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How Creative Writing and College Essays are More Similar Than You Might Think

By Nicole Liao


The college application process—half a year of extremely stressful grueling work—is, sadly, something all of us have to face. Whether you’re knee-deep in it like me, or it's a few years away, there’s no doubt that it's confusing, challenging, and super humbling. Recently, college essays have become more and more important, where the admissions office wants to learn about your character and how you fit with a school; but, no one really prepares us on how to write them. At first glance the prompts are intimidating. Why our college? What makes you unique, and will make our college a better place? They’re a completely different style of writing than what we write in our English classes, and honestly making up a Hamlet essay might be easier, but don’t be misled by the term ‘college essays’. These prompts and creative writing may have more similarities than you expect.

I fell into the trap of writing methodically, answering the question as I would write an exposition about myself. When asked the classic ‘Why major/academic interest’ question, I explained robotically, essentially telling them “This experience shaped me in this way, inspiring me to do this,” instead of showing. So, if it’s not an essay they want, what is it? Take this quote from a director of admissions at Tulane:

“Most people prefer reading a good story over anything else. So... tell a great story in your essay. Worry less about providing as many details about you as possible and more about captivating the reader's attention inside of a great narrative.” (

If you’ve read any example college essays, many of them read like short stories. Typically they start with an anecdote, with dialogue, or right in the middle of a scene, very similar to the work you would write for Polyphony. Realizing this was a challenge: I’d gone through four drafts of my personal statement until I stopped explaining myself and who I was, but instead showed it through a moment (or a few different moments). It’s one thing to say you’re hard-working, and another to show it by writing about that time you worked late into the night to plan a charity event. Or that you’re passionate, versus how you spent months working on an art piece. Instead of writing an essay, I had to convince myself I was writing a story, introducing myself as a character to that admissions office. It’s a scarily similar analogy: introduce the character (you) to them—personality, setting, background—and a challenge that causes some kind of character development. Then, the resolution: the actions you did after experiencing this challenge.

Of course, there are some differences. I’ve poured endlessly over trying to figure out the process, and the harsh truth is that they barely spend time on each application. Unlike a story, there’s no time for the reader to analyze the small details and characteristics you’re trying to show through the story; sometimes, it’ll need to be more explicit than it might be for a creative writing piece, where you can hide nuances in symbolism for readers to dissect. It’s a weird balance, but what I found works for me was to show first (through an anecdote) and then clarify what it meant for me as a person (what some challenge made me feel, what I learned, etc.). For example, telling an anecdote about experiencing discrimination when you were younger, feeling distressed and not wanting similar things to continue, and then finally what you did. Maybe you gave presentations at your school, or even something like asking your friends to stop using specific hurtful language.

Good luck to everyone working through those essays, it’ll all be over soon. And if you’re lucky (freshmen, sophomores, and juniors) I hope this saves you the time you might’ve spent revising and you’re ready to plan ahead. It’ll be over before we know it, and until then, let’s do what creative writers do best!


Nicole Liao is a blogger at Voices and Junior Editor at Polyphony.

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