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40/60 Essay Rule: Story Time Vs. Introspection

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40/60 Essay Rule: Story Time Vs. Introspection
Cassandra Cloutier
40/60 Essay Rule: Story Time Vs. Introspection

Your college admissions essay is not story time! Too many people treat stories as the most important part of their essays. This practice earns REJECTION LETTERS. Colleges are looking for people with drive and initiative, interpersonal skills, and a diversity of thought (as compared with other applicants). Telling a story or set of stories is one piece of the puzzle, but introspection is the most important piece.

“Your essay should be no more than 40% story. At least 60% should be spent on introspection.”

– Every college admissions officer ever


The story provides some background and sets the stage for the rest of the essay. It is good practice to start your essay with a story. Beginning with a story sets a good tone for the rest of the essay and acts as a hook; making your admissions officer more interested in admitting you. Yet, a majority of essays we edit here at Prompt do not properly execute their stories.

Authors commonly attempt to use long prose with descriptive language to describe their situation. Admissions officers do not care to learn every little detail about the time you built your first set of Legos. They are on a mission to understand you and how you will fit into their class. In other words, they need to understand what really makes you tick. A long story takes away from their ability to understand you by stealing words from the introspective topics that really matter.

Spend no more than 260 words telling stories (40% of a 650 word essay). Keep each story to 3-5 sentences. If starting out your essay with a story, use 4-5 sentences. If including a series of stories throughout your essay to help describe certain points, use shorter, 2-3 sentence stories. We know it may be hard to boil down your story to only a few sentences, but doing so is a must to get into your dream school.

Focus on the important aspects of your stories and remove all content that does not meaningfully add to the entertainment value of the essay without compromising space for introspection. You may need to “kill your babies”; meaning that you have to be willing to delete parts of your writing that you like for the sake of improving the overall essay. You will not get many extra points for using a few great adjectives or coming up with a great analogy. Kill these if they do not meaningfully add to the essay as you can use the space for introspection.


Introspection, the examination of your own mental and emotional state and mental processes, is hard. Many people do not like putting their feelings out there for other people to read, but doing so is necessary if you want to be admitted to your dream college. When you tell a story, you need to introspect: detail your thought process before, during, and after the story took place. Show; don’t tell.  Do not tell your readers what is occurring; instead, show them through introspection. What were you thinking at the time? What would you have done differently? How has the story changed your perspective on life? Why and how has the story changed your purpose in life?

Introspection is the meat of your essay. Your thesis should be an introspective statement and you should dedicate at least 60% of your word count to introspection (390 words in a 650-word essay). Admissions officers want to understand the way you think and how you approach various situations. The best essays sell their authors as capable people on a mission to do great things. Your capability for introspection is not only a key to your future success, but also enables the admissions officers to gain insight into the type of person you are and will be in the future. After all, introspection shows you possess the five traits that college readers look for.

Remember, your essay is not about telling a story or set of stories; it is about showing that you belong at the reader’s school. Keep your stories short and concise and use them to drive home your key introspective points. Make sure that you use your stories as supporting evidence for your introspective thesis. Execute on the 40/60 story time to introspection rule and you will be set for success.

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Cassandra Cloutier
Cassandra Cloutier is a NY-based actor, writer, and educator. She graduated from Marymount Manhattan College in 2019 with a BFA in acting, and her acting credits include Evil Lives Here on Discovery+ and productions at The Actor’s Temple and Shakespeare NYC. She worked as a Writing Coordinator and the Social Media Manager for Prompt for several years and until August 2023.