Chinese background, I had lived in a patriarchal society
with men dominating family life. My experiences with a people of
different descent have greatly influenced my view of my world. I began to
adopt a view of women that was very different from that of my father. I
did not see a necessary difference between men and women and now view
women as equal to men. My experiences with my mother’s side of the
family taught me the need to question everything, including my beliefs,
and that I should not be confined to one set of people.
During my junior year, I felt I should learn more about other people and
cultures knowing how little I really knew about other people. In my
school, I founded the Multicultural Acceptance Club, which was a place
where students learned more about other students and their cultures. In
our weekly meetings, we hold potlucks where students bring food from
their culture, which has helped dispel stereotypes people might have
towards others. The club also participated in the school’s international
fair where we sold cultural food and tried to make people aware of the
different cultures that were apparent in out school. After learning so
much about other people, I have nurtured an insatiable interest in history
and the exploration of other cultures.
My experiences with different cultures throughout my
life and the beliefs of my mother and father have
shaped me into a unique person with influences from
both the Oriental and Occidental cultures. From my
father, I recognized the importance of have a strong
foundation with my heritage while from my mother,
the need to accept other beliefs. The qualities that I
acquired from my father and mother changed my
outlook of the world and inspired me to explore and
learn as much as I can from the world around me.