Humans gravitate towards narrative. We can’t help it—being attuned to changes and working out a theory of what caused them is a pretty good evolutionary trick. But you can use this predilection to your advantage when applying to college or graduate programs—in a sea of expository personal statements, the one with elements of plot will stand out. James Montoya, former Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Stanford, when asked for advice on the personal statement, said, “1. Answer the question...2. Tell a story, 3. Tell a story only you can tell.”
1. Focus on change
What do I mean by narrative? I generally mean any description of internal changes—often changes driven by a challenge you faced. I also mean selectively using a few of the elements of narrative prose: scene-setting, dialogue, and depictions of action and internal reaction. Your personal statement should, if possible, tell the story of a change you went through, employing some of these elements. The change need not be complete; it could still be largely aspirational. On that note, don’t shy away from describing a challenge just because you don’t think you succeeded in facing it. Introspection about your internal development in response to external events is what counts. If you can say why and how you would approach the same challenge differently if you faced it again, you might have a great essay on your hands.
2. Mix in other elements
One general structure that works well is to open and close with narrative. In between, you can analyze the tension you set up via the narrative, talk about why that tension or problem is important or interesting to you, or analogize to similar problems in other fields. The best college admissions essay I wrote was about a particular race against my best friend. This essay started and ended with the race and in between I described our friendship, my competitiveness, what I loved about running, etc. You can do the same, selectively employing narrative while also demonstrating your ability to analyze arguments and make connections between seemingly disparate topics.
3. Write the essay that moves you
This is more general advice, but write the essay you are most excited to write, especially when you have a choice of prompts as you do on the Common Application. Do a structured brainstorm to find strong possible topics; match those topics to the prompts, and choose the prompt that best allows you to answer the topic you’re most drawn to. If you can use narrative techniques in your answer, so much the better. Looking at the Common Application’s questions for 2017-2018, a few obvious questions on which you can employ narrative stick out:
- The “challenge, setback, or failure” question
- The “questioned or challenged a belief or idea” question
- The “period of personal growth” question
- The “problem you’ve solved or would like to solve” question
In fact, the only common application question where narrative is almost entirely out of place is the “idea or topic that makes you lose all track of time” question. Here’s one question where detailing just how the spaghetti slipped off your raised fork as, unheedingly, you unlocked the mysteries of quantum mechanics is probably not the right strategy. If you really know your stuff on a particular discipline (and, crucially, you can describe it in a way that makes sense to a smart reader who nevertheless is unfamiliar with the topic), then I would probably ditch narrative in favor of spending more time with the ideas themselves. In most other situations, however, focusing on an internal change and the external forces that caused it is a good way to show your self-awareness, while writing an essay that is memorable.
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