Telling stories isn’t something people typically associate with engineers. Perhaps for good reason: practicing pages upon pages of calculus in anticipation of a midterm seems radically different from writing pages upon pages when ‘telling a story’ in the conventional sense. 

But recently, as my work as a student trainer with the Viterbi Re-Engineering Engineering Education (RE3) programme has picked up, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about the intersection of engineering and storytelling. RE3 is a newly launched initiative that aims to build empathy and inclusion within the Viterbi community by encouraging students to share stories about their educational experiences and identities in a way that is ideally meant to empower them. As a student trainer, I’ve spent the last few weeks speaking to first-year engineering students in Freshman Academy classes about precisely this: how do we tell our stories? 

But before I could facilitate a discussion on such a seemingly abstract question, I had to do some introspection of my own. I ended up writing my ‘story’ on the nature of belonging at college, and the struggle I faced with finding just one place to belong to at USC. Not really knowing what community I belonged to mirrored the confusion I felt when I first got to college, where I was an Indian student, who grew up in China, trying to feel at home in the United States. Writing and presenting my story and how I’ve come to understand belonging in a new way in the past three years was not only a cathartic experience, but in many ways it reminded me that storytelling has always been a part of my engineering experience. My college essays were perhaps the first real glimpse of that. 

Writing college essays is tough - there’s no two ways about it. But looking at college essays as mini-stories about yourself and your life instead of simply another set of requirements designed to test you and your engineering capacity may help alleviate some of the anxiety that comes with the writing process.

As a high school student, figuring out what ‘your story’ is can be hard, and it is completely natural to feel as though you simply haven’t had enough life experience to be able to talk about your journey in a profound way – I know that’s certainly how I felt. With that in mind, here are a few helpful tips that I hope may make things slightly easier:

1. Stop reading every single example essay you can find

Seriously. While reading example essays can give you a flavor for the tone and level of formality found in college essays, the reality of the situation is that every single college essay is meant to be different. Emulating a certain style of writing will not make the writing process easier, and often it can be counterproductive to writing in your own, authentic voice. Reading too many essays can also give you a false sense of scope: the idea that your essay must also align in some ways with the topics all the examples covered. So while reading a few can be reassuring, definitely do not go overboard! Instead of taking away ‘topic ideas’ or information on what style to write in, try to focus on how the essays are different and how they cover things that maybe you never considered would be relevant enough to include in a college essay.

2. Writing from scratch is tough - use an outline!

Staring at a blank screen and trying to write a sentence that functions as an effective ‘hook’ (or whatever other metaphor you may have been taught in your English classes) with no idea of where the essay is going to go later on is… difficult, to say the least. Creating a bullet pointed list of potential ideas that the prompt could be answered with is a great way to start and once you find one item that stands out to you, creating a mini outline (What things about this topic are most important to you? What do you want to highlight? What about it do you want to save until the end of the essay for most impact?) for that topic in particular can make the eventual writing a little easier. 

3. Talk it out

If you are struggling with coming up with a topic to write about, start talking to the people around you (your friends, family, peers, teachers) about things you are interested in. Hobbies, good memories, bad memories, and interests outside of school are all great ground to cover in a college essay, and chances are that a discussion with someone who has an outside perspective will spur your creative juices, and perhaps give you an idea for a topic that you may have previously cast aside. Talking to yourself also helps (seriously, it’s not that weird – I promise). Instead of trying to write down your responses to a prompt, it may feel more natural to record yourself talking through a prompt and making a list of potential ideas out loud instead of paper.

While the writing process varies greatly for everyone, the most important part of the process is trusting in yourself and trusting that whatever story you choose to tell through your essays is valid, valuable, and something that colleges want to know about.

And what did I write about? Surprisingly, it was about belonging, and how I never knew where home was while growing up. The fact that three years on, the same themes emerged while I was telling a story for an entirely unrelated task, is the best possible reminder that being a confused seventeen year old senior in high school didn’t mean that the story I chose to tell in my college essay wasn’t an important one.

Sheetal Madnani

Sheetal Madnani

MAJOR: Chemical Engineering YEAR: Class of 2021 HOMETOWN: Guangzhou, China PRONOUNS: she/her/hers INSTA: @sheetalmadnani On campus I have been involved with Model UN, Freshman Academy, and interning abroad through the USC Global Fellows program! I also conduct undergrad research in environmental policy and heat mitigation strategies.

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