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A Q&A With The Author of the Viral Costco Essay

Last month, Brittany Stinson learned she got into five Ivy League colleges, as well as Stanford and many other top schools.

When a newspaper reporter asked her to share her college application essay, Brittany didn’t think twice.

Within hours, her essay went viral.

More than 1.6 million people, and counting, have now read the “Costco essay.”

Brittany, who has decided to attend Stanford, was as shocked as anyone by the media frenzy.

The Media Backlash to Brittany’s Costco Essay

Besides the predictable backlash from Internet trolls and haters, the assumption that this Costco essay earned Brittany all these stellar acceptances disturbed her the most.

“…the thing that really got to me was that people thought my essay was the only reason I got into my dream schools. ‘Costco Essay Gets Local Girl Into 5 Ivy League Schools,’ read headlines, ‘Love for Costco Got a High School Senior Into 5 Ivy League Schools,’ ‘High School Senior Reveals the Secret That Got Her Into Nearly Every Ivy League School.’ I mean, screw four years of hard work and straight As, it was totally just the essay, right?” (From her piece about handling the publicity storm in Cosmopolitan magazine.)

Of course the Costco essay played a role in her admissions coup—though it’s impossible to know how much it counted. And Brittany says she put a lot of effort into finding a unique topic and crafting a readable piece that revealed her personality and character.

She even credited reading this blog to find tips and inspiration on how to write a narrative style essay. (And you can, too!)

In the following Q&A about her Costco essay, Brittany took the time to share details, advice and tips about how she brainstormed and wrote her Costco essay. How generous is that?

A Question and Answer Interview About the Costco Essay

When and how did you start working on your essays?

I started in mid­-August before my senior year. I opened up a blank Google doc and just typed whatever was on my mind. This ranged from random sentences to essay topics and character traits. It helped me get the bad ideas out of my head, put some good ideas on paper and start to think about an organizational model.

Do you remember how you felt about these essays when you first started your application process?

I felt pretty intimidated, for the schools I was trying to get into, I knew that I had to knock it out of the park with my essay if I had any hope of securing admission. I was terrified of cliches and avoided them like the plague (the irony!).

What was the hardest part of writing your essay?

It was probably reining in my topic and saving my focus for just a few things. There’s a lot I wanted to convey about myself and I tried my best to do it in 650 words.

Can you tell us your writing process? Did you start brainstorming? Do you use an outline? How many drafts, etc.

After I got my random thoughts down, I made outlines for two different essay topics. This one and one about my experiences in dance class. I worked on both at about the same pace, got halfway through the dance essay, decided it wasn’t going anywhere, and decided to scrap it. I figured that this topic was more creative and probably would’ve made for a more memorable essay. It just felt natural to continue with the Costco topic.

Did you consider yourself a strong writer?

Yes, I’ve taken a liking to writing and have always taken the most advanced writing courses available to me. I’ve had many demanding yet supportive teachers along the way.

How did you come up with the idea of Costco as a topic?

There’s an ongoing joke between me and my friends that I practically live at Costco. I’m there with my parents nearly every weekend because it’s just as close to our house as a regular supermarket. I once read a quote that said something along these lines, “If your friend finds your essay on the ground and it has no name on it, they should be able to tell that it’s yours just by reading it.” I used this to guide my topic selection and writing style.

Had you ever written this style of essay before, where you write about yourself?

No, I’m not used to writing about myself, this was actually a big concern for me when I started thinking about writing college essays. I was afraid of coming off as too self-­involved.

Did you have anyone help you with your essay

No, I never really went to anyone for advice until it was pretty much finished. I consulted my mom on my topic in the beginning stages of my essay but she didn’t really know what direction I was trying to go in, so I figured it would be best to get input after I tied up loose ends and brought all of my ideas together. My English teacher saw the final product and gave it her stamp of approval, which was a huge relief because I wanted to be reassured that I wasn’t crazy for writing about such a unique topic.

Do you have any idea how important your essay was in getting admitted to any or all of the school you get accepted to? (Did you get any feedback?)

I’m not sure, but I do know that since so many applicants are qualified and have similar GPAs, SAT scores and extracurriculars, the essay is an important opportunity to differentiate yourself.

What advice do you have for students working on their essays, or the whole admissions process itself?

It’s so easy to get discouraged by admissions statistics. I recommend starting applications early to take pressure off and allow time for deep reflection. Some short supplements took me days to write because I was so careful about word choice and intent.

How are you going to decide which of these outstanding schools you are going to attend?

I’m so late on this. Sorry! So I’ve already decided at this point and have chosen Stanford. All of the schools are academic powerhouses, so there’s no difference there. I wanted Stanford because of it’s innovative spirit whereas a lot of the other schools I got into are rooted in tradition. Stanford is more known for STEM, but many of its humanities departments are some of the best in the world. They have appealing interdisciplinary programs and majors. This was so attractive to me because I want to pursue neuroscience, but at the same time, I appreciate the humanities and couldn’t imagine an education without them.

If you could give any advice to college­-bound freshmen about their essays, what would it be?

Think about a few of your defining qualities and figure out what makes you tick. Don’t try to be someone else, because it will show. If you convey your true self, the people reading it will connect with your authenticity.

THANKS BRITTANY!! And best of luck at Stanford!