Guiding you on your journey to college and beyond.

5 Steps to Writing Great College Essays

The five steps to writing great college essays outlined below can help you to write a personal statement that may be the tipping point to get into the college of your choice. Why is that? Today, more colleges have a holistic review, meaning they want to know the students behind the test scores and GPA. How do they think? What makes them tick? Will they be a student who enriches our campus community?

Those questions are answered through the personal statement. The responses can be powerfully conveyed through the storytelling model I have outlined in my step-by-step model – the BEING Compass™. Chunking down the essay writing process helps eliminate the daunting concept of staring at a blank page and not knowing where to start or what to write … all the while thinking that your future depends on it. 

The five steps of the Compass make up the acronym BEING. What is super cool is that this model mirrors the universal and timeless story arc of the Hero’s Journey that is used in Hollywood blockbusters like Star Wars. At the same time, the Compass gives you a structure to expand your own self-awareness. In a way, your essay is a rite of passage through which you answer the existential question, “who are you?” Admissions officers want you to express your authentic self, because that is the only way they get to know the real you.

The five steps of the Compass make up the acronym BEING. What is super cool is that this model mirrors the universal and timeless story arc of the Hero’s Journey that is used in Hollywood blockbusters like Star Wars. At the same time, the Compass gives you a structure to expand your own self-awareness. In a way, your essay is a rite of passage through which you answer the existential question, “who are you?” Admissions officers want you to express your authentic self, because that is the only way they get to know the real you.

Step 1. Use Sensory Descriptions

The first step in the essay journey is represented by the B for Body. This is about including the physical elements of setting the scene by incorporating the five senses in descriptions to draw the reader into your story instead of leaving them as passive readers who are easily bored. Remember show and tell? Showing is more engaging than telling. It allows you to connect with reader at a visceral level – right down to the marrow of their bones. Compare these two openings: “My dad and I shared math puns on the latest tangent from our conversation,” vs. “Sweet maple icing oozed down the fresh donut resting before my eyes as my dad and I bounced math puns off of each other on the latest tangent from our conversation.” Which one draws you into the story? Right? The setting is infused with smell, taste and sight – sensory input that helps make the writing memorable. 

Step 2: Infuse Emotion or Conflict

The second step in the essay journey embodies the Emotions aspect of BEING. Every great story has a degree of conflict that has an emotional impact. Expressing feelings connects you to the reader. The emotional tension is the fuel that helps to spark ideas forcreative solutions or to find a better way of doing something. Consider the following section from the same “donut” essay.

“He [my dad] shifted into a discourse of cylinders and batteries, and my mind became as glazed as the donuts before me. As confusion turned to boredom, my typical instinct was to allow the words to travel in one ear and out the other with an occasional nod. On this day, however, I was able to see myself falling into this pattern of becoming disinterested when I couldn’t comprehend the topic at hand and decided on the spot that, moving forward, I would use that first signal of complacency as a catalyst to motivate my advancement in learning.”

When writing a college essay, it may seem scary to write about having feelings of confusion or boredom arise after being introduced to new concepts. I mean, isn’t the point of the essay to impress the reader and show how great you are there is power in your willingness to be vulnerable. It shows the reader you are a real person, and that makes you relatable. Keep in mind that the step of including emotions is only one step of five. As your story evolves, you take the opportunity to show how you overcame your limited belief, habit or circumstance. In the essay, after sharing about being confused, the writer tells us that she recognized her pattern of tuning out and imagined a new way of being. In the future, she would use the signal of complacency as a catalyst to become motivated. It turns out, expressing her vulnerable feelings was a great set up to showcase her self-improvement skills. 

Step 3: Imagine What Could Be

Step three is all about the ‘aha’ moments that inspire us to imagine how things could be. It’s possibility thinking. In your essay, share how you use the power of your imagination. By ensuring you include this element into your essay, you signal to the admissions officers that you are adaptable – you are willing to learn and grow. You reveal through your essay that you are courageous enough to step into the unknown. It’s the turning point of your story when you reveal a shift in perception that allows you to embrace your desire to change – to step out of your comfort zone. While your focus is on telling your authentic story, one thing that results from this section is that it signals to admissions officers that you are committed to a path of forward progress – moving in the direction of fulfilling your potential. It marks a point in which you are aspiring to fulfill your potential. 

Step 4: Show Your Action Steps

The fourth step is to include descriptive action steps you have taken or are taking as you navigate the situation and experience related to your essay topic. It might include details and examples of how you are instilling new habits or sharing about mistakes made along the way and how you recovered from them. This conveys the quality of resilience that every college student needs to have. In the essay example, the writer shares that she uses models to overcome complex challenges. “I’ve already gotten a lot of mileage from this attitude shift of catching myself when I begin to retreat in the face of complex challenges. Not to mention that my ability to listen with purpose has transformed what was too often “white noise” into more meaningful connections with others. My newfound love for using models plays well among the sixth grade “study buddies” that I mentor in an after-school program. Graham crackers explain how to divide fractions, and a line of pencils reflects the timeline upon which the events of ancient Egypt spring to life.”By offering specific action steps like this, you hold the reader’s attention.

Step 5: Share Your Lessons Learned

The fifth step is one that many writers neglect to weave into their essay, yet it can make a huge impact on the admissions officer. It falls under the name of Genius Mind, represented by the fifth and final letter G in BEING. When you are able to engage your own inner genius and rise above the external story you are writing about and reflect on the inner level of how your experience has allowed you to grow as a person, you signal a level of maturity that aligns with the mission of colleges and universities. You express a level of mindful awareness about the lessons learned and wisdom gained from the experience you’ve shared about in your essay. 

By incorporating all of these five steps in your personal statement, you not only convey to the reader a level of self-awareness that helps every student succeed, you also instill a higher level of self-knowledge within every aspect of your BEING just by having written your story. If Plato was right when he said, “All knowledge is self-knowledge,” you will communicate that a college community will be enriched by your presence. 

The 5 Steps to Writing Great College Essays Online Course will guide you through each step on the journey of writing your personal statement. Learn more.

Janet Larson, M.S. Course Creator

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