Understanding Story Structure

I'll get to Old Spice in a minute. When you write an application essay, you're writing a story. But if you're like me, you don't write stories every day. That's why the essay can be so maddening. Today's application essay tips cover three story structures that you can use as templates for your essay's structure.

3 Application Essay Tips from Old Spice and Other Storytellers

Here are today's three application essay tips about story structure:

Application Essay Tips | Tip #1: Consider the 2-part "real versus ideal" structure.

This Old Spice ad is part of probably one of the most memorable ad campaigns of the last few years. The ad focuses on the contrast between what your man smells like (a lady) and what your your man could smell like (Old Spice). That's the contrast between what is and what could be, between the real and the ideal.

Nancy Duarte explores this contrast in her talk The Secret Structure of Great Talks. I will save you time by summarizing her main point, which is that the structure of great speeches - like Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech - is always the same. It has a shape. This is the shape: ___|¯|_|¯|_|¯|_|¯¯¯ Don't laugh. It doesn't look like much, and Duarte's presentation is not the most scintillating, but the shape represents a cool insight. Duarte suggests that the low plateaus represent "what is," and the high points represent "what could be." As one of the commenters noted, her speech is just like the Old Spice commercial. Duarte argues that presentations succeed when they draw the audience from the low plateau of what is to the high plateau of what could be.

Yes, I understand you're writing an essay, not a presentation. But we can apply Duarte's insight to your application essay. Common App prompt #1 asks you to evaluate a significant experience and its impact on you. We can define "significant experience" to mean "an attempt someone makes to bridge the gap between what is and what could be." This redefinition requires you to explain what could be, which, in turn, requires you to reveal your values. Then it requires you to describe steps you took to effectuate those values. Whether you failed or succeeded, the attempt probably taught you something surprising. By allowing us to rephrase Common App prompt #1 in terms of the gap between the real and the ideal, Duarte's insight gives us another way to approach the essay.

Application Essay Tips | Tip #2: Consider the 3-part "ambition-obstacle-transformation" structure.

Maybe you don't want to tell a "real versus ideal" story. In her presentation, Duarte offers another sample story structure with three parts: 1) likable hero, 2) encounters roadblock, and 3) emerges transformed. This paradigm translates well to the application essay.

First, we have the likable hero: you. What makes you likable? Kind of abstract, right? What worthy ambitions do you have? That's where you might start. Every great character has strong wants, and you're no different. Show the reader you have an admirable ambition, and you will become the likable hero.

Second, we have the roadblocks. Roadblocks are what slow or prevent you from achieving your noble ambition. They create the conflict that makes a story interesting. The conflict could be internal (like an ethical dilemma) or external (like a person or a fish).

Third, we have emerging transformed. This is what we call character development. The protagonist undergoes a change. If your experience hasn't changed you then, why are you writing about it? Change is proof that you're a dynamic character, not a static one.

If you can think of an experience involving ambition (your strong want), roadblocks (obstacles between you and your want), and transformation (how pursuit of your strong want changed you), that experience has the makings of a good application essay story.

Application Essay Tips | Tip #3: Consider the 2-part "anecdote-reflection" structure.

Ira Glass of This American Life boils story structure into two parts in his explanation of storytelling. The first building block of a story is the anecdote, which Glass defines as a sequence of actions. Ideally, the sequence of actions has "bait" that raises questions (like "What will happen next?") to keep people interested. The second building block of a story is the moment reflection, which is the explanation of the anecdote's significance. That's it. Anecdote + reflection = story. An anecdote without reflection lacks significance, and reflection without an anecdote lacks excitement.

You can think of the anecdote as everything a camera would record. It captures sounds and sights. Reflection is like a narration that you go back and add later. The narration explains the significance of the sounds and sights. When you combine the objective - what happened - and the subjective - why it matters - you're starting to develop a good story.

The important lesson from today's application essay tips is that the application essay is a story. That's why you need to have a story structure in mind before you start writing. If you liked today's application essay tips, please share them with your friends. Thank you!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.