Narrative: Go to the ‘Module 14 – Narrative: Essay Writing Notes’ page of your narrative document to make note of what resonates with you in this lesson. You will refer to your notes in the next lesson when you finalize your essay writing strategy.

Lesson:The Writing Process. There are a variety of essays you may write to submit to colleges and scholarship providers. Many public universities only require a 250-word autobiographical essay or personal statement. The Common Application prompts allow you to choose from 5 writing prompts for submitting a 650-word essay response. Do not take for granted this extraordinary opportunity of crafting 250 – 650 words into telling your story. Admissions officers want to know your story, and having the responsibility for reading hundreds if not thousands of essays, you must capture their attention in the first paragraph of your essay. You must make them want to continue reading your essay, as you engage them in your story.


In the video, Loren and Sam talk about the challenges of the essay writing process. Interestingly, their respective journeys provide insight into the common frustrations experienced by students during the writing and review process. Sam shares how he became frustrated with the review process and chose to submit a poorly written essay. In another interview he talks about that decision and the ensuring rejection letters that he received from Stanford (where his dad played college basketball), UC Berkeley, and Yale. In contrast, Loren worked through the process all the way until the deadline for submitting his college applications and was offered admission to Carleton and Williams, his top two college choices. Despite Sam’s rejections, his essay did not keep him from being invited to the University of Maryland-Baltimore County Meyerhoff Scholars’ Selection Weekend. Once there, his personality and extraordinary achievements in math and science overcame any deficiencies in his essay. As a result of his stellar academic record and SAT scores, he was also offered admission to Amherst College.

The essay writing process will require you to engage in self-reflection about your life, passions, ambitions, and challenges within the context of the type of colleges and universities to which you will be applying for admission. What story do you need to tell? A story that explains a period of low grades or a story that explains how you overcame unexpected challenges. A story that explains how you dealt with a disability, death of a family member, or the emotional stress of growing up in a dysfunctional family. This is your story, not your mother’s story, or sibling’s story, but what you have dealt with, how you have come through the challenges, and how you have survived the storms of your life. Not only does your essay provide an opportunity to tell your story, share your passions, provide insight into your obstacles, and personalize your application, it can literally tip the scales in your favor—in essence, your essay is your voice in the room. A well-crafted essay has technical, intellectual, and artistic merit, and, provides a college or scholarship provider with insight into you, as a candidate, and a context for evaluating you against other applicants.

Take notes as you review each of the videos and read the reference sources provided in this lesson. Hopefully, your story will reveal itself and you will be well prepared to construct your essay writing strategy in Lesson 2.

Research Activity 1: U.S. News & World Reports reporter, Briana Boyington, in the Video: Learn How to Write a Great College Application Essay: interviews admissions officers from Oberlin College and University of Arizona, and a professional college admissions counselor about what colleges look for in student essays.

  • Video: Watch the 20 minute video, take notes, and attempt to determine the essay approach most suited to your personality, such as humorous, overcoming obstacles, etc.
  • Self-reflection: What advice most resonates with you, such as, “Being the star of your own essay?”

Research Activity 2: Many students are intimidated by the writing process and often struggle with gathering their thoughts to begin the process of writing a personal essay or responding to a writing prompt. Get unstuck by reading the essays of other students.

  • Review: Review essays written by students on the Johns Hopkins University web page, Essays That Worked. 
  • Can you identify an approach that works for you? Review the collection of essays and comments by admissions officers.
  • Choose an Approach: Identify the type of essay through which you feel you would best be able to communicate your story.
  • Following are sample essays from our students that worked for college admissions to selective schools and for being awarded large dollar scholarships:

Kathryn Lasky’s novel, “Lone Wolf,” describes the life of a wolf born with a splayed paw. While all wolves are born deaf and blind, the lone wolf with the sprayed paw, had dubious odds of surviving the harsh wilderness. Forced to leave the pack, the pup was found by a bear who taught him how to survive. She inspire the wolf’s own ingenuity and forced him to use his injured paw in situations that were uncomfortable and by most accounts, unimaginable. Throughout my life, I too, have been a ‘Lone Wolf.’

Click here to read the entire Lone Wolf Essay

While I have always loved learning, it was during my sophomore year of high school thatI discovered my passion for health sciences. My introduction to health sciences was through a class in basic anatomy and physiology. My favorite unit was on the nervous system. I was intrigued by the complexity of the human brain. I was also fascinated with the study of pathophysiology of the brain, including mental health and the stigma associated with mental

Click here to read the entire ADHD Essay

I, like my mother before me, play the clarinet, but I am also Drum Major for the LakeCity High School Marching Band. As a 4 foot 10 inch 98 pound female, each time I step onto the field, I do so as the unlikeliest of Drum Majors. I willingly embrace the responsibility to lead others in the pursuit of perfect synchronicity, despite my desire to play the clarinet. Dr. MartinLuther King, Jr., in his sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct” said that every child is born with the instinctive desire for attention and recognition—to be a Drum Major. However, he cautions us to beware of the potential classism and exclusivism that can develop should we place a greater appreciation on the recognition of being in front of the band, as opposed to being a servant to the band.

Click here to read the entire Drum Major Essay

Reinhold Niebuhn, an American theologian, wrote what has become known as theSerenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” These prophetic words, printed onto a plaque that hangs on the wall in my bedroom were instrumental in my overcoming my own, unique set of life challenges during my junior year of high school.

Click here to read the entire Serenity Prayer Essay

In the book, “Breathing Room,” Susan Elizabeth Phillips writes, “I finally figured out that not every crisis can be managed. As much as we want to keep ourselves safe, we can’t protect ourselves from everything. If we want to embrace life, we also have to embrace chaos.”This quote describes what I have learned from embracing chaos. My family could be considered itinerant; however, not by choice, but by eviction. Through the chaos of never knowing how long we would be staying in a particular place, I learned to always keep my bags packed, school work organized, and not to become attached to a house, community, or friends.

Click here to read the The Breathing Room Essay

“Beep, beep.” I awoke to the sound of my friend’s car horn. Most days I make the hour-long walk to school, however, Robert is giving me a ride to school after another night sleeping on the back porch. Our current two-bedroom apartment is cramped for space with my 19-year-old pregnant sister, her boyfriend, and my mother and her boyfriend—a drug user whose drug of choice is crack cocaine. Nights spent sleeping on the floor, hiding in the closet, and now sleeping on the screened in back porch is becoming more frequent as my mother constantly fights with her latest boyfriend—the one whom she caught lasciviously staring at me and told him, “You can look, but don’t touch.” As I grabbed my backpack and headed to Robert’s car, I was confident that I had all of my homework completed, however, I was concerned about not having adequately prepared for my history exam. Most days, I pack a change of clothes in my backpack, the only way to ensure that my clothes do not have the smell of marijuana. However, on this day, I was not concerned about my clothes being wrinkled or having worn the same clothes for a second day. My concern was my history grade as my hopes and dreams precariously rests on the strength of my high school transcript. College for me is more than an education, it is salvation from a life I long to put behind. It holds the hope of rising from the floor into the comfort of a dormitory room bed. It represents emancipation from a life in poverty, to emergence of opportunity—as my grandmother would say, “a new season.”

Click her to read the entire Beep Beep Essay

Approach 1: Do you have an essay that would lend itself to using the “3S’s” and the “4W’s” approach:

  • The “3S’s” represents a strong opening and strong ending, sandwiched around a sensational story.
  • The “4W’s” require that you use your strong opening, sensational story, and strong ending to tell what happened, what you learned, what you did, and what you are planning to do in the future.

Approach 2: Zoom in—Zoom out.

  • Video: While this is an older video (2013), Laura outlines an approach to, “How to Write a Great Personal Statement “( by providing 5 suggested components of a good personal statement, which she notes as:
    • Hook the reader with an interesting opening (referring to the zoom in—zoom out method or essay writing) that makes him or her “want” to read further.
    • Provide background information (i.e., zoom out).
    • Connect what you learn, how you changed, and what you did (i.e., how it will benefit you in college or your future career).
    • Explain what you learned from the experience.
    • Use your story to convey how you would make a difference in a college community or as a scholarship recipient.

Approach 3: Use your personal statement to sell yourself to the college.

  • Video: In the video, “5 Tips for Writing a Personal Statement “(, the student provides tips on how to avoid common errors in writing a personal statement:
    • Tip #1: Focus on what you can do for the college as opposed to what the college can do for you.
    • Tip #2: Make logical connections to your selling points (or brand).
    • Tip #3: Reduce your use of adverbs (i.e., words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs, which frequently end in -ly), e.g., “I spoke to her quietly [modifies the verb spoke]; I sang extremely well [modifies the adverb well]; I am really interested [modifies the verb interested]; I thoroughly enjoyed [modifies the verb enjoyed];” and communicate purposeful actions, thoughts, and images, e.g., “I spoke, I sang, I am interested, and I enjoyed.”
    • Tip #4: Avoid being boring. Highlight your differences.
    • Tip #5: Be honest.

Choose Your Topic: Self-reflective thought must be given to choosing a topic. Avoid choosing a topic that will allow you to simply reuse an essay that you have written for school. Instead, choose a topic based on your response to the following questions:

  1. Do you have a clearly-defined ‘hook’ that an essay would provide a context as to why you have a particular passion? For example, how early failures in a sport shaped you into the athlete you are today; or how listening to your parent’s jazz music as a child inspired you to play and write music; or how your family’s immigration to the United States shaped your passion for human rights.
  2. Is there a job or extracurricular activity that has shaped your view of the world?
  3. Is there something that you are so passionate about that you want to talk to anyone you meet about it?
  4. Is there a volunteer activity that shaped your life or gave you a new perspective on a complex societal problem?
  5. Choose a topic within the context of, “If I have a chance conversation with a stranger, what would I talk about that would leave them with a lasting impression of who I am and the issues, events, or challenges that have been the most meaningful in my life?”

Additional Considerations: You must not only choose a topic for the story that you want to tell, but must also consider whether or not your story is the one that admissions officers want to hear. While admissions officers will often say that they simply want to read good essays, they also want to read essays that tell stories of the type of students they are seeking to attract. 

You must refer to your research. What is the institutional mission of the college and what type of students are they trying to attract? Are they trying to increase the number of STEM students; scholar athletes; musicians; first generation students; diversity; leaders; or students who will become involved in the campus and surrounding community? Are they offering a new major in video game design or are they trying to have a more successful speech and debate team. If you can write an essay and tell the story that they want to hear and present yourself as the type of student that they are trying to attract, then you are on the right track to writing an essay that results in an offer of admission.

Common Application Prompts: The 2018-19 Common Application Essay provides 5 prompts (with a 650 word limit):

  1. 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.   
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? 
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome
  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma–anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 

Choose an Approach: There is no one approach to essay writing or one type of essay. While you may discuss varying approaches with your parents or language arts teachers, you need to seek the advice of someone who has experience in college essay writing. Choose the approach that will best allow you to address the topic that you have chosen. Important considerations are:

  • Avoid trying to communicate every accomplishment or every obstacle you have encountered.
  • Resist the pressure to insert your parents or siblings into “your story” unless it is meaningfully relevant to a shared experience or challenge.
  • Consider having your essay reviewed by someone outside of your family who does not have an emotional attachment to “your story.”
  • Ensure that you respond to the writing prompt as a great story can become a worthless story if it does not appropriately respond to the writing prompt.
  • Consider focusing on a single event or experience.
  • Avoid making excuses or trying to evoke the reader into feeling sorry for you.
  • If you choose to write about multiple events, like involvement in various clubs and activities, consider a unifying theme to connect the events as a means of telling your story.
  • Do not take your college research likely. Know the institutional missions of the colleges to which you will be submitting your essay and the type of students they are seeking to admit into their freshman class.
  • Find a critical reviewer who will challenge your thoughts and stretch you into crafting an artistically (anecdotes, engaging story, grit, perseverance, etc.) well-written essay.
  • Find a good editor who will ensure that technical aspects (i.e., grammar, syntax, spelling, etc.) of your essay do not distract from your story.
  • Accept the fact that you may not be able to share your essay with your parents. They are not applying to college, you are. Your essay is not going to published in the newspaper or broadcast on the nightly news, it is going to be read by a college admissions officer and will have the potential of gaining his or her favor or being discarded into the pile of essays that were overly influenced or written by parents! Your essay has to reflect your voice and must tell your story.
  • Go to the next Lesson, “Develop Your Essay Writing Strategy.”