Are you starting to think about writing your college application essay?
If so, you need to know what makes a great essay to know how to start brainstorming and writing your own.
You can often recognize a “great one” when you read or hear it—but it’s more difficult to explain what exactly made it that way.
Here’s my attempt to list the features that comprise a great college application essay.
Unlike other essays, these have a very specific goal that you must always factor in when you write a great one: To help your college application land in the “Yes!” pile.
Many of the elements of an effective college admissions essay further that goal.
A GRRRREATTT college application essay:
1. “Grabs” the readers at the start. I believe one of the best ways to do this is to start with an anecdote (real-life incident). Something happens.
2. Usually is written in a narrative (story-telling/memoir-like/slice-of-life) style drawing off real-life experiences.
3. Reveals a specific core or “defining” quality (creative, resourceful, fierce, resilient, driven, etc.) about the writer, rather than trying to describe many qualities. This is how to focus the essay. (more…)
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Keep Your Summer Chill!
Many of you are already out for summer, or at the finishing line. Yippee!!
If you’re now officially an incoming high school senior, or soon to be, it’s time to get cranking on your college application essay.
I’m sure you have heard that summer is the ideal time to start the brainstorming and writing process. If you can get them all done before the start of your senior year, all the better.
You most likely have heard these essays can be critical to your college acceptance chances.
Yes, it’s true they can matter, and sometimes tip the scales in your favor. No doubt it’s worth putting in significant time and effort on them.
But I believe it’s important not to fall for all the hype and madness around this application process.
I know when I’m stressed or anxious, my creative juices quickly shrivel up.
Once you start reading about college application essays on the Web, you most likely will find advice that uses intimidating words, such as “transformational” and “differentiating.” So-called experts like to say things like how it’s critical to “Be yourself” in your essay, and how these are your “Chance to shine.”
They aren’t wrong, necessarily. But all the ballyhoo isn’t very helpful if all you want to know is how and where to start, and what topic to write about, and how to craft it into an effective essay.
When you hear that a killer essay is one that shows you “transforming yourself,” that’s quite a directive. It means you had some type of dramatic change in your life, whether it was physical, emotional or even spiritual.
If you had that type of experience, good for you. And it could make a solid topic.
Most of us, however, by age 16 or 17 or even later, have not experienced that type of radical metamorphosis. So can you still write a great essay?
What I have found working with students on these essays and the search for the holy grail topic, is that the simple, everyday “mundane” ones usually work best. Same goes for life changes. They don’t need to be profound to be interesting and meaningful.
For instance, if you are rooting around for an interesting topic, and reflecting on ways you have changed in recent years, look for the smaller changes. Look for shifts, adjustments, alterations, smaller movements in your life. I believe the most interesting shifts come in your thinking, especially if you learned something new or unexpected, or saw something in a different light or context.
The idea is that your essay topic doesn’t need to be about a momentous change in your life. Instead, recall moments, incidents or experiences that happened in your recent past (high school years are best), and see if anything changed or shifted in your thinking (about yourself, about others or about the world) in the process of dealing with whatever went down.
That takes off the pressure to have had a radical life experience where you were one person, and then something happened, and suddenly you were an entirely different person. That rarely happens. Instead, brainstorm those everyday moments or “times,” and explore how your thinking changed. Even better, think about how what you cared about changed. Hint: those are called your values.
Colleges love to not only get a sense of your unique personalities in these essays, but they value seeing how you think, feel and behave, and what you value and learn, in these essays. You can write a “transformational” essay without having changed from a bad person to a good person, or a shy person to an outgoing person, etc.
You are changing all the time, and it can be hard to notice at the moment. Take a little time to think of things that have happened to you, and more time to examine how you responded to them. Another hint: best place to find interesting moments are those that involved problems.
Even if you are following me so far, you most likely are wondering what you do once you think of some of these personal changes or shifts, and how to spin them into a piece of writing.
I have written posts all over my Essay Hell blog on exactly what to do, and I also spell it out in my popular writing guide, Escape Essay Hell, and in my online writing bootcamp. I’m also walking students through this process in my Jumpstart webinars, which started this month. The next one is this Saturday, at 10 a.m., West Coast time, and I will have several more this month.
So many ways to get started on these essays. Pick one and get going!
I hope you are hearing my main point in this post: Don’t get freaked out by all the hype about what these essays are all about.
Like all the millions of students who have gone into Essay Hell before you, you will also find a topic and write a killer essay! Just buckle down at some point this summer, read up on what they are all about, pick what resources you think will help you the best, and you will find they aren’t that freaky after all.
Here are some of my best posts to get you launched:
What Makes a College Application Essay Great?
The Secret to a Killer College Application Essay
#Selfie: 5 Ways It’s Like Your College Application Essay
Land in the Yes Pile
Use The Unexpected
Essay Topics That Worked
How to Show Your Grit
How to Write Your College App Essay in 3 Steps
GOOD LUCK!! You got this!
I’m back! Haven’t posted for many months.
I don’t know about you, but the recent college admission scandal gave me a total gut punch. All these rich people buying and cheating their way into colleges. Disgusting.
(In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, read this: They Had It Coming from The Atlantic.)
I did some soul-searching about my own role as an essay writing coach in this crazy college admissions industry. The unfair stress on kids, the insane antics of desperate parents and the toxic collusion of privilege and education.
Living in affluent Laguna Beach, California, the last 23 years, where several of the 33 parents charged in this scandal are from, I’ve worked with my share of oblivious, entitled parents. Most of the mothers and fathers, however, have been good people trying to do what they thought best for their kids–and I tried to focus on them.
When I learned about this scandal, and the sleazy college admissions counselor from nearby Newport Beach who masterminded the whole scam, I seriously considered quitting my Essay Hell business. It was too hard to ignore the sullied admissions world. When anyone asked me what I did for a living, I was embarrassed to tell them. And still am. Maybe I could start a dog-walking service or drive a school bus.
In the decade I have worked with students and others on these essays, I tried to stay outside the admissions frenzy and resisted the networking scene among the related industry “players.” I stuck to working with individual students, and coaching groups of teachers, counselors and others so they could help students learn how to write essays that were effective and meaningful. And also become better writers in the process! How could that be a bad thing?
My goal was to empower students with specific writing techniques and tips so they could find their unique stories and tell them in an engaging and meaningful narrative style. I did not try to game the system, or encourage gimmicks or shortcuts. And of course never wrote essays for students. (I know, I sound defensive. Guess I am a bit.)
Based on the feedback from students, parents and others over the years, most of those who did the hard work wrote outstanding essays and got into terrific schools. No cheating. No influencers. No bribes. (As far as I know. Sheesh!)
In the past, I charged a bundle for private hour-long tutoring sessions. I justified it because I’m good at what I do, have a lot of professional experience and thought my fees should reflect my value.
But charging $200 an hour for one-on-one coaching did put me in the hot seat of giving the most privileged students and families an edge in the admissions game. No denying that.
So I’m done with that for the time being. Now I’m in the process of revamping my services so that I can make my tutoring more accessible and feasible to all students. And I believe they can be equally effective and helpful.
The New Plan: Affordable (and FREE!) Webinars!
Here’s my plan. I’m still offering in-person and online essay-writing training workshops to groups of teachers, counselors and students. But no more private sessions, at least for now. And I intend to only offer editing services to students who start with my Jumpstart webinars and are on the right track from the get-go. (I believe that prevents too much intervention on my part, to keep it fair.)
Instead, I’m planning to offer my college application essay writing instruction and advice through group workshops online (webinars via YouTube Live) and keep them relatively cheap and simple. And I’m offering both my Jumpstart webinars FREE to those who can’t afford them.
Starting soon (June 15 first one!), I will offer hourlong online Webinar Jumpstart sessions. They will cost $30 each.
All webinars will also include access to my popular online College Application Essay Writing Course, which has 11 videos, handouts and ALL my essay writing guides on it (Escape Essay Hell and Heavenly Essays). This will be FREE (currently charge $99 just for the course!)
At first, these online workshops (webinars) will feature my trademark Jumpstart process, where I quickly help students understand what makes a great essay, and then step them through a step-by-step brainstorming process to identify killer topics, as well as how to structure their drafts. The idea is to help you get launched!
As summer gets rolling into fall, I will offer other follow-up workshops topics, such as How to Write the University of California Essays, How to Write the Most Common Supplemental Essays, How to Self Edit and Bump Up Essays, etc.
If this works out, I like to think that any or all students can get plenty of great inspiration and direction on how to write their essays–ALL of them–for around $100 or less. Some might only need one workshop, and they are off.
I also am offering my webinars, and the included online writing bootcamp (that includes my writing guides), FREE to all students who are underprivileged or underserved, as well as teachers, counselors, parents and others who work with them. Just email me and let me know your name, school, city/state, and background: EssayHell@gmail.com. I will send you the 100-percent-off discount code to purchase a webinar.
I would love to hear from you if my new approach sounds fair and a good way to get help on these essays. You can also put together your own group for a custom webinar if these dates don’t work for you. Please leave comments, ideas and questions in the comment section below. Or email me directly at: EssayHell@gmail.com.
Thanks for reading this. I hope I don’t sound like a martyr or that I’m looking for praise for these changes. They are mainly so that I feel good about what I’m doing, and thought I would try to explain the reason behind them.
So stay tuned!
Don’t worry about your essays and your future! You got this! And I hope I get the opportunity to help you.
Find Your Problems
and You Will Find
Your Best Stories
Every year, I write a post for all you students who are ready to start your college application essay.
All you need is to find that one magic topic idea.
There are many ways to brainstorm ideas for college application essay topics.
This time, I’m going for the essay jugular and offering a brainstorm guide to start your college application essay by honing in on your best problems.
If you are new to this process of writing a narrative-style college application essay, let me clue you in to why problems are your golden ticket. (more…)
Photo Via Johnathan Kimble/Courtesy Berthinia Rutledge-Brown
What You Can Learn From
Michael Brown’s College Application Essay
I must have watched the viral video of Michael Brown learning he got into Stanford at least three times in a row.
Such a feat and well-deserved accomplishment for what seems like an all-around great kid!
Not only was Michael accepted to 20 of our top learning institutions—including Harvard, Stanford and Yale—but he got a full ride to each of them. As well as more than a quarter million dollars in scholarships. (more…)
Let Lynda Barry Help You Find and Tell Your Best Stories!
Try One of Her Awesome Brainstorming Exercises
If you’re starting to brainstorm that perfect topic to craft your dreaded college application essay, I have a new writing technique you might find helpful.
I’m big on tapping mundane topics to inspire essays.
That means writing about everyday or ordinary experiences as opposed to those that try to impress or wow readers (aka college admissions folks).
Mundane topic example: My obsession with karaoke.
Trying-to-impress topic example: The time I played the star role in the school musical.
See the difference?
Which would you rather read about?
So when I discovered the brilliant writer and cartoonist Lynda Barry recently, and saw she also taps the mundane in life to help her students discover their personal stories, I couldn’t wait to share her ideas with those of you on the prowl for college application essay topics. (more…)
Helicopter Parents Aren’t All Bad
(They Just Need to Know When to Drop In)
I received an email from a mom recently inquiring about my tutoring services for her college-bound daughter.
In her email, she included a story about their family history that she thought might make a good topic for an essay. It was mainly about the grandfather’s immigration “coming to America” experiences and the Holocaust.
While it sounded interesting, it didn’t seem that relevant or exciting to me–at least for the purposes of an essay that’s supposed to focus mainly on the student.
At the end of her story, the mom ended with this line: “My daughter’s response: ‘I read that if your parents think it is a good idea…it probably isn’t!’ LOL!” (more…)
Can a Risky College Application Essay
Get You Into the Ivies?
This time of year, a flurry of stories hit the national media about students who get into all the Ivy League schools (plus Stanford).
The stories always include scrutiny and speculation about their college application essays.
I have to admit that I’m kind of a sucker for these articles.
There’s such unpredictability with who gets into what schools.
Everyone is looking for clues as to what works and what doesn’t–especially with the essays. (more…)
Here are 6 sample essays from Heavenly Essays: 50 College Application Essays That Worked, by Janine Robinson.
They are all narrative, slice-of-life essays that used real-life experiences to illustrate points the students wanted to showcase about themselves.
Laguna Beach, CA
University of California, Berkeley, CA
Dangling about 30 feet above the ground, I looked down on the entire neighborhood park with its rolling hills, vibrant green grass, and multiple tall eucalyptus trees. Buckled tightly in my brand new Diamond Mountain climbing harness, I admired my handiwork.
My old blue-and-black braided climbing rope thrown over a branch held me aloft, while a slipknot I tied while hoisting myself up prevented my descent. After a few minutes, I decided to return to the ground, but realized my knot grew too tight for me to untie. I was stuck.
Ever since my dad taught me the Bowline in second grade, the intricacy of knots has fascinated me. I spent hours mastering the craft, reading every knot book and website I could get my hands on. All my knots usually came in handy. In 8th grade, I won a competition in the Boy Scouts with a square knot, beating the instructor who taught an alternative knot that took longer to tie. A couple years later, I rescued my brother’s pickup out of the mud with the unbreakable loop of the Bow Line during one of our off-road adventures. I even returned a stranded rock climber’s lifeline by tying a Sheep’s Bend between a small piece of paracord and his climbing rope.
Ironically, on the day I got stuck in the tree, I spent all morning trying to finally conquer the biggest and baddest knot of them all: the Monkey’s Fist. After at least 50 failed attempts at the step-by-step process, my trusty blue rope finally bore the complex, dense sphere of rope. With a heavy Monkey’s Fist on the end of my rope, I could throw an end over any branch.
After hoisting myself into the treetops that day I dangled for several hours due to that hastily tied Slip Knot. When my dad finally returned from work and saw me, he lugged over an extension ladder, and laughed as he untied me from the tangle he inspired years earlier.
When I reflected on this adventure, I realized another irony in the situation: It took a complex knot like the Monkey’s First to elevate me into the tree, but a simple Slip Knot stopped me from getting back down. Comparing these knots, I learned that the effort and persistence I invest in a challenge like tying a knot translates into a certain lasting power.
A Slip Knot is extremely easy to tie, but disappears with a quick pull on the rope. However, a Monkey’s Fist takes hours to learn and minutes to tie, but is impossible to untie. In so many other parts of my life I have experienced this similar relationship: that the more I try, the more useful and permanent the reward.
I expect that my knot-tying adventures, and the related lessons, even the most embarrassing ones, will help me through any future hang ups I encounter from here on out.
ANALYSIS: When Brock was brainstorming for topic ideas, he knew he had a strong interest in engineering. So we started by thinking of qualities, talents and interests he had that would make him an effective engineer.
One of the qualities was that he was a problem solver. And one of his hobbies was knot tying, which is a form of problem solving. Aha! The next step was to find an example of Brock applying his problem-solving skills in real life.
A great way to find compelling real-life, mini-stories—also called anecdotes—is to think of “a time” you faced a problem. Problems can come in many forms: challenges, obstacles, crises, phobias, idiosyncrasies, life changes, etc. When Brock mentioned the time he got stuck in a tree because of his knot-tying ability, we both knew instantly he had hit upon a hot topic.
When you read this essay, notice how naturally this self-deprecating anecdote and knot metaphor showcase Brock’s insightful thinking and engineering prowess—as well as his natural humility.
You don’t always need to title your essays, but when you land on a witty one like Brock’s “Hang Ups,” it only makes it that much better.
Laguna Beach, CA
University of Oregon, Eugene, OR
Better to be Kind
Every day after school, the first thing I would do was climb the stairs to my dad’s bedroom and sit on his bed. He would reach out to me and hold my hand while I told him about my day: if I got a good grade on a paper; if a teacher liked one of my comments in class; or if I did two pirouettes instead of one.
He would smile and tell me how proud he was. Nothing made me happier—except the hope that I was also making him happy.
The reason my dad was there for me almost every day of my life was that he was diagnosed with cancer and homebound since I was an infant. I learned about life from leaning on him and from him leaning on me—especially when my mom abandoned us because she couldn’t handle his illness.
I went to him for all of my needs. If I had a problem with a friendship or a relationship, if I was scared of the dark, and especially if I procrastinated on a paper, he would stay up late to help me no matter how sick he felt. In a way, he was my life coach, personal therapist, best friend, and dad all in one.
But at the same time, he leaned on me. By the time I was 10, he could no longer eat. My mom stopped cooking. From then on, we no longer gathered around the dinner table. Not only did I have to learn to cook for myself, but to feed my dad through his feeding tube as well. Then during my freshman year when my mom left us, I took over her responsibilities. I did the laundry, cooking, cleaning, and was my dad’s personal nurse.
Last year, after I turned 16, he had to go on oxygen 24 hours a day and was bedridden. I learned to pay bills, shop for a month’s worth of groceries without spending more than a hundred dollars, and drove him to his doctor’s and physical therapy appointments. I could not have friends sleep over, stay out late, or bake cinnamon pancakes because the smell bothered him. When we had to put our house on the market, I raced home every day and frantically cleaned it for showings.
I never talked to my dad about my own struggles or fears because I did not want to worry him. We were both trying to make each other feel better. My goal each day was to make him smile and relieve his suffering any way possible.
But when he left this earth, I felt like my purpose was gone. I was lost. There was no one at home, no one to stay up late and help me with my schoolwork, no one to help me decide what were the right colleges to apply to or what field or major I should consider. Even though my dad leaned on me for everything, I didn’t realize how much I leaned on him until he was gone.
Going back to school after he died was the hardest thing, but his passion for education motivated me to resume my classes and get the best grades I could despite my sadness. My dad put me first, and I put him first. Now I am learning how to put myself first.
I now have a life coach, practice meditation, keep a daily journal, and have guardians who love and guide me. In meditation, I am learning to have empathy and compassion for my mom, but at the same time respect my own needs first.
I still think about my dad all the time, and hear his voice encouraging me with his favorite saying: “It is better to be kind than right.” I think my dad would be more proud not only that I am pursuing my college dreams, but that I am learning to take care of myself like he always took care of me.
ANALYSIS: This essay nearly broke my heart. And I know it was very challenging for Alex to condense her story to under a mere 650 words. At first, I tried to encourage her to find a different topic, since her dad had only passed away months earlier and she was still grieving. But it became clear that she had to write about this. Nothing else was so defining in her life; nothing even came close.
The challenge of writing about such a traumatic experience was to keep the main point about herself. The objective of a college app essay is to reveal your unique qualities and character, and not just tell a poignant story, especially about someone else. Alex did a great job of relaying what happened to her dad and herself so we felt the impact, but mainly focusing on how it affected her.
She gave the essay a sharp focus by extracting one part of their complicated relationship—how they each supported the other—and starting the piece with a moving example (anecdote) of how that worked. Also, despite the tragedy of his death, Alex did not allow the reader to feel sorry for her, and kept the message positive and hopeful—just like she is.
Laguna Beach, CA
Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA
Call Me Crazy
After two hours of intense racing on the open water, we thought our day was done. Instead, our coach ordered us to race another five miles home, rowing as hard as when we came. Stuck in the middle of the harbor with seven other teammates in the crew boat, there was nowhere to hide.
“Give me a reason to call 911,” coach yelled. Drained and exhausted, I could feel my eyes starting to close. Tunnel vision set in. For a few moments, I blacked out.
I had been here before. This was the point where I had to push my body to do the opposite of what my brain wanted me to do: Go even harder. I focused on the coxswain yelling at me, and hoped my adrenaline wouldn’t wear off.
When I first joined the team as a freshman, I only knew a little about this sport. My older brother warned me about the ridiculous hours and tough workouts. The one thing no one told me, though, is that to row crew you had to be a little crazy. It’s not the mentally insane type of crazy, but the type where you force yourself to disregard all logic and reason and push yourself to keep going.
After four years of rowing crew, I realized that this was exactly what I loved. This zone that I get into allowed me to break down new mental and physical boundaries every day. It gave me the satisfaction of knowing I went harder than any other previous day.
I never even knew I had this type of mindset until I started crew. Not only did this bring out my new mindset, but it grew each day. Every day I looked forward to pushing myself to my limits—and then climbing down deeper into that well to exceed my prior limits.
When I first started crew, my coach encouraged me to go into what he called our “dark place.” This “dark place” was where my mind retreated when I was in extreme pain while rowing. Knowing that it was only my mind holding me back from going any harder, I learned to reverse my thinking so I almost craved the pain to make myself go faster.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized how much crew shaped my life and how I’ve changed over the course of it. My intensity, drive, but mainly the nature of my competitiveness has been somehow honed, sharpened and brought to light for me.
Now, when I’m supposed to stop, or feel something is trying to hold me back, all I want to do is push harder to break through it. Now, if I didn’t do well on a test, I challenged myself to do better on my next one by doing whatever it took to prepare, and then some extra on top of that. I’ve also started using the idea from crew where the top guys push the bottom guys to spur a competitive collaborative environment in my classes and with friends.
While I’m conscious of this internal competitiveness almost all of the time, I don’t feel crazy. I feel motivated and empowered. Even when we raced back on fumes after that grueling workout in the harbor, I couldn’t believe how invigorated and strong I felt once back on land. As we brought in the boats, my teammates and I re-capped the painful details, laughing at the same time. None of us could wait for the next day to break another barrier. Call us crazy. We like it that way.
ANALYSIS: When I met with Brooks to brainstorm a topic idea for his Common App essay, he wanted to write about his passion for crew. I kept warning him how sports-themed essays are often dull and cliché. But he kept pushing to write about crew. And it’s a good thing he did!
This essay showed me that you can write about anything—even the topics that are often flagged as overdone or potentially boring to read (sports, mission trips, pets, etc.). I still believe you need to be careful of those topics, and that the key is to find something interesting that happened within those topics. Brooks essay is not just about crew, but how those punishing practices re-shaped his DNA.
His essay didn’t just say how he learned to work harder or be self-disciplined; his essay showed how he had to be a little crazy. It was critical that Brooks had a clear idea of his main point with this essay before he started writing it so it didn’t fall into the traps of writing about sports.
Once he focused on the crazy quality of crew, Brooks was able to brainstorm a real-life example to craft into an anecdote for his introduction. He re-created it by setting the scene (on the open water) with details (five miles home; tunnel vision; blacked out; coxswain yelling…) and dialogue (“Give me a reason to call 911.”).
Brooks didn’t tell us how crazy he had to be to row crew. Instead, he just shared one example and we got it immediately. You felt his pain. Then he hit us with the unexpected: He not only endured this craziness, he loved it.
Laguna Beach, CA
Boston University, Boston, MA
Standing by the display window, I wrapped my arms around Sarah’s slippery waist, struggling as I pulled the sheer, black turtleneck over one arm. As I yanked the sweater over her other arm, I heard a snap. One of her fingers dropped to the ground.
Although Sarah and the store’s other two mannequins were both relatively new, it has always been a battle to constantly change the mannequins and keep them fashionable. Needless to say, I was not looking forward to the skinny jeans.
But, I knew that working at this small boutique in my hometown presented a unique opportunity for me. Adrift, a tiny but hip clothing store for women, gave me a taste of the competitive fashion industry that I love. As a high school junior, I felt lucky for the challenge to create the seasonal displays and transform the mannequins.
Even as I wrestled the mannequins in the store window as passersby gaped and laughed, I enjoyed learning about how to style them in eye-catching outfits. During the two years I worked at Adrift, I jumped at every chance to learn more about the latest fashion trends, and also to understand what drove the business of sales and retail.
When I was first hired, I mainly worked alongside the manager, but after several months my devotion to the job became evident. I received new responsibilities. No matter how intimidated I felt with these unfamiliar tasks, I always tried to dive in with enthusiasm and confidence.
To my surprise, I loved even the most arduous roles. The folding and steaming of clothes, the reorganization of the store, and even the hours of inventory, taught me more about the industry.
My dedication to the menial tasks paid off. Last July the owner invited me to the Los Angeles Market to help merchandise the store. We spent almost that entire day walking around to all the different designers’ show rooms and previewing their collections. I felt so fortunate to participate in the buying process, and that my opinion was valued.
The owner of the store also allowed me to explore a new way of marketing by starting and managing the Adrift Facebook page. Facebook was something the owner did not know much about, and that was where my age gave me an advantage. With the Facebook page, I was able to reach out to all different age groups and market our small store.
As summer ends and fall begins my ongoing battle with the mannequins continues—it’s off with the bikinis and back on with the sweaters and jeans. I have learned to laugh with those people who walk past me on the sidewalk and stare as I wrestle with the mannequins.
My increased responsibilities have only increased my creativity, my business sense, and my love of fashion. I believe that all my skills that I have learned at Adrift boutique will prove beneficial to a hopefully life long career in the fashion industry.
ANALYSIS: Dylan’s essay is an example of how jobs can make great college app essay topics. Writing about a job almost always reveals a student who is industrious and hardworking right off the bat. What college wouldn’t love those qualities?
Also, the nature of most first jobs students take in their teens are humble by nature, and the learning curve is big (and sometimes entertaining) as well.
My favorite part of Dylan’s essay is her sense of humor. She does a terrific job of setting the scene by describing herself in the window so we can almost visualize her changing the awkward mannequin as passersby gawked at her.
I don’t know if she meant to do this, but withholding some of the details—that Sarah wasn’t a real person—gave her introduction a suspenseful quality.
Dylan didn’t set out to write a funny essay, but this description can’t help but make us laugh. There’s something powerful about showing yourself in a vulnerable moment. It makes you come across as very likable, in my opinion.
She starts by describing one challenging (and amusing) moment during her job, and then goes on to expand about the nature of her job and what she learned. One point of her essay was to show that her job had its unique demands, and at times was taxing, but that she realized how much she had to learn by sticking with it.
Gabrielle Mark Bachoua
San Diego, CA
University of California, Davis, CA
As my mom backs out of our driveway, I glance at the back seats to make sure my basketball gear is there, along with my schoolbooks, phone charger, and beat-up copy of Catch-22. We slowly wind through my neighborhood and over about a half dozen speed bumps, then pull onto the highway heading south with the other Sunday traffic.
I sit back and watch the familiar landmarks—the large Denny’s sign with the missing “N,” the short stretch of undeveloped land, the Shell billboard that meant we were almost there—flash past my window.
I’ve made this 20-mile trip between my parent’s homes for the last decade, four times a week, ever since they divorced when I was seven. I must have taken it more than a thousand times. Sometimes I dreaded getting into that car, and resented my parents for putting my older sister and me through the circular logic that moving us back and forth will make our lives normal because we see each parent often, but moving back and forth isn’t normal, unless they make it normal, which isn’t normal. Now I know it makes sense because normal isn’t ideal, normal is the unexpected and the crazy and the unforgiving.
I now realize that those rides were the consistency amid the madness. Looking out the window and down to the lane reflectors I think…about how on Friday’s basketball game my jump shot was off because I was floating to the left, about how I’m excited to see my dog and cat, about how upset I am because of Yossarian’s predicament, about how I’ll miss my dad, about how veterinary medicine is fascinating, about how I needed to study for my chemistry test, about how I will work harder to get into my dream school, and about how I’m glad that I get to take a nice nap before I go to mom’s.
I even remember the first time years ago when I noticed the smudge on the rear driver’s side window, which was shaped into a leaping dancer—a dancer in white. I would watch her move through the trees in El Cajon Valley, bob my head up and down to help her jump over hillside terraces of Spring Valley, and keep her from crashing into the Westfield mall sign two miles from my mom’s home.
It was those hours I spent thinking silently to myself when I learned more about who I am, where I envision myself going, and what my role is in this world. Sitting in the front seat, I’d take a moment to look back to see that same dancer in white, however faceless, nameless, and abstract, gave me a sense of comfort. That even though I wasn’t really ‘home,’ I still was, because home isn’t simply where you rest your head, but also where you have the security to dream inside of it.
ANALYSIS: Once again, an essay like this proves that you can pick almost anything to write about as long as you give it a focus. In this case, Gabrielle picked a simple stretch of roadway between her parent’s homes. She described the weekly routine and drive with vivid, descriptive details, so you felt as though you were in the car staring out the same window.
But she used the trip as a metaphor for a meaningful time in her life, when she had lots of downtime to reflect on her life, her feelings and dreams. Even though it shares the pain of her parent’s divorce in an understated way, that’s always in the background—and we can tell it has shaped her.
If she never had the time to daydream and reflect on her day, who knows how she would have been different somehow, or those emotions would have played out somewhere else.
Nothing really happens in this essay, but it still manages to have momentum and hold our interest. I love how she personifies a little smudge on the window into a dancer, another metaphor for her own journey.
In the end, Gabrielle explored the idea of home, and defined it more as a journey than a destination—whether riding in a car for a commute between houses or a lifelong adventure.
I believe Gabrielle didn’t set out to write a “deep” essay filled with metaphors and heavy insights, but by describing a simple routine and then reflecting upon what it meant to her, she revealed herself as an observant, reflective and wise young woman.
Laguna Beach, CA
University of Oregon, Eugene, OR
Skating Through Hard Times
I was in fifth grade eating breakfast with my family when the floor of my home gave way under our feet. We barely escaped from the house before it buckled into two pieces, and ran to safety before the entire hillside gave way. Our home was destroyed, and we narrowly escaped with our lives.
Six years ago, my family was caught in this terrifying landslide when my house and a dozen others slid down the side of a canyon in Laguna Beach. Within less than 10 minutes, my life literally fell out from under me. For the next five years, my family moved over a dozen times, often living out of boxes with friends and relatives. Besides my clothes and basic necessities, the only thing I hauled from house to house was my collection of skateboards.
Six months after the landslide, the city of Laguna Beach relocated us to a recycled trailer on a parking lot at the end of town so my parents could save money to rebuild our home. I see it now as an extremely generous gesture but at the time it was difficult. Living in this dilapidated, thin-walled trailer was definitely not the life I had envisioned. My backyard was an enormous parking lot.
As a lifelong skateboarder, however, that flat expanse of asphalt helped me get through the hardest years of my life. You see, I’m a skater from a hillside neighborhood and had never experienced such space and opportunity. I took advantage of the situation and made this neglected, dirty parking lot into a skateboarding oasis with ramps and rails that my friends donated.
We would all gather together after school as a release from the pressures of life for a while, practicing trick after trick, working to fine-tune each maneuver. Contests were created, videos shot, and movies made.
For the first time in my life, I had a flat area where my friends and I could hang out. Even though we didn’t talk much about the landslide, these friendships were both a distraction and softened the unpleasant living situation.
Also, balancing sports and loads of homework, I turned to what I thought of as my new backyard skate park at night to escape from reality each day. The sense of riding back and forth on a cold night helped me relax and persevere through my studies and life in general.
Numerous years passed in that cramped rickety, old trailer and life wore on dealing with everything from highway noise reverberating right outside our door to the constant rodent problem. When my family’s new, hillside home finally came to completion at Christmas last year, I was more than ready to move.
The only thing I would miss from my five-year ordeal was my beloved “skate park.” After moving into our permanent home, the crazy life I endured since fifth grade was now over and even though I could not bring the skate ramps themselves, I was able to bring plenty of memories.
One of the most important lessons I learned through all this is that I have the ability to find positive opportunities even in the grimmest circumstances. If I could find friendship, support and fun in a parking lot, I know I can find the upside to almost any situation.
ANALYSIS: Luc almost had no choice but to write about how he and his family lost their home in a landslide when he was young. It was such a defining experience—not just the terrifying event, but the long, slow process of “going home.”
I like how Luc recounted briefly the actual slide, and how he didn’t over dramatize or dwell on that. Instead, he picked right up on how he turned a bad situation into something positive. Like any good personal essay, this one has a clear universal truth: How every cloud has a silver lining (if you find it.)
Because Luc’s description of his experience showed us how bad things were and then the steps he took to improve them, he never had to spend a lot of time explaining what he learned. He only needed a couple sentences at the very end to share his lessons.
A lot of students who grow up in Southern California want to write about their passions for sports, such as surfing and skate boarding. I usually steer them away from these topics, since they aren’t very interesting to read. Luc’s essay is a huge exception!
Copywrite @ 2014 Janine Robinson
All rights reserved.
24 More Commonly Asked Questions
about College Admissions Essays
- How far back should I go in tracing my background?
When writing about experiences from your past, it’s best to stick to your high school years in general (for Common Application and incoming freshmen). That way, you make sure that any moments, incidents, activities or “times” that you include are relevant and timely. It’s okay to mention details from earlier days to support points you want to make, but use those sparingly because that was a long time ago and not as powerful as more recent examples.
Learn more: How to Answer Prompt 1 for Common Application
- How much of the information already in my application should I repeat?
Ideally, try to include information and topics in your essay that college admissions officers would not have already learned about you in other parts of your application. This is your best opportunity to showcase something additional and meaningful that goes beyond your test scores, grades and lists of extracurricular activities. Why tell them something they already know?
However, you might need to mention specifics from your application if you are going to write your essay about a topic related to your extracurricular activities or academics, and that’s fine—just make sure your essay tells the reader a lot more than simply what you did.
Learn more: Write Your Essay in Three Easy Steps
- Should I include or explain negative experiences?
You should definitely consider writing about negative experiences from your past, because chances are these involved problems. Problems are essay gold because you can share something that happened to you that is interesting and engaging (bad stuff simply is more interesting to read about), and then explain what you learned from handling it.
If you do share a negative experience—and these often make the best essays—you must quickly include how you found something positive from handling or solving it. If you don’t include the upside, your essay will be downer, which you don’t want.
You must share the negative experience, however, so we know how far you came and what you learned by working through it.
Learn more: Tips on Topics to Avoid
- Should I call attention to a low (or high) G.P.A.?
Essays are often an excellent opportunity for students to explain blips in their academic record. In general, let high G.P.A.s stand for themselves—if you call attention to them you can slip into sounding full of yourself. It’s crucial to maintain a humble tone in your essay, no matter how brilliant you are.
If you had a dip in your grades, you could write your essay to explain what obstacles got in your way, but make sure to include how you handled or managed those and either recovered or are on your way.
Don’t waste your essay explaining average grades. Instead, focus on writing an essay that showcases your individuality and character, and leave your grades out of it. Only consider writing your essay about grades if they crashed at some point. You are not writing an excuse for your poor performance; just giving an explanation. Also, share your plan to keep them upward bound.
Learn more: 5 Tips for “Do This; Not That” in Topics
- How “personal” should I be?
The best college application essays are highly personal. Students who share their struggles, low-points and feelings connect with their readers, and are memorable.
However, there is a line. The best rule is: When in doubt, leave it out. The last thing you want to do in your essay is to offend your reader.
There’s no need to include things that are gross or offensive. Often it’s all about how you say it. The more sensational something is, the fewer details you need to get across your point. Red flag topics to handle with care are religion, politics, sex, illness and death.
Instead of saying, “The kid barfed green puke all over me.” Say something like, “The kid couldn’t keep down his dinner.”
If you can’t tell the difference, ask advice from someone you trust.
Learn more: TMI in College Application Essays
- How do you fit everything important in 650 words?
The reason essays have a word count is to help students focus their essay on making one central point about themselves. If you write your draft, and you exceed the count, go back and edit it down. Never go over!
Cut out the big chunks you don’t need to support your point first, then sentences and finally individual words. Look for parts that don’t support your larger point, or sentences you already said and don’t need. Shorter is almost always better.
Instead of aiming to include everything about yourself in the essay, pick one main point to showcase, such as one of your core defining qualities, characteristics or a core value.
Learn more: The Ultimate Editing Checklist
- What do college admissions officers say I should write about?
College admissions officers first want you to respond their prompts. After that, they are looking for essays that tell them something about your that they wouldn’t learn from other parts of your application.
They also are looking to put a face on your application. The essay is the only part of the application where you can share your personality (your individuality) and character (what you care about).
They are looking for essays that help them differentiate you from other applicants. So look for ways to show how you are different from other students, and why that matters.
Learn more: College Admissions Officers Want Stories
- How personal should the personal essay be?
The best essays are always highly personal. The best way to get personal is to share some type of problem you faced (mistake, challenge, obstacle, flaw, phobia, setback, life change, failure, etc.) and include how it affected you and made you feel.
When you are open and vulnerable in your essay, you will connect with your reader. They will feel your pain and be on your side. This does not mean you complain or whine. Instead, share some of your feelings when you wrestled or handled a problem. Include a sentence on what went through your head, or what inspired you to address a problem. Be honest and direct. We are all more likable when we share our low points rather than our high points.
Learn more: How to Get Personal in Your Essay
- Do college application essays need MIA format?
There is no set format for these essays, since most require students to copy and paste them into web site applications, which can often lose any special formatting.
In general, write them in the first-person and stick with the past tense. Indent paragraphs and use standard punctuation, grammar and other rules of the English language.
The style is less formal, however, so you can relax some of the rules if it helps you set a more familiar, conversational tone, such as using contractions or phrases. Write more like you talk, but don’t get sloppy.
More FAQS about College Application Essays
Learn more: Forget the 5-Paragraph Essay
30. Does a college application essay need a title?
You can include a title with your essay, but it’s not required. Only use one if it adds something to the piece. A snappy title can help an essay be more memorable or stand out. But if you can’t think of one, leave it out.
Learn more: Should You Title Your Essay?
- How to conclude college application essay?
These essays are more casual than academic essays that you wrote in English class. You do not need a formal conclusion that restates your main point, or to wrap it up in a neat bow at the end.
However, there are ways to give your essay a satisfying and memorable conclusion.
One of the best ways to give a narrative, slice-of-life essay a sense of continuity is to find a way to link back to what you started with in your introduction. If you started by sharing something that happened to you, touch back to that incident and bring the reader up to date.
Also, try to share how you intend to apply whatever you say you learned in your essay toward your future college and career goals. It never hurts to end with a broad, upbeat statement.
Learn more: How to End Your Essay
- How to organize college application essay?
These essays have a looser format than typical academic essays your wrote for English class. Do not use the old five-paragraph style if possible. Even though these personal essays are less structured, it still helps to have a simple outline to organize how you want to present your ideas.
One way to structure a personal essay is to decide what quality, characteristic about yourself you want to showcase. Then find examples from your life that illustrate it. Start by sharing a moment or experience that is an example of your quality, characteristic or value, and then spend the rest of the essay explaining what it meant to you—what you learned and how you changed in any way.
Learn more: How to Structure a College Application Essay
- How to make college application essay stand out?
The best way to stand out with your essay is to try to find a topic that is unusual or unexpected. Writing about things you have done to impress colleges does not work, and in fact backfires, since those essays are usually very boring and a turn-off.
Instead, look for topics that are everyday or “mundane,” and find real-life stories where something happened to you to engage your reader. Brainstorm moments or “times” related to your hobbies, passions, jobs, family, background and interests for topics.
It’s often not what you write about, but what you have to say about it that makes the most difference in these essays. Try to find a way to tell target schools something they wouldn’t learn about you in other parts of your application.
The best trick to finding a topic that is interesting and sets you apart is to share times you faced some type of problem, especially one that was highly personal or challenging or unusual.
Learn more: Podcast on How to Stand Out with Your Essay
- What should college application essay be about?
The essays needs to be about you. Period. You can include other people in your essay if they had an impact on your topic, but you must make sure that most of what you say and share is about you.
The best way to make sure your essay is about you is to choose a defining quality or characteristic about yourself to showcase in your essay.
Then share real-life moments or experiences that illustrate why you are that way, and what you learned about yourself and why it matters. If you stick to writing about one quality or characteristic, your topic can’t wander too far away from being all about you.
Learn more: How to Find a Killer Topic for Your College Application Essay
- Who reads college application essays?
Usually, a small group of adults who are part of a school’s admissions committee read college application essays. The committee is comprised of admissions officers, who are staff (usually from the admissions department), professors or current or former students.
They can come from all types of ages and background. It’s best to think of them as basic people who are tasked with finding students they believe will contribute to the college or university.
Most will tell you they are looking for the “right fit,” so it’s in your best interest to help them by writing an essay that helps them understand your personality and character.
Learn more: Watch an Admissions Committee in Action
- Which common app essay to write?
You can pick from five prompts (essay questions) to write about you’re the Common Application core essay for incoming freshmen. Read through all five and see if one grabs your interest or if you feel you have something to say about it.
Generally, the first prompt is considered the most open-ended and most personal essays that include anything about a student’s background, identity, interest or talent would work. Notice they are also asking for a story, which always make these essays more interesting and meaningful.
Prompts 2 and 4 both ask students to write about problems (a failure in Prompt 2 or any imaginable type of problem in Prompt 4), which are the easiest to craft into a personal essay. Share the problem, and then go onto how you handled it and what you learned and you will have a solid essay.
Remember, these are just prompts and intended to “prompt” ideas and you are not expected to directly answer them, but write an essay that responds to it.
Learn more: Strategies for All 5 Common App Prompts
- Which common app essay topic is best?
The best essay topic is the one that allows you to share something interesting and meaningful about yourself. There is no one topic that works for all students.
If you can find a topic that is unusual or unexpected, that could help make your essay more interesting and memorable. But the most important part of writing about any topic is what you have to say about it—what you learned, how you felt, what you thought and how you changed.
Learn more: Strategies for All 5 Common App Prompts
- Should I be specific in my essay?
Yes, you should be specific in key parts of your essay to give it both a strong focus and interest.
When deciding what to write about yourself in your essay, it helps to be specific about what part of yourself you want to showcase (as opposed to trying to cram in everything about yourself.) Instead of writing about all your accomplishment or talents, try to think of one of your defining qualities or characteristics and write your essay about that.
Also, when you make general points in your essay, back them up with specific examples to add interest and clarity.
Learn more: Defining Qualities Bring Focus to Essays
- College Applications: How do universities ensure that the essays they receive don’t have any kind of plagiarism?
College admissions officers have keen radar on essays that were not written by students. They have read hundreds and even thousands of essays, and can usually detect when someone else has written an essay for a student. Never buy essays since these are usually poorly written and colleges can tell they were not original.
When admissions officer suspect plagiarism, it’s not hard to use to Google to check the source.
If you don’t write your own essay or copy what others have written, you will only hurt yourself in the long run, since colleges use these essays to make sure they are the right place for you.
Learn more: Why You Shouldn’t Even Think of Cheating on Your Essay
40. Serious or Funny Essay?
Both serious and funny essay can be effective. It depends on your topic and what you want to say about yourself.
You can even be both serious and funny in the same essay. For instance, you can start your essay with an entertaining story about something that happened to you, but then explain what it meant and share serious insight, opinions and lessons learned.
What you don’t want is to try to write a funny essay, like a comedy sketch. Instead, share the funny thing that happened in a direct way and let the humor stand on its own.
In general, the subject of what you are talking about will determine whether your essay is serious or funny, or a little of both.
Learn more: 5 Ways to Blow Your Essay
41. What is most important part of an essay?
This is a hard question because an effective college application essays needs to accomplish several goals, and different parts have separate roles. First, the essay must engage the reader at the start, so it’s imperative that the introduction is compelling. Second, the essay must reveal something unique about the writer, so it must have a sharp focus and share something about the writer’s personality. Third, the essay needs to show the writer’s character, so it needs to express their values, how they learn and what they care about. The best way to do all three is to share a personal experience and then explain what it meant to you.
Learn more: https://www.essayhell.com/2014/04/what-makes-a-college-application-essay-great/
42. Should I write an analytical essay?
Your essay should be a personal essay, which typically also includes some type of analysis or examination of how you feel, think and learn. A stricly analytical essay has a more formal style and structure and would be too academic to work as an effective college application essay. The best personal essays are narrative (storytelling) in style, and start with students sharing a real-life experience and then explaining what it meant—through analysis of the event, what they learned, how they thought about it, what they valued and why it all mattered in the larger sense. The best college application essays also include personal reflection (sharing ideas, insights, realizations, questions, etc.).
Learn more: https://www.essayhell.com/2016/07/random-questions-answers-college-application-essays/
43. Should my essay be narrative?
The best style and format for an effective college application essay is narrative. This means the writer shares a personal experience and uses that to reveal something unique about themselves (their personality), as well as how they learn, what they care about and what the life lesson mattered (their character.) Narrative essays are not one, long story; rather, they take one moment or incident and use that to illustrate something about themselves that will help colleges differentiate them among other applicants. The single moment or incident is often used at the start (an “anecdote”) as the introduction and is only a paragraph or two long. The rest of the essay is used to explain what it meant to the writer.
Learn more: https://www.essayhell.com/2011/08/jumpstart-your-personal-statement-in-6-simple-steps/
44. How do I end my essay on a positive note?
It’s always best to leave the reader on an upbeat note, no matter how intense or negative other parts of the essay were up to that point. Many essays share experiences that were challenging or problematic, but it’s imperative that the student also quickly show how they handled those issues and turned them into learning experiences. The best way to leave on a positive note is to share how you intend to apply what you learned from an experience in your future goals. Use your last sentence or two to shift into the future and share how you intend to use your newfound knowledge toward your dreams.
Learn more: https://www.essayhell.com/2013/09/jumping-to-conclusions-how-to-end-your-essay/
Hope you found these FAQs about College Application Essays helpful. Read the first 20 Most Commonly Asked Questions about College Applications if you want to learn more.
If you have a burning question I haven’t answered here, please ask away in the comments section below and I will do my best to answer it.