July 9, 2021
You’ve probably read a sample college essay before. Applicants are bombarded with “essays that worked”—in purpose-built essay collections, English class, and even the newspaper." These essay examples can be invaluable, but also somewhat misleading. Your goal is not to get your essay published. It’s not even to write a good essay per se. It’s to write an essay that will get you into the college of your dreams.
The application essay examples most often seen in the wild are those that appeal to English-major types: essay collection editors, English teachers, journalists, etc. (Full disclosure: the author is guilty on all counts.) They are often well-written stories with lyrical prose that say something meaningful about the world and “what the kids are thinking.” No doubt, that kind of essay can unlock the door to an elite university. But it’s not the only way—in fact, only a tiny minority of successful college essays fit that profile.
To an audience that reads literally hundreds of application essays every year, your story is unlikely to stand out on writing skill alone. There are probably more published writers in the reject pile at Harvard than the admitted class (they need some scientists too!). A unique story won’t cut it either, because there really isn’t any such thing.
Here’s an extreme example of what I mean: In my eight years’ experience, I have read THREE application essays in which the writer survived a failed assassination attempt on them or their family. Each of those folks was totally confident that they had a story so unique and interesting that it would guarantee admission. But by the third essay, it’s not hard to think “Well sure, this is a pretty rare topic, but I've seen it done better…”
Start from the assumption that your essay will be one of many in terms of topic and writing quality. So how do you stand out? It’s not what you say, or even how you say it, but everything encoded in what you say. Think about it: If the school cared about what you wrote… wouldn’t they follow up at some point to make sure you actually took the major you said you would, or hold the beliefs you argued for, or joined XYZ university club you said you were interested in joining?
The reason no one ever follows up, is because after it fulfills its purpose, your essay goes into a permanent dead letter memory bank of “who cares?” The admissions committee is looking for applicants with maturity and the ability to excel on campus—a future student who has the gumption to navigate the abrupt transition to college. If you can recognize what traits the admissions committee is looking for, and show evidence of them, your essay will succeed.
The good news? You can convey the traits the admissions committee is looking for in an unlimited number of ways!
The bad news? You can convey the traits the admissions committee is looking for in an unlimited number of ways!
When applicants write what they think the reader wants to hear, it often doesn’t end well. Applicants who focus on certain achievements or values often don’t come across as they hoped to. For example, “I want to be seen as a leader, but I’m actually coming off as a pompous jerk who thinks an adult will be impressed that I organized a bake sale.” Or, “I want to be seen as valuing diversity, but the way I keep mentioning my friend’s racial identities is giving off a really weird vibe.”
Our approach is to not sweat values and achievements. You come to the essay writing stage of the application process having done certain things and holding certain values, and you likely can’t or shouldn’t change those at this point. Instead, the task is to frame your existing life story to show that you have desirable attributes for a university student: that “spark” of maturity and future success that gets the adcom excited.
We like to capture some of the many paths to a successful college essay through a framework we call––fittingly––SPARC:
These five occasionally overlapping ideas, taken together, capture the “special sauce” that makes one college application succeed while another fails. You don’t need to showcase all of these traits in your essays, but hopefully a few resonate with your view of yourself and give you a sense of how to pitch your candidacy.
It’s possible to have impressive achievements, but what if you never did anything unless someone asked you to? Are you the type of person who goes the extra mile, even when the task is already completed? Are you doing things because you’re propelled by some inner drive?
That ability to seize, or self-motivate, is absolutely essential on a college campus and beyond. In high school, if you’re falling behind, it’s the teacher’s job to notice that and help you get back on track. In college, it’s YOUR job to stay on track. You have to identify the problem, and you have to ask the professor for help (which most—but not all—will gladly give). Adcoms want to see that you’re the type of student who will handle this transition smoothly, because you already have a history of seizing opportunities in an independent, self-motivated way.
Here’s a real example of what this can look like, from a student we worked with who recently got into Princeton, Duke, and UC Berkeley, among other schools. Details and names in all of the examples in this articles have been changed to protect our clients’ anonymity, but they are otherwise exactly as the adcom read them:
“The movement of each blade illuminated a musical harmony, and each insect scurrying around the grass was an instrument of the orchestra. When it was time to leave, the pleasant music in my head faded into a simple, unpleasant, dissonant noise as I encountered an exhibition on how climate change was destroying thousands of species of grass. That’s when I decided to dedicate my life to saving those special plants.
The next day, I built myself a garden bed out of wood and plastic that I found leftover in my uncle’s car dealership to begin researching how grasses adapt to challenging thermal scenarios. I read classic books on grass like Charles Veron’s Grasses of the World. I looked at my research from a strictly rational, mathematical and logical perspective. After months of tracking the growth rate of Chloris gayana grass under elevated temperatures, my results reflected my biggest fear: grasses will never be able to evolve that fast.”
This excerpt is powerful because it shows that the applicant’s interest in botany goes far beyond classroom assignments and the expectations of the adults in his life. He will need that motivation to succeed in Princeton’s rigorous science programs, far from home and with limited oversight.
● When has something succeeded ONLY because you took it upon yourself to see it through to the end (when no one else would)?
● What’s a belief or ideal that many others nod in agreement to, but you took ACTION on?
● Was there ever a stalemate situation that you resolved by taking control?
● Is there an example of an achievement or win that was only made possible because you wanted it more than others?
● Have you ever cleaned up someone else’s mess, not sought credit for it, but did it because it simply needed doing?
Pursue is all about going after stuff that is just outside your reach. You need to give chase. And that requires putting in the work, with no guaranteed outcome.
You know what’s hard and has no guaranteed outcome? College. The worst thing an adcom can do is accept a person who then drops out part-way through. It’s their job to make sure that never happens, with tens of thousands of tuition dollars at stake. By showing persistence, determination and grit in your application essays, you can assuage these doubts.
Addressing this point is particularly important if you’re going to move somewhere far from home, are proposing to pursue a particularly tough program (i.e., pre-med), or have a history of quitting things or regularly changing your extracurricular activities.
Here’s an example of pursuit that got a student into the University of Chicago, Georgetown, and Brown, among others:
A magical portal from the future--though perhaps not so distant in the future as we once thought. In every Star Trek ship, there’s a room with the power to change the world. It’s called the Transporter Room, and it has the ability to teleport people and equipment thousands of miles in an instant. … Meanwhile, new technological advancements are even beginning to resemble the infant phases of a teleporter. In 2017, scientists in China teleported photons 1,400 km from a satellite in orbit, and a team in Switzerland is working on a device which, once completed, may allow quantum teleportation of thousands of atoms at the speed of light through fiber optic cable. Teleportation captured my imagination completely…
It wasn’t easy to join the Anderson lab as a high school student. I reached out without any references, and it took weeks to get on the phone with one of the investigators. He was skeptical that I would be able to contribute, but my answers impressed him enough to arrange a second interview. It took four rounds, with hard studying before each interview, but I landed the internship. [...] I am determined to build on my experience at the Anderson lab and make practical teleportation a reality within my lifetime.
The big (if slightly outlandish) ideas are part of the charm here, but the real meat is the applicant’s persistence in securing her internship. That’s exactly the kind of work she’ll need to do to get lab positions on campus and impressive research internships in the summers. This is a person who understands what’s necessary to succeed in the job market.
● Have you ever almost quit something? But––something compelled you to persevere?
● Ever start something you thought would be easy, found out it was much harder than you realized… and then kept at it?
● Have you ever developed a hunger for something precisely BECAUSE it would prove to be challenging?
Some folks are satisfied when an objective is met, or a question is answered. Others are restless, always leaning forward, never satisfied. It’s not enough to get the right answer, they need to know why. If they don’t understand something, they ask questions.
It’s this curiosity “gene” that is exciting to adcoms because it suggests a kind of intellectual restlessness. The Western college classroom is a place for debate, discussion, and disagreement. An essay that showcases you intelligently questioning conventional wisdom helps the adcom envision you as an active participant in their school’s intellectual life. While this kind of essay is valuable for everyone, it can be particularly useful for students coming from an academic tradition where classroom debate is not as encouraged.
The following example got this student into Penn, Boston University, and UC Berkeley, among other schools:
“The participatory budgeting process, allocating resources individually, intrigued me. I was excited to be doing something tangible for my community. […] In initial outreach discussions, with a goal to involve more participants, we were told to emphasize altruism, telling teens to consider other Austin communities too, since the fund is limited and must be allocated fairly across communities.
But then I asked myself, “Will this really work?” As a voracious reader of philosophy, history and economics, I had a gut feeling that it wouldn’t. I had just read John Locke’s theory that “general interest is achieved with the advancement of individual interests.” I thought about Adam Smith’s idea that “self-interested competition could benefit the society.” I decided we should tell people to be "selfish" and focus on their own needs.
I hesitated to propose this idea to my team however. As I was about to say it out loud, I realized it sounded “unnatural.” I sat and thought about it, knowing that “being selfish” could be misunderstood and come off wrong if I presented it in the wrong way. I didn’t speak up during our next meeting out of fear of rejection. However, feeling guilty about my reticence and truly concerned about the program, I went home and wrote my thoughts down. I felt compelled to tell the team my idea.
I presented my idea at the next meeting. I carefully defined “selfishness” as self-focus, a driving force to involve more teens and eventually benefit more of them. Addressing questions from my teammates, I felt great relief to hear people’s enthusiasm. Teaching teens to be “selfish” does not sound very forward-thinking, but people are more willing to participate in programs that benefit them directly.
The particular politics may not be every adcom member’s cup of tea, but that doesn’t matter in the slightest to an admissions professional. The magic here is all in the applicant’s relationship to the group: the way he challenges his peers and is willing to put in the work to develop a well thought-out, substantial argument. This is the kind of intellectual leadership that makes a student valuable to their classmates.
● Have you ever been told a truth, presented a fact, etc., but not been satisfied with it?
● Have you ever asked a question few others have asked about a particular subject?
It’s easy to “say yes” when there are no consequences to failure. The person who cares more about “the thing” than “not failing” is incredibly exciting. This person will be less vulnerable to vanity, peer pressure, etc. This is also the kind of person who might be willing to make the bold career moves (founding a company, discovering something no one else is willing to research, creating a work of truly revolutionary art) that can land an alumnus on the cover of a magazine and reflect well on the alma mater.
Of course, wanton or unwise risk taking could be a sign of immaturity. Generally the proof is in the results: a situation where the risks of failure were high, but not realized because you succeeded. Play up what could have gone wrong, then show that it ultimately didn’t, because you soberly and accurately evaluated the situation.
Below is an example of a client who found himself in a dangerous situation and decided to take a calculated risk to salvage it. This essay earned him admission to Princeton, Duke, and UC Berkeley, among other schools.
We decided to tack the sails and head further offshore, so that the gusts of the cold front emanating from the shoreline and preceding the storm would propel us home. However, as the other two were significantly smaller and lighter than us, they caught the updrafts far more easily than Harry and I, rocketing them several hundred yards in front of us. My concern grew as the moments passed. If they moved incorrectly during a strong gale, their inexperience and light weight could cause the boat to tip and throw them overboard.
And, of course, that is exactly what happened.
At first sight of the capsized children, we cranked to full speed, ditching extraneous lines and equipment to the ocean’s depths—my favorite lawn chair now rests inside Davy Jones’s Locker. I manned the rudders, the tiller, and the back ropes, while Harry controlled the jib and the boom. Harry circled them as I jumped into the waves to flip the catamaran.
Climbing atop and falling off that skiff repeatedly filled my heart with despair and my lungs with saltwater. After righting the fallen vessel, I swam back to Harry, whose circular sailing reminded me of the sharks that infest those waters. This was ample motivation for my best Michael Phelps impersonation.
The writer saved his friends’ lives by taking a risk at sea in bad weather. The stakes don’t need to be nearly that high, however! Creating a new club, taking a difficult class, choosing a particularly difficult topic for an assignment––all of these things could be risky in the way adcoms appreciate.
● Ever want something, but sense that you would more likely than not FAIL, and then… do it anyway?
● Have you ever risked your personal reputation for something you believed was right, or helpful to a greater cause?
● Have you ever been told by the majority of folks around you “don’t do it, take the easy road, there’s too much at stake” but you chose to ignore that advice?
It’s easy to build shelves when they come in a kit. It’s much cooler when you’re starting from scratch, and need to think laterally, build something from … the resources at hand, whatever they may be. Sometimes those resources amount to nothing. If you are able to succeed “wherever you are, whatever the circumstance, whatever your resources,” it bodes well. How well can you “create” when pushed?
A common trap is considering creativity solely the domain of artsy applicants. If you can paint, play music, or write excellently, that’s a great thing to highlight, but it’s not the only way to “create.” An engineering type could create a device, a coder could create an app, but many of the most successful “creativity” essays involve applicants creating new organizations, programs or IDEAS. This type of essay is powerful because it showcases your ability to have an impact on your community, and speaks to your ability to have an impact on your college campus.
Here’s an excerpt from a student that scored admits at Yale, Columbia, Penn, Cornell, Brown and a bunch of other schools:
Parliamentary debate has always been a search for the truth in round, but it has also become for me a search for truth on a personal level. At my first tournament, I noticed that I was the only girl and person of color in the room; I soon learned this is normal. A few disparaging remarks from judges about my “feminine” voice peppered otherwise positive feedback. To better appeal to judges, my first instinct was to mimic my successful male peers. But I soon realized that it was much more fulfilling to enhance my existing strengths.
When I realized I wasn’t the only one in this situation, I sought opportunities to mentor girls across the state. Through practice rounds, we empowered each other to build upon our strengths and preserve our diverse identities. Not only was I able to recruit more minorities to my team, but I also helped girls in Wisconsin begin small debate teams at their schools. Creating new forums for discourse has resulted in a more understanding student population, and I look forward to encouraging dialogue on campus[...]
This form of creativity has clear and direct applications to college life.
● Ever been deprived of certain “essential” ingredients for something, and figured out a clever solution with the resources at hand?
● Ever find your way out of a tricky situation where there was no obvious answer by thinking outside the box?
● Ever been stuck on a problem, and almost given up, but needed to solve it so badly that you found a new way to view the problem itself?
Hopefully some of the essay samples and questions above have resonated with you. Pursue those ideas and imagine how they could map to a specific element of your experience. Worries like “do I have enough leadership?” or “did I win enough awards in XYZ to stand out?” are not worth considering. By the time you’re putting hands to keyboard on your application essay, it’s too late to make significant changes to your background. People who are not Olympians or valedictorians or published researchers get into top colleges every day. What matters is your ability to show your SPARC, whatever it may be.
In our next post, we’ll get into more detail about how to put your ideas on the page. In the meantime, if you’d like a free consultation with our team of admissions experts, or to take the SPARC Quiz, visit us at admissionado.com.
Read on for more essay writing tips, common mistakes and examples of essays before and after revision.