Storytelling in Application Essay

Cynthia Wang

Keywords: Storytelling, Rhetorical Situation, Application Essay, Artistic Ethos, Sincerity

When mentioning the college application essay, do applicant feel stressed, excited, or helpless? Every applicant who has been to college may have a different feeling about this question. Although some extraordinary applicants are confident about their writing skills, most applicants such as me don’t know where to begin. The hardest thing for me to write an application essay is to present myself in 650 words and leave a good impression on the admission officer.

The application essay is a rhetorical situation. According to Lloyd Bitzer (1968), the rhetorical situation contains three components: exigence, audience, and constraints. The application essay produces a sense of urgency, as applicants are waiting to be accepted. The audience of this situation is the admission officers. The constraint is that the application essay is not the only reason that makes applicants get accepted by the college. In an application essay, applicants use storytelling as a useful tool. For my audiences, who are mostly high school students or college students who are in the process of applying, here are some tips to make application essay more attractive and readable: be sincere, frame the story into a plot, include relevant details, use artistic ethos and show authority, and stay coherence throughout the essay.

Write with Sincerity

The most important principle to follow is to be sincere in the application essay. It’s designed to help admission officers to know about an applicant, so don’t be afraid to show your true self. You should write about real experiences instead of making them up. Every experience shapes the person we are today so use an application essay as a chance to present yourself and your experiences, not making up a person that you are not. For example, if you are an athlete, write about your game, don’t makeup experiences such as joining a physics competition. Be the person you are.

Frame the Story into a Plot

When writing an application essay, applicants often choose a story that most represents their character and personality. Through the storytelling, they often emphasize the part that is most important to them. As E.M. Foster’s famous quote states: “’The king died and then the queen died’ is a story,” but ‘“the king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.” The difference between the story and the plot is that story only states the sequences of events, but the plot engages the audience with drama, significance, and emotions. Plotting doesn’t mean to make up a story but means to include diverse kinds of moments into a story. In an application essay, try to engage the audience with emotion and make the story vivid, not just stating what happened.

Include Pertinent Details

Including pertinent details helps the applicants to present a more rounded character. In Telling Stories: The Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life, Martin Lee argues that relevant details are closely connected to the presentation of character and are the building block of a story. By including more details in the application essay, the story is more vividly constructed and provide more information to this applicant. However, unlike writing fiction or a book, the application essay is strict with word account. It’s vital to avoid unnecessary details since the core of the application essay is to present more about the character and personality of the applicant. For example, if you write about how you enjoy interviewing people, it’s helpful to include details about what you learnt from the interviewees and how you find them. However, details such as what the interviewees wore should be eliminated.

Use Artistic Ethos and Show Authority

Storytelling enhances the creditability and authority of an applicant through artistic ethos. Ethos is one of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion, which is generated through the speaker’s character. Because application essays focus on presenting oneself using words and persuasion instead of identity and social status, artistic ethos is most used here. There are two ways of achieving artistic ethos in this circumstance: provide relevant knowledge and use an appropriate narrative tone. For example, if you are a biology student and describing your experiment, it’s vital to use correct experimental terms without making scientific mistakes. These actions manifest the expertise of your background experiences, enhancing creditability. The narrative tone is also important when writing. One of Aristotle’s three principles of ethos is to have goodwill toward the audience. Writing with consideration and appropriate respect to the admission officers in the application essay. All those approaches enhance artistic ethos and further provide authority to storytelling.

Stay Coherent Throughout the Essay

It is crucial to stay coherent throughout the essay, meaning that the flowing of the story should be natural and logical. It should also be consistent overall, showing that the story has creditability. For example, if you start the essay by talking about how you enjoyed playing tennis, don’t end with stating that you are not a sportive person. This confuses the admission officers, and they might think you are making up the stories. Staying logistic and coherent increases the authority of the applicant.

Using rhetorical strategies is very helpful to write an application essay, especially when applicants get trained to do so; however, not everyone get equal training to write application essay. According to a study conducted by James Warren, applicants who received training on using the rhetoric approach to write an essay did much better who weren’t. Although this marks the importance of rhetoric, it also brought the question of whether it further increases inequality. However, the application essay was designed to eliminate the gap between applicants. Firstly, as stated above, the most important criteria to follow is to show true self and write real stories. The character and personality shown in the application essay are far more important than writing abilities and style. Furthermore, a direction guide such as this essay is becoming more accessible, and students could use those materials as guides.

In conclusion, there are some tips to write an application essay: be sincere, frame the story into a plot, include relevant details, use artistic ethos and show authority, and stay coherent throughout the essay. Those tips of storytelling in the application essay engage the admission officers and offers a fuller character and creditability of the applicant. However, writing abilities and style may influence the judgment of a student. Therefore, following the tips presented by this paper become even more important.

Works Cited

Aristotle. The Art of Rhetoric (Collins Classics). HarperCollins UK, 2012.

Bitzer, Lloyd F. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 1, no. 1 (1968): 1–14.

Fisher, Walter R. “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Public Moral Argument.” Communication Monographs 51, no. 1 (March 1, 1984): 1–22.

Martin, Lee. Telling Stories: The Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life. Lincoln, UNITED STATES: Nebraska, 2017.

Ott, Brian L., and Eric Aoki. “The Politics of Negotiating Public Tragedy: Media Framing of the Matthew Shepard Murder.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 5, no. 3 (2002): 483–505.

Warren, James. “The Rhetoric of College Application Essays: Removing Obstacles for Low Income and Minority Students.” American Secondary Education 42, no. 1 (2013): 43–56.


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Feeling Rhetoric Copyright © 2022 by Cynthia Wang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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