Use the Secrets of Screenwriting to Write Your College Essay

Use the Secrets of Screenwriting to Write Your College Essay

The perfect time for students to start writing college essays is NOW! It may sound like a broken record, but encouraging students to start early will give them time to reflect on their essays and time for revisions (which there will be many).

We asked Ethan Sawyer, the College Essay Guy, to share his approach to helping students find their best story and tell it well.

Ethan applies the techniques and strategies of screenwriting to writing college essays. 


What Do Screenwriting and Colleges Essays Have in Common?

The Premise

I believe college essays are like short films. And knowing the structure of great films can help you write a great essay. How? Here’s a primer:

The Structure of a Good Story

The first step to harnessing the power of Hollywood’s story structure is learning to recognize these five storytelling elements:

  1. Status Quo: The initial state of affairs.

  2. Inciting Incident: [Something] happens to launch the story.

  3. Raising the Stakes: All the story events (twists and turns) that build suspense.

  4. Moment of Truth: The main character must make a choice.

  5. Outcome (aka New Status Quo): Things are different from when they began.


Video (see 26:21): I explain the five elements of storytelling.

           Toy Story (see 29:25): An example of how this popular movie uses these elements.

           Finding Nemo (see 32:25): Another example.

Once you understand the basics, the next step is figuring out how to tailor these storytelling elements to fit your story.

Four Types of College Essays

First, consider a Common App 1 prompt (also the University of California 1 prompt):

Describe the world you come from… and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.

Now consider these two questions:

1. Do you know what you want to be when you grow up?

2. Have you experienced hardship in your life?

While these aren’t precisely related to screenwriting, your answers are important keys to finding a potential path for your essay. Which of these types of essays resonates with you?

Four Types of College Essays

Notice I didn’t say “types of students”–they’re actually types of essays. Why? Because any student can write any of the four types, or can change from one type to the other during the process. Which of these sounds like you?


The Structure of Your College Essay

Once you’ve figured out what kind of essay you might like to write, it’s time to look at structure.

If you feel Type A or C might work well, Narrative structure can help you tell your story.

Video (see 36m18s): Check out this primer on understanding what narrative structure is all about.

           Example A Essay: Read an analysis with tips on writing a type A essay.

           Example C Essay: Read an analysis with tips on writing a type C essay.


If you are a Type B or D students, Montage structure is a useful tool for approaching your essay.

           Video (see 45m11s): Get a quick summary on what montage structure can do.

           Example B essay: Read an analysis on “Machines” with tips on writing a type B essay.

           Example D essay: Read an analysis on “Scrapbook” with tips on writing a type D essay


Not Sure What to Write About?

Try this exercise. Then this one.


Need Inspiration?

Here’s a whole page of stuff.








Ethan Sawyer

Ethan, the College Essay Guy, has been helping students tell their stories for the past 10 years. He is the author of College Essay Essentials.