Once Upon A Time: Appreciating the Hidden Value in College Essays

Signe Stroming, Editor-In-Chief

Quick, think of an experience that changed your life. Describe a moment when you overcame adversity. Tell me about your cultural identity.

Did your heart beat a little faster there? Even now, months after I’ve finished answering those questions in the stress and tedium of Applying To College, mine did. At the time, I thought the questions were stupid—does a college really need to know about my great-aunt Hilda to judge whether I’ll succeed in college?—but now, with a little bit of distance from the stress and a little bit of rest for my essay-weary fingers, I can appreciate a hidden value in the process: writing college essays taught me how to tell my story.

While brainstorming for college essays, I did a lot of thinking, sorting through my experiences for something to write about. I didn’t find an Oscar-worthy story of overcoming adversity or make any life-changing self-discovery. But I did realize that I did have some stories to tell, unique to me. Growing up in the energy-rich, environmentally-conscious Pacific Northwest has given me a different outlook from a student from small-town Mississippi. My three years in Journalism have helped me grow as a writer and a leader. My childhood in the backseat of the my mom’s SUV, ferried between brother’s soccer and baseball practices, nose-pressed to the window on road trips, was important to who I am and what interests me today.

In today’s society, the art of story-telling is almost an anachronism. With the perpetual availability of social media platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter, we can keep our friends updated in real-time. I’ll admit, there is some beauty in that. But when instantaneous connection exists at the expense of self-reflection? That’s when we lose something valuable.

It’s easy to brush off the value of story-telling as impractical, inefficient, and hopelessly liberal and artsy. But purposeful story-telling is actually advantageous in job interviews, networking, and building relationships.

Job interviewers often look for capability, demonstrated interest, and a personality that will fit into their existing system—the same thing that many universities look for in prospective students. If you put thought into it early, writing college essays puts a handful of experiences and lessons-learned in your back pocket, ready to share. Telling anecdotes is a smart strategy for another reason: the details and structure of a story stick in an interviewer’s mind. Show, don’t tell, and they remember you better.

Most of all, college essays taught me that I have more than one story to tell. Different stories communicate different purposes. Whether the rhetoric is meant to persuade people to buy your product, sign your petition, or give you a chance, story-telling makes people listen.

College essays are hardly pleasant at the time, but in forcing us to reflect, to make big statements about our short lives, to share stories we may not have knew existed, they give us a give us a valuable—and under-appreciated—gift.