Oh, and what not to do. For starters, don’t try to imitate too closely (and definitely do not copy) your older sibling/friend/acquaintance/college essay guidebook’s foolproof example essay. Have a look at them, sure, but for true inspiration, we’ll go to the pros. More on that in a moment.
Because, before I get to essay examples, I want to share a “must hear” link to help you out. Read on for more.
To begin with, I’d like to say that the title of this post is a nod to one of the Great American Things, a little radio show called This American Life. Created by and featuring Mr. Ira Glass and company, one of TAL’s recent shows was entitled, How I Got Into College, and, at the least, you should listen to the prologue and Act One (linked below). In it, an admissions officer talk about dumb things people do as they try to get into college, including dumb things that are done with essays (like using the same essay for multiple schools, but not getting the school names right on each essay . . . ).
Topics addressed include parental support/intervention/obnoxious interference in e-mails and elsewhere, demonstrated interest, and, most important for our purposes, the admissions officer talks specifically about why most admissions essays he reads are boring. The admissions director talks about the same problems I talk about (e.g., the same basic essay, over and over, as in the My Mission to South America, essay). This admissions officer also admits that he and his colleagues are part of the problem; he does not, however, specifically discuss the repetitive and self-focused essay questions that are required, again and again (Common App, I’m lookin’ at you ) or why this has come to pass, something I explain here: Common App.
So I recommend that you go to my link to TAL’s College App show, and listen before you read on. After listening, you can continue reading to find links to examples of good essays, below. More on that later; for now, here it is: This American Life: How I Got Into College.
Before moving on, I would suggest listening to the whole thing by continuing with Act Two–for a number of reasons. First among these, it may put the troubles in your own life into perspective. Second, as you embark on a journey to write about your own life, it is a fascinating study of the malleability of memory . . . as the protagonist of the rest of this TAL episode, Emir Kamenica, who escaped the Bosnian genocide and is now a rising star at the Booth School of Business, at the University of Chicago, tells his story . . . then hears a different version of things.
As a follow-up to this show, a listener wrote a hilarious Worst College Essay Ever (my title for it). Read it here: Prank Admissions Essay
Welcome back, and now we move on to some essay examples.
By now you all know about the Common Application essay prompts, which are all 1st person, Let Me Tell You About Myself essays. The Common App has dumped the open question and eliminated the possibility of writing directly about a book or intellectual experience.
So my first advice for the Common App is this: Find the Unexpected ; do the Unexpected. (I capitalize Unexpected by way of emphasis, not to imitate German capitalization conventions.) This does not really require anything radical or crazy. It’s all about how you look at things, even the mundane.
The next point I’d like to make is this: none of my essay examples below will be student examples. The reasons are multiple, but two will do as an explanation: if you want to learn something, from chess to tennis to football to whatever, you don’t usually go study, well, your peers. You pick out somebody you think is outstanding, if not the best in their field. Somebody with proven chops. It’s in that spirit that I offer the examples below, where I will offer essays by people I admire or essays which I think are really good. Note that, as examples, most are also too long for our purposes, but you should not be reading to copy exactly–you should read to find ideas, phrases and structures. My caveat: you can imitate, borrow, riff off of . . . but do not copy anything more than a quote. Thanks. Now on with the show.
After the first example you will find an annotated list with links; this post is planned as one of those that expands over the course of the app season, so check back–I will add material and links as I find them. I also have plenty of examples with earlier posts, incorporated into discussions of specific topics and topic types, so browse the archive for material that looks like a fit for your topics.
Okay, here we go: to show you what I mean about finding the unexpected, as well as how to look for examples, I will start with a link to an essay and then will give you a little editing exercise that will cut this essay down from being about three times the length of a Common App essay to being about 40 words too long, which is a minor overrun, in my world. I am very serious about the editing exercise–it is short but will teach you a lot about how to look for examples, and how to take apart a longer piece of writing and put it back together–a very educational exercise in how to read as well as how to edit.
So go to this long essay about a young immigrant who found a home, of sorts, in the uber-suburban show The Wonder Years. Read the whole essay first, then come back for this exercise, below. The exercise doesn’t take much time and will show you something important about the art of the cut in editing, as well as how to read and how to look for material and ideas that might be useful to you in writing an application or any other essay; here is your link: My Wonder Years.
And here is your brief and painless editing exercise: copy the essay, splice it into a document, then number the paragraphs. After you number the paragraphs, delete all paragraphs except these paragraphs: 1, 4, 6, 9, 11, 12 and 18. Yep, all the rest of the essay is deleted. Then delete the first word in paragraph 12 and capitalize the next word. Then read this “compact edition” as an essay in itself, which it is.
You have a very different essay, of course–this shorter version leaves out an important focus in Ms. Nguyen’s original essay, but notice how it does show her own sense of being an outsider in the United States, as well as her “place” of comfort and connection, a virtual world reached through a television screen. Yes indeed, a nice example of a place you feel comfortable topic. And this is, in its full form or in my shortened edit, another good example of the Unexpected.
Example 2: Cooking is Freedom–About a middle school rebellion against sexism and its reverse, by a boy who wasn’t quite fitting the stereotypes of his time and place. The problem our essayist faces is very much a problem of the early ’70’s, but he writes in a clear and charming way and he absolutely challenges an idea–and he writes with humor, which is an awfully good thing to have in an essay that might be number one hundred and ten, on a Wednesday afternoon, for a tired and cranky app reader.
Example 3: Why Department Stores Are Vital This essay would also be a great fit for the prompt on a place that you feel comfortable–Here the author take a place which has most often been used to show what is wrong with America and argues for it not only as a place where she feels comfortable but which she thinks is necessary for our culture–another great example of the Unexpected, in point of view and attitude. The topic is an old one, but the picture we get from the author surprises and charms.
Example 4: An Essay by M. Allen Cunningham, on the theme of how the Oregon landscape has influenced his work–this is a superb, rambling essay and another essay on place, which also examines the influence of technology in an interesting way and excerpts from the author’s own novels as it develops. The first two sections could stand as essays by themselves, with a tweak or two, so keep in mind my little editing exercise from Titi Nguyen’s essay, above. Or just skip to section #2, for an essay within an essay on place, perception and much more. Good stuff.
Example 5 (Multiple Examples): This I Believe—This link will actually take you to a page with multiple essays. The writing quality is not always exceptional–I would rate them from excellent to decent in their prose quality–but all have something interesting to say about beliefs and acting based on beliefs, or about how their beliefs developed–and they fit any of three of the current Common App topics. The beliefs here are from the full spectrum–for a taster, this selection includes an opening essay by Penn Gillette, the magican/performer, on why he is an atheist, and if you look further down the page, has an essay under the title My Brother’s Keeper, which starts as the author leaves Sunday school with his kids. The latter essay is both humanistic and religious, and both the atheist and the believer are sincere and trenchant in discussing their own beliefs.
I do have one warning for this collection: this specific essay topic became really popular in the last decade, primarily because of the This I Believe project, which was frequently featured on National Public Radio. So if you write an essay on belief, please don’t start with the clauses I believe in x, or This I believe: x. An app reader or officer may start rolling his or her eyes, (Not this again). But even with that caveat, this page, and at least a few of these essays, are definitely worth a visit and may inspire great ideas, even if you do not use any of them now. Oh, and be sure to be good to the pizza guy.
As noted above, I plan to expand on this list over the coming months, so you might want to check back on this post in few weeks, scroll down, and see what is new down here. Thanks for dropping by.
And remember: Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but copying somebody else and claiming that the work is yours is . . . theft. Just say no, or this may happen to you, a la Dante: Wages of Sin. Hey, man, don’t mess with the Dante.