How to Write an Engaging College Application Essay: Use a Motif

For me, writing has been another way I make music. At first, it is staring at the cursor blinking metronomically on my computer’s screen, fingers fidgeting. It then explodes into a surge of text, tumbling onto the shore but desperately in need of refinement. It is running out of breath during difficult passages, frustrated sighs I let out following the difficult truth at which I always arrive: that rehearsal does not guarantee perfection. And yet, it liberates me. It is my mind yearning to create and my voice ready to project to the world. It is not just speaking; it is saying. 

As I contemplated how I should start this very blog post, I turned to a technique that I have relied on whenever I find myself stuck as a writera motif! 

Motifs are repeated storytelling elements, including sensory images, situations, actions and objects, that represent the key ideas of a piece of writing. They reappear throughout the piece to convey the overarching themes. Given that your college application essay is a narrative of your personal experience, using a motif can transform and enhance the story you are sharing to the admissions team. 

Choosing the motif 

It is essential you choose a motif that can be incorporated organically into your college application essay. To figure out your motif, all you need to do is ask yourself: what is something that I have had a personal and sustained connection with? The biggest misconception you can have is that the motif you choose needs to be the most creative or original to stand out. Your essay will flow more naturally if you work with a motif that has been important to you and that has appeared in various ways over the course of time in which you are writing about. 

What is something that you have always found yourself thinking about? For the introduction of this post, I chose music as my motif to help me articulate what writing feels like to me. Within this short passage, I explored the struggles of writing by providing the reader insight into the preparation that goes into performances, as well as the sense of empowerment that I feel when everything works out. Perhaps spoons are your favorite kitchen utensil, there with you as you measure the food, undertake the cooking process and finally what enables you to enjoy your meal. Even clapping can be a motif if it was taught to you by your parents as a child and their applause at the end of your dance recital was one of the proudest receptions you have had in your life. As long as the element has potential to recur throughout the essay, it can be a motif!

Answering the essay question

Once you have an idea of what motif you would like to have in your college application essay, you need to consider how it can be utilized to address the question you are answering. Common App questions typically invite you to delve into an aspect of your life (your identity, beliefs, background), or a memorable experience (accomplishment, challenge, event). They are designed to be broad enough for you to decide on your own topic and explain what significance it has to you. 

A helpful strategy you could use is to create a scaffold and outline the key points in the essay’s structure that you would like the motif to appear. Here is a plan for an essay exploring the impact my high school soccer coach had on my decision to keep playing when I was insecure about my athletic ability. In this example, I have chosen circles as a motif to integrate throughout the essay.

Sample College Essay Plan 

Common App Question 4: Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

Topic: School soccer coach who motivated me to be a better player

Motif: Circles

Introduction to Main Scene 

  • Feeling nervous about the penalty kick in a major competition. 
  • Motif: Describing the sickening sensation of my mind spinning as I wait for the whistle and how the circle at the center of the field felt like it was moving further away.


  • Not wanting to continue the sport due to feeling less competent than the other players.
  • Coach noticed that I was feeling left out and provided strategies to help me in training. 
  • Motif: Describe some of the circular formations I was taught, how it felt learning them and the gradual confidence I gained. 

Return to Main Scene

  • Turning around and to my surprise, I see my coach giving an encouraging nod and smile. 
  • Taking a deep breath and scoring. 
  • Motif: Focus re-oriented to the ball on the ground and its spherical shape. 

Concluding Reflection

  • Ending the essay by discussing gratitude towards the coach and the skills developed during time in the soccer team. 
  • Motif: Circling “yes” to rejoining the team the following year. 

Mapping out the motivic development in your essay will ensure that you are responding to the question and its meaning deepens as the reader continues engaging in it. 

Reflecting with and through the motif

Within your application, you should reveal through your motif the growth, skills, and qualities you have and what you would like to portray to college admissions officers. You can use the motif as a stimulus to first generate your scenes and, from them, reflect on what you have come to understand about your topic. 

For instance, I could have coins as a motif in an essay recounting my childhood living in a suburban area and how it has influenced my identity today. I might write about the sounds I associate with them, such as customers verbalizing their calculations before handing them to the local grocery store owner, the rattle they make when they are tossed to buskers, or the clinks I hear when my father slides them into the car park pay machines. From these descriptions, I could reflect on how I witnessed the impact of socioeconomic disadvantage on my local community, but also how hard work and resilience were modeled to me as admirable qualities for day-to-day success. This is an effective way to show, rather than tell, the reader what you have learned and how this will aid you in navigating through college. Therefore, you can elevate the motif from being another storytelling device into a vehicle for reflection that occurs throughout your essay. 

Ultimately, a motif that is authentic to you and the story you want the admissions team to immerse in will be what impresses them. Not only can the motif increase the quality of your writing, it can also help make the process of composing your college application essay more enjoyable and meaningful. After all, something as simple as a hobby you love might be all it takes to engage and convince the reader on the other end. Let your writing sing.

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About the Author:

Angelina Nguyen is an active contributor to the University of Sydney’s Honi Soit Newspaper and creator of a variety of educational resources. She proudly supports college applicants in their essay writing through our College Essay Program as an Expert Advisor.


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