For all of you, I empathize with your angst (assuming that you are angst ridden). I have written at length about college application essays before. If you need a last-second pep talk about how to approach the larger essays (at this point, I hope that you ED/EA applicants are well beyond needing a pep talk), check out some of my articles on College Confidential. You may find some sparks of inspiration there.
This blog article, however, is aimed at those of you who are targeting Regular Decision (RD), with its traditional January 1 (or even a bit later) deadline. Accordingly, you now have two full months to conjure, plan, and execute your applications’ writing requirements.
What I thought I would do today is present a small sample group of essays written by applicants who were successful in getting into top schools, some Ivy League and other Top-20 colleges. My point in doing this is to show you what quality writing looks like.
I recall that when I was learning to play tennis, I spent a lot of time watching much better players on the court, especially the pros. Eventually, I selected a group of styles from among these players, stars like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, and Pancho Gonzales (wow, that really dates me, doesn’t it?), and melded them into my own composite style of play.
Likewise, my theory is that if you are looking to learn how to write effective — even outstanding — college essays, then a natural process might include looking at essays that have been effective for others in the past. So, let’s take a look at a few of those.
Here’s one that tells the story of an interesting project in which the applicant was involved. No, it’s not a “boring” school project, but something adventurous and creative.
Note how this essay exhibits the qualities of fun, good story telling, and excellent writing. The admissions people who read it were no doubt drawn in by the quality of the writer’s imagination and originality.
The picture doesn’t seem like much. The background is filled with the back wall of a garage, smears and scratches scattered on its gray surface. Three grins take up the middle portion of the photograph, so prominent that they make the viewer unaware of the faces that hold them. Eventually bodies materialize around the smiles and the viewer notices an object in the foreground. Each figure has a hand upon it, and it becomes obvious that this object is the cause for the smiles. With a start, the viewer thinks, What? It’s just a trashcan. To the three of us in the photograph, however, this particular trashcan is more than it seems…
One day, my younger brother came home with a toy that could shoot a puff of air across our living room – a so-called air cannon. My friends, Brian and Daniel, and I became instantly intrigued with the contraption. We did some research, and found out how the air cannon worked. We also found out that the muzzle diameter determines the size and speed of the “airball” that the cannon releases. As members of the Bigger is Better Club, we realized that it was our profound duty to build Air Cannon II: The Colossus. Since we were strangely unable to find any research grants for our project, we scrounged up an industrial-size trashcan, eight feet of surgical tubing, and an old camping tarp for materials. Our Area 51 was Brian’s garage.
One thing about Brian, he doesn’t waste much electricity lighting his garage. The dimness within, coupled with the thunderstorm without, formed an aptly foreboding atmosphere for our work. Daniel kept the motif going by insisting upon being called “Igor.” Scribbled pages of our calculations lay everywhere and fast-flung tools cast lurid shadows on the walls. Thunderclaps mixed frighteningly with the eerie whine of the jigsaw and maniacal cackle of Brian’s laughter. Soon the dark deed was done and we stepped back to gaze upon our monstrous creation. It was good.
Colossus found numerous applications. It was a big hit at pep rallies. We could knock over paper cups and extinguish candles from an amazing distance. We fired it at the ad-hoc “wallpaper” (slogan-adorned, taped-up sheets of wide newsprint) in a teacher’s room and discovered that it produced a very aesthetic rippling effect similar to a slow-motion tsunami. Our trashcan terror never fails to captivate anyone who sees it in action.
When I look at the picture of us standing with Colossus, the spate of memories that pours from the paper is enough to make it my prized possession. Still, the photo has more than that; it reminds me of a lesson that I learned from Project Colossus. Though one might see the episode as a childish stunt, building our air cannon made me realize that work and play are matters of perspective. As I think back across all my frustrations with school projects over the years, I’m amazed at how fast and easy it was to build our baby. Colossus showed me that this difference was self imposed. Now I try to see every onerous task as a chance to have a little fun, allowing me to do a better job without ever realizing that I’m at labor. I’ve even memorialized our cannon with an appropriately memorable genus/species: Colossus amongus. I thought trashcanus humongous was too pretentious.
Here’s an example of a response to that very popular prompt: “Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.”
I once saw a man juggle flaming torches while riding a tall unicycle, but I was unimpressed. I know people who can carry on a conversation while listening to the radio and typing a letter, but that’s no big deal to me. I once rode in a car with someone who was driving, eating, and changing CDs, all at once. Although I was scared silly, her display of multiplexing left me unfazed. Why such stoicism on my part? Simple. No one can match the greatest circumstance-juggling multiplexer I know—my cross-country coach, Dr. David McCormick.
In addition to spending two to three hours with the team every day, Coach also manages to run about 60 miles a week on his own, all while operating his full-time dental practice. He and his wife also oversee a household of five children, two dogs, a cat, and various turtles. He doesn’t just “tend” these tasks; he excels at them, undertaking each with an ineffable alacrity. I often think of him springing out of bed every morning, filled with optimistic vigor, as I drop to the floor like a lifeless carcass at our 5:00 a.m. running-camp wakeups.
There are some downsides to knowing Coach McCormick, though. For example, it’s hard to be lazy with him around. When I feel overwhelmed with work, all I have to do is imagine him shifting gears effortlessly through homework help, domestic chores, filling teeth, and helping us improve our strides. When I find no joy in my work, I think of his unfailingly upbeat demeanor, regardless of the situation. The lesson for me here is: Never underestimate the power of a role model. I think about Coach a lot as I’m pounding out my training miles and especially during our meets. Thanks to him I’ve come to learn that most of life’s work shouldn’t be like pulling teeth.
Note how the writer mixes the elements of sincerity and humor. Again, the quality of the writing and attention to detail make this piece a winner.
Finally, let’s take a look at an old Ivy supplemental essay prompt: “Some questions cannot be answered./ They become familiar weights in the hand,/ Round stones pulled from the pocket, unyielding and cool.”
That seems like a fairly heavy quote to which applicants had to respond. Here’s how one admitted Ivy applicant handled her statement:
“Why didn’t Madame Cleo predict the lawsuits filed against her?”
“Insider trading laws”
“Why do ‘Open 24 Hours’ stores have locks on their doors?”
“Because the extra 57 seconds in every day because for leap years”
“When dog food is advertised with ‘Improved Taste!’ who tastes it to make sure?
“Hey, Deena, what are we doing here?”
Kyle’s resurrection of Misery with the little-known ancient Egyptian Book of the Sarcastic instantly shattered the psychological Shangri-La of the “rhetorical question game.” Although his question may have been a reference to the fundamental reason for existence, I had a hunch that it might have been a reference to “Gulag Wilson,” as our little camping venture came to be known. Okay, so maybe I should have actually looked at my tent before we arrived at the site so that the five of us wouldn’t end up in a three-person sweatbox. It would have been wise to avoid camping on the brightest night of the year too, or to at least pick a night without 88° temperatures and zero wind. Mosquito repellant? That’s not for real campers. Food? What’s wrong with cheese and crackers? Wanting to reply to Kyle’s double meaning, and being inclined toward the barren wastelands of sarcasm at the fringes of philosophy myself, I formulated my response.
“Knowing why we’re here would defeat the purpose of being here. We would become too focused on the goal, and not concerned enough with the experience. Sometimes we need to struggle with questions that we cannot answer, because by contemplating the questions we expand our minds and better ourselves.”
“And how does self-imposed wretchedness better someone?”
“[Yes, right into my trap] Why, it builds character!”
However pointless this account may seem, it showcases a crucial point in my twisted worldview: Whenever I do something, I try to focus upon the experience and the intangible purpose, rather than the material outcome of my efforts. I think that it is much easier to apply one’s whole being to a task, and to do so cheerfully, in the former than in the latter. For example, consider the question “Why should I study for my test tomorrow?” The materially oriented philosophy breaks down: I should study so that I will get good grades, so that I can get into a good college, so that I can get a good job, so that I can work until the day I die and have my worldly possessions squandered by unappreciative descendants. Suddenly TV reruns are looking better.
An intangible-oriented philosophy reasons differently: I should study solely for the sake of gaining knowledge. In this way, every experience may be turned into a meaningful gain, even the perdition of “Gulag Wilson.” Also, if we can forget about answering an unsolvable question for a moment, we might be able to take pleasure in the gains that we are making by attempting to answer it. Of course, it’s still rather hard to convince four angry campers of such idealism when they would rather sacrifice you to the insect hordes outside of the tent. Time for Seinfeld.
Those are just three examples of great college application essays. As I did when learning tennis, maybe you can pick up some effective pointers and inspiration for your writing from these samples. You’ve got plenty of time. Put it to good use!
Check College Confidential for all my other college-related articles.