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.
Four “Bold” Sample College Admissions Essays
by j9robinson | May 17, 2013
College Application Essays
“Meant to Inspire”
All Students Showed an “Appetite for Risk”
Earlier this year, a business writer for The New York Times invited students to share their college admissions essays on the topic of money, class, working and the economy.
Today, reporter Ron Lieber published his follow-up article, where he shared his reaction and thoughts on the effectiveness of those essays.
He also had Harry Bauld, who wrote the classic guide on how to write these essays (On Writing the College Application Essay), read them and give his opinions as well.
I hope you take the time to read this article all the way through. Lieber said he and Bauld “meant to inspire” students shooting for college in 2014 by sharing their four favorite essays.
Here are the main points they liked about them:
- “They took brave and counterintuitive positions” on their topics
- They all “talking openly” about issues that are “emotionally complex and often outright taboo.”
- They had “an appetite for risk” (one student wrote about the application process itself, a topic that is usually discouraged.)
- They were bold (with their ideas, language and opinions)
- They kept their edges (meaning, they didn’t allow parents or counselors or editors to over-edit their pieces and retained their unique, though sometimes rough, teenage voices.)
Click HERE to read all four essays. (more…)
The Top Student=Bad Essay Paradox
by j9robinson | Sep 13, 2012
College Application Essays
How to Stay On Top of the Heap
For some reason, “top students”–aka high achievers, go-getters, A-types, test-takers, straight-A students, you know who you are!–often have the hardest time writing these essays. At least really good ones.
Don’t get me wrong. These students are the ones who know to start early on their essays, and put a lot of effort into them. Their writing is usually technically “clean” of errors, and they probably would get an “A” from their English teachers. The problem is many of their essays are either on the dull side, or come across as trying too hard to impress or make them sound a bit full of themselves. This is not good!
Here are some of the reasons for this top student=bad essay paradox:
1. “Top” students often have a hard time trusting that a casual, narrative style produces an engaging, powerful essay. Instead, they stick to a formal, academic style (like the 5-paragraph essay); use too many long words; downshift into the passive voice; write overly long, descriptive sentences; cram in the adverbs. Many students (not just these “top” ones) often break into the dreaded English-ese (See my attempt at a definition below.). Take a writing Chill Pill to strike a more conversational tone and find your true writing voice.
The Catch-22 of College Admissions Essays
by j9robinson | Sep 9, 2010
It feels like a set-up. First, you are supposed to reveal how wonderful you are in 500 words–about the number you can cram onto a postcard in your teensiest handwriting. Second, you must sell yourself to the college of your dreams—setting yourself apart from the thousands of other equally wonderful students–but appear humble and likeable at the same time. Third, no one has ever taught you how to write this type of essay, called a personal narrative. No one. Ever!
I call this impossible challenge the Catch 22 of College Essays, at least the part about saying how great you are and staying meek at the same time. You know, make an impression but don’t dare try to impress anyone!! No wonder you are stressed out!!!
The best way to handle this challenge–and I have detailed how to do this all over my blog–is to stick with a story. And it doesn’t have to be a life-changing, mind-blowing event, either. In a weird way that I don’t quite understand, the less impressive the story—the more basic, simple, everyday, mundane it is—the better it will go over. (Learn more about the power of mundane topics.)
Here’s how it works: When you tell your story, you naturally show the reader about yourself. You can avoid that awkward tone of voice that sounds boastful when you describe yourself: I’m a really creative person. I’m really passionate. I’m really great at solving problems. For some reason, when you hear someone say something like that, your first reaction is to think, with great sarcasm, “Oh, you are, are you? Well, good for you!” Whereas, if you just describe the time you built a ten-foot sculpture out of driftwood, feathers, dryer lint and goat hair, the reader might think, without a hint of sarcasm, “Wow, that’s pretty cool. That girl sounds creative.” See the difference? More on Show, Don’t Tell.)
I know I’ve hammered on this, but find your anecdotes, your examples, interesting moments, and just describe what happened—and then examine what you learned from them. It’s hard to go wrong with a story.
Read this post on How to Write an Anecdote to get started telling your best stories!
Good Topics: See for yourself!
by j9robinson | Jun 4, 2010
Today, I’m going to try to practice what I preach (in this blog) and Show instead of Tell you the difference between good topics and bad topics:
- The Time I Climbed Mount Everest
- My Mission Trip to Costa Rica
- The Day We Won the State Championship
- Why I Hate Writing Admissions Essays
- The Day My Beloved Dog Spot Died
- Why I Love to Tutor Kids
- What I Learned in Model UN
- Why I’m a Karaoke Queen
- An Afternoon Working at In and Out Burger
- My Grandmother’s Hands
- I Make the Best Grilled Cheese Sandwich
- Taming the Beast—My Frizzy Red Hair
- Ode to my TI-89 (Calculator)
- My Obsession with Spiderman Comics
Do you See the difference? Okay, I can’t help myself. Now I’m going to Tell you about the differences. The bad topics are too general, they try to impress, they are overused, they most likely will be boring (Do they make you want to read them?). The good topics are specific, they are not trying to impress anyone (“mundane” is good!!), they are unique, and they make you want to read them.
Ready to start? Try my Jumpstart Guide or look for more Topic Ideas.