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Master the Five-Paragraph Essay
The five-paragraph essay is one of the most common composition assignments out there, whether for high school or college students. It is a classic assignment because it presents an arena in which writers can demonstrate their command of language and punctuation, as well as their logic and rhetorical skills. These skills are useful not only for classroom assignments and college application essays, but even in the business world, as employees have to write memorandums and reports, which draw on the same skills.
Mastering the five-paragraph essay is doable, and here are some tips.
Components of a Good Essay
The five-paragraph essay lives up to its name, because is has five paragraphs, as follows: an introductory paragraph that includes a thesis, three body paragraphs, each which includes support and development, and one concluding paragraph.
Its structure sometimes generates other names for the same essay, including three-tier essay, one-three-one, or a hamburger essay. Whether you are writing a cause-and-effect essay, a persuasive essay, an argumentative essay or a compare-and-contrast essay, you should use this same structure and the following specifics.
Keys to Introductory Paragraphs
Any introductory paragraph contains from three to five sentences and sets up the tone and structure for the whole essay. The first sentence should be a so-called hook sentence and grabs the reader. Examples of hook sentences include a quote, a joke, a rhetorical question or a shocking fact. This is the sentence that will keep your readers reading. Draw them in.
What Makes a Thesis Statement
The last sentence should be your thesis statement, which is the argument you are going to make in the essay. It is the sentence that contains the main point of the essay, or what you are trying to prove. It should be your strongest claim in the whole essay, telling the reader what the paper is about. You should be able to look back at it to keep your argument focused. The other sentences in this paragraph should be general information that links the first sentence and the thesis.
Content of Supporting Paragraphs
Each of the next three paragraphs follows the same general structure of the introductory paragraph. That is, they have one introduction sentence, evidence and arguments in three to five sentences, and a conclusion. Each one of them should define and defend your thesis sentence in the introduction.
The first body paragraph should be dedicated to proving your most powerful point. The second body paragraph can contain your weakest point, because the third body paragraph can, and should, support another strong argument.
Concluding Paragraph Tips
Your concluding paragraph is important, and can be difficult. Ideally, you can begin by restating your thesis. Then you can recall or restate all three to five of your supporting arguments. You should summarize each main point. If you have made similar arguments multiple times, join those together in one sentence.
Essentially, in the concluding or fifth paragraph, you should restate what your preceding paragraphs were about and draw a conclusion. It should answer the question: So what? Even if the answer seems obvious to you, write it down so that your reader can continue to easily follow your thinking process, and hopefully, agree with you.
A Note on Compare and Contrast
Let’s look a little more closely at the compare-and-contrast essay, which is a very common assignment. It can be a confusing one due to the terms used. Comparing two items is to show how they are alike. Contrasting two items is to show how they are different. One way to approach this essay is to make a grid for yourself that compares or contrasts two items before you start writing. Then, write about those characteristics. Do not try to write about both. The name of the essay is actually misleading.
Keep these pointers in mind when you need to write a five-paragraph essay, and your end result will be clear in its argument, leading your reader to the right conclusion. Often, that conclusion is to agree with you, and who doesn’t like to be right?
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10 Great Essay Writing Tips
Knowing how to write a college essay is a useful skill for anyone who plans to go to college. Most colleges and universities ask you to submit a writing sample with your application. As a student, you’ll also write essays in your courses. Impress your professors with your knowledge and skill by using these great essay writing tips.
Prepare to Answer the Question
Most college essays ask you to answer a question or synthesize information you learned in class. Review notes you have from lectures, read the recommended texts and make sure you understand the topic. You should refer to these sources in your essay.
Plan Your Essay
Many students see planning as a waste of time, but it actually saves you time. Take a few minutes to think about the topic and what you want to say about it. You can write an outline, draw a chart or use a graphic organizer to arrange your ideas. This gives you a chance to spot problems in your ideas before you spend time writing out the paragraphs.
Choose a Writing Method That Feels Comfortable
You might have to type your essay before turning it in, but that doesn’t mean you have to write it that way. Some people find it easy to write out their ideas by hand. Others prefer typing in a word processor where they can erase and rewrite as needed. Find the one that works best for you and stick with it.
View It as a Conversation
Writing is a form of communication, so think of your essay as a conversation between you and the reader. Think about your response to the source material and the topic. Decide what you want to tell the reader about the topic. Then, stay focused on your response as you write.
Provide the Context in the Introduction
If you look at an example of an essay introduction, you’ll see that the best essays give the reader a context. Think of how you introduce two people to each other. You share the details you think they will find most interesting. Do this in your essay by stating what it’s about and then telling readers what the issue is.
Explain What Needs to be Explained
Sometimes you have to explain concepts or define words to help the reader understand your viewpoint. You also have to explain the reasoning behind your ideas. For example, it’s not enough to write that your greatest achievement is running an ultra marathon. You might need to define ultra marathon and explain why finishing the race is such an accomplishment.
Answer All the Questions
After you finish writing the first draft of your essay, make sure you’ve answered all the questions you were supposed to answer. For example, essays in compare and contrast format should show the similarities and differences between ideas, objects or events. If you’re writing about a significant achievement, describe what you did and how it affected you.
Stay Focused as You Write
Writing requires concentration. Find a place where you have few distractions and give yourself time to write without interruptions. Don’t wait until the night before the essay is due to start working on it.
Read the Essay Aloud to Proofread
When you finish writing your essay, read it aloud. You can do this by yourself or ask someone to listen to you read it. You’ll notice places where the ideas don’t make sense, and your listener can give you feedback about your ideas.
Avoid Filling the Page with Words
A great essay does more than follow an essay layout. It has something to say. Sometimes students panic and write everything they know about a topic or summarize everything in the source material. Your job as a writer is to show why this information is important.
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Last updated October 3, 2023
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Blog > Common App , Essay Examples , Personal Statement > 20 College Essay Examples (Graded by Former Admissions Officers)
20 College Essay Examples (Graded by Former Admissions Officers)
Admissions officer reviewed by Ben Bousquet, M.Ed Former Vanderbilt University
Written by Alex McNeil, MA Admissions Consultant
Have you ever wondered what goes through an admissions officer’s mind as they read college essays?
Now’s your chance.
This post takes you behind that dark, mysterious admissions curtain to show you what exceptional, good, and “bad” college essays look like. And we don’t just show them to you.
We’ve asked our team of former admissions officers to read through the essays, analyze them, offer editing ideas, and assign them grades.
So join us on this college essay example journey so you know what to do (and what not to do) as you write all your college essays this fall.
Let’s get started.
How to Use College Essay Examples
Here’s the thing. People in college admissions have lots of different opinions about whether students should read example essays. But we believe that reading example essays is a crucial step in the college essay writing process.
If you don’t know what a college essay looks like, then how should you expect yourself to write one?
So reading examples is important.
However! There’s a caveat. The point of reading college essay examples isn’t to copy them or even to get inspiration from them. It’s to analyze them and apply what you’ve learned to your own college essay.
To help you do that, our team of former admissions officers has taken this super-comprehensive compilation of college essay examples and pointed out exactly what you need to know before you start writing.
Let me break down how this post works:
We’ve put together a great variety of college essay examples and sorted them into three categories, including…
- Best college essay examples: these examples are the creme-de-la-creme. They’re written by a small percentage of students who are exceptional writers.
- Good college essay examples: these examples are solid. They do exactly what they need to do on the admissions committee floor. You’re aiming to write a good college essay.
- “Bad” college essay examples: these examples illustrate a few of the most common college essay mistakes we see.
Our former admissions officers have assigned each essay a letter grade to help you understand where it falls on the scale of “bad” college essays to exceptional college essays.
Alongside our categorization and grades, our former admissions officers have also annotated the essays and provided concrete feedback about what works and what could be improved.
The majority of essays you’ll see here are written in response to the Common Application personal statement prompts. We’ve also included a few stellar supplemental essays at the end of the post.
How an Admissions Officer Reads College Essays
All admissions officers are different. And all institutions ask their admissions officers to read in different ways.
But there are a few strategies that shape how the majority of admissions officers read college essays. (If you want a look behind the mysterious admissions curtain, read our post about how admissions offices read tens of thousands of applications every year .)
First, we need to talk about application reading as a whole.
Remember that admissions officers are reading your college essays in the context of your entire application. It’s likely that by the time they get to your essay, they’ve already glanced at your background information, activities, and transcript. They may have even looked at your letters of recommendation or additional information.
Why is this detail important? It matters because your college essays need to be in conversation with the rest of your application. We refer to this strategy as adopting a “ cohesive application narrative .” Your unique personal brand—who you are, what you’re good at, what you value—should emerge across all of your application materials.
To summarize: your college essays don’t exist in a vacuum. Your admissions officers learn about who you are from your entire application, and your college essays are the place where you get to tell them exactly what you want them to know. You should write them in a way that creates balance among the other parts of your application.
So once your admissions officers get to your college essays, what are they looking for?
They’re looking for several things. Each of your essays doesn’t have to address all of these points, but they are a great place to start:
- Personal narrative that explains who you are and where you come from
- Details about specific activities, accomplishments, or inclinations
- Personality traits that make you who you are
- Lessons you’ve learned throughout your life
- Values that you hold dear
- Information about how you interact with the world around you
- Highlights about what makes you special, strong, interesting, or unique
What do all of these points have in common? They revolve around your core strengths . We’ve written more extensively about core strengths in our college essay writing guide . But for now, just know this: your college essays should tell admissions officers something positive about yourself. They want to know who you are, what motivates you, and why you would be an active contributor to their campus.
As we go through the following example essays, remember: college essays are read alongside the rest of your application, and college admissions officers read your essays to learn about your core strengths.
Okay, let’s get to it. Ready? Buckle up.
The Best College Essay Examples
As an admissions officer, every so often you come across an essay that blows you away. It stops you in your tracks, makes you laugh or cry, or resonates deeply with you. When exceptional essays come through your application bin, you’re reminded what an honor it is to get these fleeting glimpses into incredible students’ lives.
As an applicant, you may be wondering how to write this kind of exceptional college essay. Unfortunately, there’s no simple formula. You can’t “hack” your way into it. You have to write vulnerable, authentically, and beautifully—which is much easier said than done. We have a whole guide on how to write a personal statement that stands out, so we recommend that you start there.
For now, let’s take a look at some of our favorites.
College Essay Example #1: The Gospel of Steve
The first college essay we'll look at got an A+ grade and is about the writer's experience with depression and... Steve Irwin. It's a common application essay. Check it out:
" In sophomore year, I struggled with depression((While this is a fantastic essay, this hook could definitely be stronger.)) . I felt like I was constantly battling against the darkness that seemed to be closing in on me. Until, that is, I found solace in the teachings of Steve Irwin.((This unusual last sentence drew me in when I read this for the first time.))
When I first discovered Steve Irwin and his show "The Crocodile Hunter," I was captivated by his passion for wildlife. He was fearless, jumping into danger without hesitation to save an animal in need. But it was more than just his bravery that inspired me; it was his infectious energy and love for life. Watching him on TV, I couldn't help but feel a little bit better about my own struggles.((This explicit reflection does a fantastic job connecting the writer’s experiences to this Steve Irwin reference.))
But it wasn't until I read his biography that I truly felt the impact Steve had on my life. In the book, he talked openly about his own struggles with depression. He talked about the dark moments in his life, when he felt like he was drowning in despair. But he also talked about how he fought back against the darkness, how he refused to let it consume him, and how he turned his depression into a career that allowed him to follow his biggest passions.
Reading Steve's words, I felt like he was speaking directly to me.((Another beautiful transition)) I wasn't alone in my struggles if someone as brave and fearless as Steve had faced similar challenges. And that gave me the courage to keep going. I started visiting a therapist, exercising regularly, and practicing mindfulness meditation. Day by day, I lifted myself out of my depression–all with a healthy dose of “Crocodile Hunter” each evening after I finished my homework((The writer does a great job focusing on action steps here.)) .
One of the things that I admired most about Steve was his ability to find joy and laughter in the most unlikely places. He was always cracking jokes, even in the face of danger. He taught me that laughter and humor can be a powerful tool in the fight against depression. I went looking for the humor in my own struggles. I started learning about how stand-up comedy works, and wrote my own five-minute skit finding the humor and silver lining((The writer expands their connection to Steve Irwin even more through this comedy thread.)) in my depression. I wasn’t a great comic, let me tell you. But being able to channel my experience into something positive—something that helped others laugh—was extremely gratifying to me.
Depression((The reflection in this paragraph is exactly what writers need to tie all the information together before reaching the conclusion.)) is a bizarre thing. One day, you’re besieged by it from every side and it looks like there’s no way out. Then, two months later, if you’re diligent, you look around the world and wonder what you ever had to be upset about. You find goodness and light in the things around you—your friends, your family, your habits, and your hobbies. These forces act as buttresses to keep you standing up and moving forward.
As silly as it may sound, I credit Steve Irwin with that first buttress. His experience and outlook on life gave me the push I needed to cultivate bravery and resilience in the face of my struggle with mental health. My eternal goal is now to practice the gospel of Steve—to always pass along humor, passion, and encouragement to others, especially to those who seem down and out. Thank you, Steve."
Word Count: 525
Admissions Officer Notes on The Gospel of Steve
This essay captured my attention because of its unique pairing of a tough subject—depression—with a light-hearted and endearing topic—Steve Irwin.
The writer doesn’t dwell in the experience of depression but instead finds hope and light by focusing on how their favorite TV star changed their perspective. Why this essay stands out:
- Great organization and sign-posting . The essay clearly progresses through each part of the writer’s journey. The first sentence of each paragraph signals to the reader what that paragraph will be about.
- Focus on action steps. It’s very apparent that this writer is a do-er. The focus of the essay is on the way they emerged from their depression, not on the depression itself.
- Meaningful reflection. Especially in the second-to-last paragraph and conclusion, the writer beautifully reflects on what depression and hope mean to them.
- Core strengths. From this essay alone, I gather that the writer is a sage archetype . They clearly show their wisdom and ability to persist through challenges.
Most importantly, they’ve written the essay around communicating their core strengths.
College Essay Example #2: The Embroidery Scientist
This essay is about a writer's Etsy store and the connection she draws between fashion and science.
I stretch the thin fabric over my hoop and pull it tight, wedging the nested rings between my legs to secure them shut with my other hand((This hook is compelling. It makes us ask, “What in the world is the writer doing?” We are compelled to read on to find out.)) .
Next I get out the thread. Each color is wound tightly around a paper spool and stored in a container whose original purpose was to store fishing tackle.
I look at the pre-printed design on the fabric and decide what colors to select. Orange, red, pink, yellow–this design will be as bright and happy as I can make it.
Embroidery is where the STEM and creative parts of my identity converge((Here we get a clear, explicit statement of the writer’s main point. This isn’t always necessary, but it can help your reader navigate your essay more easily if you have a lot going on.)) . My STEM side is calculated. She meticulously plans the designs, mocks them up in photoshop, and painstakingly transfers them onto the fabric. She organizes each thread color by its place in ROYGBIV and cuts every piece to an identical length of 18”. Her favorite stitch is the French Knot, with its methodical “one, two” wrap sequence. For her, art is about precision.
My creative side, on the other hand, is messy. She throws thread scraps on the floor without hesitation, and she haphazardly adds design elements in pen. She does a Lazy Daisy stitch very lazily while adding an indescribable flourish to a simple backstitch. Her methods are indeed madness: she’ll border a design with glitter glue, hang a finished project upside down, or stitch a big red X over a perfectly good embroidery. For her, art is about meaning.
While these two sides of myself may seem at odds((Seamless transition to talking about Etsy accomplishment)) , they actually complement each other perfectly. At least, that’s what 3,000 of my Etsy customers think. From three-inch hoops to massive wall hangings, my Etsy shop is a compilation of the best embroidery I’ve ever done. My precision and meaning have earned me hundreds of five-star reviews from customers whose lives I’ve impacted with my art. And none of that art would have been possible without STEM me and creative me.
My STEM and creative side complement each other in more than my embroidery life too. What began as a creative side hustle has actually made me a better scientist((Another good transition to discussing passion and talent for science)) .
Before I started embroidering, I approached the lab bench with an eye like a ruler. Poured a millimeter too much liquid? Better get a pipette. Went a degree over boiling? Time to start over. My lab reports demonstrated my knowledge, skill, and care, but they didn’t show any innovation or ingenuity. My precision led me to be a good scientist but not an exceptional one.
I realized that to be exceptional, I needed to think like a real scientist. While scientists are careful and precise, they are also interrogators. They constantly question the world around them, identifying previously unseen problems and finding creative solutions. To become the scientist I wanted to be, I needed to allow myself to be more creative((This is a good example of what reflection throughout the essay should look like.)) .
When I had this realization, I had just begun my embroidery business. I didn’t understand that my creativity could also be so useful in the lab. I set out on a new path to use more creativity in the pursuit of science.
To inspire myself, I brought an embroidery project to the lab. On it, I stitched a compound microscope and a quote from one of my favorite scientists, Marie Curie. It reads, “ I am among those who think that science has great beauty.”
In the lab now, I’m not afraid to take risks and try new things((Here we see clear personal growth.)) . When I boil my mixture too long, I still start over. But occasionally, when my teacher permits, I do a second experiment on the rejected liquid just to see what will happen. Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes it results in utter failure. But other times, my mistakes create blue, green, and purple mixtures, mixtures that bubble and burst and fizz. All of these experiments are stitches in my quest to become a cancer researcher. They are messy, but they are beautiful((The conclusion ties beautifully back to the beginning, and we also learn what the writer is interested in pursuing in the future.)) .
Admissions Officer Notes on "Embroidery Scientist"
This writer has done an excellent job talking about two very different aspects of their identity. What I love about this essay is that the structure of the essay itself shows the writer’s creativity and precision. The essay is well-organized and precise, but the writing has a unique and creative flair. It demonstrates the writer’s point exactly. I also appreciate how the writer doesn’t just talk about these parts of their identity. They explicitly connect their creativity and precision to their future goals as a scientist.
Why this essay stands out:
- Creative approach: The writer doesn’t just say, “I have two identities: creative and logical.” Instead, they illustrate that point through the wonderful example of embroidery. Connecting embroidery with science also shows this creativity.
- Attention-grabbing hook: The introductory paragraphs place readers immediately into the essay. We’re drawn in because we’re curious what the writer is doing and how it will evolve into a more meaningful message.
- Connection between personal and academic interests: The writer makes it clear why this story matters for their life in college. The creative and precise personalities aren’t inconsequential—they have a real effect on who this person wants to be.
- Forward-looking conclusion: The writer ends by subtly telling admissions officers what they’re interested in doing during and after college.
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College Essay Example #4: Poetry Slam
When I first met Simon, he was neither speaking nor singing. He was doing something in between(( This hook is a good “statement” hook that raises more questions than it answers.)) . With words that flowed together like an ancient tributary, he spoke music. His hands grasping a microphone, he swayed slowly from side to side. He was a poet. But unlike that of Yeats or Dickenson, Simon’s poetry wasn’t meant to be read on a page—it was meant to be experienced like an aural work of art. And I had never experienced anything more beautiful. Disheartened, I realized that my words would never sound like Simon’s(( These two sentences are essential because otherwise the introduction would be all about Simon, not the writer.)) .
I sat in my on-deck seat. Forgetting that I was up next, I admired his craft. The crescendos and decrescendos that mirrored his pacing, the quick staccatos that punctuated each stanza, the rhymes so subtle they almost disappeared—every second of his spoken word pulled me further from reality. I listened to his words like a devout in church(( This is good sentence pacing. A long, winding sentence is followed by a short one that keeps our attention and propels us forward.)) . Closing my eyes, I joined my hands together to count the syllables. From the outside, it probably looked like I was praying. And maybe I was. When Simon’s poem ended, the audience, though betrayed by the silence, erupted into applause.
It was my turn. I had spent an entire year perfecting my poem. My sister had grown accustomed to kicking me under the dinner table when someone asked me a question. She knew that my mind was in my beloved poetry notebook, mentally analyzing my latest draft. I’ve never been one for living in the moment. My report cards usually feature comments like, “She’s a good student but has trouble paying attention.” I’m always the first one out in dodgeball because my mind is completely absent from the school gym. But what seems like inattention to my teachers is actually a kind of profound focus(( This reflection widens the essay’s scope and reveals more about who the writer is as a person.)) .
When writing slam poetry, I become completely consumed. I like to start with the words. The rhythm and intonation come with time. For me, it’s about translating a feeling into language. It’s no easy task, but it feels like an obligation. Once the words come into being, they’re like a twister in my mind(( Good (and sparing) use of figurative language.)) . They spin and spin, destroying every other thought in their path. I can’t focus on anything else because, in the aftermath of a twister, nothing else exists.
And there on the stage, nothing else existed besides me and my poem. I spoke it into existence. Like Simon, I wrapped my hands around the microphone, willing my poem to be heard. The twister exited my mind and entered the world.
A few weeks ago(( Excellent signposting)) , I watched the recording of my first poetry slam, that slam two years ago when I saw Simon perform for the first time. I saw myself climb on stage from the dark abyss of the audience. I looked small, all alone on that big stage. My voice shook as I began. But soon, my poem rendered the stage smaller and smaller. I filled the darkness with words.
As I watched myself on my computer, I thought about how I felt that day, awe-struck in the audience by Simon’s work. I felt like I’d never be able to sound like him. And I was right. My poem didn’t sound like Simon’s, and none of my poems ever would. But in this moment, I realized that they were just as beautiful. My words sounded like me(( Beautiful conclusion that really drives home just how much this person has grown. They don’t need to sound like Simon. They need to sound like themself.)) .
Word Count: 552
Admissions Officer Notes on Poetry Slam
We would call this essay a “sacred practice” essay. It’s clear that slam poetry is deeply meaningful to the writer. They even call it “an obligation.” It’s a beautiful essay that also reflects the writer’s interest in poetry. They have some nice figurative language that adds interest to the story—it’s almost like the essay is in some ways a poem itself. And the story is a good one: it demonstrates the writer’s fears, strengths, and growth.
- Deeply meaningful: We say it all the time because it’s true: college essays should be vulnerable and deeply meaningful. This essay oozes meaning. The writer even connects their love of slam poetry to who they are as a person.
- Good organization and signposting: The narrative in this essay is a little complicated as the writer switches between the slam poetry event, reflection on past events, and reflection during current day. But because each paragraph is about a single topic, and because they use very clear topic sentences and transitions, it’s easy to follow the narrative thread.
- Theme: The main theme in this essay is that the writer found their own voice through slam poetry. They had to experience growth to come to this realization. The very last sentence of the essay wonderfully ties back to the introduction and wraps up the entire essay.
College Essay Example #4: The Muscle Show
My parents are the scrapbooking type(( I’m intrigued by this hook! It makes me ask, “Where is this essay going?”)) . The crafty, crazy-cut scissors and construction paper, okay-everyone-make-a-silly-face-for-this-picture type.
Every summer, my entire family rents a small house in Wildwood, New Jersey for a week to catch up and enjoy the beach and good company. My favorite part is spending time with my cousin Steven, who is one year older than me. To us, there is nothing better than two pockets full of quarters, strolling down the boardwalk headed to an arcade, licking an ice cream cone, and laughing at all the novelty t-shirts for sale(( This sentence beautifully gives us a sense of place. It evokes a sense of nostalgia, too.)) .
We have a “down the shore” scrapbook proudly displayed on our coffee table that holds memories from each of our family vacations. The scrapbook(( Ah-ha. A quick answer to our scrapbooking question.)) is such a fixture in our house that it blends in with its surroundings and I fully forgot it existed until this past March. I happened to pick it up and look at pictures from the first year we went. I was four, Steven was five, and there we were, shirtless in the living room, proudly displaying our kid “muscles” in front of a handmade sign that said “WELCOME 2 THE MUSLE SHOW”.
I cried when I saw it.
No, not because we spelled muscle wrong. The four-year-old in that picture had such a small and fragile frame. I was the kind of child who almost looked like they had six-pack abs because they are so slim. There was so much naivety in that picture that no longer exists(( With this sentence, our writer begins to embark on their journey.)) .
I started gaining weight–a lot of weight–around the fifth grade. My parents are wonderful role models in the way they treat others, but they aren’t exactly paragons of healthy eating. Looking through the scrapbook, none of the adults in my family were particularly healthy. I distinctly remember my dad saying to me sometime in elementary school, “what do these people go to the gym for, anyway? What are you going to do with all those muscles?” I spent elementary and middle school on a steady diet of McDonald’s, Doritos, and video games.
I hit 200 pounds at age 14. One day in my least favorite class, PE, we had to do a push-up competition. Not only could I not do one, I was out of breath just getting up and down from the floor. Something had to change(( And here is our inciting incident in this narrative arc)) .
I turned to one thing I was good at to figure out a solution: reading. I read books like “Why We Get Fat” by Gary Taubes and started to learn the science behind calories, carbs, insulin, and soon, exercise. Even though neither of my parents had ever been inside a gym, I convinced them to buy me some training sessions and a membership that Christmas.
It’s remarkable what happens when you suddenly stop consuming fried chicken and soda, go for a daily 20-minute power walk, and exercise a few times a week. Progress in losing weight actually came sooner than I expected. By sophomore year, I was lifting weights four times a week after school and felt more comfortable in the gym than anywhere else.
I also noticed my attitude towards schoolwork was changing(( This is a good transition to widen the scope of the essay and talk about the broader implications of this journey on the writer’s life.)) . I felt like I had control in my life for the first time. I had spent countless hours trying to “level up” fake characters in video games (OK, I still do that…). But leveling up myself–my own body and mind–was life changing. So much in life is out of our control, but realizing that, at least to an extent, my own health is within my control brought a new sense of purpose, responsibility, and pride.
Today, I’m at a healthy weight, my grades have improved, and I have even taken several of my friends to the gym for their first time. I look forward to continuing my healthy trend in college and beyond.
I’ll see Steven again at this summer’s beach trip. We have decided to recreate the “musle show” picture–this time with better spelling and in better health(( This short conclusion wraps everything up and has a great callback to the beginning of the essay.)) .
Admissions Officer Notes on The Muscle Show
What I like about this essay is how it weaves together multiple parts of this writer’s life. We get their family background, their sense of self, and their values, interests, and goals. The writer takes us on a journey with them. We see their determination in finding solutions to the problems they’re facing, and we also clearly see their personality and voice.
- Upward-trending growth structure : This writer nails this essay structure. We clearly see that they begin at a “point A” where things aren’t so great, and they steadily make their way to “point B.” By the end, we truly get a sense of how they’ve grown through the journey.
- Connections: This essay isn’t just about the writer’s health journey. It’s also about their “sense of purpose, responsibility, and pride.” Their changes expanded to even more parts of their life, and we can see that they are a person who takes initiative and gets creative with solutions.
- Conclusion: I especially love the way this conclusion brings everything full-circle. The “musle show” reference. at the end ties the journey nicely together with a bow and ends with a sense of forward movement.
College Essay Example #5: The Stop Sign
While some high schoolers get in trouble for skipping class, I get in trouble for arguing with my local government officials on Twitter. But when lives are at stake, I can take the heat(( Very catchy, humorous, and personality-filled hook)) .
I live at the intersection of 33rd and Spruce. The intersection itself sits between a large bend and a bundle of white oak trees—a recipe for obstructed views. Drivers careen around the corner, Indy 500-style, and are abruptly met with oncoming traffic. Neither can see the other through the oaks. What is otherwise a beautiful intersection makes for awfully dangerous driving conditions.
Living by this intersection my whole life, I’ve heard countless crashes and collisions. The screeching tires and cacophony of crushing car parts is seared in my mind. As neighbors, we are often the first on the scene. Cell phone in hand, I’ve run out to help several motorists who didn’t know what was coming. After the most recent crash, where a car flipped into the ditch, I knew that something had to change(( The writer has set the scene with a vivid description, and these sentences draw our attention to what’s at stake. They need a stop sign, and it’s clear that the writer is on a mission to get one.)) . We needed a stop sign.
I began with a google search, which led me to my local Stop Sign Request Form. According to the form, a government official would reach out to me. If they deemed it appropriate, we’d work together to assess whether the intersection qualified for a stop sign.
Their response took months. While I waited, I began collecting evidence on my own(( The writer’s initiative shines through.)) . After noticing that the security camera on my house pointed toward the intersection, I decided to put the skills I’d been developing in AP Computer Science to work. I wrote a simple code that tabulated the number of cars that passed through the intersection each day(( Here we see the technical skills the writer is developing.)) . Briefly reviewing the footage each night also helped me determine how many cars were likely going over the posted speed limit of forty miles per hour. Alongside these statistics, I went back into our cloud history to find footage of the crashes that had occurred.
When I finally heard back from the city, I was ready to make my case. My confidence deflated as soon as I opened the email(( Oh no! There’s a roadblock. Things aren’t progressing as the writer hoped.)) : Thank you for filling out a Stop Sign Request Form , the email read. At this time, we do not have reason to believe that the intersection of 33rd Street and Spruce Street meets the criteria for a two-way stop sign. The city had disagreed with my recommendation and denied my request.
I took a moment to collect myself. How could the city not care about the safety of its citizens? Were human lives not worth looking into a simple stop sign? I took to Twitter, posting statistics from my research, photos of the obstructed view, and a security camera compilation of cars speeding by. I tagged my local representatives, and I asked for help(( But the writer doesn’t focus on the problem. They continue to focus on their action steps and solutions. That’s exactly how you talk about a personal challenge in a college essay.)) .
While not all of them were receptive to my post, one particularly helpful representative connected me with my city’s City Engineer. The representative instructed me to send the City Engineer all of the evidence I had collected along with another copy of my Stop Sign Request Form.
The engineer was impressed with the code I wrote and the tracking system I’d put together, and she agreed to meet me at my house to do an inspection of the intersection. I accompanied her on the inspection so I could watch what she did. After working so hard to advocate for my community, it felt good to have my opinions heard.
In the end, I got my stop sign(( The writer emphasizes that it wasn’t just about winning the stop sign debate. It was about the community impact. And what do admissions officers want to see? Yep, community impact.)) . Drivers still occasionally speed, but I was astounded by the outpouring of thanks I received after my neighborhood was alerted of the change. My foray into local government was an eventful but rewarding one. And even though I’ve secured my stop sign, I’ll still be doing stop sign research this summer— this time as an intern at the City Engineer’s office(( And the writer pops in this awesome opportunity they’ve earned as a result. As an AO, I would see that they are continuing to prepare for college as their high school career is coming to a close.)) .
Word Count: 641
Admissions Officer Notes on The Stop Sign
This essay combines a story of personal strengths with an impactful accomplishment. It’s not necessary to write about one of your accomplishments in your college essays, but if that’s the route you want to go down, then this approach is a good one. Notice how it focuses on concrete action steps, emphasizes the skills the writer learned and used, and highlights how their actions impacted their community. A stop sign may seem small in the grand scheme of things, but the writer shows just how important this effort was.
- Community impact: The accomplishment this writer chose to write about is an impressive one. Admissions officers are always looking at how applicants interact with their communities, so this story showcases the writer’s willingness to help and engage with those around them.
- Strengths: Above all, we see that the writer is solutions-oriented. They are a “founder” or “builder” archetype and aren’t afraid to tackle hard problems. The writer also explicitly shows how they solved the problem using impressive skills.
- Narrative momentum : This essay is easy to read because we’re always wondering what’s going to happen next. The hook is very catchy, the ups and downs of the writer’s struggle to solve this problem are clear, and the conclusion points to the overall significance of the story and looks toward its future impact.
College Essay Example #6: Fran’s Flower Farm
Surrounded(( The hook is interesting and vivid.)) by carnations, dahlias, and marigolds, I laid down on the hard dirt, sweating from the midday sun. While my garden was a labor of love, it was still a labor. I’d spent months during the beginning of the pandemic researching how to set up beds correctly, choose seeds and fertilizers, and run a small business(( We get plopped right into the story without wasting any time.)) . A year later, this summer would be the second harvest of Fran’s Flower Farm.
As I prepared the yield for my small table at that week’s farmers market, I reflected on how far I had come(( This transitional phrase is a quick and convenient way to incorporate reflection.)) . Prior to the pandemic, I had never even dug in the dirt. I didn’t know anything about seed germination or nitrogen levels. I had my own Instagram, but I had never had to market anything or think about overhead costs. I was a total and complete newb.
But my life, like everyone’s, changed in spring of 2020. Lockdown rendered me depressed and hopeless until one day when my mom ordered me a bouquet of flowers along with our grocery delivery. The bouquet was a simple grocery store arrangement of sunflowers. A few petals were wilting at the ends, and the stems were smashed from the flour that had been in the same plastic bag. But they were perfect. Such a small and thoughtful gesture, that bouquet inspired me to get to work(( Nice—here we learn about the “inciting incident” that compelled the writer to get started on their flower farm.)) .
Lucky enough to have space for flower beds, I mapped out four different six-foot beds in my backyard. Garden tools stolen from my mom and borrowed from socially-distanced neighbors in hand, I added compost, arranged my seeds, watered, and mulched. I laid protective plastic over my beds, tucking them in like a child, and wrapped the garden in decade-old chickenwire I found in our barn. My garden was imperfect–compost trailed between beds, my hose wrapped around my shovel in a heap on the ground, and the chickenwire was dented and rusty. But it was all mine, and it was alive(( I like this paragraph because we really see the writer’s personality. They are determined, innovative, and grateful.)) .
As the pandemic waged on, I tended to my flowers. Each morning, I’d peek under the plastic to see how they had fared throughout the night. They gave me routine and purpose when the days seemed droning and neverending. The longer I kept them alive, the more their sprouts brought me life, too(( This is a very nice and poetic point.)) . In a world that seemed to come to a halt, my flowers showed me that growth wasn’t just possible–it was happening right in front of me.
The business side came soon after(( The transition here could be a touch smoother.)) . Later that summer, once my first crop had bloomed, I set up a roadside stand outside of my house. At that point, I had to put my flower buckets across the driveway from my stand to keep everyone safe. But my flowers brightened the days of hundreds of passing motorists. With growing confidence, I secured a spot at the farmer’s market by July, my business boomed(( I’d like to see some specific details here about how well the business was doing.)) . Returning all profits to my garden, I’ve expanded my operations to include two more flower beds this year.
I’m proud of how far my gardening and business skills have come, but what has been most fulfilling about Fran’s Flower Farm have been the connections I’ve made. The pandemic was difficult for everyone, but it was especially difficult for healthcare workers. As the child of a healthcare worker myself, these challenges have been close to home. Knowing how greatly that bouquet of sunflowers affected me, I make sure to donate flowers(( And this sweet gesture shows another one of the writer’s strengths.)) to my local hospital in thanks every week.
Three years ago, I would never have guessed that I’d own my own flower farm. It’s brought me so many joys, challenges, and friends. I know I won’t be able to bring my flower farm with me to college. But the heart of the farm is more than the flowers(( Here, the writer wraps up the main theme of the essay and makes sure the reader really understands the point.)) . It’s about me learning and using my skills to help others. Wherever I’m planted, I know that I will bloom(( This phrasing is cliche. The writer could re-write the idea in their own words.)) .
Word Count: 643
AO Notes on Fran’s Flower Farm Grade: A
I don’t know about you, but I’d love to buy a bouquet of flowers from this student! While the ending is a bit cliche, we really see how far this student has come in their journey as a farmer and a business person. We also see the magnitude of their impact. They not only grew a successful small business, but they also gave back to the healthcare workers in their community. The student is definitely one I could see thriving in a campus community.
- Topic and accomplishments : Like The Stop Sign, this essay conveys an impressive accomplishment. But the essay isn’t bragging about it or overstating its significance. It works well because the writer tells a genuine story about a passion they developed.
- Variety: The writer also manages to show us two distinct strengths in one essay. We see their strength as a DIY farmer and as a business person. They are clearly a founder archetype.
- Organization and style: The essay opens with a beautiful description, and we get a lot of good language throughout. The writer is able to go through a fairly complicated timeline in a concise and digestible way.
Good College Essay Examples
Not every student can write an exceptional college essay. And that’s okay. Sometimes it’s not one of your priorities or in your particular skill set.
Thankfully, college essays don’t have to be exceptional to earn admission. They can simply be good. You can still write a solid college essay that does everything you need it to do.
So what’s the difference between the best college essays and good college essays? Usually it’s writing style. Some writers have a gift for writing or have spent years practicing their craft, and those are usually the writers who produce essays that make admissions officers gasp.
But admissions officers recognize good, solid writing and storytelling, too.
So writing a good college essay should always be your main goal. Focus on the basics first before trying to level up to an exceptional essay.
College Essay Example #7: My Emotional Support Water Bottle
I had a stuffed animal named Elephant when I was a child(( This hook makes a statement that compels me to read on so I can figure out what they’re referring to.)) . I’ve long since outgrown Elephant, but now I have a new object that I keep around for comfort: my emotional support water bottle. A gray thirty-two-ounce wide-mouth Hydroflask, my emotional support water bottle accompanies me everywhere.
The water bottle was a gift last Christmas after I begged my mom for one. The brand had become extremely popular at my school, and I wanted in on the trend. When I opened the package that Christmas morning, I was elated. I felt an immediate attachment, and I was proud that I could finally fit in with the other kids at my school(( Here we learn about the connection between the waterbottle and the writer’s values)) .
I had always felt like an outsider(( In this paragraph, the writer zooms the focus out to their life in general. We need this reflection to understand why the topic matters so much to the writer.)) . Other students seemed to fit together like puzzle pieces. But as much as I tried, I couldn’t find a picture that matched my piece. I envied the tight-knit friendships I saw among my peers.
As soon as I unwrapped my water bottle, I decided that I needed stickers to match. The kids at my school always had stickers on theirs. I found the perfect pack. It had animated depictions of every famous literary character imaginable. Jane Austen characters, Jay Gatsby, Sherlock Holmes, Guy Montag, Jane Eyre, and more. I couldn’t believe my luck.
No matter how disconnected I felt from my classmates, I could always find a community on my bookshelf(( The writer introduces another topic, literature, that tells us more about who they are.)) . I sat in the courtroom with Atticus Finch, walked through the streets of Saint Petersburg with Raskolnikov, and watched the revolution unfold alongside Satrapi. My literary friends kept me optimistic through difficult times, and I was glad to see them every day on my beloved Hydroflask.
After winter break ended, I couldn’t wait to debut my new accessory. I placed it atop my desk in each class, angling my favorite stickers outward in hopes of connection. I was profoundly comforted by its presence—I could always take a sip of water when I felt thirsty or uncomfortable, and its stickers promised to draw people in.
To my dismay(( This paragraph serves an important plot function. We see that everything, in fact, did not work out perfectly. By highlighting this challenge, we really get a sense of the writer’s problem-solving and resilience.)) , weeks went by, and no one noticed my Hydroflask or stickers. The school was filled with dozens more Hydroflasks after the holidays, so mine didn’t seem so special. What had once filled me with so much hope and support transformed into a reminder of an unfulfilled promise of friendship.
I coped with the disappointment by re-reading one of my childhood favorites, Le Petit Prince . Near the end, when the little prince returns to water his flower, I had a realization. I couldn’t wait around for people to come to me(( Ding, ding, ding! Here we have it. The main lesson the writer has learned. What’s great, too, is that they’ve stated it so clearly.)) . I had to bring the water to them.
The next day at school, I held my Hydroflask close and gathered all my courage. I headed into the lunch room and spotted Jordan, one of the people I’d chatted with in class. She was sitting alone at a table, reading a book I couldn’t identify. I asked if I could join her. Nodding, she told me about her book, White Teeth . When I placed my Hydroflask on the lunch table, she noticed my stickers(( This sentence is crucial because it ties all these threads together: the waterbottle, stickers, literature, and friendship/fitting in.)) . Together, we went through every sticker and talked about the character’s book.
Jordan and I spent the next day’s lunch exchanging laughter and book recommendations. She had a water bottle of her own, too. It was a classic Nalgene without a single sticker. As our friendship grew stronger, I brought Jordan the last sticker from my collection(( With this small gesture, we see a) the writer’s kindness and b) the writer’s personal growth.)) , a rainbow bookmark that read, “BOOKWORM.”
I’ve always looked to the world around me for comfort instead of finding courage within myself. Elephant still sits on my shelf, I continue to be an avid reader, and I always carry my Hydroflask around for hydration. But this learning process has taught me the importance of having confidence and finding the ability to reach out to others. I can’t wait to carry this skill with me to college— after I get some more stickers(( The conclusion ties all these threads together beautifully, and this final statement adds some spunk and forward movement.)) .
Word Count: 648
Admissions Officer Notes on My Emotional Support Waterbottle
Ah, the emotional support water bottle. We’ve all had one! This writer does a wonderful job connecting an otherwise simple object to a larger story about an important part of their life. We also learn a lot about the student, their background, their goals, and their interests from this essay. I especially like how the essay shows the writer’s academic passion (literature) without being an explicitly academic-focused essay.
What makes this essay good:
- Storytelling: With their love of reading, it’s no wonder this writer is a good storyteller. As readers, we get a very clear sense of how the events progressed and changed the reader’s perspective.
- Compelling hook: This essay’s introduction is attention-grabbing and quirky. It compels readers to continue on in the essay to find out what, exactly the writer is talking about.
- Clean conclusion: The conclusion is a fantastic example of what college essay conclusions should do. It reflects back on the essay, ties up loose ends, and looks forward to how these lessons will apply to the writer’s future.
What the writer could do to level up:
- Core Strengths: While we learn a lot about the writer from the essay, there could be a stronger sense of core strengths. We see that they are a strong reader, but that strength doesn’t necessarily connect to their overall message. We also see that they are eager to connect and become a good friend with Jordan, but they don’t all connect seamlessly into a specific archetype or two. A good question to ask yourself is: how would the strengths I show in this essay convince an admissions officer that I will be a good addition to their campus?
College Essay Example #8: Party of One
The sun shone through my airplane window, hitting the tray table exactly right to reveal the greasy handprint of a child. Beside me, a woman cleared her throat as she rifled through her purse, and the tween next to her tapped away on an iPad. The knees of the tall man behind me pushed against the back of my chair. Together, we headed to Pennsylvania(( We open with clear scene-setting, and the final sentence jumps right to the point: we’re on a journey to PA.)) .
This wasn’t my first trip to Pennsylvania, and it wouldn’t be my last. But it was my first trip traveling as a party of one. Barely past the unaccompanied minor cutoff, I departed for a month-long and court-ordered trip to my dad’s house. I wasn’t eager to travel alone. I felt afraid, too young to do this by myself. I wanted to go back home. But I decided to embrace the journey as an adventure(( This explicit reflection helps us, the reader, understand what mindset the writer is at at the beginning of this journey.)) .
With the growing whirr of the engines, the plane ascended. All around me, my neighbors breathed sighs of relief when we reached cruising altitude. I tightened my seatbelt across my lap, steadying myself for the five-hour trip, and took in the scene. Always the quiet and careful observer(( And here we really learn about who the writer is)) , a full flight was my Sistine Chapel.
The woman to my right was wearing all black. She extracted her laptop from her bag the moment the flight attendants permitted, and she created a PowerPoint presentation from scratch before the drinks cart had even started down the aisle. She was all business. I imagined that she signed her emails with nothing but her name, that she read Keynes in her free time, and that people listened when she spoke. She was everything I longed to be(( While the majority of this paragraph is about the writer’s seat mate, this final sentence brings the focus back to the writer. We learn that the description, in fact, was about the writer themself—everything they “longed to be.”)) .
Next was the tween, only a few years younger than I was. Clearly afraid of flying, the tween reached across the aisle to a man who was presumably her father. I found it endearing that she reached out in fear. The dad’s reassurance didn’t just comfort the tween. It comforted me. So far from home, his quiet calm reminded me of the parent waiting to pick me up at the other end of this journey. I remembered reaching out for my own father’s hand when we flew to Pennsylvania for the first time(( Here we have more great reflection about the writer’s relationship with their dad. )) . Now, I watched the dad squeeze the tween’s hand. I felt guilty for the frustration I felt about the trip. I was excited to see my dad.
And finally, there was the man behind me. Aside from the brief glimpse I got during boarding, I didn’t know what he looked like. But there were two things I knew to be true. First, he was tall. The longer the flight went on, the more apologetically his knees bumped against my seat. Second, I felt emboldened by his ability to take up space. With each nudge forward, I spread myself a little bigger(( The writer’s encounter with this man nudged their growth forward. At the beginning, they felt small and timid. Now, they’re more able to take up space.)) , daring to exist in a world I normally wanted to hide from.
Four hours into the flight, turbulence hit. The long-legged man yelped as his knee hit the metal of the seat. Bigger now(( And that growth is solidified even more through this brief transition statement.)) , I was able to brace myself against the impact. I looked to the tween, who I expected to be a wreck. Instead, I saw a calm girl handing napkins to her dad, whose drink had spilled in the commotion. Her care for him mirrored the care he had shown for her. The woman next to me, who had seemed so steadfast, gasped when the plane shot downward. Her hand reached for her chest as she caught herself, surprised. I moved my arm from our shared armrest, giving her space(( This last part gives a very subtle look at the writer’s growth, too. We see that the person the writer admired isn’t as strong as she had seemed. In fact, the writer’s growth has enabled them to help the woman in her moment of weakness.)) . She smiled in appreciation.
After the turbulence had ended, I looked at myself. My hands were folded neatly in my lap. I realized that although I was flying solo, I was surrounded by strangers whose stories intersected with my own(( This point could be more specific.)) . When we landed, I ran into my dad’s arms. “ You’ve grown ,” he smiled.
Admissions Officer Notes on Party of One
This essay is an endearing story about the writer’s first solo plane ride. The narrative is what we would characterize as a “going on a journey” essay—both literally and figuratively. As the writer makes this cross-country trip, they also go through a long personal journey. I especially like the tie between the introduction and conclusion. Along the way, we also learn about the writer through their observations of the other people on the flight.
- Introduction: The first two paragraphs draw the reader in, descriptively set the scene, and establish what is at stake for the writer. We are dropped right into the journey alongside them.
- Vivid language: Throughout the essay, the writer uses interesting and vivid language that helps draw the reader in. The details aren’t overwhelming but add depth to the narrative.
- Reflection throughout: One of the most challenging parts of writing this kind of essay is figuring out how to incorporate your reflection throughout. Many writers mistakenly save it all to the end. But this writer does it the right way by adding reflection at each stop along their journey.
Focus on the self: As-is, this essay tells us a lot about the writer. But it’s nearing on committing one of the biggest college essay writing faux pas: focusing on people other than your self. I think the writer is getting close to that line but doesn’t yet cross it because of the reflection throughout. But to make the essay even better, the writer could still draw more focus to themself.
College Essay Example #9: My Greatest Talent
I’m a klutz(( Quirky but not too out-there hook that has a lot of personality)) —that’s it, that’s my greatest talent. I’ve honed my clumsiness to perfection, putting in more than my 10,000 hours over the last… 17 years of my life.
When I was six or seven, I was always the one tripping over my own feet, knocking things over. (“This is why we can’t have nice things!” my mom used to scream, half in jest and half in exasperation.) My parents used to joke that I was the only person who could trip on a flat surface. But unfortunately for me, despite doing my due diligence into flat-earth theory(( Here’s more humor that adds some interest and voice to the essay.)) , I found that there was a prevailingly devilish curve to everything around me. If it had a lip, an edge, or a slick spot, I found it.
As I got older(( Excellent signposting to guide the reader through the narrative)) , my talent for being a klutz grew. I managed to trip over my own backpack on a daily basis, and I once fell down a flight of stairs while holding a tray of cookies (I was trying to be a good hostess, but it didn't end well). My friends and family came to expect it, and after those first few years of irritated glances, they began to meet my clumsiness with a laugh and an extended hand.
Being a klutz isn't all bad(( Here, the writer flips our expectations on their head. We’re about to learn about how being clumsy is, in fact, a talent.)) . In fact, it has some pretty decent perks. For one thing, it’s helped me become more empathetic. I know what it feels like to stumble and fall (and stumble and fall, and stumble and fall, and…), and I’m always ready to offer a kind word and a hug to someone who’s having a tough time. I also have a great sense of humor(( We’ve already seen this strength in action at the beginning of the essay, so it’s another good one to highlight.)) —a defense mechanism thanks to all of the embarrassing moments that I’ve created for myself. And let's not forget the fact that I am never bored. There is always something to trip over or knock over. Neither I nor anyone around me ever lacks for entertainment.
One of the biggest benefits of being a klutz is the unexpected friendships(( Friendship is another good strength. But at this point, the essay is starting to feel somewhat list-like. It may have been better to delve more deeply into fewer strengths rather than try to cover so much at once.)) it has given me. For example(( This is a good concrete anecdote that demonstrates the point, though.)) , I once tripped and fell into a ditch while hiking with a group of near-strangers I had met at a trailhead. Surrounded by brambles and thorns, three of them jumped right down with me to hoist me out. My graceless tumble became an inside joke of the trip and we all ended up becoming good friends. I was still embarrassed, of course, but I’m grateful that my clumsiness opened up a new door for friendship that day.
Being a klutz has also taught me to be patient with myself(( Again, we have another good strength, but it’s a lot to cover in one short essay.)) , and to not take myself too seriously. It has taught me to always be prepared for the unexpected, and to always have a good sense of humor. And most importantly, it has taught me to be kind to others(( And yet another strength! Especially since these are related, combining them in a more substantial way may have been more effective.)) , especially when they are having a tough time.
So, if you are looking for someone who’s a little bit quirky and a lot of fun, I’m your girl. I may not be the most graceful person on the planet, or on your campus, but I am confident, kind, and always up for a good laugh. Anyway, where's the fun in being graceful? Just, please, if you do accept me—I’d really appreciate some foam bumpers on the sharp surfaces in my dorm(( More wonderful personality to wrap things up hete. It's approaching being too informal, though.)) .
Word Count: 548
Admissions Officer Notes on My Greatest Talent
This essay is kind of a goofy one. I’ve included it as an example because I want to show you that it’s okay for your college essay to have some personality! Your college essay doesn’t have to be a big, serious rumination on some deep topic. Especially if you’re a goofy person yourself, it’s completely okay for you to choose a more light-hearted topic that showcases your personality. If you do, just be sure to follow this writer’s lead and still write an essay that showcases your strengths.
- Topic choice and personal voice: When we read this essay, we get a crystal clear picture of who the student is because the topic allows them to really write in their own voice. I feel like I know the student after reading it.
- Strengths: All college essays should communicate a core strength to the reader. This essay does an exceptional job at transforming something most people would consider a weakness—being clumsy—into clear strengths—empathy, humor, friendship, patience. Overall, we see that the writer
- Writing style: The biggest tweak this writer could make would be leveling up the writing style. As it is now, it reads like a five-paragraph essay: first I did this, then this, and then this third thing. Changing up the organization and topic sentences could help the writing come across as more mature.
College Essay Example #10: Counting Cards
I am a psychic who thinks in terms of fours and threes(( This hook raises a lot of questions: What is the writer referring to? It does read, however, as a bit disingenuous and overly quirky.)) . Deal me any hand of Gin, and I can guarantee I’ll have you beat. I stare at the cards in my hand and see numbers moving in my mind. Like a mathemetician at a chalkboard, I plan out my next move. I use logic, memory, and a little bit of luck to guess exactly what your hand looks like. The possible combinations seem endless—four Kings and a run of three, three nines and four Queens, a run of four and three sevens, and many, many more. What I love most about playing Gin is the predictability. While I may not know what’s coming, I can use what I already know to strategize, adapt, and have fun along the way(( Here we have a clear gesture toward the essay’s overall theme.)) .
My Gin career began as a small child. My aunt taught me how to play the game while we were camping. My hands were so small that we had to use a chip clip to keep the cards in place(( These first three sentences are very choppy because they all have the same length and structure.)) . I was at first intimated by the “big kid game,” as I called it then, but soon I couldn’t get enough. I forced my entire family to play, and I even roped in the kids at the campsite next to us. My aunt, a mathematician, is a skilled Gin player. She passed her tips and tricks along to me. After a few years of playing, she was the only opponent I couldn’t beat.
Last summer was the first time it finally happened. I bested her. I had a hand with three Aces and a run of Spades. I needed another Ace or a three or seven of Spades. When I drew that final Ace from the deck, I could hardly believe it. I paused to count my cards again(( This description paints a wonderful picture of the writer, their aunt, and the relationship between them.)) . I drew my hands to my chest, looked up at my aunt slowly and triumphantly, and calmly declared, “Gin.” My aunt squealed and embraced me, proud of all the progress her protegee had made.
This win came from a year of hard work(( This is an effective transition that allows the writer to talk about all the work they put in.)) . I read every book on Gin I could find at the library, watched countless YouTube videos, and became an expert on Gin’s more lively counterpart, Gin Rummy. Learning and practicing drew me into a huge online community of Gin enthusiasts. I never thought that I’d meet some of my best friends through a card game, but I did. Every night, we’d compete against each other. And with each match, my skills would sharpen like a knife on a honing steel. When I finally beat my aunt, I hadn’t just won the game. I’d won lifelong friends and greater reasoning skills(( And here is a bit of reflection sprinkled in at the end. There definitely could be more reflection throughout.)) .
Gin players aren’t internationally recognized for their intellectual prowess like chess or Scrabble. I’ve learned other games and played them successfully, but nothing has come close to the joy and challenge I feel while playing Gin. I love predicting what your opponent holds and what you’ll draw next, betting on your perfect card being in the draw deck, chatting with your opponent as you deal the next round, and earning bragging rights after winning a match—all of it is the perfect mix of strategy and community. When I head off to college in the fall, the first thing I’ll pack will be a deck of cards(( This is a sweet ending that looks forward to the future. The conclusion could have touched more specifically on why all of this is so meaningful to the writer.)) .
Word Count: 549
Admissions Officer Notes on Counting Cards
This essay chronicles a writer’s journey learning how to play the card game Gin. I really like how much the writer and their personality shine through. Like the My Greatest Talent essay, Counting Cards is a great example of how to write a fun, light-hearted essay that still speaks to your strengths.
- Topic: Admissions officers see lots of essays about chess and sports. But it’s pretty rare to see one about Gin. The topic (and enthusiasm with which the student writes about the topic) give this essay a good personal voice.
- Connections: The writer also makes stellar connections between a simple game and the people who are most meaningful to them: their family and friends.
- Strengths: Even with a topic as simple as a card game, the writer manages to highlight their strengths of work ethic and camaraderie.
- Higher stakes: We see that the game of Gin is really important to the writer. We also see how the game is connected to their relationship with their aunt and to the new community they found online. But I’m left wanting a little bit more reflection and vulnerability about why Gin is so meaningful to this writer.
College Essay Example #11: Golden Hills Animal Clinic
On my best days at work, I’m surrounded by puppies, kittens, and rainbows(( This hook is interesting, but it's quite cliche.)) . On my worst, I watch people say tearful goodbyes to their best friends. Working at the front desk of Golden Hills Animal Clinic, I’ve seen it all. I’ve learned a lot about people through their pets. I’ve also learned a lot about myself(( Here, we get straight to the point of what this essay is going to be about.)) .
I began working in the clinic two summers ago. I’m known in my family as the “ Snow White(( What a sweet detail about this writer’s background)) ” because I’ve always had a special connection with animals. I had nearly started a new colony of stray cats in my backyard by the time I was nine. I’ve nursed more sick and injured birds than I can count. I’ve discovered all kinds of insects, snakes, and lizards in my neighborhood. Now, at the front desk, I get to welcome the animals and their humans. I share in their joys and console them at their lows.
After(( This topic sentence does a good job structuring the paragraph, but it could be clearer how this paragraph connects to the overall idea of the essay.)) watching thousands of animals struggle, you think you’d get used to the pain and suffering. But each hurt, injured, or elderly animal I check in stings just the same. When I’m in the back room helping prepare the animals for surgeries or procedures, I look into their eyes and desperately try to communicate that everything will be okay. The worst part is knowing that the animals can tell something is wrong but don’t understand what is happening. And when their owners walk past my front desk, I reassure them that we’re treating their pets as our own.
But with life’s hard moments also come the happiest ones. It’s easy to become dejected by the sad times, but working at the clinic has actually given me more hope(( Ah-ha! We learn that even though the writer witnesses a lot of sadness at the clinic, the experience has actually given them more hope.)) . There’s nothing like seeing small puppies, feet too big for their bodies, prance through the waiting room. I’ve witnessed children comfort cats through holes in carriers, and I’ve become inspired by the assertiveness with which our veterinarians make critical decisions to help animals. Through all this, I’ve learned that those little pockets of happiness, care, and determination are what make life worth living(( This sentence helps ground the reader in the writer’s theme.)) .
I’ve also learned that veterinary medicine is as much about the people as it is the pets. Sometimes owners have to be convinced about the best care plan for their pets. Sometimes others aren’t able to afford the care they desperately want to get. People come in worried about nothing or not worried enough. Part of managing the front desk is having the ability to read where a person is coming from the moment they start speaking. Seeing things from customers’ perspectives helps me provide better customer service to the people and the pets. If I sense that a customer is worried about cost, I can talk to them about payment plans. If someone seems overwhelmed by the options, I ask if they’d like to speak with the vet again. In all these cases, I feel proud to provide as much help as I can. Doing so makes sure that our animals receive the best care possible(( We get a good sense of the writer’s strengths in this paragraph, but by the end, it still doesn’t really connect back to the theme.)) .
Now, as an aspiring veterinarian myself(( And with this small note, we learn all that’s at stake: the writer wants to be a vet in the future, so all of these experiences are important preparation .)) , I know that the rest of my career will be filled with the happiest and saddest moments of people’s lives. My care for animals will turn tragedies into miracles. I’ll console owners of sick pets, and I’ll help bring new life into the world. Veterinary medicine is a lot like life in general. You can’t have the good without the bad. But I’ve never met a pet owner who wouldn’t trade the pain of animal loss for even one fleeting, happy moment with their furry friend. Animals make the world a better place. Like Snow White(( Clever call back to tie the essay together)) , I’ll continue listening to animals so I can make their world a little better too.
Word Count: 615
Admissions Officer Notes on Golden Hills Animal Clinic
This essay tells a good story about this writer’s time working at an animal clinic. What I like about this essay is that the writer doesn’t sugar coat things, but they also don’t dwell on the sadness that passes through the clinic. They are real about their experiences, and they draw valuable lessons from them. They also show the importance of this story by connecting it to their future goals.
- Strengths: We clearly see the strengths this writer brings to the clinic. They are understanding, patient, and positive. We also clearly see how these strengths will help the writer be a good veterinarian in the future.
- Topic sentences and transitions: Although the paragraphs get unwieldy at times, the writer’s clear topic sentences and transitions help us seamlessly progress through the narrative.
- Being more direct and concise: At times, it feels like the writer rambles instead of making clear, direct points. Rambling can distract the reader from the main point you’re trying to make, so it’s best to stay on track in each paragraph.
- Fewer cliches: Relying on cliches shows immaturity in your writing. Cliches like “puppies, kittens, and rainbows” and “with the bad comes the good” get in the way of the writer’s own voice.
College Essay Example #12: The Filmmaker
Eye to the lens, I feel in complete control. The old camera weighs heavy in my hands as I quietly point my leading actor to the other side of the frame. Taking a moment to look at the world through my own eyes rather than a lens, I make a decision. I back up, careful not to trip, and capture the wide, panning shot I had envisioned. Filmmaking allows me to show others exactly how I see the world. With an odd angle or lingering aside, I can take my audience on a journey through my eyes(( This introduction raises a lot of questions that propel us forward through the essay: what is the writer doing? What is it that they want to show the world? Why does this all matter?)) .
What’s beautiful about filmmaking is that there are several art forms occurring simultaneously(( We begin with a paragraph that dives deep into the writer’s interest.)) . At the foundation of a scene is the script. Words that draw a viewer in and keep them there, the script is an essential act of creative writing. Next there’s the acting. An art of performance, acting brings the script to life. A good actor will make an audience feel as if they are with the characters, feeling what they feel and doing what they do. Then there’s the direction and filmmaking. Choices about how to translate a three-dimensional world to pixels on a screen drastically affect the audience’s experience. And, finally, there’s the editing. Editing is where all of the other art forms converge, selected and chopped up and stitched back together to create something even better than the original.
I’ve never been one for writing or acting. But the latter two, filmmaking and editing, are where my passions lie(( And here we learn about the writer’s main passion, inspirations, and journey as a filmmaker.)) . Inspired by my favorite movie, ET , I began filmmaking in elementary school. Borrowing my mom’s Flip UltraHD camera, I’d run around my home, filming everything in sight. Soon after, I started gathering my neighborhood friends in my backyard and directing them in made-up film productions. Our films took us on journeys around the world. We were pirates in the Atlantic, merchants in Paris, and kangaroos in Australia. We learned how to tell stories and create and resolve conflicts. In the process, we learned about ourselves, each other, and the world around us.
My love for editing didn’t come until later(( This is an okay topic sentence that helps us understand where we’re at in the narrative, but the paragraph as a whole could more clearly relate to the writer’s overall theme.)) . When my family upgraded our ancient Gateway 2000 to a sleek iMac, I became an iMovie aficionado. I learned how to use all the features and enter in keyboard shortcuts. I became a sculptor. Instead of clay, my material was digital. I’d split clips in half, manually zoom in to my subject, and add filters that changed the whole tone of a shot. Shift + Command + F, and I’d play my clips in full screen, evaluating them with the eye of a film critic. Was my shot effective? Are the actors convincing? Is there anything odd in the background? If I had never seen this, what would I think and feel? Then I’d repeat the process, over and over again.
Some people might say that dedicating myself to filmmaking is frivolous in a world with more pressing problems. But filmmaking is a way to spread messages and give people hope. From the change wrought by An Inconvenient Truth to the laughter Mr. Bean has incited in millions, filmmaking is a way to bring art, truth, and laughter to everyone. More accessible than books or newspapers, film and TV couldn’t be more essential media to confront the problems of today. With the passion of my ten-year-old self, the films I’ll continue to make will have an impact(( We conclude by learning about the writer’s interest in using filmmaking to impact the world. The writer could dig a little deeper here—it stays mainly on the surface.)) .
Word Count: 563
Admissions Officer Notes on The Filmmaker
In this essay, we get a great sense of how excited the writer is about filmmaking. They take us on their journey learning about filmmaking, and they explain how their interest will serve them in the future. I especially enjoy how this essay oozes passion. By the end of the essay, we have no doubt about what this writer sees as their life’s calling.
- Organization: The introduction, background, explanation, and discussion of personal growth all cohere perfectly. The writer walks us through each step of their journey in a clear and logical way.
- Voice: Through all the rich descriptions of the writer’s childhood, we really see their personality and voice.
- Significance and meaning : While it’s clear that this topic is one the writer is passionate about, the essay could evoke more meaning. It’s not apparent what’s truly at stake. The writer should ask and answer the question: “So what?” In answering that question, they’ll be able to be more vulnerable throughout the essay.
“Bad” College Essay Examples
“Bad” is in quotation marks here because writing is always relative.
In the case of these examples, we have categorized them as “bad” because they don’t adequately meet the expectations of a college essay. That doesn’t mean that they’re objectively bad or that their writers are bad writers. It means that the essays need some more attention.
“Bad” essays can always become good essays. Sometimes they can even become the best essays. What matters most is identifying what’s not working and putting in a lot of effort to address the problems.
Across the thousands of college essays we read as admissions officers, there are several issues that arise again and again. Learning from these issues can help you avoid them.
We have a whole post about those biggest college essay mistakes. But the following examples commit three different writing faux pas:
- Too much metaphor and not enough substance
- No main point or clear organization
- About a topic that is important to the writer but not actually that high-stakes
With these mistakes in mind, let’s do some analysis.
College Essay Example #13: Lost in the Forest
I look into the forest, moss wet on my feet(( This is an intriguing hook.)) . There’s fog everywhere—I can barely see the glasses that sit on my nose. I feel a cool breeze rustle against my coat. I am cold and warm all at once. The sun shines through the fog, casting the shadow of a tree whose roots know no end. At the entrance to the forest, I stand frozen in time and space. I can’t see what’s ahead of me or behind me, only what is(( After this sentence, the metaphor becomes unclear.)) . And what is suddenly transforms into what could be. I see a fork in the pathway in front of me. The noise—the noise is so loud. Crickets and owls and tigers, oh my(( Avoid cliche phrases.)) . My thoughts scream even louder. I can’t hear myself think through the sounds of the forest of my mind. Off in the distance, I see a figure. It’s a shadow figure. It’s my mother. She’s walking towards me. I take a step into the forest, fearlessly ready to confront any overwhelming obstacle that comes my way(( This is a nice sentence that encapsulates the main theme of the essay.)) .
When I was a child, I used to play in the forest behind my house. Until one day when I caught my mom sneaking a cigarette outside. She tried to hide it behind her back, but I could see the smoke trailing over her head like a snail. I didn’t know what to do, so I ran farther into the forest. I am used to being disappointed by her. I ran and ran and ran until I tripped over a tree branch that fell in the storm the week before. I laid on the cold, hard ground. The back of me was soaked. Would I turn into my mom? After that, I decided to turn back. The cold was encroaching. I got home and saw my mom in the kitchen. We agreed not to speak of what I saw(( This paragraph could use some more details about what’s at stake: why does all of this matter? As readers, we need more information about the writer’s relationship with their mom to understand why this confrontation was so significant.)) .
While taking a history test, I looked around at my classmates. The gray desk was cold against my skin. I started counting the people around me, noting those who I knew well and those I had never really talked to. I looked at all the expensive backpacks and shoes. After our test, I asked the person next to me how she thought she did. She said it was a difficult test, and I agreed. Every class period, we’d talk more and more. We became friends. We started hanging out with another friend from biology class. We were inseparable, like three peas in a pod. We’d study together and hang out together and dance. They were the best friends I ever had. We liked to play soccer after school and sing loudly to music in my room. But one day it all stopped. They both stopped talking to me((It's not clear how this anecdote relates to the anecdote about the writer’s mother. The significance of the forest metaphor could also be drawn out more.)) . It was like I had been yanked out of the forest and thrown on to the forest floor. I became moss, the owls pecking at my spikey green tendrils. They found two other friends, and I sat alone at my desk in history again. It was like another test, but this time a history of my own.
Things went on like this for years. Over and over again I got put back into the forest. My friends who I thought were my friends actually were just drama machines. Life is foggy when you don’t know what’s going on. And I live in a forest that’s always foggy. Try as I might to find myself, it’s easy to get lost in all the trails and hills. I’m climbing a mountain each and every day. But I keep going back into the forest, looking for answers(( The return to the metaphor almost works here. But because the metaphor has gotten in the way of the main point, we need more explicit reflection to tie everything together.)) .
Word Count: 603
Admissions Officer Notes on Lost in the Forest
So. Writers know that college essays should be meaningful reflections and exercises in creative writing. But sometimes writers take this advice to the extreme and write essays that are too metaphorical and too focused on internal reflection.
This essay is the perfect example of what happens when a writer goes over the top with metaphor. The forest metaphor could be a useful tool given the writer’s topic, but as it is now, everything else gets lost within the metaphor. It’s difficult to extract what the writer actually says about their life.
The writer’s reflection is also deep and removed from specific examples. After reading the essay, I still don’t feel like I know the writer. The topic also changes halfway through the essay, so following the thread throughout is challenging.
What this essay does well:
- Topic: Even though the writer’s topic switches in the middle of the essay, it’s clear that the topics are both meaningful to the writer. The first topic especially may still be grounds for a great college essay.
- Vulnerability: The writer’s vulnerability shines through. They are willing to share an important part of themselves.
What the writer could improve upon:
- Pick a main topic and stick with it: Part of what makes this essay challenging to follow is that it’s doing too many things at once. Narrowing the topic would help the writer focus all their thoughts on communicating one overall idea.
- Use the metaphor sparingly: Remember that metaphors are best when used sparingly. Pulling off an overarching metaphor is very difficult, so it’s generally easier for writers to sprinkle in small references to the metaphor throughout. A great way to accomplish this is the “bookend technique,” where you introduce a metaphor in the introduction and return to it in the conclusion.
- Tighten up each paragraph : All of the paragraphs in this essay have a lot of information that doesn’t necessarily flow logically from one sentence to the next. My final recommendation would be to edit the paragraphs themselves for clarity. The writer should think about what information is essential and cut the rest.
College Essay Example #14: The Chemist
You(( There are always different opinions about addressing your reader. Sometimes it can work okay, but this instance doesn't work quite as well.)). may be wondering why I’ve taken so many chemistry classes. Well, that’s because I love chemistry. I used to hate chemistry with a fiery passion but now I love it more than anything. I remember that I used to struggle through every single chemistry assignment I ever got. My sister would try to help me but I’d just get upset, like I really just didn’t understand it and that was so frustrating so I just kept not wanting to do more but eventually I started to think “oh chemistry is at the foundation of everything that makes up our universe,” and isn’t that just fascinating?(( Whew—that was a long sentence! This is a run-on sentence, but we do learn about the writer’s primary motivation for studying chemistry.)) So then I decided to make a change and actually try to learn chemistry. I started paying attention in class and asking my teacher for help after class and finally one day my sister said, “Wow, you’re really improving.” And that meant so much to me. When my great-grandparents immigrated to the United States(( This reference is nice, but it's an abrupt topic change. It’s not clear why the writer is bringing up their great-grandparents.)) , they had no idea what would be in store for their great-grandkids. We really don’t learn chemistry in school until high school, so it’s no wonder I didn’t understand it in high school when I started taking it. Electrons and atoms and acids and alcohols. There’s so much to learn. I really have never been good at math so I’d say that’s one of my biggest challenges in chemistry now is learning how to do the equations and figuring out how the math works. In fifth grade I used to be in advanced math but then it just got worse from there until I learned about tutoring. I started doing tutoring through the high school when I was in ninth grade and it helped a lot because I just needed a little more help for each lesson to really understand it. But even with that the math part of chemistry is still hard for me. But I always keep trying! That’s the most important thing to me I think is to keep trying(( This is a good statement of values.)) . Even when problems are hard and I can’t solve them I try to have a good attitude because even if I can’t get it right, doing chemistry is about unlocking the secrets of the universe and that really is interesting even if you can’t completely understand them. When I started taking chemistry in my sophomore year I almost gave up but I was also really inspired by my teacher who guided me through everything. She gave me extra time to do my lab work and was even my lab partner a couple times because our class has an uneven number of students. My favorite part of chemistry lab is mixing solutions and testing them. I don’t like the lab report writing so much but I know it’s an important part. So I try to just get through that so I can get back to doing experiments and such. My favorite experiments was about building a calormieter to measure how many calories is in our food(( Pay attention to small errors and typos like this one.)) . Calories are energy so you burn your food to measure how much energy they have. Then you write up a report about how many calories each food item like bananas, bread, a cookie, had. The best part of doing labs is having your lab partner there with you. You’re both wearing goggles and lab coats and gloves and you feel really like a professional chemist and it’s nice that you’re not doing it alone. You just read the lab instructions and do each of the steps in order. It’s like baking a cake! You just follow the recipe. But you don’t eat the results! You might use beakers or bunsen burners to hold liquid or burn or heat up whatever it is you’re experimenting on. And when I say “find the meaning of the universe” I really mean it(( The writer is trying to return to a bigger reflection here, but the transition needs to be much smoother.)) . It’s amazing how much chemistry is in everything. Cooking is doing chemistry because you’re changing up the properties of the food. The air we breathe, the way plants get energy, the medicines we take, we understand it all because of chemistry. I know that becoming a chemist is hard work and isn’t easy. But I know that it’s rewarding and that’s why I want to do it. Helping people is so important to me and I think that chemistry can help me get there(( Here, we also learn about the writer’s values and motivations.)) . I also like the health and beauty industry and I think it would be fun to get to develop new products or perfumes or medicines.
Word Count: 746
Admissions Officer Notes on The Chemist
There’s no easy way to say it, but this essay just doesn’t meet the mark. That’s why it gets an F. It reads like a free write rather than an essay because it is stream-of-consciousness and doesn’t really make a clear point. I learn that the writer loves chemistry, but the overall message is not clear.
- Ideas : All hope is not lost! Once we dig into what each sentence of the essay is saying, there are some good ideas that the writer can turn into a more cohesive topic.
- Organization: I hesitate to make any extreme claims about college essays, but I feel pretty confident in saying that the vast majority of college essays should always be more than one paragraph. You need paragraphs to break up your thoughts into digestible chunks. Each paragraph should contain a single point you’re trying to convey to the reader. This writer should break all these ideas up into several paragraphs.
- Theme: We see that the topic of the essay is chemistry, that chemistry is interesting because it’s the foundation of everything, and that chemistry can help people. But we don’t really get any deeper meaning from the writer. They haven’t made an attempt to be vulnerable or to show us something significant about themself.
- Length: The essay is almost a hundred words over the word count. The writer needs to pare things down as they organize and clarify their ideas.
Supplemental Essay Examples
In addition to your personal statement, many colleges will also have you write what are called “supplemental essays.”
These essays do exactly as the name implies: they supplement your personal statement. They’re the perfect opportunity for you to tell admissions officers even more about yourself beyond the information you put in your personal statement. Specifically, ou can use them strategically to highlight even more of your strengths.
There are no universal supplemental essay prompts like there are for the Common Application personal statement.
Instead, colleges provide their own supplemental essay prompt(s) as part of their applications.
The good news, however, is that these prompts generally fall into a few common categories: Why Us, Community, Personal Challenge, Extracurricular Activities, Academic Interest, Diversity, and Why this Major prompts.
If you want to learn more about what these prompts entail, or about how to even write a supplemental essay in the first place, check out our complete guide to writing supplemental essays (it’s really good).
For now, let’s take a look at standout example essays for four of the most common supplemental prompt types.
Community Essay: The DIY-ers
Prompt from MIT: Describe the world you come from (for example, your family, school, community, city, or town). How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations?
225 words or fewer"
I come from a family of do-it-yourselfers(( Straightforward but attention-grabbing. Nice!)) . In part, this lifestyle is one of necessity. Hiring professionals isn’t cheap, after all. But our DIY proclivities are also a product of a longstanding family tradition of ingenuity.
My first DIY was a fix on my Cozy Coupe, whose steering wheel had fallen off. Since then, my DIYs have become larger scale. With my dad, I’ve replaced loose bike chains, put in a new car clutch, and re-tiled our kitchen.
But our biggest DIY to date has been building a six-foot telescope(( Great topic choice that connects to the writer’s academic interests)) together. Made of scraps and spare parts, it’s not the most beautiful telescope. But our focus is on the stars anyway. My entire family has evening picnics, taking turns to look through the makeshift eyepiece. Occasionally the eyepiece falls off, and we all laugh(( I love the personality that emerges with this detail.)) as I run over to replace it.
Coming from a DIY family has made me self-reliant. And when the fixes just aren’t working, my dad reminds me to take a step back and think creatively about solutions. It’s from this mindset that my dream of being an environmental engineer has evolved(( The writer could get to this point sooner.)) .
I know that engineering isn’t just about fancy gadgets. It’s about ingenuity. I want to adapt my DIY ingenuity, mind and hand(( A cheeky nod to the school’s motto—interesting!)) , to even bigger projects that mitigate climate change and lead to a safer tomorrow(( I also like this gesture to the broader significance of their dreams and aspirations.)) .
Word Count: 220
Admissions Officer Notes
- Topic: The writer has chosen a pretty interesting topic that will most likely stand out among other candidates. More importantly, the community they’ve chosen to write about is one that they hold dear and have learned a lot from. The story connects in specific ways to who they are as a person and what their dreams and aspirations have come to be.
- Growth: The prompt asks how the community has “shaped” your dreams and aspirations. This writer focuses on the progression of their aspirations while telling endearing stories about their relationship with their family members.
- Future goals: The writer explicitly states how this community has shaped how and what they want to do in the future.
What it could improve on:
- Pacing: Aside from describing your community, the main question of the prompt is how that community has shaped your dreams and aspirations. While the writer does get to an answer, they could spend more time in the essay focusing on that answer.
Diversity Essay: Bumpass
Prompt from Duke: We seek a diverse student body that embodies the wide range of human experience. In that context, we are interested in what you’d like to share about your lived experiences and how they’ve influenced how you think of yourself.
There((A great, interesting hook that also jumps into a connection with Duke.)) are more traffic lights on the Duke University campus than there are in my entire hometown.
I don’t actually know how many traffic lights Duke has, but it’s a pretty safe bet that it has more than zero, which is how many we have here in Bumpass, Virginia.
Yes, Bumpass. Pronounced “bump-us”.
I’m from a weird little lake town in central Virginia((This paragraph gives us a clear picture of the writer's lived experiences.)) that has two types of residents: part-timers (that’s what we call them), mostly from DC, Richmond, or Charlottesville, with million-plus dollar homes on Lake Anna. They swim and boat on the private side of the lake, which is heated (yes, the lake is heated) by a nuclear power plant. And then there are families like mine. The locals. I’ve always thought “working class” was a nice way for rich people to call poor people poor, but that’s what we are. Families like mine clean the power plant. I’ve never swam in the private side, and our boat is a canoe.
Officially((And this paragraph gives us a good sense of how those lived experiences have influenced them.)) , I’ve had a job since my 16th birthday, which is the legal age in Virginia. But I’ve worked cleaning rental homes and fixing boats for part-timers with my uncle since I was old enough to use a Swiffer and turn a wrench. I’ve cleaned homes that cost more than my extended family’s combined net worth, but oddly I enjoy it. When I see inside their homes, I have something to aspire to, and that’s more than most of my hometown peers can say.
Success around here means making it through community college. Doing so in two years all without abusing alcohol or drugs? I don’t know many people who have done that. But I want to bring my Bumpass experience to Duke.((Nice job bringing the story back to the connection with Duke.)) I know how to rise before the sun and get a day’s worth of work in before noon. I know how to talk to goat farmers and postal workers (my best friend’s parents) just as well as neurosurgeons and pilots (my favorite part-timers whose docks I maintain in the off-season).
I’m looking forward to learning from the diverse body at Duke, making friends from around the world, and gaining a better understanding of the world beyond Bumpass((This conclusion ties the essay together nicely and communicates good school fit.)) .
- Humor and personality: From the topic of the town’s name to the introduction, the writer uses humor (when appropriate) and clearly shows their own voice. I feel like I know the student after reading this, which is always good.
- School Connections: While there aren’t a ton of references to Duke here, the prompt doesn’t necessarily ask for them. The writer still does a good job connecting their lived experience to how they see themself at Duke.
Personal Challenge Essay: Tutoring Charlotte
Prompt from Brown: Brown’s culture fosters a community in which students challenge the ideas of others and have their ideas challenged in return, promoting a deeper and clearer understanding of the complex issues confronting society. This active engagement in dialogue is as present outside the classroom as it is in academic spaces. Tell us about a time you were challenged by a perspective that differed from your own. How did you respond? (200-250 words)
Asking Charlotte to answer a math question was like asking a cat to take a bath. Her resistance was almost instinctual. When I first met her, I had been doing after-school tutoring for about six months. The program paired up high school students with middle schoolers who were falling behind in their classes. Charlotte was my first student and biggest challenge(( Nice wording to make it abundantly clear that the writer is answering the prompt)) .
At first, her unwillingness to try came across as lazy(( This sentence gets at what the prompt is asking for: “a perspective that differed from your own”)) . I used everything I had in my tutoring arsenal. I encouraged her to give her confidence, and I even brought candy to bribe her. To my dismay, nothing worked. Each time I introduced a new problem, Charlotte simply refused.
My frustration grew so immense that I caught myself being curt with her. When I saw the look of betrayal in her eyes, I was ashamed at my impatience(( Here we have an inciting incident and growth that resulted from a realization. The writer begins to address the “how did you respond?” part of the prompt.)) . I realized that Charlotte’s struggles weren’t her fault. Math has always come easy to me. Whereas every math problem I encounter is like a code I’m excited to crack, Charlotte sees math problems as threats. After years of struggling, it’s no wonder that she stopped trying.
Once I understood that we approach math from different perspectives, I tried something new. I got rid of the math book and graph paper, and I brought out gummy bears. We did an algebra problem without her even knowing it. Together(( The writer zooms the focus out to a larger reflection about what they learned from this interaction. Nice.)) , we worked to overcome her fear of math. Along the way, I learned to teach the person, not the subject matter.
World Count: 247
- Topic choice: Personal Challenge prompts can be some of the most difficult, especially if you don’t have a specific challenge you’ve faced in your life. This writer’s topic choice works great. They show that you don’t have to have a life-altering challenge to answer this prompt well.
- Clear narrative: This prompt is a lengthy one, but the writer has clearly read it and used it to structure the story. As a reader, it’s easy to follow along as the writer identifies the problem, works toward a solution, overcomes hurdles, and eventually comes out successful in the end.
- Connections: Different prompts require different levels of connections to the school. This writer incorporates some of Brown’s institutional values, but, especially since the prompt says so much about Brown’s community, the writer could have made more effort to connect their story to Brown.
Extracurricular Essay: Working Retail
Prompt from Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt offers a community where students find balance between their academic and social experiences. Please briefly elaborate on how one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences has influenced you.
“ Would(( Beginning any essay with dialog can be hit or miss. But this is a hit. The dialog quickly captures the essence of working in retail and plops the reader directly into the writer’s extracurricular activity.)) you like another size? Sure thing, I’ll get a medium.”
“Are you interested in saving 10% today with an Old Navy Card? No, no worries…”
“I can clean the bathrooms if someone covers the fitting room!”
I didn’t expect much from my first job. Mostly, I expected to earn $12 an hour and improve my denim folding skills at Old Navy. I didn’t think I could learn so much about people and develop life skills.
As(( This paragraph could be a little more specific to the writer rather than their coworkers.)) odd as it may sound, retail work brought people together during COVID. I started in July of 2020. Our store had always met for monthly meetings, but everyone emphasized how much closer they’d become since the pandemic. Stepping up to cover someone’s shift when they got sick–or their spouse or child did–used to elicit a quick “thank you!”, but took on a more profound meaning in 2020. Though I started mid-pandemic, everyone I worked with remarked that, with a few notable exceptions, the overall demeanor of the clientele was much more empathetic. My coworkers seemed to go from sales associates to brave workers keeping the economy afloat overnight.
After about seven months of dutiful work, I was promoted(( The writer seamlessly incorporates the information that they earned a promotion after a relatively brief time of working at the store.)) to senior associate and had new responsibilities of closing and opening the store. Sure, I had dreams of working in an infectious disease lab. But having adults put real trust in me to account for several thousand dollars and secure a major outlet made me value and understand work perhaps even more than the research internship I missed out on(( I appreciate the perspective here. The writer makes a good argument for the importance of retail work, especially in relation to their academic interests.)) .
I am thankful for this opportunity to work and learn with a dedicated staff. Now, I look forward to pursuing more experiences that will relate to my career in biotech in college. Oh, and I won’t miss soliciting credit card sales with each purchase(( This humor bookends the essay wonderfully and adds some extra personality.)) !
- Focus on strengths: Maintaining the right focus in extracurricular essays can be tricky. It can be easy to get caught up in the details of the activity and brag too much or not enough. Especially with extracurricular activities that aren’t based in competition, it can be challenging to draw out strengths. But this writer finds the perfect way to talk about their accomplishments and strengths (being promoted and being a team player) while also seeming personable and humble.
- Connection to future goals : Importantly, the writer doesn’t just leave the story at their retail job. They show the admissions officer how they see this job as contributing toward their future goals.
- Transitions: The transitions between paragraphs and into the detail about a future biotech career could be smoother.
Why this Major: Watchers
Prompt from USC: Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests and why you want to explore them at USC specifically. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections. (Approximately 250 words)
As a child(( I like how the writer takes a more creative approach to a standard “why this major” essay.)) , I always got in trouble for staring. My mom would nudge me whenever I looked at someone too long. My uncontrollable staring was an embarrassment for her, but it’s one of the things I love most about myself. Whereas some people are do-ers, I am a watcher, a listener, and a documenter(( We learn a lot about the writer’s personality here.)) . Like introverts and extroverts, the world needs both kinds of people.
Watchers have an admirable task: to see what exists and give it meaning. That’s exactly what I want to do while pursuing my academic interests in anthropology(( And at this point, we jump quickly into the connections between the opening story and the writer’s academic interests. )) . In particular, I’m interested in learning about art, language, and culture in Russia. Pursuing a research career in anthropology would open up opportunities for me to do research for government offices and move toward my ultimate goal(( Incorporating a future goal that they’re working towards is an effective approach.)) of working for the United Nations.
As(( This paragraph has a number of specific, detailed, and relevant connections to the school.)) a Visual Anthropology and Russian double major at USC, I would hone my social scientist skills and improve my Russian language abilities. I’m also eager to participate in a directed internship and to connect with fellow watchers in the Anthropology and Global Studies club. The Center for Visual Anthropology, minor in Folklore and Popular Culture, and the anthropology-focused study abroad opportunity in St. Petersburg all converge to make USC the ideal place for me to learn.
With USC’s global focus and emphasis on creativity, research, and public service, I know that I could develop my watching skills into a successful anthropology career(( And the writer concludes by drawing on some of the institution’s core values, which helps ground all of those disparate connections into something meaningful that the writer aligns themself with.)) .
- Writing style and storytelling: This essay shows that supplemental essays don’t have to be boring. The writer opens with an interesting hook and writes about their major interest in a compelling way.
- School research and connections: The writer does a good job specifically answering the “how you plan to pursue your academic interests and why you want to explore them at USC” part of the prompt. It’s clear that they’ve done their research, and the connections they’ve chosen to focus on make sense in the context of the story they’ve told. They also incorporate school values in addition to simple facts.
- Writing about school connections : To take this essay to the next level, the student could write about the school connections in a slightly more elegant way. As they are now, they feel quite list-like.
Academic Interest: Everyday History
Prompt from Barnard: At Barnard, academic inquiry starts with bold questions. What are some of the bold questions you have pondered that get you excited and why do they interest you? Tell us how you would explore these questions at Barnard. (max 300)
As I walked through the ancient city of Pompeii(( This is a beautiful hook that stops and makes the reader think, too.)) on a family vacation, I thought about the children. I imagined how scared they must have been when the volcano erupted, how they must have reached out to their caregivers for protection. When a large group of people mobbed through the alley next to us, I reached out to my own mother(( With a simple phrase, the writer shows the connection between themself and the people of the past who have captured their attention.)) as an anchor.
What interests me most about history is that the people of the past(( The writer adeptly transitions from a poetic introduction to a straightforward answer to the prompt.)) were just like us. They had likes and dislikes, they became frightened and love-struck and tired. While the history of royalty and great wars captures most people’s attention, what I want to study is the history of everyday people.
What(( These questions respond exactly to what the prompt is asking for. )) was it like to be a child in Pompeii? How did prisoners feel on their way to Australia? What kinds of recipes did the Aztecs cook?
I know that with Barnard’s culture of multidisciplinarity, discovery, and creative thinking, I’d be able to pursue these questions and more(( The writer draws on Barnard’s own values and connects their interests, goals, and questions to specific offerings at Barnard.)) . In classes like Gender and Empire, I’ll learn about the ways European expansion was gendered. And in Children and Childhood in African History or Reproducing Inequalities: Family in Latin American History, I’ll be able to ask questions about the history of the family: How have family structures varied across time and place? What historical role have children played? In what ways have parenting practices changed and why?
While they may seem inconsequential for life today, I believe that answering these questions helps us better understand ourselves. With Barnard’s Building Strong Voices(( And they also reference out-of-the-classroom opportunities.)) mission, I’ll learn how to present my research and advocate for the importance of history.
The world needs more histories of everyday people. We have a lot to learn from them, and Barnard’s offerings will help me lead us to better historical and current understandings(( With this conclusion, it’s clear how Barnard will help the writer accomplish their goals. )) .
Word Count: 299
- Introduction: Academic interest essays are your chance to go all-in. The introduction to this essay does just that. We’re immediately transported into this writer’s academic interest, and we begin to ask these questions alongside them.
- Answering all parts of the prompt: This can be a tricky feat when responding to complex prompts like Barnard’s. But this writer does just that. They tackle each part of the prompt in order, and the make clear transitions between them.
College Essay Example Takeaways
Whether you’re writing a personal statement or supplemental essay, reading and analyzing college essay examples is an important tool. Good examples can give you insight into the proper form and structure to use. And bad examples can be just as helpful by showing you what not to do.
All admissions officers will approach your college essays from different perspectives. But hopefully the grades and comments—provided by our team of former admissions officers and professional writing coaches—have helped you understand what works, what doesn’t work, and why.
As you’ve seen, there are so many essays, topics, personalities, approaches—you can write a college essay about almost anything.
Remember that the key to any successful college application is a cohesive application narrative .
And if you want to take your own college essays to the next level, join the Essay Academy for an entire course of professional guidance.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do admissions officers actually grade college essays, what makes a good college essay, liked that try this next..
How to Write a College Essay (Exercises + Examples)
How to Write Supplemental Essays that Will Impress Admissions Officers
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College Essays That Worked: See Examples
Experts say a good college essay features a student's voice and personality.
Students should know themselves and write authoritatively so they can share a sense of their lives with admissions officers. (Getty Images)
Many college applications require a personal essay, which can be daunting for students to write.
But a few simple tips, some introspection and insight into what admissions officers are looking for can help ease the pressure. U.S. News has compiled several college essay examples that helped students get into school. Shared by admissions staff or referenced from admissions websites, these essays stand out, they say, because the student voices shine, helping the school get to know the applicants.
"Students can get caught in the trap of overthinking it and write the essay that's going to impress the admissions committee," says Andrew Strickler, dean of admission and financial aid at Connecticut College . "The best essays, the ones that really pop, are the ones that come across as authentic and you really hear the student's voice."
The essay gives schools a feel for how a student writes, but it's the content of the essay that matters most, admissions professionals say. In other words, while it's important to showcase sound grammar and writing, it's even more important to showcase your character and personality.
"I care more about their stories than if it is a perfect five paragraph essay," David Graves, interim director of admissions at the University of Georgia , wrote in an email.
Many schools give students a wide range of topics to choose from, which experts say can be beneficial in helping students find their voice.
While you want your voice to be apparent, it's wise to be aware of your tone, says Allen Koh, CEO of Cardinal Education, an admissions consulting company that works with students to craft and revise their college essays. The goal of the essay is to make a strong case for why you’re different from all the other applicants, not necessarily why you’re better, he adds.
"You have to pass the genuine likability test. Sometimes kids are so busy trying to brag or tell their story that they’re forgetting they have to sound like a likable person. That’s a very simple test, but it’s really important."
Good essays tend to be "positively emotional," he says. It's best to avoid using sarcasm because it tends to fail on college essays.
Any humor used "really has to be a very positive, witty humor, not sarcastic," which he says can be hard to pick up on in an essay.
The Perils of Using AI for Essays
Choosing the right tone can be a challenge for many students, but admissions pros encourage them not to take shortcuts to completing their essay.
Though some college professors have embraced artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT in their classrooms, Strickler says he's begun to stress in recent talks with high school audiences the importance of original work and avoiding the use of AI tools like ChatGPT to craft college essays. While it might produce a technically well-written essay and save time, your unique voice will be stripped away, and it may leave a bad impression on admissions offices as well as prevent them from truly getting to know you, he says.
Instead, Graves says, start early and take time to write it yourself, then "actually read it out loud to someone ... to listen to the rhythm and words as they are 'read.'"
Each spring on his admissions blog , Graves shares an enrolling student's essay and why it was strong. The essay excerpted below, shared with the permission of the University of Georgia, uses descriptive word choice and gives the admissions office deep insight into the student's life, their love for writing and their connection to their family, Graves says.
It was chosen as an example "to show our applicant pool how to express themselves through similes, sensory language (words that capture the senses of the reader), and emotion," Graves wrote on the blog.
Here's how the essay opened:
If you asked me what object I’d save in a burning fire, I’d save my notebook. My notebook isn’t just any notebook, it’s bubble gum pink with purple tie dye swirls, and has gold coil binding it together. But more importantly, it’s the key that unlocked my superpower, sending me soaring into the sky, flying high above any problems that could ever catch me. However, my notebook is simply the key. My real power rests in the depths of my mind, in my passion for writing. But to know how my powers came to be (not from a spider or a special rock), I must travel back to the first spark.
Four years ago, I wrote my first 6-word memoir in my eighth-grade rhetoric class. Inspired by my father’s recently diagnosed terminal illness, I wrote “Take his words, don’t take him”. It was as if all the energy of my powers surged into six meaningful words meant to honor the man that I would soon lose to a villain known as ALS. This was the first time I felt my writing. Three years ago, my dad’s disease severely progressed. The ALS seized his ability to speak and locked it in a tower with no key. The only way we could communicate was with an old spiral notebook. ...
The essay counted down each year ("three years ago," "two years ago," etc.) and concluded with this paragraph:
One month ago, I needed my powers more than ever before. I needed them to convey who I truly am for the chance at the future of my dreams as a writer. Except this time, I didn’t need the key because my powers grew into fruition. Instead, I opened my laptop only to type out one sentence… “If you asked me what object to save in a burning fire, I’d save my notebook.”
This style of storytelling, which shows not just the triumph at the end but also the conflict, struggle and evolution in between, makes for great essays, Koh says.
"The student also used an intriguing timeline (counting down years and month) to tell their story, and showed how she had grown," Graves says.
This next essay, by an anonymous writer and shared on Connecticut College 's admissions page , "manages to capture multiple aspects of the writer's personality, while not becoming overly cluttered or confusing," writes Susanna Matthews, associate director of admission at the school.
Every person who truly knows me believes that I was born in the wrong century. They call me "an old soul" because I'm a collector, attracted to books, antiques, vinyl records and anything from the 80's. But they also think I am unique in other ways. I believe it is because of the meaningful connections to my two languages and two cultures.
When we moved into our first American house, I was excited to decorate my new room. The first thing I knew I needed was a place to organize my most cherished possessions I have collected throughout my life. I searched and finally found a bookshelf with twenty-five thick sections that I could build and organize alphabetically ... Each shelf holds important objects from different parts of my life. ...
These books are a strong connection to my Brazilian heritage. They also remind me of the time when I was growing up in Brazil, as a member of a large Italian-Brazilian family.
The writer continues on, describing the types of books on each shelf, from Harry Potter to books used to learn English. They describe the bottom of the bookshelf housing some of their most prized possessions, like an old typewriter their grandfather gave them. They wonder about the words it has crafted and stories it has told.
As I grab my favorite Elvis vinyl to play, I can only wonder about the next chapter of my life. I look forward to adding new books, new friends, and a wide variety of experiences to my bookshelf.
"By placing one subject (the bookshelf) at the center of the piece, it lends some flexibility to layer in much more detail than if they had tried to discuss a few different interests in the essay," Matthews writes. "You learn a lot about the person, in a way that isn't in your face – a great thing when trying to write a personal essay."
Some colleges require a supplemental essay in addition to the personal statement. Typically, admissions pros note, these essays are shorter and focus on answering a specific question posed by the college.
The University of Chicago in Illinois allows students to submit essay prompts as inspiration for the admissions office and gives students some latitude in how they answer them. Essay prompts range from questions about the school itself to asking students to pick a question from a song title or lyric and give their best shot at answering it.
"We think of them as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions," the school's admissions website reads. "They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between."
While the University of Chicago says there is no strict word limit on its supplemental essays, other schools prefer brevity. For example, Stanford University in California asks students to answer several short questions, with a 50-word limit, in addition to answering three essay questions in 100 to 250 words.
Georgia asks for a school-specific supplemental essay that's 200-300 words in addition to a 250- to 650-word personal essay.
"Sometimes a shorter essay response is not as polished an essay, but instead is a more casual, more relaxed essay," Graves says. "In addition, sometimes a student needs to get to the point or be concise, and this helps see if they can give us their story without overdoing it."
Other schools allow for a little more creativity in how the supplemental essay questions are answered. Babson College in Massachusetts, for example, gives students a 500-word limit to answer a prompt, or they can choose to submit a one-minute video about why they chose to apply to the school.
One student, Gabrielle Alias, chose to film a "day-in-the-life" video , which she narrated to answer the prompt, "Who Am I?"
"Visiting campus twice, I know I could see myself as one of the many interesting, innovative, and enticing students that come out of Babson," she says in the video. "But who am I you ask? I am a student. I am a reader. I am a researcher. I am a music lover. ... I am Gabrielle Alias and I am excited for who I will be as a graduate of Babson."
An essay by Babson student Bessie Shiroki, seen below, describes her experience in the school's admissions office and how she immediately felt comfortable.
I immediately smiled at the sight of my favorite board game. Babsonopoly. I love the combination of strategy and luck in this traditional family pastime. Seeing this on the wall in the admissions office gave me immediate comfort; I knew I was home.
Shiroki describes what she felt set Babson College apart from other schools, such as being surrounded by "sophisticated and mature individuals" and a tight-knit, entrepreneurial environment that would help her reach her career goals.
It is natural for me to be in a small class where more than one language is spoken. I am accustomed to discussions with diverse viewpoints, open minds, and where differences are seen as advantages. I embrace my cultural uniqueness, and I will add my voice to the community. I can’t imagine not continuing this in college.
She notes that as she toured the campus and saw students studying, she could see herself as one of them, feeding off of their studious and entrepreneurial energy. She mentions that Babson's Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship class got her attention immediately and she saw it as a launch pad for a future that included running a business.
Babson recognizes the potential of their students, and FME is a great way for young entrepreneurs like me to find our place in the business world and learn from our mistakes. I am capable of this challenge and will conquer it with tenacity. I will bring my dedication, commitment, and innovative skills to Babson College.
Now it’s my turn to pass go and collect my Babson acceptance letter. I’ve found my next challenge.
Babson College offers several tips for what make good essays, including a strong "hook" to engage the reader from the start and a topic that allows you to share something that's not as obvious on your application.
When it comes to writing a college admissions essay – whether personal or supplemental – experts advise students to follow these rules:
- Find your voice.
- Write about a topic that matters to you.
- Share your personality.
- Express yourself.
- Proofread extensively.
With both traditional essays and supplemental essays, Koh says it's best to write long and work with someone you trust to edit it down. Teachers, friends and parents can all be helpful proofreaders, but experts note that the student voice should remain intact.
A good editor can help edit a long essay to keep the main message but with fewer words. “If I see 400 words, I know I’m a dozen drafts away from getting it to 650,” he says. “If I see 1200 words, we might just be one or two away. It’s at least going to be a shorter haul.”
Strickler encourages students not to stress too much over the essay or put unnecessary weight on it as part of their college application . While a strong essay helps, he says, it doesn't make or break an application.
"There's this sense that you write the most amazing essay and it gets you over the top because it opens the door to the pathway to the Magic Kingdom," he says. "But it's just one piece of a myriad of pieces that allow us to get to know a particular student and help us figure out if they're a good fit and how they're going to contribute to our community."
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Choose Your Test
Sat / act prep online guides and tips, 177 college essay examples for 11 schools + expert analysis.
College Admissions , College Essays
The personal statement might just be the hardest part of your college application. Mostly this is because it has the least guidance and is the most open-ended. One way to understand what colleges are looking for when they ask you to write an essay is to check out the essays of students who already got in—college essays that actually worked. After all, they must be among the most successful of this weird literary genre.
In this article, I'll go through general guidelines for what makes great college essays great. I've also compiled an enormous list of 100+ actual sample college essays from 11 different schools. Finally, I'll break down two of these published college essay examples and explain why and how they work. With links to 177 full essays and essay excerpts , this article will be a great resource for learning how to craft your own personal college admissions essay!
What Excellent College Essays Have in Common
Even though in many ways these sample college essays are very different from one other, they do share some traits you should try to emulate as you write your own essay.
Visible Signs of Planning
Building out from a narrow, concrete focus. You'll see a similar structure in many of the essays. The author starts with a very detailed story of an event or description of a person or place. After this sense-heavy imagery, the essay expands out to make a broader point about the author, and connects this very memorable experience to the author's present situation, state of mind, newfound understanding, or maturity level.
Knowing how to tell a story. Some of the experiences in these essays are one-of-a-kind. But most deal with the stuff of everyday life. What sets them apart is the way the author approaches the topic: analyzing it for drama and humor, for its moving qualities, for what it says about the author's world, and for how it connects to the author's emotional life.
A killer first sentence. You've heard it before, and you'll hear it again: you have to suck the reader in, and the best place to do that is the first sentence. Great first sentences are punchy. They are like cliffhangers, setting up an exciting scene or an unusual situation with an unclear conclusion, in order to make the reader want to know more. Don't take my word for it—check out these 22 first sentences from Stanford applicants and tell me you don't want to read the rest of those essays to find out what happens!
A lively, individual voice. Writing is for readers. In this case, your reader is an admissions officer who has read thousands of essays before yours and will read thousands after. Your goal? Don't bore your reader. Use interesting descriptions, stay away from clichés, include your own offbeat observations—anything that makes this essay sounds like you and not like anyone else.
Technical correctness. No spelling mistakes, no grammar weirdness, no syntax issues, no punctuation snafus—each of these sample college essays has been formatted and proofread perfectly. If this kind of exactness is not your strong suit, you're in luck! All colleges advise applicants to have their essays looked over several times by parents, teachers, mentors, and anyone else who can spot a comma splice. Your essay must be your own work, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help polishing it.
And if you need more guidance, connect with PrepScholar's expert admissions consultants . These expert writers know exactly what college admissions committees look for in an admissions essay and chan help you craft an essay that boosts your chances of getting into your dream school.
Check out PrepScholar's Essay Editing and Coaching progra m for more details!
Want to write the perfect college application essay? Get professional help from PrepScholar.
Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We'll learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay that you'll proudly submit to your top choice colleges.
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Links to Full College Essay Examples
Some colleges publish a selection of their favorite accepted college essays that worked, and I've put together a selection of over 100 of these.
Common App Essay Samples
Please note that some of these college essay examples may be responding to prompts that are no longer in use. The current Common App prompts are as follows:
1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. 2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? 3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? 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? 5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Now, let's get to the good stuff: the list of 177 college essay examples responding to current and past Common App essay prompts.
- 12 Common Application essays from the classes of 2022-2025
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2026
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2022
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2018
- 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2012
- 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2007
These essays are answers to past prompts from either the Common Application or the Coalition Application (which Johns Hopkins used to accept).
- 1 Common Application or Coalition Application essay from the class of 2026
- 6 Common Application or Coalition Application essays from the class of 2025
- 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2024
- 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2023
- 7 Common Application of Universal Application essays from the class of 2022
- 5 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2021
- 7 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2020
Essay Examples Published by Other Websites
- 2 Common Application essays ( 1st essay , 2nd essay ) from applicants admitted to Columbia
Other Sample College Essays
Here is a collection of essays that are college-specific.
- 4 essays (and 1 video response) on "Why Babson" from the class of 2020
- 5 essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) from the class of 2020 along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on why the essays were exceptional
- 5 more recent essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on what made these essays stand out
University of Georgia
- 1 “strong essay” sample from 2019
- 1 “strong essay” sample from 2018
- 10 Harvard essays from 2023
- 10 Harvard essays from 2022
- 10 Harvard essays from 2021
- 10 Harvard essays from 2020
- 10 Harvard essays from 2019
- 10 Harvard essays from 2018
- 6 essays from admitted MIT students
- 6 "best gift" essays from the class of 2018
Books of College Essays
If you're looking for even more sample college essays, consider purchasing a college essay book. The best of these include dozens of essays that worked and feedback from real admissions officers.
College Essays That Made a Difference —This detailed guide from Princeton Review includes not only successful essays, but also interviews with admissions officers and full student profiles.
50 Successful Harvard Application Essays by the Staff of the Harvard Crimson—A must for anyone aspiring to Harvard .
50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays and 50 Successful Stanford Application Essays by Gen and Kelly Tanabe—For essays from other top schools, check out this venerated series, which is regularly updated with new essays.
Heavenly Essays by Janine W. Robinson—This collection from the popular blogger behind Essay Hell includes a wider range of schools, as well as helpful tips on honing your own essay.
Analyzing Great Common App Essays That Worked
I've picked two essays from the examples collected above to examine in more depth so that you can see exactly what makes a successful college essay work. Full credit for these essays goes to the original authors and the schools that published them.
Example 1: "Breaking Into Cars," by Stephen, Johns Hopkins Class of '19 (Common App Essay, 636 words long)
I had never broken into a car before.
We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.
Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.
"Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?"
"Why me?" I thought.
More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame. Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.
My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally. My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed. "The water's on fire! Clear a hole!" he shouted, tossing me in the lake without warning. While I'm still unconvinced about that particular lesson's practicality, my Dad's overarching message is unequivocally true: much of life is unexpected, and you have to deal with the twists and turns.
Living in my family, days rarely unfolded as planned. A bit overlooked, a little pushed around, I learned to roll with reality, negotiate a quick deal, and give the improbable a try. I don't sweat the small stuff, and I definitely don't expect perfect fairness. So what if our dining room table only has six chairs for seven people? Someone learns the importance of punctuality every night.
But more than punctuality and a special affinity for musical chairs, my family life has taught me to thrive in situations over which I have no power. Growing up, I never controlled my older siblings, but I learned how to thwart their attempts to control me. I forged alliances, and realigned them as necessary. Sometimes, I was the poor, defenseless little brother; sometimes I was the omniscient elder. Different things to different people, as the situation demanded. I learned to adapt.
Back then, these techniques were merely reactions undertaken to ensure my survival. But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"
The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.
Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It's family. It's society. And often, it's chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.
What Makes This Essay Tick?
It's very helpful to take writing apart in order to see just how it accomplishes its objectives. Stephen's essay is very effective. Let's find out why!
An Opening Line That Draws You In
In just eight words, we get: scene-setting (he is standing next to a car about to break in), the idea of crossing a boundary (he is maybe about to do an illegal thing for the first time), and a cliffhanger (we are thinking: is he going to get caught? Is he headed for a life of crime? Is he about to be scared straight?).
Great, Detailed Opening Story
More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame.
It's the details that really make this small experience come alive. Notice how whenever he can, Stephen uses a more specific, descriptive word in place of a more generic one. The volunteers aren't going to get food or dinner; they're going for "Texas BBQ." The coat hanger comes from "a dumpster." Stephen doesn't just move the coat hanger—he "jiggles" it.
Details also help us visualize the emotions of the people in the scene. The person who hands Stephen the coat hanger isn't just uncomfortable or nervous; he "takes a few steps back"—a description of movement that conveys feelings. Finally, the detail of actual speech makes the scene pop. Instead of writing that the other guy asked him to unlock the van, Stephen has the guy actually say his own words in a way that sounds like a teenager talking.
Turning a Specific Incident Into a Deeper Insight
Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.
Stephen makes the locked car experience a meaningful illustration of how he has learned to be resourceful and ready for anything, and he also makes this turn from the specific to the broad through an elegant play on the two meanings of the word "click."
Using Concrete Examples When Making Abstract Claims
My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally.
"Unpredictability and chaos" are very abstract, not easily visualized concepts. They could also mean any number of things—violence, abandonment, poverty, mental instability. By instantly following up with highly finite and unambiguous illustrations like "family of seven" and "siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing," Stephen grounds the abstraction in something that is easy to picture: a large, noisy family.
Using Small Bits of Humor and Casual Word Choice
My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.
Obviously, knowing how to clean burning oil is not high on the list of things every 9-year-old needs to know. To emphasize this, Stephen uses sarcasm by bringing up a situation that is clearly over-the-top: "in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed."
The humor also feels relaxed. Part of this is because he introduces it with the colloquial phrase "you know," so it sounds like he is talking to us in person. This approach also diffuses the potential discomfort of the reader with his father's strictness—since he is making jokes about it, clearly he is OK. Notice, though, that this doesn't occur very much in the essay. This helps keep the tone meaningful and serious rather than flippant.
An Ending That Stretches the Insight Into the Future
But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"
The ending of the essay reveals that Stephen's life has been one long preparation for the future. He has emerged from chaos and his dad's approach to parenting as a person who can thrive in a world that he can't control.
This connection of past experience to current maturity and self-knowledge is a key element in all successful personal essays. Colleges are very much looking for mature, self-aware applicants. These are the qualities of successful college students, who will be able to navigate the independence college classes require and the responsibility and quasi-adulthood of college life.
What Could This Essay Do Even Better?
Even the best essays aren't perfect, and even the world's greatest writers will tell you that writing is never "finished"—just "due." So what would we tweak in this essay if we could?
Replace some of the clichéd language. Stephen uses handy phrases like "twists and turns" and "don't sweat the small stuff" as a kind of shorthand for explaining his relationship to chaos and unpredictability. But using too many of these ready-made expressions runs the risk of clouding out your own voice and replacing it with something expected and boring.
Use another example from recent life. Stephen's first example (breaking into the van in Laredo) is a great illustration of being resourceful in an unexpected situation. But his essay also emphasizes that he "learned to adapt" by being "different things to different people." It would be great to see how this plays out outside his family, either in the situation in Laredo or another context.
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Example 2: By Renner Kwittken, Tufts Class of '23 (Common App Essay, 645 words long)
My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver. I saw it in my favorite book, Richard Scarry's "Cars and Trucks and Things That Go," and for some reason, I was absolutely obsessed with the idea of driving a giant pickle. Much to the discontent of my younger sister, I insisted that my parents read us that book as many nights as possible so we could find goldbug, a small little golden bug, on every page. I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.
Then I discovered a real goldbug: gold nanoparticles that can reprogram macrophages to assist in killing tumors, produce clear images of them without sacrificing the subject, and heat them to obliteration.
Suddenly the destination of my pickle was clear.
I quickly became enveloped by the world of nanomedicine; I scoured articles about liposomes, polymeric micelles, dendrimers, targeting ligands, and self-assembling nanoparticles, all conquering cancer in some exotic way. Completely absorbed, I set out to find a mentor to dive even deeper into these topics. After several rejections, I was immensely grateful to receive an invitation to work alongside Dr. Sangeeta Ray at Johns Hopkins.
In the lab, Dr. Ray encouraged a great amount of autonomy to design and implement my own procedures. I chose to attack a problem that affects the entire field of nanomedicine: nanoparticles consistently fail to translate from animal studies into clinical trials. Jumping off recent literature, I set out to see if a pre-dose of a common chemotherapeutic could enhance nanoparticle delivery in aggressive prostate cancer, creating three novel constructs based on three different linear polymers, each using fluorescent dye (although no gold, sorry goldbug!). Though using radioactive isotopes like Gallium and Yttrium would have been incredible, as a 17-year-old, I unfortunately wasn't allowed in the same room as these radioactive materials (even though I took a Geiger counter to a pair of shoes and found them to be slightly dangerous).
I hadn't expected my hypothesis to work, as the research project would have ideally been led across two full years. Yet while there are still many optimizations and revisions to be done, I was thrilled to find -- with completely new nanoparticles that may one day mean future trials will use particles with the initials "RK-1" -- thatcyclophosphamide did indeed increase nanoparticle delivery to the tumor in a statistically significant way.
A secondary, unexpected research project was living alone in Baltimore, a new city to me, surrounded by people much older than I. Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research. Whether in a presentation or in a casual conversation, making others interested in science is perhaps more exciting to me than the research itself. This solidified a new pursuit to angle my love for writing towards illuminating science in ways people can understand, adding value to a society that can certainly benefit from more scientific literacy.
It seems fitting that my goals are still transforming: in Scarry's book, there is not just one goldbug, there is one on every page. With each new experience, I'm learning that it isn't the goldbug itself, but rather the act of searching for the goldbugs that will encourage, shape, and refine my ever-evolving passions. Regardless of the goldbug I seek -- I know my pickle truck has just begun its journey.
Renner takes a somewhat different approach than Stephen, but their essay is just as detailed and engaging. Let's go through some of the strengths of this essay.
One Clear Governing Metaphor
This essay is ultimately about two things: Renner’s dreams and future career goals, and Renner’s philosophy on goal-setting and achieving one’s dreams.
But instead of listing off all the amazing things they’ve done to pursue their dream of working in nanomedicine, Renner tells a powerful, unique story instead. To set up the narrative, Renner opens the essay by connecting their experiences with goal-setting and dream-chasing all the way back to a memorable childhood experience:
This lighthearted–but relevant!--story about the moment when Renner first developed a passion for a specific career (“finding the goldbug”) provides an anchor point for the rest of the essay. As Renner pivots to describing their current dreams and goals–working in nanomedicine–the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” is reflected in Renner’s experiments, rejections, and new discoveries.
Though Renner tells multiple stories about their quest to “find the goldbug,” or, in other words, pursue their passion, each story is connected by a unifying theme; namely, that as we search and grow over time, our goals will transform…and that’s okay! By the end of the essay, Renner uses the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” to reiterate the relevance of the opening story:
While the earlier parts of the essay convey Renner’s core message by showing, the final, concluding paragraph sums up Renner’s insights by telling. By briefly and clearly stating the relevance of the goldbug metaphor to their own philosophy on goals and dreams, Renner demonstrates their creativity, insight, and eagerness to grow and evolve as the journey continues into college.
An Engaging, Individual Voice
This essay uses many techniques that make Renner sound genuine and make the reader feel like we already know them.
Technique #1: humor. Notice Renner's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks their younger self's grand ambitions (this is different from the more sarcastic kind of humor used by Stephen in the first essay—you could never mistake one writer for the other).
My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver.
I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.
Renner gives a great example of how to use humor to your advantage in college essays. You don’t want to come off as too self-deprecating or sarcastic, but telling a lightheartedly humorous story about your younger self that also showcases how you’ve grown and changed over time can set the right tone for your entire essay.
Technique #2: intentional, eye-catching structure. The second technique is the way Renner uses a unique structure to bolster the tone and themes of their essay . The structure of your essay can have a major impact on how your ideas come across…so it’s important to give it just as much thought as the content of your essay!
For instance, Renner does a great job of using one-line paragraphs to create dramatic emphasis and to make clear transitions from one phase of the story to the next:
Suddenly the destination of my pickle car was clear.
Not only does the one-liner above signal that Renner is moving into a new phase of the narrative (their nanoparticle research experiences), it also tells the reader that this is a big moment in Renner’s story. It’s clear that Renner made a major discovery that changed the course of their goal pursuit and dream-chasing. Through structure, Renner conveys excitement and entices the reader to keep pushing forward to the next part of the story.
Technique #3: playing with syntax. The third technique is to use sentences of varying length, syntax, and structure. Most of the essay's written in standard English and uses grammatically correct sentences. However, at key moments, Renner emphasizes that the reader needs to sit up and pay attention by switching to short, colloquial, differently punctuated, and sometimes fragmented sentences.
Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research.
In the examples above, Renner switches adeptly between long, flowing sentences and quippy, telegraphic ones. At the same time, Renner uses these different sentence lengths intentionally. As they describe their experiences in new places, they use longer sentences to immerse the reader in the sights, smells, and sounds of those experiences. And when it’s time to get a big, key idea across, Renner switches to a short, punchy sentence to stop the reader in their tracks.
The varying syntax and sentence lengths pull the reader into the narrative and set up crucial “aha” moments when it’s most important…which is a surefire way to make any college essay stand out.
Renner's essay is very strong, but there are still a few little things that could be improved.
Connecting the research experiences to the theme of “finding the goldbug.” The essay begins and ends with Renner’s connection to the idea of “finding the goldbug.” And while this metaphor is deftly tied into the essay’s intro and conclusion, it isn’t entirely clear what Renner’s big findings were during the research experiences that are described in the middle of the essay. It would be great to add a sentence or two stating what Renner’s big takeaways (or “goldbugs”) were from these experiences, which add more cohesion to the essay as a whole.
Give more details about discovering the world of nanomedicine. It makes sense that Renner wants to get into the details of their big research experiences as quickly as possible. After all, these are the details that show Renner’s dedication to nanomedicine! But a smoother transition from the opening pickle car/goldbug story to Renner’s “real goldbug” of nanoparticles would help the reader understand why nanoparticles became Renner’s goldbug. Finding out why Renner is so motivated to study nanomedicine–and perhaps what put them on to this field of study–would help readers fully understand why Renner chose this path in the first place.
4 Essential Tips for Writing Your Own Essay
How can you use this discussion to better your own college essay? Here are some suggestions for ways to use this resource effectively.
#1: Get Help From the Experts
Getting your college applications together takes a lot of work and can be pretty intimidatin g. Essays are even more important than ever now that admissions processes are changing and schools are going test-optional and removing diversity standards thanks to new Supreme Court rulings . If you want certified expert help that really makes a difference, get started with PrepScholar’s Essay Editing and Coaching program. Our program can help you put together an incredible essay from idea to completion so that your application stands out from the crowd. We've helped students get into the best colleges in the United States, including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. If you're ready to take the next step and boost your odds of getting into your dream school, connect with our experts today .
#2: Read Other Essays to Get Ideas for Your Own
As you go through the essays we've compiled for you above, ask yourself the following questions:
- Can you explain to yourself (or someone else!) why the opening sentence works well?
- Look for the essay's detailed personal anecdote. What senses is the author describing? Can you easily picture the scene in your mind's eye?
- Find the place where this anecdote bridges into a larger insight about the author. How does the essay connect the two? How does the anecdote work as an example of the author's characteristic, trait, or skill?
- Check out the essay's tone. If it's funny, can you find the places where the humor comes from? If it's sad and moving, can you find the imagery and description of feelings that make you moved? If it's serious, can you see how word choice adds to this tone?
Make a note whenever you find an essay or part of an essay that you think was particularly well-written, and think about what you like about it . Is it funny? Does it help you really get to know the writer? Does it show what makes the writer unique? Once you have your list, keep it next to you while writing your essay to remind yourself to try and use those same techniques in your own essay.
#3: Find Your "A-Ha!" Moment
All of these essays rely on connecting with the reader through a heartfelt, highly descriptive scene from the author's life. It can either be very dramatic (did you survive a plane crash?) or it can be completely mundane (did you finally beat your dad at Scrabble?). Either way, it should be personal and revealing about you, your personality, and the way you are now that you are entering the adult world.
Check out essays by authors like John Jeremiah Sullivan , Leslie Jamison , Hanif Abdurraqib , and Esmé Weijun Wang to get more examples of how to craft a compelling personal narrative.
#4: Start Early, Revise Often
Let me level with you: the best writing isn't writing at all. It's rewriting. And in order to have time to rewrite, you have to start way before the application deadline. My advice is to write your first draft at least two months before your applications are due.
Let it sit for a few days untouched. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and think critically about what you've written. What's extra? What's missing? What is in the wrong place? What doesn't make sense? Don't be afraid to take it apart and rearrange sections. Do this several times over, and your essay will be much better for it!
For more editing tips, check out a style guide like Dreyer's English or Eats, Shoots & Leaves .
Still not sure which colleges you want to apply to? Our experts will show you how to make a college list that will help you choose a college that's right for you.
Interested in learning more about college essays? Check out our detailed breakdown of exactly how personal statements work in an application , some suggestions on what to avoid when writing your essay , and our guide to writing about your extracurricular activities .
Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .
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The recommendations in this post are based solely on our knowledge and experience. If you purchase an item through one of our links PrepScholar may receive a commission.
Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.
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21 Stellar Common App Essay Examples to Inspire Your College Essay
What’s covered:, what makes a good common app essay, is your common app essay strong enough.
When you begin writing your Common App essay, having an example to look at can help you understand how to effectively write your college essay so that it stands apart from others.
These Common App essay examples demonstrate a strong writing ability and answer the prompt in a way that shows admissions officers something unique about the student. Once you’ve read some examples and are ready to get started, read our step-by-step guide for how to write a strong Common App essay.
Please note: Looking at examples of real essays students have submitted to colleges can be very beneficial to get inspiration for your essays. You should never copy or plagiarize from these examples when writing your own essays. Colleges can tell when an essay isn’t genuine and will not view students favorably if they plagiarized.
Read our Common App essay breakdown to get a comprehensive overview of this year’s supplemental prompts.
The point of the Common App essay is to humanize yourself to a college admissions committee. The ultimate goal is to get them to choose you over someone else! You will have a better chance of achieving this goal if the admissions committee feels personally connected to you or invested in your story. When writing your Common App essay, you should explore your feelings, worldview, values, desires, and anything else that makes you uniquely you.
It’s Not Cliché
It is pretty easy to resort to clichés in college essays. This should be actively avoided! CollegeVine has identified the immigrant’s journey, sports injuries, and overcoming a challenging course as cliché topics . If you write about one of these topics, you have to work harder to stand out, so working with a more nuanced topic is often safer and easier.
Colleges want good writers. They want students who can articulate their thoughts clearly and concisely (and creatively!). You should be writing and rewriting your essays, perfecting them as you go. Of course, make sure that your grammar and spelling are impeccable, but also put in time crafting your tone and finding your voice. This will also make your essay more personal and will make your reader feel more connected to you!
Compelling Common App essays tell a cohesive story. Cohesion is primarily achieved through effective introductions and conclusions , which often contribute to the establishment of a clear theme or topic. Make sure that it is clear what you are getting at, but also don’t explicitly state what you are getting at—a successful essay speaks for itself.
Common App Essay Examples
Here are the current Common App prompts. Click the links to jump to the examples for a specific prompt, or keep reading to review the examples for all the prompts.
Prompt #1 : Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Prompt #2 : The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
Prompt #3 : Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Prompt #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? (NOTE: We only have an example for the old prompt #4 about solving a problem, not this current one)
Prompt #5 : Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Prompt #6 : Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
Prompt #7 : Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of the author and subjects.
Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Prompt #1, example #1.
The room was silent except for the thoughts racing through my head. I led a spade from my hand and my opponent paused for a second, then played a heart. The numbers ran through my mind as I tried to consider every combination, calculating my next move. Finally, I played the ace of spades from the dummy and the rest of my clubs, securing the contract and 620 points when my partner ruffed at trick five. Next board.
It was the final of the 2015 United States Bridge Federation Under-26 Women’s Championship. The winning team would be selected to represent the United States in the world championship and my team was still in the running.
Contract bridge is a strategic and stochastic card game. Players from around the world gather at local clubs, regional events, and, in this case, national tournaments.
Going into the tournament, my team was excited; all the hours we had put into the game, from the lengthy midnight Skype sessions spent discussing boards to the coffee shop meetings spent memorizing conventions together, were about to pay off.
Halfway through, our spirits were still high, as we were only down by fourteen international match points which, out of the final total of about four hundred points, was virtually nothing and it was very feasible to catch up. Our excitement was short-lived, however, as sixty boards later, we found that we had lost the match and would not be chosen as the national team.
Initially, we were devastated. We had come so close and it seemed as if all the hours we had devoted to training had been utterly wasted. Yet as our team spent some time together reflecting upon the results, we gradually realized that the true value that we had gained wasn’t only the prospect of winning the national title, but also the time we had spent together exploring our shared passion. I chatted with the winning team and even befriended a few of them who offered us encouragement and advice.
Throughout my bridge career, although I’ve gained a respectable amount of masterpoints and awards, I’ve realized that the real reward comes from the extraordinary people I have met. I don’t need to travel cross-country to learn; every time I sit down at a table whether it be during a simple club game, a regional tournament or a national event, I find I’m always learning.
I nod at the pair that’s always yelling at each other. They teach me the importance of sportsmanship and forgiveness.
I greet the legally blind man who can defeat most of the seeing players. He reminds me not to make excuses.
I chat with the friendly, elderly couple who, at ages ninety and ninety-two, have just gotten married two weeks ago. They teach me that it’s never too late to start anything.
I talk to the boy who’s attending Harvard and the girl who forewent college to start her own company. They show me that there is more than one path to success.
I congratulate the little kid running to his dad, excited to have won his very first masterpoints. He reminds me of the thrill of every first time and to never stop trying new things.
Just as much as I have benefitted from these life lessons, I aspire to give back to my bridge community as much as it has given me. I aspire to teach people how to play this complicated yet equally as exciting game. I aspire to never stop improving myself, both at and away from the bridge table.
Bridge has given me my roots and dared me to dream. What started as merely a hobby has become a community, a passion, a part of my identity. I aspire to live selflessly and help others reach their goals. I seek to take risks, embrace all results, even failure, and live unfettered from my own doubt.
This student draws readers in with a strong introduction. The essay starts ambiguous—“I led with a spade”—then intrigues readers by gradually revealing more information and details. This makes the reader want to keep reading (which is super important!) As the writer continues, there is a rather abrupt tone shift from suspenseful to explanatory with statements like “It was the final of the 2015 United States Bridge Federation Under-26 Women’s Championship” and “Contract bridge is a strategic and stochastic card game.” If you plan to start with an imagery-heavy, emotional, suspenseful, or dramatic introduction, you will need to transition to the content of your essay in a way that does not feel abrupt.
You will often hear that essays need to “show, not tell.” This essay actually does both. First, the student tells readers the importance of bridge, saying “we gradually realized that the true value that we had gained wasn’t only the prospect of winning the national title, but also the time we had spent together exploring our shared passion” and “I’ve realized that the real reward comes from the extraordinary people I have met.” Then, the student shows the lessons they have learned from bridge through a series of parallel sentences: “I nod… sportsmanship and forgiveness” “I greet… not to make excuses” “I chat… it’s never too late to start anything” and so on. This latter strategy is much more effective than the former and is watered down because the student has already told us what we are supposed to get out of these sentences. Remember that your readers are intelligent and can draw their own conclusions. Avoid summarizing the moral of your story for them!
Overall, this essay is interesting and answers the prompt. We learn the importance of bridge to this student. The student has a solid grasp of language, a high-level vocabulary, and a valuable message, though they would be better off if they avoided summarizing their point and created more seamless transitions.
Prompt #1, Example #2
Growing up, I always wanted to eat, play, visit, watch, and be it all: sloppy joes and spaetzle, Beanie Babies and Steiff, Cape Cod and the Baltic Sea, football and fussball, American and German.
My American parents relocated our young family to Berlin when I was three years old. My exposure to America was limited to holidays spent stateside and awfully dubbed Disney Channel broadcasts. As the few memories I had of living in the US faded, my affinity for Germany grew. I began to identify as “Germerican,” an ideal marriage of the two cultures. As a child, I viewed my biculturalism as a blessing. I possessed a native fluency in “Denglisch” and my family’s Halloween parties were legendary at a time when the holiday was just starting to gain popularity outside of the American Sector.
Insidiously, the magic I once felt in loving two homes was replaced by a deep-rooted sense of rootlessness. I stopped feeling American when, while discussing World War II with my grandmother, I said “the US won.” She corrected me, insisting I use “we” when referring to the US’s actions. Before then, I hadn’t realized how directly people associated themselves with their countries. I stopped feeling German during the World Cup when my friends labeled me a “bandwagon fan” for rooting for Germany. Until that moment, my cheers had felt sincere. I wasn’t part of the “we” who won World Wars or World Cups. Caught in a twilight of foreign and familiar, I felt emotionally and psychologically disconnected from the two cultures most familiar to me.
After moving from Berlin to New York at age fifteen, my feelings of cultural homelessness thrived in my new environment. Looking and sounding American furthered my feelings of dislocation. Border patrol agents, teachers, classmates, neighbors, and relatives all “welcomed me home” to a land they could not understand was foreign to me. Americans confused me as I relied on Urban Dictionary to understand my peers, the Pledge of Allegiance seemed nationalistic, and the only thing familiar about Fahrenheit was the German after whom it was named. Too German for America and too American for Germany, I felt alienated from both. I wanted desperately to be a member of one, if not both, cultures.
During my first weeks in Scarsdale, I spent my free time googling “Berlin Family Seeks Teen” and “New Americans in Scarsdale.” The latter search proved most fruitful: I discovered Horizons, a nonprofit that empowers resettled refugees, or “New Americans,” to thrive. I started volunteering with Horizon’s children’s programs, playing with and tutoring young refugees.
It was there that I met Emily, a twelve-year-old Iraqi girl who lived next to Horizons. In between games and snacks, Emily would ask me questions about American life, touching on everything from Halloween to President Obama. Gradually, my confidence in my American identity grew as I recognized my ability to answer most of her questions. American culture was no longer completely foreign to me. I found myself especially qualified to work with young refugees; my experience growing up in a country other than that of my parents’ was similar enough to that of the refugee children Horizons served that I could empathize with them and offer advice. Together, we worked through conflicting allegiances, homesickness, and stretched belonging.
Forging a special, personal bond with young refugees proved a cathartic outlet for my insecurities as it taught me to value my past. My transculturalism allowed me to help young refugees integrate into American life, and, in doing so, I was able to adjust myself. Now, I have an appreciation of myself that I never felt before. “Home” isn’t the digits in a passport or ZIP code but a sense of contentedness. By helping a young refugee find comfort, happiness, and home in America, I was finally able to find those same things for myself.
Due to their endearing (and creative) use of language—with early phrases like “sloppy joes and spaetzle” as well as “Germerican” and “Denglisch”—readers are inclined to like this writer from the get-go. Though the essay shifts from this lighthearted introduction to more serious subject matter around the third paragraph, the shift is not abrupt or jarring. This is because the student invites readers to feel the transition with them through their inclusion of various anecdotes that inspired their “feelings of cultural homelessness.” And our journey does not end there—we go back to America with the student and see how their former struggles become strengths.
Ultimately, this essay is successful due to its satisfying ending. Because readers experience the student’s struggles with them, we also feel the resolution. The conclusion of this essay is a prime example of the “Same, but Different” technique described in our article on How to End Your College Essay . As the student describes how, in the end, their complicated cultural identity still exists but transitions to a source of strength, readers are left feeling happy for the student. This means that they have formed a connection with the student, which is the ultimate goal!
Prompt #1, Example #3
“1…2…3…4 pirouettes ! New record!” My friends cheered as I landed my turns. Pleased with my progress, I gazed down at my worn-out pointe shoes. The sweltering blisters, numbing ice-baths, and draining late-night practices did not seem so bad after all. Next goal: five turns.
For as long as I can remember, ballet, in all its finesse and glamor, had kept me driven day to day. As a child, the lithe ballerinas, donning ethereal costumes as they floated across the stage, were my motivation. While others admired Messi and Adele, I idolized Carlos Acosta, principal dancer of the Royal Ballet.
As I devoted more time and energy towards my craft, I became obsessed with improving my technique. I would stretch for hours after class, forcing my leg one inch higher in an effort to mirror the Dance Magazine cover girls . I injured my feet and ruined pair after pair of pointe shoes, turning on wood, cement, and even grass to improve my balance as I spun. At competitions, the dancers with the 180-degree leg extensions, endless turns, and soaring leaps—the ones who received “Bravos!” from the roaring audience—further pushed me to refine my skills and perfect my form. I believed that, with enough determination, I would one day attain their level of perfection. Reaching the quadruple- pirouette milestone only intensified my desire to accomplish even more.
My efforts seemed to have come to fruition two summers ago when I was accepted to dance with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet at their renowned New York City summer intensive. I walked into my first session eager to learn from distinguished ballet masters and worldly dancers, already anticipating my improvement. Yet, as I danced alongside the accomplished ballerinas, I felt out of place. Despite their clean technique and professional training, they did not aim for glorious leg extensions or prodigious leaps. When they performed their turn combinations, most of them only executed two turns as I attempted four.
“Dancers, double- pirouettes only.”
Taken aback and confused, I wondered why our teacher expected so little from us. The other ballerinas seemed content, gracing the studio with their simple movements.
As I grew closer with my Moscow roommates, I gradually learned that their training emphasized the history of the art form instead of stylistic tricks. Rather than show off their physical ability, their performances aimed to convey a story, one that embodied the rich culture of ballet and captured both the legacy of the dancers before them and their own artistry. As I observed my friends more intently in repertoire class, I felt the pain of the grief-stricken white swan from Swan Lake , the sass of the flirtatious Kitri from Don Quijote, and I gradually saw what I had overlooked before. My definition of talent had been molded by crowd-pleasing elements—whirring pirouettes , gravity-defying leaps, and mind-blowing leg extensions. This mindset slowly stripped me from the roots of my passion and my personal connection with ballet.
With the Bolshoi, I learned to step back and explore the meaning behind each step and the people behind the scenes. Ballet carries history in its movements, from the societal values of the era to each choreographer’s unique flair. As I uncovered the messages behind each pirouette, kick, and jump, my appreciation for ballet grew beyond my obsession with raw athleticism and developed into a love for the art form’s emotive abilities in bridging the dancers with the audience. My journey as an artist has allowed me to see how technical execution is only the means to a greater understanding between dancer and spectator, between storyteller and listener. The elegance and complexity of ballet does not revolve around astonishing stunts but rather the evocative strength and artistry manifested in the dancer, in me. It is the combination of sentiments, history, tradition, and passion that has allowed ballet and its lessons of human connection to become my lifestyle both on and off stage.
The primary strength of this essay is the honesty and authenticity of the student’s writing. It is purposefully reflective. Intentional language creates a clear character arc that begins with an eager young ballerina and ends with the student reflecting on their past.
Readers are easily able to picture the passion and intensity of the young dancer through the writer’s engagement with words like “obsessed,” “forcing,” and “ruined” in the second paragraph. Then, we see how intensity becomes pride as they “wondered why our teacher expected so little from us.” And ultimately, we see the writer humbled as they are exposed to the deeper meaning behind what they have worked so hard for. This arc is outstanding, and the student’s musings about ballet in the concl usion position them as vulnerable and reflective (and thus, appealing to admissions officers!)
The main weakness of this essay (though this is a stellar essay) is its formulaic beginning. While dialogue can be an effective tool for starting your essay, this student’s introduction feels a bit stilted as the dialogue does not match the overall reflective tone of the essay. Perhaps, in place of “Next goal: five turns,” the student could have posed a question or foreshadowed the growth they ultimately describe.
Prompt #1, Example #4
My paintbrush dragged a flurry of acrylic, the rich colors attaching to each groove in my canvas’s texture. The feeling was euphoric.
From a young age, painting has been my solace. Between the stress of my packed high school days filled with classes and extracurriculars, the glide of my paintbrush was my emotional outlet.
I opened a fresh canvas and began. The amalgamation of assorted colors in my palette melded harmoniously: dark and light, cool and warm, brilliant and dull. They conjoined, forming shades and surfaces sharp, smooth, and ridged. The textures of my paint strokes — powdery, glossy, jagged — gave my painting a tone, as if it had a voice of its own, sometimes shrieking, sometimes whispering.
Rough indigo blue. The repetitive upward pulls of my brush formed layers on my canvas. Staring into the deep blue, I felt transported to the bottom of the pool I swim in daily. I looked upward to see a layer of dense water between myself and the person I aspire to be, an ideal blurred by filmy ripples. Rough blue encapsulates my amorphous, conflicting identity, catalyzed by words spewed by my peers about my “oily hair” and “smelly food”. They caused my ever present disdain toward cultural assemblies; the lehenga I wore felt burdensome. My identity quivers like the indigo storm I painted — a duel between my self-deprecating, validation-seeking self, and the proud self I desire to be. My haphazard paint strokes released my internal turbulence.
Smooth orange-hued green. I laid the color in melodious strokes, forming my figure. The warmer green transitions from the rough blue — while they share elements, they also diverge. My firm brushstrokes felt like the way I felt on my first day as a media intern at KBOO, my local volunteer-driven radio station, committed to the voices of the marginalized. As a naturally introverted speaker, I was forced out of my comfort zone when tasked with documenting a KBOO art exhibition for social media, speaking with hosts to share their diverse, underrepresented backgrounds and inspirations. A rhythmic green strength soon shoved me past internal blue turbulence. My communication skills which were built by two years of Speech and Debate unleashed — I recognized that making a social change through media required amplifying unique voices and perspectives, both my own and others. The powerful green strokes that fill my canvas entrench my growth.
Bright, voluminous coral, hinted with magenta and yellow. I dabbed the color over my figure, giving my painting dimension. The paint, speckled, added depth on every inch it coated. As I moved the color in random but purposeful movements, the vitality ushered into my painting brought a smile across my face. It reminded me of the encounters I had with my cubicle-mate in my sophomore year academic autism research internship, seemingly insignificant moments in my lifelong journey that, in retrospect, wove unique threads into my tapestry. The kindness she brought into work inspired my compassion, while her stories of struggling with ADHD in the workplace bolstered my empathy towards different experiences. Our conversations added blobs of a nonuniform bright color in my painting, binding a new perspective in me.
I added in my final strokes, each contributing an element to my piece. As I scanned my canvas, I observed these elements. Detail added nuance into smaller pictures; they embodied complexities within color, texture, and hue, each individually delivering a narrative. But together, they formed a piece of art— art that could be interpreted as a whole or broken apart but still delivering as a means of communication.
I find beauty in media because of this. I can adapt a complex narrative to be deliverable, each component telling a story. Appreciating these nuances — the light, dark, smooth, and rough — has cultivated my growth mindset. My life-long painting never finishes. It is ever-expanding, absorbing the novel textures and colors I encounter daily.
This essay is distinct from others due to its melodic, lyrical form. This is primarily achieved because the student’s form follows the movements of the paintbrush that they use to scaffold their essay. As readers, we simply flow through the essay, occasionally picking up bits of information about its creator. Without even realizing it, by the end of the essay, admissions officers will know that this student is a swimmer, was in Speech and Debate, is Indian, and has had multiple internships.
A major strength of this essay is the command of language that the student demonstrates. This essay was not simply written, it was crafted. Universities are, of course, interested in the talents, goals, and interests of applicants, but an essay being well-written can be equally important. Writing skills are important because your reader will not learn about your talents, goals, and interests if they aren’t engaged in your essay, but they are also important because admissions officers know that being able to articulate your thoughts is important for success in all future careers.
While this essay is well-written, there are a few moments where it falls out of the flow and feels more like a student advertising their successes. For example, the phrases “media intern at KBOO” and “autism research internship” work better on a resume than they do in this essay. Admissions officers have a copy of your resume and can check your internship experiences after reading your essay! If you are going to use a unique writing style or narrative form, lean into it; don’t try to hybridize it with the standard college essay form. Your boldness will be attractive to admissions officers.
Readers are easily able to picture the passion and intensity of the young dancer through the writer’s engagement with words like “obsessed,” “forcing,” and “ruined” in the second paragraph. Then, we see how intensity becomes pride as they “wondered why our teacher expected so little from us.” And ultimately, we see the writer humbled as they are exposed to the deeper meaning behind what they have worked so hard for. This arc is outstanding, and the student’s musings about ballet in the conclusion position them as vulnerable and reflective (and thus, appealing to admissions officers!)
Prompt #2: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
Prompt #2, example #1.
“You ruined my life!” After months of quiet anger, my brother finally confronted me. To my shame, I had been appallingly ignorant of his pain.
Despite being twins, Max and I are profoundly different. Having intellectual interests from a young age that, well, interested very few of my peers, I often felt out of step in comparison with my highly-social brother. Everything appeared to come effortlessly for Max and, while we share an extremely tight bond, his frequent time away with friends left me feeling more and more alone as we grew older.
When my parents learned about The Green Academy, we hoped it would be an opportunity for me to find not only an academically challenging environment, but also – perhaps more importantly – a community. This meant transferring the family from Drumfield to Kingston. And while there was concern about Max, we all believed that given his sociable nature, moving would be far less impactful on him than staying put might be on me.
As it turned out, Green Academy was everything I’d hoped for. I was ecstatic to discover a group of students with whom I shared interests and could truly engage. Preoccupied with new friends and a rigorous course load, I failed to notice that the tables had turned. Max, lost in the fray and grappling with how to make connections in his enormous new high school, had become withdrawn and lonely. It took me until Christmas time – and a massive argument – to recognize how difficult the transition had been for my brother, let alone that he blamed me for it.
Through my own journey of searching for academic peers, in addition to coming out as gay when I was 12, I had developed deep empathy for those who had trouble fitting in. It was a pain I knew well and could easily relate to. Yet after Max’s outburst, my first response was to protest that our parents – not I – had chosen to move us here. In my heart, though, I knew that regardless of who had made the decision, we ended up in Kingston for my benefit. I was ashamed that, while I saw myself as genuinely compassionate, I had been oblivious to the heartache of the person closest to me. I could no longer ignore it – and I didn’t want to.
We stayed up half the night talking, and the conversation took an unexpected turn. Max opened up and shared that it wasn’t just about the move. He told me how challenging school had always been for him, due to his dyslexia, and that the ever-present comparison to me had only deepened his pain.
We had been in parallel battles the whole time and, yet, I only saw that Max was in distress once he experienced problems with which I directly identified. I’d long thought Max had it so easy – all because he had friends. The truth was, he didn’t need to experience my personal brand of sorrow in order for me to relate – he had felt plenty of his own.
My failure to recognize Max’s suffering brought home for me the profound universality and diversity of personal struggle; everyone has insecurities, everyone has woes, and everyone – most certainly – has pain. I am acutely grateful for the conversations he and I shared around all of this, because I believe our relationship has been fundamentally strengthened by a deeper understanding of one another. Further, this experience has reinforced the value of constantly striving for deeper sensitivity to the hidden struggles of those around me. I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story.
Here is a prime example that you don’t have to have fabulous imagery or flowery prose to write a successful Common App essay. You just have to be clear and say something that matters. This essay is simple and beautiful. It almost feels like having a conversation with a friend and learning that they are an even better person than you already thought they were.
Through this narrative, readers learn a lot about the writer—where they’re from, what their family life is like, what their challenges were as a kid, and even their sexuality. We also learn a lot about their values—notably, the value they place on awareness, improvement, and consideration of others. Though they never explicitly state it (which is great because it is still crystal clear!), this student’s ending of “I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story” shows that they are constantly striving for improvement and finding lessons anywhere they can get them in life.
The only part of this essay that could use a bit of work is the introduction. A short introduction can be effective, but this short first paragraph feels thrown in at the last minute and like it is missing its second half. If you are keeping your introduction short, make it matter.
Prompt #2, Example #2
Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the garb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears. As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire.
Furiously I rubbed the twigs together—rubbed and rubbed until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers. No smoke. The twigs were too young, too sticky-green; I tossed them away with a shower of curses, and began tearing through the underbrush in search of a more flammable collection. My efforts were fruitless. Livid, I bit a rejected twig, determined to prove that the forest had spurned me, offering only young, wet bones that would never burn. But the wood cracked like carrots between my teeth—old, brittle, and bitter. Roaring and nursing my aching palms, I retreated to the tent, where I sulked and awaited the jeers of my family.
Rattling their empty worm cans and reeking of fat fish, my brother and cousins swaggered into the campsite. Immediately, they noticed the minor stick massacre by the fire pit and called to me, their deep voices already sharp with contempt.
“Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” they taunted. “Having some trouble?” They prodded me with the ends of the chewed branches and, with a few effortless scrapes of wood on rock, sparked a red and roaring flame. My face burned long after I left the fire pit. The camp stank of salmon and shame.
In the tent, I pondered my failure. Was I so dainty? Was I that incapable? I thought of my hands, how calloused and capable they had been, how tender and smooth they had become. It had been years since I’d kneaded mud between my fingers; instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano, my hands softening into those of a musician—fleshy and sensitive. And I’d gotten glasses, having grown horrifically nearsighted; long nights of dim lighting and thick books had done this. I couldn’t remember the last time I had lain down on a hill, barefaced, and seen the stars without having to squint. Crawling along the edge of the tent, a spider confirmed my transformation—he disgusted me, and I felt an overwhelming urge to squash him.
Yet, I realized I hadn’t really changed—I had only shifted perspective. I still eagerly explored new worlds, but through poems and prose rather than pastures and puddles. I’d grown to prefer the boom of a bass over that of a bullfrog, learned to coax a different kind of fire from wood, having developed a burn for writing rhymes and scrawling hypotheses.
That night, I stayed up late with my journal and wrote about the spider I had decided not to kill. I had tolerated him just barely, only shrieking when he jumped—it helped to watch him decorate the corners of the tent with his delicate webs, knowing that he couldn’t start fires, either. When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.
This Common App essay is well-written. The student is showing the admissions officers their ability to articulate their points beautifully and creatively. It starts with vivid images like that of the “rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free.” And because the prose is flowery, the writer can get away with metaphors like “I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms” that might sound cheesy without the clear command of the English language that the writer quickly establishes.
In addition to being well-written, this essay is thematically cohesive. It begins with the simple introduction “Fire!” and ends with the following image: “When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.” This full-circle approach leaves readers satisfied and impressed.
While dialogue often comes off as cliche or trite, this student effectively incorporates their family members saying “Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” This is achieved through the apt use of the verb “taunted” to characterize the questioning and through the question’s thematic connection to the earlier image of the student as a rustic princess. Similarly, rhetorical questions can feel randomly placed in essays, but this student’s inclusion of the questions “Was I so dainty?” and “Was I that incapable?” feels perfectly justified after they establish that they were pondering their failure.
Quite simply, this essay shows how quality writing can make a simple story outstandingly compelling.
Prompt #2, Example #3
The muffled voices behind thin walls heralded trouble.
They were fighting about money.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened and it wasn’t going to be the last. It was one of those countless nights I had to spend curled up under the blanket while pretending to be asleep. My father had been unemployed for five years now, and my mother, a local kindergarten teacher, was struggling to support the family alone. Our situation was bleak: Savings had run out and my parents could no longer hide our lack of money from me. To make matters worse, I was a few weeks away from starting high school, which would inevitably lead to college, yet another financial stressor for my family.
The argument didn’t sound like it would end soon.
“Why did you spend money on that?” my mother said, with an elongated sigh.
“I had to,” my father said, decidedly.
Every fight over the years had left me in despair and the idea of going through another fight daunted me. I had looked forward to my teen years all my life, an age that allows, for the first time, more responsibility. Indeed, after this fateful night, after my fourteenth birthday, I felt a mounting responsibility to help my family, and started brainstorming.
Always being fascinated by computers, I spent my childhood burying myself under computer cabinets, experimenting with computer parts. Naturally, I wondered if my skills in this area might be marketable.
The next morning, my friend, Naba, mentioned that her computer wasn’t working. A tuk-tuk ride later, and I was at her doorstep, and her mother was leading me to her room. I was off to work: I began examining her computer, like a surgeon carefully manages his scalpels and tools. A proper diagnosis was not far from reach, as I realized a broken pin in her computer’s SATA slot. After an hour of work, and a short trip to the hardware store, I successfully fixed the computer. To my pleasant surprise, Naba’s mother drew out two fresh 500 Rupee notes. One covered the cost of the parts I bought and the other was a token of appreciation. Bidding her goodbye, I went straight back home and put one of the 500 Rupee notes inside my family’s “savings-jar.”
Later that day, I devised a plan. I told my friends to spread the word that I was available to fix computers. At first, I got only one or two calls per week. I would pick up the computer from my client’s home, fix it quickly, and return it, thus earning myself a commission. While I couldn’t market my services at a competitive price, because I wasn’t able to buy the parts wholesale, I compensated by providing convenience. All my clients had to do was call me once and the rest was taken care of. Thus, my business had the best customer service in town.
At the beginning of my junior year, after two years of expanding my business through various avenues, I started buying computer parts from hardware suppliers in bulk at a cheaper rate. My business grew exponentially after that.
Before long, I was my town’s go-to tech person. In this journey throughout high school, I started realizing that I had to create my own opportunities and not just curl up under a blanket, seeking only comfort, as I used to. Interacting with people from all walks of life became my forte and a sense of work ethic developed in me. My business required me to be an all-rounder– have the technical skills, be an easily approachable person, and manage cash flow. Slowly becoming better at this, I even managed to sway admins of a local institution to outsource their computer hardware purchases and repairs through me. As my business upsized throughout the years, I went from being helpless to autonomous – the teenager I always aspired to be.
This essay truly feels like a story—almost making you forget you are reading a college essay. The student’s voice is strong throughout the entire essay and they are able to give us insight into their thoughts, feelings, and motivations at every step of the story. Letting the reader into personal challenges like financial struggles can be daunting in a college essay, but the way this student used that setback to establish an emotional ethos to their narrative was well done.
Because the essay is essentially just telling a story, there’s a very natural flow that makes it enjoyable and easy to read. The student establishes the conflict at the beginning, then describes their solution and how they implemented it, and finally concludes with the lessons they took away from this experience. Transitions at the beginning of paragraphs effortlessly show the passage of time and how the student has progressed through the story.
Another reason this essay is so successful is because of the abundance of details. The reader truly feels like they are hiding in the room with the student as their parents yell because of the inclusion of quotes from the argument. We understand the precision and care they have for fixing computers because of the allusion to a surgeon with their scalpel. Not only does this imagery make the story more enticing, it also helps the reader gain a deeper appreciation for the type of person this student is and the adversity they have overcome.
If there were one thing this essay could do to improve, it would be to include a resolution to the conflict from the beginning. The student tells us how this business helped them grow as a person, but we don’t ever get to find out if they were able to lessen the financial burden on their parents or if they continued to struggle despite the student working hard. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it would be nice to return to the conflict and acknowledge the effect they had on it, especially since this prompt is all about facing challenges.
Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Prompt #3, example #1.
When I was younger, I was adamant that no two foods on my plate touch. As a result, I often used a second plate to prevent such an atrocity. In many ways, I learned to separate different things this way from my older brothers, Nate and Rob. Growing up, I idolized both of them. Nate was a performer, and I insisted on arriving early to his shows to secure front row seats, refusing to budge during intermission for fear of missing anything. Rob was a three-sport athlete, and I attended his games religiously, waving worn-out foam cougar paws and cheering until my voice was hoarse. My brothers were my role models. However, while each was talented, neither was interested in the other’s passion. To me, they represented two contrasting ideals of what I could become: artist or athlete. I believed I had to choose.
And for a long time, I chose athlete. I played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse and viewed myself exclusively as an athlete, believing the arts were not for me. I conveniently overlooked that since the age of five, I had been composing stories for my family for Christmas, gifts that were as much for me as them, as I loved writing. So when in tenth grade, I had the option of taking a creative writing class, I was faced with a question: could I be an athlete and a writer? After much debate, I enrolled in the class, feeling both apprehensive and excited. When I arrived on the first day of school, my teacher, Ms. Jenkins, asked us to write down our expectations for the class. After a few minutes, eraser shavings stubbornly sunbathing on my now-smudged paper, I finally wrote, “I do not expect to become a published writer from this class. I just want this to be a place where I can write freely.”
Although the purpose of the class never changed for me, on the third “submission day,” – our time to submit writing to upcoming contests and literary magazines – I faced a predicament. For the first two submission days, I had passed the time editing earlier pieces, eventually (pretty quickly) resorting to screen snake when hopelessness made the words look like hieroglyphics. I must not have been as subtle as I thought, as on the third of these days, Ms. Jenkins approached me. After shifting from excuse to excuse as to why I did not submit my writing, I finally recognized the real reason I had withheld my work: I was scared. I did not want to be different, and I did not want to challenge not only others’ perceptions of me, but also my own. I yielded to Ms. Jenkin’s pleas and sent one of my pieces to an upcoming contest.
By the time the letter came, I had already forgotten about the contest. When the flimsy white envelope arrived in the mail, I was shocked and ecstatic to learn that I had received 2nd place in a nationwide writing competition. The next morning, however, I discovered Ms. Jenkins would make an announcement to the whole school exposing me as a poet. I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me. I have since seen more boys at my school identifying themselves as writers or artists.
I no longer see myself as an athlete and a poet independently, but rather I see these two aspects forming a single inseparable identity – me. Despite their apparent differences, these two disciplines are quite similar, as each requires creativity and devotion. I am still a poet when I am lacing up my cleats for soccer practice and still an athlete when I am building metaphors in the back of my mind – and I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.
This essay is cohesive as it centers around the theme of identity and the ability for two identities to coexist simultaneously (an interesting theme!). It uses the Full Circle ending strategy as it starts with a metaphor about food touching and ends with “I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.”
The main issue with this essay is that it could come off as cliché, which could be irritating for admissions officers. The story described is notably similar to High School Musical (“I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me”) and feels slightly overstated.
At times, this essay is also confusing. In the first paragraph, it feels like the narrative is actually going to be about separating your food (and is somehow going to relate to the older brothers?). It is not entirely clear that this is a metaphor. Also, when the writer references the third submission day and then works backward to explain what a submission day is and that there are multiple throughout the semester, the timeline gets unnecessarily confusing. Reworking the way this paragraph unfolded would have been more compelling and less distracting.
Overall, this essay was interesting but could have been more polished to be more effective.
Prompt #3, Example #2
I walked into my middle school English class, and noticed a stranger behind my teacher’s desk. “Hello,” she said. “Today I will be your substitute teacher.” I groaned internally. “Let me start off by calling roll. Ally?” “Here!” exclaimed Ally. “Jack?” “Here.” “Rachel?” “Here.” “Freddie?” “Present.” And then– “…?” The awkward pause was my cue. “It’s Jasina,” I started. “You can just call me Jas. Here.” “Oh, Jasina. That’s unique.” The word “unique” made me cringe. I slumped back in my seat. The substitute continued calling roll, and class continued as if nothing had happened. Nothing had happened. Just a typical moment in a middle school, but I hated every second of it.
My name is not impossible to pronounce. It appears challenging initially, but once you hear it, “Jas-een-a”, then you can manage it. My nickname, Jas (pronounced “Jazz”), is what most people call me anyway, so I don’t have to deal with mispronunciation often. I am thankful that my parents named me Jasina (a Hebrew name), but whenever someone hears my name for the first time, they comment, and I assume they’re making assumptions about me. “Wow, Jas is a cool name.” She must be pretty cool.“I’ve never heard the name Jasina before.” She must be from somewhere exotic. “Jas, like Jazz?” She must be musical and artsy. None of these assumptions are bad, but they all add up to the same thing: She must be unique.
When I was little, these sentiments felt more like commands than assumptions. I thought I had to be the most unique child of all time, which was a daunting task, but I tried. I was the only kid in the second grade to color the sun red. I knew it was really yellow, but you could always tell which drawings were mine. During snack time, we could choose between apple juice and grape juice. I liked apple juice more, but if everyone else was choosing apple, then I had to choose grape. This was how I lived my life, and it was exhausting. I tried to continue this habit into middle school, but it backfired. When everyone became obsessed with things like skinny jeans and Justin Bieber and blue mascara (that was a weird trend), my resistance of the norm made me socially awkward. I couldn’t talk to people about anything because we had nothing in common. I was too different.
After 8th grade, I moved to Georgia, and I was dreading being the odd one out among kids who had grown up together. Then I discovered that my freshman year would be Cambridge High School’s inaugural year. Since there were students coming in from 5 different schools, there was no real sense of “normal”. I panicked. If there was no normal, then how could I be unique? That’s when I realized that I had spent so much energy going against the grain that I had no idea what my true interests were or what I really cared about.
It was time to find out. I stopped concentrating on what everyone else was doing and started to focus on myself. I joined the basketball team, I performed in the school musical, and I enrolled in Chorus, all of which were firsts for me. I took art classes, joined clubs, and did whatever I thought would make me happy. And it paid off. I was no longer socially awkward. In fact, because I was involved in so many unrelated activities, I was socially flexible. My friends and I had things in common, but there was no one who could say that I was exactly like anyone else. I had finally become my own person.
My father named me Jasina because he wanted my nickname to be “Jazz.” According to Webster, “jazz” is “music characterized by syncopated rhythms, improvisation, and deliberate distortions of pitch.” Basically, jazz is music that is off-beat and unpredictable. It cannot be strictly defined.
That sounds about right.
Right off the bat, this essay starts extremely strong. The description of attendance in a class with ample quotes, awkward pauses, and the student’s internal dialogue immediately puts us in the middle of the action and establishes a lot of sympathy for this student before we’ve learned anything else.
The strength of this essay continues into the second paragraph where the use of quotes, italics, and interjections from the student continues. All of these literary tools help the student express her voice and allow the reader to understand what this student goes through on a daily basis. Rather than just telling the reader people make assumptions about her name, she shows us what these assumptions look and sound like, and exactly how they make her feel.
The essay further shows us how the student approached her name by providing concrete examples of times she’s been intentionally unique throughout her life. Describing her drawing red suns and choosing grape juice bring her personality to life and allow her to express her deviance from the “norm” in a much more engaging and visual way than simply telling the reader she would go against the grain to be different on purpose.
One part of the essay that was a bit weaker than the others was the paragraph about her in high school. Although it was still well written and did a nice job of demonstrating how she got involved in multiple groups to find her new identity, it lacked the same level of showing employed in previous paragraphs. It would have been nice to see what “socially flexible” means either through a conversation she had with her friends or an example of a time she combined her interests from different groups in a way that was uniquely her.
The essay finishes off how it started: extremely strong. Taking a step back to fully explain the origin of her name neatly brings together everything mentioned in this essay. This ending is especially successful because she never explicitly states that her personality aligns with the definition of jazz. Instead, she relies on the points she has made throughout the essay to stick in the reader’s memory so they are able to draw the connection themselves, making for a much more satisfying ending for the reader.
Prompt #4 (OLD PROMPT; NOT THE CURRENT PROMPT): Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
Prompt #4, example #1.
“Advanced females ages 13 to 14 please proceed to staging with your coaches at this time.”
Skittering around the room, eyes wide and pleading, I frantically explained my situation to nearby coaches. The seconds ticked away in my head; every polite refusal increased my desperation.
Despair weighed me down. I sank to my knees as a stream of competitors, coaches, and officials flowed around me. My dojang had no coach, and the tournament rules prohibited me from competing without one.
Although I wanted to remain strong, doubts began to cloud my mind. I could not help wondering: what was the point of perfecting my skills if I would never even compete? The other members of my team, who had found coaches minutes earlier, attempted to comfort me, but I barely heard their words. They couldn’t understand my despair at being left on the outside, and I never wanted them to understand.
Since my first lesson 12 years ago, the members of my dojang have become family. I have watched them grow up, finding my own happiness in theirs. Together, we have honed our kicks, blocks, and strikes. We have pushed one another to aim higher and become better martial artists. Although my dojang had searched for a reliable coach for years, we had not found one. When we attended competitions in the past, my teammates and I had always gotten lucky and found a sympathetic coach. Now, I knew this practice was unsustainable. It would devastate me to see the other members of my dojang in my situation, unable to compete and losing hope as a result. My dojang needed a coach, and I decided it was up to me to find one.
I first approached the adults in the dojang – both instructors and members’ parents. However, these attempts only reacquainted me with polite refusals. Everyone I asked told me they couldn’t devote multiple weekends per year to competitions. I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself.
At first, the inner workings of tournaments were a mystery to me. To prepare myself for success as a coach, I spent the next year as an official and took coaching classes on the side. I learned everything from motivational strategies to technical, behind-the-scenes components of Taekwondo competitions. Though I emerged with new knowledge and confidence in my capabilities, others did not share this faith.
Parents threw me disbelieving looks when they learned that their children’s coach was only a child herself. My self-confidence was my armor, deflecting their surly glances. Every armor is penetrable, however, and as the relentless barrage of doubts pounded my resilience, it began to wear down. I grew unsure of my own abilities.
Despite the attack, I refused to give up. When I saw the shining eyes of the youngest students preparing for their first competition, I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was. The knowledge that I could solve my dojang’s longtime problem motivated me to overcome my apprehension.
Now that my dojang flourishes at competitions, the attacks on me have weakened, but not ended. I may never win the approval of every parent; at times, I am still tormented by doubts, but I find solace in the fact that members of my dojang now only worry about competing to the best of their abilities.
Now, as I arrive at a tournament with my students, I close my eyes and remember the past. I visualize the frantic search for a coach and the chaos amongst my teammates as we competed with one another to find coaches before the staging calls for our respective divisions. I open my eyes to the exact opposite scene. Lacking a coach hurt my ability to compete, but I am proud to know that no member of my dojang will have to face that problem again.
This essay is great because it has a strong introduction and a strong conclusion. The introduction is notably suspenseful and draws readers into the story. Because we know it is a college essay, we can assume that the student is one of the competitors, but at the same time, this introduction feels intentionally ambiguous as if the writer could be a competitor, a coach, a sibling of a competitor, or anyone else in the situation.
As we continue reading the essay, we learn that the writer is, in fact, the competitor. Readers also learn a lot about the student’s values as we hear their thoughts: “I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was.” Ultimately, the conflict and inner and outer turmoil is resolved through the “Same, but Different” ending technique as the student places themself in the same environment that we saw in the intro, but experiencing it differently due to their actions throughout the narrative. This is a very compelling strategy!
The main weakness of this essay is that it is slightly confusing at times—how the other students found coaches feels unintentionally under-explained (a simple phrase like “through pleading and attracting sympathy” in the fourth paragraph could have served the writer well) and a dojang is never defined. Additionally, the turn of the essay or “volta” could’ve packed a bigger punch. It is put quite simply with “I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself.” A more suspenseful reveal could’ve served the author well because more drama did come later.
Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Prompt #5, example #1.
Tears streamed down my face and my mind was paralyzed with fear. Sirens blared, but the silent panic in my own head was deafening. I was muted by shock. A few hours earlier, I had anticipated a vacation in Washington, D.C., but unexpectedly, I was rushing to the hospital behind an ambulance carrying my mother. As a fourteen-year-old from a single mother household, without a driver’s license, and seven hours from home, I was distraught over the prospect of losing the only parent I had. My fear turned into action as I made some of the bravest decisions of my life.
Three blood transfusions later, my mother’s condition was stable, but we were still states away from home, so I coordinated with my mother’s doctors in North Carolina to schedule the emergency operation that would save her life. Throughout her surgery, I anxiously awaited any word from her surgeon, but each time I asked, I was told that there had been another complication or delay. Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities.
My mother had been a source of strength for me, and now I would be strong for her through her long recovery ahead. As I started high school, everyone thought the crisis was over, but it had really just started to impact my life. My mother was often fatigued, so I assumed more responsibility, juggling family duties, school, athletics, and work. I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover. I didn’t know I was capable of such maturity and resourcefulness until it was called upon. Each day was a stage in my gradual transformation from dependence to relative independence.
Throughout my mother’s health crisis, I matured by learning to put others’ needs before my own. As I worried about my mother’s health, I took nothing for granted, cherished what I had, and used my daily activities as motivation to move forward. I now take ownership over small decisions such as scheduling daily appointments and managing my time but also over major decisions involving my future, including the college admissions process. Although I have become more independent, my mother and I are inseparably close, and the realization that I almost lost her affects me daily. Each morning, I wake up ten minutes early simply to eat breakfast with my mother and spend time with her before our busy days begin. I am aware of how quickly life can change. My mother remains a guiding force in my life, but the feeling of empowerment I discovered within myself is the ultimate form of my independence. Though I thought the summer before my freshman year would be a transition from middle school to high school, it was a transformation from childhood to adulthood.
This essay feels real and tells readers a lot about the writer. To start at the beginning, the intro is 10/10. It has drama, it has emotions, and it has the reader wanting more.
And, when you keep going, you get to learn a lot about a very resilient and mature student. Through sentences like “I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover” and “Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities,” the reader shows us that they are aware of their resilience and maturity, but are not arrogant about it. It is simply a fact that they have proven!
Sometimes writing about adversity can feel exploitative or oddly braggy. This student backs up everything they say with anecdotes that prove and show their strength and resilience, rather than just claiming their strengths. When I read this essay, I want to cheer for its writer! And I want to be able to continue cheering for them (perhaps, if I were an admissions officer, that would make me want them at my school!).
Prompt #5, Example #2
Armed with a red pen, I slowly walked across the room to a small, isolated table with pink stools. Swinging her legs, my young student beamed and giggled at me, slamming her pencil bag on the table and bending over to pick up one of her toys. Natalie always brought some new toy with her to lessons—toys which I would sternly take away from her and place under the table until she finished her work. At the tutoring center where I work, a strict emphasis on discipline leaves no room for paper crowns or rubber chickens.
Today, she had with her a large stuffed eagle from a museum. As she pulled out her papers, I slid the eagle to the other side of the table. She looked eagerly around, attempting to chat with other students as I impatiently called her attention to her papers. “I should name my eagle,” she chimed, waving her pencil in the air. I cringed—there was no wondering why Natalie always had to sit by herself. She was the antithesis of my academic values, and undoubtedly the greatest adversary of my teaching style.
As the lesson progressed, Natalie became more fitful; she refused to release her feathered friend, and kept addressing the bird for help with difficult problems. We both grew increasingly more frustrated. Determined to tame this wryly, wiggling student, I stood my ground, set on converting this disobedient child to my calm, measured ways of study.
As time slowly crept by, I noticed that despite Natalie’s cheerful tone and bright smile, the stuffed eagle was troublesomely quiet and stern-faced. Much like myself. Both the eagle and I were getting nowhere in this lesson—so we hatched a quick plan. Lifting the eagle up in the air, I started reading in my best impersonation of an eagle, squawking my way through a spelling packet. The result provided a sense of instant gratification I never knew I needed. She sang out every letter, clapped her hands at every page, and followed along with the eagle, stopping at every few letters to declare that “E is for eagle” and pet her teacher fondly on the beak.
Despite my ostensibly dissatisfied attitude toward my students, I did not join the tutoring center simply to earn money. I had always aspired to help others achieve their fullest potential. As a young adult, I felt that it was time for me to step out of the role of a pupil and into the influential role of a teacher, naively believing that I had the maturity and skill to adapt to any situation and help these students reach their highest achievements academically. For the most part, the role of a stern-faced, strict instructor helped me get by in the workplace, and while my students never truly looked happy, I felt that it was part of the process of conditioning a child to learn.
Ironically, my transition to adulthood was the result of a stuffed animal. It was indisputable that I always had the skill to instruct others; the only thing needed to instruct someone is knowledge of the subject. However, it was only upon being introduced to a stuffed bird in which I realized that students receive the most help not from instructors, but teachers. While almost anyone can learn material and spit it back out for someone, it takes the maturity and passion of a teacher not only to help students improve in their students, but also to motivate them and develop them into better citizens. From my young pupil and her little bird, I have undergone a change in attitude which reflects a growth in maturity and ability to improve the lives of others that I hope to implement in my future role as a student, activist, and physician. My newfound maturity taught me that the letter “e” stands for many things: empathy, experience, enthusiasm, and eagle.
In this essay, the student effectively explores their values (and how they learned them!) then identifies these values through a reflective conclusion. While the writer humbly recognizes the initial faults in their teaching style, they do not position their initial discipline or rigidity as mean or poorly intentioned—simply ineffective. This is important because, when you are discussing a transition like this, you don’t want admissions officers to think of you as having been a bad person.
My favorite part about this essay is its subtlety. The major shift in the essay comes through the simple sentence “The result provided a sense of instant gratification I never knew I needed.” The facts of this narrative are not too complicated. Simply put, the writer was strict then learned that it’s sometimes more effective not to be strict. The complexity of this narrative comes through reflection. Notably, through the ending, the student identifies their values (which they hadn’t given a name to before): “it takes the maturity and passion of a teacher not only to help students improve in their students, but also to motivate them and develop them into better citizens.”
The final sentence of this essay ties things up very nicely. Readers are left satisfied with the essay and convinced that its writer is a kind human with a large capacity for reflection and consideration. That is a great image to paint of yourself!
Prompt #5, Example #3
When it’s quiet, I can still hear the Friday night gossip and giggles of my friends. It’s a stark contrast from the environment I’ve known all my life, my home. My family has always been one to keep to themselves; introverts with a hard-working mentality—my father especially. He spent most of his time at work and growing up without him around, I came to be at peace with the fact that I’d probably never really get to know him. The thought didn’t bother me at the time because I felt that we were very different. He was stoic and traditional; I was trying to figure out who I was and explore my interests. His disapproval of the American music I listened to and my penchant for wearing hand-me-downs made me see him as someone who wanted to restrain my individuality. That explains why I relied heavily on my friends throughout middle and high school; they liked me for who I was. I figured I would get lonely without my friends during quarantine, but these last few months stuck at home gave me the time to make a new friend: my father.
It was June. I had the habit of sleeping with my windows open so I wouldn’t need to set an alarm; the warmth of the sun and the sounds of the neighborhood children playing outside would wake me. One morning, however, it was not the chirping of birds or the laughter of children I awoke to, but the shrill of a saw. Through the window screen, on the grass below, my father stood cutting planks of wood. I was confused but didn’t question him—what he did with his time was none of my business. It was not until the next day, when I was attempting to work on a sculpture for an art class, that the sounds of hammering and drills became too much to ignore. Seeking answers, I trudged across my backyard towards the corner he was in. On that day, all there was to see was the foundation of what he was building; a shed. My intrigue was replaced with awe; I was impressed by the precision of his craft. Sharp corners, leveled and sturdy, I could imagine what it would look like when the walls were up and the inside filled with the tools he had spread around the yard.
Throughout the week, when I was trying to finish my sculpture for art class—thinking about its shape and composition—I could not help but think of my father. Art has always been a creative outlet for me, an opportunity to express myself at home. For my dad, his craftsmanship was his art. I realized we were not as different as I had thought; he was an artist like me. My glue and paper were his wood and nails.
That summer, I tried to spend more time with my dad than I have in all my 18 years of life. Waking up earlier than usual so we could have our morning coffees together and pretending to like his favorite band so he’d talk to me about it, I took advantage of every opportunity I had to speak with him. In getting to know him, I’ve recognized that I get my artistry from him.
Reflecting on past relationships, I feel I am now more open to reconnecting with people I’ve perhaps misjudged. In reconciling, I’ve realized I held some bitterness towards him all these years, and in letting that go, my heart is lighter. Our reunion has changed my perspective; instead of vilifying him for spending so much time at work, I can appreciate how hard he works to provide for our family. When I hear him tinkering away at another home project, I can smile and look forward to asking him about it later.
This is an outstanding example of the great things that can be articulated through a reflective essay. As we read the essay, we are simply thinking alongside its author—thinking about their past relationship with their father, about their time in quarantine, about aspects of themselves they think could use attention and growth.
While we reflect, we are also centered by the student’s anecdote about the sculpture and the shed during quarantine. By centering us in real-time, the student keeps us engaged in the reflection.
The main strength here is the maturity we see on the part of its writer. The student doesn’t say “and I realized my father was the best dad in the world;” they say “and I realized my father didn’t have to be the best dad in the world for me to give him a chance.” Lots of students show themselves as motivated, curious, or compassionate in their college essays, but a reflective essay that ends with a discussion of resentment and forgiveness shows true maturity.
Prompt #5, Example #4
As a wide-eyed, naive seven-year-old, I watched my grandmother’s rough, wrinkled hands pull and knead mercilessly at white dough until the countertop was dusted in flour. She steamed small buns in bamboo baskets, and a light sweetness lingered in the air. Although the mantou looked delicious, their papery, flat taste was always an unpleasant surprise. My grandmother scolded me for failing to finish even one, and when I complained about the lack of flavor she would simply say that I would find it as I grew older. How did my adult relatives seem to enjoy this Taiwanese culinary delight while I found it so plain?
During my journey to discover the essence of mantou, I began to see myself the same way I saw the steamed bun. I believed that my writing would never evolve beyond a hobby and that my quiet nature crippled my ambitions. Ultimately, I thought I had little to offer the world. In middle school, it was easy for me to hide behind the large personalities of my friends, blending into the background and keeping my thoughts company. Although writing had become my emotional outlet, no matter how well I wrote essays, poetry, or fiction, I could not stand out in a sea of talented students. When I finally gained the confidence to submit my poetry to literary journals but was promptly rejected, I stepped back from my work to begin reading from Whitman to Dickinson, Li-Young Lee to Ocean Vuong. It was then that I realized I had been holding back a crucial ingredient–my distinct voice.
Over time, my taste buds began to mature, as did I. Mantou can be flavored with pork and eggplant, sweetened in condensed milk, and moistened or dried by the steam’s temperature. After I ate the mantou with each of these factors in mind, I noticed its environment enhanced a delicately woven strand of sweetness beneath the taste of side dishes: the sugar I had often watched my grandmother sift into the flour. The taste was nearly untraceable, but once I grasped it I could truly begin to cherish mantou. In the same way the taste had been lost to me for years, my writer’s voice had struggled to shine through because of my self-doubt and fear of vulnerability.
As I acquired a taste for mantou, I also began to strengthen my voice through my surrounding environment. With the support of my parents, peer poets, and the guidance of Amy Tan and the Brontё sisters, I worked tirelessly to uncover my voice: a subtle strand of sweetness. Once I stopped trying to fit into a publishing material mold and infused my uninhibited passion for my Taiwanese heritage into my writing, my poem was published in a literary journal. I wrote about the blatant racism Asians endured during coronavirus, and the editor of Skipping Stones Magazine was touched by both my poem and my heartfelt letter. I opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum, providing support to younger Asian-American students who reached out with the relief of finding someone they could relate to. I embraced writing as a way to convey my struggle with cultural identity. I joined the school’s creative writing club and read my pieces in front of an audience, honing my voice into one that flourishes out loud as well.
Now, I write and speak unapologetically, falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had. It inspires passion within my communities and imparts tenacity to Asian-American youth, rooting itself deeply into everything I write. Today, my grandmother would say that I have finally unearthed the taste of mantou as I savor every bite with a newfound appreciation. I can imagine her hands shaping the dough that has become my voice, and I am eager to share it with the world.
This essay is structurally-sound, with the student’s journey learning to savor mantou and their journey trying to find their voice serving as outstanding parallels. Additionally, as they describe the journey to find a voice in their writing, they definitely show off their voice! The clear introduction provides a great image and draws us in with an intriguing question. Additionally, their little inserts like “a strand of sweetness” and “falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had” work very well.
When the student describes their first published poem, however, their writing gets a little more stilted. This is a common error students make when writing about their achievements. If this student is writing about the craft that goes into writing, we should hear the details of the craft that went into the poem, instead of simply learning that they “opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum.” This is interesting information but would be stronger if it were supplemented by descriptions of the voice they created, comparisons to the styles of other poets, and analysis of their stylistic choices. This would make the essay feel more cohesive, centering entirely around concepts of voice and style.
Prompt #6: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
Note: We don’t have a stellar example for this prompt, so instead, we’re sharing a couple examples that need improvement, and what can be done to make the essays more engaging.
Prompt #6, Example #1
What factors shape the depth and allure of a literary character? This is the exact question I asked myself as my eyes riveted on the white pages covered with little black letters.
I was reading my old novels. I’ve written three novels and many short stories. Each of them repetitively portrayed the hero as intelligent and funny, and the antagonists as cold and manipulative. I came to the appalling realization that my characters were flat, neither exciting nor original. They just didn’t stand out!
As Oscar Wilde said, ‘Vice and virtue are to the artist material to an art.’ Their mixing makes a novel addictive because its plot is rich with turnarounds and its characters more engaging. In his famous work The Picture of Dorian Gray , Wilde deconstructs the psyche of his characters. He brilliantly plays with the protagonist’s youthful appearance and the decaying portrait to build a truly unique idiosyncratic identity. The persona of Dorian Gray is so complicated a psychologist could analyze it for hours on end!
Inspired by this character, It was my turn to explore good and evil into characters to make my stories more enthralling. I skillfully played with vice and virtue, separating, merging them… My latest novel is the fruit of this exercise. I chose to set it in 20th century London. Its opium dens and exclusive salons; middle-class workers, peasants and politicians breathed the same newly industrialized air; modernity in Blackfriars bridge and tradition in St Paul’s Cathedral; all of these contrasts set the perfect environment for my characters to grow. Following Laclos’ Valmont, Maupassant’s Georges Duroy and Duffy’s Myra Hindley, I played with those contrasts to present an intricate character, truly creative – unlike my previous ones. Insanity, religion, depravity and love are merged into each character, reflecting Edwardian London. As I reflected on my work, I realized vice and virtue altogether made them more human and credible. These characters stood out, they were interesting, I even wanted to know more about them!
After rewriting, erasing, typing, and thinking countless times, I realized writing is a unique exercise. Nothing is definite when you are holding a fountain pen, hearing its screeching sound on the white paper and watching the ebony ink forming letters. When I wasn’t too happy about a change I made in my story, I simply erased and rewrote it. Everything I imagined could happen: white pages are the only place the mouse eats the cat or the world is taken by a zombie attack!
This exact exercise of diversifying my characters satisfied my relentless curiosity. Asking myself ‘how could this character be if she had lost her parents in a maritime tragedy?’ allowed me to view the world from different perspectives (some very dissimilar to my own) and considering how each character would react to different situations brought them to life. As I was writing, I was aiming to change the usual narratives I had previously traversed. I loved experimenting with countless personality traits in my characters – minutes flowing, my hand dancing on the paper as my mind was singing words coming alive….
There were times where my hand just stopped writing and my mind stopped raging. I tried thinking differently, changing a character’s background, the story, the setting. I was inspired by Zola, A.Carter, Fitzgerald, the Brontë sisters… I could observe the different reactions of their characters, and reflect on mine theoretically. But it was only part one of the work: I then had to write, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes frantically, always leading to fresh ideas – I was exploring the practical, trying, erasing and rewriting. Both theory and practice are required to gain intellectual independence and experience, in writing and more globally: before I can change a character, I have to understand it. Before we can change the world, we have to understand it.
The main strength of this essay is the authenticity of the topic the student chose. They aren’t making anything up or stretching the truth. Writing is something that captivates them, and that captivation shines through—particularly through their fourth paragraph (where they geek out over specific plots and characters) and their fifth paragraph (where they joyfully describe how writing has no limitations). Admissions officers want to see this passion and intensity in applicants! The fact that this student has already written three novels also shows dedication and is impressive.
The main weakness of this essay is its structure. Ironically, it is not super captivating. The essay would have been more compelling if the student utilized a “anecdote – answer – reflection” structure. This student’s current introduction involves a reflective question, citations about their past writing experience, then their thoughts on Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Instead, this student could’ve provided one cohesive (and powerful!) image of them being frustrated with their own writing then being inspired by Dorian Gray. This would look something like:
“I stayed up three nights in a row studying my own writing—bored by my own writing. The only thing more painful than seeing failure in the fruits of your labor is not seeing a path for improvement. I had written three novels and numerous short stories, and all I could come up with was funny and intelligent heroes going up against cold and manipulative villains. What kind of writer was so consistently cliche? On the third night, I wandered over to my bookshelf. Mrs. Dalloway caught my eye (it has such a beautiful cover). I flipped through. Then, I grabbed Giovanni’s Room . I was so obsessed with my shortcomings that I couldn’t even focus long enough to see what these authors were doing right. I picked up The Picture of Dorian Gray and decided to just start reading. By the end of the night, I was captivated.”
An introduction like this would flow nicely into the student describing their experience with Dorian Gray then, because of that experience, describing how they have altered their approach to writing. The conclusion of this essay would then be this student’s time for reflection. Instead of repeating content about their passion—“I then had to write, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes frantically” and “I was exploring the practical, trying, erasing and rewriting”—, the student could dedicate their conclusion to reflecting on the reasons that writing is so captivating or the ways that (until the day they die) writers will always be perfecting their craft.
This essay is a great example of how important it is to pick a topic that truly excites you. It also illustrates how important it is to effectively structure that excitement.
Prompt #6, Example #2
Astonished by the crashing sound of waves in my ear, I was convinced this magical shell actually held the sound of the big blue sea — my six-year-old self was heartbroken when I couldn’t take the thirty-dollar artificial shell from SeaWorld’s gift shop . It distinctly reminded me of the awestruck feeling I had when I witnessed the churning waves of a windy night by the ocean the previous weekend; I lost track of time gazing at the distant moonlit border dividing our world from the ever-growing black void. Turning to my mom, I inquired curiously, “Can we go to the place where the water ends one day?”
She explained to me I could never reach the end of the ocean because the harsh line I had seen was actually an illusion called the horizon — there was no material end to the ocean. For a mind as young as mine was, the idea of infinity was incomprehensible. As my infatuation with the ocean continued to grow, I finally understood that regardless of how far I travel, the horizon is unattainable because it’s not a physical limit. This idea is why the ocean captivates me — no matter how much you discover, there is always more to explore.
Learning about and exploring the ocean provided an escape from one reality into another; though we are on the same planet, it’s an entirely separate world. Through elementary and middle school, I devoted vast amounts of my free time to learning about simpler concepts like a dolphin’s ability to echolocate and coral reef ecosystems. I rented countless documentaries and constantly checked out books from my local library — my all-time favorite was an episode of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey titled “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.” This episode remained memorable because it was centered around the impacts of fossil fuels on marine animals; it was the first time I’d learned about the impending crisis we are faced with due to the human mistreatment of our planet.
Prior to viewing that episode, I relied on the ocean as an outlet — I fueled all of my emotions into studying marine organisms. Once I learned of its grave future, I delved into the world of environmental activism. This path was much more disheartening than studying echolocation — inevitable death due to climate change took a toll on my mental health. I attended two climate strikes in November of my sophomore year. Following the strikes, I joined Sunrise Movement Sacramento, a youth-led climate justice organization advocating for the Green New Deal. While analyzing legislation and organizing protests were significant takeaways from my experience with climate activism, they were not the most important. I became an organizer because of my love for the ocean and I remain an organizer because of my passion for dissolving the disproportionalities marginalized groups face due to the sacrificing of people’s livelihood for the sake of profit. The more I learned about our modern society, the more hopeless I grew that I could see any significant change within my lifetime.
However, this hopelessness comes in waves; every day, I remind myself of the moment I discovered the horizon. Or the moment I first dove into the beautiful waters of the Hawaiian coast and immediately was surrounded by breathtaking seas of magnificent creatures and coral gardens — life felt ethereal and beautiful. I remind myself that like the ocean, the vast majority of the universe has yet to be discovered; that distant border holds infinite opportunity to learn. In a universe as vast as ours, and life as rare as ours, individuals still choose to prioritize avarice over our planet. Despite this grave individualism, the ocean reminds me every day there is hope in the fight for a better world. Though I will never discover every inch of the ocean’s floor, I will forever envision and reach for new horizons.
Sometimes the path to a great essay is taking something normal and using it to show admissions officers who you are and what you value—that is precisely this student’s approach! Finding the ocean fascinating is not unique to this student. Tons of kids (and adults, too!) are obsessed with the ocean. What this student does is take things a step further as they explain their curiosity about the ocean in relation to their pain about the destruction of the environment. This capacity for reflection is great!
This student shows a good control of language through their thematic centering on ocean and horizons that carries through their essay—with ”this hopelessness comes in waves” and “I will forever envision and reach for new horizons.” The details provided throughout are also effective at keeping readers engaged—things like “ my six-year-old self was heartbroken when I couldn’t take the thirty-dollar artificial shell from SeaWorld’s gift shop” and “ my all-time favorite was an episode of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey titled “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.”
The main weakness of this essay is the lack of reflection when the student discusses environmental activism. There’s reflection on the student’s connection to the ocean and horizons at the beginning and at the end, but when the student discusses activism, the tone shifts from focusing on their internal thoughts to their external actions. Remember, a lot of students write about environmental activism, but not a lot of students write about an emotional connection to the ocean as an impetus for environmental activism. This student would stand out more to admissions officers if they had dug into questions of what the ocean means to them (and says about them) in the paragraphs beginning “Learning about and exploring the ocean…” and “Prior to viewing that episode.”
Prompt #7: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Prompt #7, example #1.
Scalding hot water cascades over me, crashing to the ground in a familiar, soothing rhythm. Steam rises to the ceiling as dried sweat and soap suds swirl down the drain. The water hisses as it hits my skin, far above the safe temperature for a shower. The pressure is perfect on my tired muscles, easing the aches and bruises from a rough bout of sparring and the tension from a long, stressful day. The noise from my overactive mind dies away, fading into music, lyrics floating through my head. Black streaks stripe the inside of my left arm, remnants of the penned reminders of homework, money owed and forms due.
It lacks the same dynamism and controlled intensity of sparring on the mat at taekwondo or the warm tenderness of a tight hug from my father, but it’s still a cocoon of safety as the water washes away the day’s burdens. As long as the hot water is running, the rest of the world ceases to exist, shrinking to me, myself and I. The shower curtain closes me off from the hectic world spinning around me.
Much like the baths of Blanche DuBois, my hot showers are a means of cleansing and purifying (though I’m mostly just ridding myself of the germs from children at work sneezing on me). In the midst of a hot shower, there is no impending exam to study for, no newspaper deadline to meet, no paycheck to deposit. It is simply complete and utter peace, a safe haven. The steam clears my mind even as it clouds my mirror.
Creativity thrives in the tub, breathing life into tales of dragons and warrior princesses that evolve only in my head, never making their way to paper but appeasing the childlike dreamer and wannabe author in me all the same. That one calculus problem that has seemed unsolvable since second period clicks into place as I realize the obvious solution. The perfect concluding sentence to my literary analysis essay writes itself (causing me to abruptly end my shower in a mad dash to the computer before I forget it entirely).
Ever since I was old enough to start taking showers unaided, I began hogging all the hot water in the house, a source of great frustration to my parents. Many of my early showers were rudely cut short by an unholy banging on the bathroom door and an order to “stop wasting water and come eat dinner before it gets cold.” After a decade of trudging up the stairs every evening to put an end to my water-wasting, my parents finally gave in, leaving me to my (expensive) showers. I imagine someday, when paying the water bill is in my hands, my showers will be shorter, but today is not that day (nor, hopefully, will the next four years be that day).
Showers are better than any ibuprofen, the perfect panacea for life’s daily ailments. Headaches magically disappear as long as the water runs, though they typically return in full force afterward. The runny nose and itchy eyes courtesy of summertime allergies recede. Showers alleviate even the stomachache from a guacamole-induced lack of self-control.
Honestly though, the best part about a hot shower is neither its medicinal abilities nor its blissful temporary isolation or even the heavenly warmth seeped deep into my bones. The best part is that these little moments of pure, uninhibited contentedness are a daily occurrence. No matter how stressful the day, showers ensure I always have something to look forward to. They are small moments, true, but important nonetheless, because it is the little things in life that matter; the big moments are too rare, too fleeting to make anyone truly happy. Wherever I am in the world, whatever fate chooses to throw at me, I know I can always find my peace at the end of the day behind the shower curtain.
This essay is relatable yet personal! The writer makes themself supremely human through discussing the universal subject of showering. That being said, an essay about showering could easily turn boring while still being relatable. This writer keeps its relatable moments interesting and fun through vivid descriptions of common feelings including “causing me to abruptly end my shower in a mad dash to the computer before I forget it entirely” and “the stomachache from a guacamole-induced lack of self-control.”
While describing a universal feeling, this student also cleverly and intentionally mentions small facts about their life through simple phrases like “I’m mostly just ridding myself of the germs from children at work sneezing on me” and “the childlike dreamer and wannabe author in me.” To put it simply, though we are talking about a shower, we learn about so much more!
And, at the end, the student lets us know that that is exactly why they love showers. Showers are more than meets the eye! With this insightful and reflective ending (“the big moments are too rare, too fleeting to make anyone truly happy”), readers learn about this student’s capacity for reflection, which is an important capacity as you enter college.
The one major error that this writer commits is that of using a trite transition. The inclusion of “Honestly though” at the beginning of this student’s ending detracts from what they are trying to say and sticks out in their writing.
Prompt #7, Example #2
Steam whooshed from the pot as I unveiled my newest creation: duck-peppercorn-chestnut dumplings. The spicy, hearty aroma swirled into the kitchen, mingling with the smell of fresh dough. Grinning, I grabbed a plump dumpling with chopsticks, blew carefully, and fed it into the waiting mouth of my little sister. Her eyes widening, she vigorously nodded and held up five stubby fingers. I did a little happy dance in celebration and pulled my notebook out of my apron pocket. Duck-peppercorn-chestnut: five stars.
In my household, dumplings are a far cry from the classic pork and cabbage. Our menu boasts everything from the savory lamb-bamboo shoot-watercress to the sweet and crispy apple-cinnamon-date. A few years ago, my sister claimed she was sick of eating the same flavors over and over. Refusing to let her disavow our family staple, I took her complaint as a challenge to make the tastiest and most unconventional dumplings to satisfy her. With her as my taste tester and Mum in charge of dough, I spent months experimenting with dozens of odd ingredient combinations.
During those days spent covered in flour, my dumplings often reminded me of myself—a hybrid of ingredients that don’t usually go together. I am the product of three distinct worlds: the suburbs of Boston, the rural Chinese village of [location removed], and the coastal city of [location removed]. At school, I am both the STEM nerd with lightning-fast mental math and the artistic plant mom obsessed with funky earrings. I love all that is elegant, from Chinese calligraphy to the rolling notes of the Gourd flute, yet I can be very not elegant, like when my sister and I make homemade slime. When I’m on the streets, marching for women’s rights and climate action, I’m loud, bellowing from the bottom of my gut. In the painting studio, though, I don’t speak unless spoken to, and hours can slip by like minutes. I’m loud and quiet. Elegant and messy. Nerdy and artistic. Suburban, rustic, and metropolitan.
While I’m full of odd combinations, they are only seemingly contradictory. Just as barbeque pork and pineapple can combine beautifully in a dumpling wrapper, different facets of my identity also converge. After my tenth-grade summer, when I spent six weeks studying design at art school and another three researching the brain at Harvard Med, I began asking myself: What if I mixed art and neuroscience together? That fall, I collaborated with my school’s art museum for an independent research project, exploring two questions: How are aesthetic experiences processed in the brain? And how can neuroscience help museums design exhibits that maximize visitor engagement? I combed through studies with results from tightly controlled experiments, and I spent days gathering my own qualitative data by observing museum visitors and asking them questions. With the help of my artistic skills, I could identify the visual and spatial elements of the exhibits that best held visitors’ attention.
By synergizing two of the ingredients that make me who I am—art and neuroscience—I realized I shouldn’t see the different sides of myself as separate. I learned to instead seek the intersections between aspects of my identity. Since then, I have mixed art with activism to voice my opinions nonverbally, created Spotify playlists with both Chinese and western pop, and written flute compositions using music theory and math. In the future, by continuing to combine my interests, I want to find my niche in the world. I can make a positive impact on society without having to choose just one passion. As of now, my dream is to be a neuroscientist who designs art therapy treatments for mental health patients. Who knows though? Maybe my calling is to be a dim sum chef who teaches pottery on the side. I don’t know where I’ll go, but one thing’s for sure—being a standard pork and cabbage dumpling is definitely not my style.
This essay is outstanding because the student seems likable and authentic. With the first image of the student’s little sister vigorously nodding and holding up “five stubby fingers,” we find ourselves intrigued by the student’s daily life. They additionally show the importance of family, culture, and creativity in their life—these are great things to highlight in your essay!
After the introduction, the student uses their weird dumpling anecdote to transition to a discussion of their unique intersections. This is achieved smoothly because weirdness/uniqueness is the focus of both of these topics. Additionally, the comparison is not awkward because dumplings are used as more than just a transition, but rather are the through-line of the essay—the student weaves in little phrases like “Just as barbeque pork and pineapple can combine beautifully in a dumpling wrapper,” “By synergizing two of the ingredients that make me who I am,” and “being a standard pork and cabbage dumpling is definitely not my style.” This gives the essay its cohesive feel.
Authenticity comes through in this essay as the student recognizes that they don’t know what the future holds. They just know what kind of a person they are—a passionate one!
One change that would improve this student’s essay would be focusing on fewer intersections in their third and last paragraph. The student mentions STEM, music, family activities, activism, and painting, which makes it feel like a distraction in middle of the essay. Focus on the most important things you want to show admissions officers—you can sit at intersections, but you can’t be interested in everything.
Prompt #7, Example #3
“Everyone follow me!” I smiled at five wide-eyed skaters before pushing off into a spiral. I glanced behind me hopefully, only to see my students standing frozen like statues, the fear in their eyes as clear as the ice they swayed on. “Come on!” I said encouragingly, but the only response I elicited was the slow shake of their heads. My first day as a Learn-to-Skate coach was not going as planned.
But amid my frustration, I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater. At seven, I had been fascinated by Olympic performers who executed thrilling high jumps and dizzying spins with apparent ease, and I dreamed to one day do the same. My first few months on skates, however, sent these hopes crashing down: my attempts at slaloms and toe-loops were shadowed by a stubborn fear of falling, which even the helmet, elbow pads, and two pairs of mittens I had armed myself with couldn’t mitigate. Nonetheless, my coach remained unfailingly optimistic, motivating me through my worst spills and teaching me to find opportunities in failures. With his encouragement, I learned to push aside my fears and attack each jump with calm and confidence; it’s the hope that I can help others do the same that now inspires me to coach.
I remember the day a frustrated staff member directed Oliver, a particularly hesitant young skater, toward me, hoping that my patience and steady encouragement might help him improve. Having stood in Oliver’s skates not much earlier myself, I completely empathized with his worries but also saw within him the potential to overcome his fears and succeed.
To alleviate his anxiety, I held Oliver’s hand as we inched around the rink, cheering him on at every turn. I soon found though, that this only increased his fear of gliding on his own, so I changed my approach, making lessons as exciting as possible in hopes that he would catch the skating bug and take off. In the weeks that followed, we held relay races, played “freeze-skate” and “ice-potato”, and raced through obstacle courses; gradually, with each slip and subsequent success, his fear began to abate. I watched Oliver’s eyes widen in excitement with every skill he learned, and not long after, he earned his first skating badge. Together we celebrated this milestone, his ecstasy fueling my excitement and his pride mirroring my own. At that moment, I was both teacher and student, his progress instilling in me the importance of patience and a positive attitude.
It’s been more than ten years since I bundled up and stepped onto the ice for the first time. Since then, my tolerance for the cold has remained stubbornly low, but the rest of me has certainly changed. In sharing my passion for skating, I have found a wonderful community of eager athletes, loving parents, and dedicated coaches from whom I have learned invaluable lessons and wisdom. My fellow staffers have been with me, both as friends and colleagues, and the relationships I’ve formed have given me far more poise, confidence, and appreciation for others. Likewise, my relationships with parents have given me an even greater gratitude for the role they play: no one goes to the rink without a parent behind the wheel!
Since that first lesson, I have mentored dozens of children, and over the years, witnessed tentative steps transform into powerful glides and tears give way to delighted grins. What I have shared with my students has been among the greatest joys of my life, something I will cherish forever. It’s funny: when I began skating, what pushed me through the early morning practices was the prospect of winning an Olympic medal. Now, what excites me is the chance to work with my students, to help them grow, and to give back to the sport that has brought me so much happiness.
A major strength of this essay comes in its narrative organization. When reading this first paragraph, we feel for the young skaters and understand their fear—skating sounds scary! Then, because the writer sets us up to feel this empathy, the transition to the second paragraph where the student describes their empathy for the young skaters is particularly powerful. It’s like we are all in it together! The student’s empathy for the young skaters also serves as an outstanding, seamless transition to the applicant discussing their personal journey with skating: “I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater.”
This essay positions the applicant as a grounded and caring individual. They are caring towards the young skaters—changing their teaching style to try to help the young skaters and feeling the young skaters’ emotions with them—but they are also appreciative to those who helped them as they reference their fellow staffers and parents. This shows great maturity—a favorable quality in the eyes of an admissions officer.
At the end of the essay, we know a lot about this student and are convinced that they would be a good addition to a college campus!
Prompt #7, Example #4
Flipping past dozens of colorful entries in my journal, I arrive at the final blank sheet. I press my pen lightly to the page, barely scratching its surface to create a series of loops stringing together into sentences. Emotions spill out, and with their release, I feel lightness in my chest. The stream of thoughts slows as I reach the bottom of the page, and I gently close the cover of the worn book: another journal finished.
I add the journal to the stack of eleven books on my nightstand. Struck by the bittersweet sensation of closing a chapter of my life, I grab the notebook at the bottom of the pile to reminisce.
“I want to make a flying mushen to fly in space and your in it” – October 2008
Pulling back the cover of my first Tinkerbell-themed diary, the prompt “My Hopes and Dreams” captures my attention. Though “machine” is misspelled in my scribbled response, I see the beginnings of my past obsession with outer space. At the age of five, I tore through novels about the solar system, experimented with rockets built from plastic straws, and rented Space Shuttle films from Blockbuster to satisfy my curiosities. While I chased down answers to questions as limitless as the universe, I fell in love with learning. Eight journals later, the same relentless curiosity brought me to an airplane descending on San Francisco Bay.
“I wish I had infinite sunsets” – July 2019
I reach for the charcoal notepad near the top of the pile and open to the first page: my flight to the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes. While I was excited to explore bioengineering, anxiety twisted in my stomach as I imagined my destination, unsure of whether I could overcome my shyness and connect with others.
With each new conversation, the sweat on my palms became less noticeable, and I met students from 23 different countries. Many of the moments where I challenged myself socially revolved around the third story deck of the Jerry house. A strange medley of English, Arabic, and Mandarin filled the summer air as my friends and I gathered there every evening, and dialogues at sunset soon became moments of bliss. In our conversations about cultural differences, the possibility of an afterlife, and the plausibility of far-fetched conspiracy theories, I learned to voice my opinion. As I was introduced to different viewpoints, these moments challenged my understanding of the world around me. In my final entries from California, I find excitement to learn from others and increased confidence, a tool that would later allow me to impact my community.
“The beauty in a tower of cans” – June 2020
Returning my gaze to the stack of journals, I stretch to take the floral-patterned book sitting on top. I flip through, eventually finding the beginnings of the organization I created during the outbreak of COVID-19. Since then, Door-to-Door Deliveries has woven its way through my entries and into reality, allowing me to aid high-risk populations through free grocery delivery.
With the confidence I gained the summer before, I took action when seeing others in need rather than letting my shyness hold me back. I reached out to local churches and senior centers to spread word of our services and interacted with customers through our website and social media pages. To further expand our impact, we held two food drives, and I mustered the courage to ask for donations door-to-door. In a tower of canned donations, I saw the value of reaching out to help others and realized my own potential to impact the world around me.
I delicately close the journal in my hands, smiling softly as the memories reappear, one after another. Reaching under my bed, I pull out a fresh notebook and open to its first sheet. I lightly press my pen to the page, “And so begins the next chapter…”
The structuring of this essay makes it easy and enjoyable to read. The student effectively organizes their various life experiences around their tower of journals, which centers the reader and makes the different stories easy to follow. Additionally, the student engages quotes from their journals—and unique formatting of the quotes—to signal that they are moving in time and show us which memory we should follow them to.
Thematically, the student uses the idea of shyness to connect the different memories they draw out of their journals. As the student describes their experiences overcoming shyness at the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes and Door-to-Door Deliveries, this essay can be read as an Overcoming Obstacles essay.
At the end of this essay, readers are fully convinced that this student is dedicated (they have committed to journaling every day), thoughtful (journaling is a thoughtful process and, in the essay, the student reflects thoughtfully on the past), and motivated (they flew across the country for a summer program and started a business). These are definitely qualities admissions officers are looking for in applicants!
Prompt #7, Example #5
“We’re ready for take-off!”
The tires hit the tarmac and began to accelerate, and I just realized what I had signed up for. For 24 hours straight, I strapped myself into a broken-down SUV whereas others chose the luxury of soaring through the skies for a mere two hours. Especially with my motion sickness and driving anxiety, I would call myself crazy too.
To say I have always remained in my comfort zone is an understatement. Did I always order chicken fingers and fries at a restaurant? Yup! Sounds like me. Did I always create a color-coded itinerary just for a day trip? Guilty as charged. Did I always carry a first-aid kit at all times? Of course! I would make even an ambulance look unprepared. And yet here I was, choosing 1,000 miles of misery from Las Vegas to Seattle despite every bone in my body telling me not to.
The sunlight blinded my eyes and a wave of nausea swept over me. Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator? It was only ten minutes in, and I was certain that the trip was going to be a disaster. I simply hoped that our pre-drive prayer was not stuck in God’s voicemail box.
All of a sudden, I noticed brightly colored rocks in the distance, ones I had been dying to see for years. Their fluorescence popped amongst the magnificent winding hills as the sunset became romantic in hue. The desert glistened with mirages of deep blue water unlike anything I had ever seen. Nevada was home, but home always seemed to be just desert and casinos. For once, I looked forward to endless desert outside my window rather than a sea of clouds.
I never realized how little I discovered of the world beyond home. For years I complained about how there was nothing to do or discover outside. Not once did I set out to prove myself wrong. Instead, I chose a daily routine of homework at the kitchen table and late-night TV. However, as summer vacation ended, I decided to set my stubbornness aside and finally give this drive back home a chance. Little did I know that it would turn out to be my favorite trip of all time.
As we drove along, the world chose to prove me wrong when I discovered Heaven on Earth along Shasta Lake. I stood out of the sunroof, surrounded by lush green mountains and fog. I extended my arms out and felt a sense of flight that no plane could ever take me on. As the water vapor kissed my face, I floated into a dreamland I never wanted to leave. I didn’t have to go to great lengths to discover the beauty of the world; it was right in front of me. From this moment on, comfort and convenience would no longer be my best friends. Rather than only looking for famous travel destinations or following carefully mapped-out routes, I would let curiosity lead the way.
Since then, my daily life has been anything but routine. I’m proud to boast of my family’s homemade kombucha attempts, of flights purchased and taken in one day, and of a home flooded with knick-knacks from thrifting trips. Every day I set out to try something new, see a different perspective, and go beyond normal. Whether it is by trying a new recipe using taro, making a risky fashion choice with wide-legged pants, or listening to a new music genre in Spanish, I always act with curiosity first.
Over the years, I have devoted my time towards learning Swedish, building computers, and swimming. Although my accent is horrid, some computers almost broke, and even a starfish would outswim me, I continue to enjoy activities I once criticized. For me, there is no enjoyment without some risk. Nobody I know is a kazoo-playing, boogie-board loving, boba connoisseur like me.
This essay is an Overcoming Challenges story that centers around a single anecdote. The structure works nicely as the student describes what they were like before their road trip, what happened on the road trip, and what they were like after.
The most major improvement that this essay needs is better-communicated authenticity. At the beginning, it feels a bit gimmicky. The student describes their preparedness, particularly the fact that they always carry a first aid kit, and it’s not super believable. Then, when they write “Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator?” it feels like we are in a sitcom and the student is that funny obsessive kid. Sitcom characters don’t feel real and you want to make yourself appear profoundly real.
On a similar note, the narrative arc of this essay isn’t entirely believable. The student describes a large personality and value shift but doesn’t describe any struggles that accompany the shift. A quick shift like that is far from easy. On the other hand, if the immediacy of the shift was easy, they could write about moments after their shift in mindset when they have felt troubled by residual desires to stay in their comfort zone, instead of writing “I always act with curiosity first.”
The greatest strength of this essay is the paragraphs beginning “I never realized how little…” and “As we drove along…” The fixation on comfort seems much more believable when it involves “homework at the kitchen table and late-night TV.” The descriptions of the drive provide beautiful, evocative imagery. And it’s topped off with some nice reflection! Digging into this great portion of the essay would make this an even stronger essay!
Want to see more examples? Check out this post with 16 strong essay examples from top schools , including common supplemental essay questions.
At selective schools, your essays account for around 25% of your admissions decision. That’s more than grades (20%) and test scores (15%), and almost as much as extracurriculars (30%). Why is this? Most students applying to top schools will have stellar academics and extracurriculars. Your essays are your chance to stand out and humanize your application.
That’s why it’s vital that your essays are engaging, and present you as someone who would enrich the campus community.
Before submitting your application, you should have someone else review your essays. It’s even better if that person doesn’t know you personally, as they can best tell whether your personality shines through your essay.
That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool , where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.
If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!
Related CollegeVine Blog Posts
When you apply to colleges, you will do plenty of writing. Aside from filling in information and completing a resume, you will have to write essays or short answers based on prompts universities give you. Looking at college essay examples can be a helpful way to prepare for this important part of the application.
Generally, your college entrance essays are meant to convey something about you that could not be known from other parts of your application. For example, your essays should do more than show you are a hard worker because good grades and a busy resume already do this. Some essays for college will ask for something very specific. For example, the “why this college” essay tries to gauge your knowledge and commitment to the institution. For the personal essay on the Common Application, expectations are less clear. This is a college essay about yourself, and you will submit one for all schools that require the Common Application .
The Common App essay is supposed to give admissions officers a sense of your personality. This is a chance to make you stand out in a way that other parts of the application could not. That being said, the best college essays do more than just display the author’s quirks but create a picture of a dynamic person who offers something to a college community. This will help set you apart during the college admissions committee review process .
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4 winning college application essay examples that can help you get admitted
Here are some examples of college essays that worked. Pay attention to how students used one part of who they are (a memory, their background, a challenge) to paint a larger picture. Overall, this is a great way to communicate a lot of information in a relatively small space.
College essay example #1
This first essay was submitted to Harvard University during the 2021 college admissions cycle:
When I was a child, I begged my parents for my very own Brother PT-1400 P-Touch Handheld Label Maker to fulfill all of my labeling needs. Other kids had Nintendos and would spend their free time with Mario and Luigi. While they pummeled their video game controllers furiously, the pads of their thumbs dancing across their joysticks, I would type out labels on my industrial-standard P-Touch with just as much zeal. I labeled everything imaginable, dividing hundreds of pens into Ziploc bags by color, then rubber-banding them by point size. The finishing touch, of course, was always a glossy, three-eighths-inch-wide tag, freshly churned out from my handheld labeler and decisively pasted upon the numerous plastic bags I had successfully compiled.
Labeling became therapeutic for me; organizing my surroundings into specific groups to be labeled provides me with a sense of stability. I may not physically need the shiny color-coded label verifying the contents of a plastic bag as BLUE HIGHLIGHTERS—FAT, to identify them as such, but seeing these classifications so plainly allows me to appreciate the reliability of my categorizations. There are no exceptions when I label the top ledge of my bookshelf as containing works from ACHEBE, CHINUA TO CONRAD, JOSEPH. Each book is either filtered into that category or placed definitively into another one. Yet, such consistency only exists in these inanimate objects.
Thus, the break in my role as a labeler comes when I interact with people. Their lives are too complicated, their personalities too intricate for me to resolutely summarize in a few words or even with the 26.2 feet of laminated adhesive tape compatible with my label maker. I have learned that a thin line exists between labeling and just being judgmental when evaluating individuals. I can hardly superficially characterize others as simply as I do my material possessions because people refuse to be so cleanly separated and compartmentalized. My sister Joyce jokes freely and talks with me for hours about everything from the disturbing popularity of vampires in pop culture to cubic watermelons, yet those who don’t know her well usually think of her as timid and introverted. My mother is sometimes my biggest supporter, spouting words of encouragement and, at other instances, my most unrelenting critic. The overlap becomes too indistinct, the contradictions too apparent, even as I attempt to classify those people in the world whom I know best.
Neither would I want others to be predictable enough for me to label. The real joy in human interaction lies in the excitement of the unknown. Overturning expectations can be necessary to preserving the vitality of relationships. If I were never surprised by the behaviors of those around me, my biggest source of entertainment would vanish. For all my love of order when it comes to my room, I don’t want myself, or the people with whom I interact, to fit squarely into any one category. I meticulously follow directions to the millimeter in the chemistry lab but measure ingredients by pinches and dashes in the comfort of my kitchen. I’m a self-proclaimed grammar Nazi, but I’ll admit e. e. cummings’s irreverence does appeal. I’ll chart my television show schedule on Excel, but I would never dream of confronting my chores with as much organization. I even call myself a labeler, but not when it comes to people. As Walt Whitman might put it, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.).”
I therefore refrain from the temptation to label—despite it being an act that makes me feel so fulfilled when applied to physical objects—when real people are the subjects. The consequences of premature labeling are too great, the risk of inaccuracy too high because, most of the time, not even the hundreds of alphanumeric digits and symbols available for entry on my P-Touch can effectively describe who an individual really is.
A pleasure to read, filled with witty remarks and earnest self-reflection. This essay uses humor, along with meticulous attention to detail, to convey certain personal truths. The opening anecdote demonstrates the student’s passion for order and organization, while the second half of this essay shows the student’s willingness to contradict themself to engage with others meaningfully.
Not only is this essay creative and entertaining, but it also demonstrates how this student is eager to challenge themself and embrace a wide variety of perspectives. Furthermore, the specific details this student includes, especially their literary references, help express their academic interests and values. Overall, this essay is witty, creative, and memorable, while engaging in a larger meaningful discussion.
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College essay example #2.
This second essay was submitted to Hamilton College during the 2021 college admissions cycle:
I dreaded their arrival. The tyrannical cicadas swarmed DC and neighboring areas in 1987, 2004, and again in 2021. I was freaking about Brood X, the worst of them all. Brood X is a cluster of cicadas that descend on Washington, D.C., every 17 years. I live in the epicenter of their swarm. Cicadas battled with mosquitoes for first place in the top tier of the human annoyance pyramid. I hate these off-brand cockroaches.
For 17 years, cicadas live underground feasting off of sap, running free of danger. Then, they emerge and face the real world. That sounds familiar. I have lived in the same house, in the same town, for 17 years, with my parents feeding me pasta and keeping me safe.
Is it conceivable that I have more in common with cicadas than I previously thought? Cicadas have beady, red eyes. After a year of enduring Zoom classes, attending tele-health appointments, and spending too much time on social media and video games, I too feel a little blurry-eyed and disoriented. But what about their incessant hum and perpetual noise? That is not me. OK, maybe I do make protein shakes with a noisy blender at all hours of the day. Maybe I do FaceTime vehemently with friends, blare music while I shower, and constantly kick a ball around both inside the house and out.
At least I do not leave damaged wings, shedded skin, or rotting carcasses everywhere. Smelly soccer socks on the clean carpet after a long practice? Check. Pools of turf in the mudroom after sliding all over the field? You got it. Dirty dishes and trail mix stains after accidentally sitting on a mislaid M&M are hardly as abhorrent as cicada remains, right?
The more I reflected, the more I realized these bugs and I are more alike than different. After 17 years of being cooped up, we are both antsy to face new experiences. Of course, cicadas want to broaden their wings, fly, and explore the world, even if it means clumsily colliding into people’s faces, telephone poles, and parked cars. Just like I want to shed my skin and escape to college, even if it means getting lost on campus or ruining a whole load of laundry. Despite all my newbie attributes, I am proceeding to the next phase of my life whether I am ready or not.
Only the hardiest of cicadas survive their emergence and make it to trees to mate, lay eggs, and ensure the existence of their species. I want to be a tenacious Brood X cicada. I will know what it means to travel into the wrong classroom before getting laughed at, bump into an upperclassman before dropping textbooks everywhere, fail an exam after thinking I aced it. I may even become the cicada of the lecture hall by asking a professor for permission to go to the bathroom. Like cicadas, I will need time to learn how to learn.
No matter what challenge I undergo that exposes and channels my inner-cicada, novice thought process, I will regroup and continue to soar toward the ultimate goal of thriving in college.
When I look beyond our beady red eyes, round-the-clock botherment, and messy trails, I now understand there is room for all creatures to grow, both cicadas and humans. Cicadas certainly are on to something … Seventeen years is the perfect amount of time to emerge and get ready to fly.
This essay uses a humorous extended metaphor to express their eagerness to attend college — as well as their inner trepidations. Mostly this essay is about resiliency and embracing change. What makes this essay stand out, however, is its subject matter. By comparing themself to a cicada, an organism they’ve already admitted to strongly disliking, the student demonstrates humor, humility, and a willingness to approach the world with creativity and curiosity.
While this essay isn’t necessarily about a particular interest or experience, it characterizes the student exceedingly well. Overall, this essay is memorable and creative, using humor and humility to express a greater truth about how this student views themself and how they approach their surroundings.
College essay example #3
This third essay was submitted to Tufts College during the 2019 college admissions cycle:
My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver. I saw it in my favorite book, Richard Scarry’s “Cars and Trucks and Things That Go,” and for some reason, I was absolutely obsessed with the idea of driving a giant pickle. Much to the discontent of my younger sister, I insisted that my parents read us that book as many nights as possible so we could find goldbug, a small little golden bug, on every page. I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.
Then I discovered a real goldbug: gold nanoparticles that can reprogram macrophages to assist in killing tumors, produce clear images of them without sacrificing the subject, and heat them to obliteration.
Suddenly the destination of my pickle was clear.
I quickly became enveloped by the world of nanomedicine; I scoured articles about liposomes, polymeric micelles, dendrimers, targeting ligands, and self-assembling nanoparticles, all conquering cancer in some exotic way. Completely absorbed, I set out to find a mentor to dive even deeper into these topics. After several rejections, I was immensely grateful to receive an invitation to work alongside Dr. Sangeeta Ray at Johns Hopkins.
In the lab, Dr. Ray encouraged a great amount of autonomy to design and implement my own procedures. I chose to attack a problem that affects the entire field of nanomedicine: nanoparticles consistently fail to translate from animal studies into clinical trials. Jumping off recent literature, I set out to see if a pre-dose of a common chemotherapeutic could enhance nanoparticle delivery in aggressive prostate cancer, creating three novel constructs based on three different linear polymers, each using fluorescent dye (although no gold, sorry goldbug!). Though using radioactive isotopes like Gallium and Yttrium would have been incredible, as a 17-year-old, I unfortunately wasn’t allowed in the same room as these radioactive materials (even though I took a Geiger counter to a pair of shoes and found them to be slightly dangerous).
I hadn’t expected my hypothesis to work, as the research project would have ideally been led across two full years. Yet while there are still many optimizations and revisions to be done, I was thrilled to find — with completely new nanoparticles that may one day mean future trials will use particles with the initials “RK-1” — that cyclophosphamide did indeed increase nanoparticle delivery to the tumor in a statistically significant way.
A secondary, unexpected research project was living alone in Baltimore, a new city to me, surrounded by people much older than I. Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB’s, and students’ apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody’s surprise). Ironically, it’s through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research. Whether in a presentation or in a casual conversation, making others interested in science is perhaps more exciting to me than the research itself. This solidified a new pursuit to angle my love for writing towards illuminating science in ways people can understand, adding value to a society that can certainly benefit from more scientific literacy.
It seems fitting that my goals are still transforming: in Scarry’s book, there is not just one goldbug, there is one on every page. With each new experience, I’m learning that it isn’t the goldbug itself, but rather the act of searching for the goldbugs that will encourage, shape, and refine my ever-evolving passions. Regardless of the goldbug I seek — I know my pickle truck has just begun its journey.
This essay uses a humorous childhood anecdote to introduce an impressive series of scientific projects and inquiries. As evident through their various scientific projects, this student is very talented and driven. Furthermore, by periodically revisiting the playful language of the opening anecdote, the student’s scientific achievements are further emphasized through its contrasting language and tone.
Overall, this essay strikes a really good balance between playful and scientific language, which ultimately ties into the student’s parting conclusion that they want to use their love of storytelling to make scientific discoveries more accessible to a wider audience. This essay is memorable, highly detailed, and leaves a lasting impression.
College essay example #4
This final essay was submitted to John Hopkins University as a part of the 2018 college admissions cycle:
The sound was loud and discordant, like a hurricane, high notes and low notes mixing together in an audible mess. It was as if a thousand booming foghorns were in a shouting match with sirens. Unlike me, this was a little abrasive and loud. I liked it. It was completely unexpected and extremely fun to play.
Some instruments are built to make multiple notes, like a piano. A saxophone on the other hand doesn’t play chords but single notes through one vibrating reed. However, I discovered that you can play multiple notes simultaneously on the saxophone. While practicing a concert D-flat scale, I messed up a fingering for a low B-flat, and my instrument produced a strange noise with two notes. My band teacher got very excited and exclaimed, “Hey, you just played a polyphonic note!” I like it when accidents lead to discovering new ideas.
I like this polyphonic sound because it reminds me of myself: many things at once. You assume one thing and get another. At school, I am a course scholar in English, but I am also able to amuse others when I come up with wince evoking puns. My math and science teachers expect me to go into engineering, but I’m more excited about making films. Discussing current events with my friends is fun, but I also like to share with them my secrets to cooking a good scotch egg. Even though my last name gives them a hint, the Asian students at our school don’t believe that I’m half Japanese.
Meanwhile the non-Asians are surprised that I’m also part Welsh. I feel comfortable being unique or thinking differently. As a Student Ambassador this enables me to help freshmen and others who are new to our school feel welcome and accepted. I help the new students know that it’s okay to be themselves.
There is added value in mixing things together. I realized this when my brother and I won an international Kavli Science Foundation contest where we explained the math behind the Pixar movie “Up”. Using stop motion animation we explored the plausibility and science behind lifting a house with helium balloons. I like offering a new view and expanding the way people see things. In many of my videos I combine art with education. I want to continue making films that not only entertain, but also make you think.
A lot of people have a single passion that defines them or have a natural talent for something specific. Like my saxophone I am an instrument, but I can play many notes at once. I’m a scholar and a musician. Quiet but talkative. An athlete and a filmmaker. Careful but spontaneous. A fan of Johnny Cash and Kill The Noise. Hard-working but playful. A martial artist and a baker. One of a kind but an identical twin.
Will polyphonic notes resonate in college? Yes. For instance, balancing a creative narrative with scientific facts will make a more believable story. I want to bring together different kinds of students (such as music, film, and English majors) to create more meaningful art. Understanding fellow students’ perspective, talents, and ideas are what build a great community.
I’m looking forward to discovering my place in the world by combining various interests. Who I am doesn’t always harmonize and may seem like nothing but noise to some. But what I play, no matter how discordant, can be beautiful. It’s my own unique polyphonic note.
The opening anecdote is unique, engaging, and succinct. It also allows the student to include a lot of personal details and interests in a way that feels natural and matches the tone of the opening anecdote. In less than a page, we learn that this student is a musician, athlete, filmmaker, jokester, twin, martial artist, baker, lover of literature, and twin. We also learn that the student is half-Japanese, half-Welsh, and has learned to embrace her cultural differences and personal nuances while encouraging others to do the same. The upbeat, excitable tone of this essay also helps characterize this student as well as demonstrate how she would enhance the school’s campus culture.
Key takeaways from college essay examples
Writing a successful personal statement is a key factor in holistic college admissions practices . This is because your personal statement is your opportunity to share more about who you are as a person and what you’re passionate about. Every year thousands of qualified students apply to highly-selective colleges, such as Ivy League institutions , but only a small fraction of students are admitted. So how do you stand out in a pool of equally qualified applicants? Your personal statement.
This is why it is important to learn more about components of a strong personal statement , as well as overused college essay topics that are best to avoid. Reading examples of successful Common App essays is a great way to start thinking about how to best approach your college essays. By identifying key strategies and characteristics that helped set these essay examples apart, you are one step closer to writing your own successful personal statement.
Need college essay help?
Prepory offers a college admissions essay help package to assist high school students with the most important part of the college application process. Our expert editors have degrees in writing, attended elite colleges and universities, and have hundreds of success stories editing college essays. Our college essay review process goes further than editing for a missing comma or period. We dig deep to learn more about who you are and what you want to tell admissions officers.
Our college admissions team helps students write compelling college essays and construct, edit, and flesh out their resumes, too! If you feel like you could benefit from professional guidance during this college application season, reach out to learn more about our services .
- November 7, 2022
- College Admissions , Common App
4 Winning College Essay Examples from Top Schools
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10 Exceptional Common App Essay Examples
Common App Essay Examples
One of the most important pieces of the college admissions process is the Common App essay, also known as the college essay or the personal statement. By reading Common App essay examples, you can prepare to write your own.
However, what is a personal statement? In a word, a personal statement is an essay you’ll write for college. We will learn more about what makes a great personal statement by exploring sample Common App essays. In fact, the best way for students to ace this type of essay is through dissecting Common App essay examples to see what works.
Breaking down the Common App essay
In this article, we’ll use Common App essay examples to explore what makes a strong personal statement. We’ll break down what makes each of these Common App essay examples successful. That way, you can find inspiration and tools to unlock the best version of your own college entrance essays. We will also provide tips for coming up with college essay ideas and finding a college application essay format that works for your story.
At CollegeAdvisor, our goal is to demystify the college admissions process for all students. As such, we’ll also introduce you to many resources about how to write a college essay. Wherever you are in the process of writing your Common App essay, you’ll find these Common App essay examples helpful.
How to Write a Personal Statement – 5 Personal Statement Examples
What is a Common App essay?
The first step in writing a college essay is understanding the varying types of college essays. When students look up “what is a personal statement?” they are likely to come across many articles about sample Common App essays. Indeed, personal statement sample essays are often the same as Common App essay examples. While there are many other types of college essays, such as supplemental essays, the Common App essay/personal statement is extremely important.
Let’s first explore one major question: what is a personal statement?
Whether you are applying to undergrad, grad school, or a scholarship, the personal statement is a general term for an essay that introduces you to admissions officers. As such, personal statement sample essays must tell a unique story about you that conveys who you are. They should showcase your personality traits, values, and personal growth. With this story, you are showing admissions teams what kind of person and community member you will be when you step onto their campus. For this reason, no two personal statement sample essays are identical.
Understanding the Common App essay
Now, let’s explore what the Common App essay is. A Common App essay is a personal statement submitted through the Common App. Astoundingly, over 1,000 colleges and universities in the United States use the Common App as an application platform. As a result, when you apply to college, you will almost definitely use the Common App. This is why there are so many Common App essay examples out there.
All Common App essay examples are 250-650 wo r ds long. Since students can apply to multiple schools using the Common App, the Common App essay examples we provide were likely submitted to several different colleges. Note how these sample Common App essays are personal to the student but still general enough to work for different schools.
Do all schools require a Common App essay?
Besides wondering “what is a personal statement?”, many students wonder if they need one for every school. As we mentioned, many universities in the U.S. use the Common App . However, the personal statement, also known as the Common App essay, is not required by all schools.
For example, the Universi t y of Washington-Seattle does not accept the Common App essay even though students can apply using the Common App. However, the school has different college entrance essay requirements . These appear when you select a school on your Common App portal.
Encouraged but not required
Some schools encourage but do not require students to submit a college entrance essay. For example, Bridgewater State University encourages students to write a college entrance essay, but it’s not mandatory. In this case, we still recommend submitting an essay, since every part of an application is a chance to showcase who you are and why you’re a compelling candidate.
Furthermore, some schools do not require essays at all. In fact, they won’t even read your college entrance essay should you submit one. These schools, one of which is the University of South Florida , rely exclusively on other measures such as grades, test scores, or extracurriculars to make their college admissions decisions.
Though all schools don’t require a Common App essay, many do. They also might require supplemental essays. As such, it’s important to start preparing your essays early by first reading Common App essay examples. This will help you learn what makes a great college essay.
Common App Essay Prompts
The second question students might ask after ”what is a personal statement?” is “what do I write about?”
Luckily, the Common App gives you plenty of college essay ideas through the college essay topics it provides. All of the Common App essay examples we will look at responded to one of the current prompts.
Let’s review the seven current prompts that inspired our Common App essay examples:
Current Common App Essay Prompts
1. some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. if this sounds like you, then please share your story., 2. the lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. how did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience, 3. reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. what prompted your thinking what was the outcome, 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, 5. discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others., 6. describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. why does it captivate you what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more, 7. share an essay on any topic of your choice. it can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design..
When looking at these prompts, you’ll note that they are all asking you to be reflective. Indeed, all common app essay examples and college essays that worked involve the student engaging in self-reflection. As such, it matters less what you write about and more what deeper meaning the topic at hand has to you. Successful sample Common App essays demonstrate that the author is a deep thinker.
Choose your own topic
Furthermore, note that prompt #7 allows you to submit an essay on any topic of your choice. So, if none of the first six prompts inspire you, you can focus on another topic of your choice that is meaningful to you.
There is no one-size-fits-all college application essay format. Indeed, all of the Common App essay examples we will explore take different approaches to telling their stories.
As we look at Common App essay examples, take note of how students were self-reflective and demonstrated their unique passion for a topic. We’ll dig into how they accomplish this as we review each of these college essays that worked.
How to use these Common App Essay Examples
Before we look at sample Common App essays, let’s discuss how you can use these examples of college essays to support you in writing your own.
First, avoid the impulse to compare your life to other students’ stories in these Common App essay examples. These sample Common App essays are great tools because of the students’ reflections. It truly doesn’t matter what you write about so long as you can do it in a meaningful way that shows personal growth and self-awareness. Great personal statement sample essays can be written about the most mundane or common topics . So, don’t compare your life experiences with those of other students. Simply add these Common App essay examples to your college essay writing toolbox and understand what works.
Reflect on how you want to tell your story
Secondly, use these Common App essay examples to find inspiration for how you wish to tell your story. Do these Common App essay examples use dialogue that really makes a scene come to life? Maybe a few sample Common App essays discuss topics you hadn’t realized you could write about, giving you ideas for new college essay topics. Drawing inspiration from Common App essays that worked is distinct from copying their ideas or language. So, don’t try to imitate any of these essays. Rather, use them as a tool to enhance your own unique essays.
Finally, take note of what you learn about the writers of these sample Common App essays. Then, look at yourself through the same lens. What do you want college admission officers to learn about you? Your college entrance essay is your chance to show that.
Common App Essay Examples #1
The first of our sample Common App essays discusses a topic that many students might assume is too ordinary: a student’s love of books. After reading each of our sample Common App essays, we’ll break down what makes them strong Common App essay examples.
Sample Common App Essays #1: Books and Identity
Under the harshly fluorescent lights of an aisle in Walmart, I take position amidst the rows of plastic silverware, paper towels, and household goods while my mother searches for supplies she needs for a Fourth of July party. Neither the faint swells of an outdated and overplayed pop song nor the hustle and bustle of a retail store on a holiday weekend reach my ears because as usual, my nose is buried in a book. My mother calls to me, but her voice barely registers and I ignore her, shifting in the spot I have designated for myself aside the packages of Hefty trash bags on the bottom shelf.
She finally finds me, and I reluctantly tear my concentration away from the page. “I’ll just stay here,” I say, buying myself precious time in which I can finish the next sentence, paragraph, or chapter of the novel, and I sink contentedly back into a state of mind where I am entirely myself and nothing, not even other customers searching for trash bags, can disturb me.
This memory is not an uncommon one for me. As a child, I could always be found in stores or restaurants with my latest literary pick in hand. I constantly nagged my parents to bring me to the library or bookstore; this was a constant even as I went through “phases” as I grew up, dabbling in music and theater with temporary or half-hearted enthusiasm. Other children dressed up as astronauts or princesses, but I took on roles of different people as I struggled to find myself.
As I grow older and continue to explore different interests, my love for reading has sparked my intellectual curiosity and taught me valuable life lessons. Reading was an escape during a time when I didn’t quite know who I wanted to be. Now it marks the cornerstone of who I’ve become. I’ve read just as many books about fictional villains and heroes as those about regular people who face the same struggles I do. For me, it’s these kinds of books, stories of people not so different than myself, that have changed and defined my outlook on life.
One such book is I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, a story of twins and their difficulty finding their own identity in a world where they are bound together. Noah, one of the twins, describes how he feels he is always “undercover.” He says, “‘Maybe a person is just made up of a lot of people. Maybe we’re accumulating these new selves all the time. Hauling them in as we make choices, good and bad, as we screw up, […] grow, dive into the world.’” I was unable to realize a person could be defined by multiple aspects of himself.
My tendency to try to fit into a specific role proved to be unsuccessful, but one of my different “selves” was always a part of me, even when taking on the role of someone I didn’t want to be. A love for reading is not a temporary persona I put on to appease parents, friends, or college admissions officers. The reader of a story has an unique perspective of the mind of a character. Because of this, I have realized the true depth and intricacy every person and situation can hold.
I struggled with defining my own identity, with labeling who I was, but now I know every person is much too complex to be defined by a label as simplistic as “athlete” or “musician.” So although it might be assumed that an individual pursuing an engineering degree does not enjoy reading, I am grateful for my love of books, as it is with this passion that I find myself ready to “dive into the world.”
Why this essay worked
As we mentioned earlier, it may feel difficult to come up with college essay ideas. This student chose a topic that some might consider mundane— their love of reading. However, the student is successful because they show how reading has been a critical part of their identity and personal development.
In this essay, the student tells us how reading was an escape from the pressure she felt to define who she was. Later, reading became an integral part of her identity as a learner intrigued by stories. Given that the student plans to major in engineering, this fact adds depth and intrigue to the student’s personal brand. A college admissions officer would find this student an appealing candidate because they will likely be engaged and passionate. Through this example, we see that any topic can be a successful one if it is important to the reader and connects to a core aspect of their identity.
Lastly, as we see in many great examples of college essays, this student includes many details. They even reference dialogue from a favorite book, further illustrating their love of reading.
Now, let’s look at a very different college application essay format in the second of our Common App Essay examples.
Sample Common App Essay #2
The second of our Common App essay examples takes the unique—and potentially challenging—approach of talking about another person. In this essay, the author describes her relationship with Sophia, a child with special needs that she meets while volunteering.
The author’s essay is in response to prompt #3 of the Common App essay prompts:
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Not many Common App essay examples respond to this prompt. Let’s see how this student tackles it.
Common App Essay #2: Challenging Bias about Ability
I see Sophia and wave, laughing at her leaps of excitement that brighten my day. Sophia grins up at me, pointing at her two missing front teeth, and I marvel at how grown-up she is becoming. Deciding to capitalize on her boundless exuberance, I suggest we work on her backstroke, her least favorite. Sensing her reluctance to lie flat on the water, I point out the purple monkey and the giraffe on the ceiling, coaxing her to relax on her back and practice a few kicks. I know that with this distraction, she will slowly uncoil her arms from my waist, gaining the confidence to float on her own. Beaming, I praise her courage, offering a congratulatory high-five. Proud of today’s improvements, I hand her the dreaded kickboard. Sophia’s dimples vanish as she vigorously shakes her head, inching away from the terrifying aqua board.
Recognizing this fear, I remember a trick she loved from the previous lesson. I promise to teach her how to do an under-water handstand, and in response, she tentatively grasps the board with one hand, while clinging to me with the other. I then challenge her to splash me as hard as she can with powerful freestyle kicks, and laugh as my face is soon drenched with water. Clapping, I marvel at her ability to propel herself without any assistance, and to celebrate, we belt out “Let It Go” from Frozen together. My giggles vanish and my heart aches as she begins to recollect the long needles from her latest hospital visit, but I am amazed to see that her laugh never ceases.
Sophia has special needs. Despite her mental challenges, her bubbly and infectious personality never fails to be an uplifting inspiration. I marvel at how this 10-year-old has learned to fully appreciate the life she has been given and cherish each precious moment. In and out of surgeries, hospitals, and clinics, she still exhibits an unparalleled enthusiasm for life.
Sophia’s determination coupled with her bright personality inspires me to embrace optimism in my life. I am passionate about enabling Sophia to break down any perceived obstacles and stereotypes in front of her and lead an active life, just like any other child. Though I go in each week as the teacher, I leave having been her student. Each evening after volunteering, I would lie awake, tossing and turning, wondering how I could do more for Sophia. Prior to volunteering, I often took for granted that I have sports and activity programs readily available. But with far more athletes than coaches in the program, why did more of my peers not volunteer? Why did more people not know about the special gifts people with disabilities radiate?
Yearning to share my experience with others, I founded a club at my school called HandiCapable, encouraging my peers to volunteer with people who have special needs through sports mentoring. I hope to encourage my school community to see that people with mental disabilities are people first, facing challenges like us all. I fought to change an underlying culture where people with intellectual disabilities are mocked or misunderstood in today’s society by spearheading a campaign to eliminate the word “retarded.” Breaking away from using hurtful and derogatory colloquialisms is the first step towards understanding and compassion, altering the way we think, speak, and ultimately act.
Sophia has taught me that nothing is insurmountable if you have courage, foresight and above all, a positive attitude. She has driven me to be more accepting of people who may seem initially quite different, but face challenges like I do. She has inspired me to be more appreciative of uniqueness, because everyone has an individual personality and perspective from which I can learn. Sophia has changed how I view the world.
What makes this a successful essay ?
Writing about another person when applying to college can be tricky. Many sample Common App essays write so much about the other person that they forget to center the author. However, in this essay, the author demonstrates the impact that Sophia had on her, centering her own experiences. In doing so, it highlights how Sophia taught the author to face challenges with joy and courage.
The student also answers the prompt fully and in detail. Specifically, the writer discusses how her experience with Sophia led her to challenge ableist thought. Moreover, the author tells the reader how her inspiration led her to create a club at her school. By doing this, she demonstrates her own leadership skills and activist mindset. In short, we learn a lot about the author even though this essay is about someone who inspired her.
For our third sample, we’ll give into the challenging world of Common App essay examples that talk about sports.
Personal Statement Sample Essay #3
Many examples of college essays talk about a sport that a student has played for a long time. Writing about this topic can be difficult. At times, students spend too much time talking about the details of the sport rather than their experiences.
In the third of our sample Common App essays, the author shows us how her relationship to gymnastics changes over her lifetime. In doing so, she reveals a lot about her character. Let’s take a look:
Personal Statement Sample Essays #3: Perseverance and Commitment through Gymnastics
Gymnastics has always been a part of my life and has shaped who I am today. Without gymnastics I would not have the same determined mindset, competitive nature, and appreciation of a team. If I were to neglect sharing this aspect of my life, my application would truly be incomplete.
When I was two years old, my parents enrolled me in the Parent-and-Me program at Countryside Gymnastics. At six, I became part of the pre-team program, Dynamos, and was placed in the compulsory team at age seven. As a compulsory, I struggled to be as good as my teammates. This struggle caused frustration which evolved into determination and a competitive nature. Throughout the rest of my compulsory years, I gradually improved but still felt as though I were stuck. I knew I had to “up my game.”
The optional levels, 7 and up, brought a new factor—fear. Even though this fear did hold me back at times, I did not let it keep me from achieving my goals. Gymnastics is also extremely tough on the body. Once I entered the optional level of gymnastics, I trained at least 20 hours a week and endured the aches and pains that came along with it. However, I did not let these pains defeat me. When I reached level 9, I began to experience severe back pain, which a spine specialist diagnosed as a subcutaneous lipoma. Although the physician highly recommended I stop training to avoid complications later in life, I was too committed to stop the sport. I let my desire push me through the pain, and I had a successful competition season, qualifying for the Region 8 Regional Competition in Jackson, Mississippi.
During summer training in 2013, I worked as hard as possible to reach level 10, with the back pain progressively worsening. Once my pain peaked, my coach told me it may be time to “hang it up.” I could either quit or repeat level 9 with minimal training. Ultimately, the choice was mine. To prove I was capable of reaching level 10 and to support my team, I continued to train on a vigorous schedule. At level 10, I am the highest level gymnast at Countryside Gymnastics and am determined to have an exceptional competition season.
This determination and competitiveness that pushes me to accomplish my goals in gymnastics also exists in my current scholastics—the health sciences, which will ultimately prepare me for my future in pediatric medicine. Without the desire to be the best I can be, I might not have achieved success throughout my high school years.
Why this essay worked
Some sample Common App essays that write about sports focus too heavily on the sport. In doing so, they fail to tell us much about the author. However, colleges want to know about you!
This author writes about what gymnastics has meant to her throughout her life. This gives us a window into how she thinks, what she fears, and how she handles challenges. Through describing how she pushed forward when faced with injuries or fear, she shows us how she will succeed in college and in life.
Common App Essay Examples #4
Many Common App essay examples attempt to subtly weave in achievements. However, in the fourth of our sample Common App essays, the author takes a bold move. This essay talks about how the author handles failure, revealing critical details about their character. Some might assume that successful Common App essay examples need to focus on “successes,” not failures. However, this essay shows how failure can be a good essay topic choice—if you address it the right way.
Let’s see how one student skillfully tackles the topic of failure.
Sample Common App Essays #4: A New Perspective on Failure
Stretching my ankle against the theraband, my pre-pointe teacher hands out evaluations, determining who will move up to pointe shoes. The TheraBand, worn from months of strengthening in hopes of earning pointe shoes, snaps as I eagerly grab my evaluation. Dumbfounded, I wonder how all my friends were advancing to pointe while I wasn’t. Maybe my body is not built for ballet, I conceded.
A year later, the server on the other side of the net serves the ball with a loud smack. The ball hurdles towards me in seemingly slow motion. Other players yell my name, encouraging me. I need to pass the ball, or else I won’t make the middle school volleyball team. Positioning myself, I bend my knees, and… I hit it out of the court.
Defeated, I accept the rejection with the mindset that my lack of athleticism is permanent.
The following fall, walking out of the audition room and having made it successfully past the first round, I was dizzy and elated. Moments prior, I perfectly performed an excerpt from a piece I prepared for 3 months and was about to play yet another excerpt, which would determine whether I would make the district honors band. Breathing rhythmically, my fingers glide over the familiar scales, my heart thumps the beat of the piece, and I triumph in my second successful audition of the evening. The results the next day were disappointing. I thought about how my mother is tone deaf, and decided that was the reason I would never be successful in my musical aspirations.
Regarding my failures as something out of my control was a recurring theme in my life. Reflecting on past experiences, I am not sure when the thought that my abilities were unchangeable began to prevail. However, I am aware of when the toxic mindset began to change.
For years, I had marveled at long distance runners. Their athleticism and ability to persistently push onwards in a race was something I lacked in my life and simultaneously desired. Spring of my freshman year of high school, I decided I wanted to join the Cross-Country team. However, joining a sport in high school tended to be very difficult, due to the fact current players had already been participating for years prior. Despite anxiety about possibly “failing” at something again, I tried anyways. After careful research and planning, I set a schedule of running and cross training six days a week. Beginning in March, I developed the capability to keep up with experienced teammates by the time the pre-season began in June. With determination, I trained myself from a 12-minute mile runner to a 7-minute mile runner and a competitive Cross-Country athlete.
For the first time, I realized something: Failure does not define me. Instead, it drives me to succeed.
Having previously believed negative qualities cannot be changed, self-training for a sport revealed situations are not permanent. Whatever I lack in inherent talent can always be made up for in hard work and strategic planning. Innately, I am self-motivated and resilient. Once I realized this, obtaining my goals was a possibility, and eventually, a reality.
Because of my newfound self-awareness, pursuing goals is efficient and organized, and often produces favorable results. I no longer believe traits, such as my body type or genetic predisposition for music, restrict my ability to achieve. Instead, they are simply obstacles to be overcome.
Letting shortcomings or events define my future or limit my aspirations is a thing of the past. What truly defines me is my ability to push past rejection and continually better myself – no matter what version of myself I am at the moment.
Why did this essay work well?
One approach that successful personal statement sample essays could take is focusing on an unexpected topic. Throughout this essay, the author plays with the idea of failure. They introduce us to many specific moments in life when they have failed.
As the essay moves forward, the author’s perspective on failure shifts. They learn that through their failures, they can identify ways to improve. They also realize that their own perceptions of their abilities shape how they set goals and whether they achieve them. Essentially, this student tells us through stories how they have developed a growth mindset. This is something that college admissions officers highly value in applicants.
The best Common App essay examples showcase traits that are both true to the author and appealing to colleges. Think about how to do this as you craft your own essays.
Sample Common App Essay #5
Personal statement sample examples are incredibly personal, and this next example is no different. Here, we’ll learn about a tradition that the author values deeply—spending Saturday mornings with family.
Common App Essays that Worked #5: Family Values
I relish Saturday mornings. After a long week of rushed early mornings and drawn-out nights filled with studying, Saturday is the reward. My eyes open at my own pace. Weekdays, I awaken at 6:45 a.m. to the harsh sound of my cell phone alarm or my mom calling through my bedroom door. But not on Saturday, on that day, I rise to the sound of birds chirping or my dad moving around downstairs. Stretching for a long moment, I just enjoy staring at the ceiling. I am content after an extra hour and half of sleep.
Slowly, I leave my warm bed, throw on a comfy sweater and place my glasses on my head. It’s a welcome change from my weekday routine. I do not miss forcing my sleepy body out of bed, slipping into my itchy uniform, or forcing contacts into my tired eyes. When I make my way down the steps I am greeted by my dad reading the newspaper in his favorite leather armchair rather than my full backpack in the foyer.
These relaxing mornings offer me a much-needed break. For once, I’m not rushing off to school or soccer practice. Any essays I need to write or physics tests I must study for can wait a while.
I take the time to just sit on the couch and read a book or watch TV. I can do everything I want or do nothing at all.
However, the true highlights of these mornings occur when I am sitting at the kitchen table with my crossword puzzle and pencil on my right and my breakfast plate and hot mug of tea on my left. Between bites of pancake, I share tricky crossword clues with my family. My mom looks up from the sports section to carefully consider the hint and my sisters bombard me with suggestions but it’s usually my dad, standing over the griddle flipping pancakes, who calls out the correct answer. As I find contentment in a meal, the Puzzles and Games section of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the company of my family, I realize that it truly is the little things in life that mean the most.
I appreciate my dad who works long hours but still gets up to cook a big weekend breakfast for my family and the way that he serves me tea in my mom’s white college mug because he knows it’s my favorite. My sisters’ and I laugh playfully as we compete over who’s the strongest and tease me because I’m the weakest. I shake my head and smile at my mom who insists that she can eat three pieces of French Toast even though we all know she’ll barely finish two. To someone else, lazy Saturdays and family breakfasts may appear so routine, so insignificant. But to me, these moments are perfect.
This essay proves that sample Common App essays that worked don’t have to be about a huge life event. In fact, this student is writing about the most common aspects of everyday life: spending time with family. However, the way the student writes about their family demonstrates a lot about the student’s character. We learn that this student values the little things in life and cares deeply for others.
Secondly, by using specific details, from crossword puzzles to coffee mugs, this essay highlights the author’s love for their family. This student masters the age-old writing advice of “show, don’t tell.” This approach keeps Common App essay examples intriguing and fun to read.
Personal Statement Sample Essay #6
There isn’t one successful college application essay format or topic. However, writing about a pivotal moment in one’s life can lead to a very compelling story. Though it can be difficult, this student chooses to be vulnerable about how a catastrophic injury changed their life.
Common App Essay Examples #6: Lessons from an Injury
When I finally woke for the first time in three days, I could feel needles dancing up and down my legs where there were none, and when the doctor asked me to wiggle my toes, there was not even a flicker. Regarding my condition, the doctor told me, “Your skiing accident has left you paralyzed. Permanently.”
In Korea, where I was born, a disability is considered very shameful. Many see people with disabilities as aliens of society. People with disabilities in Asian countries rarely leave the house due to the inaccessible nature of the society and the unbearable piercing stares of the surrounding community members. Seeing this as my only possible life in a wheelchair, the people closest to me repeatedly etched into my brain that without the use of my legs, I could never be successful or happy–a forever pitied human being.
As my church and family members visited me after my injury and saw me in the wheelchair, they reacted in shock, saying, “I’m sorry. I really hope you walk again.” As they tried to console me, I could feel their deep pity. Before even asking if I was okay, or how I was doing, my immobile legs had already drawn in their minds a picture of my bleak future.
As apologies and condolences were continuously thrown at me, I started to believe that everyone was right. Maybe I was just a burden. Maybe I would not ever be happy. Enveloped in a façade of darkness, for so many days, I merely sat in bed begging my legs to move again.
I would be lying if I claimed I suddenly woke up one day and was completely happy again. But through weeks and months, I started to discover that if I continued to look to my surroundings for motivation or support, I would not find it. To everyone else, my church members, my family, I had just become “that girl in the wheelchair.” But I knew I could not just give up on my aspirations or conform to the definitions that I had been labeled with due to one physical attribute.
Through my experiences after my injury, I started to notice so much, especially the lack of diversity in the workplace, and the support that this fact gave to existing societal stereotypes. I started to wonder, how would my experience after my accident have changed, or how much encouragement would I have received if I saw a doctor, teacher, nurse, that had the same abilities as I did? Motivated, I began to involve myself more, and started to work harder academically, so that one day, through my life, I can become this strength and encouragement for someone else.
Many people, seeing me driving, or even just sitting at the movie theater, come up to me and tell me that I’m an inspiration. They tell me how amazing I am for just having gotten dressed in the morning and leaving the house. Honestly, these actions should not be considered inspiring. I’m just living my life. But because of the many prejudiced opinions towards the disability community, opinions that I too once held, the fact that a person in a wheelchair can complete even just everyday activities is considered a great feat.
Someday, I want to be someone that inspires, not because I can get dressed or talk for myself, but because I have really accomplished something that significantly influences the world.
Yes, there are times when I wish I could just get up and walk. However, these moments are temporary and trifling. It scares me to think that without the occurrence of my accident, I may have remained living with the traditional and well-known biases regarding disability and other differences that exist in society. Then, I may have been a true pitiful character.
Today, I am Korean and still, a person with a disability. But I am proud.
A common assumption is that college essays that worked simply highlight a major hardship or tragic life event. However, this is simply not true. Common App essay examples about hardships are successful only if they show how the author grew from an experience.
In this essay, the student shares how their skiing accident changed the way they were treated, thereby changing how they viewed themselves. Rather than feeling pitiful or less-than, this student discovered a newfound determination to positively influence the world. Their perseverance is seen not only in surviving an accident, but in overcoming the limitations society places on people with disabilities.
Common App Essay Examples #7
Many powerful sample Common App essays tap into core aspects of the human experience. This often includes how we navigate our identities– especially in an ever-globalizing world. The following example of Common App essays that worked tackles that topic with grace.
Sample Personal Statement #7: Embracing Heritage, Integrating Identity
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Six words. Six words were all it took for Ernest Hemingway to embody the sorrow of a family after losing a child. It seems almost impossible to so elegantly summarize a life in six words.
I received this seemingly impossible assignment in AP Language a year ago. How could I encapsulate my seventeen years of life into six words? Would those words sound funny, poignant, dark? I reflected on important moments that shaped me as a person to answer my questions.
I reminisced about my early years: two loving parents and a playful younger sister. During those years, my parents instilled in me their most important values: meaningful academic pursuit, following our Indian traditions, and preserving cultural heritage.
I remembered the first time I faced the struggle that would tear me apart for the next twelve years: values ingrained in me as a child versus values my friends and the society around me possessed. As I grew older, I learned just how different my friends’ values were from mine.
Throughout my middle school and freshman years, I had two sets of friends: my school friends and my travel basketball friends. The former focused on social status rather than academics; the latter focused on athletics rather than academics. To fit in, I created another persona for myself: someone who focused singularly on social status and athletics. This decision to change my personality based on my surroundings cost me my drive for academic pursuit, and I threw away educational opportunities. I lost sight of who I was and what held true meaning for me.
At that time, my six words would’ve been: “Flip a coin, American or Indian.” For the next two years, I lived by that mantra.
My struggle with balancing the two-sided coin ended in tenth grade by a chance conversation with a cousin in India. As she described her social struggles and their limiting effects on her educational opportunities, I realized how fortunate I was to be in the U.S. I held my destiny in my hands; all I had to do was to reshape my mind. The dissonance created by compartmentalizing my two important sides prevented me from moving forward, and I had to bridge the distance I had created between my Indian heritage and living as an American.
I embraced my cultural heritage by immersing myself into Bharatanatyam, an Indian classical dance, and passionately committing to it by completing a rigorous 3-year Certificate Course with Alagappa University of Performing Arts. In order to share my art with the community, I performed for neurologically challenged senior citizens residing in assisted living homes. Through this service, I was able to spread joy and culture amongst my American community, helping me bridge my cultural gap.
Additionally, my upbringing had been focused on science with an expectation that my career would be in the medical field. Eventually, I developed an affinity toward science. Growing up, I was exposed to the American ideal that I can shape my own opportunities, pursue whichever career I desired, and just follow my heart. I found myself naturally attracted to journalism, and following my heart I ventured into journalism.
Still, a key part of me was missing, and I found it only after conversing with my journalism teacher. She was describing an article by Helen Pearson, renowned science journalist, when it hit me: this is what I wanted to do. Science journalism was the product of my Indian upbringing and go-getter American attitude. That cathartic conversation is all that was needed to find the perfect career path for me.
My cultural confusion turned out to be the springboard I needed for discovering balance, finding a potential career, arming me with rich life experiences, and allowing me to write the six words that transformed my life and that I still stand by:
“Shape my mind, shape my destiny.”
What makes this essay great ?
For students coming from multiple cultures or marginalized identities, writing a personal statement can be a healing form of self-reflection. Indeed, many successful Common App essay examples touch on this topic. However, as always, writing about it with intention and care is ultimately what makes these personal statement sample essays work.
As an Indian-American, this student feels torn between connecting to their Indian heritage and integrating within their American community. They overcome this inner conflict by reframing how they view their identity, rejecting the either-or paradox they felt caught in. They even intentionally immerse themself in their Indian culture and share it with others through volunteer work. From their reflection, they discover how science journalism could be a career that merges all parts of their identity.
Compelling Common App essay examples are written engagingly . This author hooks us from the start of their essay with an intriguing quote that immediately catches the reader’s attention. They also bring that hook back to show us how changing their mindset allowed them to overcome their inner conflict.
Our next example of Common App essays that worked brings together two topics that the author feels passionate about. In doing so, the author doubles their ways to showcase who they are.
Sample Common App Essay #8
All Common App essays that worked have touched upon a topic that is meaningful to the author. This next author wrote about two – their love of Rubik’s cubes and scientific research.
Common App Essay Examples #8: Rubik’s Cubes and Research
The complex array of colors had always baffled me. Orange, yellow, green, red, white, and blue all jumbled together on a mystifying gadget that just could not be completed. Twisting and turning side after side was of no use, the Rubik’s Cube could not be solved. This elaborate contraption presented me with the most overwhelming experience of my life. It outshined everything else in my dull life, and solving it became a life-changing experience.
I spent many weeks trying to find different combinations that could solve the mysterious puzzle. After continuously failing, I felt infuriated. However, rather than giving up on my goal, I knew I could do it. I worked backwards until I realized what I did wrong early in the solving process. I kept forgetting to do a critical step, causing me to get two colors in their wrong spots. Knowing this, I was able to alter my procedure and make significant progress. I was finally able to solve four out of the six sides over the course of 45 seconds. Solving the last two sides, however, needed a little more time and effort. My affection for mathematics and science stems mainly from this- both involve a similarly coherent and disciplined approach just like the Rubik’s Cube.
This past summer, I did research work at Columbia University Medical Center on ion channel membrane proteins and studied their structure and function in the ultimate goal to find drug targets to help cure cancer. When some research experiments provided dubious outcomes, I was given the assignment of checking that the viruses we were working with had been identified correctly. I spent weeks running DNA gels through gel electrophoresis and trying to find specific genes in each virus, but I had varying results. I was exasperated, but rather than giving up on my task, I thought about my past experience with the Rubik’s Cube. Working backwards on the Rubik’s Cube helped me figure out exactly at which step I went wrong.
So I decided to work backwards on my research until I reached the source, the primers, I had used to amplify the DNA and specify the desired mutations were nonspecific, thus making them ineffective in distinguishing the six genes of interest to us. Knowing this, I was able to modify my experiments accordingly, looking at protein content instead of DNA sequences. I was finally able to prove that four of the six viruses were correct. The last two, however, needed to be reanalyzed. Just like the troubleshooting strategy with the Rubik’s Cube, working backwards helped me to find my source of error and ultimately got me 4/6 th of the way through my goal. My research work was crucial to the graduate student whom I was working with, and he was able to redesign his experiments to account for the fifth and sixth viruses.
Researching in a lab alongside a renowned professor was a thrilling experience for me. I gave up hanging out with my friends on the beach and chose to work with chemicals and viruses instead. My urge to understand these proteins was the driving force of my research. I am incredibly proud of my contribution to solving the puzzle of cancer. It was a small piece, but vital nevertheless. This cerebral inspiration, combined with an aspiration to learn more about life’s ambiguities, compels me to chase a profession with scientific research.
The sense of self-satisfaction and achievement I felt from my research work at the Columbia University was much the same as that I felt upon solving the Rubik’s Cube. This sensation is one I hope to experience throughout my life as the cancer puzzle is unequivocally one of the most critical puzzles of the modern era and certainly the first of a myriad of puzzles I hope to solve in the field of scientific discovery.
Why this Essay Worked
This sample combines two college essay ideas flawlessly. First, the student introduces us to their love of Rubik’s cubes. Then, they flow into their love of research and the impact they made through their summer internship at a cancer research lab.
The real power comes in how the student uses their approach to Rubik’s cubes in order to overcome a roadblock in their research. By doing so, the student highlights their problem-solving skills alongside their compassion for others. In this, this essay highlights the writer’s wish to positively impact the world. We can learn a lot about crafting a strong college application essay format from this example.
Our next sample of Common App essays that worked highlights a student’s passion for language . Moreover, it uses a hook and a writing style that makes it a standout essay.
Personal Statement Sample Essay #9
When thinking about how to write a college essay, start by thinking: what could I talk about all day? Great Common App essay examples often focus on passions. This author introduces us to one of their passions—the written word—through a story about an influential English teacher.
Common App Essay Examples #9: A Love for Language
It is like selecting the perfect pair of socks, I suppose. I envision myself kneeling before the bottommost drawer of my bureau, my chilled feet egging me on, and perusing the trove of choices that awaits my roving fingertips. I meditate on the day’s promises before making my selection – now, did the weatherman say 65 or 55 degrees? Was that rain the Farmers’ Almanac called for? Perhaps I should just wear sandals. After a few more moments of inspection: Ah – there it is! Of perfect hue, texture, and temperament, it is exactly the article for which I sought.
There exists a great parallel between this, the daily hosiery search that begins my mornings, and my lifelong pursuit of the perfect word. Socks and words, both objects of my affection, are united in their enduring qualities: both involve a weighty decision, require a certain shrewdness and pragmatism from the selector, and offer nearly endless options that only intensify the quandary. However, in seventeen years of interaction with both, I informedly pronounce that I find the latter to be infinitely more cumbersome, convoluted, and, thus, beautiful.
My rendezvous with language began as all children’s do: with crying. On the heels of crying came babbling, soon ousted by laconic speech and finally replaced by comprehensible expression. To my youngest self, language was mechanical and lifeless, a rigid blend of lexicon and grammar that broke as many rules as it created. This sentiment prevailed until I walked into Mrs. Regan’s fourth-grade class.
On that fateful first day, I recall being struck by her inviting personality and stylish plaid frock (I was personally wanting in the department of fashion). Beyond the warmth of her disposition, her pedagogical philosophy was unconventional and striking, even to an easily-distracted girl who wore the same green shirt every day. Her intention was not to satisfy district-determined measures or adhere to the antiquated curricula her coworkers professed. Instead, she pushed her students to invite intellectual challenges and conundrums, exposing us to the complexities of academia that she adored.
Her passion was best evidenced by the infamous vocabulary lists that circulated every Monday, boasting words typically native to a high school workbook. Suddenly, pedestrian exercises in ‘Choosing the Right Word’ were transformed into riveting explorations of the English language’s multiplicity, breadth, and allure. Within weeks I was concocting sentences just to employ ‘voracity’ and asking for synonyms for ‘vociferous’ that could aptly describe my rowdy classmates.
With thanks due to Mrs. Regan’s tutelage, my enthusiasm for words matured into an infatuation. I began to pour through the well-worn dictionary that presided over my nightstand, tasting the foreign syllables as they rolled from my lips. Coincidentally, I was soon given the title of the ‘human dictionary’ at school and have since served as a consultant for my friends and peers, answering questions of “What word fits best here?” or, the age-old query, “Affect or effect?” But the further I read, the more humbled I become, dwarfed by the vastness and mystery of my mother tongue.
Though my ensuing years of education have been enormously fruitful, Mrs. Regan remains my childhood hero on two counts: she encouraged my obsession with the written word and indulged my fourth-grade wish for a challenge. The insatiability I feel puzzling over jargon on PubMed, hearing the ping of Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s word of the day arriving in my inbox, and maybe even shedding a tear at the aesthetic tenor of ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ can be traced to those days of yore, spent copying definitions in a blockish scrawl. Today, as in that year far gone, I am still in pursuit of the perfect word – ever elusive, sitting on the tip of my tongue. But pouring through the dresser drawers of my mind, abundant with the tokens of my educational and lingual experience, I know it will not be long until I find it.
What makes this essay stand out?
Great Common App essay examples must be well-written. In this essay, the student’s writing mirrors her love for writing; they are both exceptional. Not all effective sample Common App essays need to have large vocabulary words like this essay does. However, they all need to reflect the student’s unique voice and be grammatically correct.
This essay takes us into the student’s mind, showing us how they think and how much they love the English language. They highlight countless examples of how they embrace the challenge of writing, all through the metaphor of choosing socks. As such, we see a student who is ambitious and passionate. These character traits make them a very desirable candidate.
Common App Essay Examples #10
Next, let’s look at our final sample of Common App essays that worked. In this essay, we’ll explore a student’s relationship to acting and labels throughout their life.
Common App Essay Examples #10: Letting Go of Labels
“Are you ready?” I looked up at the sound of an unfamiliar voice, which I followed to a face caked in a mask of stage makeup. I replied with a curt nod and feigned smile, forcing my expression to oppose the dread welling inside my stomach. In no way did I feel prepared; truthfully, I felt nothing short of ridiculous, clad in an electric green, one-sleeved spandex dress reminiscent of a 4 th grader’s discarded dance ensemble (and no doubt someone’s well-intentioned but unfortunate donation to the costume bin). Trapped in my orb of painful self-awareness, I peeked into the audience, imbibing Coke from the concession stand and looking detachedly at iPhones, waiting for the dimming lights to signify the start of Act I. All I felt was my heart careening into my throat.
Weeks before, I accepted the request to play my ukulele during the high-school production of Godspell the musical. I thereupon decided to enter the wily seas of the theatre arts with the remarkably determined response of “Hey, why not?” Initially, my decision seemed an innocuous one. Playing ukulele? Seeing a show? Indulging in complimentary refreshments? The positive haze that enveloped the future reminded me that this could be my shot – the chance of realizing my Audra-McDonald-and-Angela-Lansbury-inspired dreams of performing, a dream left behind long ago.
Music and theatre forever had been a part of me, a shaper of the fantasies of grandeur and fame inherent with childhood. Christened with the bellows of Tchaikovsky and Dvořák and raised alongside a sister infatuated with the spotlight, it seemed only natural for me to ascend to my own musical perch. As years passed, however, my shier disposition guided me to athletics, and I soon became the recipient of patronizing nods when I explained that, no, I did not sing too. Even so, with the purchase of a ukulele, my passion became a quiet one, made undeniably alive in the moments everyone left the house and silenced as the family car pulled in again.
Unfortunately, no late-night bedroom performance could have prepared me to step before an audience. In the wing, someone grabbed my arm and motioned onto the stage. My legs took on the cartoon effect of wobbling back and forth, and I plastered a perturbed grin on my face as a sorry attempt at joy (probably reading more a grimace than the beacon of ecstasy I had hoped). The cast shuffled onto the stage, cloaked in the colors of Stephen Schwartz’s vision, and the cue sounded for the song to start.
I stood arrested under the searing lights, feeling my heart race and sweat glands dilate. I looked into a faceless audience, blackened by the concentration of light striking my retina. Blinking and restoring my vision, I glanced beside me and saw the warmth and undiluted joy of my peers. Their smiles were not feigned. A lone flautist tooted out the first notes and, still watching over my shoulder, I fumbled to make a C chord. The tune began; I inhaled and opened my mouth and sang.
I used to fashion square containers in my mind, ones in which I placed my friends, acquaintances, and, often, myself. I smacked a label on the box – maybe ‘Equestrian’, ‘Mathematical Genius’, or ‘Makes a Mean Stew’ – and relied upon my scheme, this Dewey Decimal System of my interpersonal library, to govern my conceptions of those around me. Only once I had lumped myself into the ‘Athlete’ bin and sealed the lid did I notice that an air-tight container is not where I belong, not where any free-thinking, passionate, idiosyncratic being belongs. Immersing myself into the vibrancy of the Godspell stage, uke in tow, and exuding what I had internalized shattered this jejune way of categorizing the world.
As I reassessed my perspective, I thought, maybe one day I’ll become a crusader of self-expression, a lover of every powerful facet that culminates in the individual, no matter where I find myself. Until then, I’ll keep on singing – not proudly, not defiantly, and definitely not concordantly, but my voice will pipe to the intricate, malleable tune of myself.
One college application essay format that works for some students is to take us directly into a scene through dialogue. This is often an effective hook. Here, the author uses this tactic to capture our attention. They also describe the moment before they step on stage with evocative details, allowing us to experience their anxiety. This is another great example of showing and not telling.
However, the author’s anxiety about acting transforms into several realizations about their relationship to the arts. Fear led them to stop acting, and embrace athletics instead. However, in the end, the author realizes that they don’t need to choose one or the other. Instead, they can continue to evolve and explore new sides of themself as they grow.
Undoubtedly, college admissions officers evaluated this writeras a lifelong learner who faces fears and constantly questions society’s assumptions. Like many compelling personal statement sample essays, this student takes us on a journey through her self-development.
How to write a college essay?
We’ve looked at 10 successful Common App essay examples. Now, you might be wondering how to write a college essay that is equally as compelling. Let’s look at some college essay tips to help you ace the process :
4 tips for writing college essays
1. start early.
We can almost guarantee that none of the Common App essay examples featured here were written overnight. In fact, these Common App essays that worked required ample time to choose a topic, reflect on one’s growth, write the essay, get feedback, and edit.
Often, to write a successful essay, one must step away from a piece and come back to it. As such, it is important to give yourself plenty of time to write your essay. For most, this means several months. If you’re a college junior, start the summer before your senior year.
2. Be you, specifically and authentically
Whether you’re writing about an injury or a favorite book, make sure your college essay ideas are meaningful and personal. Pick a topic that you could passionately talk about all day. Furthermore, always speak about your ideas and experiences in detail. Telling us that you love books is not as powerful as telling us how your parents had to continually turn off the lights in your room because you would stay up all night reading.
3. Write many drafts
Your first draft is often not your best draft. In fact, it can take upwards of 3-4 drafts to get to an essay that you’re proud of. Likewise, prepare yourself for the possibility of completely scrapping one of your college essay topics or reworking your entire college application essay format. These are all natural parts of the process.
4. Get help from others
Like many of the most challenging things in life, applying to college is best done with help. When brainstorming college essay topics, consider asking friends and family what makes you stand out in their minds. Ask experts like a CollegeAdvisor admissions counselor or an English teacher to review your essay. And, of course, read many examples of college essays to find inspiration. But don’t forget that you aren’t alone in this process!
We’ve now talked about how to write a college essay and looked at some Common App essay examples. But what makes a great college essay? We’ll explore characteristics of Common App essays that worked next.
What makes a great college essay?
We’ve looked at many Common App essay examples in this guide. As you’ve likely noticed, there is no single perfect recipe for college essays that worked. In fact, these sample Common App essays are all very different. From college essay topics to college application essay format, there is great diversity in what makes a great college essay.
Still, there are some traits that many great Common App essay examples share. Here are a few:
Unique to the student
Among the most important college essay tips is to write about what matters to you. If you try to copy someone else’s idea or write what you think colleges want to hear, your essay will feel forced. Instead, choose the topic that immediately catches your attention. This will lead to you writing about your most meaningful experiences. These could be anything from growing up without money to remembering your favorite toy. The personal statement sample essays we highlighted touch on many different topics. However, all of them were important to the authors.
Along with this, focus on writing in your own voice. If you don’t naturally write with four syllable vocabulary words, then don’t try to do so in your essay. Our personal statement sample essays highlighted several different writing styles, and they all worked.
You don’t have to write like a college professor. However your essay does have to be easy to read and free of grammatical errors . Note that our personal statement sample essays were free from slang and typographical errors. In part, admissions officers are assessing your writing abilities. Show them the best writing you can produce.
Undoubtedly, admissions officers are looking to see how you reflect upon your experiences. Ideally, they want to see personal growth. What did you learn? What do you value? How do you solve problems? How do you approach challenges? All of our Common app essay examples demonstrate the author reflecting upon their experience in order to answer such questions.
Additional Common App Essay Tips
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this guide to Common App essay examples. To finish, we have a few more tips from what we saw in our personal statement sample essays.
Show, don’t tell
A common literary approach that all of the sample Common App essays employed is the maxim of “show, don’t tell.” Though this is a cliché piece of advice , it is critical to all college essays that worked. It involves using descriptive language, dialogue, and other details to make your story come to life. Imagine you are a film director – how would you describe the story you are trying to tell in 3D detail? Our sample Common App essays were chock full of details that brought each story to life and made for an engaging read.
Find a hook
A hook is a compelling start to an essay. It is one of the most common aspects of a successful college application essay format. A hook can look like a piece of dialogue, an evocative sentence, or a surprising statement. If you look at our Common App essay examples, you’ll see that they all start with an interesting hook.
Read your essay aloud
The last of our college essay tips has to do with how you edit your essay. We recommend reading it aloud to yourself. This not only helps with finding typos or wordiness; it also allows you to connect with the emotion behind your essay. Does reading it make tears well in your eyes? Does it make you laugh? If so, you’re likely onto something great. Reading your essay out loud also helps to know if it sounds natural. As we stated earlier, all of our sample Common App essays capture the unique voices of different students.
Other CollegeAdvisor Essay Resources to Explore
At CollegeAdvisor, we’re committed to helping you ace the admissions process and get into a school that makes you happy. As such, beyond this article with sample Common App essays, we have other resources to guide you through the essay process.
Common App Essays 2023‒2024
If you liked reading our Common App essay examples, check out this article about personal statement sample essays. You’ll find more college essay ideas and college essay tips inside.
Alternatively, if you’re already in college but are considering transferring , we have a guide for writing your transfer essay. With this guide, you’ll be able to reflect on why a new school might be a better fit for you. You’ll also learn how to ensure that your application to a new school is compelling. Since transfer essays have a slightly different college application essay format, you shouldn’t simply recycle a past personal statement.
Additionally, we have helpful webinars about writing your Common App essay. Our webinar on crafting your unique story will help you think about what kind of characteristics or branding you wish to highlight in your essay. Thinking in this way may feel more natural than trying to simply answer a prompt.
Crafting Your Story: Effective Strategies for College Essays
If you’re a junior , our webinar on using the summer before your senior year to get ahead on writing your personal statement will help you get organized. Resources like these can help make the college application process much less stressful. We can guarantee that each of these sample Common App essays took a good amount of time to write. With that in mind, starting early is key.
Also, check out this video below from the folks at Questbridge with additional tips on how to tell your unique story and make your college essays stand out.
Common App Essay Examples – Final Takeaways
In this article, we showed you ten Common App essay examples and broke down why they are Common App essays that worked. Hopefully, you can now answer both the questions “what is a personal statement?” and “what makes great sample Common App essays?”. If you remember only one of our featured college essay tips, let it be to stay true to yourself in your essay.
The process of applying to college, and especially being vulnerable in an essay, can be daunting. However, CollegeAdvisor is here to support you. In addition to providing dozens of examples of college essays and other resources , we offer personalized admissions guidance designed to help students succeed. Click here to connect with a member of our team and learn more.
Courtney Ng wrote this guide full of Common App Essay Examples. Looking for more admissions support? Click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how CollegeAdvisor.com can support you in the college application process.
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25 Elite Common App Essay Examples (And Why They Worked)
Applying to competitive colleges? You'll need to have a stand-out Common App essay.
In this article, I'm going to share with you:
- 25 outstanding Common App essay examples
- Links to tons of personal statement examples
- Why these Common App essays worked
If you're looking for outstanding Common App essay examples, you've found the right place.
If you're applying to colleges in 2023, you're going to write some form of a Common App essay.
Writing a great Common App personal essay is key if you want to maximize your chances of getting admitted.
Whether you're a student working on your Common App essay, or a parent wondering what it takes, this article will help you master the Common App Essay.
What are the Common App Essay Prompts for 2023?
There are seven prompts for the Common App essay. Remember that the prompts are simply to help get you started thinking.
You don't have to answer any of the prompts if you don't want (see prompt #7 ).
Here's the seven Common App essay questions for 2022, which are the same as previous years:
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- 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?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
The last prompt is a catch-all prompt, which means you can submit an essay on any topic you want.
Use the Common App prompts as brainstorming questions and to get you thinking.
But ultimately, you should write about any topic you meaningfully care about.
What makes an outstanding Common App personal essay?
I've read thousands of Common App essays from highly motivated students over the past years.
And if I had to choose the top 2 things that makes for incredible Common App essays it's these:
1. Being Genuine
Sounds simple enough. But it's something that is incredibly rare in admissions.
Authenticity is something we all know when we see it, but can be hard to define.
Instead of focus on what you think sounds the best to admissions officers, focus on what you have to say—what interests you.
2. Having Unique Ideas
The best ideas come about while you're writing.
You can't just sit down and say, "I'll think really hard of good essay ideas."
I wish that worked, but it sadly doesn't. And neither do most brainstorming questions.
The ideas you come up with from these surface-level tactics are cheap, because no effort was put in.
As they say,
"Writing is thinking"
By choosing a general topic (e.g. my leadership experience in choir) and writing on it, you'll naturally come to ideas.
As you write, continue asking yourself questions that make you reflect.
It is more of an artistic process than technical one, so you'll have to feel what ideas are most interesting.
25 Common App Essay Examples from Top Schools
With that, here's 25 examples as Common App essay inspiration to get you started.
These examples aren't perfect—nor should you expect yours to be—but they are stand-out essays.
I've handpicked these examples of personal statements from admitted students because they showcase a variety of topics and writing levels.
These students got into top schools and Ivy League colleges in recent years:
Table of Contents
- 1. Seeds of Immigration
- 2. Color Guard
- 3. Big Eater
- 4. Love for Medicine
- 5. Cultural Confusion
- 6. Football Manager
- 9. Mountaineering
- 10. Boarding School
- 11. My Father
- 12. DMV Trials
- 13. Ice Cream Fridays
- 14. Key to Happiness
- 15. Discovering Passion
- 16. Girl Things
- 17. Robotics
- 18. Lab Research
- 19. Carioca Dance
- 20. Chinese Language
- 21. Kiki's Delivery Service
- 22. Museum of Life
- 23. French Horn
- 24. Dear My Younger Self
- 25. Monopoly
Common App Essay Example #1: Seeds of Immigration
This student was admitted to Dartmouth College . In this Common App essay, they discuss their immigrant family background that motivates them.
Although family is a commonly used topic, this student makes sure to have unique ideas and write in a genuine way.
Common App Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. (250-650 words)
I placed three tiny seeds, imagining the corn stalk growing while the pumpkin vines wrapped around it; both sprouting, trying to bear fruit. I clenched a fistful of dirt and placed it on them. “Más,” my grandpa told me as he quickly flooded the seeds with life-giving dirt.
Covered. Completely trapped.
Why This Essay Works:
Everyone has a unique family history and story, and often that can make for a strong central theme of a personal statement. In this essay, the student does a great job of sharing aspects of his family's culture by using specific Spanish words like "yunta" and by describing their unique immigration story. Regardless of your background, sharing your culture and what it means to you can be a powerful tool for reflection.
This student focuses on reflecting on what their culture and immigrant background means to them. By focusing on what something represents, rather than just what it literally is, you can connect to more interesting ideas. This essay uses the metaphor of their family's history as farmers to connect to their own motivation for succeeding in life.
This essay has an overall tone of immense gratitude, by recognizing the hard work that this student's family has put in to afford them certain opportunities. By recognizing the efforts of others in your life—especially efforts which benefit you—you can create a powerful sense of gratitude. Showing gratitude is effective because it implies that you'll take full advantage of future opportunities (such as college) and not take them for granted. This student also demonstrates a mature worldview, by recognizing the difficulty in their family's past and how things easily could have turned out differently for this student.
This essay uses three moments of short, one-sentence long paragraphs. These moments create emphasis and are more impactful because they standalone. In general, paragraph breaks are your friend and you should use them liberally because they help keep the reader engaged. Long, dense paragraphs are easy to gloss over and ideas can lose focus within them. By using a variety of shorter and longer paragraphs (as well as shorter and longer sentences) you can create moments of emphasis and a more interesting structure.
What They Might Improve:
This conclusion is somewhat off-putting because it focuses on "other students" rather than the author themself. By saying it "fills me with pride" for having achieved without the same advantages, it could create the tone of "I'm better than those other students" which is distasteful. In general, avoid putting down others (unless they egregiously deserve it) and even subtle phrasings that imply you're better than others could create a negative tone. Always approach your writing with an attitude of optimism, understanding, and err on the side of positivity.
Common App Essay Example #2: Color Guard
This student was admitted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill . Check out their Common App essay that focuses on an extracurricular:
Sweaty from the hot lights, the feeling of nervousness and excitement return as I take my place on the 30-yard line. For 10 short minutes, everyone is watching me. The first note of the opening song begins, and I’m off. Spinning flags, tossing rifles, and dancing across the football field. Being one of only two people on the colorguard means everyone will see everything. It’s amazing and terrifying. And just like that, the performance is over.
Flashback to almost four years ago, when I walked into the guard room for the first time. I saw flyers for a “dance/flag team” hanging in the bland school hallway, and because I am a dancer, I decided to go. This was not a dance team at all. Spinning flags and being part of the marching band did not sound like how I wanted to spend my free time. After the first day, I considered not going back. But, for some unknown reason, I stayed. And after that, I began to fall in love with color guard. It is such an unknown activity, and maybe that’s part of what captivated me. How could people not know about something so amazing? I learned everything about flags and dancing in that year. And something interesting happened- I noticed my confidence begin to grow. I had never thought I was that good at anything, there was always someone better. However, color guard was something I truly loved, and I was good at it.
The next year, I was thrown into an interesting position. Our current captain quit in the middle of the season, and I was named the new captain of a team of six. At first, this was quite a daunting task. I was only a sophomore, and I was supposed to lead people two years older than me? Someone must’ve really believed in me. Being captain sounded impossible to me at first, but I wouldn’t let that stop me from doing my best. This is where my confidence really shot up. I learned how to be a captain. Of course I was timid at first, but slowly, I began to become a true leader.
The next marching season, it paid off. I choreographed many pieces of our show, and helped teach the other part of my guard, which at the time was only one other person. Having a small guard, we had to be spectacular, especially for band competitions. We ended up winning first place and second place trophies, something that had never been done before at our school, especially for such a small guard. That season is still one of my favorite memories. The grueling hours of learning routines, making changes, and learning how to be a leader finally paid off.
Looking back on it as I exit the field after halftime once again, I am so proud of myself. Not only has color guard helped the band succeed, I’ve also grown. I am now confident in what my skills are. Of course there is always more to be done, but I now I have the confidence to share my ideas, which is something I can’t say I had before color guard. Every Friday night we perform, I think about the growth I’ve made, and I feel on top of the world. That feeling never gets old.
Common App Essay Example #3: Big Eater
This Common App essay is a successful Northwestern essay from an admitted student. It has a unique take using the topic of eating habits—an example of how "mundane" topics can make for interesting ideas.
This essay uses their relationship with food to explore how their perspective has changed through moving high schools far away. Having a central theme is often a good strategy because it allows you to explore ideas while making them feel connected and cohesive. This essay shows how even a "simple" topic like food can show a lot about your character because you can extrapolate what it represents, rather than just what it literally is. With every topic, you can analyze on two levels: what it literally is, and what it represents.
Admissions officers want to get a sense of who you are, and one way to convey that is by using natural-sounding language and being somewhat informal. In this essay, the student writes as they'd speak, which creates a "voice" that you as the reader can easily hear. Phrases like "I kind of got used to it" may be informal, but work to show a sense of character. Referring to their parents as "Ma" and "Papa" also bring the reader into their world. If you come from a non-English speaking country or household, it can also be beneficial to use words from your language, such as "chiemo" in this essay. Using foreign language words helps share your unique culture with admissions.
Rather than "telling" the reader what they have to say, this student does a great job of "showing" them through specific imagery and anecdotes. Using short but descriptive phrases like "whether it was a sum or Sam the bully" are able to capture bigger ideas in a more memorable way. Showing your points through anecdotes and examples is always more effective than simply telling them, because showing allows the reader to come to their own conclusion, rather than having to believe what you're saying.
This student's first language is not English, which does make it challenging to express ideas with the best clarity. Although this student does an overall great job in writing despite this hindrance, there are moments where their ideas are not easily understood. In particular, when discussing substance addiction, it isn't clear: Was the student's relationship with food a disorder, or was that a metaphor? When drafting your essay, focus first on expressing your points as clearly and plainly as possible (it's harder than you may think). Simplicity is often better, but if you'd like, afterwards you can add creative details and stylistic changes.
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Common App Essay Example #4: Love for Medicine
Here's another Common App essay which is an accepted Dartmouth essay . This student talks about their range of experiences as an emergency medical responder:
I never knew I had the courage to talk a suicidal sixteen-year-old boy down from the edge of a bridge, knowing that he could jump and take his life at any moment.
I never knew I had the confidence to stand my ground and defend my treatment plan to those who saw me as less than capable because of my age or gender.
This essay has lots of detailed moments and descriptions. These anecdotes help back up their main idea by showing, rather than just telling. It's always important to include relevant examples because they are the "proof in the pudding" for what you're trying to say.
This topic deals with a lot of sensitive issues, and at certain points the writing could be interpreted as insensitive or not humble. It's especially important when writing about tragedies that you focus on others, rather than yourself. Don't try to play up your accomplishments or role; let them speak for themselves. By doing so, you'll actually achieve what you're trying to do: create an image of an honorable and inspirational person.
This essay touches on a lot of challenging and difficult moments, but it lacks a deep level of reflection upon those moments. When analyzing your essay, ask yourself: what is the deepest idea in it? In this case, there are some interesting ideas (e.g. "when they were on my stretcher, socioeconomic status...fell away"), but they are not fully developed or fleshed out.
Common App Essay Example #5: Cultural Confusion
This student's Common App was accepted to Pomona College , among other schools. Although this essay uses a common topic of discussing cultural background, this student writes a compelling take.
This student uses the theme of cultural confusion to explain their interests and identity:
Common App Essay Example #6: Football Manager
Here's a UPenn essay that worked for the Common App:
This essay has lighthearted moments in it, such as recognizing how being a football manager "does not sound glamorous" and how "we managers go by many names: watergirls..." Using moments of humor can be appropriate for contrasting with moments of serious reflection. Being lighthearted also shows a sense of personality and that you are able to take things with stride.
The reflections in this essay are far too generic overall and ultimately lack meaning because they are unspecific. Using buzzwords like "hard work" and "valuable lessons" comes off as unoriginal, so avoid using them at all costs. Your reflections need to be specific to you to be most meaningful. If you could (in theory) pluck out sentences from your essay and drop them into another student's essay, then chances are those sentences are not very insightful. Your ideas should be only have been able to been written by you: specific to your experiences, personal in nature, and show deep reflection.
Although this essay uses the topic of "being a football manager," by the end of the essay it isn't clear what that role even constitutes. Avoid over-relying on other people or other's ideas when writing your essay. That is, most of the reflections in this essay are based on what the author witnessed the football team doing, rather than what they experienced for themselves in their role. Focus on your own experiences first, and be as specific and tangible as possible when describing your ideas. Rather than saying "hard work," show that hard work through an anecdote.
More important than your stories is the "So what?" behind them. Avoid writing stories that don't have a clear purpose besides "setting the scene." Although most fiction writing describes people and places as exposition, for your essays you want to avoid that unless it specifically contributes to your main point. In this essay, the first two paragraphs are almost entirely unnecessary, as the point of them can be captured in one sentence: "I joined to be a football manager one summer." The details of how that happened aren't necessary because they aren't reflected upon.
In typical academic writing, we're taught to "tell them what you're going to tell them" before telling them. But for college essays, every word is highly valuable. Avoid prefacing your statements and preparing the reader for them. Instead of saying "XYZ would prove to be an unforgettable experience," just dive right into the experience itself. Think of admissions officers as "being in a rush," and give them what they want: your interesting ideas and experiences.
Common App Essay Example #7: Coffee
This student was admitted to several selective colleges, including Emory University, Northwestern University , Tufts University, and the University of Southern California . Here's their Common Application they submitted to these schools:
I was 16 years old, and working at a family-owned coffee shop training other employees to pour latte art. Making coffee became an artistic outlet that I never had before. I always loved math, but once I explored the complexities of coffee, I began to delve into a more creative realm--photography and writing--and exposed myself to the arts--something foreign and intriguing.
This essay uses coffee as a metaphor for this student's self-growth, especially in dealing with the absence of their father. Showing the change of their relationship with coffee works well as a structure because it allows the student to explore various activities and ideas while making them seem connected.
This student does a great job of including specifics, such as coffee terminology ("bloom the grounds" and "pour a swan"). Using specific and "nerdy" language shows your interests effectively. Don't worry if they won't understand all the references exactly, as long as there is context around them.
While coffee is the central topic, the author also references their father extensively throughout. It isn't clear until the conclusion how these topics relate, which makes the essay feel disjointed. In addition, there is no strong main idea, but instead a few different ideas. In general, it is better to focus on one interesting idea and delve deeply, rather than focus on many and be surface-level.
Near the conclusion, this student tells about their character: "humble, yet important, simple, yet complex..." You should avoid describing yourself to admissions officers, as it is less convincing. Instead, use stories, anecdotes, and ideas to demonstrate these qualities. For example, don't say "I'm curious," but show them by asking questions. Don't say, "I'm humble," but show them with how you reacted after a success or failure.
Common App Essay Example #8: Chicago
Here's another Northwestern essay . Northwestern is a quite popular school with lots of strong essay-focused applicants, which makes your "Why Northwestern?" essay important.
To write a strong Why Northwestern essay, try to answer these questions: What does NU represent to you? What does NU offer for you (and your interests) that other schools don't?
This essay uses a variety of descriptive and compelling words, without seeming forced or unnatural. It is important that you use your best vocabulary, but don't go reaching for a thesaurus. Instead, use words that are the most descriptive, while remaining true to how you'd actually write.
This essay is one big metaphor: the "L" train serves as a vehicle to explore this student's intellectual curiosity. Throughout the essay, the student also incorporates creative metaphors like "the belly of a gargantuan silver beast" and "seventy-five cent silver chariot" that show a keen sense of expression. If a metaphor sounds like one you've heard before, you probably shouldn't use it.
This student does a fantastic job of naturally talking about their activities. By connecting their activities to a common theme—in this case the "L" train—you can more easily move from one activity to the next, without seeming like you're just listing activities. This serves as an engaging way of introducing your extracurriculars and achievements, while still having the focus of your essay be on your interesting ideas.
Admissions officers are ultimately trying to get a sense of who you are. This student does a great job of taking the reader into their world. By sharing quirks and colloquialisms (i.e. specific language you use), you can create an authentic sense of personality.
Common App Essay Example #9: Mountaineering
Here's a liberal arts college Common App essay from Colby College . Colby is a highly ranked liberal arts college.
As with all colleges—but especially liberal arts schools—your personal essay will be a considerable factor.
In this essay, the student describes their experience climbing Mount Adams, and the physical and logistical preparations that went into it. They describe how they overcame some initial setbacks by using their organizational skills from previous expeditions.
This Colby student explains how the process of preparation can lead to success in academics and other endeavours, but with the potential for negative unintended consequences.
Common App Prompt #2: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? (250-650 words)
This essay does a great job of having a cohesive theme: mountaineering. Often times, great essay topics can be something simple on the surface, such as your favorite extracurricular activity or a notable experience. Consider using the literal activity as a sort of metaphor, like this essay does. This student uses mountaineering as a metaphor for preparation in the face of upcoming challenge. Using an overarching metaphor along with a central theme can be effective because it allows you to explore various ideas while having them all feel connected and cohesive.
Admissions officers want to see your self-growth, which doesn't always mean your successes. Often times, being vulnerable by expressing your struggles is powerful because it makes you more human and relatable, while providing the opportunity to reflect on what you learned. The best lessons from come failures, and writing about challenge can also make your later successes feel more impactful. Everyone loves to hear an underdog or zero-to-hero story. But counterintuitively, your failures are actually more important than your successes.
This essay has some nice ideas about focusing only on what's in your control: your attitude and your effort. However, these ideas are ultimately somewhat generic as they have been used countless times in admissions essays. Although ideas like this can be a good foundation, you should strive to reach deeper ideas. Deeper ideas are ones that are specific to you, unique, and interesting. You can reach deeper ideas by continually asking yourself "How" and "Why" questions that cause you to think deeper about a topic. Don't be satisfied with surface-level reflections. Think about what they represent more deeply, or how you can connect to other ideas or areas of your life.
Common App Essay Example #10: Boarding School
This personal essay was accepted to Claremont McKenna College . See how this student wrote a vulnerable essay about boarding school experience and their family relationship:
I began attending boarding school aged nine.
Obviously, this is not particularly unusual – my school dorms were comprised of boys and girls in the same position as me. However, for me it was difficult – or perhaps it was for all of us; I don’t know. We certainly never discussed it.
I felt utterly alone, as though my family had abruptly withdrawn the love and support thatI so desperately needed. At first, I did try to open up to them during weekly phone calls, but what could they do? As months slipped by, the number of calls reduced. I felt they had forgotten me. Maybe they felt I had withdrawn from them. A vast chasm of distance was cracking open between us.
At first, I shared my hurt feelings with my peers, who were amazingly supportive, but there was a limit to how much help they could offer. After a while, I realized that by opening up, I was burdening them, perhaps even irritating them. The feelings I was sharing should have been reserved for family. So, I withdrew into myself. I started storing up my emotions and became a man of few words. In the classroom or on the sports field, people saw a self-confident and cheerful character, but behind that facade was someone who yearned for someone to understand him and accept him as he was.
Years went past.
Then came the phone call which was about to change my life. “Just come home Aryan, it’s really important!” My mother’s voice was odd, brittle. I told her I had important exams the following week, so needed to study. “Aryan, why don’t you listen to me? There is no other option, okay? You are coming home.”
Concerned, I arranged to fly home. When I got there, my sister didn’t say hi to me, my grandmother didn’t seem overly enthusiastic to see me and my mother was nowhere to be seen. I wanted to be told why I was called back so suddenly just to be greeted as though I wasn’t even welcome.
Then my mother then came out of her room and saw me. To my immense incredulity, she ran to me and hugged me, and started crying in my arms.
Then came the revelation, “Your father had a heart attack.”
My father. The man I hadn’t really talked to in years. A man who didn’t even know who I was anymore. I’d spent so long being disappointed in him and suspecting he was disappointed in me, I sunk under a flood of emotions.
I opened the door to his room and there he was sitting on his bed with a weak smile on his face. I felt shaken to my core. All at once it was clear to me how self-centered I had become. A feeling of humiliation engulfed me, but finally I realized that rather than wallow in it, I needed to appreciate I was not alone in having feelings.
I remained at home that week. I understood that my family needed me. I worked with my uncle to ensure my family business was running smoothly and often invited relatives or friends over to cheer my father up.
Most importantly, I spent time with my family. It had been years since I’d last wanted to do this – I had actively built the distance between us – but really, I’d never stopped craving it. Sitting together in the living room, I realized how badly I needed them.
Seeing happiness in my father’s eyes, I felt I was finally being the son he had always needed me to be: A strong, capable young man equipped to take over the family business if need be.
Common App Essay Example #11: My Father
This Cornell University essay is an example of writing about a tragedy, which can be a tricky topic to write about well.
Family and tragedy essays are a commonly used topic, so it can be harder to come up with a unique essay idea using these topics.
Let me know what you think of this essay for Cornell:
My father was wise, reserved, hardworking, and above all, caring. I idolized his humility and pragmatism, and I cherish it today. But after his death, I was emotionally raw. I could barely get through class without staving off a breakdown.
Writing about tragedy, such as the loss of a loved one, is a tricky topic because it has been used countless times in college admissions. It is difficult to not come off as a "victim" or that you're trying to garner sympathy by using the topic (i.e. a "sob story"). This essay does a great job of writing about a personal tragedy in a meaningful and unique way by connecting to values and ideas, rather than staying focused on what literally happened. By connecting tragedy to lessons and takeaways, you can show how—despite the difficulty and sorrow—you have gained something positive from it, however small that may be. Don't write about personal tragedy because you think "you should." As with any topic, only write about it if you have a meaningful point to make.
This essay is effective at making the reader feel the similar emotions as the author does and in bringing the reader into their "world." Even small remarks like noting the the "firsts" without their loved one are powerful because it is relatable and something that is apparent, but not commonly talked about. Using short phrases like "That was it. No goodbye, no I love you..." create emphasis and again a sense of relatability. As the reader, you can vividly imagine how the author must have felt during these moments. The author also uses questions, such as "What did I last say to him?" which showcase their thought process, another powerful way to bring the reader into your world.
Admissions officers are looking for self-growth, which can come in a variety of forms. Showing a new perspective is one way to convey that you've developed over time, learned something new, or gained new understanding or appreciation. In this essay, the student uses the "sticker of a black and white eye" to represent how they viewed their father differently before and after his passing. By using a static, unchanging object like this, and showing how you now view it differently over time, you convey a change in perspective that can make for interesting reflections.
Common App Essay Example #12: DMV Trials
Here's a funny Common App essay from a Northwestern admitted student about getting their driver's license.
This topic has been used before—as many "topics" have—but what's important is having a unique take or idea.
What do you think of this Northwestern essay ?
Breath, Emily, breath. I drive to the exit and face a four-lane roadway. “Turn left,” my passenger says.
On July 29, [Date] , I finally got my license. After the April debacle, I practiced driving almost every week. I learned to stop at stop signs and look both ways before crossing streets, the things I apparently didn’t know how to do during my first two tests. When pulling into the parking lot with the examiner for the last time, a wave of relief washed over me.
This essay does a good job of having a compelling narrative. By setting the scene descriptively, it is easy to follow and makes for a pleasant reading experience. However, avoid excessive storytelling, as it can overshadow your reflections, which are ultimately most important.
This essay has some moments where the author may come off as being overly critical, of either themselves or of others. Although it is okay (and good) to recognize your flaws, you don't want to portray yourself in a negative manner. Avoid being too negative, and instead try to find the positive aspects when possible.
More important than your stories is the answer to "So what?" and why they matter. Avoid writing a personal statement that is entirely story-based, because this leaves little room for reflection and to share your ideas. In this essay, the reflections are delayed to the end and not as developed as they could be.
In this essay, it comes across that failure is negative. Although the conclusion ultimately has a change of perspective in that "failure is inevitable and essential to moving forward," it doesn't address that failure is ultimately a positive thing. Admissions officers want to see failure and your challenges, because overcoming those challenges is what demonstrates personal growth.
Common App Essay Example #13: Ice Cream Fridays
This Columbia essay starts off with a vulnerable moment of running for school president. The student goes on to show their growth through Model UN, using detailed anecdotes and selected moments.
My fascination with geopolitical and economic issues were what kept me committed to MUN. But by the end of sophomore year, the co-presidents were fed up. “Henry, we know how hard you try, but there are only so many spots for each conference...” said one. “You’re wasting space, you should quit,” said the other.
This essay has a compelling story, starting from this author's early struggles with public speaking and developing into their later successes with Model UN. Using a central theme—in this case public speaking—is an effective way of creating a cohesive essay. By having a main idea, you can tie in multiple moments or achievements without them coming across unrelated.
This student talks about their achievements with a humble attitude. To reference your successes, it's equally important to address your failures. By expressing your challenges, it will make your later achievements seem more impactful in contrast. This student also is less "me-focused" and instead is interested in others dealing with the same struggles. By connecting to people in your life, values, or interesting ideas, you can reference your accomplishments without coming off as bragging.
This essay has moments of reflection, such as "math and programming made sense... people didn't". However, most of these ideas are cut short, without going much deeper. When you strike upon a potentially interesting idea, keep going with it. Try to explain the nuances, or broaden your idea to more universal themes. Find what is most interesting about your experience and share that with admissions.
Stories are important, but make sure all your descriptions are critical for the story. In this essay, the author describes things that don't add to the story, such as the appearance of other people or what they were wearing. These ultimately don't relate to their main idea—overcoming public speaking challenges—and instead are distracting.
Common App Essay Example #14: Key to Happiness
Here's a Brown University application essay that does a great job of a broad timeline essay. This student shows the change in their thinking and motivations over a period of time, which makes for an interesting topic.
Let me know what you think of this Brown essay:
Common App Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? (250-650 words)
This student's first language is not English, which provides some insight into why the phrasing may not seem as natural or show as much personality. Admissions officers are holistic in determining who to admit, meaning they take into account many different factors when judging your essays. While this essay may not be the strongest, the applicant probably had other qualities or "hooks" that helped them get accepted, such as awards, activities, unique background, etc. Plus, there is some leniency granted to students who don't speak English as their first language, because writing essays in a foreign language is tough in and of itself.
It's good to be confident in your achievements, but you don't want to come across as boastful or self-assured. In this essay, some of the phrasing such as "when I was the best at everything" seems exaggerated and is off-putting. Instead of boosting your accomplishments, write about them in a way that almost "diminishes" them. Connect your achievements to something bigger than you: an interesting idea, a passionate cause, another person or group. By not inflating your achievements, you'll come across more humble and your achievements will actually seem more impactful. We all have heard of a highly successful person who thinks "it's no big deal," which actually makes their talents seem far more impressive.
This essay has some takeaways and reflections, as your essay should too, but ultimately these ideas are unoriginal and potentially cliché. Ideas like "what makes you happy is pursing your passion" are overused and have been heard thousands of times by admissions officers. Instead, focus on getting to unique and "deep" ideas: ideas that are specific to you and that have meaningful implications. It's okay to start off with more surface-level ideas, but you want to keep asking questions to yourself like "Why" and "How" to push yourself to think deeper. Try making connections, asking what something represents more broadly, or analyzing something from a different perspective.
You don't need to preface your ideas in your essay. Don't say things like "I later found out this would be life-changing, and here's why." Instead, just jump into the details that are most compelling. In this essay, there are moments that seem repetitive and redundant because they don't add new ideas and instead restate what's already been said in different words. When editing your essay, be critical of every sentence (and even words) by asking: Does this add something new to my essay? Does it have a clear, distinct purpose? If the answer is no, you should probably remove that sentence.
Common App Essay Example #15: Discovering Passion
Here's a Johns Hopkins essay that shows how the student had a change in attitude and perspective after taking a summer job at a care facility.
It may seem odd to write about your potential drawbacks or weaknesses—such as having a bad attitude towards something—but it's real and can help demonstrate personal growth.
So tell me your thoughts on this JHU Common App essay:
Common App Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. (250-650 words)
This student uses vulnerability in admitting that they held preconceived notions about the elderly before this experience. The quote introduces these preconceived notions well, while the description of how this student got their job in the care facility is also engaging.
Admission officers love to see your interactions with others. Showing how you interact reveals a lot about your character, and this essay benefits from reflecting upon the student's relationship with a particular elderly individual.
It is good to be descriptive, but only when it supports your expression of ideas. In this essay, the author uses adjectives and adverbs excessively, without introducing new ideas. Your ideas are more important than having a diverse vocabulary, and the realizations in this essay are muddled by rephrasing similar ideas using seemingly "impressive," but ultimately somewhat meaningless, vocabulary.
This essay touches on some interesting ideas, but on multiple occasions these ideas are repeated just in different phrasing. If you have already expressed an idea, don't repeat it unless you're adding something new: a deeper context, a new angle, a broadened application, etc. Ask yourself: what is the purpose of each sentence, and have I expressed it already?
It's true that almost any topic can make for a strong essay, but certain topics are trickier because they make it easy to write about overly used ideas. In this essay, the main idea can be summarized as: "I realized the elderly were worthy humans too." It touches upon more interesting ideas, such as how people can be reduced down to their afflictions rather than their true character, but the main idea is somewhat surface-level.
Common App Essay Example #16: "A Cow Gave Birth"
This Common App essay for the University of Pennsylvania centers on the theme of womanhood. Not only is it well-written, but this essay has interesting and unique ideas that relate to the student's interests.
Common App Essay Example #17: Robotics
This Common App essay was for Washington University in St. Louis .
This student writes about their experience creating and using an engineering notebook to better document their robotics progress. They share the story of how their dedication and perseverance led to winning awards and qualifying for the national championships.
Lastly, they reflect on the importance of following one's passions in life and decision to pursue a business degree instead of a engineering one.
This essay touches on various lessons that they've learned as a result of their experience doing robotics. However, these lessons are ultimately surface-level and generic, such as "I embraced new challenges." Although these could be a starting point for deeper ideas, on their own they come off as unoriginal and overused. Having interesting ideas is what makes an essay the most compelling, and you need to delve deeply into reflection, past the surface-level takeaways. When drafting and brainstorming, keep asking yourself questions like "How" and "Why" to dig deeper. Ask "What does this represent? How does it connect to other things? What does this show about myself/the world/society/etc.?"
Although this essay is focused on "VEX robotics," the details of what that activity involves are not elaborated. Rather than focusing on the surface-level descriptions like "We competed and won," it would be more engaging to delve into the details. What did your robot do? How did you compete? What were the specific challenges in "lacking building materials"? Use visuals and imagery to create a more engaging picture of what you were doing.
The hook and ending sentences of "drifting off to sleep" feel arbitrary and not at all connected to any ideas throughout the essay. Instead, it comes off as a contrived choice to create a "full circle" essay. Although coming full circle is often a good strategy, there should be a specific purpose in doing so. For your intro, try using a short sentence that creates emphasis on something interesting. For the conclusion, try using similar language to the intro, expanding upon your ideas to more universal takeaways, or connecting back to previous ideas with a new nuance.
Common App Essay Example #18: Lab Research
Common app essay example #19: carioca dance.
Having a natural-sounding style of writing can be a great way of conveying personality. This student does a fantastic job of writing as they'd speak, which lets admissions officers create a clear "image" of who you are in their head. By writing naturally and not robotically, you can create a "voice" and add character to your essay.
This student chooses a unique activity, the Carioca drill, as their main topic. By choosing a "theme" like this, it allows you to easily and naturally talk about other activities too, without seeming like you're simply listing activities. This student uses the Carioca as a metaphor for overcoming difficulties and relates it to their other activities and academics—public speaking and their job experience.
Showing a sense of humor can indicate wit, which not only makes you seem more likeable, but also conveys self-awareness. By not always taking yourself 100% seriously, you can be more relatable to the reader. This student acknowledges their struggles in conjunction with using humor ("the drills were not named after me—'Saads'"), which shows a recognition that they have room to improve, while not being overly self-critical.
Common App Essay Example #20: Chinese Language
The list of languages that Lincoln offered startled me. “There’s so many,” I thought, “Latin, Spanish, Chinese, and French.”
As soon as I stepped off the plane, and set my eyes upon the beautiful city of Shanghai, I fell in love. In that moment, I had an epiphany. China was made for me, and I wanted to give it all my first; first job and first apartment.
Using creative metaphors can be an effective way of conveying ideas. In this essay, the metaphor of "Chinese characters...were the names of my best friends" tells a lot about this student's relationship with the language. When coming up with metaphors, a good rule of thumb is: if you've heard it before, don't use it. Only use metaphors that are specific, make sense for what you're trying to say, and are highly unique.
Whenever you "tell" something, you should try and back it up with anecdotes, examples, or experiences. Instead of saying that "I made conversation," this student exemplifies it by listing who they talked to. Showing is always going to be more compelling than telling because it allows the reader to come to the conclusion on their own, which makes them believe it much stronger. Use specific, tangible examples to back up your points and convince the reader of what you're saying.
Although this essay has reflections, they tend to be more surface-level, rather than unique and compelling. Admissions officers have read thousands of application essays and are familiar with most of the ideas students write about. To stand out, you'll need to dive deeper into your ideas. To do this, keep asking yourself questions whenever you have an interesting idea. Ask "Why" and "How" repeatedly until you reach something that is unique, specific to you, and super interesting.
Avoid writing a conclusion that only "sounds nice," but lacks real meaning. Often times, students write conclusions that go full circle, or have an interesting quote, but they still don't connect to the main idea of the essay. Your conclusion should be your strongest, most interesting idea. It should say something new: a new perspective, a new takeaway, a new aspect of your main point. End your essay strongly by staying on topic, but taking your idea one step further to the deepest it can go.
Common App Essay Example #21: Kiki's Delivery Service
Common App Prompt #6: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? (250-650 words)
I spent much of my childhood watching movies. I became absolutely engrossed in many different films, TV shows, and animations. From the movie theatres to the TV, I spent my hours enjoying the beauty of visual media. One place that was special to me was the car. My parents purchased a special screen that could be mounted on the back of the headrest, so that I could watch movies on trips. This benefited both parties, as I was occupied, and they had peace. Looking back, I realize this screen played a crucial role in my childhood. It was an integral part of many journeys. I remember taking a drive to Washington D.C, with my visiting relatives from Poland, and spending my time with my eyes on the screen. I remember packing up my possessions and moving to my current home from Queens, watching my cartoons the whole time. I can comfortably say that watching movies in the car has been an familiar anchor during times of change in my life.
I used to watch many different cartoons, nature documentaries, and other products in the car, yet there has been one movie that I have rewatched constantly. It is called “Kiki’s Delivery Service” by Hayao Miyazaki. My parents picked it up at a garage sale one day, and I fell in love. The style of the animations were beautiful, and the captivating story of a thirteen year old witch leaving home really appealed to me. To be honest, the initial times I watched it, I didn’t fully understand the story but the magic and beauty just made me happy. Then, the more I watched it, I began to see that it was more about independence, including the need to get away from home and establish yourself as your own person. This mirrors how I felt during that period of my life,with mehaving a little rebellious streak; I didn’t agree with my parents on certain topics. That is not the end of the story though. As the years passed, and I watched it a couple more times, although with less frequency than before, my view of this movie evolved yet again.
Instead of solely thinking about the need for independence, I began to think the movie was more about the balance of independence and reliance. In the movie, the girl finds herself struggling until she begins to accept help from others. Looking back, this also follows my own philosophy during this time. As I began to mature, I began to realize the value of family, and accept all the help I can get from them. I appreciate all the hard work they had done for me, and I recognize their experience in life and take advantage of it. I passed through my rebellious phase, and this reflected in my analysis of the movie. I believe that this is common, and if I look through the rest of my life I am sure I would find other similar examples of my thoughts evolving based on the stage in my life. This movie is one of the most important to me throughout my life.
Common App Essay Example #22: Museum of Life
Using visuals can be a way to add interesting moments to your essay. Avoid being overly descriptive, however, as it can be distracting from your main point. When drafting, start by focusing on your ideas (your reflections and takeaways). Once you have a rough draft, then you can consider ways to incorporate imagery that can add character and flavor to your essay.
Admissions officers are people, just like you, and therefore are drawn to personalities that exhibit positive qualities. Some of the most important qualities to portray are: humility, curiosity, thoughtfulness, and passion. In this essay, there are several moments that could be interpreted as potentially self-centered or arrogant. Avoid trying to make yourself out to be "better" or "greater" than other people. Instead, focus on having unique and interesting ideas first, and this will show you as a likeable, insightful person. Although this is a "personal" statement, you should also avoid over using "I" in your essay. When you have lots of "I" sentences, it starts to feel somewhat ego-centric, rather than humble and interested in something greater than you.
This essay does a lot of "telling" about the author's character. Instead, you want to provide evidence—through examples, anecdotes, and moments—that allow the reader to come to their own conclusions about who you are. Avoid surface-level takeaways like "I am open-minded and have a thirst for knowledge." These types of statements are meaningless because anyone can write them. Instead, focus on backing up your points by "showing," and then reflect genuinely and deeply on those topics.
This essay is focused on art museums and tries to tie in a connection to studying medicine. However, because this connection is very brief and not elaborated, the connection seems weak. To connect to your area of study when writing about a different topic, try reflecting on your topic first. Go deep into interesting ideas by asking "How" and "Why" questions. Then, take those ideas and broaden them. Think of ways they could differ or parallel your desired area of study. The best connections between a topic (such as an extracurricular) and your area of study (i.e. your major) is through having interesting ideas.
Common App Essay Example #23: French Horn
This student chose the creative idea of personifying their French horn as their central theme. Using this personification, they are able to write about a multitude of moments while making them all feel connected. This unique approach also makes for a more engaging essay, as it is not overly straightforward and generic.
It can be challenging to reference your achievements without seeming boastful or coming across too plainly. This student manages to write about their successes ("acceptance into the Julliard Pre-College program") by using them as moments part of a broader story. The focus isn't necessarily on the accomplishments themselves, but the role they play in this relationship with their instrument. By connecting more subtly like this, it shows humility. Often, "diminishing" your achievements will actually make them stand out more, because it shows you're focused on the greater meaning behind them, rather than just "what you did."
This student does a good job of exemplifying each of their ideas. Rather than just saying "I experienced failure," they show it through imagery ("dried lips, cracked notes, and missed entrances"). Similarly, with their idea "no success comes without sacrifice," they exemplify it using examples of sacrifice. Always try to back up your points using examples, because showing is much more convincing than telling. Anyone can "tell" things, but showing requires proof.
This essay has a decent conclusion, but it could be stronger by adding nuance to their main idea or connecting to the beginning with a new perspective. Rather than repeating what you've established previously, make sure your conclusion has a different "angle" or new aspect. This can be connecting your main idea to more universal values, showing how you now view something differently, or emphasizing a particular aspect of your main idea that was earlier introduced.
Common App Essay Example #24: Dear My Younger Self
Common App Prompt #7: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. (250-650 words)
- Don’t live your life as if you're constantly being watched and criticized. Chances are, no one is even paying attention to you.
- Wear your retainer.
- Empathy makes your life easier. People who are inexplicably cruel are suffering just as much as the recipients of their abuse. Understanding this makes your interactions with these people less painful.
- Comparing yourself to your classmates is counterproductive. Sometimes you will forge ahead, other times you will lag behind. But ultimately, you’re only racing yourself.
- Speak up to your stepmom.
- Always eat the cake. I couldn't tell you how many times I’ve turned away a slice of cake, only to regret it the next day. If you really can’t commit, do yourself a favor and take a slice home with you.
- Cherish your grandparents.
- Forgive your mother. Harboring resentment hurts you just as much as her. All the time I spent being angry at her could’ve been spent discovering her strengths.
This essay chose a unique structure in the form of a letter addressed to themselves with a list of lessons they've learned. This structure is unique, and also allows the student to explore a variety of topics and ideas while making them all feel connected. It is tricky to not seem "gimmicky" when choosing a creative structure like this, but the key is to make your essay well thought-out. Show that you've put effort into reflecting deeply, and that you aren't choosing a unique structure just to stand out.
This essay is highly focused on lessons they've learned, which shows a deep level of reflection. Your ideas and takeaways from life experience are ultimately most compelling to admissions officers, and this essay succeeds because it is focused almost entirely on those reflections. This student also manages to incorporate anecdotes and mini stories where appropriate, which makes their reflections more memorable by being tangible.
Showing humility and self-awareness are two highly attractive traits in college admissions. Being able to recognize your own flaws and strengths, while not making yourself out to be more than what you are, shows that you are mature and thoughtful. Avoid trying to "boost yourself up" by exaggerating your accomplishments or over-emphasizing your strengths. Instead, let your ideas speak for themselves, and by focusing on genuine, meaningful ideas, you'll convey a persona that is both humble and insightful.
The drawback of having a structure like this, where lots of different ideas are examined, is that no one idea is examined in-depth. As a result, some ideas (such as "intelligence is not defined by your grades") come across as trite and overused. In general, avoid touching on lots of ideas while being surface-level. Instead, it's almost always better to choose a handful (or even just one main idea) and go as in-depth as possible by continually asking probing questions—"How" and "Why"—that force yourself to think deeper and be more critical. Having depth of ideas shows inquisitiveness, thoughtfulness, and ultimately are more interesting because they are ideas that only you could have written.
Common App Essay Example #25: Monopoly
Feeling a bit weary from my last roll of the dice, I cross my fingers with the “FREE PARKING” square in sight. As luck has it, I smoothly glide past the hotels to have my best horse show yet- earning multiple wins against stiff competition and gaining points to qualify for five different national finals this year.
This essay uses the board game "Monopoly" as a metaphor for their life. By using a metaphor as your main topic, you can connect to different ideas and activities in a cohesive way. However, make sure the metaphor isn't chosen arbitrarily. In this essay, it isn't completely clear why Monopoly is an apt metaphor for their life, because the specific qualities that make Monopoly unique aren't explained or elaborated. Lots of games require "strategy and precision, with a hint of luck and a tremendous amount of challenge," so it'd be better to focus on the unique aspects of the game to make a more clear connection. For example, moving around the board in a "repetitive" fashion, but each time you go around with a different perspective. When choosing a metaphor, first make sure that it is fitting for what you're trying to describe.
You want to avoid listing your activities or referencing them without a clear connection to something greater. Since you have an activities list already, referencing your activities in your essay should have a specific purpose, rather than just emphasizing your achievements. In this essay, the student connects their activities by connecting them to a specific idea: how each activity is like a mini challenge that they must encounter to progress in life. Make sure your activities connect to something specifically: an idea, a value, an aspect of your character.
This essay lacks depth in their reflections by not delving deeply into their main takeaways. In this essay, the main "idea" is that they've learned to be persistent with whatever comes their way. This idea could be a good starting point, but on its own is too generic and not unique enough. Your idea should be deep and specific, meaning that it should be something only you could have written about. If your takeaway could be used in another student's essay without much modification, chances are it is a surface-level takeaway and you want to go more in-depth. To go in-depth, keep asking probing questions like "How" and "Why" or try making more abstract connections between topics.
In the final two paragraphs, this essay does a lot of "telling" about the lessons they've learned. They write "I know that in moments of doubt...I can rise to the occasion." Although this could be interesting, it would be far more effective if this idea is shown through anecdotes or experiences. The previous examples in the essay don't "show" this idea. When drafting, take your ideas and think of ways you can represent them without having to state them outright. By showing your points, you will create a more engaging and convincing essay because you'll allow the reader to come to the conclusion themselves, rather than having to believe what you've told them.
What Can You Learn from These Common App Essay Examples?
With these 25 Common App essay examples, you can get inspired and improve your own personal statement.
If you want to get accepted into selective colleges this year, your Common App essays needs to be its best possible.
What makes a good Common App essay isn't easy to define. There aren't any rules or steps.
But using these samples from real students, you can understand what it takes to write an outstanding personal statement .
Let me know, which Common App essay did you think was the best?
Ryan Chiang , Founder of EssaysThatWorked
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Princeton Admitted Essay
People love to ask why. Why do you wear a turban? Why do you have long hair? Why are you playing a guitar with only 3 strings and watching TV at 3 A.M.—where did you get that cat? Why won’t you go back to your country, you terrorist? My answer is... uncomfortable. Many truths of the world are uncomfortable...
MIT Admitted Essay
Her baking is not confined to an amalgamation of sugar, butter, and flour. It's an outstretched hand, an open invitation, a makeshift bridge thrown across the divides of age and culture. Thanks to Buni, the reason I bake has evolved. What started as stress relief is now a lifeline to my heritage, a language that allows me to communicate with my family in ways my tongue cannot. By rolling dough for saratele and crushing walnuts for cornulete, my baking speaks more fluently to my Romanian heritage than my broken Romanian ever could....
UPenn Admitted Essay
A cow gave birth and I watched. Staring from the window of our stopped car, I experienced two beginnings that day: the small bovine life and my future. Both emerged when I was only 10 years old and cruising along the twisting roads of rural Maryland...
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