college application essay

Image by Jim Cooke Via Gawker


I don’t know how I missed this. In April, a batch of nearly 70 college application essays written by the incoming class of 2017 at Columbia University were made public. It was quite the scandal. Many of the students who shared their essays among their peers, not expecting they would be shared with the world, felt they were being mocked and ridiculed. Some bloggers did have a grand time poking fun of their topics and language.

The exposed Google folder is no longer available, but you can still read various blog posts that quote from some of the essays. I actually liked many of the topics and snippets of writing (in the Wordle image above). It showed the vast range of subjects you can write about and various approaches. To me, they can help spark ideas for your own essays, and see how you are not alone in your struggle to dig deep into your self and recent past for meaningful stories to share with strangers who will decide your future.

Here’s what J.K. Trotter wrote about the uproar on The Atlantic Wire:

As embarrassing as these people might feel, none of the essays were that bad, and they all worked. Judging from the ones I quickly read, most were very standard college application essays. There were a few pearls, too. One essay (which, like the others, disappeared) adeptly discussed queer activism in Lebanon. The more eyeroll-worthy ones, like the “hipsterdom” essay highlighted by IvyGate, seemed all the more honest for being so ridiculous and un-self-aware.

Here’s what Leah Beckmann wrote about the essays on Gawker. She had some fun plucking out various lines and suggesting you could have a killer essay if you just strung them together (below in blue font). Haha. She also copied in full two of the essays she liked the best. What I like is how you see some of the language, imagination and ideas they used. I’m impressed. Really. See what you think:

Not everyone can get into an Ivy league, but wouldn’t it be great if everyone could? We have culled several of the best lines from all 70 essays to create The. ULTIMATE. College. Essay. If you simply follow this format and copy and paste your favorite lines, you are 100% guaranteed to get into Columbia next year. For everyone who wishes “they were taught to love by a city of dancers,” here’s how it’s done:

Hook Em: It’s all about that attention-grabbing first line. And adverbs.

  • “’Get an abortion.’”
  • “All week as I looked at the Drum Circle, waiting for the Flag Ceremony to begin.”
  • “The comfort zone— I was about to leave it.”
  • “This was a matter of life and death.”
  • “This one is mine :)”
  • “My fingers twitched at my side, itching to pick up the prosthetic.”
  • “She was naked, and I was scared.”

What makes you YOU: How do you see yourself? Show us how the world should see you.

  • “Who else’s identity can really be constructed by the calculus of fragmented memories? Not mine!”
  • “’You’re such a hipster.’ It’s a phrase heard everyday in school hallways across America, and its usage often operates as a conundrum that obscures teenagers’ perceptions of themselves and who they want to be.”
  • “A puppet hidden, a walkway lonely, a pair of scissors cheating, a stone opening, a leaf floating, a door shining.”
  • “I was no Victor Frankenstein.”
  • “I love experimenting new things [sic], exploring new places, and assisting those in need.”
  • “I have always been less than enthusiastic about CPR classes.”
  • “I am an individual free to create my own path and blaze a trail.”
  • “Despite the years that had passed, the intimacy of the memories flooded me, bringing with them a mix of emotions from anxiety to panic. Through blogging and subsequent interactions, I came to embrace my flawed nature, and I inspired others to do the same.”
  • “Behind my mask, I am a criminal. Behind my mask, I am a sinner. My soul will burn in hell, as the Bible—and my father—says. Behind this mask is who I really am.”

Set the Scene: Remember, god is in the details. What did your cheeks do? They burned. What is your mother? A wild horse. How is your skepticism? Radiant.

  • “The setting uproots itself. I muse on a field trip bus and write in an anonymous notebook. I’m creating a language. It’s named ‘Elvish,’ and it’s based on Latin: the ephemeral warrior with the Roman lover.”
  • “In the temperate winter of my tenth grade year, I developed an interest in rap music.”
  • “The summer air was sweet and caring as we sat there, drank some rootbeer and pondered the cosmos.”
  • “I sat there, perturbed and burning with radiant skepticism.”
  • “Time skips to a blues rhythm.”
  • “Here, Dali and Chagall are gods. Frusciante’s music fills the air as I walk down the promenade. Actors are playing out scenes from my life.”
  • “I could only hope she would see my pleading eyes.”
  • “My cheeks burned.”
  • “My heart pounds violently against my chest, pushing against the smooth blue fabric of my dress. I can practically see the silverware quivering, shaking, and as I realize that the adrenaline rush I am feeling is causing my hands to tremble, too, I feel someone seize my arm. Vamos a bailar! Let’s dance!”
  • “I feel tingly as my prom date and I stand up together and move to the center of the room. But this time, they aren’t shivers of fear.”
  • “I stand engulfed in curtained darkness. Around me, shadowy figures shift anxiously, like caged animals searching for an escape.”
  • “The haggard piece of cloth, worn at the edges but still strong at its core, looked at me desperately and clung to me determinedly.”
  • “She [my mother] is a wild horse, as erratic as she is gregarious.”
  • “An exquisite manifestation of dreams, dreams that leave me yearning for more.”
  • “Not because the sun blazed torridly on my brow and the sultry air hung on my neck like a noose, but disoriented because of the sight before my eyes— stables.”
  • “The summer air was sweet and caring as we sat there, drank some rootbeer and pondered the cosmos. And so we talked. We talked about women, and how awful they are, and how fantastic they are, and how awful they are. Out of nowhere, I began to cry and in the most gentle and angelic voice I heard Alex say something I found quite alien: ‘crying is okay, buddy.’ So I cried like a girl and I cried for everything I was losing.”

What Did You Do to Impress: You are a snowflake. You are Gaia. You are all that is good. Don’t be shy when it comes to describing your goals, your achievements, your Beanie Babies.

  • “Thus, my rise to the hipster ideal began. Throughout my middle school years, this natural instinct of mine manifested itself in many different ways: jeans tucked into knee-high socks, anything from punk to Harlem renaissance jazz bellowing from my headphones, Palahniuk novels peeking out of my backpack.”
  • “I began to participate in Socratic seminars.”
  • “But as time went on and the songs filed under the ‘Rap’ genre on my iTunes grew in number, I pinpointed exactly where my general discomfort had started: Rap, as a genre and as an attitude, has little-to-no place for women.”
  • “When I told Sally that over the summer I was going to Africa to help teach children English, she was horrified, fearing the worst.”
  • “In the summer of my junior year I stunned my family by insisting on going, instead of our staples of France, Italy and Switzerland, to St. Petersburg, where most of the Russian Royalty had lived.”
  • “Almost a month had passed and we only had a handful of Beanie Babies to show for all the work I put into this project. And yet, despite all my efforts, only four members responded to my pleas for Beanie Baby donations.”
  • “As I glanced around, tightly clutching my brand-spanking-new lacrosse stick, an awful epiphany struck me: I had enrolled in an all-boys lacrosse camp.”
  • “Ironically, I tried hard to use this garment to broadcast my individuality; I went through phases wearing a skullcap bedecked in everything from Pokemon characters to the cast ofSeinfeld.”

What You Learned: Your journey is over. What have you gleaned?

  • “Such is the problem with my infatuation with ‘Arrested Development,’ which, despite critical acclaim and a loyal fanbase (case in point: me), was cancelled after three seasons. So ‘Arrested Development’ is the epitome of all things—good, bad, or ironic—coming to inevitable conclusions. However, I recently found out that ‘Arrested Development’ was revived for another season. Some things aren’t over yet.”
  • “After qualifying for and going to Nationals, I realize that getting there is 90% want and 10% skill. I love knowing that if I try the hardest I will win.”
  • “The journey of Taekwondo is analogous to the journey of life.”
  • “Tortoise= AmericaHare= BanksRegulators= RegulatorsTape-makers= Rating agenciesSub-ground= Sub-prime loansBleachers= Housing marketPrize= BailoutIntricate system of tunnels= Derivative markets”

Conclusion: End it. And end it HUGE.

  • “I wake up every morning to be nicer, faster, stronger, smarter, and better. I wake up every morning to win.”
  • “The revelations and inspirations I acquired from my internship have only just begun snowballing.”
  • “One who seeks to identify himself and be identified by others as a ‘hipster’ undoubtably strives to conform to the ‘hipster’ construct; he tries to fit himself inside an inflexible ‘hipster’ box.”
  • “After all, what am I but the things I’ve done?”
  • “The tide is rising, my ship is packed, and I am ready to set sail.”
  • “Moving forward, I cannot wait to meet new friends, hear about their families, and discuss everything from our latest travels.”
  • “However, I recently found out that “Arrested Development” was revived for another season. Some things aren’t over yet.”


Betsy Morias, a Columbia alumnist who writes for The New Yorker, tweeted this piece of wisdom at the time:  “In truth, the humiliation should be shared among all of us who have ever written a Columbia admissions essay.”

Or any college application essay. With these essays, we are asked to put ourselves out there, share our thoughts and opinions, get deep. And we all do our best–because they matter. Once they are done, submitted and we are into our dream school, most of us hope we never have to think about them again. And if for some reason they surface again in our future, we hope to be mature enough to enjoy a laugh on ourselves.