In preparation for a segment on NBC’s “Today” show this morning, I reached out to the admissions offices at the University of Virginia and Occidental College in California for examples of essays that they considered memorable — for good, or ill.
Before I share some of these samples, a caveat (one familiar to regular readers of this blog): while it can be instructive to read actual college admissions essays, trying to copy a particular approach — or in some cases avoid it — can be perilous. That’s because how one responds to an essay can be an intensely personal experience.
That said, I would argue that there are some basic lessons to be gleaned from the following examples. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from an essay that was not especially well received at the University of Virginia, in part because the writer misjudged the age and sensibility of his or her audience:
John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ was sung by Fox’s new show, ‘Glee.’ In one particular episode, a deaf glee club performed this song. I heard it before when John Lennon sang it: unfortunately I did not care much for it. When I watched this episode while the deaf adolescents were singing it, and soon joined by another glee club, it surprisingly affected me…
John Lennon sang it like a professional, but what he did not have was the emotion behind the words. He sang it more staccato than legato. He sang it like it was his job, and nothing more. These singers from Glee sang with powerful emotions. …
Another essay, also musical in focus, got a more appreciative read at U.V.A.:
I strode in front of 400 frenzied eighth graders with my arm slung over my Fender Stratocaster guitar — it actually belonged to my mother — and launched into the first few chords of Nirvana’s ‘Lithium.’ My hair dangled so low over my face that I couldn’t see the crowd in front of me as I shouted ‘yeah, yeah’ in my squeaky teenage voice. I had almost forgotten that less than a year ago I had been a kid whose excitement came from waiting for the next History Channel documentary.
It was during the awkward, hormonal summer between seventh and eighth grade when I first heard Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ The song shocked my senses — until that point my musical cosmos consisted mainly of my father’s Beatles CDs.
I would argue that the admissions committee was able to relate a little more to this essay than the first. And it was certainly more evocative and detailed. It also conveyed more about the writer (and applicant) — a crucial quality in a college admissions essay.
I turn, now, to excerpts from a recent essay that struck a visceral chord within the admissions office at Occidental (where, as an aside, President Obama began his college career):
My head throbbed as I closed my eyes and tried to convince myself to give up.
‘Come on, Ashley. Put the pencil down. Just put the pencil down and go to bed,’ I told myself sternly. I had been hard at work for hours — brutal, mind-numbing hours. I groaned as I moved over to my bed, collapsing in a pile of blankets and closing my eyes.
I lay there for a moment or two, gathering strength, gaining courage. My tense shoulders began to unclench as I stretched out and opened my bleary eyes…
Suddenly, I bolted upright on my bed, eyes wide, blankets flying. Everything had fallen into place. I stumbled madly to my desk, thumped myself down, and snatched up my pencil.
‘I’ve got it! That’s it!’ I whooped, scribbling furiously, as my brother pounded on my wall for silence.
I had just won another skirmish in my ongoing battle with the crossword puzzle.
What worked here? I’m told the admissions officers appreciated how the writer conveyed her love of words — and in the process told them much about herself. As a writer, I admired the way she built a sense of mystery at the outset, one that served to draw the reader in.
I’ll close with an attempt at metaphor that fell a bit flat, at least in its reception at Occidental. The applicant writes:
I believe in jello; a silly greeting, tasty dessert, or the answer to life as we know it?
Factor #1: Have you ever tried to make jello? It takes patience. First you have to boil the water; then mix it with powder, stirring for two minutes; then finally adding the cold water and putting it in the fridge for forty-five minutes. Think about the creation of people…
To share your own thoughts on essay strategies — and, perhaps, some excerpts of your own — please use the comment box below.
Get help writing your college application essays. Find this year's Common App writing prompts and popular essay questions used by individual colleges.
The college essay is your opportunity to show admissions officers who you are apart from your grades and test scores (and to distinguish yourself from the rest of a very talented applicant pool).
2018-19 Common App Essays
Nearly 700 colleges accept the The Common Application, which makes it easy to apply to multiple schools with just one form. If you are using the Common App to apply for college admission in 2017, you will have 250–650 words to respond to ONE of the following prompts:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
Tackling the Common App Essay Prompts
Prompt #1: Share your story.
Answer this prompt by reflecting on a hobby, facet of your personality, or experience that is genuinely meaningful and unique to you. Admissions officers want to feel connected to you and an honest, personal statement about who you are draws them in. Your love of superheroes, baking chops, or family history are all fair game if you can tie it back to who you are or what you believe in. Avoid a rehash of the accomplishments on your high school resume and choose something that the admissions committee will not discover when reading the rest of your application.
Prompt #2: Learning from obstacles.
You're trying to show colleges your best self, so it might seem counterintuitive to willingly acknowledge a time you struggled. But overcoming challenges demonstrates courage, grit, and perseverance! That’s why the last piece of this prompt is essential. The obstacle you write about can be large or small, but you must show the admissions committee how your perspective changed as a result.
Prompt #3: Challenging a belief.
Your answer to this question could focus on a time you stood up to others or an experience when your own preconceived view was challenged. Choose this prompt if you have a relevant—and specific!—experience to recount (and reflect on). A vague essay about a hot button issue doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything useful about YOU.
Prompt #4: Solving a problem.
This essay is designed to get at the heart of how you think and what makes you tick. Present a situation or quandary and show steps toward the solution. Admissions officers want insight into your thought process and the issues you grapple with, so explain how you became aware of the dilemma and how you tackled solving it. Don’t forget to explain why the problem is important to you!
Prompt #5: Personal growth.
Just like Prompt #2, the accomplishment or event you write about can be anything from a major milestone to a smaller "aha" moment. Describe the event or ccomplishment that shaped you but take care to also show what you learned or how you changed. Colleges are looking for a sense of maturity and introspection—pinpoint the transformation and demonstrate your personal growth.
Prompt #6: What captivates you?
This prompt is an invitation to write about something you care about. (So avoid the pitfall of writing about what you think will impress the admission office versus what truly matters to you). Colleges are looking for curious students, who are thoughtful about the world around them. The "what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more” bit isn't an afterthought—it's a key piece of the prompt. Make sure you explain how you pursue your interest, as well.
Prompt #7: Topic of your choice.
This question might be for you if you have a dynamo personal essay from English class to share or were really inspired by a question from another college’s application. You can even write your own question! Whatever topic you land on, the essentials of a standout college essay still stand: 1.) Show the admissions committee who you are beyond grades and test scores and 2.) Dig into your topic by asking yourself how and why. There isn’t a prompt to guide you, so you must ask yourself the questions that will get at the heart of the story you want to tell.
More College Essay Topics
Individual schools sometimes require supplemental essays. Here are a few popular application essay topics and some tips for how to approach them:
Describe a person you admire.
Avoid the urge to pen an ode to a beloved figure like Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln. The admissions committee doesn't need to be convinced they are influential people. Focus on yourself: Choose someone who has actually caused you to change your behavior or your worldview, and write about how this person influenced you .
Why do you want to attend this school?
Be honest and specific when you respond to this question. Avoid generalities like "to get a good liberal arts education” or “to develop career skills," and use details that show your interests: "I'm an aspiring doctor and your science department has a terrific reputation." Colleges are more likely to admit students who can articulate specific reasons why the school is a good fit for them beyond its reputation or ranking on any list. Use the college's website and literature to do your research about programs, professors, and other opportunities that appeal to you.
What is a book you love?
Your answer should not be a book report. Don't just summarize the plot; detail why you enjoyed this particular text and what it meant to you. What does your favorite book reveal about you? How do you identify with it, and how has it become personal to you?
Again, be honest in answering this question—don't choose a classic from your literature class or a piece of philosophy just because you think it will make you seem smarter. Writing fluently and passionately about a book close to you is always better than writing shakily or generally about a book that doesn't inspire you.
What is an extracurricular activity that has been meaningful to you?
Avoid slipping into clichés or generalities. Take this opportunity to really examine an experience that taught you something you didn't previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow. Sometimes it's better to write about something that was hard for you because you learned something than it is to write about something that was easy for you because you think it sounds admirable. As with all essay questions, the most important thing is to tell a great story: how you discovered this activity, what drew you to it, and what it's shown you about yourself.
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