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In this article, College Admissions Expert KiKi details the importance of a personal narrative and the role it plays in completing a student’s college application. For more guidance on the college applications process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.
Introduction to the Personal Narrative
While applying to college, you may have discovered the difference between a “spiked” application (which highlights a focused interest) and a “well-rounded” application. No matter the route you take, it’s essential to present a complex, impactful, and cohesive narrative. Like a good piece of writing, a college application should have both high and low points. It should also have interesting characters and conflicts, and a unifying theme that ties it together.
To demonstrate, I’ll reference my college application to Princeton. When I was in high school, my family was homeless. As we hopped from motel to motel, I would carry along hefty tomes stuffed into suitcases—books like Plato’s Republic and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. At the same time, I was a dedicated student organizer, concerned about racial injustice and my community’s lack of educational opportunities.
Philosophy, politics, and poverty– I interwove all three topics into each component of my college application. My extracurriculars, essays, test scores, and even my recommendation letters all fit into a larger personal narrative that told Admissions Officers who I was, what mattered to me, and what my goals were. In other words, my entire college application had a consistent theme—what I’ll refer to as the “application narrative”—that linked each revelation, reflection, and achievement.
A strong application narrative gives your submission a sparkle that quantitative metrics can’t measure. It offers readers insight into your perspective, allowing them to appreciate every facet of what you bring to the table. A successful narrative also ensures your application has movement. It gestures towards the past, includes reflections from the present, and alludes to a glittering future. In other words, it tells Admissions Officers who an applicant is, who they were, and who they will be in college.
Crafting a Compelling Personal Narrative
When narrowing approaches to a personal narrative, it helps to first solidify a broader theme. In my application, I chose to unite my personal experiences, academic interests, and extracurricular activities with my desire to make a difference. However, that didn’t mean I couldn’t diverge from established topics. I included fun facts like my adoration of Harry Potter, hopelessness with learning new languages, and love of 90s rap music. Once I knew the theme of my application narrative, I could deviate without losing sight of my overall message.
If you’re having trouble getting started, consider the following questions: Do any themes naturally emerge in your application? If someone were to review your application package, how would they describe you in one sentence? What are you most passionate about? Where do you want to make a difference? Are there any experiences, interests, or even failures that have completely changed your life?
The most straightforward way to present a complex, multifaceted application is through essay responses. Many colleges will ask for a story of conflict, growth, and reflection in the form of a personal narrative essay. The most common (and lengthiest) example of such an essay is the Common App’s Personal Statement. Many institutions—especially Top 30 universities—also ask students to complete several short essay responses.
For these essays, it’s imperative that you write about different topics. These essays can span a wide range of topics, including but not limited to career goals, significant relationships, academic interests, various extracurricular activities, personal experiences, and political beliefs. You may cover the same topic from two perspectives, such as describing the academic component to a STEM extracurricular in one response and the leadership efforts in that same extracurricular within another response. You may also go into further detail about something you mentioned elsewhere in your application. However, avoid discussing the same topics in multiple responses. By adding variation, you can share new information with readers and highlight different elements of your application.
Extracurriculars are an essential part of any college application. They also allow you to reinforce and diversify your personal narrative. When you list your extracurriculars, include every activity that you spend a significant amount of time doing. Do you help your parents run a family business? Do you play a sport or practice an instrument in your spare time? Or do you hold leadership positions that seem less “prestigious” but reveal a lot about what matters to you?
Be creative in describing where you spend your time, as your extracurriculars readily allow colleges to gauge who you are. I once worked with a student who spent hours each week doing housework – they lived in a single-parent household and dedicated much of their time to cooking and cleaning. Not only did that student share that information as a primary extracurricular, but they also got into an Ivy League university! Don’t shy away from including a seemingly unorthodox activity. It could introduce a new, significant dimension to your application narrative.
Recommendation letters can also help you round out your application narrative. If relevant, you can nudge a recommender to focus on a specific component of your application. You can do this by politely indicating what you’d like your recommender to highlight. For example, when I applied to graduate school, I specifically asked a recommender to write about my interest in an academic topic. I asked another recommender to focus their letter on my organizing efforts, including further information that they could reference.
Final Thoughts on the Personal Narrative
An application narrative consists of the theme uniting your application’s components—ranging from essays to extracurriculars, awards to recommendation letters. Grades and standardized test scores also allow Admissions Officers to analyze you as an overall candidate. These application components should tell one single story about who you are and what you stand for. The components of your application should function in conversation with one another, creating space for new information while reinforcing the core ideas.
To demonstrate, I’ll once again reference my application process. When I first started developing my application narrative, it was a story of unimaginable hardship—I kept returning to the fact that I had so little. By the time I submitted my application, I had written a story about finding power in philosophy during difficult times. I demonstrated how I used that power to get involved in political activism, underscoring the necessity of pairing theory with action. Though nervous about my GPA and test scores, I ultimately believe that my application narrative allowed my submission to shine.
Though this may appear intimidating, the simplest way to begin is by deciding a theme that will form the foundation of your essay. As you complete each application component, more complex themes will emerge. You can complicate, nuance, and revise the approach you started with until, finally, you’re telling the story that best reflects who you are.
This article on the personal narrative was written by senior advisor Kiara “KiKi” Gilbert, Princeton University ‘21. To get help with your college applications from KiKi or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.