College Admissions

Telling Your Story: The Screenwriter’s Approach to College Application Essays

My master’s degree in screenwriting is as important to my work as a college admissions consultant as my master’s in counseling psychology. People are always surprised when I say that. But it makes sense when you think about what’s involved in preparing strong college applications.

The best applications tell a student’s story in a compelling way and make the reader feel positively toward that student. Not so different from a screenwriter painting a portrait of a character and getting the viewer to root for that character.

So how do you get an admissions officer to root for you in the application process? A writer chooses certain attributes in creating a likeable character. While a student is not making up a fictional character, he is choosing aspects of his personality, values and experiences to highlight in the application, thereby creating an image in the reader’s mind.

The proverbial “actions speak louder than words” is true. In a screenplay, you don’t have the character tell someone that he cares about animals; you have him stop his car to rescue an injured cat. Likewise, on college applications, rather than proclaiming your passion for politics, talk about working on the 2004 presidential campaign, doing an internship for a state senator or running for president of your class. If you haven’t done any of those things, politics might not be your best topic. Write about the activities or ideas that consume your time and energy.

Readers love enthusiasm. One of my students, who plans to become a doctor, began an essay with “I love pus!” Doesn’t that make you want to know more about the writer? I bet admissions officers haven’t read many essays with that as the opening line. It works for this student because her enthusiasm is genuine, as the rest of her application makes clear.

The most interesting people have some flaws. On the popular TV show “24,” Jack Bauer is a hero who seems indestructible and saves thousands of lives. But he’s also sacrificed people he cares about, and uses extreme measures, including torture, in pursuit of his goals. While he has to suppress his emotions to survive, occasionally he’ll reveal his vulnerable side. Without flaws, he wouldn’t be so compelling.

Don’t be afraid of your own flaws, which hopefully don’t include torture and murder. Presenting yourself as perfect would only make you seem unbelievable, and even if people believed you were perfect, they wouldn’t like you. How would you respond to the girl who has a 4.4GPA and 2400 on her SAT, raised $2 million for African orphans, always looks amazingly beautiful and has a great boyfriend? If such a person existed, I doubt you’d feel close to her.

When admissions officers read applications, they’ll be rooting for students who have pursued their passions, even if they haven’t always succeeded. One of my students wrote an essay about a project he started that failed, and he is now a freshman at an elite university.

What’s the best way to pull the reader into your story? First, set the scene with just enough detail so the reader feels like she’s there. Too much detail and the reader gets bored because you haven’t started the story. One of my students described the moment he approached the podium to give his big speech. Instead of starting with a lot of background about when he joined the debate team and how much he prepared for this event, he took the reader right to the dramatic moment. You need to grab the reader’s attention from the start.

Going on too long is another common mistake. Cut any paragraph, sentence or word that doesn’t move the story ahead or give compelling new information. As I learned in screenwriting school, start your story as late as possible and get out fast. That advice is worth taking.