Use screenwriting tactics to plot the perfect essay

March 28, 2022

Write your college essay with screenwriting tactics

Screenwriting is the art and craft of writing scripts for mass consumption. Your college essay isn’t written for the whole world to experience like a feature film, but you can make a lasting impression by using screenwriting tactics. 

Any story can be boiled down to three key ingredients: 

  1. hero (or subject), 
  2. conflict (or hardship), and 
  3. resolution. 

The same ingredients make a great personal essay in a college application, even if it’s just a few hundred words. Keep in mind the purpose of the essay. This is your chance to help the admissions office get to know who you are as a person. It’s your chance to bring facts to life, just like a screenwriter would. 

Hero. This essay is about getting to know you, so don’t fill your space with too many additional characters. You, the college applicant, are the primary subject.

Conflict. Life is challenging and you’ve faced some hardships, no matter how good your upbringing was. Heroes dealing with hardships make stories interesting.

Resolution. Things get better in the end. You learn from mistakes, mentors guide you, family members deliver a support line, and so on. Whatever the topic, your essay’s conflict needs to be resolved within the essay. 

Focus on a very specific moment in time.

When someone says “tell me about yourself,” you don’t bore them with everything you did over four years of high school, let alone the last 16 years of life. Impactful essays focus on a particular moment or collection of related moments. The reader can tell a lot about a character by some very focused stories. For example, she rescued a cat from a tree on her way to volleyball practice. 

Put the reader in the action.

You might also say “show, don’t tell.” Kate Sundquist offers this great example:

It’s boring to read: “I was overjoyed and felt empowered when I finished my first half marathon.” It’s much more interesting when the writing actually shows you what happened and what the writer felt in that moment: “As I rounded the final bend before the finish line, my heart fluttered in excitement. The adrenaline drowned out my burning legs and gasping lungs. I was going to finish my first half marathon! This was almost incomprehensible to me, as someone who could barely run a mile just a year ago.”

Incorporate visual elements.

Building on the last tip, use vocabulary to paint pictures. For instance, most students would say something like “I was nervous waiting for my name to be called.” Few will visualize the scene by mentioning sweaty palms. 

Keep it simple.

Plot twists are fun in books and movies, but here’s an exception for college essays. You don’t need a surprise ending. In fact, they’re hard to write well. Keep your essay simple and focused on the hero, conflict, and resolution.