How to speak and write authentically—in college admissions and all of life

by Carol Barash, PhD, founder and CEO, Story2, and author of Write Out Loud © 2015 Story2. All rights reserved.

I was cleaning up my office recently and found my Strengths Assessment report from the days when software was delivered on a CD-ROM with a code to activate it when you put it in your home computer. More than a decade later, my core strengths still ring true: WOO (win over others), Innovation, Strategy, Decision-making, Team.

I laughed out loud: of course I’m most truly happy when I’m changing things and leading them; these ways of being are part of how I view myself and the world around me. The essential message of Strengthsfinder—at that time a recent offshoot of books by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton—was to forget about perceived weaknesses; instead find and foster your strengths. I made my husband and children take the Strengths Assessment too, and was amused to see how much our overlaps and differences made sense of daily habits that seemed intractable in each of us.

Those assessments made our daily skirmishes more explainable and manageable. And from that day to this I stopped worrying about what people aren’t good at—unless they clearly are good at it, and for some reason they are holding themselves back—and worked to nurture their most unique and essential strengths. So if you haven’t already used Thrively to find your strengths, you should definitely do that.

This knowledge will give you a mirror into who you are—innately—and what you bring without even thinking about it to everything you do. You will be surprised at how much gets easier and more fun when you take this point of view. One of my daughters went from thinking, “I’m bad at math” to “I solve math problems like an artist. I go by a different path, but I get the right answers.”

When you change how you think about yourself and talk about yourself, you change everything. As you venture out into the world, seeking internships, scholarships and college admission, finding your strengths is a key step to connecting with the programs and possibilities you want in your future. But finding your strengths is not enough. Amassing a resume of stuff that cultivates your strengths is not enough. And knowing that your strengths make you a perfect fit for a specific college or university is not enough either.

There are thousands—often tens of thousands—of people who are a great fit for these opportunities. What you’re great at is not unique. But what you’ve done with that greatness is totally your own. You allow college admissions officers to say “yes” to you by showing them what it means to have you as a person in their community. You make a case for what you will do in the future by telling stories about what you have done in the past.


There are three key steps to telling your unique stories in a way that connects with other people. In Write Out Loud, I describe these three steps as Find, Shape and Perform:

  • Find: Where are moments in your life that reveal your core strengths? These may be everyday moments, things you don’t think about as special. To the person who is innately creative, new ideas come as a matter of course. For each of your strengths, take the time to explore different moments that show that strength in action—even if it’s something like introspection, what does that mean about who you are and how you interact with other people? Story2 can help you explore the moments that reveal your strengths in action—aka, your strength of character.
  • Shape: The human brain loves stories. We love telling them and listening to them. Stories connect us in a way that is primitive and powerful. And stories drive us to take action in the present. So someone you entrust with your stories will want to know you, work with you, and advocate for you. At Story2 we teach you how to tell your stories out loud, and how to use the brain’s innate storytelling toolkit to speak and write authentically.
  • Perform: Every time you tell your story—out loud or in writing—is a unique event. The audience is different, the setting is different, and your telling is different. The time spent learning about your audience, empowers you to connect with them authentically and tell your story in a way that makes sense to them. What will they be listening for? What are the stories they tell about themselves? What matters most to them? This research also enables you to ask questions that draw out your audience’s most important stories, rather than the superficial things they often say first.

When I’d completed that original Strengthsfinder, I was in a career transition from Business Development to Fundraising: I thought I would be happier shifting my volunteer role in fund-raising (very WOO) into the core of my everyday work. But when I got there, I was not happy at all! I missed the problem-solving and analysis of matching client needs with my company’s services, and most of all I desperately longed for what I call “teamness”—a group of people defining and working towards a shared creation. It took me a long time, a lot of missteps —and a lot of storytelling—to figure out that wooing diverse people into a community that empowers them to work together in new ways is where my strengths come together. That community is Story2.

CarolDr. Carol Barash, former English professor and advisor to the admissions committee at Douglass College, Rutgers University, author of Write Out Loud, and founder and CEO of Story2, has empowered over 20,000 students to write authentic admission and scholarship essays. She has been building digital communications tools for over 20 years, and through Story2 teaches the art and science of storytelling to expand college access and career readiness for all people. Have questions about storytelling, college admissions, and life choices? Ask her anything on Twitter @carolbarash.

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