Colleges Encourage Students to Write About $ and Work
in College Application Essays


The New York Times today published the seven college application essays it liked the best for its contest about writing on the topic of money.

Most of the winners wrote about their experiences facing various types of financial hardship and challenges.

They are worth reading simply as sample essays, which could give you ideas for topics of your own.

New York Times financial columnist Ron Lieber wrote a companion piece to announce these winners, which included interviews with the admissions officers from the schools that shared these essays.

I also recommend reading his article, Essays About Work and Class That Caught a College’s Eye, so you can see what specifically engaged and appealed to the colleges in these pieces.

The idea is to see if you can include similar themes or details in your own essay to elicit a similar positive reaction from your target schools.


college application essay

Lieber started his piece by talking about how the associate dean of admissions at Wesleyan University read about 1,200 essays last year, and that only about 10 were about work or jobs.

He speculated the reason for such a low number was that many students were either affluent and never needed or wanted to work during high school, or that they were underprivileged students who thought the need to work would not reflect well on them.

Regardless of the reason, Lieber went on to encourage students (yes, you out there!) to consider writing about the potentially provocative topic of social class and financial hardship. And I heartily agree! Here’s how he put it:

“Yet it is this very reluctance [to write about social class] that makes tackling the topic a risk worth taking at schools where it is hard to stand out from the thousands of other applicants. Financial hardship and triumph, and wants and needs, are the stuff of great literature. Reflecting on them is one excellent way to differentiate yourself in a deeply personal way.”


Put simply, problems make great essay topics. Problems make “great literature” because they generate that central conflict at the heart of any story. No conflict (problem). No story. And we all know how the best college admissions essays include your real-life stories, right?

This year, The Common Application even included a new prompt, Prompt 4, that asks directly What’s Your Problem? to encourage students to share one and write about it.

If you worked during high school, there’s a good chance you have a natural problem: You didn’t have enough money for whatever reason. So consider writing about that job. Read what I wrote about how Jobs Can Make Excellent Topics for College App Essays, and also how when it comes to topics, Why the Real Risk is Playing It Safe.

So, yes, if you have faced financial hardship, or any other type of hardship, consider it for your topic because you will have an instant problem to share and reflect upon, and will also find yourself digging deep into your background and memories, and write an essay that is personal and compelling.

And if you are among the less privileged, it’s even more important to find a way to Show Your Grit in your essay!

college application essay

Those of you who have not faced any hardship, don’t despair. First, I think you just haven’t looked hard enough at yourself. Hardship does not always need to be dramatic or a crisis. It can be any set of circumstances that made something hard or difficult for you.

Often, essays written about mundane or everyday hardships or problems make the best reads. It’s all about what you have to say about how the problem affected you, what steps you took to deal with it and what you learned in the process.

Bottom line: If you faced a dramatic hardship in your life, similar to those written about by these students, consider it for your topic. There’s a strong chance it shaped you in a significant way, and could make a powerful essay.

If you didn’t, dig a little deeper, get more creative, and you will land on something equally compelling and meaningful.

Check out this Jumpstart Guide to find your problem—whether it’s big or small.