11/16/2011 02:20 pm ET | Updated Jan 16, 2012

How to Turn Your Story Into a Winning College Essay

Imagine you've got a week until your college essay is due. You think it's impossible. You're worried it won't be good enough. Even worse, you're convinced you don't have anything worth writing about. But you do.

As a volunteer with College Access Now -- a program in the Seattle schools -- I've helped lots of students with their essays. Here's what I tell them when they're looking for a topic and wondering how to bring it to life.

Your personal statement is your chance to show who you are and why you're special in a way that test scores and grades can't. It can make the difference between being accepted or being turned down, so it's worth investing the time.

Brainstorming for a topic helps. Think about an experience that taught you something important about yourself. Maybe it was an experience you wish you hadn't had -- like growing up with a mother who was battling breast cancer or your own struggle with dyslexia. It could be something quirky -- like the time you volunteered at the local petting zoo and spent your summer shoveling elephant poop. Or something that gives you joy -- a hobby or a passion -- like playing the harp or rowing crew. For more brainstorming ideas, check out these.

If you're sure you don't have an interesting life, think about the weirdest thing you've ever done. Write about that.

The trick is to start with a snapshot of an important time in your life. Instead of sticking with the essay format you learned in English class -- introduction, points one, two, and three, and a conclusion -- write it like a story. Let it unfold, so readers will stay with you from start to finish.

Use a conversational voice -- but don't use slang. (And definitely avoid writing about touchy subjects like religion and politics, or sketchy activities: sexual, illegal, or otherwise.)

Weave in background and lots of detail. If you're a harpist, you could describe the moment you first realized you wanted to play the harp. Where were you? Who or what planted the idea in your head? How did you make your wish come true? What have you done with the harp since and where do you hope to go with it?

If your mother is battling breast cancer, you could describe a time when she was in the hospital and you took care of your younger siblings. How did you cope? Is there something you wish you'd done differently? How will you use what you learned in the future?

For examples of winning essays, check out "Birks & Barbie", "Surf's Up! In East LA?", and "My Hill". Each writer tells a story in their own voice, weaves in their interests and background, and reflects on what they've learned.

Many colleges have word limits for their essays, but don't worry about length when you're writing your first draft. Include the background and detail you need to make your story come alive. You can trim it later. Save the text you cut; you may be able to use it in a different essay. To shorten without cutting out the heart of your story, try using contractions and synonyms that contain fewer words.

Before you paste your essay into your application, ask at least two reviewers to read it and give you feedback. Teachers, parents, mentors, or friends can point out weak spots, ideas that need to be developed or cut, typos, and misspelled words. Spell check software won't highlight words that are spelled correctly but used incorrectly, like affect/effect and its/it's. Quality counts, so make sure your essay is completely ready before you click Submit.

As intimidating as this might sound, it's totally doable. Millions of seniors submit essays every year, and they succeed. So can you.