I wrote a story for a high school English class exactly twice in four years. Needless to say, when the Common App came along and asked me for my story, I blinked a few times and asked it to speak English, please. Help came from exactly where I expected it: TV.
Dan Harmon, the creator of Community (inarguably the best-written show that was once on television and is now on Yahoo), has written a ton about how to write stories, and a good chunk of it revolves around a story circle. You can (and should) read his story structure tutorials, but very, very basically, most stories can be broken down into a circle with these eight points:
“1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
2. But they want something.
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
4. Adapt to it,
5. Get what they wanted,
6. Pay a heavy price for it,
7. Then return to their familiar situation,
8. Having changed”
(from Story Structure 101, Dan Harmon’s story structure tutorial)
It’s extremely fascinating, and if you’re really interested in story structure, I suggest checking out Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, this short video (which uses a cosine wave rather than a circle), and, if you’re a Community fan, this explanation of the structure of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.
Even if you don’t delve deep into story structure, you can still use these eight basic points to help you write your story. While you won’t be able to decide whether or not certain events happened–do NOT lie on your applications, TV says that the truth always comes out–you’ll be able to decide what you need to include and what constitutes the whole story.
Here’s an example. The first thing I wanted to write about was one of my proudest memories and, I thought, showcased one of my best, most admittable qualities. (Disregard that the events of this memory transpired in elementary school and are thus basically meaningless in terms of college applications.)
In the sixth grade, I refused to call these girls “plastic” because it was mean and I had recently sprouted a soul. I said, “I won’t call them plastic unless one of them calls me aluminum,” which I thought was so clever, and my classmates respected me for it, though they continued to call the girls names.
Let’s examine it:
1. A character is in a zone of comfort: I was a sixth-grader with a group of friends at recess.
2. But they want something: I wanted my friends to stop being mean to this group of girls that they called “plastics.”
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation: I bravely stood up to my friends and said my plastic/aluminum line.
4. Adapt to it: My friends laughed and liked me for it.
5. Got what they wanted: I didn’t get what I initially wanted, but I became somewhat popular for it (because, let’s be real, that’s all I actually cared about).
And that’s where it ended. Happily ever after. Intended moral of the story: I’m a nice person. Let me into college, please.
But what can you actually take away from that story? Nothing. I didn’t learn anything; I didn’t change. I started off the story wanting my friends to stop attacking these girls, they continued to do so, and…I was content with it. The end?
If you haven’t changed between the beginning and end of the story–if you’re missing a piece–then the story you have doesn’t mean anything, and you should either dig deeper and find the rest of the story, or find a different one.
As it is, my sixth grade anecdote–the story I like to tell people to make them think I’m cool–doesn’t say anything about me, and that might be because I never like to finish it.
The girls heard me say the plastic/aluminum line and started crying, which made me feel guilty (6). I realized that I had exploited their pain and misery so that I could pretend to be a nice person and gain brownie points from my friends. Next recess (7), I apologized to the girls, having learned that I wasn’t as nice as I had thought (8).
Good news: After digging deeper, I finished the story. You can read it and take away something real about my personality. Bad news: That “something real” is that I’m no better than anyone else, and that’s kind of the opposite of what you want colleges to think. Back to the drawing board.
Still, the story circle is a powerful tool for looking at your personal statement. As you continue to generate ideas for what “your story” is, stick it on the circle. Are all eight points present? How did you change? And what does it say about you?