One reason why my book Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps has been so successful is because it helps people understand what a narrative is and how you, as a writer, can effectively convey your narrative (i.e. story). A lot of people are under the impression, however, that the story has to be a Big Story. Well, in fact, people who have unfortunately led very conflict-ridden lives–political refugees; those who have dealt with serious illnesses; homeless people; those who have a parent who has deserted the family, let’s say–have a very Big Story to tell. Of course, their challenge is to find a manageable way into a story that might be so big that it could overwhelm the 650-word allotment that the Common App allows. On the flip side, we have all those people who have grown up in affluent, comfortable suburban America who may not have a conflict-ridden Big Story, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a story that will work really well for them.
A lot of my students who fall into that latter camp write about activities that they are passionate about–dancing, baking, swimming, archery, crew, running, singing, what have you–and they depict themselves in that activity, with reflective material sandwiched in amid the “action” of the piece. This allows the reader to stick with you because he/she can see that something is “happening,” (balls are pitched or yeast is added or arrows are shot) and that gives the reader the patience to stay with the reflective content when it appears. That reader may also be interested in the activity depicted, so that’s an added bonus for him/her.
What I have come to realize, however, is that some of the most “active” pieces my students turn out are those that depict really interesting thinking. A student running through the woods but thinking about biodiversity. A student baking cookies and considering how food can serve as a kind of connective tissue between generations. A student biking up a hill and thinking about the mind’s ability to prevail over the limitations of the body. Reading the thoughts of a bright and inquisitive mind can be exhilarating for a reader. So don’t feel you need a Big Story. Just tell one that conveys your energy and spirit and you’ll be halfway home.