“Telling Your Story: Writing
Powerful College Essays: Ten Tips”
Rebecca Joseph, PhD
Iphone/Google App: All College
To get us started
1. Please write down three reasons why personal
statements can help you get admitted to college and to
receive huge amounts of free money.
2. Please tell me why admissions officers may get
sooooooooooooo bored reading many personal
3. What unique stories do you think you can tell an
admissions office about you to help you get into your
dream college and/or receive a merit scholarship?
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, culture, connections, talents, and
How Much Do College Admissions Essays Matter?
“How Much Do College Admissions Essays Matter”, USA Today.
"It's not a substitute for a rigorous curriculum, good grades and evidence that you're
going to do well," Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American
Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers said.
Still, the essay can make a difference.
The 10% rule: "If you have 18- or 20,000 applicants, for some of those students, the
essay makes a huge difference, both positively and negatively," says admissions dean at
the University of Virginia, where admissions counselors read every essay looking for
the student's voice.
Even the University of Texas which receives more than 250,000 applications per year
reads two essays per students as well as an optional resume.
The first challenge for the writer: picking a topic.
Any topic can work — or fail.
"It shouldn't be an essay about community service. It should be about a moment of
time," a college admissions officer said. "Start writing an essay about John who you met
at a homeless shelter who talked to you about his life. Like any piece of good writing,
then you're going to make that come alive.
The biggest problem for students, he said, is starting with too wide a focus. "By the time
they get to the details, they run out of space," he said. "I'm all for cutting to the chase."
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.
Essays = opportunity
Take control over the highest ranked non-academic aspect of
Realize the package of essays counts…not just one
Share their voice
Empower students to take ownership of their stories
Express who they really are
Show (not tell) stories that belong only to them and help
them jump off the page
Reflect on their growth and development, including
accomplishments and service
Seek to understand what the admission officer is looking for
Four Major Application Types:
1. The Common Application
Many private and some public American use the centralized
Common Application with their own supplements
It will go live August 1.
More than 550 colleges on this application
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
250-650 words –actual limit as you upload it.
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 learn?
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.
The Common Application leaves room for 10 activities with 150 characters to describe your leadership
The Common Application allows you to add additional information. Accepts up to 650 words.
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.
Common Application Supplements
Some long– U Penn, U Chicago (300-650 words)
Some small— Columbia, Brown
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.
Application Will Open August 1
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
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
University of Texas Essay Tips
Don’t tell us what you think we want to hear. The university’s essay readers don’t have a perfect essay in mind –
as a matter of fact essays that sound like all the rest of them – the essay that is expected – is more likely to be
Be yourself. Show us what makes you unique, how you’ve dealt with issues and problems, what you think about the
topic at hand. Good writing teachers tell their students to write about what they know. That’s good advice for college
Use a natural voice and style. Although it’s always important to use proper grammar, spelling, punctuation,
diction, etc., don’t write to try to impress anyone. Use words and a style that are appropriate for the topic you’re writing
about, for someone your age, and for someone who’s trying to communicate clearly and logically.
Don’t be overly informal either. Your essay will be read by an adult professional. In almost all cases, you should
avoid using words or phrases that you might use when texting someone or on a social networking site.
Develop your ideas. Although the length of your essay alone technically doesn’t matter, developing your ideas
completely does matter. If you can do that in a single page of text, that’s good; but if it takes you three pages or so, that’s
alright, too (as long as you’re not just adding words to make your essay longer). It’s not realistic to assume that you can
clearly communicate your unique perspective about anything in a short paragraph or two.
Organize your thoughts. All good writing has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That doesn’t mean you should be
formulaic in your writing (this isn’t a high school exit exam), but you should introduce your idea, provide interesting
examples and details in support of your idea, and come to some sort of conclusion at the end.
Don’t respond to the prompt as though you’re answering a question. Again, we don’t have a perfect essay in
mind. The prompt is supposed to get your mind churning, to make you want to tell us what you think about something
that’s important to you. Your essay is your opportunity to do that.
Four Major Application Types:
3. Private college specific applications
Fewer and fewer major private universities are not on the
But there are still holdouts.
Georgetown and MIT to name a view.
Make sure you don’t write unnecessary essays as
Georgetown essays are like The Common Application.
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.
Develop A Master Chart
Tip 3. Keep a chart of all essays required by each
college, including short responses and optional
essays. 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
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
Be prepared to move essays around.
Sherlyn used her first Common App essay when schools
allowed her Guacamole essay as another long. They
became her two UT essays.
With Stanford-She used Guacamole to Common App long
and used other shorter topics for their shorts
Where to Begin: Brainstorm
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.
Look or think about your resume…
Next to three of your listings, provide the traits you believe this activity helps
you show explicitly or implicitly to a college. Examples…empathetic, resilient,
determined, collaborative, creative, insightful, analytic, etc.
Add a story or key example to help us understand your leadership and initiative
with one listing.
If you don’t have a resume, look at Florisel’s and star the items you want to
know more about. Now add three items you would add to your resume and
follow the steps above.
Three Shorts- What Qualities Does Each Reveal?
Read the three sample shorts. What qualities do they reveal about each writer?
I spent the year tutoring 45 students whose test scores did not meet the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) standards set by the state. Throughout
the year, I spent the time playing word games and math games with the kids, while secretly trying to find the secret to winning those games.
My time spent at Hoffman-Boston was such an amazing experience, but it was anything but easy. There were days when the students were
frustrated, and even days when I was discouraged. But I never gave up on them. I always came back the next Tuesday, ready to show them
addition and subtraction tricks I had up my sleeve. When they took their tests in May, 43 of the 45 students met the standards that they did
not meet the year before. Upon being recognized by the county for my volunteer work, I realized how much we were helping these kids. On a
larger scale, I realized how much I cared about the well-being of the students in the public school system. My work with these kids paralleled
my desire to excel at the hidden pictures. Those pictures, hidden within the contour of the portrait, mirrored the potential of these kids, many
of whom lived in single parent families, to push themselves and succeed.
A long line of little ducklings dawdles behind me. I begin singing Five Little Ducklings and they all follow with their own individual adorable
dances. The two year old children then toss pieces of bread into the pond, and I watch in awe as real baby ducks come trailing along towards
the kids. One duck is a little too friendly to one child, so being the mother goose I shoo away the duck and comfort my anxious duckling. The
kids I work with at the Westside Children’s Center for children coming from low income backgrounds are my heart and soul. Their well-being is
linked into mine and I can’t help but grow attached to each group of children I work with each summer. Their ability to grow emotionally and
mentally amazes me, and I love to watch their daily and weekly and even yearly individual and community transitions. As much as I wish I
could help out year round, I know my little ducklings go off on their own separate paths, but they will always leave an imprint in my heart.
Fast food restaurants have become a part of my memory of East L.A. I never noticed that every block I walked by had at least one liquor store.
Moms buying chips for their children as prizes for good grades or as a way to quiet them so they wouldn’t annoy people with their cries are a
common sight of my community. These liquor stores represent the many obstacles Latino families have in order to achieve a better life. The
irony behind their arduous struggle to cross borders and give their families a better life is hampered when the indecent and poor availability of
fresh food damages their health and leads to the generalization that Latinos are vulnerable to cardiovascular diseases. My internship last
summer with UCLA Center for Population Health and Health Disparities this past summer gave me the chance to change those statistics. The
internship consisted of being outdoors and indoors. In the morning I would plan promotion and use social marketing skills. In the afternoons, I
along with other students broke concrete on the hottest days of July and August, sweating and getting sored from using hand tools. I was
transforming one of the beer invaded stores into a store that would offer fresh fruits and vegetables and now is also offering exotic fruits and
spices. None the less the renewable energy class I took the previous summer influenced my perception of the ecological issues my world faced.
Reading A Set: Sherlynn’s Yale Essays
As we read each one-tell me the different qualities the
essays share with Yale
1. Think of three traits or experiences or stories you didn’t list that could
lead to a great long essay. I always believe something you do should be
embedded in it somehow. Living in two worlds---urban neighborhood
and elite private school. Growing up on a cattle farm yet being a
vegetarian committed to public health and healthy living.
2. Which activities or experiences can connect to them?
Stuck…here some tips to get you pick possible topics
1. Read through Dr. Joseph’s tips for
brainstorming. They include
1. Starting by writing three short activity statements
2. Reading model essays from actual college websites
3. Looking at other college’s essay prompts-U Chicago, Tufts
4. Writing a “Where I’m From” piece
5. Creating a letter to future roommate or an amazing list of
what makes you you.
6. Looking at 5 top FB and Instagram Pictures
7. Reading models from other scholars
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
It’s the way the reader can lead the reader into the piece—images, examples, context.
The 1,200-degree scorching coals surprisingly left no imprint upon my soles. There were just the
hundreds of tiny embers glowing on the ground and the fire department on alert at the opposite end. I
had just walked on fire.
I was weak and exhausted. During the day we would protest across from the Armenian Embassy in
Glendale. We would hold up signs, posters, and banners. We passed out fliers to oncoming traffic.
Twenty seven fellow protesters and I chained ourselves together and put tape over our mouths to
symbolize our hunger, our deep hunger for change, and yes, for food. We slept outside on wet grass
having sprinklers turn on us every night at 2:30 a.m. Every morning, we cleaned up in a restaurant,
and the smell and sight of the food tested me. But when I felt doubts arise, I would remember my
great-grandfather who barely survived the Armenian genocide. For months, he had little food or water
and had to go on a death march which few survived. If he could make it through those conditions, I
knew I could make it through this week. And I did.
“We have great crack.” Four short words that forever changed the way I viewed public speaking.
What happened…quickly…yet clearly with weaving of story and personal analysis
Make sure we see your leadership, initiative, development, and initiative
Specific focus on the student
Great summarizing, details, and images at same time
Last year, I volunteered as a Confirmation leader at St. Raphael’s Church in South Los Angeles . St. Raphael’s is like a
home to me and I basically grew up in those old, moldy pews. Brian proved to be the biggest challenge I faced that year.
We had a long history together. We were in the same class at grade school until sixth grade when he was held back. I
hadn’t seen him since I graduated 8th grade and went to an all girls’ school, and now here we are sitting in class every
Sunday morning, me as a teacher and him as my favorite student. Throughout the year, dare after dare, he tried
everything he could to push my buttons. He sought out fights, cursed, and even called me a n****r but I didn’t give up. I
quietly disregarded his statements and moved on. I would not let Brian and his derogatory comments break me. His
dreadful behavior lasted until after our retreat.
As a child, I viewed my lack of understanding of the English language as temporary obstacle; as an adult, my mom’s
grasp of the English language was a limitation—impaired communication was knowing what you wanted to say but
being unable to articulate it. As my grasp of the English language grew to surpass my mom’s, I would often receive
phone calls from her at work in which she would ask me the meaning of an English word or ask me to translate a word
from Spanish to English so she could use it. My mom taught me not only to appreciate and take advantage of every
opportunity presented, but also to use my skills to help others. At the time a seemingly insignificant moment, when a
non-English-speaking man at Barnes and Noble wanted to put a book on hold but did not know how to tell the cashier, I
translated for him; it is because of my mom that I discovered the joy of helping others.
Ending that evokes key characteristics
If the friendships found in mixed cultures can be so strong, so influencing as to,
say, bring success in a most challenging class, or make memorable nights with a
best friend, why not overlook the differences in details and embrace them?
There is great power in bringing people together; I’d like to make it happen
and, from there, see it blossom into something powerful.
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 possible.
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.
Looking at Makshya’s Letter to a Roommate:
Write down a list of at least five unique things that you’d
want a roommate to know about you
Edit Using Probing Questions
Does your essay start with a story that hooks us in from the first
If you start in the past, do you get to the present very quickly?
Colleges want to know about the recent you. Great essays can start
more recently and weave in past events.
Do you write only in the first person and not spend too much time
describing anyone or anything else? Use my one-third-two-third
rule. You may not spend more than 1/3 of the essay describing
anything other than your own activities and goals.
If you are writing about your community or family, do you get to the
present and your life and life works quickly? Can this description
only connect to you and your story of who are you and how you are
making a difference?
Do you only tell one story and not try to tell your entire life story?
If you are writing about an obstacle or challenge overcome, do you get to how you
have responded and made a difference in the life of your community by the second
or third paragraph of the essay? Admissions officers want to know who are you and
how you make an impact drawing upon your obstacles or challenges.
Do you have a metaphor that goes through the entire piece…does this metaphor
reveal who you are and what you offer to potential colleges? You can embed this
metaphor throughout out your piece.
Can I close my eyes and picture your story? Does it make you sound unique and not
like anyone else applying? Can I see your leadership and initiative and the power of
what you will offer a college campus?
Do you tell new stories and qualities in each separate essay your write? Do you
make sure to reveal powerful information and core messages that colleges will need
to know to admit you and give you money to attend?
Endings-Do you end with a bang? Do you make it clear by the end you have goals
and aspirations that drive you. Your endings must be specific for some prompts like
the University of California and University of Texas, but can be more oblique and
implied in Common Application and many supplementary essays. Do you end
leaving the reader with the desire to get to know you more, to see you on his or her
campus, and to share your essay with someone else?
Brainstorming and Drafting Time
Take the next 15-30 minutes to
a. to work on the beginning of a long essay
b. list 3 new out of the box essay topics
c. meet briefly with Dr. J
d. create a dropbox and share it with Dr. J at
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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