What Are The Best College Essays About
As we have been approaching this year’s January 1 Regular Decision deadline, I’ve been concentrating on essays in my posts here. Today, I want to show you some more samples of excellent Common Application essays so that they might inspire you to a better level of writing.
First, let’s review the choices of topics the Common Application offers. Here are the prompts from which you may choose:
– Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
– Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
– Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
– Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
– Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
These five prompts provide a wide latitude of possibilities for you to conjure an effective statement from the world around you or your personal life and circumstances. Let’s take a look at a quartet of excellent examples that have crossed my path.
Here’s one about a brotherly-sisterly relationship:
I vividly recall asking my mother why her waistline was steadily expanding. She took my hand, placed it on her stomach, and said, “Meet your baby sister!” I was six years old and family life had always been focused on me and my needs. Suddenly, I felt uncertain about my future. How would my life change? Would my new sister and I like each other? My father assured me that I would be a kind, loving brother, but I was not so sure!
Hours after Lauren’s birth, on a snowy February day, my dad took me to the hospital to meet her. I insisted on wearing my souvenir Burger King crown because I liked it, and thought that she’d like it, too! Amid all the fanfare and excitement, somehow there was a special gift from Lauren to me: a shiny red fire truck! As I opened my gift, I wondered how she could have known that trucks were among my favorite toys (although I didn’t ponder that too long).
Daily life quickly changed for me in ways I hadn’t imagined. Initially, my big-brother role was mostly that of helpful assistant, who dutifully gave her a bottle or held her. After I had been assisting with her physical care for some time, I volunteered more meaningful contributions, such as encouraging her to crawl and walk. To my surprise, I secretly started to enjoy my new role. I was getting unexpected pleasure from my increasing responsibilities and from my rising family status. No longer was I simply the older brother; now I was also her close friend, teacher, and coach. Her respect for me made (and makes) me feel more mature, capable, adult-like. I treat her questions seriously and trust that she finds the lessons I teach her from my experience helpful and relevant. I welcome the opportunity to mentor her and she shows me her appreciation.
Lauren has definitely benefited from my help, and I can see that our relationship is more mutually beneficial than I had anticipated. The lessons that I have taught Lauren have shown me the benefits of compassion, patience, communication, and understanding the so-called feminine “mystique.” When she broke her collarbone, I helped her with daily duties, such as getting dressed and carrying her books. I was pleased to be able to help her during this difficult and awkward time. I’m also patient with her when we’re active in shared interests like music, swimming, or tennis.
As Lauren matures into more of a peer, I value her feminine point of view. Despite our age and gender differences, my parents enabled a lifelong bond between us, and I foster that bond as we grow. I appreciate Lauren’s opinions about things. She feels sufficiently comfortable to comment on my friends (“they dress funny”), my clothes (“too preppy”), and my haircut (“grow it out; it’s too short!”). We laugh and sometimes get angry with each other, but we always resolve our differences, which serves to strengthen relationship.
Thinking back to the year she was born, I realize that my dad’s prediction was accurate. I have become the wise older brother, with a greater appreciation for the dimension and richness that a positive sibling relationship can bring. Our mutual support, trust, and love have brought out the best in me, and I know that the best is yet to come.
This one centers on what you can pull from seemingly mundane observations around you every day and in school.
There is a certain delight in feeling little. I mean little in the context of the word belittle. As negative a connotation the word has adopted, in a different frame of reference, it’s quite enthralling. An example:
I have an unconscious tendency to strategize my position in a classroom. I prefer the front-row-middle seat always.
An early Saturday morning earlier this month found me standing under the doorframe of my assigned classroom, staring at the redheaded girl who had stolen my seat. I spent 54 seconds telepathically explaining to her and her Starbucks coffee that THAT was MY seat. All I got back was static. Giving up grudgingly, I wandered to what seemed to be the absolutely most irritating seat in the entire room—middle-row middle seat. Amazingly, the tallest students of the class found it absolutely necessary to sit in the front two rows, creating a grade-A wall between any view of the front and me. Quite an advantage if the teacher threw erasers, though, but an unlikely possibility in this class—Quantum Theory and Relativity.
My teacher stepped in. Quick punctuated biography of Hayn Park: Born South Korean. Raised South American. Schooled Harvard, Moscow, Columbia. Specialty: quantum physics. Korean military service. Columbia again. His opening bit of wisdom to my class: “Stay in school, at least they don’t make you dig ditches.” He had me at Panama.
He opened class with the insanely attractive “Common sense doesn’t apply here.” His follow-ups were even more alluring. “Next class we won’t be working in three-dimensional space anymore, we’ll start with 3+1 space” and “If something travels faster than light, then your cause will happen after you effect” and my ultimate favorite, “Here’s how to make a black hole.”
It’s been six classes, and I now know what it means to have one’s breath taken away, to literally have the air stolen from my lungs by some magnificent invisible force. For two-and-a-half hours every seven days, I enter a world where boredom has no time to invade, where math is the only language, and theory the only absolute. One class a week to grasp knowledge I did not know existed, to learn that what I thought was impossible could be.
The seat I was forced to take that first day has ever since been my greatest blessing. From all four corners I am constantly saturated by brilliance. Angular people lopsidedly focused on a particular subject, speaking with fluency in that one subject. Vulcan at his forge. A distinctive pride arises when I realize I can call these my peers. A distinctive pride with an attached humility. Feeling small is a boon when I see all the room I have to grow.
During breaks, I listen to Hayn’s off-topic trivia about anti-matter and the like. The impact of his abridged soda-machine-time lectures is staggering. Instead of unproductively staring at walls on my subway ride home, I reread the notes of the day, redrawing some diagrams, reliving the class. In doing so, not only do I see the facts but I also comprehend their truth. Thinking is a gerund often spoken of but rarely done. Thought is the effect of my Saturday morning venture. Thought—the actual stimulation of new ideas and questions based on logic. Startling myself with what I know what I can know, and what I want to know.
I crave this in college and in life.
About a right of passage …
“If I cooked you, I’d be able to survive on your meat for over a month.” This was not the welcome I had expected on my first day at the British School in Phuket, Thailand. I wondered if my fellow students here would be as kind as they were in America or would they be rude and brash, as this insult implied? Would the curriculum be an academic challenge or an intellectual breeze? I had no idea what to expect.
At ten years old, I was 4’11” and weighed 185 pounds. As Dreem (this was his name) spoke his offensive words, he smirked. Almost instinctively, something snapped inside me and, although aggressiveness is not one of my traits, I rushed him and knocked him to the floor. I think he got my point.
Dreem did not look like other Thai kids. While he appeared to be Caucasian, his insult implied that English was not his first language. However, with his lightly colored skin and golden blonde curls, he certainly didn’t look Thai. As October arrived, Dreem’s various traits began to intrigue me and I wanted to know more about him. Whether he was eating by himself in the boisterous refectory or sitting in the corner of the library silently doing work, he was always alone. I assumed he didn’t have many friends because of his personality, but I decided to give him a second chance.
One particularly humid day, I approached him, choosing to ignore the possibility of harassment. He was sitting under a sala (a type of Thai hut), fiddling with a cell phone, when I interrupted him. That first chat was brief, but it planted the seeds for our budding friendship. We then sat next to each other in classes, ate lunch together in the refectory, and did homework together. We had become good friends. From bowling to jet skiing, we did it all together and were inseparable, quite a turnaround from that first assault on my weight.
After a year in Thailand, my family moved back to the U.S. I kept in touch with Dreem by weekly emails and occasionally caught him online with MSN Messenger. Dreem lived on Patong Beach, one of the hardest hit areas of the tragic 2004 tsunami. He didn’t survive. His house was flattened. I was crushed. I had never lost somebody that close to me.
Dreem’s death dramatically changed my life. I began thinking that life was too short and it would be a waste to do things I didn’t really want to do. Before Dreem, I never really devoted myself to working hard, but since his passing I now focus on what’s important and I hate leaving work unfinished. I want to be successful, not only for myself but also for Dreem. After I reflected on what happened to him, I realized that he never had the chance to do what he wanted in his life—to live and just “be.”
His memory burns within me and fuels my passion for life. My once short, stout frame has now grown to six feet tall and my then 185 pounds are now 170. I often wonder what Dreem would be like today. Where would he be? What would he look like? What would he be doing? I’ll never know these answers, but I’ll also never forget my friend whose name defines my approach to life.
An unusual place of contentment …
Believe it or not, the old phrase, “A woman’s place is in the home” is still alive and well in the scientific community, as the dramatic gender-bias study published last September in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences shows. Today, it’s “A woman’s place is not in the lab.” The path I have taken over the past four years has proven to me that women can be just as comfortable in STEM careers as they were 75 years ago as housewives. My place – where I feel most content – is definitely in the lab.
I work as a research assistant in the Department of Neurosurgery’s lab at Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center. I obtained this coveted position as a high school student, only through dogged persistence. Neurosurgery is one of the most competitive fields of medicine and proving to a team of world-class researchers that I could contribute to their complex, meaningful studies was no minor feat. I spent my first summer absorbing information and directly applying it to my diverse list of assigned tasks, aiming for mastery and efficiency. Since then, I have devoted the bulk of my life to research. Over the past two summers, I have spent roughly 50 hours a week in the lab. During the school year, I try to squeeze in as much lab time as I can. Ten hours a week is about all I can manage, but I appreciate the quality of the time I can spend working with my colleagues. Scarfing down snacks during the 30-minute commute has become a ritual I fondly associate with my anticipation of learning and productivity there.
My work focuses on animal research, immunohistochemistry, and biochemical studies involving amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). ALS is a disease for which there is no current effective treatment or cure. Research is critical in offering alternatives for patients who have few options for a high quality of life. My mentor, Dr. Amanda Snyder, has taught me far more than lab technique and critical analysis skills. She has instilled in me the importance of being tenacious, inventive, and passionate about researching such a debilitating disease. Dr. Snyder also demonstrates the importance of comparative studies. As a scientist, she is committed to meaningful, humane animal research. Through her example, I have become an active proponent of responsible animal studies, a topic I advocated in a TEDx Youth talk I presented during my junior year. In addition to providing a platform for activism, my lab position has also enabled me to shadow leading ALS specialists, who have further inspired me to follow in their path. Most importantly, though, my lab work allows me to meet ALS patients who might someday benefit from our clinical trials. These patients are the reason I dedicate my summers and free time to seemingly tedious duties and constant commuting.
Receiving my monogrammed white lab coat was a rite of passage for me. It represented the confirmation that I’ve entered a world where I can scrupulously investigate the delicate intricacies of the brain and nervous system. It’s a world where I witness firsthand the transformation of raw ideas, that were once a mere hybrid of curiosity and prior knowledge, into pending solutions for the tribulations that plague humanity. Eight researchers in my lab are female. These intelligent, passionate women are beacons of achievement in their respective fields. Their example both challenges and humbles me. They invest in my scientific future through every moment they spend with me. I hope that someday I’m able to repay that investment by further proving the point that women belong in laboratories and scientific institutions, where they can excel. I would like to banish, once and for all, the misguided mindsets about where a woman’s “place” should be. In the meantime, I’ll be in the lab.
I hope that these four examples will help you see some ways to express yourself in your Common Application essay. I’ll leave you with a piece of advice that has been especially valuable to me over the years. It’s about how to come up with great ideas about which to write. “To understand the invisible, look close at the visible.”
There are myriad topics in your world … right under your nose. Use them!
Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.
For many high school students, writing an essay is one of the most daunting parts of the college application process, especially when students are unsure of each university’s expectations.
Going over top college essay examples is a great way for students to learn more about expectations for essay submissions. Check out these tips for ideas and inspiration, and read these example essays before getting started!
The Importance of Good Essay Writing
Being able to write a great essay is extremely important when applying for college, but the skills students use to write their essays don’t end with college applications. Writing skills are some of the most important, not only preparing students to write a top college essay, but they are preparing to write well for life.
College Admission Essay 1
Prompt:Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
Pushing through the hordes of people, I catch a glimpse of my train’s boarding check-ins. Like a captain frantically seeking a lighthouse in a storm, I haul myself across the ocean of human bodies, trying to stay afloat, to avoid being stranded – or trampled – in the dustiest city in the world: Beijing, capital of both China and smog.
Luckily, I find my train with plenty of time to spare, and without being turned into a pancake, which is always a plus. The train conductor in his freshly pressed dark green uniform checks my ticket and welcomes me to the train. At last, it is time to return home to Shanghai.
This is the summer of 2012 and Shanghai isn’t to be my home for much longer. Another week and I will cross the globe to start a new life in a foreign land called Charlotte. But which is home? The place I am leaving or the place I am going? Arrival or departure? Like a compass with a broken magnetic strip, I can’t decide where to call home.
This uncertainty is unsettling, leaving me consumed by worry. I take The Things They Carried from my backpack and run my fingers over the slightly crumpled pages. It doesn’t take me long to lose myself; I’m sucked in, broken down, and shot off into the distance by this book of memories.
They say the best books tell you what you already know, resonating with your own thoughts and emotions. As I read The Things They Carried on the train to Shanghai, it is as if the tempest of my thoughts has become unraveled and spelled out on paper. The overflowing sense of hyper-reality in Tim O’Brien’s words of warfare spills into my world. His words somehow become my words, his memories become my memories. Despite the high speed of the train on the tracks, my mind is held in a perfectly still state – trapped between the narrative of the book and the narrative of my own life.
I feel like I should be disturbed, but I’m not. I read the last page and close the book, staring out the window at the shining fish ponds and peaceful rice paddies. I feel like I am a speck of dust out there, floating, content, happy. I realize that I am at home between worlds. I speak both English and Chinese. I use Chinese for math, science, quantity, and process. English, however, is my language of choice for art, emotion, and description. America owns my childhood, filled by pine trees, blockbusters, and Lake Tahoe snow; China holds my adolescent years, accompanied by industrial smog, expeditious mobility, and fast-paced social scenes. Shanghai is the place where I fought my first bully, discovered mobile phones, became acquainted with heartaches, and tasted independence.
I look out the window and realize we are drawing into Shanghai Hong Qiao station. My reverie is at an end, but I have the answer to my question. Home isn’t arrival or departure. Home isn’t America or China. Home is the in-between, the cusp of transition, the space between breaths, and that is where I feel most content.
College Admission Essay 2
Prompt: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
I won “Most Original” pumpkin at a Halloween party years ago. I hate the “Most Original” award. It’s a consolation prize. You can’t be the best, or the prettiest, so you have to be “original”. I’ve won the “Most Original” award a fair amount of times. I was even named “Most Original” at a basketball awards banquet. What does that mean? How can anybody be “Most Original” when she’s playing basketball?
Recognizing the “Most Original” award for the pity-prize that it was, I grew increasing hostile toward the very word “original”. If you win this cursed award, everyone around you feigns sympathy for your circumstances. Phrases like “oh, bummer” and “well, good for you” often circle around the recipient. This creates a cyclone of cynicism and regret, one from which the “winner” will never quite recover.
Okay. Maybe I’m overreacting, but I cannot for the life of me understand that award. “Most Original” always let me down, and as a result, I hated to be original in any context. In my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, where normality was… well, the norm, I tried to be a typical student, absolutely, perfectly normal.. I blended into crowds, the definition of the classic American teenager. I became a person who refused to surprise people. Just another brick in the wall. Dull.
And then I moved to Berkeley for 6 months. It’s an odd, vibrant place, with odd, vibrant people. I love it because originality is celebrated there. I became friends with a student who dressed outlandishly, wearing corset tops and tutus, and on some days, carrying around a parasol. Her best friend was a boy with purple hair who once wore a shirt with built in LED lights for Christmas. They were the most popular people in school, despite being contradictions to all that was admired in New Haven. Our peers recognized them as being unique, but instead of ostracizing them, as would likely have happened in New Haven, the students in Berkeley accepted and celebrated their originality.
In Berkeley, I learned the value of originality: Those who celebrate their individuality are not only unique, but strong. It takes great strength to defy the definitions of others, and because of that strength, those who create their own paths discover a different world than those who travel the same worn road.
When I returned to New Haven, I had changed. My hair was dyed with red streaks, and I wore crazy clothes that instantly made me stand out. Suddenly, everyone knew who I was. Once, such notoriety would have made me nervous, as if I had painted a large target on my forehead. But I had changed more than just my hairstyle and clothing – I had embraced the idea of being original. Spending time in a place where “most original” was the highest compliment allowed me to explore myself without fear of being different, lesser.
I’m still skeptical about the “Most Original” award. In the context of an award ceremony, it’s still just a meaningless consolation prize. But I don’t think of being “most original” as an insult anymore. I wear it as a badge of honor, proof that I am myself and no one else.
Very recently, a friend joked, “If there were a ‘Quirkiest’ award in the yearbook, you would definitely be in it.” We were standing outside of a classroom, and I was wearing a pair of gold colored shorts that definitely caught the eye. Her comment made me laugh. “‘Quirkiest’ makes me sound awkward.” I answered. “How about ‘Most Original’?”
College Admission Essay 3
Prompt: Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
The sweet smell of cinnamon resonated through the house. A wave of warmth washed over my face as I opened the oven door to reveal my first batch of snicker doodles. Small domes of sugary cookies shyly peeked from the edge of the door. I smiled in excitement as I thought about the laughter these cookies would bring to my friends. They like to compare me to the witch in Hansel and Gretel, except that I fatten children up and then forget to eat them. I am inclined to send a slight glare at this comparison, but any rancor is overwhelmed by my enjoyment of their anticipation of my baked goods.
There is something about the warmth of a kitchen filled with the buttery smell of pastry that evokes a feeling of utter relaxation. I find joy in sharing this warm and homey experience by showering the people around me with the sweets. The smile that creeps up in the corners of someone’s mouth as he or she bites into my food gives me a sense of pride and accomplishment.
For as long as I can remember, baking has been an integral part of my life. Thanks to busy parents and hungry siblings, I was encouraged to cook from a relatively young age. Time spent in the kitchen naturally piqued my interest in baking. Such interests expanded into a heart-warming hobby that rejuvenates my stressful days, improves upon even my happiest moments, and brings joy to the people around me.
They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. It has been my experience that the way to ANYONE’S heart is through the stomach. To me, food is not simply about sustenance. The time that I spend in my kitchen, the effort and care that I pour into my confectionary creations, is a labor of love that brings me just as much satisfaction as it does my hungry friends and family.
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