How to Tell Your Story

One of the most common pieces of college application advice is to “be yourself” and “tell your story,” but what does that really mean?

While the Common Application Personal Statement is undoubtedly a great place to tell your story, it’s not the only aspect of your application that can be used for this purpose. Students should consider weaving their story throughout the qualitative components of the application, so that we are able to learn more about their interests in a consistent way. We don’t expect to read about any particular type of story. Sometimes, students will fall into the trap of attempting to sound impressive to their admission counselor, but that’s when students lose their voice and authenticity within their application. The application is not a competition to prove who has endured the most dramatic life event or who’s been the president of the most clubs; sometimes, it’s the subtleties within your story that stand out the most.

The purpose of your application is not tell your entire life story – there’s not enough space for that – but rather, it should be focused on the aspects of your background and personal growth that help us understand who you are. For example, we want to read about the formative events in your life that inspire your professional interests, academic mishaps and recoveries, family traditions, and observations of your community. The only way we are able to get to know students is through the way in which they choose to introduce themselves.

The activity summary – a list of your extracurricular and personal involvement – is one way to introduce yourself. Contrary to popular belief, this is not used to evaluate how busy or well-rounded you are. You don’t need to be involved in everything under the sun to present a strong activity summary; instead, we are evaluating this section to try to understand your passions. You should highlight what matters to you (and why). One example would be the inspiration for your intended major; many students will discuss within their application the reasons why they are interested in pursuing a particular academic field, and the activity summary can strengthen our understanding of that. However, not all students have the time or resources to get involved in myriad after-school activities and some students’ stories will highlight their important personal responsibilities. For these students, by including these responsibilities within the activity summary (such as taking care of younger siblings or working a part-time job to help the family), we get a great sense of who they are.

With all that said, the personal statement is the primary vessel for telling your story. I often encourage students to discuss a formative moment or experience in their lives. But, you should make sure to tell us why the event or experience you’re describing matters in addition to what happened. In other words, analyze your personal statement by adding some thoughtful self-reflection. We don’t expect students to have a concluding epiphany or to prove to us that they have everything figured out – if you claim that, we are unlikely to believe you! The average teenager is evolving and learning, and we simply want to understand what’s going on in your life and why it’s important to you.

There are other areas of the application that can also be used to tell your story, such as the short answer questions within the USC Supplement or the letters of recommendation. But, by understanding how to approach the activity summary and personal statement in a genuine and authentic way, connecting pieces to explain what matters in your life, you can tell a story that has the potential to be a very strong aspect of your application.