Tell Me a Story: The Common App Essay for College Admissions

Inside a once freshly cleaned oven, clung the remnants of a pizza dough recipe my mother and I were hoping would yield a thick, chewy, crispy crust. Shortly before my mother opened the door to check on the pizza, the phone rang and I answered it, but I couldn’t concentrate on what the speaker had to say because I could clearly see that the dough inside the oven had exploded. Since exploding pizza dough, in my opinion, is comedy at its finest, I had to fight the urge to not laugh, but I failed. The man on the other end of the phone was a client of my father’s and he could hear me trying to stifle my laughter. Since I wanted to remain professional, I just didn’t think I could tell him about the pizza dough. I figured that a businessman would not care to know about such things, so when he asked me why I was laughing, I simply said that I wasn’t. “Yes, you are laughing,” he said. “I’m really not,” I tried to assure him. My mother quickly caught on to what was happening, so she grabbed the phone in an attempt to be the adult in the room, but she couldn’t stop laughing either. At this point, my father’s client, who was from Italy, assumed we were making fun of his accent, but nothing could be further from the truth. When he hung up, Mom called my dad in order to explain what happened and my dad was able to relay the story to his client, who found it funny. Later, I told this story to a group of friends in my high school cafeteria and they just stared at me blankly. “Why did you tell us this story?” they asked. I had no idea. I simply thought it was funny. However, for my friends, a story that was “just funny” wasn’t enough. It had to have a point. They wanted to know the lesson behind the story.

In a similar manner, the college admissions committee members who read the Common Application essay love a good story, but they also want to know the message behind it. When drafting a personal essay, identify several stories you could tell. When choosing your stories, you might consider events or moments outside of the items you’ve already listed for extra-curricular activities, service projects, classes, or sports. Admissions counselors may have already taken note of these things and now, they want to know more about you, your personality, and your insights. For this reason, you could choose stories that show readers how insightful, funny, motivated, accepting, adventurous, determined, disciplined, creative, inclusive, strong, or hard working you are.

To find your story, you could think of specific moments in your life that were the funniest, proudest, most embarrassing, or most challenging. A specific event or experience doesn’t have to be earth shattering. It could simply be a memory with friends or family. It’s not necessary then, to have a “big moment” to share in order to write an effective personal essay. All that’s needed is a story you can tell. The most “ordinary” moments sometimes shed light on the larger lessons your readers could share.

Once you have your story in mind, tell it. You could tell your story to a friend, or simply say it out loud to yourself and record it. Then, listen to it so that you can hear it as an observer or outside listener, rather than the speaker or author. Next, pick the element you really like about the story and ask yourself: What do I like about this story and how might I make it come alive? Using sensory details related to sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell can bring readers closer to your experience and if other people are a part of your story, you could re-create the dialogue as well.

After narrating your story, ask yourself: Why did I tell this story? What’s important about it? How does the lesson relate to what I hope to achieve or learn in college? Answering these questions could help you arrive at the lesson or purpose for your story.

If I were to return to the exploding pizza example I used to open my essay here, I might see that even though I thought the event was “just funny,” the story also holds a significant lesson. First, the client on the other end of the phone wanted to understand why I was laughing and instead, I tried to deny that I was laughing in order to maintain my composure. I didn’t want my dad to lose his client. However, in denying the laughter, I led the client to believe that I was making fun of him. I should have just told him the truth. Remaining true to the circumstances in which we find ourselves can lead to greater understanding and a deeper connection with others. Also, there’s something to be learned about comedic timing. It’s incredibly inappropriate for exploding pizza dough to intersect with a business call and the juxtaposition of these two situations was just too much for me at the time. I couldn’t hold in the laughter. I couldn’t pretend to be professional in such an absurd moment. This event then, has caused me to reflect on something I value greatly: comedy in the classic sense of the word. A comedy ends happily. The laugh coincides with the truth of a situation and calls it out for what it is. The laugh is ultimately what saves the professional relationship between my dad and his client and it’s this laugh I can’t live without.

Now, it’s your turn. What’s your story? Contact me today for help with your personal essay.  Cecilia Kennedy,

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