Real-Life Essay Lessons: College Essay Samples & Commentary

I hope you’re aware of the vital importance of the essay as a component of the elite college application. To give you some further perspective, I’m including here some representative sample essays from my archives. I’ll make some background comments about the writers (names have been changed for privacy), comment on their essay, and throw in some tips about the college essay process.

Let’s look at the case of Yvonne Tan, an Asian-American first-year student at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s from the southwestern United States. Yvonne moved to America as a very young girl, learned English, and attended a competitive public high school. Here, in her own words (in response to a follow-up from me), is a description of some of her college-process details:

“I applied to the University of Pennsylvania Early Decision, and was accepted. I am currently attending Penn. I also applied to Berkeley, Duke, Rice, Yale, Washington University in St. Louis, and University of Texas at Austin. Since I applied early to Penn and was accepted, I had my applications withdrawn from those other schools.

“As for my progress, I am doing surprisingly well. If you would like to know, my GPA so far is a 3.84. I also have a job as a research assistant with a professor at Penn’s medical school along with other activities and clubs. I love Penn! I’ve met the most interesting people; some even came from India and Africa!

“I did learn something about the college application process though. I realized that the most important part of the whole application was the essay. No matter how high your GPA or SAT scores are, a bad essay can make or break you. I had a friend who was Valedictorian of our class and made 1500 [M+CR] on her SAT. She was rejected from almost all the schools she applied to. She was extremely confident and didn’t feel like she needed to work very hard on her essay. She didn’t realize that the most important part was the essay.

“I knew somebody who worked in one of the Ivy’s admission office. She told me that sometimes, it’s all about the essay. She has seen people get in based solely on one quality essay. I also want to let high schoolers know that even though it may be extremely disappointing to be rejected from “Dream U,” it is not because you are not good enough. Sometimes absolutely smart and talented kids just slip though the cracks. The admission officers are aiming to build a class, and not out to get you.”