No college application is complete without the personal essay, which can be daunting for many students to write.
But a few simple tips, some introspection and insight into what admissions officers are looking for can help ease the pressure. U.S. News has compiled several college essay examples that helped students get into school. Shared by admissions staff, these essays stand out, they say, because the student voices shine, helping the school get to know them.
“We’re actually listening for a student’s voice and trying to figure out who they would be on our campus,” says Karen Richardson, dean of admissions and enrollment management at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “It’s not just about the topic that a student chooses to write on, but rather, how they write about it. We encourage students to show rather than tell to help the reader get a sense of who they are.”
Experts say the essay should give the school a sample of his or her personality.
“A good essay to me, in general, is one where I learn something about the student that I wouldn’t learn elsewhere in the application,” says Monica Inzer, vice president for enrollment management at Hamilton College in New York.
But finding their voice can be a challenge for many students, Inzer notes, because they may have limited life experience. Also, she adds, they have been writing to the instructions of high school teachers up until this point, rather than for themselves. Finding their voice means students must get to know themselves and write authoritatively, sharing a sense of their lives with admissions officers.
On its admissions page, Hamilton lists multiple college essay examples written by students admitted to the school. Though Inzer declined to single out one essay, she says that the examples offer a diverse mix of student voices and backgrounds. The essay excerpted below, with the permission of Hamilton College, shows the student’s personality through a love of fly-fishing.I kept a firm grip on the rainbow trout as I removed the lure from its lip. Then, my heart racing with excitement, I lowered the fish to the water and watched it flash away.I remained hooked.I caught that 10-inch fryling five years ago on Fall Creek using a $5 fly rod given to me by my neighbor Gil. The creek is spectacular as it cascades down the 150-foot drop of Ithaca Falls. Only 100-feet further, however, it runs past a decrepit gun factory and underneath a graffitied bridge before flowing adjacent to my high school and out to Cayuga Lake. Aside from the falls, the creek is largely overlooked. Nearly all of the high school students I know who cross that bridge daily do so with no thought of the creek below.When I was a toddler, my moms say I used to point and ask, “What? What? What?” Even now my inquisitive nature is obvious. Unlike my friends, I had noticed people fly fishing in Fall Creek. Mesmerized by their graceful casts, I pestered Gil into teaching me. From that first thrilling encounter with a trout, I knew I needed to catch more. I had a new string of questions. I wanted to understand trout behavior, how to find them, and what they ate. There was research to do.I devoted myself to fly fishing. I asked questions. I woke up at 4 a.m. to fish before school. I spent days not catching anything. Yet, I persisted. The Kid’s Book of Fishing was replaced by Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It. Soon Ernest Hemingway’s essays found their place next to Trout Unlimited magazines by my bed.I sought teachers. I continued to fish with Gil, and at his invitation joined the local Trout Unlimited Chapter. I enrolled in a fly-tying class.There I met Ken, a soft-spoken molecular biologist, who taught me to start each fly I make by crimping the hook to reduce harm to fish, and Mike, a sarcastic Deadhead lawyer, who turns over rocks at all times of year to “match the hatch” and figure out which insects fish are eating. Thanks to my mentors, I can identify and create almost every type of Northeastern mayfly, caddisfly, and stonefly.The more I learned, the more protective I felt of the creek and its inhabitants. My knowledge of mayflies and experience fishing in many New York streams led me to notice the lack of Blue-Winged Olive Mayflies in Fall Creek. I figured out why while discussing water quality in my AP Biology class; lead from the gun factory had contaminated the creek and ruined the mayfly habitat. Now, I participate in stream clean-up days, have documented the impact of invasive species on trout and other native fish, and have chosen to continue to explore the effects of pollutants on waterways in my AP Environmental Science class.Last year, on a frigid October morning, I started a conversation with the man fishing next to me. Banks, I later learned, is a contemporary artist who nearly died struggling with a heroin addiction. When we meet on the creek these days we talk about casting techniques, aquatic insects, and fishing ethics. We also talk about the healing power of fly fishing. I know Banks would agree with Henry David Thoreau, who wrote “[Many men] lay so much stress on the fish which they catch or fail to catch, and on nothing else, as if there were nothing else to be caught.”Initially, my goal was to catch trout. What I landed was a passion. Thanks to that first morning on Fall Creek, I’ve found a calling that consumes my free time, compels me to teach fly fishing to others, and drives what I want to study in college.I will be leaving Fall Creek soon. I am eager to step into new streams.
“It’s more about the voice than anything else,” Inzer says, noting an essay that is too clinical can mute a student’s personality.
“You can think of the essay as the soul of the application. While we recognize that it takes years of hard work and dedication to build a strong college application over a high school career, what helps an admissions committee picture you in our classrooms, in our clubs and in our community is your own voice and perspective,” says Ellen Kim, dean of undergraduate admissions at Maryland’s Johns Hopkins University.
“The essay is a space for us to see that come to life. The committee isn’t looking for any one thing in particular because part of what is so telling is what the student felt was important to share about themselves in that space,” Kim says.
Some colleges require a supplemental essay in addition to the personal essay. Typically, admissions pros note, these essays are shorter and focus on answering a specific question posed by the college.
In some cases though, the school may emphasize the supplemental essay as a top priority. That’s the case at St. John’s College, which has campuses in Maryland and New Mexico, says Benjamin Baum, vice president of enrollment for the St. John’s system.
“We call it supplemental, but actually, it’s the most important essay that the students will write as a part of our application,” Baum says, adding that it allows the school to tailor questions for applicants around topics that are academic priorities at St. John’s.
Experts say supplemental essays tend to be short, but St. John’s College bucks that trend, requiring a minimum of 400 words. That’s because the school is interested in seeing students write at length on a chosen topic.
Baum highlights this supplemental essay on a student’s love for political and legal philosophy as a strong example:Last year in my Constitutional Law class, I fell in love with political and legal philosophy. Sexy, right?Maybe not, but I loved the rules, the structure, and the big questions that surrounded organizing a government. I thought about these things constantly—while brushing my teeth, doing chores, and driving to school. Unable to take this beloved course a second time, I chose my senior classes with more than a touch of melancholy. I was skeptical that even the most appealing humanities class, AP Literature, would be anything but anticlimactic by comparison. I’d become so accustomed to reading the function-focused writings of Locke, Rousseau, Madison, Thoreau, that I found it difficult to see “literature” as anything more than mere stories. I wanted substance that I could actually do something with, and I didn’t expect to find it in AP Lit.Settling down to read our first assigned book, Sophocles’ Antigone, I was apathetic. We’d done a pre-reading exercise earlier in class and I’d gathered that Antigone was just the sad story of a wannabe-martyr-descendant-of-Oedipus who crosses the wrong king, dies, breaks her fiance’s heart with her death, leading him, and her would-be mother-in-law by extension, to suicide, blah, blah, blah. I fanned the pages with my thumb, checked the time (10:15 p.m.), and willed myself to make it through the first ten pages without falling asleep.Rousseau’s familiar skepticism of an unchecked ruler, Locke’s notions of natural rights philosophy, and Thoreau’s willingness to violate immoral laws. Wait—this was a literature class, and yet here was Sophocles articulating the same concerns of the Framers of the Constitution (hundreds of years before any of them were born).Antigone has become my favorite book because it wraps political and legal theory around complex characters and a compelling narrative. Prior to reading Antigone , I assumed that if I hadn’t read every book that pertained to the architecture of US government, I had at least heard of them. But I was so mistaken. Antigone proved this assumption wrong because Antigone itself was a case study in the actual consequences of ideas discussed by political philosophers. In other words, Antigonehumanized the esoteric and function-driven debates I’d studied last year. Witnessing Haemon cradle his dead fiance in his arms, then subsequently kill himself before his father’s eyes, allowed me to see all of the ideas I’d spent hours considering as not purely political questions, but as human ones. Finishing the play, I was ashamed that I’d harbored such skepticism at the outset of my reading. My experience with Antigone reminds me why I get excited each time I use calculus in physics or art in cooking, and I look forward to a lifetime of making these connections.
From a compelling opening line to the emphasis on the subject matter, Baum says this example stands out because of the student’s “intellectual enthusiasm.” Her embrace of in-depth academic concepts signaled to the admissions team that she was a good fit for the college.
While St. Johns College may ask for more in-depth answers, other schools value brevity, challenging students to write concisely. One such example, shared by Tufts, takes the reader from the student’s love of origami to a passion for science in less than 250 words.
Using a flimsy piece of printer paper, I remember folding my first paper crane. Reading instructions off a dusty origami book from my basement, my fingers fumbled with the paper, folding, unfolding, refolding, and possibly some frustration-induced crumpling. Nearly an hour later, with little creases scattered across its body and a misaligned beak, it was clear that origami wasn’t a natural talent of mine.Despite its deformities, there was an endearing quality to the bird I couldn’t quite explain. After sixteen folds, it resembled the paper only in color and material. I would fold countless other designs, until my room was covered with creations from simple paper boats to intricate seven part lotus flowers.The joy I found in origami lied in the fact that I had the freedom to invent anything; with each fold, creativity flowed through my fingers, converting curiosity of the potential of each fold into an irrepressible desire to create more. It is what motivated me to read about 2D kinematics to win a projectile motion challenge, and understand the chemistry behind qualitative analysis of cations for a lab.Everything I could ever want to know and more is right at my fingertips. From the change in weight I feel in a moving elevator, to the chemical reactions that cause the plastic stars in my room to glow, science is a field that permeates every single aspect of life. I know my curiosity to understand the world around me nurtures my love for science.
Richardson says that the appeal of an essay on an atypical topic such as origami showed that the writer was willing to take risks.
“Origami isn’t a typical topic for a college essay, but, beyond that, she showed us rather than told us about her process of making objects that didn’t always turn out how she expected or wanted. Still, she kept trying. It helps us to see her as someone who would be willing to jump into new experiences on our campus. What also stands out here is the imagery she uses to get her point across – I could picture the crumpled pieces of paper on her floor and the frustration that she felt. In the end, she was able to tie her creative process making origami to her academic interests,” Richardson wrote in an email.
When it comes to writing a college admissions essay – whether personal or supplemental – experts advise students to follow the same rules: find their voice, write about a topic that matters to them, share their personality, express themselves and proofread extensively. On the latter point, experts suggest students share their essay with someone who knows them well before submitting it.
Teachers, friends and parents can all be helpful proofreaders, but experts note that the student voice should remain intact.
“The essay really needs to be the student’s work. I encourage students to ask people close to them to read the essay and ask ‘would you know this essay is about me?’ If not, it’s time to rework the essay. But make sure it’s still your voice,” Richardson says.
Inzer also encourages students not to stress too much over the essay and put unnecessary weight on it as part of their college application. While a strong essay may elevate a candidate in a crowded field, she says it doesn’t make or break an application.
“That alone won’t get them in; it’s their grades and hard work and lots of other things. But it might get them an extra look, especially at a highly selective place where there are lots of strong candidates,” Inzer says.
Source: Josh Moody, USNEWS