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Higher education has never been more confusing or expensive. Our goal is to help you navigate the very big decisions related to higher ed with objective information and expert advice. Each piece of content on the site is original, based on extensive research, and reviewed by multiple editors, including a subject matter expert. This ensures that all of our content is up-to-date, useful, accurate, and thorough.

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How to Write an Amazing Personal Statement (Includes Examples!)

personal essays for college admission examples

Lisa Freedland is a Scholarships360 writer with personal experience in psychological research and content writing. She has written content for an online fact-checking organization and has conducted research at the University of Southern California as well as the University of California, Irvine. Lisa graduated from the University of Southern California in Fall 2021 with a degree in Psychology.

Learn about our editorial policies

Zach Skillings is the Scholarships360 Newsletter Editor. He specializes in college admissions and strives to answer important questions about higher education. When he’s not contributing to Scholarships360, Zach writes about travel, music, film, and culture. His work has been published in Our State Magazine, Ladygunn Magazine, The Nocturnal Times, and The Lexington Dispatch. Zach graduated from Elon University with a degree in Cinema and Television Arts.

personal essays for college admission examples

Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

personal essays for college admission examples

Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

How to Write an Amazing Personal Statement (Includes Examples!)

The personal statement. It’s one of the most important parts of the entire college application process. This essay is the perfect opportunity to show admissions officers who you are and what makes you stand out from the crowd. But writing a good personal statement isn’t exactly easy. That’s why we’ve put together the ultimate guide on how to nail your personal statement, complete with example essays . Each essay was reviewed and commented upon by admissions expert Bill Jack. Let’s dive in!

Related: How to write an essay about yourself  

What is a personal statement? 

A personal statement is a special type of essay that’s required when you’re applying to colleges and scholarship programs. In this essay, you’re expected to share something about who you are and what you bring to the table. Think of it as a chance to reveal a side of yourself not found in the rest of your application. Personal statements are typically around 400 – 600 words in length. 

What can I write about? 

Pretty much anything, as long as it’s about you . While this is liberating in the sense that your writing options are nearly unlimited, it’s also overwhelming for the same reason. The good news is that you’ll probably be responding to a specific prompt. Chances are you’re applying to a school that uses the Common App , which means you’ll have seven prompts to choose from . Reviewing these prompts can help generate some ideas, but so can asking yourself meaningful questions. 

Below you’ll find a list of questions to ask yourself during the brainstorming process. For each of the following questions, spend a few minutes jotting down whatever comes to mind. 

  • What experiences have shaped who you are? 
  • What’s special or unique about you or your life story? 
  • Who or what has inspired you the most? 
  • What accomplishments are you most proud of? 
  • What are your goals for the future? How have you arrived at those goals? 
  • If your life was a movie, what would be the most interesting scene? 
  • What have been some of the biggest challenges in your life? How did you respond and what did you learn? 

The purpose of these questions is to prompt you to think about your life at a deeper level. Hopefully by reflecting on them, you’ll find an essay topic that is impactful and meaningful. In the next section, we’ll offer some advice on actually writing your essay. 

Also see:  How to write a 500 word essay

How do I write my personal statement? 

Once you’ve found a topic, it’s time to start writing! Every personal statement is different, so there’s not really one formula that works for every student. That being said, the following tips should get you started in the right direction:  

1. Freewrite, then rewrite 

The blank page tends to get more intimidating the longer you stare at it, so it’s best to go ahead and jump right in! Don’t worry about making the first draft absolutely perfect. Instead, just get your ideas on the page and don’t spend too much time thinking about the finer details. Think of this initial writing session as a “brain dump”. Take 15-30 minutes to quickly empty all your thoughts onto the page without worrying about things like grammar, spelling, or sentence structure. You can even use bullet points if that helps. Once you have your ideas on the page, then you can go back and shape them exactly how you want. 

2. Establish your theme 

Now that you’ve got some basic ideas down on the page, it’s time to lock in on a theme. Your theme is a specific angle that reflects the central message of your essay. It can be summarized in a sentence or even a word. For example, let’s say you’re writing about how you had to establish a whole new group of friends when you moved to a new city. The theme for this type of essay would probably be something like “adaptation”. Having a theme will help you stay focused throughout your essay. Since you only have a limited number of words, you can’t afford to go off on tangents that don’t relate to your theme. 

3. Tell a story

A lot of great essays rely on a specific scene or story. Find the personal anecdote relevant to your theme and transfer it to the page. The best way to do this is by using descriptive language. Consult the five senses as you’re setting the scene. What did you see, hear, taste, touch, or smell? How were you feeling emotionally? Using descriptive language can really help your essay come to life. According to UPchieve , a nonprofit that supports low income students, focusing on a particular moment as a “ revised version of a memoir ” is one way to keep readers engaged. 

Related: College essay primer: show, don’t tell  

4. Focus on your opening paragraph

Your opening paragraph should grab your reader’s attention and set the tone for the rest of your essay. In most cases, this is the best place to include your anecdote (if you have one). By leading with your personal story, you can hook your audience from the get-go. After telling your story, you can explain why it’s important to who you are. 

Related:  How to start a scholarship essay (with examples)

5. Use an authentic voice 

Your personal statement reflects who you are, so you should use a tone that represents you. That means you shouldn’t try to sound like someone else, and you shouldn’t use fancy words just to show off. This isn’t an academic paper, so you don’t have to adopt a super formal tone. Instead, write in a way that allows room for your personality to breathe. 

6. Edit, edit, edit…

Once you’re done writing, give yourself some time away from the essay. Try to allow a few days to pass before looking at the essay again with fresh eyes. This way, you’re more likely to pick up on spelling and grammatical errors. You may even get some new ideas and rethink the way you wrote some things. Once you’re satisfied, let someone else edit your essay. We recommend asking a teacher, parent, or sibling for their thoughts before submitting. 

Examples of personal statements 

Sometimes viewing someone else’s work is the best way to generate inspiration and get the creative juices flowing. The following essays are written in response to four different Common App prompts: 

Prompt 1: “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”

When I was eight years old, I wanted a GameCube very badly. For weeks I hounded my dad to buy me one and finally he agreed. But there was a catch. He’d only get me a GameCube if I promised to start reading. Every day I played video games, I would have to pick up a book and read for at least one hour. At that point in my life, reading was just something I had to suffer through for school assignments. To read for pleasure seemed ludicrous. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly thrilled about this proposed agreement. But I figured anything was worth it to get my hands on that shiny new video game console, so I bit the bullet and shook my dad’s hand. Little did I know that I had just made a life-changing deal. 

At first, the required hour of reading was a chore — something I had to do so I could play Mario Kart. But it quickly turned into something more than that. To my complete and utter surprise, I discovered that I actually enjoyed reading. One hour turned into two, two turned into three, and after a while I was spending more time reading than I was playing video games. I found myself captivated by the written word, and I read everything I could get my hands on. Lord of the Rings , Percy Jackson , Goosebumps — you name it. I was falling in love with literature, while my GameCube was accumulating dust in the TV stand. 

Soon enough, reading led to writing. I was beginning to come up with my own stories, so I put pen to paper and let my imagination run wild. It started out small. My first effort was a rudimentary picture book about a friendly raccoon who went to the moon. But things progressed. My stories became more intricate, my characters more complex. I wrote a series of science fiction novellas. I tried my hand at poetry. I was amazed at the worlds I could create with the tip of my pen. I had dreams of becoming an author. 

Then somewhere along the way my family got a subscription to Netflix, and that completely changed the way I thought about storytelling. My nose had been buried in books up until then, so I hadn’t really seen a lot of movies. That quickly changed. It seemed like every other day a pair of new DVDs would arrive in the mail (this was the early days of Netflix). Dark Knight, The Truman Show, Inception, Memento — all these great films were coming in and out of the house. And I couldn’t get enough of them. Movies brought stories to life in a way that books could not. I was head over heels for visual storytelling. 

Suddenly I wasn’t writing novels and short stories anymore. I was writing scripts for movies. Now I wanted to transfer my ideas to the big screen, rather than the pages of a book. But I was still doing the same thing I had always done. I was writing, just in a different format. To help with this process, I read the screenplays of my favorite films and paid attention to the way they were crafted. I kept watching more and more movies. And I hadn’t forgotten about my first love, either. I still cherished books and looked to them for inspiration. By the end of my junior year of high school, I had completed two scripts for short films. 

So why am I telling you all this? Because I want to turn my love of storytelling into a career. I’m not totally sure how to do that yet, but I know I have options. Whether it’s film production, creative writing, or even journalism, I want to find a major that suits my ambitions. Writing has taken me a long way, and I know it can take me even further. As I step into this next chapter of my life, I couldn’t be more excited to see how my craft develops. In the meantime, I should probably get rid of that dusty old GameCube. 

Feedback from admissions professional Bill Jack

Essays don’t always have to reveal details about the student’s intended career path, but one thing I like about this essay is that it gives the reader a sense of the why. Why do they want to pursue storytelling. It also shows the reader that they are open to how they pursue their interest. Being open to exploration is such a vital part of college, so it’s also showing the reader that they likely will be open to new things in college. And, it’s always fun to learn a little bit more about the student’s family, especially if the reader can learn about how the students interacts with their family. 

Prompt 2: “The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”

I remember my first impression of Irvine: weird. It was foggy, stock-full of greenery and eucalyptus trees, and reminded me of my 5th grade trip to a “science camp” which was located in the San Bernardino mountains. Besides Irvine, that was one of the few places in Southern California where you’d find so many non-palm trees. 

Of course, perhaps my initial impression of Irvine was biased, motivated by a desire to stay in my hometown and a fear of the unknown. While that was true to an extent, Irvine was certainly still a little peculiar. The city itself was based on a “master plan” of sorts, with the location of each of its schools, parks, shops, and arguably its trees having been logically “picked” before the foundation was poured. Even the homes all looked roughly the same, with their beige, stucco walls almost serving as a hallmark of the city itself.

Thus, this perfectly structured, perfectly safe city seemed like a paradise of sorts to many outsiders, my parents included. I was a little more hesitant to welcome this. As I saw it, this was a phony city – believing that its uniformity stood for a lack of personality. My hometown, although not as flawlessly safe nor clean as Irvine, was where most of my dearest memories had occurred. From the many sleepovers at Cindie’s house, to trying to avoid my school’s own version of the “infamous” cheese touch, to the many laughs shared with friends and family, I shed a tear at the prospect of leaving my home.

Moving into the foreign city, remnants of the hostility I held towards Irvine remained. Still dwelling in my memories of the past, I was initially unable to see Irvine as a “home.” So, as I walked into my first-ever Irvine class, being greeted by many kind, yet unfamiliar faces around me, I was unable to recognize that some of those new faces would later become some of my dearest friends. Such negative feelings about the city were further reinforced by newer, harder classes, and more complicated homework. Sitting in the discomfort of this unfamiliar environment, it started to seem that “change” was something not only inevitable, but insurmountable.

As the years went on, however, this idea seemed to fade. I got used to my classes and bike racing through Irvine neighborhoods with my friends, watching the trees that once seemed just a “weird” green blob soon transform into one of my favorite parts of the city. While I kept my old, beloved memories stored, I made space for new ones. From carefully making our way over the narrow creek path next to our school, to the laughs we shared during chemistry class, my new memories made with friends seemed to transform a city I once disliked into one I would miss. 

Through this transformation, I have come to recognize that change, although sometimes intimidating at first, can open the door to great times and meaningful connections. Although Irvine may have once seemed like a strange, “phony” place that I couldn’t wait to be rid of, the memories and laughs I had grown to share there were very real. As I move onto this next part of my life, I hope I can use this knowledge that I have gained from my time in Irvine to make the most of what’s to come. Even if the change may be frightening at first, I have learned to embrace what’s on the other side, whether green or not.

One huge plus to writing an essay that focuses on a place is that you might have it read by someone who has been there. Yet, what’s really helpful about this essay is that even if someone hasn’t been there, a picture is painted about what the place is like.  Admission officers have the hard task of really understanding what the student sees, so the use of adjectives and imagery can really help.  It’s also really clever to see that the green that’s mentioned at the beginning is mentioned at the end.  It’s a nice way to bookend the essay and tie it all together.

Prompt 6: “Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?”

I like getting lost. Not literally, of course, but figuratively. Whether it be in the story of a love song by Taylor Swift, or in the memories brought back by listening to my favorite childhood video game’s background music, I’ve always appreciated music’s ability to transport me to another place, another time, another feeling. 

Alas, I cannot sing, nor have I practiced an instrument since my middle school piano class days. So, perhaps Kurt Vonnegut was right. As he puts it, “Virtually every writer I know would rather be a musician.” While I cannot speak for others, I have certainly not debunked his theory. Writing allows many, including myself, to attempt to mimic the transformative power of music – even if our singing voices aren’t exactly “pleasant.” Just as you can get lost in music, you can do so in a story. Whether it is in George Orwell’s totalitarian Oceania, or Little Women’s Orchard House, the stories outlined in novels can provide an amazing look into the lives and worlds of others, and an escape from the worries and problems of those in your own.

While I am certainly not claiming to have the storytelling abilities of the Orwells or Alcotts before me, I’ve had fun trying to recreate such transformative feelings for others. When I was nine, I attempted to write a story about a little girl who had gotten lost in the woods, only managing to get a couple pages through. As I got older, whenever I was assigned a creative writing assignment in school, I wrote about the same pig, Phil. He was always angry: in my 8th grade science class, Phil was mad at some humans who had harbored his friend captive, and in my 9th grade English class, at a couple who robbed him. 

Thus, when I heard about a writing club being opened at my school in 11th grade, I knew I had to join. I wanted to discern whether writing was just a hobby I picked up now and then, or a true passion. If it was a passion, I wanted to learn as much as possible about how I could improve. Although my high school’s writing club certainly wasn’t going to transform me into Shakespeare, I knew I could learn a lot from it – and I did. The club challenged me to do many things, from writing on the spot, to writing poetry, to even writing about myself, something that’s hopefully coming in handy right now. 

From then on, I started to expand into different types of writing, storing short ideas, skits, and more in appropriately-labeled Google Drive folders. At around the same time, I became interested in classic literature, which largely stemmed from a project in English class. We had been required to choose and read a classic on our own, then present it to the class in an interesting way. While my book was certainly interesting and unique in its own right, nearly everyone else’s novels seemed more captivating to me. So, I took it upon myself to read as many classics as I could the following summer.

One of the books I read during the summer, funnily enough, was Animal Farm, which starred angry pigs, reminiscent of Phil. I had also started going over different ideas in my head, thinking about how I could translate them into words using the new skills I learned. While the writing club helped reaffirm my interest in writing and allowed me to develop new skills, my newfound affinity for classics gave me inspiration to write. Now, I am actually considering writing as part of my future. In this endeavor, I hope that Phil, and the music I inevitably listen to as I write, will accompany me every step of the way.

Admission officers might read 70 (or more!) essays in one day. It’s not uncommon for them to start to blend together and sound similar. This essay might not make you laugh out loud. But, it might make the reader chuckle while reading it thanks to the subtle humor and levity. Being able to incorporate a little humor into your essay (if it is natural for you to do… do not force it), can really be a great way to shed additional light into who you are. Remember, the essay isn’t merely about proving that you can write, but it should also reveal a little bit about your personality.

Prompt 5: “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”

I learned a lot of things during the summer I worked at Tropical Smoothie. I discovered the value of hard work. I figured out how to save money. I even mastered the art of the Mango Magic smoothie (the secret is lots of sugar). But most importantly, I learned the power of perspective. And I have Deja to thank for that. 

Deja was my shift supervisor, and one of Tropical Smoothie’s best employees. She was punctual, friendly, and always willing to lend a helping hand. She knew the store from top to bottom, and could handle pretty much any situation thrown her way. She made everyone around her better. On top of all that, she was four months pregnant! I was always impressed by Deja’s work ethic, but I gained an entirely new level of respect for her one day.

It was a Friday night, and Deja and I were working the closing shift together. It was very busy, and Deja and I were the only ones on shift. We managed to get by, but we were exhausted by the end of the evening. After wiping down the counters and mopping the floors, we closed up shop and went our separate ways. I was eager to get home. 

I walked a couple blocks to where I had parked my car. Well, it wasn’t my car actually. It was my dad’s ‘98 Chevy pickup truck, and it was in rough shape. It had no heat or A/C, the leather seats were cracked beyond repair, and the driver’s side door was jammed shut. I sighed as I got in through the passenger side and scooted over to the driver’s seat. The whole reason I was working at Tropical Smoothie was to save up enough money to buy my own car. I was hoping to have something more respectable to drive during my senior year of high school. 

I cranked the old thing up and started on my way home. But soon enough, I spotted Deja walking on the side of the road. There was no sidewalk here, the light was low, and she was dangerously close to the passing cars. I pulled over and offered her a ride. She got in and explained that she was on her way home. Apparently she didn’t have a car and had been walking to work every day. I couldn’t believe it. Here I was complaining about my set of wheels, while Deja didn’t have any to begin with.

We got to talking, and she confessed that she had been having a tough time. You would never know from the way she was so cheerful at work, but Deja had a lot on her plate. She was taking care of her mother, her boyfriend had just lost his job, and she was worried about making ends meet. And of course, she was expecting a baby in five months. On top of all that, she had been walking nearly a mile to and from work every day. The whole thing was a real eye opener, and made me reconsider some things in my own life. 

For one, I didn’t mind driving my dad’s truck anymore. It was banged up, sure, but it was a lot better than nothing. My mindset had changed. I appreciated the truck now. I began to think about other things differently, too. I started making mental notes of all the things in my life I was thankful for — my family, my friends, my health. I became grateful for what I had, instead of obsessing over the things I didn’t. 

I also gained more awareness of the world outside my own little bubble. My encounter with Deja had shown me first-hand that everyone is dealing with their own problems, some worse than others. So I started paying more attention to my friends, family members, and coworkers. I started listening more and asking how I could help. I also gave Deja a ride home for the rest of the summer. 

These are all small things, of course, but I think they make a difference. I realized I’m at my best when I’m not fixated on my own life, but when I’m considerate of the lives around me. I want to keep this in mind as I continue to grow and develop as a person. I want to continue to search for ways to support the people around me. And most importantly, I want to keep things in perspective.

Too often we can be focused on our own problems that we fail to realize that everyone has their own things going on in their lives, too.  This essay showcases how it’s important to put things in perspective, a skill that certainly will prove invaluable in college… and not just in the classroom.  Another reason I like this essay is because it provides deeper insight into the student’s life.  Sure, you might have mentioned in your activities list that you have a job.  But as this essay does, you can show why you have the job in the first place, what your responsibilities are, and more.

A few last tips

We hope these essay examples gave you a bit of inspiration of what to include in your own. However, before you go, we’d like to send you off with a few (personal statement) writing tips to help you make your essays as lovely as the memories and anecdotes they’re based off of. Without further ado, here are some of our best tips for writing your personal statements:

1. Open strong

College admissions officers read many, many essays (think 50+) a day, which can sometimes cause them to start blending together and sounding alike. One way to avoid your essay from simply fading into the background is to start strong. This means opening your essay with something memorable, whether an interesting personal anecdote, a descriptive setting, or anything else that you think would catch a reader’s attention (so long as it’s not inappropriate). Not only might this help college admissions officers better remember your essay, but it will also make them curious about what the rest of your essay will entail.

2. Be authentic

Perhaps most important when it comes to writing personal statement essays is to maintain your authenticity. Ultimately, your essays should reflect your unique stories and quirks that make you who you are, and should help college admissions officers determine whether you’d truly be a good fit for their school or not. So, don’t stress trying to figure out what colleges are looking for. Be yourself, and let the colleges come to you!

3. Strong writing

This one may seem a little obvious, but strong writing will certainly appeal to colleges. Not only will it make your essay more compelling, but it may show colleges that you’re ready for college-level essay writing (that you’ll likely have to do a lot of). Just remember that good writing is not limited to grammar. Using captivating detail and descriptions are a huge part of making your essay seem more like a story than a lecture.

4. Proofread

Last but not least, remember to proofread! Make sure your essay contains no errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling. When you’re done proofreading your essay yourself, we would also recommend that you ask a teacher, parent, or other grammatically savvy person to proofread your essay as well.

Final thoughts 

With those in hand, we hope you now have a better sense of how to write your personal statement. While your grades and test scores are important when it comes to college admissions, it’s really your essays that can “make” or “break” your application. 

Although this may make it seem like a daunting task, writing an amazing personal statement essay is all about effort. Thus, so long as you start early, follow the advice listed above, and dedicate your time and effort to it, it’s entirely possible to write an essay that perfectly encapsulates you. Good luck, and happy writing!

Also see:  Scholarships360’s free scholarships search tool

Key Takeaways

  • It may take some people longer than others to know what they want to write about, but remember that everyone, including you, has something unique to write about!
  • Personal statements should be personal, which means you should avoid being too general and really strive to show off what makes you “you”
  • Time and effort are two of the most important things you can put into your personal statement to ensure that it is the best representation of yourself
  • Don’t forget to ask people who know you to read your work before you submit; they should be able to tell you better than anyone if you are truly shining through!

Frequently asked questions about writing personal statements 

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Ultimate Guide to Writing Your College Essay

Tips for writing an effective college essay.

College admissions essays are an important part of your college application and gives you the chance to show colleges and universities your character and experiences. This guide will give you tips to write an effective college essay.

Want free help with your college essay?

UPchieve connects you with knowledgeable and friendly college advisors—online, 24/7, and completely free. Get 1:1 help brainstorming topics, outlining your essay, revising a draft, or editing grammar.

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Writing a strong college admissions essay

Learn about the elements of a solid admissions essay.

Avoiding common admissions essay mistakes

Learn some of the most common mistakes made on college essays

Brainstorming tips for your college essay

Stuck on what to write your college essay about? Here are some exercises to help you get started.

How formal should the tone of your college essay be?

Learn how formal your college essay should be and get tips on how to bring out your natural voice.

Taking your college essay to the next level

Hear an admissions expert discuss the appropriate level of depth necessary in your college essay.

Student Stories

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Student Story: Admissions essay about a formative experience

Get the perspective of a current college student on how he approached the admissions essay.

Student Story: Admissions essay about personal identity

Get the perspective of a current college student on how she approached the admissions essay.

Student Story: Admissions essay about community impact

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This content is licensed by Khan Academy and is available for free at www.khanacademy.org.

Essays That Worked

personal essays for college admission examples

The essays are a place to show us who you are and who you’ll be in our community.

It’s a chance to add depth to something that is important to you and tell the admissions committee more about your background or goals. Below you’ll find selected examples of essays that “worked,” as nominated by our admissions committee. In each of these essays, students were able to share stories from their everyday lives to reveal something about their character, values, and life that aligned with the culture and values at Hopkins.

Read essays that worked from Transfer applicants .

Hear from the class of 2027.

These selections represent just a few examples of essays we found impressive and helpful during the past admissions cycle. We hope these essays inspire you as you prepare to compose your own personal statements. The most important thing to remember is to be original as you share your own story, thoughts, and ideas with us.

personal essays for college admission examples

Ordering the Disorderly

Ellie’s essay skillfully uses the topic of entropy as an extended metaphor. Through it, we see reflections about who they are and who they aspire to be.

personal essays for college admission examples

Pack Light, But Be Prepared

In Pablo’s essay, the act of packing for a pilgrimage becomes a metaphor for the way humans accumulate experiences in their life’s journey and what we can learn from them. As we join Pablo through the diverse phases of their life, we gain insights into their character and values.

personal essays for college admission examples

Tikkun Olam

Julieta illustrates how the concept of Tikkun Olam, “a desire to help repair the world,” has shaped their passions and drives them to pursue experiences at Hopkins.

personal essays for college admission examples

Kashvi’s essay encapsulates a heartfelt journey of self-discovery and the invaluable teachings of Rock, their 10-year-old dog. Through the lens of their companionship, Kashvi walked us through valuable lessons on responsibility, friendship, patience, and unconditional love.

personal essays for college admission examples

Classical Reflections in Herstory

Maddie’s essay details their intellectual journey using their love of Greek classics. They incorporate details that reveal the roots of their academic interests: storytelling, literary devices, and translation. As their essay progresses, so do Maddie’s intellectual curiosities.

personal essays for college admission examples

My Spotify Playlist

Alyssa’s essay reflects on special memories through the creative lens of Spotify playlists. They use three examples to highlight their experiences with their tennis team, finding a virtual community during the pandemic, and co-founding a nonprofit to help younger students learn about STEM.

More essays that worked

We share essays from previously admitted students—along with feedback from our admissions committee—so you can understand what made them effective and how to start crafting your own.

personal essays for college admission examples

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personal essays for college admission examples

21 Stellar Common App Essay Examples to Inspire Your College Essay

What’s covered:, what makes a good common app essay, is your common app essay strong enough.

When you begin writing your Common App essay, having an example to look at can help you understand how to effectively write your college essay so that it stands apart from others. 

These Common App essay examples demonstrate a strong writing ability and answer the prompt in a way that shows admissions officers something unique about the student. Once you’ve read some examples and are ready to get started, read our step-by-step guide for how to write a strong Common App essay.  

Please note: Looking at examples of real essays students have submitted to colleges can be very beneficial to get inspiration for your essays. You should never copy or plagiarize from these examples when writing your own essays. Colleges can tell when an essay isn’t genuine and will not view students favorably if they plagiarized. 

Read our Common App essay breakdown to get a comprehensive overview of this year’s supplemental prompts.

It’s Personal

The point of the Common App essay is to humanize yourself to a college admissions committee. The ultimate goal is to get them to choose you over someone else! You will have a better chance of achieving this goal if the admissions committee feels personally connected to you or invested in your story. When writing your Common App essay, you should explore your feelings, worldview, values, desires, and anything else that makes you uniquely you.

It’s Not Cliché

It is pretty easy to resort to clichés in college essays. This should be actively avoided! CollegeVine has identified the immigrant’s journey, sports injuries, and overcoming a challenging course as cliché topics . If you write about one of these topics, you have to work harder to stand out, so working with a more nuanced topic is often safer and easier.

It’s Well-Done

Colleges want good writers. They want students who can articulate their thoughts clearly and concisely (and creatively!). You should be writing and rewriting your essays, perfecting them as you go. Of course, make sure that your grammar and spelling are impeccable, but also put in time crafting your tone and finding your voice. This will also make your essay more personal and will make your reader feel more connected to you!

It’s Cohesive

Compelling Common App essays tell a cohesive story. Cohesion is primarily achieved through effective introductions and conclusions , which often contribute to the establishment of a clear theme or topic. Make sure that it is clear what you are getting at, but also don’t explicitly state what you are getting at—a successful essay speaks for itself.

Common App Essay Examples

Here are the current Common App prompts. Click the links to jump to the examples for a specific prompt, or keep reading to review the examples for all the prompts.

Prompt #1 :  Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Prompt #2 :  The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Prompt #3 :  Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Prompt #4 : Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? (NOTE: We only have an example for the old prompt #4 about solving a problem, not this current one)

Prompt #5 :  Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Prompt #6 :  Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

Prompt #7 :  Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of the author and subjects.

Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Prompt #1, example #1.

The room was silent except for the thoughts racing through my head. I led a spade from my hand and my opponent paused for a second, then played a heart. The numbers ran through my mind as I tried to consider every combination, calculating my next move. Finally, I played the ace of spades from the dummy and the rest of my clubs, securing the contract and 620 points when my partner ruffed at trick five. Next board.

It was the final of the 2015 United States Bridge Federation Under-26 Women’s Championship. The winning team would be selected to represent the United States in the world championship and my team was still in the running.

Contract bridge is a strategic and stochastic card game. Players from around the world gather at local clubs, regional events, and, in this case, national tournaments.

Going into the tournament, my team was excited; all the hours we had put into the game, from the lengthy midnight Skype sessions spent discussing boards to the coffee shop meetings spent memorizing conventions together, were about to pay off.

Halfway through, our spirits were still high, as we were only down by fourteen international match points which, out of the final total of about four hundred points, was virtually nothing and it was very feasible to catch up. Our excitement was short-lived, however, as sixty boards later, we found that we had lost the match and would not be chosen as the national team.

Initially, we were devastated. We had come so close and it seemed as if all the hours we had devoted to training had been utterly wasted. Yet as our team spent some time together reflecting upon the results, we gradually realized that the true value that we had gained wasn’t only the prospect of winning the national title, but also the time we had spent together exploring our shared passion. I chatted with the winning team and even befriended a few of them who offered us encouragement and advice.

Throughout my bridge career, although I’ve gained a respectable amount of masterpoints and awards, I’ve realized that the real reward comes from the extraordinary people I have met. I don’t need to travel cross-country to learn; every time I sit down at a table whether it be during a simple club game, a regional tournament or a national event, I find I’m always learning. 

I nod at the pair that’s always yelling at each other. They teach me the importance of sportsmanship and forgiveness.

I greet the legally blind man who can defeat most of the seeing players. He reminds me not to make excuses.

I chat with the friendly, elderly couple who, at ages ninety and ninety-two, have just gotten married two weeks ago. They teach me that it’s never too late to start anything.

I talk to the boy who’s attending Harvard and the girl who forewent college to start her own company. They show me that there is more than one path to success.

I congratulate the little kid running to his dad, excited to have won his very first masterpoints. He reminds me of the thrill of every first time and to never stop trying new things.

Just as much as I have benefitted from these life lessons, I aspire to give back to my bridge community as much as it has given me. I aspire to teach people how to play this complicated yet equally as exciting game. I aspire to never stop improving myself, both at and away from the bridge table.

Bridge has given me my roots and dared me to dream. What started as merely a hobby has become a community, a passion, a part of my identity. I aspire to live selflessly and help others reach their goals. I seek to take risks, embrace all results, even failure, and live unfettered from my own doubt.

This student draws readers in with a strong introduction. The essay starts ambiguous—“I led with a spade”—then intrigues readers by gradually revealing more information and details. This makes the reader want to keep reading (which is super important!) As the writer continues, there is a rather abrupt tone shift from suspenseful to explanatory with statements like “It was the final of the 2015 United States Bridge Federation Under-26 Women’s Championship” and “Contract bridge is a strategic and stochastic card game.” If you plan to start with an imagery-heavy, emotional, suspenseful, or dramatic introduction, you will need to transition to the content of your essay in a way that does not feel abrupt. 

You will often hear that essays need to “show, not tell.” This essay actually does both. First, the student tells readers the importance of bridge, saying “we gradually realized that the true value that we had gained wasn’t only the prospect of winning the national title, but also the time we had spent together exploring our shared passion” and “I’ve realized that the real reward comes from the extraordinary people I have met.” Then, the student shows the lessons they have learned from bridge through a series of parallel sentences: “I nod… sportsmanship and forgiveness” “I greet… not to make excuses” “I chat… it’s never too late to start anything” and so on. This latter strategy is much more effective than the former and is watered down because the student has already told us what we are supposed to get out of these sentences. Remember that your readers are intelligent and can draw their own conclusions. Avoid summarizing the moral of your story for them!

Overall, this essay is interesting and answers the prompt. We learn the importance of bridge to this student. The student has a solid grasp of language, a high-level vocabulary, and a valuable message, though they would be better off if they avoided summarizing their point and created more seamless transitions. 

Prompt #1, Example #2

Growing up, I always wanted to eat, play, visit, watch, and be it all: sloppy joes and spaetzle, Beanie Babies and Steiff, Cape Cod and the Baltic Sea, football and fussball, American and German.

My American parents relocated our young family to Berlin when I was three years old. My exposure to America was limited to holidays spent stateside and awfully dubbed Disney Channel broadcasts. As the few memories I had of living in the US faded, my affinity for Germany grew. I began to identify as “Germerican,” an ideal marriage of the two cultures. As a child, I viewed my biculturalism as a blessing. I possessed a native fluency in “Denglisch” and my family’s Halloween parties were legendary at a time when the holiday was just starting to gain popularity outside of the American Sector.

Insidiously, the magic I once felt in loving two homes was replaced by a deep-­rooted sense of rootlessness. I stopped feeling American when, while discussing World War II with my grandmother, I said “the US won.” She corrected me, insisting I use “we” when referring to the US’s actions. Before then, I hadn’t realized how directly people associated themselves with their countries. I stopped feeling German during the World Cup when my friends labeled me a “bandwagon fan” for rooting for Germany. Until that moment, my cheers had felt sincere. I wasn’t part of the “we” who won World Wars or World Cups. Caught in a twilight of foreign and familiar, I felt emotionally and psychologically disconnected from the two cultures most familiar to me.

After moving from Berlin to New York at age fifteen, my feelings of cultural homelessness thrived in my new environment. Looking and sounding American furthered my feelings of dislocation. Border patrol agents, teachers, classmates, neighbors, and relatives all “welcomed me home” to a land they could not understand was foreign to me. Americans confused me as I relied on Urban Dictionary to understand my peers, the Pledge of Allegiance seemed nationalistic, and the only thing familiar about Fahrenheit was the German after whom it was named. Too German for America and too American for Germany, I felt alienated from both. I wanted desperately to be a member of one, if not both, cultures.

During my first weeks in Scarsdale, I spent my free time googling “Berlin Family Seeks Teen” and “New Americans in Scarsdale.” The latter search proved most fruitful: I discovered Horizons, a nonprofit that empowers resettled refugees, or “New Americans,” to thrive. I started volunteering with Horizon’s children’s programs, playing with and tutoring young refugees.

It was there that I met Emily, a twelve­-year-­old Iraqi girl who lived next to Horizons. In between games and snacks, Emily would ask me questions about American life, touching on everything from Halloween to President Obama. Gradually, my confidence in my American identity grew as I recognized my ability to answer most of her questions. American culture was no longer completely foreign to me. I found myself especially qualified to work with young refugees; my experience growing up in a country other than that of my parents’ was similar enough to that of the refugee children Horizons served that I could empathize with them and offer advice. Together, we worked through conflicting allegiances, homesickness, and stretched belonging.

Forging a special, personal bond with young refugees proved a cathartic outlet for my insecurities as it taught me to value my past. My transculturalism allowed me to help young refugees integrate into American life, and, in doing so, I was able to adjust myself. Now, I have an appreciation of myself that I never felt before. “Home” isn’t the digits in a passport or ZIP code but a sense of contentedness. By helping a young refugee find comfort, happiness, and home in America, I was finally able to find those same things for myself.

Due to their endearing (and creative) use of language—with early phrases like “sloppy joes and spaetzle” as well as  “Germerican” and “Denglisch”—readers are inclined to like this writer from the get-go. Though the essay shifts from this lighthearted introduction to more serious subject matter around the third paragraph, the shift is not abrupt or jarring. This is because the student invites readers to feel the transition with them through their inclusion of various anecdotes that inspired their “feelings of cultural homelessness.” And our journey does not end there—we go back to America with the student and see how their former struggles become strengths.

Ultimately, this essay is successful due to its satisfying ending. Because readers experience the student’s struggles with them, we also feel the resolution. The conclusion of this essay is a prime example of the “Same, but Different” technique described in our article on How to End Your College Essay . As the student describes how, in the end, their complicated cultural identity still exists but transitions to a source of strength, readers are left feeling happy for the student. This means that they have formed a connection with the student, which is the ultimate goal!

Prompt #1, Example #3

“1…2…3…4 pirouettes ! New record!” My friends cheered as I landed my turns. Pleased with my progress, I gazed down at my worn-out pointe shoes. The sweltering blisters, numbing ice-baths, and draining late-night practices did not seem so bad after all. Next goal: five turns.

For as long as I can remember, ballet, in all its finesse and glamor, had kept me driven day to day. As a child, the lithe ballerinas, donning ethereal costumes as they floated across the stage, were my motivation. While others admired Messi and Adele, I idolized Carlos Acosta, principal dancer of the Royal Ballet. 

As I devoted more time and energy towards my craft, I became obsessed with improving my technique. I would stretch for hours after class, forcing my leg one inch higher in an effort to mirror the Dance Magazine cover girls . I injured my feet and ruined pair after pair of pointe shoes, turning on wood, cement, and even grass to improve my balance as I spun. At competitions, the dancers with the 180-degree leg extensions, endless turns, and soaring leaps—the ones who received “Bravos!” from the roaring audience—further pushed me to refine my skills and perfect my form. I believed that, with enough determination, I would one day attain their level of perfection. Reaching the quadruple- pirouette milestone only intensified my desire to accomplish even more. 

My efforts seemed to have come to fruition two summers ago when I was accepted to dance with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet at their renowned New York City summer intensive. I walked into my first session eager to learn from distinguished ballet masters and worldly dancers, already anticipating my improvement. Yet, as I danced alongside the accomplished ballerinas, I felt out of place. Despite their clean technique and professional training, they did not aim for glorious leg extensions or prodigious leaps. When they performed their turn combinations, most of them only executed two turns as I attempted four. 

“Dancers, double- pirouettes only.” 

Taken aback and confused, I wondered why our teacher expected so little from us. The other ballerinas seemed content, gracing the studio with their simple movements. 

As I grew closer with my Moscow roommates, I gradually learned that their training emphasized the history of the art form instead of stylistic tricks. Rather than show off their physical ability, their performances aimed to convey a story, one that embodied the rich culture of ballet and captured both the legacy of the dancers before them and their own artistry. As I observed my friends more intently in repertoire class, I felt the pain of the grief-stricken white swan from Swan Lake , the sass of the flirtatious Kitri from Don Quijote, and I gradually saw what I had overlooked before. My definition of talent had been molded by crowd-pleasing elements—whirring pirouettes , gravity-defying leaps, and mind-blowing leg extensions. This mindset slowly stripped me from the roots of my passion and my personal connection with ballet. 

With the Bolshoi, I learned to step back and explore the meaning behind each step and the people behind the scenes. Ballet carries history in its movements, from the societal values of the era to each choreographer’s unique flair. As I uncovered the messages behind each pirouette, kick, and jump, my appreciation for ballet grew beyond my obsession with raw athleticism and developed into a love for the art form’s emotive abilities in bridging the dancers with the audience. My journey as an artist has allowed me to see how technical execution is only the means to a greater understanding between dancer and spectator, between storyteller and listener. The elegance and complexity of ballet does not revolve around astonishing stunts but rather the evocative strength and artistry manifested in the dancer, in me. It is the combination of sentiments, history, tradition, and passion that has allowed ballet and its lessons of human connection to become my lifestyle both on and off stage.

The primary strength of this essay is the honesty and authenticity of the student’s writing. It is purposefully reflective. Intentional language creates a clear character arc that begins with an eager young ballerina and ends with the student reflecting on their past. 

Readers are easily able to picture the passion and intensity of the young dancer through the writer’s engagement with words like “obsessed,” “forcing,” and “ruined” in the second paragraph. Then, we see how intensity becomes pride as they “wondered why our teacher expected so little from us.” And ultimately, we see the writer humbled as they are exposed to the deeper meaning behind what they have worked so hard for. This arc is outstanding, and the student’s musings about ballet in the concl usion position them as vulnerable and reflective (and thus, appealing to admissions officers!)

The main weakness of this essay (though this is a stellar essay) is its formulaic beginning. While dialogue can be an effective tool for starting your essay, this student’s introduction feels a bit stilted as the dialogue does not match the overall reflective tone of the essay. Perhaps, in place of “Next goal: five turns,” the student could have posed a question or foreshadowed the growth they ultimately describe.

Prompt #1, Example #4

My paintbrush dragged a flurry of acrylic, the rich colors attaching to each groove in my canvas’s texture. The feeling was euphoric.

From a young age, painting has been my solace. Between the stress of my packed high school days filled with classes and extracurriculars, the glide of my paintbrush was my emotional outlet.

I opened a fresh canvas and began. The amalgamation of assorted colors in my palette melded harmoniously: dark and light, cool and warm, brilliant and dull. They conjoined, forming shades and surfaces sharp, smooth, and ridged. The textures of my paint strokes — powdery, glossy, jagged — gave my painting a tone, as if it had a voice of its own, sometimes shrieking, sometimes whispering.

Rough indigo blue. The repetitive upward pulls of my brush formed layers on my canvas. Staring into the deep blue, I felt transported to the bottom of the pool I swim in daily. I looked upward to see a layer of dense water between myself and the person I aspire to be, an ideal blurred by filmy ripples. Rough blue encapsulates my amorphous, conflicting identity, catalyzed by words spewed by my peers about my “oily hair” and “smelly food”. They caused my ever present disdain toward cultural assemblies; the lehenga I wore felt burdensome. My identity quivers like the indigo storm I painted — a duel between my self-deprecating, validation-seeking self, and the proud self I desire to be. My haphazard paint strokes released my internal turbulence.

Smooth orange-hued green. I laid the color in melodious strokes, forming my figure. The warmer green transitions from the rough blue — while they share elements, they also diverge. My firm brushstrokes felt like the way I felt on my first day as a media intern at KBOO, my local volunteer-driven radio station, committed to the voices of the marginalized. As a naturally introverted speaker, I was forced out of my comfort zone when tasked with documenting a KBOO art exhibition for social media, speaking with hosts to share their diverse, underrepresented backgrounds and inspirations. A rhythmic green strength soon shoved me past internal blue turbulence. My communication skills which were built by two years of Speech and Debate unleashed — I recognized that making a social change through media required amplifying unique voices and perspectives, both my own and others. The powerful green strokes that fill my canvas entrench my growth.

Bright, voluminous coral, hinted with magenta and yellow. I dabbed the color over my figure, giving my painting dimension. The paint, speckled, added depth on every inch it coated. As I moved the color in random but purposeful movements, the vitality ushered into my painting brought a smile across my face. It reminded me of the encounters I had with my cubicle-mate in my sophomore year academic autism research internship, seemingly insignificant moments in my lifelong journey that, in retrospect, wove unique threads into my tapestry. The kindness she brought into work inspired my compassion, while her stories of struggling with ADHD in the workplace bolstered my empathy towards different experiences. Our conversations added blobs of a nonuniform bright color in my painting, binding a new perspective in me.

I added in my final strokes, each contributing an element to my piece. As I scanned my canvas, I observed these elements. Detail added nuance into smaller pictures; they embodied complexities within color, texture, and hue, each individually delivering a narrative. But together, they formed a piece of art— art that could be interpreted as a whole or broken apart but still delivering as a means of communication.

I find beauty in media because of this. I can adapt a complex narrative to be deliverable, each component telling a story. Appreciating these nuances — the light, dark, smooth, and rough — has cultivated my growth mindset. My life-long painting never finishes. It is ever-expanding, absorbing the novel textures and colors I encounter daily.

This essay is distinct from others due to its melodic, lyrical form. This is primarily achieved because the student’s form follows the movements of the paintbrush that they use to scaffold their essay. As readers, we simply flow through the essay, occasionally picking up bits of information about its creator. Without even realizing it, by the end of the essay, admissions officers will know that this student is a swimmer, was in Speech and Debate, is Indian, and has had multiple internships.

A major strength of this essay is the command of language that the student demonstrates. This essay was not simply written, it was crafted. Universities are, of course, interested in the talents, goals, and interests of applicants, but an essay being well-written can be equally important. Writing skills are important because your reader will not learn about your talents, goals, and interests if they aren’t engaged in your essay, but they are also important because admissions officers know that being able to articulate your thoughts is important for success in all future careers.

While this essay is well-written, there are a few moments where it falls out of the flow and feels more like a student advertising their successes. For example, the phrases “media intern at KBOO” and “autism research internship” work better on a resume than they do in this essay. Admissions officers have a copy of your resume and can check your internship experiences after reading your essay! If you are going to use a unique writing style or narrative form, lean into it; don’t try to hybridize it with the standard college essay form. Your boldness will be attractive to admissions officers.

personal essays for college admission examples

Readers are easily able to picture the passion and intensity of the young dancer through the writer’s engagement with words like “obsessed,” “forcing,” and “ruined” in the second paragraph. Then, we see how intensity becomes pride as they “wondered why our teacher expected so little from us.” And ultimately, we see the writer humbled as they are exposed to the deeper meaning behind what they have worked so hard for. This arc is outstanding, and the student’s musings about ballet in the conclusion position them as vulnerable and reflective (and thus, appealing to admissions officers!)

Prompt #2: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Prompt #2, example #1.

“You ruined my life!” After months of quiet anger, my brother finally confronted me. To my shame, I had been appallingly ignorant of his pain.

Despite being twins, Max and I are profoundly different. Having intellectual interests from a young age that, well, interested very few of my peers, I often felt out of step in comparison with my highly-social brother. Everything appeared to come effortlessly for Max and, while we share an extremely tight bond, his frequent time away with friends left me feeling more and more alone as we grew older.

When my parents learned about The Green Academy, we hoped it would be an opportunity for me to find not only an academically challenging environment, but also – perhaps more importantly – a community. This meant transferring the family from Drumfield to Kingston. And while there was concern about Max, we all believed that given his sociable nature, moving would be far less impactful on him than staying put might be on me.

As it turned out, Green Academy was everything I’d hoped for. I was ecstatic to discover a group of students with whom I shared interests and could truly engage. Preoccupied with new friends and a rigorous course load, I failed to notice that the tables had turned. Max, lost in the fray and grappling with how to make connections in his enormous new high school, had become withdrawn and lonely. It took me until Christmas time – and a massive argument – to recognize how difficult the transition had been for my brother, let alone that he blamed me for it.

Through my own journey of searching for academic peers, in addition to coming out as gay when I was 12, I had developed deep empathy for those who had trouble fitting in. It was a pain I knew well and could easily relate to. Yet after Max’s outburst, my first response was to protest that our parents – not I – had chosen to move us here. In my heart, though, I knew that regardless of who had made the decision, we ended up in Kingston for my benefit. I was ashamed that, while I saw myself as genuinely compassionate, I had been oblivious to the heartache of the person closest to me. I could no longer ignore it – and I didn’t want to.

We stayed up half the night talking, and the conversation took an unexpected turn. Max opened up and shared that it wasn’t just about the move. He told me how challenging school had always been for him, due to his dyslexia, and that the ever-present comparison to me had only deepened his pain.

We had been in parallel battles the whole time and, yet, I only saw that Max was in distress once he experienced problems with which I directly identified. I’d long thought Max had it so easy – all because he had friends. The truth was, he didn’t need to experience my personal brand of sorrow in order for me to relate – he had felt plenty of his own.

My failure to recognize Max’s suffering brought home for me the profound universality and diversity of personal struggle; everyone has insecurities, everyone has woes, and everyone – most certainly – has pain. I am acutely grateful for the conversations he and I shared around all of this, because I believe our relationship has been fundamentally strengthened by a deeper understanding of one another. Further, this experience has reinforced the value of constantly striving for deeper sensitivity to the hidden struggles of those around me. I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story.

Here is a prime example that you don’t have to have fabulous imagery or flowery prose to write a successful Common App essay. You just have to be clear and say something that matters. This essay is simple and beautiful. It almost feels like having a conversation with a friend and learning that they are an even better person than you already thought they were.

Through this narrative, readers learn a lot about the writer—where they’re from, what their family life is like, what their challenges were as a kid, and even their sexuality. We also learn a lot about their values—notably, the value they place on awareness, improvement, and consideration of others. Though they never explicitly state it (which is great because it is still crystal clear!), this student’s ending of “I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story” shows that they are constantly striving for improvement and finding lessons anywhere they can get them in life.

The only part of this essay that could use a bit of work is the introduction. A short introduction can be effective, but this short first paragraph feels thrown in at the last minute and like it is missing its second half. If you are keeping your introduction short, make it matter.

Prompt #2, Example #2

Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the garb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears. As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire. 

Furiously I rubbed the twigs together—rubbed and rubbed until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers. No smoke. The twigs were too young, too sticky-green; I tossed them away with a shower of curses, and began tearing through the underbrush in search of a more flammable collection. My efforts were fruitless. Livid, I bit a rejected twig, determined to prove that the forest had spurned me, offering only young, wet bones that would never burn. But the wood cracked like carrots between my teeth—old, brittle, and bitter. Roaring and nursing my aching palms, I retreated to the tent, where I sulked and awaited the jeers of my family. 

Rattling their empty worm cans and reeking of fat fish, my brother and cousins swaggered into the campsite. Immediately, they noticed the minor stick massacre by the fire pit and called to me, their deep voices already sharp with contempt. 

“Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” they taunted. “Having some trouble?” They prodded me with the ends of the chewed branches and, with a few effortless scrapes of wood on rock, sparked a red and roaring flame. My face burned long after I left the fire pit. The camp stank of salmon and shame. 

In the tent, I pondered my failure. Was I so dainty? Was I that incapable? I thought of my hands, how calloused and capable they had been, how tender and smooth they had become. It had been years since I’d kneaded mud between my fingers; instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano, my hands softening into those of a musician—fleshy and sensitive. And I’d gotten glasses, having grown horrifically nearsighted; long nights of dim lighting and thick books had done this. I couldn’t remember the last time I had lain down on a hill, barefaced, and seen the stars without having to squint. Crawling along the edge of the tent, a spider confirmed my transformation—he disgusted me, and I felt an overwhelming urge to squash him. 

Yet, I realized I hadn’t really changed—I had only shifted perspective. I still eagerly explored new worlds, but through poems and prose rather than pastures and puddles. I’d grown to prefer the boom of a bass over that of a bullfrog, learned to coax a different kind of fire from wood, having developed a burn for writing rhymes and scrawling hypotheses. 

That night, I stayed up late with my journal and wrote about the spider I had decided not to kill. I had tolerated him just barely, only shrieking when he jumped—it helped to watch him decorate the corners of the tent with his delicate webs, knowing that he couldn’t start fires, either. When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.

This Common App essay is well-written. The student is showing the admissions officers their ability to articulate their points beautifully and creatively. It starts with vivid images like that of the “rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free.” And because the prose is flowery, the writer can get away with metaphors like “I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms” that might sound cheesy without the clear command of the English language that the writer quickly establishes.

In addition to being well-written, this essay is thematically cohesive. It begins with the simple introduction “Fire!” and ends with the following image: “When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.” This full-circle approach leaves readers satisfied and impressed.

While dialogue often comes off as cliche or trite, this student effectively incorporates their family members saying “Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” This is achieved through the apt use of the verb “taunted” to characterize the questioning and through the question’s thematic connection to the earlier image of the student as a rustic princess. Similarly, rhetorical questions can feel randomly placed in essays, but this student’s inclusion of the questions “Was I so dainty?” and “Was I that incapable?” feels perfectly justified after they establish that they were pondering their failure.

Quite simply, this essay shows how quality writing can make a simple story outstandingly compelling.

Prompt #2, Example #3

The muffled voices behind thin walls heralded trouble.

They were fighting about money.

It wasn’t the first time this had happened and it wasn’t going to be the last. It was one of those countless nights I had to spend curled up under the blanket while pretending to be asleep. My father had been unemployed for five years now, and my mother, a local kindergarten teacher, was struggling to support the family alone. Our situation was bleak: Savings had run out and my parents could no longer hide our lack of money from me. To make matters worse, I was a few weeks away from starting high school, which would inevitably lead to college, yet another financial stressor for my family.

The argument didn’t sound like it would end soon.

“Why did you spend money on that?” my mother said, with an elongated sigh.

“I had to,” my father said, decidedly.

Every fight over the years had left me in despair and the idea of going through another fight daunted me. I had looked forward to my teen years all my life, an age that allows, for the first time, more responsibility. Indeed, after this fateful night, after my fourteenth birthday, I felt a mounting responsibility to help my family, and started brainstorming.

Always being fascinated by computers, I spent my childhood burying myself under computer cabinets, experimenting with computer parts. Naturally, I wondered if my skills in this area might be marketable.

The next morning, my friend, Naba, mentioned that her computer wasn’t working. A tuk-tuk ride later, and I was at her doorstep, and her mother was leading me to her room. I was off to work: I began examining her computer, like a surgeon carefully manages his scalpels and tools. A proper diagnosis was not far from reach, as I realized a broken pin in her computer’s SATA slot. After an hour of work, and a short trip to the hardware store, I successfully fixed the computer. To my pleasant surprise, Naba’s mother drew out two fresh 500 Rupee notes. One covered the cost of the parts I bought and the other was a token of appreciation. Bidding her goodbye, I went straight back home and put one of the 500 Rupee notes inside my family’s “savings-jar.”

Later that day, I devised a plan. I told my friends to spread the word that I was available to fix computers. At first, I got only one or two calls per week. I would pick up the computer from my client’s home, fix it quickly, and return it, thus earning myself a commission. While I couldn’t market my services at a competitive price, because I wasn’t able to buy the parts wholesale, I compensated by providing convenience. All my clients had to do was call me once and the rest was taken care of. Thus, my business had the best customer service in town.

At the beginning of my junior year, after two years of expanding my business through various avenues, I started buying computer parts from hardware suppliers in bulk at a cheaper rate. My business grew exponentially after that. 

Before long, I was my town’s go-to tech person. In this journey throughout high school, I started realizing that I had to create my own opportunities and not just curl up under a blanket, seeking only comfort, as I used to. Interacting with people from all walks of life became my forte and a sense of work ethic developed in me. My business required me to be an all-rounder– have the technical skills, be an easily approachable person, and manage cash flow. Slowly becoming better at this, I even managed to sway admins of a local institution to outsource their computer hardware purchases and repairs through me. As my business upsized throughout the years, I went from being helpless to autonomous – the teenager I always aspired to be.

This essay truly feels like a story—almost making you forget you are reading a college essay. The student’s voice is strong throughout the entire essay and they are able to give us insight into their thoughts, feelings, and motivations at every step of the story. Letting the reader into personal challenges like financial struggles can be daunting in a college essay, but the way this student used that setback to establish an emotional ethos to their narrative was well done.

Because the essay is essentially just telling a story, there’s a very natural flow that makes it enjoyable and easy to read. The student establishes the conflict at the beginning, then describes their solution and how they implemented it, and finally concludes with the lessons they took away from this experience. Transitions at the beginning of paragraphs effortlessly show the passage of time and how the student has progressed through the story.

Another reason this essay is so successful is because of the abundance of details. The reader truly feels like they are hiding in the room with the student as their parents yell because of the inclusion of quotes from the argument. We understand the precision and care they have for fixing computers because of the allusion to a surgeon with their scalpel. Not only does this imagery make the story more enticing, it also helps the reader gain a deeper appreciation for the type of person this student is and the adversity they have overcome.

If there were one thing this essay could do to improve, it would be to include a resolution to the conflict from the beginning. The student tells us how this business helped them grow as a person, but we don’t ever get to find out if they were able to lessen the financial burden on their parents or if they continued to struggle despite the student working hard. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it would be nice to return to the conflict and acknowledge the effect they had on it, especially since this prompt is all about facing challenges.

Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Prompt #3, example #1.

When I was younger, I was adamant that no two foods on my plate touch. As a result, I often used a second plate to prevent such an atrocity. In many ways, I learned to separate different things this way from my older brothers, Nate and Rob. Growing up, I idolized both of them. Nate was a performer, and I insisted on arriving early to his shows to secure front row seats, refusing to budge during intermission for fear of missing anything. Rob was a three-sport athlete, and I attended his games religiously, waving worn-out foam cougar paws and cheering until my voice was hoarse. My brothers were my role models. However, while each was talented, neither was interested in the other’s passion. To me, they represented two contrasting ideals of what I could become: artist or athlete. I believed I had to choose.

And for a long time, I chose athlete. I played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse and viewed myself exclusively as an athlete, believing the arts were not for me. I conveniently overlooked that since the age of five, I had been composing stories for my family for Christmas, gifts that were as much for me as them, as I loved writing. So when in tenth grade, I had the option of taking a creative writing class, I was faced with a question: could I be an athlete and a writer? After much debate, I enrolled in the class, feeling both apprehensive and excited. When I arrived on the first day of school, my teacher, Ms. Jenkins, asked us to write down our expectations for the class. After a few minutes, eraser shavings stubbornly sunbathing on my now-smudged paper, I finally wrote, “I do not expect to become a published writer from this class. I just want this to be a place where I can write freely.”

Although the purpose of the class never changed for me, on the third “submission day,” – our time to submit writing to upcoming contests and literary magazines – I faced a predicament. For the first two submission days, I had passed the time editing earlier pieces, eventually (pretty quickly) resorting to screen snake when hopelessness made the words look like hieroglyphics. I must not have been as subtle as I thought, as on the third of these days, Ms. Jenkins approached me. After shifting from excuse to excuse as to why I did not submit my writing, I finally recognized the real reason I had withheld my work: I was scared. I did not want to be different, and I did not want to challenge not only others’ perceptions of me, but also my own. I yielded to Ms. Jenkin’s pleas and sent one of my pieces to an upcoming contest.

By the time the letter came, I had already forgotten about the contest. When the flimsy white envelope arrived in the mail, I was shocked and ecstatic to learn that I had received 2nd place in a nationwide writing competition. The next morning, however, I discovered Ms. Jenkins would make an announcement to the whole school exposing me as a poet. I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me. I have since seen more boys at my school identifying themselves as writers or artists.

I no longer see myself as an athlete and a poet independently, but rather I see these two aspects forming a single inseparable identity – me. Despite their apparent differences, these two disciplines are quite similar, as each requires creativity and devotion. I am still a poet when I am lacing up my cleats for soccer practice and still an athlete when I am building metaphors in the back of my mind – and I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.

This essay is cohesive as it centers around the theme of identity and the ability for two identities to coexist simultaneously (an interesting theme!). It uses the Full Circle ending strategy as it starts with a metaphor about food touching and ends with “I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.”

The main issue with this essay is that it could come off as cliché, which could be irritating for admissions officers. The story described is notably similar to High School Musical (“I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me”) and feels slightly overstated. 

At times, this essay is also confusing. In the first paragraph, it feels like the narrative is actually going to be about separating your food (and is somehow going to relate to the older brothers?). It is not entirely clear that this is a metaphor. Also, when the writer references the third submission day and then works backward to explain what a submission day is and that there are multiple throughout the semester, the timeline gets unnecessarily confusing. Reworking the way this paragraph unfolded would have been more compelling and less distracting.

Overall, this essay was interesting but could have been more polished to be more effective.

Prompt #3, Example #2

I walked into my middle school English class, and noticed a stranger behind my teacher’s desk. “Hello,” she said. “Today I will be your substitute teacher.” I groaned internally. “Let me start off by calling roll. Ally?” “Here!” exclaimed Ally. “Jack?” “Here.” “Rachel?” “Here.” “Freddie?” “Present.” And then– “…?” The awkward pause was my cue. “It’s Jasina,” I started. “You can just call me Jas. Here.” “Oh, Jasina. That’s unique.” The word “unique” made me cringe. I slumped back in my seat. The substitute continued calling roll, and class continued as if nothing had happened. Nothing had happened. Just a typical moment in a middle school, but I hated every second of it.

My name is not impossible to pronounce. It appears challenging initially, but once you hear it, “Jas-een-a”, then you can manage it. My nickname, Jas (pronounced “Jazz”), is what most people call me anyway, so I don’t have to deal with mispronunciation often. I am thankful that my parents named me Jasina (a Hebrew name), but whenever someone hears my name for the first time, they comment, and I assume they’re making assumptions about me. “Wow, Jas is a cool name.” She must be pretty cool.“I’ve never heard the name Jasina before.” She must be from somewhere exotic. “Jas, like Jazz?” She must be musical and artsy. None of these assumptions are bad, but they all add up to the same thing: She must be unique. 

When I was little, these sentiments felt more like commands than assumptions. I thought I had to be the most unique child of all time, which was a daunting task, but I tried. I was the only kid in the second grade to color the sun red. I knew it was really yellow, but you could always tell which drawings were mine. During snack time, we could choose between apple juice and grape juice. I liked apple juice more, but if everyone else was choosing apple, then I had to choose grape. This was how I lived my life, and it was exhausting. I tried to continue this habit into middle school, but it backfired. When everyone became obsessed with things like skinny jeans and Justin Bieber and blue mascara (that was a weird trend), my resistance of the norm made me socially awkward. I couldn’t talk to people about anything because we had nothing in common. I was too different. 

After 8th grade, I moved to Georgia, and I was dreading being the odd one out among kids who had grown up together. Then I discovered that my freshman year would be Cambridge High School’s inaugural year. Since there were students coming in from 5 different schools, there was no real sense of “normal”. I panicked. If there was no normal, then how could I be unique? That’s when I realized that I had spent so much energy going against the grain that I had no idea what my true interests were or what I really cared about. 

It was time to find out. I stopped concentrating on what everyone else was doing and started to focus on myself. I joined the basketball team, I performed in the school musical, and I enrolled in Chorus, all of which were firsts for me. I took art classes, joined clubs, and did whatever I thought would make me happy. And it paid off. I was no longer socially awkward. In fact, because I was involved in so many unrelated activities, I was socially flexible. My friends and I had things in common, but there was no one who could say that I was exactly like anyone else. I had finally become my own person.

My father named me Jasina because he wanted my nickname to be “Jazz.” According to Webster, “jazz” is “music characterized by syncopated rhythms, improvisation, and deliberate distortions of pitch.” Basically, jazz is music that is off-beat and unpredictable. It cannot be strictly defined. 

That sounds about right. 

Right off the bat, this essay starts extremely strong. The description of attendance in a class with ample quotes, awkward pauses, and the student’s internal dialogue immediately puts us in the middle of the action and establishes a lot of sympathy for this student before we’ve learned anything else. 

The strength of this essay continues into the second paragraph where the use of quotes, italics, and interjections from the student continues. All of these literary tools help the student express her voice and allow the reader to understand what this student goes through on a daily basis. Rather than just telling the reader people make assumptions about her name, she shows us what these assumptions look and sound like, and exactly how they make her feel.

The essay further shows us how the student approached her name by providing concrete examples of times she’s been intentionally unique throughout her life. Describing her drawing red suns and choosing grape juice bring her personality to life and allow her to express her deviance from the “norm” in a much more engaging and visual way than simply telling the reader she would go against the grain to be different on purpose.

One part of the essay that was a bit weaker than the others was the paragraph about her in high school. Although it was still well written and did a nice job of demonstrating how she got involved in multiple groups to find her new identity, it lacked the same level of showing employed in previous paragraphs. It would have been nice to see what “socially flexible” means either through a conversation she had with her friends or an example of a time she combined her interests from different groups in a way that was uniquely her.

The essay finishes off how it started: extremely strong. Taking a step back to fully explain the origin of her name neatly brings together everything mentioned in this essay. This ending is especially successful because she never explicitly states that her personality aligns with the definition of jazz. Instead, she relies on the points she has made throughout the essay to stick in the reader’s memory so they are able to draw the connection themselves, making for a much more satisfying ending for the reader.

Prompt #4 (OLD PROMPT; NOT THE CURRENT PROMPT): Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

Prompt #4, example #1.

“Advanced females ages 13 to 14 please proceed to staging with your coaches at this time.” 

Skittering around the room, eyes wide and pleading, I frantically explained my situation to nearby coaches. The seconds ticked away in my head; every polite refusal increased my desperation. 

Despair weighed me down. I sank to my knees as a stream of competitors, coaches, and officials flowed around me. My dojang had no coach, and the tournament rules prohibited me from competing without one. 

Although I wanted to remain strong, doubts began to cloud my mind. I could not help wondering: what was the point of perfecting my skills if I would never even compete? The other members of my team, who had found coaches minutes earlier, attempted to comfort me, but I barely heard their words. They couldn’t understand my despair at being left on the outside, and I never wanted them to understand. 

Since my first lesson 12 years ago, the members of my dojang have become family. I have watched them grow up, finding my own happiness in theirs. Together, we have honed our kicks, blocks, and strikes. We have pushed one another to aim higher and become better martial artists. Although my dojang had searched for a reliable coach for years, we had not found one. When we attended competitions in the past, my teammates and I had always gotten lucky and found a sympathetic coach. Now, I knew this practice was unsustainable. It would devastate me to see the other members of my dojang in my situation, unable to compete and losing hope as a result. My dojang needed a coach, and I decided it was up to me to find one. 

I first approached the adults in the dojang – both instructors and members’ parents. However, these attempts only reacquainted me with polite refusals. Everyone I asked told me they couldn’t devote multiple weekends per year to competitions. I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself. 

At first, the inner workings of tournaments were a mystery to me. To prepare myself for success as a coach, I spent the next year as an official and took coaching classes on the side. I learned everything from motivational strategies to technical, behind-the-scenes components of Taekwondo competitions. Though I emerged with new knowledge and confidence in my capabilities, others did not share this faith. 

Parents threw me disbelieving looks when they learned that their children’s coach was only a child herself. My self-confidence was my armor, deflecting their surly glances. Every armor is penetrable, however, and as the relentless barrage of doubts pounded my resilience, it began to wear down. I grew unsure of my own abilities. 

Despite the attack, I refused to give up. When I saw the shining eyes of the youngest students preparing for their first competition, I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was. The knowledge that I could solve my dojang’s longtime problem motivated me to overcome my apprehension. 

Now that my dojang flourishes at competitions, the attacks on me have weakened, but not ended. I may never win the approval of every parent; at times, I am still tormented by doubts, but I find solace in the fact that members of my dojang now only worry about competing to the best of their abilities. 

Now, as I arrive at a tournament with my students, I close my eyes and remember the past. I visualize the frantic search for a coach and the chaos amongst my teammates as we competed with one another to find coaches before the staging calls for our respective divisions. I open my eyes to the exact opposite scene. Lacking a coach hurt my ability to compete, but I am proud to know that no member of my dojang will have to face that problem again.

This essay is great because it has a strong introduction and a strong conclusion. The introduction is notably suspenseful and draws readers into the story. Because we know it is a college essay, we can assume that the student is one of the competitors, but at the same time, this introduction feels intentionally ambiguous as if the writer could be a competitor, a coach, a sibling of a competitor, or anyone else in the situation.

As we continue reading the essay, we learn that the writer is, in fact, the competitor. Readers also learn a lot about the student’s values as we hear their thoughts: “I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was.” Ultimately, the conflict and inner and outer turmoil is resolved through the “Same, but Different” ending technique as the student places themself in the same environment that we saw in the intro, but experiencing it differently due to their actions throughout the narrative. This is a very compelling strategy!

The main weakness of this essay is that it is slightly confusing at times—how the other students found coaches feels unintentionally under-explained (a simple phrase like “through pleading and attracting sympathy” in the fourth paragraph could have served the writer well) and a dojang is never defined. Additionally, the turn of the essay or “volta” could’ve packed a bigger punch. It is put quite simply with “I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself.” A more suspenseful reveal could’ve served the author well because more drama did come later.

Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Prompt #5, example #1.

Tears streamed down my face and my mind was paralyzed with fear. Sirens blared, but the silent panic in my own head was deafening. I was muted by shock. A few hours earlier, I had anticipated a vacation in Washington, D.C., but unexpectedly, I was rushing to the hospital behind an ambulance carrying my mother. As a fourteen-year-old from a single mother household, without a driver’s license, and seven hours from home, I was distraught over the prospect of losing the only parent I had. My fear turned into action as I made some of the bravest decisions of my life. 

Three blood transfusions later, my mother’s condition was stable, but we were still states away from home, so I coordinated with my mother’s doctors in North Carolina to schedule the emergency operation that would save her life. Throughout her surgery, I anxiously awaited any word from her surgeon, but each time I asked, I was told that there had been another complication or delay. Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities.

My mother had been a source of strength for me, and now I would be strong for her through her long recovery ahead. As I started high school, everyone thought the crisis was over, but it had really just started to impact my life. My mother was often fatigued, so I assumed more responsibility, juggling family duties, school, athletics, and work. I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover. I didn’t know I was capable of such maturity and resourcefulness until it was called upon. Each day was a stage in my gradual transformation from dependence to relative independence.

Throughout my mother’s health crisis, I matured by learning to put others’ needs before my own. As I worried about my mother’s health, I took nothing for granted, cherished what I had, and used my daily activities as motivation to move forward. I now take ownership over small decisions such as scheduling daily appointments and managing my time but also over major decisions involving my future, including the college admissions process. Although I have become more independent, my mother and I are inseparably close, and the realization that I almost lost her affects me daily. Each morning, I wake up ten minutes early simply to eat breakfast with my mother and spend time with her before our busy days begin. I am aware of how quickly life can change. My mother remains a guiding force in my life, but the feeling of empowerment I discovered within myself is the ultimate form of my independence. Though I thought the summer before my freshman year would be a transition from middle school to high school, it was a transformation from childhood to adulthood.

This essay feels real and tells readers a lot about the writer. To start at the beginning, the intro is 10/10. It has drama, it has emotions, and it has the reader wanting more.

And, when you keep going, you get to learn a lot about a very resilient and mature student. Through sentences like “I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover” and “Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities,” the reader shows us that they are aware of their resilience and maturity, but are not arrogant about it. It is simply a fact that they have proven!

Sometimes writing about adversity can feel exploitative or oddly braggy. This student backs up everything they say with anecdotes that prove and show their strength and resilience, rather than just claiming their strengths. When I read this essay, I want to cheer for its writer! And I want to be able to continue cheering for them (perhaps, if I were an admissions officer, that would make me want them at my school!).

Prompt #5, Example #2

Armed with a red pen, I slowly walked across the room to a small, isolated table with pink stools. Swinging her legs, my young student beamed and giggled at me, slamming her pencil bag on the table and bending over to pick up one of her toys. Natalie always brought some new toy with her to lessons—toys which I would sternly take away from her and place under the table until she finished her work. At the tutoring center where I work, a strict emphasis on discipline leaves no room for paper crowns or rubber chickens. 

Today, she had with her a large stuffed eagle from a museum. As she pulled out her papers, I slid the eagle to the other side of the table. She looked eagerly around, attempting to chat with other students as I impatiently called her attention to her papers. “I should name my eagle,” she chimed, waving her pencil in the air. I cringed—there was no wondering why Natalie always had to sit by herself. She was the antithesis of my academic values, and undoubtedly the greatest adversary of my teaching style.  

As the lesson progressed, Natalie became more fitful; she refused to release her feathered friend, and kept addressing the bird for help with difficult problems. We both grew increasingly more frustrated. Determined to tame this wryly, wiggling student, I stood my ground, set on converting this disobedient child to my calm, measured ways of study.  

As time slowly crept by, I noticed that despite Natalie’s cheerful tone and bright smile, the stuffed eagle was troublesomely quiet and stern-faced. Much like myself. Both the eagle and I were getting nowhere in this lesson—so we hatched a quick plan. Lifting the eagle up in the air, I started reading in my best impersonation of an eagle, squawking my way through a spelling packet. The result provided a sense of instant gratification I never knew I needed. She sang out every letter, clapped her hands at every page, and followed along with the eagle, stopping at every few letters to declare that “E is for eagle” and pet her teacher fondly on the beak.  

Despite my ostensibly dissatisfied attitude toward my students, I did not join the tutoring center simply to earn money. I had always aspired to help others achieve their fullest potential. As a young adult, I felt that it was time for me to step out of the role of a pupil and into the influential role of a teacher, naively believing that I had the maturity and skill to adapt to any situation and help these students reach their highest achievements academically. For the most part, the role of a stern-faced, strict instructor helped me get by in the workplace, and while my students never truly looked happy, I felt that it was part of the process of conditioning a child to learn. 

Ironically, my transition to adulthood was the result of a stuffed animal. It was indisputable that I always had the skill to instruct others; the only thing needed to instruct someone is knowledge of the subject. However, it was only upon being introduced to a stuffed bird in which I realized that students receive the most help not from instructors, but teachers. While almost anyone can learn material and spit it back out for someone, it takes the maturity and passion of a teacher not only to help students improve in their students, but also to motivate them and develop them into better citizens. From my young pupil and her little bird, I have undergone a change in attitude which reflects a growth in maturity and ability to improve the lives of others that I hope to implement in my future role as a student, activist, and physician. My newfound maturity taught me that the letter “e” stands for many things: empathy, experience, enthusiasm, and eagle.

In this essay, the student effectively explores their values (and how they learned them!) then identifies these values through a reflective conclusion. While the writer humbly recognizes the initial faults in their teaching style, they do not position their initial discipline or rigidity as mean or poorly intentioned—simply ineffective. This is important because, when you are discussing a transition like this, you don’t want admissions officers to think of you as having been a bad person. 

My favorite part about this essay is its subtlety. The major shift in the essay comes through the simple sentence “The result provided a sense of instant gratification I never knew I needed.” The facts of this narrative are not too complicated. Simply put, the writer was strict then learned that it’s sometimes more effective not to be strict. The complexity of this narrative comes through reflection. Notably, through the ending, the student identifies their values (which they hadn’t given a name to before): “it takes the maturity and passion of a teacher not only to help students improve in their students, but also to motivate them and develop them into better citizens.” 

The final sentence of this essay ties things up very nicely. Readers are left satisfied with the essay and convinced that its writer is a kind human with a large capacity for reflection and consideration. That is a great image to paint of yourself!

Prompt #5, Example #3

When it’s quiet, I can still hear the Friday night gossip and giggles of my friends. It’s a stark contrast from the environment I’ve known all my life, my home. My family has always been one to keep to themselves; introverts with a hard-working mentality—my father especially. He spent most of his time at work and growing up without him around, I came to be at peace with the fact that I’d probably never really get to know him. The thought didn’t bother me at the time because I felt that we were very different. He was stoic and traditional; I was trying to figure out who I was and explore my interests. His disapproval of the American music I listened to and my penchant for wearing hand-me-downs made me see him as someone who wanted to restrain my individuality. That explains why I relied heavily on my friends throughout middle and high school; they liked me for who I was. I figured I would get lonely without my friends during quarantine, but these last few months stuck at home gave me the time to make a new friend: my father. 

It was June. I had the habit of sleeping with my windows open so I wouldn’t need to set an alarm; the warmth of the sun and the sounds of the neighborhood children playing outside would wake me. One morning, however, it was not the chirping of birds or the laughter of children I awoke to, but the shrill of a saw. Through the window screen, on the grass below, my father stood cutting planks of wood. I was confused but didn’t question him—what he did with his time was none of my business. It was not until the next day, when I was attempting to work on a sculpture for an art class, that the sounds of hammering and drills became too much to ignore. Seeking answers, I trudged across my backyard towards the corner he was in. On that day, all there was to see was the foundation of what he was building; a shed. My intrigue was replaced with awe; I was impressed by the precision of his craft. Sharp corners, leveled and sturdy, I could imagine what it would look like when the walls were up and the inside filled with the tools he had spread around the yard. 

Throughout the week, when I was trying to finish my sculpture for art class—thinking about its shape and composition—I could not help but think of my father. Art has always been a creative outlet for me, an opportunity to express myself at home. For my dad, his craftsmanship was his art. I realized we were not as different as I had thought; he was an artist like me. My glue and paper were his wood and nails.

That summer, I tried to spend more time with my dad than I have in all my 18 years of life. Waking up earlier than usual so we could have our morning coffees together and pretending to like his favorite band so he’d talk to me about it, I took advantage of every opportunity I had to speak with him. In getting to know him, I’ve recognized that I get my artistry from him. 

Reflecting on past relationships, I feel I am now more open to reconnecting with people I’ve perhaps misjudged. In reconciling, I’ve realized I held some bitterness towards him all these years, and in letting that go, my heart is lighter. Our reunion has changed my perspective; instead of vilifying him for spending so much time at work, I can appreciate how hard he works to provide for our family. When I hear him tinkering away at another home project, I can smile and look forward to asking him about it later.

This is an outstanding example of the great things that can be articulated through a reflective essay. As we read the essay, we are simply thinking alongside its author—thinking about their past relationship with their father, about their time in quarantine, about aspects of themselves they think could use attention and growth. 

While we reflect, we are also centered by the student’s anecdote about the sculpture and the shed during quarantine. By centering us in real-time, the student keeps us engaged in the reflection.

The main strength here is the maturity we see on the part of its writer. The student doesn’t say “and I realized my father was the best dad in the world;” they say “and I realized my father didn’t have to be the best dad in the world for me to give him a chance.” Lots of students show themselves as motivated, curious, or compassionate in their college essays, but a reflective essay that ends with a discussion of resentment and forgiveness shows true maturity.

Prompt #5, Example #4

As a wide-eyed, naive seven-year-old, I watched my grandmother’s rough, wrinkled hands pull and knead mercilessly at white dough until the countertop was dusted in flour. She steamed small buns in bamboo baskets, and a light sweetness lingered in the air. Although the mantou looked delicious, their papery, flat taste was always an unpleasant surprise. My grandmother scolded me for failing to finish even one, and when I complained about the lack of flavor she would simply say that I would find it as I grew older. How did my adult relatives seem to enjoy this Taiwanese culinary delight while I found it so plain?

During my journey to discover the essence of mantou, I began to see myself the same way I saw the steamed bun. I believed that my writing would never evolve beyond a hobby and that my quiet nature crippled my ambitions. Ultimately, I thought I had little to offer the world. In middle school, it was easy for me to hide behind the large personalities of my friends, blending into the background and keeping my thoughts company. Although writing had become my emotional outlet, no matter how well I wrote essays, poetry, or fiction, I could not stand out in a sea of talented students. When I finally gained the confidence to submit my poetry to literary journals but was promptly rejected, I stepped back from my work to begin reading from Whitman to Dickinson, Li-Young Lee to Ocean Vuong. It was then that I realized I had been holding back a crucial ingredient–my distinct voice. 

Over time, my taste buds began to mature, as did I. Mantou can be flavored with pork and eggplant, sweetened in condensed milk, and moistened or dried by the steam’s temperature. After I ate the mantou with each of these factors in mind, I noticed its environment enhanced a delicately woven strand of sweetness beneath the taste of side dishes: the sugar I had often watched my grandmother sift into the flour. The taste was nearly untraceable, but once I grasped it I could truly begin to cherish mantou. In the same way the taste had been lost to me for years, my writer’s voice had struggled to shine through because of my self-doubt and fear of vulnerability.

As I acquired a taste for mantou, I also began to strengthen my voice through my surrounding environment. With the support of my parents, peer poets, and the guidance of Amy Tan and the Brontё sisters, I worked tirelessly to uncover my voice: a subtle strand of sweetness. Once I stopped trying to fit into a publishing material mold and infused my uninhibited passion for my Taiwanese heritage into my writing, my poem was published in a literary journal. I wrote about the blatant racism Asians endured during coronavirus, and the editor of Skipping Stones Magazine was touched by both my poem and my heartfelt letter. I opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum, providing support to younger Asian-American students who reached out with the relief of finding someone they could relate to. I embraced writing as a way to convey my struggle with cultural identity. I joined the school’s creative writing club and read my pieces in front of an audience, honing my voice into one that flourishes out loud as well.

Now, I write and speak unapologetically, falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had. It inspires passion within my communities and imparts tenacity to Asian-American youth, rooting itself deeply into everything I write. Today, my grandmother would say that I have finally unearthed the taste of mantou as I savor every bite with a newfound appreciation. I can imagine her hands shaping the dough that has become my voice, and I am eager to share it with the world.

This essay is structurally-sound, with the student’s journey learning to savor mantou and their journey trying to find their voice serving as outstanding parallels. Additionally, as they describe the journey to find a voice in their writing, they definitely show off their voice! The clear introduction provides a great image and draws us in with an intriguing question. Additionally, their little inserts like “a strand of sweetness” and “falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had” work very well.

When the student describes their first published poem, however, their writing gets a little more stilted. This is a common error students make when writing about their achievements. If this student is writing about the craft that goes into writing, we should hear the details of the craft that went into the poem, instead of simply learning that they “opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum.” This is interesting information but would be stronger if it were supplemented by descriptions of the voice they created, comparisons to the styles of other poets, and analysis of their stylistic choices. This would make the essay feel more cohesive, centering entirely around concepts of voice and style.

Prompt #6: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

Note: We don’t have a stellar example for this prompt, so instead, we’re sharing a couple examples that need improvement, and what can be done to make the essays more engaging. 

Prompt #6, Example #1

What factors shape the depth and allure of a literary character? This is the exact question I asked myself as my eyes riveted on the white pages covered with little black letters.

I was reading my old novels. I’ve written three novels and many short stories. Each of them repetitively portrayed the hero as intelligent and funny, and the antagonists as cold and manipulative. I came to the appalling realization that my characters were flat, neither exciting nor original. They just didn’t stand out! 

As Oscar Wilde said, ‘Vice and virtue are to the artist material to an art.’ Their mixing makes a novel addictive because its plot is rich with turnarounds and its characters more engaging. In his famous work The Picture of Dorian Gray , Wilde deconstructs the psyche of his characters. He brilliantly plays with the protagonist’s youthful appearance and the decaying portrait to build a truly unique idiosyncratic identity. The persona of Dorian Gray is so complicated a psychologist could analyze it for hours on end!

Inspired by this character, It was my turn to explore good and evil into characters to make my stories more enthralling. I skillfully played with vice and virtue, separating, merging them… My latest novel is the fruit of this exercise. I chose to set it in 20th century London. Its opium dens and exclusive salons; middle-class workers, peasants and politicians breathed the same newly industrialized air; modernity in Blackfriars bridge and tradition in St Paul’s Cathedral; all of these contrasts set the perfect environment for my characters to grow. Following Laclos’ Valmont, Maupassant’s Georges Duroy and Duffy’s Myra Hindley, I played with those contrasts to present an intricate character, truly creative – unlike my previous ones. Insanity, religion, depravity and love are merged into each character, reflecting Edwardian London. As I reflected on my work, I realized vice and virtue altogether made them more human and credible. These characters stood out, they were interesting, I even wanted to know more about them! 

After rewriting, erasing, typing, and thinking countless times, I realized writing is a unique exercise. Nothing is definite when you are holding a fountain pen, hearing its screeching sound on the white paper and watching the ebony ink forming letters. When I wasn’t too happy about a change I made in my story, I simply erased and rewrote it. Everything I imagined could happen: white pages are the only place the mouse eats the cat or the world is taken by a zombie attack! 

This exact exercise of diversifying my characters satisfied my relentless curiosity. Asking myself ‘how could this character be if she had lost her parents in a maritime tragedy?’ allowed me to view the world from different perspectives (some very dissimilar to my own) and considering how each character would react to different situations brought them to life. As I was writing, I was aiming to change the usual narratives I had previously traversed. I loved experimenting with countless personality traits in my characters – minutes flowing, my hand dancing on the paper as my mind was singing words coming alive….

There were times where my hand just stopped writing and my mind stopped raging. I tried thinking differently, changing a character’s background, the story, the setting. I was inspired by Zola, A.Carter, Fitzgerald, the Brontë sisters… I could observe the different reactions of their characters, and reflect on mine theoretically. But it was only part one of the work: I then had to write, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes frantically, always leading to fresh ideas – I was exploring the practical, trying, erasing and rewriting. Both theory and practice are required to gain intellectual independence and experience, in writing and more globally: before I can change a character, I have to understand it. Before we can change the world, we have to understand it.

The main strength of this essay is the authenticity of the topic the student chose. They aren’t making anything up or stretching the truth. Writing is something that captivates them, and that captivation shines through—particularly through their fourth paragraph (where they geek out over specific plots and characters) and their fifth paragraph (where they joyfully describe how writing has no limitations). Admissions officers want to see this passion and intensity in applicants! The fact that this student has already written three novels also shows dedication and is impressive.

The main weakness of this essay is its structure. Ironically, it is not super captivating. The essay would have been more compelling if the student utilized a “anecdote – answer – reflection” structure. This student’s current introduction involves a reflective question, citations about their past writing experience, then their thoughts on Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Instead, this student could’ve provided one cohesive (and powerful!) image of them being frustrated with their own writing then being inspired by Dorian Gray. This would look something like:

“I stayed up three nights in a row studying my own writing—bored by my own writing. The only thing more painful than seeing failure in the fruits of your labor is not seeing a path for improvement. I had written three novels and numerous short stories, and all I could come up with was funny and intelligent heroes going up against cold and manipulative villains. What kind of writer was so consistently cliche? On the third night, I wandered over to my bookshelf. Mrs. Dalloway caught my eye (it has such a beautiful cover). I flipped through. Then, I grabbed Giovanni’s Room . I was so obsessed with my shortcomings that I couldn’t even focus long enough to see what these authors were doing right. I picked up The Picture of Dorian Gray and decided to just start reading. By the end of the night, I was captivated.”

An introduction like this would flow nicely into the student describing their experience with Dorian Gray then, because of that experience, describing how they have altered their approach to writing. The conclusion of this essay would then be this student’s time for reflection. Instead of repeating content about their passion—“I then had to write, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes frantically” and “I was exploring the practical, trying, erasing and rewriting”—, the student could dedicate their conclusion to reflecting on the reasons that writing is so captivating or the ways that (until the day they die) writers will always be perfecting their craft.

This essay is a great example of how important it is to pick a topic that truly excites you. It also illustrates how important it is to effectively structure that excitement.

Prompt #6, Example #2

Astonished by the crashing sound of waves in my ear, I was convinced this magical shell actually held the sound of the big blue sea — my six-year-old self was heartbroken when I couldn’t take the thirty-dollar artificial shell from SeaWorld’s gift shop . It distinctly reminded me of the awestruck feeling I had when I witnessed the churning waves of a windy night by the ocean the previous weekend; I lost track of time gazing at the distant moonlit border dividing our world from the ever-growing black void. Turning to my mom, I inquired curiously, “Can we go to the place where the water ends one day?”

She explained to me I could never reach the end of the ocean because the harsh line I had seen was actually an illusion called the horizon —  there was no material end to the ocean. For a mind as young as mine was, the idea of infinity was incomprehensible. As my infatuation with the ocean continued to grow, I finally understood that regardless of how far I travel, the horizon is unattainable because it’s not a physical limit. This idea is why the ocean captivates me — no matter how much you discover, there is always more to explore. 

Learning about and exploring the ocean provided an escape from one reality into another; though we are on the same planet, it’s an entirely separate world. Through elementary and middle school, I devoted vast amounts of my free time to learning about simpler concepts like a dolphin’s ability to echolocate and coral reef ecosystems. I rented countless documentaries and constantly checked out books from my local library — my all-time favorite was an episode of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey titled “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.” This episode remained memorable because it was centered around the impacts of fossil fuels on marine animals; it was the first time I’d learned about the impending crisis we are faced with due to the human mistreatment of our planet.

Prior to viewing that episode, I relied on the ocean as an outlet — I fueled all of my emotions into studying marine organisms. Once I learned of its grave future, I delved into the world of environmental activism. This path was much more disheartening than studying echolocation — inevitable death due to climate change took a toll on my mental health. I attended two climate strikes in November of my sophomore year. Following the strikes, I joined Sunrise Movement Sacramento, a youth-led climate justice organization advocating for the Green New Deal. While analyzing legislation and organizing protests were significant takeaways from my experience with climate activism, they were not the most important. I became an organizer because of my love for the ocean and I remain an organizer because of my passion for dissolving the disproportionalities marginalized groups face due to the sacrificing of people’s livelihood for the sake of profit. The more I learned about our modern society, the more hopeless I grew that I could see any significant change within my lifetime.

However, this hopelessness comes in waves; every day, I remind myself of the moment I discovered the horizon. Or the moment I first dove into the beautiful waters of the Hawaiian coast and immediately was surrounded by breathtaking seas of magnificent creatures and coral gardens — life felt ethereal and beautiful. I remind myself that like the ocean, the vast majority of the universe has yet to be discovered; that distant border holds infinite opportunity to learn. In a universe as vast as ours, and life as rare as ours, individuals still choose to prioritize avarice over our planet. Despite this grave individualism, the ocean reminds me every day there is hope in the fight for a better world. Though I will never discover every inch of the ocean’s floor, I will forever envision and reach for new horizons.

Sometimes the path to a great essay is taking something normal and using it to show admissions officers who you are and what you value—that is precisely this student’s approach! Finding the ocean fascinating is not unique to this student. Tons of kids (and adults, too!) are obsessed with the ocean. What this student does is take things a step further as they explain their curiosity about the ocean in relation to their pain about the destruction of the environment. This capacity for reflection is great!

This student shows a good control of language through their thematic centering on ocean and horizons that carries through their essay—with ”this hopelessness comes in waves” and “I will forever envision and reach for new horizons.” The details provided throughout are also effective at keeping readers engaged—things like “ my six-year-old self was heartbroken when I couldn’t take the thirty-dollar artificial shell from SeaWorld’s gift shop” and “ my all-time favorite was an episode of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey titled “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.”

The main weakness of this essay is the lack of reflection when the student discusses environmental activism. There’s reflection on the student’s connection to the ocean and horizons at the beginning and at the end, but when the student discusses activism, the tone shifts from focusing on their internal thoughts to their external actions. Remember, a lot of students write about environmental activism, but not a lot of students write about an emotional connection to the ocean as an impetus for environmental activism. This student would stand out more to admissions officers if they had dug into questions of what the ocean means to them (and says about them) in the paragraphs beginning “Learning about and exploring the ocean…” and “Prior to viewing that episode.”

Prompt #7: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Prompt #7, example #1.

Scalding hot water cascades over me, crashing to the ground in a familiar, soothing rhythm. Steam rises to the ceiling as dried sweat and soap suds swirl down the drain. The water hisses as it hits my skin, far above the safe temperature for a shower. The pressure is perfect on my tired muscles, easing the aches and bruises from a rough bout of sparring and the tension from a long, stressful day. The noise from my overactive mind dies away, fading into music, lyrics floating through my head. Black streaks stripe the inside of my left arm, remnants of the penned reminders of homework, money owed and forms due. 

It lacks the same dynamism and controlled intensity of sparring on the mat at taekwondo or the warm tenderness of a tight hug from my father, but it’s still a cocoon of safety as the water washes away the day’s burdens. As long as the hot water is running, the rest of the world ceases to exist, shrinking to me, myself and I. The shower curtain closes me off from the hectic world spinning around me. 

Much like the baths of Blanche DuBois, my hot showers are a means of cleansing and purifying (though I’m mostly just ridding myself of the germs from children at work sneezing on me). In the midst of a hot shower, there is no impending exam to study for, no newspaper deadline to meet, no paycheck to deposit. It is simply complete and utter peace, a safe haven. The steam clears my mind even as it clouds my mirror. 

Creativity thrives in the tub, breathing life into tales of dragons and warrior princesses that evolve only in my head, never making their way to paper but appeasing the childlike dreamer and wannabe author in me all the same. That one calculus problem that has seemed unsolvable since second period clicks into place as I realize the obvious solution. The perfect concluding sentence to my literary analysis essay writes itself (causing me to abruptly end my shower in a mad dash to the computer before I forget it entirely).  

Ever since I was old enough to start taking showers unaided, I began hogging all the hot water in the house, a source of great frustration to my parents. Many of my early showers were rudely cut short by an unholy banging on the bathroom door and an order to “stop wasting water and come eat dinner before it gets cold.” After a decade of trudging up the stairs every evening to put an end to my water-wasting, my parents finally gave in, leaving me to my (expensive) showers. I imagine someday, when paying the water bill is in my hands, my showers will be shorter, but today is not that day (nor, hopefully, will the next four years be that day). 

Showers are better than any ibuprofen, the perfect panacea for life’s daily ailments. Headaches magically disappear as long as the water runs, though they typically return in full force afterward. The runny nose and itchy eyes courtesy of summertime allergies recede. Showers alleviate even the stomachache from a guacamole-induced lack of self-control. 

Honestly though, the best part about a hot shower is neither its medicinal abilities nor its blissful temporary isolation or even the heavenly warmth seeped deep into my bones. The best part is that these little moments of pure, uninhibited contentedness are a daily occurrence. No matter how stressful the day, showers ensure I always have something to look forward to. They are small moments, true, but important nonetheless, because it is the little things in life that matter; the big moments are too rare, too fleeting to make anyone truly happy. Wherever I am in the world, whatever fate chooses to throw at me, I know I can always find my peace at the end of the day behind the shower curtain.

This essay is relatable yet personal! The writer makes themself supremely human through discussing the universal subject of showering. That being said, an essay about showering could easily turn boring while still being relatable. This writer keeps its relatable moments interesting and fun through vivid descriptions of common feelings including “causing me to abruptly end my shower in a mad dash to the computer before I forget it entirely” and “the stomachache from a guacamole-induced lack of self-control.”

While describing a universal feeling, this student also cleverly and intentionally mentions small facts about their life through simple phrases like “I’m mostly just ridding myself of the germs from children at work sneezing on me” and “the childlike dreamer and wannabe author in me.” To put it simply, though we are talking about a shower, we learn about so much more!

And, at the end, the student lets us know that that is exactly why they love showers. Showers are more than meets the eye! With this insightful and reflective ending (“the big moments are too rare, too fleeting to make anyone truly happy”), readers learn about this student’s capacity for reflection, which is an important capacity as you enter college.

The one major error that this writer commits is that of using a trite transition. The inclusion of “Honestly though” at the beginning of this student’s ending detracts from what they are trying to say and sticks out in their writing.

Prompt #7, Example #2

Steam whooshed from the pot as I unveiled my newest creation: duck-peppercorn-chestnut dumplings. The spicy, hearty aroma swirled into the kitchen, mingling with the smell of fresh dough. Grinning, I grabbed a plump dumpling with chopsticks, blew carefully, and fed it into the waiting mouth of my little sister. Her eyes widening, she vigorously nodded and held up five stubby fingers. I did a little happy dance in celebration and pulled my notebook out of my apron pocket. Duck-peppercorn-chestnut: five stars.

In my household, dumplings are a far cry from the classic pork and cabbage. Our menu boasts everything from the savory lamb-bamboo shoot-watercress to the sweet and crispy apple-cinnamon-date. A few years ago, my sister claimed she was sick of eating the same flavors over and over. Refusing to let her disavow our family staple, I took her complaint as a challenge to make the tastiest and most unconventional dumplings to satisfy her. With her as my taste tester and Mum in charge of dough, I spent months experimenting with dozens of odd ingredient combinations. 

During those days spent covered in flour, my dumplings often reminded me of myself—a hybrid of ingredients that don’t usually go together. I am the product of three distinct worlds: the suburbs of Boston, the rural Chinese village of [location removed], and the coastal city of [location removed]. At school, I am both the STEM nerd with lightning-fast mental math and the artistic plant mom obsessed with funky earrings. I love all that is elegant, from Chinese calligraphy to the rolling notes of the Gourd flute, yet I can be very not elegant, like when my sister and I make homemade slime. When I’m on the streets, marching for women’s rights and climate action, I’m loud, bellowing from the bottom of my gut. In the painting studio, though, I don’t speak unless spoken to, and hours can slip by like minutes. I’m loud and quiet. Elegant and messy. Nerdy and artistic. Suburban, rustic, and metropolitan.

While I’m full of odd combinations, they are only seemingly contradictory. Just as barbeque pork and pineapple can combine beautifully in a dumpling wrapper, different facets of my identity also converge. After my tenth-grade summer, when I spent six weeks studying design at art school and another three researching the brain at Harvard Med, I began asking myself: What if I mixed art and neuroscience together? That fall, I collaborated with my school’s art museum for an independent research project, exploring two questions: How are aesthetic experiences processed in the brain? And how can neuroscience help museums design exhibits that maximize visitor engagement? I combed through studies with results from tightly controlled experiments, and I spent days gathering my own qualitative data by observing museum visitors and asking them questions. With the help of my artistic skills, I could identify the visual and spatial elements of the exhibits that best held visitors’ attention. 

By synergizing two of the ingredients that make me who I am—art and neuroscience—I realized I shouldn’t see the different sides of myself as separate. I learned to instead seek the intersections between aspects of my identity. Since then, I have mixed art with activism to voice my opinions nonverbally, created Spotify playlists with both Chinese and western pop, and written flute compositions using music theory and math. In the future, by continuing to combine my interests, I want to find my niche in the world. I can make a positive impact on society without having to choose just one passion. As of now, my dream is to be a neuroscientist who designs art therapy treatments for mental health patients. Who knows though? Maybe my calling is to be a dim sum chef who teaches pottery on the side. I don’t know where I’ll go, but one thing’s for sure—being a standard pork and cabbage dumpling is definitely not my style.

This essay is outstanding because the student seems likable and authentic. With the first image of the student’s little sister vigorously nodding and holding up “five stubby fingers,” we find ourselves intrigued by the student’s daily life. They additionally show the importance of family, culture, and creativity in their life—these are great things to highlight in your essay!

After the introduction, the student uses their weird dumpling anecdote to transition to a discussion of their unique intersections. This is achieved smoothly because weirdness/uniqueness is the focus of both of these topics. Additionally, the comparison is not awkward because dumplings are used as more than just a transition, but rather are the through-line of the essay—the student weaves in little phrases like “Just as barbeque pork and pineapple can combine beautifully in a dumpling wrapper,” “By synergizing two of the ingredients that make me who I am,” and “being a standard pork and cabbage dumpling is definitely not my style.” This gives the essay its cohesive feel.

Authenticity comes through in this essay as the student recognizes that they don’t know what the future holds. They just know what kind of a person they are—a passionate one! 

One change that would improve this student’s essay would be focusing on fewer intersections in their third and last paragraph. The student mentions STEM, music, family activities, activism, and painting, which makes it feel like a distraction in middle of the essay. Focus on the most important things you want to show admissions officers—you can sit at intersections, but you can’t be interested in everything.

Prompt #7, Example #3

“Everyone follow me!” I smiled at five wide-eyed skaters before pushing off into a spiral. I glanced behind me hopefully, only to see my students standing frozen like statues, the fear in their eyes as clear as the ice they swayed on. “Come on!” I said encouragingly, but the only response I elicited was the slow shake of their heads. My first day as a Learn-to-Skate coach was not going as planned. 

But amid my frustration, I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater. At seven, I had been fascinated by Olympic performers who executed thrilling high jumps and dizzying spins with apparent ease, and I dreamed to one day do the same. My first few months on skates, however, sent these hopes crashing down: my attempts at slaloms and toe-loops were shadowed by a stubborn fear of falling, which even the helmet, elbow pads, and two pairs of mittens I had armed myself with couldn’t mitigate. Nonetheless, my coach remained unfailingly optimistic, motivating me through my worst spills and teaching me to find opportunities in failures. With his encouragement, I learned to push aside my fears and attack each jump with calm and confidence; it’s the hope that I can help others do the same that now inspires me to coach. 

I remember the day a frustrated staff member directed Oliver, a particularly hesitant young skater, toward me, hoping that my patience and steady encouragement might help him improve. Having stood in Oliver’s skates not much earlier myself, I completely empathized with his worries but also saw within him the potential to overcome his fears and succeed. 

To alleviate his anxiety, I held Oliver’s hand as we inched around the rink, cheering him on at every turn. I soon found though, that this only increased his fear of gliding on his own, so I changed my approach, making lessons as exciting as possible in hopes that he would catch the skating bug and take off. In the weeks that followed, we held relay races, played “freeze-skate” and “ice-potato”, and raced through obstacle courses; gradually, with each slip and subsequent success, his fear began to abate. I watched Oliver’s eyes widen in excitement with every skill he learned, and not long after, he earned his first skating badge. Together we celebrated this milestone, his ecstasy fueling my excitement and his pride mirroring my own. At that moment, I was both teacher and student, his progress instilling in me the importance of patience and a positive attitude. 

It’s been more than ten years since I bundled up and stepped onto the ice for the first time. Since then, my tolerance for the cold has remained stubbornly low, but the rest of me has certainly changed. In sharing my passion for skating, I have found a wonderful community of eager athletes, loving parents, and dedicated coaches from whom I have learned invaluable lessons and wisdom. My fellow staffers have been with me, both as friends and colleagues, and the relationships I’ve formed have given me far more poise, confidence, and appreciation for others. Likewise, my relationships with parents have given me an even greater gratitude for the role they play: no one goes to the rink without a parent behind the wheel! 

Since that first lesson, I have mentored dozens of children, and over the years, witnessed tentative steps transform into powerful glides and tears give way to delighted grins. What I have shared with my students has been among the greatest joys of my life, something I will cherish forever. It’s funny: when I began skating, what pushed me through the early morning practices was the prospect of winning an Olympic medal. Now, what excites me is the chance to work with my students, to help them grow, and to give back to the sport that has brought me so much happiness. 

A major strength of this essay comes in its narrative organization. When reading this first paragraph, we feel for the young skaters and understand their fear—skating sounds scary! Then, because the writer sets us up to feel this empathy, the transition to the second paragraph where the student describes their empathy for the young skaters is particularly powerful. It’s like we are all in it together! The student’s empathy for the young skaters also serves as an outstanding, seamless transition to the applicant discussing their personal journey with skating: “I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater.”

This essay positions the applicant as a grounded and caring individual. They are caring towards the young skaters—changing their teaching style to try to help the young skaters and feeling the young skaters’ emotions with them—but they are also appreciative to those who helped them as they reference their fellow staffers and parents. This shows great maturity—a favorable quality in the eyes of an admissions officer.

At the end of the essay, we know a lot about this student and are convinced that they would be a good addition to a college campus!

Prompt #7, Example #4

Flipping past dozens of colorful entries in my journal, I arrive at the final blank sheet. I press my pen lightly to the page, barely scratching its surface to create a series of loops stringing together into sentences. Emotions spill out, and with their release, I feel lightness in my chest. The stream of thoughts slows as I reach the bottom of the page, and I gently close the cover of the worn book: another journal finished.

I add the journal to the stack of eleven books on my nightstand. Struck by the bittersweet sensation of closing a chapter of my life, I grab the notebook at the bottom of the pile to reminisce.

“I want to make a flying mushen to fly in space and your in it” – October 2008

Pulling back the cover of my first Tinkerbell-themed diary, the prompt “My Hopes and Dreams” captures my attention. Though “machine” is misspelled in my scribbled response, I see the beginnings of my past obsession with outer space. At the age of five, I tore through novels about the solar system, experimented with rockets built from plastic straws, and rented Space Shuttle films from Blockbuster to satisfy my curiosities. While I chased down answers to questions as limitless as the universe, I fell in love with learning. Eight journals later, the same relentless curiosity brought me to an airplane descending on San Francisco Bay.

“I wish I had infinite sunsets” – July 2019

I reach for the charcoal notepad near the top of the pile and open to the first page: my flight to the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes. While I was excited to explore bioengineering, anxiety twisted in my stomach as I imagined my destination, unsure of whether I could overcome my shyness and connect with others.

With each new conversation, the sweat on my palms became less noticeable, and I met students from 23 different countries. Many of the moments where I challenged myself socially revolved around the third story deck of the Jerry house. A strange medley of English, Arabic, and Mandarin filled the summer air as my friends and I gathered there every evening, and dialogues at sunset soon became moments of bliss. In our conversations about cultural differences, the possibility of an afterlife, and the plausibility of far-fetched conspiracy theories, I learned to voice my opinion. As I was introduced to different viewpoints, these moments challenged my understanding of the world around me. In my final entries from California, I find excitement to learn from others and increased confidence, a tool that would later allow me to impact my community.

“The beauty in a tower of cans” – June 2020

Returning my gaze to the stack of journals, I stretch to take the floral-patterned book sitting on top. I flip through, eventually finding the beginnings of the organization I created during the outbreak of COVID-19. Since then, Door-to-Door Deliveries has woven its way through my entries and into reality, allowing me to aid high-risk populations through free grocery delivery.

With the confidence I gained the summer before, I took action when seeing others in need rather than letting my shyness hold me back. I reached out to local churches and senior centers to spread word of our services and interacted with customers through our website and social media pages. To further expand our impact, we held two food drives, and I mustered the courage to ask for donations door-to-door. In a tower of canned donations, I saw the value of reaching out to help others and realized my own potential to impact the world around me.

I delicately close the journal in my hands, smiling softly as the memories reappear, one after another. Reaching under my bed, I pull out a fresh notebook and open to its first sheet. I lightly press my pen to the page, “And so begins the next chapter…”

The structuring of this essay makes it easy and enjoyable to read. The student effectively organizes their various life experiences around their tower of journals, which centers the reader and makes the different stories easy to follow. Additionally, the student engages quotes from their journals—and unique formatting of the quotes—to signal that they are moving in time and show us which memory we should follow them to.

Thematically, the student uses the idea of shyness to connect the different memories they draw out of their journals. As the student describes their experiences overcoming shyness at the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes and Door-to-Door Deliveries, this essay can be read as an Overcoming Obstacles essay.

At the end of this essay, readers are fully convinced that this student is dedicated (they have committed to journaling every day), thoughtful (journaling is a thoughtful process and, in the essay, the student reflects thoughtfully on the past), and motivated (they flew across the country for a summer program and started a business). These are definitely qualities admissions officers are looking for in applicants!

Prompt #7, Example #5

“We’re ready for take-off!” 

The tires hit the tarmac and began to accelerate, and I just realized what I had signed up for. For 24 hours straight, I strapped myself into a broken-down SUV whereas others chose the luxury of soaring through the skies for a mere two hours. Especially with my motion sickness and driving anxiety, I would call myself crazy too.

To say I have always remained in my comfort zone is an understatement. Did I always order chicken fingers and fries at a restaurant? Yup! Sounds like me. Did I always create a color-coded itinerary just for a day trip? Guilty as charged. Did I always carry a first-aid kit at all times? Of course! I would make even an ambulance look unprepared. And yet here I was, choosing 1,000 miles of misery from Las Vegas to Seattle despite every bone in my body telling me not to.

The sunlight blinded my eyes and a wave of nausea swept over me. Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator? It was only ten minutes in, and I was certain that the trip was going to be a disaster. I simply hoped that our pre-drive prayer was not stuck in God’s voicemail box. 

All of a sudden, I noticed brightly colored rocks in the distance, ones I had been dying to see for years. Their fluorescence popped amongst the magnificent winding hills as the sunset became romantic in hue. The desert glistened with mirages of deep blue water unlike anything I had ever seen. Nevada was home, but home always seemed to be just desert and casinos. For once, I looked forward to endless desert outside my window rather than a sea of clouds.

I never realized how little I discovered of the world beyond home. For years I complained about how there was nothing to do or discover outside. Not once did I set out to prove myself wrong. Instead, I chose a daily routine of homework at the kitchen table and late-night TV. However, as summer vacation ended, I decided to set my stubbornness aside and finally give this drive back home a chance. Little did I know that it would turn out to be my favorite trip of all time. 

As we drove along, the world chose to prove me wrong when I discovered Heaven on Earth along Shasta Lake. I stood out of the sunroof, surrounded by lush green mountains and fog. I extended my arms out and felt a sense of flight that no plane could ever take me on. As the water vapor kissed my face, I floated into a dreamland I never wanted to leave. I didn’t have to go to great lengths to discover the beauty of the world; it was right in front of me.  From this moment on, comfort and convenience would no longer be my best friends. Rather than only looking for famous travel destinations or following carefully mapped-out routes, I would let curiosity lead the way. 

Since then, my daily life has been anything but routine. I’m proud to boast of my family’s homemade kombucha attempts, of flights purchased and taken in one day, and of a home flooded with knick-knacks from thrifting trips. Every day I set out to try something new, see a different perspective, and go beyond normal. Whether it is by trying a new recipe using taro, making a risky fashion choice with wide-legged pants, or listening to a new music genre in Spanish, I always act with curiosity first.

Over the years, I have devoted my time towards learning Swedish, building computers, and swimming. Although my accent is horrid, some computers almost broke, and even a starfish would outswim me, I continue to enjoy activities I once criticized. For me, there is no enjoyment without some risk. Nobody I know is a kazoo-playing, boogie-board loving, boba connoisseur like me.

This essay is an Overcoming Challenges story that centers around a single anecdote. The structure works nicely as the student describes what they were like before their road trip, what happened on the road trip, and what they were like after. 

The most major improvement that this essay needs is better-communicated authenticity. At the beginning, it feels a bit gimmicky. The student describes their preparedness, particularly the fact that they always carry a first aid kit, and it’s not super believable. Then, when they write “Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator?” it feels like we are in a sitcom and the student is that funny obsessive kid. Sitcom characters don’t feel real and you want to make yourself appear profoundly real.

On a similar note, the narrative arc of this essay isn’t entirely believable. The student describes a large personality and value shift but doesn’t describe any struggles that accompany the shift. A quick shift like that is far from easy. On the other hand, if the immediacy of the shift was easy, they could write about moments after their shift in mindset when they have felt troubled by residual desires to stay in their comfort zone, instead of writing “I always act with curiosity first.”

The greatest strength of this essay is the paragraphs beginning “I never realized how little…” and “As we drove along…” The fixation on comfort seems much more believable when it involves “homework at the kitchen table and late-night TV.” The descriptions of the drive provide beautiful, evocative imagery. And it’s topped off with some nice reflection! Digging into this great portion of the essay would make this an even stronger essay!

Want to see more examples? Check out this post with 16 strong essay examples from top schools , including common supplemental essay questions.

At selective schools, your essays account for around 25% of your admissions decision. That’s more than grades (20%) and test scores (15%), and almost as much as extracurriculars (30%). Why is this? Most students applying to top schools will have stellar academics and extracurriculars. Your essays are your chance to stand out and humanize your application.

That’s why it’s vital that your essays are engaging, and present you as someone who would enrich the campus community.

Before submitting your application, you should have someone else review your essays. It’s even better if that person doesn’t know you personally, as they can best tell whether your personality shines through your essay. 

That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool , where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. 

If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!

Related CollegeVine Blog Posts

personal essays for college admission examples

personal essays for college admission examples

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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application

personal essays for college admission examples

What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?

How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Start early.  Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
  • Keep the focus narrow.  Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
  • Be yourself.  Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
  • Be creative.  “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
  • Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.

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Where your work meets your life. See more from Ascend here .

We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.

  • AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business,  All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including  Pine Row Press ,  Months to Years,  and  Atlanta Review .

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College Personal Statement Examples and Writing Tips

personal essays for college admission examples

So, you have started your college application process and are hitting a wall. You got your high school transcripts and letters of recommendation in order. Your SAT scores are on the way. But your college personal statement is sitting there unfinished, and the deadline is coming fast!

But have no fear!

Because Wordvice edits thousands of essays every admissions season, we have seen some of the best (and worst) college application essays out there. This guide will tell you how to write the best personal statement for college possible for your college application. Included are examples of successful college personal statements and analyses.

What we will learn here about writing a personal statement for college:

  • What is a college personal statement?
  • How important is the personal statement for college admissions?
  • Why do colleges require a personal statement?
  • Read examples of successful personal statements
  • Successful personal statement example & analysis
  • Essay editing services can improve your personal statement

Personal Statements and Other College Admissions Essays

Even knowing what specific terms regarding college admissions documents means can be a bit confusing. To clear up any questions, here is a brief rundown of some main college application terms that are often used:

  • Personal statement for college — an essay you write to show a college admissions committee who you are and why you deserve to be admitted to their school. It’s worth noting that, unlike “college essay,” this term is used for application essays for graduate school as well.
  • College admissions essay— this is essentially the same as a college personal statement. (I’ll be using the terms interchangeably.) It can also include supplemental essays or widely-used essays such as the Common App Essay . 
  • Essay prompt— a question or statement that your college essay is meant to respond to.
  • Supplemental essay— an additional school or program-specific essay beyond the basic personal statement. Some schools require both a supplemental essay and a personal statement. Check your college’s application guidelines to determine which specific admissions essays are necessary for submission.

What is the personal statement for college?

The college personal statement is a key part of the college application and a key factor among admissions committees. It is the one opportunity for high school students applying to college to sell themselves on their own terms and using their own words.

Personal statements for college differ from SAT scores and academic transcripts, which are more standardized. Further, while letters of recommendation touch on many of the same issues as personal statements, they are not written by you but by a recommender.

A focused and effective personal statement for college serves three major functions:

1. Personal statements give broad, comprehensive insights into your personal and academic background.

Ultimately, your academic, personal, and even professional background can be the determining factor in your admission to any college program. But there’s a big  difference between a personal statement and resume or CV.

2. It provides college admissions counselors with an accurate overview of your academic goals.

A good college personal statement must explain how your background relates to your university’s program and your goals. It must put in context the tools, resources, and background you bring to the table and how they are aligned with your school’s profile. In the business world, this is called “ vertical alignment .”

In other words, how you write about your background should make you stand out from other college applicants as well as connect with what you want to accomplish. Your background empowers you to succeed!

In admissions essays, small steps can yield big results.

3. Personal statements answer very specific questions.

Often, your college application will require you to apply to a specific program and will ask very specific questions. For example, applying to your university’s business college will require answering different application essay questions than applying to a performing arts program.

So be sure to research not only your target university’s profile but also your specific college major and professors in that department.

We illustrate this exact idea in the two successful personal statement examples below!

personal statement examples, person studying

How Important is the personal statement for college to admissions officials?

Covid-19 has made the sat/act less important.

Common App announced that it will include a dedicated essay prompt on COVID-19 for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle. As a result, students are scrambling to figure out how to write about COVID-19 in their college admissions essays .

There’s even more evidence that the college personal essay is becoming the most important part of the application process. As CBS News reports :

A growing number of U.S. colleges and universities are abandoning ACT and SAT scores as part of their admissions process. The so-called test-blind movement has gathered steam this year amid widespread cancellations of standardized tests because of COVID-19.

Moreover, a court recently ruled that the University of California public school system can no longer consider SAT/ACT scores in the admissions process . The days of the standardized test may be numbered.

This means that the application essay just got a lot more important.

How to Write a Personal Statement for College to Impress Admissions Officers

Why do college admissions committees rely on college application essays so much? The answer is that a college personal statement sets you apart from your high school peers by explaining three ideas:

Show your personality in your personal statement

College admissions committees rely on your transcripts and GPA as a measure of your academic prowess. Letters of recommendation focus more on how others view you and how you interact.

On the other hand, your college personal statement application essay gives admissions counselors a sense of your personality. It demonstrates how you will fit in as well as contribute to the university community.

Are you hyper-focused and ambitious with a lot of professional experience and projects to back it up? Or are you more curious, with a wide range of interests? Are your motivations related to achieving concrete objectives, or are they more personal or emotional in nature? The lens through which you interact with the world is exactly what your personal statement essay should show.

On paper, your SAT score, GPA, and extracurricular activities may be the same as other applicants. You may end up in the same college classes. College counselors know no two applicants are the same. What matters is that both fit in with what the university wants for its students.

Describe any extenuating circumstances

Are your grades a bit below average? Did you fail a class in high school? Those things jump out when it comes to numbers on paper. Universities want to know the context for abnormal records, and most importantly, how you view them.

As the world continues to become more global and aware of social disparities, the definition of “traditional success” is becoming increasingly irrelevant. It has become standard for U.S. universities to have action plans for the diversity and inclusion of underprivileged students.

Most importantly, colleges want to understand how you struggled and overcame a difficult situation. Those are the exact students they want!

Explain why you are applying to this school

Besides selling your personality and explaining any drawbacks or holes in your record, a great college personal statement should provide insights into why you are applying to university. This may seem obvious, but unfortunately, many students get caught up in proving themselves like a job application. They totally forget to explain why they are applying to college.

How to write about reasons for applying to college:

  • Define what part(s) of the university appeal to you. Explain how they align with your personal goals and personality.
  • Pick out a couple of unique characteristics of the school. These can be professors, programs of study, or facilities.

hands covered in paint, personal statement examples

Successful College Personal Statement Examples

Now that we know how important a college personal statement is and what it does, what’s the first step?

Success imitates success

At Wordvice, we encourage college applicants to look at successful personal statement examples to really absorb and gain insights into what an engaging personal college essay is. Read as many as you can, as no two students are the same. But you will see many of the themes discussed above again and again in successful college personal statements.

College Personal Statement Examples and Sample Essays

To start, Wordvice is including a couple of successful personal statement essay examples, including comments and feedback provided by our editors to the students. Both of these essays were edited by Wordvice’s professional editors , with both students gaining admission!

Personal Statement Essay #1: The “Holistic Profile” Essay

Dear Sir or Madam, I am writing to express my interest in studying at the University of ________ as a Supply Chain Management student. Thank you in advance for taking the time to read my letter. I am currently studying for a bachelor’s degree in Public Finance and Supply Chain Management at ________ University. I have decided to apply to your Supply Chain Management programme because I am sure it would strongly enrich my future studies and help me in my prospective career. Moreover, I consider this programme as a great opportunity to get to know ________ culture and its well-developed logistic background. I am also very curious about the different approaches taken in this field at a prominent university. I have chosen to apply to the University of________ because it examines all types of supply chain management perspectives, from production to services. During my previous studies, I discovered that simply working on procurement is far from enough. My fellow students and I had the opportunity to create an e-commerce project. At the time, the only thing in our control was the procurement decision, but I soon realized I had the capacity and drive to learn more about solutions and innovations. Another reason I am applying for this programme at ________ is its close relationship with relevant companies in my desired field. I learned on the university’s website that there is a specific resource that helps to connect students with these companies. Since I am interested in working in the Netherlands after I graduate, this resource will definitely be useful for my career. In addition, the fact that this programme offers an option to participate in an apprenticeship is very appealing to me. This could not only broaden my horizons through practical experience but also provide a chance for me to expand my connections in the industry. My current undergraduate studies make me highly suitable for this programme. I have learned the basic foundations of supply chain management through courses such as operations management, strategic purchasing, and inventory management. I have also taken mathematics and statistics to help me understand data problems. In addition to my academic interests, I have a full and interesting life off-campus. I was a member of our school volleyball team, which won several championships; this led to me graduating as an honour’s student. Those times spent on the court have strengthened my team spirit and my ability to work under pressure. During summer vacations, I spend time travelling around Europe and the United States. My first experience in Amsterdam was unforgettable, and it made me consider coming back in the future. Planning the trip carefully, and living alone in an unfamiliar area, have turned me into a more independent young woman. Professionally, I have done internships in international companies such as Red Bull and ASUS. These experiences gave me the chance to work in a global context with people from different countries, which has encouraged me to have a more flexible and adaptive mindset. Because of these wonderful experiences, I am certain I will conquer all future challenges and make the most out of them. In conclusion, I am very eager to study Supply Chain Management at the University of ________, as it would give me a chance to deepen my skills and knowledge in one of the field’s top universities. I am confident I excel in this programme due to my solid educational foundation in business and personality strengths. Thank you again for reading my personal statement. I look forward to hearing from you.

Why was this personal statement for college successful?

The essay is well-organized and directly answers key questions.

The applicant clearly lays out her educational and professional background as well as her skills. She also includes two solid paragraphs about why she has chosen her program of study and later explains why she is both qualified and a perfect fit.

This essay displays excellent organization and has a natural flow of ideas indicative of a native English speaker who can write exceptionally well.

The essay is personal and does not feel like a resume or CV

This college applicant came with a very strong academic and professional background. A solid handle on supply chain management (not the most exciting major) with internships to back it up. But notice how she doesn’t dwell on just that? She is able to connect things like her academic math experience with personal motivation. She even includes her extracurricular activities to show she’s more than a number cruncher.

First, she shows that she is a well-rounded person , not just a student that studies for grades. Second, she conveys her well-developed personal identity that has chosen this course of study at this particular college in this particular country. Make sure your college essay communicates this!

The essay specifically targets the school

Every major university has a business school, and every business school has a supply chain management program. How do the college admissions counselors reading her personal statement know she’s motivated to apply there?

This applicant clearly explains how she personally wants to attend this particular university in The Netherlands. She lists her personal travel experience and mentions a specific mentorship program.

Personal Statement Essay #2: The “Enthusiastic Achiever” Essay

I am passionate about computers because technology will continue to play a fundamental role in our lives. Based on this fact, I researched colleges that have both a strong computer science program and co-op program, and this is when I found Hofstra. I visited the campus for a tour and was really impressed with what I saw. Not only are the campus facilities top-notch, but the advanced computer science labs are world-class. This shows Hofstra’s focus to be able to provide the best intellectual and technical resources for students. I asked my tour guide about the class sizes and curriculum style. I was thrilled when he told me that average class sizes are in the 20s and that the curriculum emphasizes experiential learning.   I am looking for more than just academic excellence; extracurricular activities, including community service opportunities, are also very important to me. In researching schools that would provide students with the most well-rounded lifestyles, I was amazed to see the number of philanthropic events that the school hosts and supports. Philanthropy seems ingrained in the school’s culture. I also saw hundreds of clubs that can cater to everyone’s unique interests. Students are also welcome to start new clubs if no existing clubs can foster their interests. The energy on campus is something that I noticed right away. Both the students and staff show a lot of pride for Hofstra, and it’s truly memorable how enthusiastic the school spirit is among students. Leaving home to attend college is a big change for everyone, and I think school pride and a strong sense of community will help me make a smooth transition. I was very happy to hear that students get two tickets to events on campus. This is especially great because I am a sports fan and would love to experience the electric game-day atmosphere of a division one basketball game and cheer on the Lions!  Hofstra’s location is also ideal because it has the advantages of being in a smaller town but also being very close to New York City. I do not want to attend college in a big city, but the fact that New York City is so close opens up a lot of opportunities. First off, there are numerous internships at top companies in the city. In addition, it would be great to visit the city from time to time and see a show or sports game. Being able to do that with friends would give me great experiences and memories.   Hofstra is my top choice because it fulfills my most important criteria: esteemed faculty members, a strong computer science program, a strong sense of belonging, amazing internship and community service opportunities, and a diverse campus. I cannot wait to be a Hofstra Lion!

This personal statement is brief and under the word count

This essay is 461 words, which is perfectly under the 500-word limit on many college admissions essays. Although content is the main focus, your personal statement needs to abide by all rules laid out in the essay brief. That includes mundane but essential stipulations such as word count.

It is multi-faceted and hits major selling points

The student talks about Hofstra’s location, academics, sports, extracurriculars, and even philanthropy. The student doesn’t just list these as a marketing brochure would; each selling point is connected to the student personally and emotionally. Excitement is something that every student tries to portray in their admissions essay, so be sure you emulate something like this.

spools of colored thread, personal statement examples

Improve Personal Statements with College Essay Editing Services

It’s an understatement that college is one of the most important factors, affecting your social and professional future. Unfortunately, college personal statements and admissions essays sometimes come a bit disorganized and unfocused, just like the students who write them. That’s where essay editing services like Wordvice come in. They are beneficial for a number of reasons.

Why Use an Admissions Essay Editing Service?

1. they help fix errors that you miss.

College admissions committees have to reject a certain number of applicants every year. You can be sure that your application essay will go straight into the reject pile if it has any grammar or spelling errors.

It definitely takes a bit of self-awareness and experience to realize when it’s best to let someone help you. No one person has a monopoly on knowledge or perspective, no matter how strong their background is. Ever played the “what’s the difference between these two pictures” game?

Our brains are hard-wired to lock in our own biases. That’s a major problem when it comes to writing a personal statement where the entire point is convincing someone else.

2. They save students time

College consulting services have stated that the average number of applications is about 5.9 per college applicant. Of course, students will try to maximize their chances of getting into a good college. The downside is lack of time, which no one can buy more of.

English editing services like Wordvice help free up time so you can do what you need to do: apply to college.

3. Editors help improve your ability to communicate

Whether you are an ESL student or a native English speaker, everyone can improve their writing. In the case of a college application essay, this can mean the difference between getting into your dream college and attending your second-choice school. In addition to fixing grammar and basic errors, editing services go above and beyond to match the flow and readability of your writing with your goal – academic or admissions.

If you are writing a personal statement or college essay, you want editors with first-hand college and university admissions experience reviewing and editing your essay.

Additional College Personal Statement Tips

We hope you learned a lot from these examples of successful college personal statements. So what’s next?

I want to learn more about the college admissions process

Interested in learning more tips from experts about the college admissions process, personal statements, or letters of recommendation? Check out the  Wordvice Admissions Resources blog.

I am interested in professional editing for my personal statement

We also got you covered! Whether you choose personal statement editing , recommendation letter editing , resume editing , or any of our other essay editing services , you can find the help you need to improve your college essay.

I want to improve my college personal statement for college right now

Check out our turnaround times and conditions on our editing FAQ page. Or you can jump straight in and use our Editing Price Calculator to start the ordering process.

College Essay Examples: 10 Best Examples of College Essays and Why They Worked

Collegeadvisor’s 10 best examples of college essays and why they worked.

The college essay is one of the most important parts of the college admissions process—and it’s also one of the hardest to complete. If you’re struggling to find the right college essay topics, you’re not alone. In this guide, we’ll break down some of the best college essays to help you write a personal statement for college that will stand out . 

You’ve likely written many essays over the course of your high school career. However, your personal statement for college may be the first time you’ve been asked to write about yourself . That’s where our sample college essays can help. 

The best college essays will reflect who you are, what matters to you, and why you’ll enrich any college community you join. That’s a tall order, but looking at examples of college essays can help you as you begin the writing process. But before we dive into our sample college essays, let’s start with some basics. 

What is a college essay?

A college essay is a piece of writing that responds to a given prompt, either on the Common App lication , Coalition Application , or on a school’s individual application. College essays can range anywhere from 50 to 800 words. There are two main types of college essays: personal statements and supplemental essays. In general, you will write one personal statement and submit it to every school you apply to. By contrast, you’ll submit a different set of supplemental essays to each school. 

Why do college essays matter in the admissions process?

Your college essays reflect parts of your identity that aren’t clear from the rest of your application. While two students might have similar grades and extracurriculars, they won’t have the same college essays. That means that your college essays can make you stand out from the crowd. Our sample college essays can help you do just that. 

In this guide, we’ll walk you through sample college essays that address a wide variety of college essay topics. We’ll break down examples of college essays from every category so that you feel prepared to write your own. Each sample college essay we’ve included in our college essay examples shows how you can use strong, intentional writing to approach a variety of college essay topics. By looking at these college essay examples, we hope you learn a lot about how to approach essay-writing. 

Each school approaches college essay prompts differently. Each school may provide both required and optional college essay prompts. Most selective colleges will require you to write some kind of personal statement. Many also have school-specific supplemental college essay prompts and short answer questions. Below, sample college essays that worked show how students like you approached these prompts and impressed top schools. 

For more tips about how to approach college essay topics and the writing process, check out our Essay Guides FAQ .

In this college essay examples guide, we’ll look at some examples of college essays and talk about why they succeeded. Our analysis will explain why these are a few of the best college essays that worked.

This includes a variety of essay types such as:

  • Short essay examples
  • Common App essay examples
  • Examples of personal essays
  • Supplemental essay examples (including why this college essay examples and why this major essay examples), and more.

Soon, we’ll dive into our college essays examples and break down some examples of personal essays. But first, let’s talk about what makes a good college essay and how you can make sure your college essays stand out . As you’ll see from our examples of college essays, there is no one right way to approach college essay prompts or one specific formula for writing the best college essays. However, as  you’ll learn from these sample college essays, there are still plenty of useful tips that can make your essays shine. 

Good college essays and the college admissions process

As you start reviewing college essay prompts and looking at examples of college essays, you might find yourself wondering, “What are the common characteristics of good college essays?” 

Each of our college application essay examples, from our Common App essay examples to our short essay examples, offer key insights into an applicant’s character. These sample college essays did a great job of answering their respective college essay prompts. As such, they each stood out to admissions teams as strong college application essay examples.

Later in this guide to college essay examples, we’ll break down the best college essays in detail. But first, let’s look at a few sample college essays to help you get an idea of what to think about as you learn how to write good college essays. These college essay examples provide valuable insight into how you can craft one of the best college essays admissions teams have ever seen.

Below is an excerpt from one of our successful personal essay examples:

One hundred and fifty bagels, all completely frozen. I couldn’t believe it. My school’s Model UN Conference was to start in thirty minutes, and breakfast for the delegates was nowhere near ready. I looked with dismay at my friends’ concerned faces peering out from behind piles of frozen bagels. As Secretary-General, it was my job to ensure that this conference went smoothly. However, it seemed that was not going to be the case. I took a moment to weigh my options before instructing Rachael, our “logistics coordinator,” to heat up the frozen circles of doom in the home-ec room. I knew Rachael enjoyed baking, so I trusted her to find a way into the locked room and thaw the assortment of bagels.

Below is an excerpt from one of our successful why NYU essay examples:

The Bachelor of Science in Business Program excites me, as it entails a well rounded yet intensive study in core business disciplines. However, what draws me to Stern is the emphasis on gaining a global perspective, which is crucial in today’s rapidly changing world economy. Through the International Business Exchange Program, I will be able to gain a first-hand cultural experience that will mold me into a global citizen and business leader. Not only will I be taking courses in the most prestigious business schools across the globe, but I will also have new doors opened for me to network with alumni.

As you can see, examples of college essays can look very different . What matters is that they are detailed, specific, and show the admissions team at any school why the writer would enrich campus life—all while answering the college essay prompts. When we look at more examples of college essays, we’ll discuss why these essays—and other college essay examples—worked so well.

We’ll break down:

  • How they addressed their college essay prompts
  • What kind of structure they followed
  • What their unique strengths are
  • Tips and tricks to use while writing your own college essays

As you start looking at examples of college essays, you may wonder how important they are to your application. The answer is: extremely.

Many top colleges and universities use a holistic process when reviewing applications. That means they evaluate your essays alongside your academic history, extracurriculars, and test scores to learn who you are, what has made you the person you are today, and what you might bring to a college campus. 

As you will see from our Harvard essay examples and Stanford essay examples, the best college essays give applicants a chance to teach a school about the writer. Good college essays give schools a more complete idea of the person they will be inviting to join their student body—and they are the only chance a school has to learn who you are in your own words. 

Providing details and telling your story

As you’ll see from our college essay examples, good college essays discuss important details that might not be clear from the rest of your application. Each of our Common App essay examples tells a specific story. Other college essay prompts, like the Stanford roommate essay, for instance, ask applicants to reflect on parts of their identity beyond their grades and test scores. 

Many colleges have also tried to demystify the college application process and provide helpful resources. Some schools, like Johns Hopkins and Hamilton , even provide their own examples of college essays that worked, including Common App essay examples. This can give you a sense of what their admissions team looks for.

You’ll encounter many different college essay topics. Each of these will ask you to write about your experiences in a slightly different way. So, looking at different college essay samples (like a why this college essay example or a why this major essay example) can help you approach different college essay topics. Also, since the Common App essay is a crucial part of your application, you’ll benefit from reading our Common App essay examples. 

Later in this guide, we’ll provide full sample college essays for you. This will include both Common App essay examples and short essay examples. 

Keep reading to learn more about the different types of college essay topics. Then, we’ll talk about the examples of college essays you’ll find later in our college essay examples guide.

Types of college essay prompts you’ll encounter

All college essay prompts will require your best writing and ideas. Understanding the differences between the types of college essay samples can help you learn how to approach your college essay prompts. 

Our examples of college essays fall into two main categories:

  • Personal Essay Examples (Common App essay examples/Coalition App essay examples/Personal essay examples)
  • Supplemental Essay Examples (short essay examples)

Our different types of college essay examples will show how you might approach different topics and what your final essays may look like. For example, when comparing Common App essay examples and supplemental short essay examples, one significant difference between the two is the word count. When looking at short essay examples, you’ll notice that the details you find in Common App essay examples don’t fit within the short 150 word or 250 word limit. As you’ll see in our short essay examples, short-form supplemental essays require you to make the most out of a limited number of words. 

Exploring a variety of college essay samples will help prepare you to write your own. If you haven’t narrowed down your school selection yet, you might not know what kinds of supplemental essays you will write or what examples of college essays you should read. In this case, start with our personal essay examples—that is, our Common App essay examples.

The Personal Statement

The most common type of essay you’ll encounter is a personal statement for college. For most applications, you’ll choose from a selection of prompts and write a longer essay (500 – 800 words) that speaks to your experiences, identity, and goals. Your personal statement for college tends to be the longest essay in your application. This means it may require more work to edit into a focused and compelling story. For inspiration, take a look at our Common App essay examples. Each of our Common App essay examples tells a story that the admissions team otherwise wouldn’t know. 

You will apply to colleges using the Common Application, the Coalition Application, or a school-specific portal. Each of these application portals will have their own unique prompts and specific word counts. However, all of our examples of personal essays serve a similar purpose and require a similar writing process. 

Beyond your personal statement for college, many schools ask you to write school-specific supplemental essays. Our college application essay examples will cover a range of supplemental essay prompts, including why you are interested in a particular school or a particular major. 

Some schools also offer a section where you can provide additional information that may have affected your grades or overall profile. This might include details about your home life or any special circumstances that created challenges for you.

In this college essay examples guide, we’ll look at Common App essay examples to help you craft your personal statement.

The school-specific college essays that worked, we will review below include:

  • Harvard essay examples
  • Stanford essay examples
  • UPenn supplemental essays
  • Dartmouth essay examples
  • Why NYU essay examples
  • Why UChicago essay examples

This collection of college essays that worked will include short essay examples, including a why this college essay example and a why this major essay example. Before we break down these sample college essays, let’s look at what exactly makes the best college essays the best.

What makes the best college essays?

When looking at college essays that worked, whether personal essay examples or short essay examples, it may be challenging to discern exactly what makes a great sample college essay great.  In our college essay examples guide, our examples of college essays (in addition to being correctly formatted ) have succeeded across a few criteria.

The criteria to keep in mind while you are considering how to write a successful essay are:

  • Personality

You can apply these criteria to all of our college application essay examples, including our Common App essay examples, examples of personal essays, and short essay examples. A strong sample college essay, no matter the length, will use these three elements to create a compelling story that will show a school how you would enrich their campus. 

In our examples of college essays, you’ll see that good college essays follow a thoughtfully composed structure. Since college essay prompts often have strict word limits, it is important to follow these examples of college essays and make sure your college essay flows. Strong personal essay examples usually tell a story that leaves the reader with a lasting impression.

Like our example college essays, your college essay should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. As you’ll see in our college essay examples, particularly our examples of personal essays, there isn’t one right way to structure your essay. Your structure could be chronological, funnel down from broad to specific, or start with a particular memory or experience and then expand out towards a greater perspective. No matter how you structure your essay, make sure your narrative remains clear.

Not all essays have to look the same

As you will see from our examples of college essays, your college essay can look any number of ways. The best college essays can take many forms — what’s important is that your college essay shows the admissions team who you are . Even as you look at college application essay examples inspired by a singular prompt, you’ll find the topics they cover to be very different. However, one thing our college essay examples have in common is that they all showcase who the writer is while still answering the essay prompt.

As you read our examples of college essays and start writing your own, try to emphasize your own identity. Think about what is important to you, experiences that made you grow or changed you, times where you were challenged, or an a-ha moment that solidified a piece of who you are. Then, once you’ve found a topic to write about, make sure it connects back to the original prompt. Even if you tell a fantastic story, if it doesn’t answer the question in the prompt, you’ll have missed the goal of the essay. If you’re still having trouble coming up with an essay topic, try this reflection exercise to help you brainstorm.

Standing out

We’ve chosen these college essay samples because they stood out in the admissions process. Besides being well-crafted, what makes a sample college essay stand out is personality. In this college essay examples guide, we’ve included a range of Common App essay examples and short essay examples that embody different voices, tones, and styles.

As you read through our examples of college essays, you may get stuck on trying to pick a topic that is 100% unique or obviously impressive. Instead of worrying about what makes you unique from other applicants, focus on being honest and being true to yourself. Remember, no one is exactly like you. So, follow the blueprint our sample college essays provide, but stay true to who you are. 

For example, if humor is a key part of your personality, let that side of you shine through in your essays! However, if you read a hilarious college essay example but don’t naturally use humor yourself, don’t try to replicate someone else’s voice. The best college essay examples reflect students who knew who they were, what they wanted to say, and how they wanted to say it.

Our sample college essays show why it’s important to take care as you craft your personal statement and supplemental essays. But what exactly made these examples of college essays work, and how can you replicate these sample college essays in your own admissions process? 

How to use these college essay examples

Wondering how to use these essays to write your own college admission essay examples about yourself? 

We’ve given some background on why we’ve included certain college application essay examples. We’ve also discussed what you can learn from the different types of college essay samples. Now, you might ask yourself, “How should I use these college application essay examples to start writing my own?”

Each college essay example addresses a unique prompt within a specific word count. So, our Common App essay examples may be more helpful to reference when writing your personal statement. Our short essay examples, by contrast, may be more helpful as you tackle your supplemental essays.

Think of these college essay examples, including Harvard essay examples and Stanford essay examples, as a resource. We know the college admissions process can be overwhelming . That’s why we are committed to providing you with resources and essay tips to help you navigate your college applications.

These college essays that worked should inspire you. As you read over these college essay samples, use these examples of college essays as a guide, not a blueprint. Your college essay should be original and entirely your own work. However, by looking at these sample college essays, you’ll get an idea of what to highlight as you tell your authentic story .

Coming up: college admission essay examples about yourself

So far, we’ve taken a peek at some examples of college essays. We hope these college essay samples will help you jumpstart your writing process. Now, you know a little bit about what goes into selecting a college essay example and why these college essay samples work. It’s time to take a deep dive into writing college admission essay examples about yourself.

Next, we’ll dig into some examples of college essays and think about how to write college admission essay examples about yourself. First, we’ll look at some Common App essay examples to help you write your personal statement. As you read through our examples of personal essays, we will break down why these Common App essay examples work and how you can craft your own effective personal statement.

Common App Essay Examples–How to approach your personal statement for college

Are you furiously googling “college admission essay examples about yourself”? You’re not alone. Writing good responses to college essay topics is one of the most difficult parts of the application process. With so many college essay prompts and college essay samples out there, it’s hard to know where to start. That’s why we’ve provided the following examples of personal essays based on a variety of college essay topics. 

This section will focus on Common App essay examples—that is, college admission essay examples about yourself. We’ll unpack two examples of college essays that worked and analyze what made them effective. The Common App essay will be a crucial part of your application to nearly every school on your list. Reviewing other college application essay examples is a great way to improve your own writing. 

Each of these examples of college essays comes from our advisor network. Moreover, every sample college essay helped its writer get into a top school. So, they are all good examples of personal essays to use as you start your writing process. 

Getting started with examples of college essays

Writing a personal statement for college isn’t easy. It’s natural to look for college admission essay examples about yourself to help. However, if you want to be competitive at top schools, you need to make sure that your Common App essay—like these Common App essay examples—is the best it can be. Many examples of college essays struggle to leave a lasting impression on readers. Also, many students struggle to choose the right college essay topics. These Common App essay examples will teach you how to do just that. 

Let’s dig into some personal essay examples—or college admission essay examples about yourself. Each of these college essay samples relates to one of the Common App essay prompts. These examples of personal essays each tell stories about the writers that aren’t clear from the rest of their application; that’s why our college essay examples were successful at top schools. 

Our guide will walk you through these examples of college essays and show you how to write one of the best college essays you can. Later on, we break down why these sample college essays were successful and show you how you can replicate that success in your own personal statement for college. 

Common App Essay–Example 1: Elinor

The first of our Common App essay examples comes from a student named Elinor. In the first of our personal essay examples, she highlights her involvement in a club in an innovative and exciting way. Her tone, structure, and style each help her essay stand out from other examples of college essays. 

Below is the full text for the first of our examples of college essays. Later, we’ll discuss what makes this sample college essay one of the best college essay samples to look at.

Elinor’s Common App Essay:

One hundred and fifty bagels, all completely frozen. I couldn’t believe it. My school’s Model UN Conference was to start in thirty minutes, and breakfast for the delegates was nowhere near ready. I looked with dismay at my friends’ concerned faces peering out from behind piles of frozen bagels. As Secretary-General, it was my job to ensure that this conference went smoothly. However, it seemed that was not going to be the case. I took a moment to weigh my options before instructing Rachael, our “logistics coordinator,” to heat up the frozen circles of doom in the home-ec room. I knew Rachael enjoyed baking, so I trusted her to find a way into the locked room and thaw the assortment of bagels.  Cold bagels were not the only thing weighing heavily on my mind that morning. As I walked from classroom to classroom helping set up committees, I couldn’t help but feel nervous. Our conference wasn’t going to be like those of the private schools- there were no engraved pens or stylish water bottles. Instead, people got post-it notes and whatever pens we could steal from the supply closet. Forcing myself to stop worrying, I chose instead to think of why we made that choice. Since most of the food was donated, and all of the supplies had been “borrowed” from the supply closet, we could afford to charge only a nominal fee to everyone attending. Making Model UN accessible was one of my top priorities as Secretary-General; the same desire motivated me to begin including middle school students in the club. I hurried back down to the cafeteria, and was relieved to see that all the bagels looked warm and ready to eat.  The bagels would not be the sole crisis that day. As debates were about to start, one of the Chairs sent me a panic stricken text: “We only have 5 people in our committee! We can’t reenact the creation of the Treaty of Versailles!” I hurried to where his debate was taking place, and sure enough, only five people were there. I quickly considered my options- cancel the committee?  Convince some delegates to switch into this debate through bagel bribery? Or maybe, come up with a completely new topic?  I settled on idea number three. But what topic could a committee of only five people spend a day discussing? I mulled it over until an idea began to form. I explained to the room, “Each one of you will represent one of the five major Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. The chair will guide you as you tweet, make campaign videos, and debate the most important political issues.” I spent a few minutes figuring out how to go about moderating such an unconventional committee, before heading off to check in on the other debates.  As I walked from committee to committee, fixing problems and helping move debates along, I felt a sense of pride. I had spent months working on this conference, along with the other members of my team. At times, I worried I could never pull it off. A part of me had wished our faculty advisor would just organize the whole thing for us. After all, I’m just a high schooler, how could I put together such a big event? But as the day went by, I realized that with the help of my peers, I had done it. All the little crises that cropped up weren’t because I was doing a bad job; they were inevitable. The fact that I could find solutions to such a wide variety of problems was a testament to my leadership skills, and my level-headedness. I didn’t just feel like a leader—I felt like an adult. As I look towards my future in college and later the workforce, I know that I can succeed, even if my obstacles seem as insurmountable as a mountain of frozen bagels.

Reflecting on this sample college essay

The first of our college essay examples certainly deserves its spot among the best college essays. This sample college essay works in large part because of its opening. The first sentence of Elinor’s Common App essay makes the reader want to continue—what happened to the bagels? How will Elinor solve this problem? Examples of college essays with strong introductions draw the reader in. In addition, an inspiring first sentence sets the tone for the rest of the essay. The frozen bagels in this college essay example create tension that draws the reader in. 

Often, good examples of college essays also read like short stories in which the writer is the main character. While Elinor does mention other people in her Common App essay, she remains focused on her own actions and emotional state. In the third paragraph, she describes in detail how she responded to a crisis. She first explains her thought process, then she tells us what action she took to address the crisis. 

As you comb through various college admission essay examples about yourself, you should keep your own identity in mind. Strong examples of personal essays should contain personal details about the writer. College essay topics are designed to get to know you on a personal level. Strong examples of college essays use every chance to showcase the writer’s positive qualities.

Tell YOUR story

The best Common App essay examples tell a story about the author. These college essay examples are no exception. Often, strong sample college essays use a story to show who a student is. Elinor uses the story of her model UN conference to show her leadership , maturity, and problem-solving skills. Like any good story, Elinor’s personal statement for college contains obstacles for her to overcome and challenges to face. By presenting these examples and discussing her responses, Elinor’s Common App essay shows that she is ready for the challenges ahead. 

The best college essays show information rather than just telling it. It’s one thing to tell readers you are a proactive leader in college admission essay examples about yourself; it’s another to show it through your actions. In the second paragraph of her personal statement for college, Elinor states that she wanted to make model UN accessible as Secretary General. She then goes into detail about how she accomplished that goal by organizing food donations and only charging a small fee for attending the conference. In these Common App essay examples, the writers use details and evidence to showcase their best qualities.  

Elinor’s sample college essay also contains a strong conclusion. She illustrates what she has learned about herself from this experience and in doing so, helps the admissions team learn more about her. In this college essay example, Elinor clearly shows the kind of student she would be and how she would enrich campus life. The best college application essay examples show readers why students should be admitted through evidence and storytelling. Our Common App essay examples each accomplish that goal.

Common App Essay–Example 2: Arham

The second of our Common App essay examples uses a different strategy to the first. However, it is still one of the top examples of personal essays. The next author of our college essay examples, Arham, starts with a very specific moment from his fifth grade class. He then explains how that moment has affected his life. 

While some examples of personal essays are about a recent event, other personal essay examples show the author’s development over a longer period of time. To understand why this is among the best college application essay examples, let’s look at the essay itself and how it employs techniques often found in the best college essay examples.

Arham’s Common App Essay:

An hour into President Obama’s inauguration, I stifled a yawn and raised my hand. “Ms. Edgell, who did you vote for?” Instantly, nineteen fifth-graders shattered the silence: “Of course she voted Republican!” “No, she’s a Democrat!” “Obama was born in Kenya!” “Don’t ask people about their politics,” she chided.  “So . . . you’re a Republican!”  “Arham. Outside.” As Ms. Edgell fruitlessly tried to explain that politics didn’t belong in the classroom, I struggled to suppress a smile–I couldn’t help it. For a few moments, fifth grade’s single-variable algebra and spelling tests had been replaced by a more intriguing conversation: one without a definitive answer. Snippets of boisterous debate continued to drift through the closed door, and I was eager to rejoin the conversation–that day, I learned disagreements were fascinating. Eager to understand the “why” of each and every belief, I turned to my living room: a constant cacophony of political commentary, occasionally punctuated by my father’s frustrated jabs at the pause button and exasperated interjections. In my quest to decipher the cryptic nightly news, my parents became my personal dictionary, fielding a nightly barrage of questions. Forget just explaining where babies come from–over the next four years, I asked them to articulate almost every conceivable stance on gun control, abortion, and the death penalty. Through that television screen, I first encountered the full diversity of human opinions, and I was enthralled; I wanted to triumph in every dispute. Dodging my parents’ dinnertime queries of how my day went, I delved into new lines of questioning: the viability of Medicare for All, the feasibility of 100% green energy, the merits of chicken tikka masala mac & cheese fusion. After watching the 2016 Presidential Debate, I spent hours pondering the economic consequences of a more cohesive border–sadly, the living room walls didn’t offer much feedback on my ideas. Soon, I realized that some of my “solutions” were a bit near-sighted; eliminating poverty by printing money wasn’t exactly the modern-day Wealth of Nations, and the solution to global warming was a tad more nuanced than planting trees. I learned that I wouldn’t always be right–instead, the desire to win was slowly replaced by a yearning to understand. With every discussion, I synthesized new information, pinpointed gaps in my knowledge, and reevaluated my views; then, aided by the latest edition of The Economist and a plethora of Google searches, I’d unearth the next set of questions.  Late nights in my living room have defined a lifelong passion: using disagreements as a lens to explore, understand, and influence the world. In Congressman DeSaulnier’s office—where interns were instructed to hang up on adversarial callers—I instead found myself engrossed in half-hour conversations with frustrated constituents. There, I delved beneath the partisan rhetoric to truly understand why people support a wall, desire nationalized healthcare, or champion coal–and, in return, I offered a bit of my own worldview. On elevators, I’ve been known to strike conversation on the whimsical (Should gyms offer a package where you pay for every day you don’t go?); overseas, I invite teams from Germany, Singapore, and Mexico to opine on whether or not Amazon should be considered a monopoly. Whether it’s discussing capitalism or everyday life, the resulting conversations shed light on our culture, upbringing, and aspirations–the willingness to disagree is what builds rapport. In recognition of that, I beckon for dialogue; I constantly invite the world to teach me more. In fifth grade, I learned that we fear disagreement–feigning unity will always be more comfortable. But, through ignoring each other’s most fundamental beliefs, we simultaneously abandon our ability to understand our peers. In my living room, disagreements provided a venue for questioning and navigating a world of conflicting perspectives: though I didn’t know it at the time, they set the stage for a lifetime of questioning. So, be it in the classroom, through a phone call, or on stage, I continue to raise my hand.”

Why is this a college essay that works

As we saw in the first of our college essay examples, one reason this sample college essay is effective is that it engages the reader from the very first sentence. The author uses the technique of in medias res , which is often found in strong personal essay examples. Instead of beginning the essay with exposition, the author begins with a quote that places the reader in the middle of a riveting conversation. This strategy makes the best Common App essay examples interesting to read and helps the best college essays stand out from the rest.

Another feature that characterizes the best college essay examples is varied and interesting word choice. This doesn’t mean you need to use words in your writing that you wouldn’t ordinarily use. In our examples of college essays, the writers don’t just throw around SAT words. Instead, these successful examples of college essays use carefully chosen words to elevate the quality of the writing and heighten emotional tension. The phrase “shattered the silence” from the second paragraph is a perfect example of how a vivid word can instantly improve a sentence. In addition, the phrase “constant cacophony of political commentary” shows how employing poetic devices—in this case, alliteration—can make college essay examples more fun to read. 

So, what makes the second of our college essay examples shine? This personal statement for college works because it presents a compelling story about a young boy slowly learning how to express his opinions and refining his beliefs. Many of the best examples of college essays show a process of growth or transformation. These transformations require struggle, and good college essays embrace that struggle and present it openly to readers. 

The value of authenticity

This brings us to another key feature of our college essay examples: authenticity. Some students have the misconception that the best college essays should only portray your good qualities. However, this is not the case. Instead, the most successful personal essay examples address their authors’ shortcomings and explain how they have worked to overcome them.

Honesty and authenticity permeate these college essay samples. Arham’s example college essay reveals his genuine passion for debate. He provides several examples, both personal and academic, that demonstrate his interest in that topic. Importantly, successful Common App essay examples include details not present in other areas of your application. This gives readers a more personal look into your values. These examples of college essays reveal the quirks and obsessions that round out the author’s personality and set him apart from his peers.

Both of these successful examples of college essays contain strong conclusions that look ahead to the future. These personal essay examples provide insight into how the writers will contribute to a college community. Arham uses the phrase “lifetime of questioning” to show that he will bring his curiosity and thirst for knowledge to whatever college he attends. Good college application essay examples show readers why they should accept you and what you will bring to their campus.

Although these examples of college essays are different from each other, they were both successful for a variety of reasons. Now let’s look at how to replicate these examples of college essays in your own writing!

Personal Essay Examples–How to get started writing your own college essays that work

Do you feel ready to sit down and write your own personal statement for college? Let’s break down some tips to help you use our sample college essays to write your own. Be aware that every writer has their own personal style. So, try to find ways to make these tips work for your own college admission essay examples about yourself! 

So, what can we learn from these college application essay examples? Reflecting on these two Common App essay examples, there are several steps you can take in your own writing process to craft a college essay that works for top schools. 

In addition to reviewing other examples of college essays, we recommend that you do some prewriting exercises to help you write the best college essays you can. First, take a moment to review your candidate profile. Then, decide on what 3-5 adjectives you would use to describe yourself. After you’ve reviewed our college essay examples, click here for a list of strong adjectives you might use. 

Consider the word count

This exercise helps focus your essay on the most important themes. Because college essay topics are so broad, students want to cover as much ground as possible. However, the best Common App essay examples recognize the limits set by the word count. With this in mind, these examples of college essays use specific details to illustrate broad concepts. You may have a lot to share, but the best college essays highlight qualities not found elsewhere in your application. Reflect on our personal essay examples as you write. Instead of rehashing your extracurricular achievements, follow the lead of our Common App essay examples. Tell a story the admissions team hasn’t heard. 

After you have your five adjectives, look over the Common Application’s college essay prompts. Then, choose one that lets you showcase the qualities you selected earlier. When writing college admission essay examples about yourself, it’s better to tell a single story in vivid detail than to write a broad survey of all your accomplishments. The first of our Common App essay examples focused on a single day of Elinor’s high school career. She then uses this anecdote to make a larger claim about her ability to solve problems. The second of the college essay samples starts with the story of a single fifth grade class before broadening out to other topics. As you choose your college essay topics, keep specificity in mind.

Expect to write multiple drafts

The best college essays take multiple drafts. So, make sure you allow yourself enough time to write your personal statement for college. The college application essay examples in this guide weren’t written in a day. Rather, these college essay examples each went through several drafts to become good college essays. So, take a cue from our examples of personal essays. After you write the first draft of your Common App essay, review it after a day or two. This will help you approach it with a fresh perspective. Having others review your writing can also help transform good college essays into the best college essays.  

There is no single formula for writing good college essays. However, you can learn to develop your own voice by reading articles and reviewing sample college essays written by other students. As we’ve stated, examples of personal essays can help you find your own voice and narrative as you start the writing process. This article from U.S. News contains more college essay examples along with short essay examples of supplemental prompts. It also provides advice from admissions counselors about how to write college application essay examples that stand out from other examples of personal essays. Top colleges like Tufts , Johns Hopkins , and Connecticut College often post examples of college essays that worked for their schools. Reading Harvard essay examples along with other college essay samples from top schools gives you a sense of what it takes to get into top schools.

Showing vs. telling

With the above Common App essay examples, we’ve presented two college essays that worked. Both of these college application essay examples show—rather than tell—the reader important details about the applicant’s identity. These college essay examples show what kinds of students these writers would be on campus. Based on these sample college essays, top schools could imagine these students in their communities. That’s why these examples of college essays stand out. 

Beyond the Common App Essay

These Common App essay examples are not the only personal essay examples we will look at in this guide. Next, we’ll discuss supplemental college essay examples—short essay examples that usually range between one hundred and four hundred words. 

These college essay prompts are unique to the schools that assign them. However, looking at many different short essay examples will help you prepare for the variety of college essay prompts you may encounter. Let’s take a look at these examples of college essays!

Short essay examples: What types of college essay topics will you see?

Now that you have some useful Common App essay examples to use as you write your personal statement for college, let’s look at some other examples of college essays. As we mentioned, there are several types of college essays . 

The short essay examples we’ll discuss effectively and efficiently answer the prompt. Keep in mind that you will often work within the constraints of a word limit. Reading examples of college essays will help you learn this writing style. Still, remember that the best college essays will reflect your own voice. Once again, use our examples of college essays as a guide—don’t try to be someone you’re not. 

In this section, we’ll focus on four main types of supplemental college essay samples. These include why this college essay examples, why this major essay examples, other less typical supplemental essay examples, and “additional information” essay examples. As we look at these examples of college essays, we’ll focus on what made these some of the best college essays out there. We’ll talk about what makes each of these college essay examples unique—and how you can use them as you craft your own college essays.

Our college essay examples shouldn’t hold you back. Don’t feel limited to the same or similar college essay topics that you read in our college essay examples. Reading some short essay samples or Common App essay samples may help you brainstorm, but the stories you tell should be uniquely yours. When reading college application essay examples, keep in mind that authenticity will impress colleges the most. 

‘Why this college’ essay

First, let’s break down some why this college essay examples. As you’ll see from our examples of successful essays, your why this college essay should discuss in detail what attracts you to that particular school. 

Many colleges will require you to write an essay about why you want to attend that particular school. Good college essays that answer these prompts will reflect a given school’s mission, opportunities, and personality. When you read successful why NYU essay examples, why Stanford essay examples, or why UPenn supplemental essays, you’ll notice that the writer isn’t afraid to be specific. 

Questions to consider

What classes will you take? Is there a professor whose work inspires you? What clubs will you join? The best examples of college essays are detailed and convincing . When reading short essay examples, notice how many details the writers include. Then, think about how you can include details with the same specificity—but ones that are applicable to your life, plans, and interests. 

Most schools will have their own supplemental essays. This is one area where Common App essay examples and supplemental college essay examples will differ. Our Common App essay samples were submitted to all colleges, while these short essay examples were submitted to individual colleges. 

As our example why this college essays show, it’s important to research the schools on your list before you complete any college essay prompts. Why this college essays that work establish three things—a personal anecdote, details about the college’s offerings, and the connection between a writer’s personal story and the college. Essentially, the best college essays help the reader visualize how a student will succeed at that school. 

A ‘Why Dartmouth’ essay that worked

Why this college essay examples are a useful tool as you prepare your application for any top school. When reading this Dartmouth essay, pay attention to the clearly articulated and cohesive details. The best college essay examples will be easy to read and convey lots of information in a limited number of words. 

I always had a keen interest in numbers, probability, and finance. Early on, I could quickly calculate sales tax, analyze probabilities, and visualize complex mathematical models. After taking AP classes in economics and statistics, I became intrigued with mathematical representations for economic markets and statistical models. This sparked my desire to pursue an actuarial career to utilize my talents in quantitative reasoning. The Major in Mathematical Data Science will provide me the skills to apply abstract mathematical and statistical theories to the concrete world. I will also have the opportunity to stimulate my academic intrigue through an intensive research project. 

Good college essays do more than discuss why the applicant wants to study their major. They also go beyond why that school would be a good fit for their interests. College essays that worked also show why the applicant would make that school a better place.  

As this Dartmouth essay shows , the best college essays illustrate a track record of involvement to support the applicant’s proposed path forward. In this Dartmouth essay, the applicant plans to become an actuary. Given this student’s background, this feels like an attainable and sincere goal.

Something else to note about this Dartmouth essay is that the writer doesn’t use big fancy words or elaborate sentence structure. Good college essays are well-planned, written intentionally, and free from errors. However, they still sound like high schoolers wrote them! Like our examples of college essays, your short essays should feel natural and authentic. 

‘Why UChicago’ essay examples

Why UChicago essay examples provide useful insight into what UChicago —and other top schools —look for when evaluating applicants. These Why UChicago essay examples also have qualities that you can think about when looking at Stanford essay examples, why NYU essay examples, or others!

Ex. 1: ‘Why UChicago’ essay example

When I visited UChicago, a friend invited me to step into her Comparative Literature class: Monstrosity and the Monstrous. Desperate for refuge from the cold (as a Bay Area resident, I hadn’t packed for the Chicago winter), I quickly obliged. I expected to silently observe, but when I mentioned that I’d read Antigone, her professor was thrilled–he immediately invited me into the discussion. For an hour and a half, we weighed the pros and cons of civil disobedience: did Antigone’s actions permanently destabilize Thebes, and in the modern day, when does protesting against a government cross the line? Was Antigone justified in interpreting the will of the gods? And, if so, would Sophocles support pardoning well-intentioned criminals? Beyond the enthralling analysis of the play, I was captivated by the spirit of UChicago: a campus that invites everyone (including a loitering high school student) to contribute and develop their ideas.

In this first section of our UChicago short essay examples, notice that the writer shows a knowledge of campus based on their campus visit and research. Though UChicago does not track demonstrated interest , the best college essay examples include references to visits, school-specific events, and specific details about the school’s offer. This establishes a connection between the reader and the writer. Strong college essay samples will show genuine interest. 

When reading examples of college essays, you should also think about the tone. In the first excerpt of these college application essay examples, the tone is passionate and enthusiastic. The tone of this sample college essay conveys excitement, and the reader can almost see the applicant walking around campus. Let’s read more UChicago essay examples: 

Ex. 2: ‘Why UChicago’ essay example

Now, it’s surreal to imagine taking “The Economics of Crime” from someone as renowned as Professor Levitt (I’ve been a fan since reading Freakonomics) and staying after class to clarify the finer points of the latest Freakonomics podcast (I particularly enjoyed “Speak Softly and Carry Big Data,” on using data analysis to perfect foreign policy decisions). I hope to add to UChicago’s legacy of pushing the boundaries of our economic understanding by participating in undergraduate research, and perhaps put my findings to use through crafting social policy for the Harris School’s Public Policy Practicum. Prior to graduating, I’ll sample tastes of future careers through the Fried Public Policy and Service Program or the Trott Business Program. Simultaneously, as someone who enjoys conversing and respectfully challenging ideas, I look forward to immersing myself in the Core Curriculum and obtaining a strong foundation of knowledge. Above all, I appreciate that UChicago teaches students how to think, encourages dialogue, and prompts students to question norms. 

Showcase your various interests

In this sample college essay excerpt, the author reveals a strong passion for learning. In this and many other why this college essay samples, the writer doesn’t focus solely on one academic area. Instead, the best college essays reveal qualities and traits of someone who is eager to explore a variety of interests. 

Another strength of this sample college essay excerpt is that it sticks to the facts. The best college essays limit overly emotional appeals, avoid cliché phrases, and don’t make vague statements about the future. You’ll see many examples of college essays that acknowledge a degree of uncertainty about what the author will study—and that’s okay! As our examples of college essays show, you don’t need to have everything figured out. 

Note too, that both excerpts of UChicago college application essay examples are part of a much longer essay. The UChicago supplement is closer in length to Common App essay examples. Though the college essay topics are different for UChicago, you can learn from reading Common App essay examples, too!

For more examples of college essays from UChicago, check out this article!

‘Why this college’ essays—Additional tips

There are a few more tips to learn from reading these examples of college essays. First, notice that you have a lot of freedom to choose your college essay topics. All that matters is that you discuss why you want to go to that particular college. Perhaps you are attracted to a niche academic program, or maybe you want to combine two of your interests and engage with an institute on campus. 

Also, choose your college essay topics and words carefully. Effective college essay samples avoid “spending” words complimenting colleges, telling them information they already know, or regurgitating marketing materials. Strong examples of college essays don’t focus on rankings, acceptance rates, or prestige. Writing about the beautiful buildings, the weather, or the student body size will seldom effectively answer college essay prompts. 

Dig deep and make connections

The most effective college essay examples mention major-specific electives or particular clubs. Most importantly, they’ll explain why these programs matter to the writer. You will notice that college application essay examples often describe how college will be an extension of existing passions, interests, and activities. 

In these why this college essay examples, the writers each point to specific reasons why they would like to attend their respective schools. These why this college essays are detailed and specific. Both of these sample essays showcase what their writers would bring to a college campus and how they would benefit from attending their respective schools.

As you start writing, think about our college admission essay examples about yourself. Stay true to your identity, be specific, and tell a story—then, you have a great chance of writing the best college essays you can. 

‘Why this major’ essay examples

Next, let’s discuss some why this major college essay prompts. A why this major essay tells the admissions team what inspires you about your chosen field. By reading our why this major essay examples, you can understand how to discuss your academic interests in an engaging way that tells the admissions team more about your identity and passions. Let’s read some sample college essays. 

Ex.1: UPenn ‘Why this major’ essay

The University of Pennsylvania, with its strong emphasis on pre-professional learning is ideal as a learning environment. That focus is what drives many students with an eye to the future — we hope to apply our learning, impact the real world in ways that inspire change.  I find the Cognitive Science program, specifically its concentration in Language and Mind most appealing. As someone who places great emphasis in words, the idea of analyzing the cognitive aspects behind linguistics, whether philosophically, psychologically, or computationally draws upon various fields that showcase various perspectives on the meanings of language. It’s fascinating that despite the various languages and cultures there can be a biological scientific breakdown explaining the complex processes underlying syntax and semantics. 

Ex. 2: Brown University ‘Why this major’ essay

As someone who places great emphasis in words, the idea of analyzing the cognitive aspects behind linguistics, whether philosophically, psychologically, or computationally fits my ideal of using interdisciplinary methods to study human behavior holistically. I am also concerned with quantitative methods. For example, AP Psychology allowed me to talk about the ethics and methodology. I had read about the Asch conformity tests. But when my teacher set up the experiment with three classmates as subjects and the rest of us as confederates, two subjects did not conform; our ratio of nonconformity was lower than Asch had found. Could it be a trait of the magnet population and experience? Should I remain pre-med, a strong background in neuroscience will support my study of anatomy and help me become a better physician. Directly linking biology and behavior,  Cognitive Neuroscience will contribute to my holistic view of my patients.

Express your passion and curiosity

Each of these why this major essay examples gives the reader a sense of the writer’s intellectual passions. These why this major essay examples are clearly written, specific, and personal. When reading these examples of college essays, notice how detailed they are. For example, “I find the Cognitive Science program, specifically its concentration in Language and Mind most appealing.” Good college essays dig underneath the surface. Winning essays will identify how and why a student connects with their identified major or program.

Note too, that the author of the Brown sample college essay build a clear connection between their past experiences in high school (“For example, AP Psychology allowed me to talk about the ethics and methodology”) and future goals in college (“Should I remain pre-med, a strong background in neuroscience will support my study of anatomy and help me become a better physician. Directly linking biology and behavior, Cognitive Neuroscience will contribute to my holistic view of my patients.”)

Content comes first

As you can see in these examples of college essays, it’s crucial to focus on the content of the essay. So, when you write, complete all college essay prompts with specific details about why you want to attend that college. This will improve your overall application narrative. And, don’t forget to make that narrative cohesive. Strong college application essay examples tie extracurriculars, background , and identity together with future plans. 

Whether you’re writing UPenn supplemental essays or Brown supplemental essays, try to write about interdisciplinary interests if possible. You’re likely interested in more than one area, and many schools offer majors, minors, and certifications with unique combinations. Many short essay examples will go beyond the surface to discuss how the applicant’s seemingly disparate interests mesh. 

These college admission essay examples about yourself might raise some questions. Inevitably, some of you reading college essay samples are asking, “what if I don’t know what major I want to study?” Of course, college essays that worked can come from students who are certain of their future career. However, they can also come from students who change their major multiple times. 

So, don’t panic if you haven’t chosen a major. Instead, look at how you spend your time. What excites you now? College essay prompts give you the flexibility to expand on your reasoning.

Unconventional college essay topics

Some supplemental essay prompts aren’t as straightforward as the why this major or why this college essay examples. For instance, Stanford has some unconventional college essay prompts that help the admissions team learn more about each student. Stanford asks students to write letters to their future roommate. So, let’s look at some Stanford roommate essay examples.

Stanford roommate essay 

Stanford roommate essay examples—like any college essay examples—can be helpful as you craft your application for Stanford or any other top school. Unlike some examples of college essays, the question these Stanford roommate essay examples answer is a bit more personal. College essay prompts like these give you the chance to show off what makes you unique. The best college essays for these types of prompts will show off your unique character.

When tasked with writing an unconventional essay like the Stanford roommate essay, it’s helpful to look at a few examples of college essays. These will help give you a feel for college essays that worked. Let’s read two sample college essays.

Ex.1: Stanford Roommate Essay

In the spirit of inaugurating the life-long relationship I hope we’ll build this year, let me tell you a little about myself. Hi, I’m Allison. I’m the second child of a comically over-optimistic refugee mother (my Vietnamese name translates, literally, to “celestial being”) and a proud Kentuckian with a deep passion for student-driven advocacy. I have two parents, two stepparents, a nineteen-year-old sister (a junior in Product Design, here, at Stanford), a three-year-old half-sister, two cats, one dog, and a complicated life that spans two households. So, I’m used to sharing space and managing shifting schedules. I’ve also always been the “Mom” friend. To me, the little things—a chocolate chip cookie when I know a friend has a rough day ahead, words of encouragement before a big presentation, or staying up late to explain a tough physics problem—mean the most. I’ll be there when you need me—be it studying for tests or navigating personal challenges. I recycle incessantly and am known to snatch cans out of the trash, wash them, and relocate them to neighboring blue bins. I keep a regular sleep schedule, rarely going to bed past midnight or waking up later than 8:30. I’m averse to gyms, opting instead to go for runs in the morning or follow along to a YouTube workout in the afternoon.  I’m passionate, but also even-keeled. I think life is best taken in stride—worrying has never gotten me anywhere, but flexibility has taken me everywhere. I look forward to an awesome year!

Ex.2: Stanford Roommate Essay

Hey Roomie! Yesterday was insane. I still can’t quite get over the energy in that stadium after that final play. I guess Berkeley couldn’t take back the axe to cut down these Trees! I’m writing you this since I have an 8:30 Syntax and Morphology with Dr. Gribanov. I know, it’s early, but that class is honestly worth waking up for. Last Friday, he spent the entire period rambling about why regardless and irregardless are the same thing, but responsible and irresponsible aren’t. Just a fun little thought to start your day. I’m also writing you this as a quick apology. I won’t be back from Mock Trial until late evening, and then I’ll be practicing for Stanford Symphony auditions. So, if you hear cacophonous noises in your sleep, it’s most likely me. Plus, it’s Mahler Symphony No. 1, so you might not sleep much anyway. Kidding. These next few days are jam-packed, but I’m craving some much-needed bonding time! I have a proposal: how does a jam session this Friday at Terman Fountain sound? I’ll bring the guitar and plenty of oldies sheet music, you just gotta bring a snack and the desire to sing! I’ve sold a few people already. Join us? Well, I’m headed to breakfast now. Text me if you want me to grab you anything.

Casual tone and style

These examples of college essays have a more casual tone and style. This works because it fits the prompt for the Stanford roommate essay. Writing a formal styled response in this case would be inappropriate. Instead, in these college application essay examples, both authors discuss their quirks, interests, habits, and personalities . Try to replicate this in your own Stanford roommate essay. Reading a variety of examples of college essays can help you brainstorm your own, but your ideas should still be original!

You and your freshman roommate will come to know each other well, so respond to this prompt with openness and honesty. While they aren’t as prevalent in Common App essay examples or supplemental college essay examples, jokes and humor are more common in these letters. 

Examples of college essays that are a letter to your freshman roommate are less formal. However, they should still be specific and vivid. Include details and stories to show the reader who you are. The strongest college application essay examples for Stanford will illustrate your identity through vivid stories and specifics details. 

Your letter to your Stanford roommate is a great opportunity to show the admissions committee another aspect of who you are. Take advantage of it!

The “Additional Information” essay

Finally, let’s turn to one last set of examples of college essays. One of the college essay prompts you’ll encounter is the “additional information” section of the Common App. This also appears as an optional supplement for some schools. Not all students should write this college essay. However, if you have something important to share about your background or experiences, the “additional information” section can be helpful. 

Let’s look at some college essay examples for this prompt. Keep in mind when reading college essay examples for this prompt that the content will differ from applicant to applicant. So, use this space in whatever way feels natural to you. 

Ex. 1: Harvard University Additional Information essay

I would like the Harvard Admissions Committee to know that my life circumstances are far from typical. I was born at twenty-four weeks gestation, which eighteen years ago was on the cusp of viability. Even if I was born today, under those same circumstances, my prospects for leading a normal life would be grim. Eighteen years ago, those odds were worse, and I was given a less than 5% chance of survival without suffering major cognitive and physical deficits.  The first six months of my life were spent in a large neonatal ICU in Canada. I spent most of that time in an incubator, kept breathing by a ventilator. When I was finally discharged home, it was with a feeding tube and oxygen, and it would be several more months before I was able to survive without the extra tubes connected to me. At the age of two, I was still unable to walk. I engaged in every conventional and non-conventional therapy available to me, including physical and speech therapy, massage therapy, gymnastics, and several nutritional plans, to try to remedy this. Slowly, I began to make progress in what would be a long and arduous journey towards recovery. 

This short essay example shares critical information about the writer. In doing so, this sample college essay excerpt helps the reader learn more about how medical circumstances have shaped the student’s perspective. It is factual—and so are many “additional information” short essay examples you will read. 

The best examples of college essays covering additional information are concrete. They often detail special circumstances, background information, or ways your life has been impacted. If you don’t have important information to write about, then don’t feel like you have to write something. Many students leave this section blank!

Focus on impact

You’ll notice that examples of college essays for the additional information prompt could also include details about your extracurriculars . You might use this area to detail additional extracurriculars and awards that would not fit in that section. These short essay examples typically take the form of a list rather than an essay. These short essay samples should focus on impact; don’t include unimpressive extracurriculars just to put something in the box. Examples of college essays come in all shapes and sizes.

You don’t need to include any additional information on the Common App if you have nothing more to share. However, as you can see from our college essay examples, this section can be useful in some cases. So, use our sample college essays to help you determine whether you should include any additional information in your own applications.

Final Thoughts—Examples of College Essays & College Essays That Worked

In this guide to college essay examples, we’ve walked you through several different kinds of college essays prompts. We’ve also provided details on why these sample college essays impressed admissions officers at top schools. Reading and analyzing college essay examples can be an excellent part of the brainstorming process. 

Colleges admit you based on your potential. So, when reading college essay samples, note the key qualities that the writer reveals. Each of the college essay samples is original and authentic. This should be one of your primary goals when writing your own college essays. 

As you write your college essays, keep these college essay examples in mind. Think about how these short essay examples show impact and character. Then, use your voice to tell your unique story. Good luck!

This guide to college essay examples was written by Caroline Marapese, Notre Dame ‘22,  Alex Baggott-Rowe , Davidson ’16, and Stefanie Tedards. At CollegeAdvisor, we have built our  reputation  by providing comprehensive information that offers real assistance to students. If you want to get help with your college applications from Alex or other  CollegeAdvisor.com  Admissions Experts ,  click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how CollegeAdvisor.com can support you in the college application process.

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personal essays for college admission examples

PrepScholar

Choose Your Test

Sat / act prep online guides and tips, my successful harvard application (complete common app + supplement).

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Other High School , College Admissions , Letters of Recommendation , Extracurriculars , College Essays

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In 2005, I applied to college and got into every school I applied to, including Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and MIT. I decided to attend Harvard.

In this guide, I'll show you the entire college application that got me into Harvard—page by page, word for word .

In my complete analysis, I'll take you through my Common Application, Harvard supplemental application, personal statements and essays, extracurricular activities, teachers' letters of recommendation, counselor recommendation, complete high school transcript, and more. I'll also give you in-depth commentary on every part of my application.

To my knowledge, a college application analysis like this has never been done before . This is the application guide I wished I had when I was in high school.

If you're applying to top schools like the Ivy Leagues, you'll see firsthand what a successful application to Harvard and Princeton looks like. You'll learn the strategies I used to build a compelling application. You'll see what items were critical in getting me admitted, and what didn't end up helping much at all.

Reading this guide from beginning to end will be well worth your time—you might completely change your college application strategy as a result.

First Things First

Here's the letter offering me admission into Harvard College under Early Action.

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I was so thrilled when I got this letter. It validated many years of hard work, and I was excited to take my next step into college (...and work even harder).

I received similar successful letters from every college I applied to: Princeton, Stanford, and MIT. (After getting into Harvard early, I decided not to apply to Yale, Columbia, UChicago, UPenn, and other Ivy League-level schools, since I already knew I would rather go to Harvard.)

The application that got me admitted everywhere is the subject of this guide. You're going to see everything that the admissions officers saw.

If you're hoping to see an acceptance letter like this in your academic future, I highly recommend you read this entire article. I'll start first with an introduction to this guide and important disclaimers. Then I'll share the #1 question you need to be thinking about as you construct your application. Finally, we'll spend a lot of time going through every page of my college application, both the Common App and the Harvard Supplemental App.

Important Note: the foundational principles of my application are explored in detail in my How to Get Into Harvard guide . In this popular guide, I explain:

  • what top schools like the Ivy League are looking for
  • how to be truly distinctive among thousands of applicants
  • why being well-rounded is the kiss of death

If you have the time and are committed to maximizing your college application success, I recommend you read through my Harvard guide first, then come back to this one.

You might also be interested in my other two major guides:

  • How to Get a Perfect SAT Score / Perfect ACT Score
  • How to Get a 4.0 GPA

What's in This Harvard Application Guide?

From my student records, I was able to retrieve the COMPLETE original application I submitted to Harvard. Page by page, word for word, you'll see everything exactly as I presented it : extracurricular activities, awards and honors, personal statements and essays, and more.

In addition to all this detail, there are two special parts of this college application breakdown that I haven't seen anywhere else :

  • You'll see my FULL recommendation letters and evaluation forms. This includes recommendations from two teachers, one principal, and supplementary writers. Normally you don't get to see these letters because you waive access to them when applying. You'll see how effective strong teacher advocates will be to your college application, and why it's so important to build strong relationships with your letter writers .
  • You'll see the exact pen marks made by my Harvard admissions reader on my application . Members of admissions committees consider thousands of applications every year, which means they highlight the pieces of each application they find noteworthy. You'll see what the admissions officer considered important—and what she didn't.

For every piece of my application, I'll provide commentary on what made it so effective and my strategies behind creating it. You'll learn what it takes to build a compelling overall application.

Importantly, even though my application was strong, it wasn't perfect. I'll point out mistakes I made that I could have corrected to build an even stronger application.

Here's a complete table of contents for what we'll be covering. Each link goes directly to that section, although I'd recommend you read this from beginning to end on your first go.

Common Application

Personal Data

Educational data, test information.

  • Activities: Extracurricular, Personal, Volunteer
  • Short Answer
  • Additional Information

Academic Honors

Personal statement, teacher and counselor recommendations.

  • Teacher Letter #1: AP Chemistry
  • Teacher Letter #2: AP English Lang

School Report

  • Principal Recommendation

Harvard Application Supplement

  • Supplement Form
  • Writing Supplement Essay

Supplementary Recommendation #1

Supplementary recommendation #2, supplemental application materials.

Final Advice for You

I mean it—you'll see literally everything in my application.

In revealing my teenage self, some parts of my application will be pretty embarrassing (you'll see why below). But my mission through my company PrepScholar is to give the world the most helpful resources possible, so I'm publishing it.

One last thing before we dive in—I'm going to anticipate some common concerns beforehand and talk through important disclaimers so that you'll get the most out of this guide.

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Important Disclaimers

My biggest caveat for you when reading this guide: thousands of students get into Harvard and Ivy League schools every year. This guide tells a story about one person and presents one archetype of a strong applicant. As you'll see, I had a huge academic focus, especially in science ( this was my Spike ). I'm also irreverent and have a strong, direct personality.

What you see in this guide is NOT what YOU need to do to get into Harvard , especially if you don't match my interests and personality at all.

As I explain in my Harvard guide , I believe I fit into one archetype of a strong applicant—the "academic superstar" (humor me for a second, I know calling myself this sounds obnoxious). There are other distinct ways to impress, like:

  • being world-class in a non-academic talent
  • achieving something difficult and noteworthy—building a meaningful organization, writing a novel
  • coming from tremendous adversity and performing remarkably well relative to expectations

Therefore, DON'T worry about copying my approach one-for-one . Don't worry if you're taking a different number of AP courses or have lower test scores or do different extracurriculars or write totally different personal statements. This is what schools like Stanford and Yale want to see—a diversity in the student population!

The point of this guide is to use my application as a vehicle to discuss what top colleges are looking for in strong applicants. Even though the specific details of what you'll do are different from what I did, the principles are the same. What makes a candidate truly stand out is the same, at a high level. What makes for a super strong recommendation letter is the same. The strategies on how to build a cohesive, compelling application are the same.

There's a final reason you shouldn't worry about replicating my work—the application game has probably changed quite a bit since 2005. Technology is much more pervasive, the social issues teens care about are different, the extracurricular activities that are truly noteworthy have probably gotten even more advanced. What I did might not be as impressive as it used to be. So focus on my general points, not the specifics, and think about how you can take what you learn here to achieve something even greater than I ever did.

With that major caveat aside, here are a string of smaller disclaimers.

I'm going to present my application factually and be 100% straightforward about what I achieved and what I believed was strong in my application. This is what I believe will be most helpful for you. I hope you don't misinterpret this as bragging about my accomplishments. I'm here to show you what it took for me to get into Harvard and other Ivy League schools, not to ask for your admiration. So if you read this guide and are tempted to dismiss my advice because you think I'm boasting, take a step back and focus on the big picture—how you'll improve yourself.

This guide is geared toward admissions into the top colleges in the country , often with admissions rates below 10%. A sample list of schools that fit into this: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, MIT, UChicago, Duke, UPenn, CalTech, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, Northwestern, Brown. The top 3-5 in that list are especially looking for the absolute best students in the country , since they have the pick of the litter.

Admissions for these selective schools works differently from schools with >20% rates. For less selective schools, having an overall strong, well-rounded application is sufficient for getting in. In particular, having an above average GPA and test scores goes the majority of the way toward getting you admission to those schools. The higher the admission rate, the more emphasis will be placed on your scores. The other pieces I'll present below—personal statements, extracurriculars, recommendations—will matter less.

Still, it doesn't hurt to aim for a stronger application. To state the obvious, an application strong enough to get you Columbia will get you into UCLA handily.

In my application, I've redacted pieces of my application for privacy reasons, and one supplementary recommendation letter at the request of the letter writer. Everything else is unaltered.

Throughout my application, we can see marks made by the admissions officer highlighting and circling things of note (you'll see the first example on the very first page). I don't have any other applications to compare these to, so I'm going to interpret these marks as best I can. For the most part, I assume that whatever he underlines or circles is especially important and noteworthy —points that he'll bring up later in committee discussions. It could also be that the reader got bored and just started highlighting things, but I doubt this.

Finally, I co-founded and run a company called PrepScholar . We create online SAT/ACT prep programs that adapt to you and your strengths and weaknesses . I believe we've created the best prep program available, and if you feel you need to raise your SAT/ACT score, then I encourage you to check us out . I want to emphasize that you do NOT need to buy a prep program to get a great score , and the advice in this guide has little to do with my company. But if you're aren't sure how to improve your score and agree with our unique approach to SAT/ACT prep, our program may be perfect for you.

With all this past us, let's get started.

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The #1 Most Important College Application Question: What Is Your PERSONAL NARRATIVE?

If you stepped into an elevator with Yale's Dean of Admissions and you had ten seconds to describe yourself and why you're interesting, what would you say?

This is what I call your PERSONAL NARRATIVE. These are the three main points that represent who you are and what you're about . This is the story that you tell through your application, over and over again. This is how an admissions officer should understand you after just glancing through your application. This is how your admissions officer will present you to the admissions committee to advocate for why they should accept you.

The more unique and noteworthy your Personal Narrative is, the better. This is how you'll stand apart from the tens of thousands of other applicants to your top choice school. This is why I recommend so strongly that you develop a Spike to show deep interest and achievement. A compelling Spike is the core of your Personal Narrative.

Well-rounded applications do NOT form compelling Personal Narratives, because "I'm a well-rounded person who's decent at everything" is the exact same thing every other well-rounded person tries to say.

Everything in your application should support your Personal Narrative , from your course selection and extracurricular activities to your personal statements and recommendation letters. You are a movie director, and your application is your way to tell a compelling, cohesive story through supporting evidence.

Yes, this is overly simplistic and reductionist. It does not represent all your complexities and your 17 years of existence. But admissions offices don't have the time to understand this for all their applicants. Your PERSONAL NARRATIVE is what they will latch onto.

Here's what I would consider my Personal Narrative (humor me since I'm peacocking here):

1) A science obsessive with years of serious research work and ranked 6 th in a national science competition, with future goals of being a neuroscientist or physician

2) Balanced by strong academic performance in all subjects (4.0 GPA and perfect test scores, in both humanities and science) and proficiency in violin

3) An irreverent personality who doesn't take life too seriously, embraces controversy, and says what's on his mind

These three elements were the core to my application. Together they tell a relatively unique Personal Narrative that distinguishes me from many other strong applicants. You get a surprisingly clear picture of what I'm about. There's no question that my work in science was my "Spike" and was the strongest piece of my application, but my Personal Narrative included other supporting elements, especially a description of my personality.

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My College Application, at a High Level

Drilling down into more details, here's an overview of my application.

  • This put me comfortably in the 99 th percentile in the country, but it was NOT sufficient to get me into Harvard by itself ! Because there are roughly 4 million high school students per year, the top 1 percentile still has 40,000 students. You need other ways to set yourself apart.
  • Your Spike will most often come from your extracurriculars and academic honors, just because it's hard to really set yourself apart with your coursework and test scores.
  • My letters of recommendation were very strong. Both my recommending teachers marked me as "one of the best they'd ever taught." Importantly, they corroborated my Personal Narrative, especially regarding my personality. You'll see how below.
  • My personal statements were, in retrospect, just satisfactory. They represented my humorous and irreverent side well, but they come across as too self-satisfied. Because of my Spike, I don't think my essays were as important to my application.

Finally, let's get started by digging into the very first pages of my Common Application.

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There are a few notable points about how simple questions can actually help build a first impression around what your Personal Narrative is.

First, notice the circle around my email address. This is the first of many marks the admissions officer made on my application. The reason I think he circled this was that the email address I used is a joke pun on my name . I knew it was risky to use this vs something like [email protected], but I thought it showed my personality better (remember point #3 about having an irreverent personality in my Personal Narrative).

Don't be afraid to show who you really are, rather than your perception of what they want. What you think UChicago or Stanford wants is probably VERY wrong, because of how little information you have, both as an 18-year-old and as someone who hasn't read thousands of applications.

(It's also entirely possible that it's a formality to circle email addresses, so I don't want to read too much into it, but I think I'm right.)

Second, I knew in high school that I wanted to go into the medical sciences, either as a physician or as a scientist. I was also really into studying the brain. So I listed both in my Common App to build onto my Personal Narrative.

In the long run, both predictions turned out to be wrong. After college, I did go to Harvard Medical School for the MD/PhD program for 4 years, but I left to pursue entrepreneurship and co-founded PrepScholar . Moreover, in the time I did actually do research, I switched interests from neuroscience to bioengineering/biotech.

Colleges don't expect you to stick to career goals you stated at the age of 18. Figuring out what you want to do is the point of college! But this doesn't give you an excuse to avoid showing a preference. This early question is still a chance to build that Personal Narrative.

Thus, I recommend AGAINST "Undecided" as an area of study —it suggests a lack of flavor and is hard to build a compelling story around. From your high school work thus far, you should at least be leaning to something, even if that's likely to change in the future.

Finally, in the demographic section there is a big red A, possibly for Asian American. I'm not going to read too much into this. If you're a notable minority, this is where you'd indicate it.

Now known as: Education

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This section was straightforward for me. I didn't take college courses, and I took a summer chemistry class at a nearby high school because I didn't get into the lottery at my school that year (I refer to this briefly in my 4.0 GPA guide ).

The most notable point of this section: the admissions officer circled Principal here . This is notable because our school Principal only wrote letters for fewer than 10 students each year. Counselors wrote letters for the other hundreds of students in my class, which made my application stand out just a little.

I'll talk more about this below, when I share the Principal's recommendation.

(In the current Common Application, the Education section also includes Grades, Courses, and Honors. We'll be covering each of those below).

Now known as: Testing

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Back then AP scores weren't part of this section, but I'll take them from another part of my application here.

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However, their standards are still very high. You really do want to be in that top 1 percentile to pass the filter. A 1400 on the SAT IS going to put you at a disadvantage because there are so many students scoring higher than you. You'll really have to dig yourself out of the hole with an amazing application.

I talk about this a lot more in my Get into Harvard guide (sorry to keep linking this, but I really do think it's an important guide for you to read).

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points?   We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download them for free now:

Let's end this section with some personal notes.

Even though math and science were easy for me, I had to put in serious effort to get an 800 on the Reading section of the SAT . As much as I wish I could say it was trivial for me, it wasn't. I learned a bunch of strategies and dissected the test to get to a point where I understood the test super well and reliably earned perfect scores.

I cover the most important points in my How to Get a Perfect SAT Score guide , as well as my 800 Guides for Reading , Writing , and Math .

Between the SAT and ACT, the SAT was my primary focus, but I decided to take the ACT for fun. The tests were so similar that I scored a 36 Composite without much studying. Having two test scores is completely unnecessary —you get pretty much zero additional credit. Again, with one test score, you have already passed their filter.

Finally, class finals or state-required exams are a breeze if you get a 5 on the corresponding AP tests .

Now known as: Family (still)

This section asks for your parent information and family situation. There's not much you can do here besides report the facts.

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I'm redacting a lot of stuff again for privacy reasons.

The reader made a number of marks here for occupation and education. There's likely a standard code for different types of occupations and schools.

If I were to guess, I'd say that the numbers add to form some metric of "family prestige." My dad got a Master's at a middle-tier American school, but my mom didn't go to graduate school, and these sections were marked 2 and 3, respectively. So it seems higher numbers are given for less prestigious educations by your parents. I'd expect that if both my parents went to schools like Caltech and Dartmouth, there would be even lower numbers here.

This makes me think that the less prepared your family is, the more points you get, and this might give your application an extra boost. If you were the first one in your family to go to college, for example, you'd be excused for having lower test scores and fewer AP classes. Schools really do care about your background and how you performed relative to expectations.

In the end, schools like Harvard say pretty adamantly they don't use formulas to determine admissions decisions, so I wouldn't read too much into this. But this can be shorthand to help orient an applicant's family background.

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Extracurricular, Personal, and Volunteer Activities

Now known as: Activities

For most applicants, your Extracurriculars and your Academic Honors will be where you develop your Spike and where your Personal Narrative shines through. This was how my application worked.

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Just below I'll describe the activities in more detail, but first I want to reflect on this list.

As instructed, my extracurriculars were listed in the order of their interest to me. The current Common App doesn't seem to ask for this, but I would still recommend it to focus your reader's attention.

The most important point I have to make about my extracurriculars: as you go down the list, there is a HUGE drop in the importance of each additional activity to the overall application. If I were to guess, I assign the following weights to how much each activity contributed to the strength of my activities section:

In other words, participating in the Research Science Institute (RSI) was far more important than all of my other extracurriculars, combined. You can see that this was the only activity my admissions reader circled.

You can see how Spike-y this is. The RSI just completely dominates all my other activities.

The reason for this is the prestige of RSI. As I noted earlier, RSI was (and likely still is) the most prestigious research program for high school students in the country, with an admission rate of less than 5% . Because the program was so prestigious and selective, getting in served as a big confirmation signal of my academic quality.

In other words, the Harvard admissions reader would likely think, "OK, if this very selective program has already validated Allen as a top student, I'm inclined to believe that Allen is a top student and should pay special attention to him."

Now, it took a lot of prior work to even get into RSI because it's so selective. I had already ranked nationally in the Chemistry Olympiad (more below), and I had done a lot of prior research work in computer science (at Jisan Research Institute—more about this later). But getting into RSI really propelled my application to another level.

Because RSI was so important and was such a big Spike, all my other extracurriculars paled in importance. The admissions officer at Princeton or MIT probably didn't care at all that I volunteered at a hospital or founded a high school club .

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This is a good sign of developing a strong Spike. You want to do something so important that everything else you do pales in comparison to it. A strong Spike becomes impossible to ignore.

In contrast, if you're well-rounded, all your activities hold equal weight—which likely means none of them are really that impressive (unless you're a combination of Olympic athlete, internationally-ranked science researcher, and New York Times bestselling author, but then I'd call you unicorn because you don't exist).

Apply this concept to your own interests—what can be so impressive and such a big Spike that it completely overshadows all your other achievements?

This might be worth spending a disproportionate amount of time on. As I recommend in my Harvard guide and 4.0 GPA guide , smartly allocating your time is critical to your high school strategy.

In retrospect, one "mistake" I made was spending a lot of time on the violin. Each week I spent eight hours on practice and a lesson and four hours of orchestra rehearsals. This amounted to over 1,500 hours from freshman to junior year.

The result? I was pretty good, but definitely nowhere near world-class. Remember, there are thousands of orchestras and bands in the country, each with their own concertmasters, drum majors, and section 1 st chairs.

If I were to optimize purely for college applications, I should have spent that time on pushing my spike even further —working on more Olympiad competitions, or doing even more hardcore research.

Looking back I don't mind this much because I generally enjoyed my musical training and had a mostly fun time in orchestra (and I had a strong Spike anyway). But this problem can be a lot worse for well-rounded students who are stretched too thin.

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Aside from these considerations about a Spike, I have two major caveats.

First, developing a Spike requires continuous, increasingly ambitious foundational work. It's like climbing a staircase. From the beginning of high school, each step was more and more ambitious—my first academic team, my first research experience, leading up to state and national competitions and more serious research work.

So when I suggest devoting a lot of time to developing your Spike, it's not necessarily the Spike in itself—it's also spending time on foundational work leading up to what will be your major achievement. That's why I don't see my time with academic teams or volunteering as wasted, even though in the end they didn't contribute as much to my application.

Second, it is important to do things you enjoy. I still enjoyed playing the violin and being part of an orchestra, and I really enjoyed my school's academic teams, even though we never went beyond state level. Even if some activities don't contribute as much to your application, it's still fine to spend some time on them—just don't delude yourself into thinking they're stronger than they really are and overspend time on them.

Finally, note that most of my activities were pursued over multiple years. This is a good sign of commitment—rather than hopping from activity year to year, it's better to show sustained commitment, as this is a better signal of genuine passion.

In a future article, I'll break down these activities in more detail. But this guide is already super long, so I want to focus our attention on the main points.

Short Answer: Extracurricular Activities

In today's Common Application, you have 50 characters to describe "Position/Leadership description and organization name" and 150 characters for "Please describe this activity, including what you accomplished and any recognition you received, etc."

Back then, we didn't have as much space per activity, and instead had a short answer question.

The Short Answer prompt:

Please describe which of your activities (extracurricular and personal activities or work experience) has been most meaningful and why.

I chose RSI as my most significant activity for two reasons—one based on the meaning of the work, and another on the social aspect.

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It's obvious that schools like Yale and UChicago want the best students in the world that they can get their hands on. Academic honors and awards are a great, quantifiable way to show that.

Here's the complete list of Academic Honors I submitted. The Common Application now limits you to five honors only (probably because they got tired of lists like these), but chances are you capture the top 98% of your honors with the top five.

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Charlie wins a Golden Ticket to Harvard.

I know this is intimidating if you don't already have a prestigious honor. But remember there are thousands of nationally-ranked people in a multitude of honor types, from science competitions to essay contests to athletics to weird talents.

And I strongly believe the #1 differentiator of high school students who achieve things is work ethic, NOT intelligence or talent. Yes, you need a baseline level of competence to get places, but people far undervalue the progress they can make if they work hard and persevere. Far too many people give up too quickly or fatigue without putting in serious effort.

If you're stuck thinking, "well I'm just an average person, and there's no way I'm going to become world-class in anything," then you've already lost before you've begun. The truth is everyone who achieves something of note puts in an incredible amount of hard work. Because this is invisible to you, it looks like talent is what distinguishes the two of you, when really it's much more often diligence.

I talk a lot more about the Growth Mindset in my How To Get a 4.0 GPA guide .

So my Chemistry Olympiad honor formed 90% of the value of this page. Just like extracurriculars, there's a quick dropoff in value of each item after that.

My research work took up the next two honors, one a presentation at an academic conference, and the other (Siemens) a research competition for high school researchers.

The rest of my honors were pretty middling:

  • National Merit Scholarship semifinalist pretty much equates to PSAT score, which is far less important than your SAT/ACT score. So I didn't really get any credit for this, and you won't either.
  • In Science Olympiad (this is a team-based competition that's not as prestigious as the academic Olympiads I just talked about), I earned a number of 1 st place state and regional medals, but we never made it to nationals.
  • I was mediocre at competition math because I didn't train for it, and I won some regional awards but nothing amazing. This is one place I would have spent more time, maybe in the time I'd save by not practicing violin as much. There are great resources for this type of training, like Art of Problem Solving , that I didn't know existed and could've helped me rank much higher.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, think about how many state medalists there are in the country, in the hundreds of competitions that exist . The number of state to national rankers is probably at least 20:1 (less than 50:1 because of variation in state size), so if there are 2,000 nationally ranked students, there are 40,000 state-ranked students in something !

So state honors really don't help you stand out on your Princeton application. There are just too many of them around.

On the other hand, if you can get to be nationally ranked in something, you will have an amazing Spike that distinguishes you.

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Now known as: Personal Essay

Now, the dreaded personal statement. Boy, oh boy, did I fuss over this one.

"What is the perfect combination of personal, funny, heartrending, and inspirational?"

I know I was wondering this when I applied.

Having read books like 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays , I was frightened. I didn't grow up as a refugee, wrenched from my war-torn home! I didn't have a sibling with a debilitating illness! How could anything I write compare to these tales of personal strength?

The trite truth is that colleges want to know who you really are . Clearly they don't expect everyone to have had immense personal struggle. But they do want students who are:

  • growth-oriented
  • introspective
  • kind and good-hearted

Whatever those words mean to you in the context of your life is what you should write about.

In retrospect, in the context of MY application, the personal statement really wasn't what got me into Harvard . I do think my Spike was nearly sufficient to get me admitted to every school in the country.

I say "nearly" because, even if you're world-class, schools do want to know you're not a jerk and that you're an interesting person (which is conveyed through your personal essay and letters of recommendation).

Back then, we had a set of different prompts :

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What did you think?

I'm still cringing a bit. Parts of this are very smug (see /r/iamverysmart ), and if you want to punch the writer in the face, I don't blame you. I want to as well.

We'll get to areas of improvement later, but first, let's talk about what this personal essay did well.

As I said above, I saw the theme of the snooze button as a VEHICLE to showcase a few qualities I cared about :

1) I fancied myself a Renaissance man (obnoxious, I know) and wanted to become an inventor and creator . I showed this through mentioning different interests (Rubik's cube, chemistry, Nietzsche) and iterating through a few designs for an alarm clock (electric shocks, explosions, Shakespearean sonnet recitation).

2) My personality was whimsical and irreverent. I don't take life too seriously. The theme of the essay—battling an alarm clock—shows this well, in comparison to the gravitas of the typical student essay. I also found individual lines funny, like "All right, so I had violated the divine honor of the family and the tenets of Confucius." At once I acknowledge my Chinese heritage but also make light of the situation.

3) I was open to admitting weaknesses , which I think is refreshing among people taking college applications too seriously and trying too hard to impress. The frank admission of a realistic lazy habit—pushing the Snooze button—served as a nice foil to my academic honors and shows that I can be down-to-earth.

So you see how the snooze button acts as a vehicle to carry these major points and a lot of details, tied together to the same theme .

In the same way, The Walking Dead is NOT a zombie show—the zombie environment is a VEHICLE by which to show human drama and conflict. Packaging my points together under the snooze button theme makes it a lot more interesting than just outright saying "I'm such an interesting guy."

So overall, I believe the essay accomplishes my goals and the main points of what I wanted to convey about myself.

Note that this is just one of many ways to write an essay . It worked for me, but it may be totally inappropriate for you.

Now let's look at this essay's weaknesses.

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Looking at it with a more seasoned perspective, some parts of it are WAY too try-hard. I try too hard to show off my breadth of knowledge in a way that seems artificial and embellishing.

The entire introduction with the Rubik's cube seems bolted on, just to describe my long-standing desire to be a Renaissance man. Only three paragraphs down do I get to the Snooze button, and I don't refer again to the introduction until the end. With just 650 words, I could have made the essay more cohesive by keeping the same theme from beginning to end.

Some phrases really make me roll my eyes. "Always hungry for more" and "ever the inventor" sound too forced and embellishing. A key principle of effective writing is to show, not say . You don't say "I'm passionate about X," you describe what extraordinary lengths you took to achieve X.

The mention of Nietzsche is over-the-top. I mean, come on. The reader probably thought, "OK, this kid just read it in English class and now he thinks he's a philosopher." The reader would be right.

The ending: "with the extra nine minutes, maybe I'll teach myself to cook fried rice" is silly. Where in the world did fried rice come from? I meant it as a nod to my Chinese heritage, but it's too sudden to work. I could have deleted the sentence and wrapped up the essay more cleanly.

So I have mixed feelings of my essay. I think it accomplished my major goals and showed the humorous, irreverent side of my personality well. However, it also gave the impression of a kid who thought he knew more than he did, a pseudo-sophisticate bordering on obnoxious. I still think it was a net positive.

At the end of the day, I believe the safest, surefire strategy is to develop a Spike so big that the importance of the Personal Essay pales in comparison to your achievements. You want your Personal Essay to be a supplement to your application, not the only reason you get in.

There are probably some cases where a well-rounded student writes an amazing Personal Essay and gets in through the strength of that. As a Hail Mary if you're a senior and can't improve your application further, this might work. But the results are very variable—some readers may love your essay, others may just think it's OK. Without a strong application to back it up, your mileage may vary.

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This is a really fun section. Usually you don't get to read your letter of recommendation because you sign the FERPA waiver. I've also reached out to my letter writers to make sure they're ok with my showing this.

Teacher recommendations are incredibly important to your application. I would say that after your coursework/test scores and activities/honors, they're the 3 rd most important component of your application .

The average teacher sees thousands of students through a career, and so he or she is very well equipped to position you relative to all other students. Furthermore, your teachers are experienced adults—their impressions of you are much more reliable than your impressions of yourself (see my Personal Essay above). They can corroborate your entire Personal Narrative as an outside observer.

The most effective recommendation letters speak both to your academic strengths and to your personality. For the second factor, the teacher needs to have interacted with you meaningfully, ideally both in and out of class. Check out our guide on what makes for effective letters of recommendation .

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Starting from sophomore year, I started thinking about whom I connected better with and chose to engage with those teachers more deeply . Because it's standard for colleges to require two teachers in different subjects, I made sure to engage with English and history teachers as well as math and science.

The minimum requirement for a good letter is someone who taught a class in which you did well. I got straight A's in my coursework, so this wasn't an issue.

Beyond this, I had to look for teachers who would be strong advocates for me on both an academic and personal level . These tended to be teachers I vibed more strongly with, and typically these were teachers who demonstrably cared about teaching. This was made clear by their enthusiasm, how they treated students, and how much they went above expectations to help.

I had a lot of teachers who really just phoned it in and treated their job perfunctorily—these people are likely to write pretty blasé letters.

A final note before reading my actual teacher evaluations— you should avoid getting in the mindset where you get to know teachers JUST because you want a good recommendation letter . Your teachers have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of students pass through, and it's much easier to detect insincerity than you think.

If you honestly like learning and are an enthusiastic, responsible, engaging student, a great recommendation letter will follow naturally. The horse should lead the cart.

Read my How to Get a 4.0 GPA for tips on how to interact with teachers in a genuine way that'll make them love you.

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Teacher Letter #1: AP Chemistry Teacher

I took AP Chemistry in 10 th grade and had Miss Cherryl Vorak (now Mynster). She was young, having taught for fewer than 5 years when I had her. She was my favorite teacher throughout high school for these reasons:

  • She was enthusiastic, very caring, and spent a lot of time helping struggling students. She exuded pride in her work and seemed to consider teaching her craft.
  • She had a kind personality and was universally well liked by her students, even if they weren't doing so well. She was fair in her policies (it probably helped that science is more objective than English). She was also a younger teacher, and this helped her relate to kids more closely.
  • She was my advocate for much of the US National Chemistry Olympiad stuff, and in this capacity I got to know her even better outside of class. She provided me a lot of training materials, helped me figure out college chemistry, and directed me to resources to learn more.

By the time of the letter writing, I had known her for two full years and engaged with her continuously, even when I wasn't taking a class with her in junior year. We'd build up a strong relationship over the course of many small interactions.

All of this flowed down to the recommendation you see here. Remember, the horse leads the cart.

First, we'll look at the teacher evaluation page. The Common Application now has 16 qualities to rate, rather than the 10 here. But they're largely the same.

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You can see a very strong evaluation here, giving me the highest ratings possible for all qualities.

In today's Common Application, all of these Ratings are retained, aside from "Potential for Growth." Today's Common App also now includes Faculty Respect, Maturity, Leadership, Integrity, Reaction to Setbacks, Concern for Others, and TE Overall. You can tell that the updated Common App places a great emphasis on personality.

The most important point here: it is important to be ranked "One of the top few encountered in my career" for as many ratings as possible . If you're part of a big school, this is CRITICAL to distinguish yourself from other students. The more experienced and trustworthy the teacher, the more meaningful this is.

Again, it's a numbers game. Think about the 20,000+ high schools in the country housing 4 million+ high school students—how many people fit in the top 5% bucket?

Thus, being marked merely as Excellent (top 10%) is actually a negative rating , as far as admissions to top colleges is concerned. If you're in top 10%, and someone else with the SAME teacher recommender is being rated as "One of the top ever," it's really hard for the admissions officer to vouch for you over the other student.

You really want to make sure you're one of the best in your school class, if not one of the best the teacher has ever encountered. You'll see below how you can accomplish this.

Next, let's look at her letter.

As you read this, think— what are the interactions that would prompt the teacher to write a recommendation like this? This was a relationship built up in a period of over 2 years, with every small interaction adding to an overall larger impression.

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You can see how seriously they take the letter because of all the underlining . This admissions reader underlined things that weren't even underlined in my application, like my US National Chemistry Olympiad awards. It's one thing for a student to claim things about himself—it's another to have a teacher put her reputation on the line to advocate for her student.

The letter here is very strong for a multitude of reasons. First, the length is notable —most letters are just a page long, but this is nearly two full pages , single spaced. This indicates not just her overall commitment to her students but also of her enthusiastic support for me as an applicant.

The structure is effective: first Miss Vorak talks about my academic accomplishments, then about my personal qualities and interactions, then a summary to the future. This is a perfect blend of what effective letters contain .

On the micro-level, her diction and phrasing are precise and effective . She makes my standing clear with specific statements : "youngest student…top excelling student among the two sections" and "one of twenty students in the nation." She's clear about describing why my achievements are notable and the effort I put in, like studying college-level chemistry and studying independently.

When describing my personality, she's exuberant and fleshes out a range of dimensions: "conscientious, motivated and responsible," "exhibits the qualities of a leader," "actively seeks new experiences," "charismatic," "balanced individual with a warm personality and sense of humor." You can see how she's really checking off all the qualities colleges care about.

Overall, Miss Vorak's letter perfectly supports my Personal Narrative —my love for science, my overall academic performance, and my personality. I'm flattered and grateful to have received this support. This letter was important to complement the overall academic performance and achievements shown on the rest of my application.

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Teacher Letter #2: AP English Language Teacher

My second teacher Mrs. Swift was another favorite. A middle-aged, veteran English teacher, the best way I would describe her is "fiery." She was invigorating and passionate, always trying to get a rise out of students and push their thinking, especially in class discussions. Emotionally she was a reliable source of support for students.

First, the evaluation:

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You can see right away that her remarks are terser. She didn't even fill out the section about "first words that come to mind to describe this student."

You might chalk this up to my not being as standout of a student in her mind, or her getting inundated with recommendation letter requests after over a decade of teaching.

In ratings, you can see that I only earned 3 of the "one of the top in my career." There are a few explanations for this. As a teacher's career lengthens, it gets increasingly hard to earn this mark. I probably also didn't stand out as much as I did to my Chemistry teacher—most of my achievement was in science (which she wasn't closely connected to), and I had talented classmates. Regardless, I did appreciate the 3 marks she gave me.

Now, the letter. Once again, as you read this letter, think: what are the hundreds of micro-interactions that would have made a teacher write a letter like this?

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Overall, this letter is very strong. It's only one page long, but her points about my personality are the critical piece of this recommendation. She also writes with the flair of an English teacher:

"In other situations where students would never speak their minds, he showed no hesitation to voice questions, thoughts, and ideas."

"controversial positions often being the spark that set off the entire class"

"ability to take the quiet and shy student and actively engage"…"went out of my way to partner him with other students who needed"

"strength of conviction"…"raw, unbridled passion"…"He will argue on any topic that has touched a nerve."

These comments most support the personality aspect of my Personal Narrative—having an irreverent, bold personality and not being afraid of speaking my mind. She stops just short of making me sound obnoxious and argumentative. An experienced teacher vouching for this adds so much more weight than just my writing it about myself.

Teacher recommendations are some of the most important components of your application. Getting very strong letters take a lot of sustained, genuine interaction over time to build mutual trust and respect. If you want detailed advice on how to interact with teachers earnestly, check out my How to Get a 4.0 GPA and Better Grades guide .

Let's go to the final recommendation, from the school counselor.

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Now known as: School Report

The first piece of this is reporting your academic status and how the school works overall. There's not much to say here, other than the fact that my Principal wrote my recommendation for me, which we'll get into next.

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Counselor Recommendation

Now known as: Counselor Recommendation

Let's talk about my school principal writing my recommendation, rather than a school counselor.

This was definitely advantageous—remember how, way up top in Educational Data, the reader circled the "Principal." Our Principal only wrote a handful of these recommendations each year , often for people who worked closely with him, like student body presidents. So it was pretty distinctive that I got a letter from our Principal, compared to other leading applicants from my school.

This was also a blessing because our counseling department was terrible . Our school had nearly 1,000 students per grade, and only 1 counselor per grade. They were overworked and ornery, and because they were the gatekeepers of academic enrollment (like class selection and prerequisites), this led to constant frictions in getting the classes you wanted.

I can empathize with them, because having 500+ neurotic parents pushing for advantages for their own kids can get REALLY annoying really fast. But the counseling department was still the worst part of our high school administration, and I could have guessed that the letters they wrote were mediocre because they just had too many students.

So how did my Principal come to write my recommendation and not those for hundreds of other students?

I don't remember exactly how this came to be, to be honest. I didn't strategize to have him write a letter for me years in advance. I didn't even interact with him much at all until junior year, when I got on his radar because of my national rankings. Come senior year I might have talked to him about my difficulty in reaching counselors and asked that he write my recommendation. Since I was a top student he was probably happy to do this.

He was very supportive, but as you can tell from the letter to come, it was clear he didn't know me that well.

Interestingly, the prompt for the recommendation has changed. It used to start with: "Please write whatever you think is important about this student."

Now, it starts with: " Please provide comments that will help us differentiate this student from others ."

The purpose of the recommendation has shifted to the specific: colleges probably found that one counselor was serving hundreds of students, so the letters started getting mushy and indistinguishable from each other.

Here's the letter:

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This letter is probably the weakest overall of all my letters. It reads more like a verbal resume than a personal account of how he understands me.

Unlike my two teacher recommendations, he doesn't comment on the nature of our interactions or about my personality (because he truly didn't understand them well). He also misreported by SAT score as 1530 instead of 1600 (I did score a 1530 in an early test, but my 1600 was ready by January 2004, so I don't know what source he was using).

Notably, the letter writer didn't underline anything.

I still appreciate that he wrote my letter, and it was probably more effective than a generic counselor letter. But this didn't add much to my application.

At this point, we've covered my entire Common Application. This is the same application I sent to every school I applied to, including Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford. Thanks for reading this far—I hope you've gotten a lot out of this already.

If you keep reading to the end, I'll have advice for both younger students and current applicants to build the strongest application possible.

Next, we'll go over the Harvard Supplemental Application, which of course is unique to Harvard.

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For most top colleges like Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and so on, you will need to complete a supplemental application to provide more info than what's listed on the Common Application.

Harvard was and is the same. The good news is that it's an extra chance for you to share more about yourself and keep pushing your Personal Narrative.

There are four major components here:

  • The application form
  • Writing supplement essay
  • Supplementary recommendations
  • Supplemental application materials

I'll take you through the application section by section.

Harvard Supplement Form

First, the straightforward info and questions.

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This section is pretty straightforward and is similar to what you'd see on a Columbia application.

I planned to live in a Harvard residence, as most students do.

Just as in my Common App, I noted that I was most likely to study biological sciences, choose Medicine as my vocation, and participate in orchestra, writing, and research as my extracurriculars. Nothing surprising here—it's all part of my Personal Narrative.

Interestingly, at the time I was "absolutely certain" about my vocational goals, which clearly took a detour once I left medical school to pursue entrepreneurship to create PrepScholar...

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I had the space to list some additional honors, where I listed some musical honors that didn't make the cut in my Common App.

Here are the next two pages of the Harvard supplemental form.

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The most interesting note here is that the admissions officer wrote a question mark above "Music tape or CD." Clearly this was inconsistent with my Personal Narrative —if violin was such an important part of my story, why didn't I want to include it?

The reason was that I was actually pretty mediocre at violin and was nowhere near national-ranked. Again, remember how many concertmasters in the thousands of orchestras there are in the world—I wasn't good enough to even be in the top 3 chairs in my school orchestra (violin was very competitive).

I wanted to focus attention on my most important materials, which for my Personal Narrative meant my research work. You'll see these supplementary materials later.

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Additional Essays

Now known as: Writing Supplement

For the most part, the Harvard supplemental essay prompt has stayed the same. You can write about a topic of your choice or about any of the suggestions. There are now two more prompts that weren't previously there: "What you would want your future college roommate to know about you" and "How you hope to use your college education."

Even though this is optional, I highly recommend you write something here. Again, you have so few chances in the overall application to convey your personal voice—an extra 500 words gives you a huge opportunity. I would guess that the majority of admitted Harvard students submit a Writing Supplement.

After a lot of brainstorming, I settled on the idea that I wanted to balance my application by writing about the major non-academic piece of my Personal Narrative—my music training . Also, I don't think I explicitly recognized this at the time, but I wanted to distance myself from the Asian-American stereotype—driven entirely by parent pressure, doing most things perfunctorily and without interest. I wanted to show I'd broken out of that mold.

Here's my essay:

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Reading it now, I actually think this was a pretty bad essay, and I cringe to high heaven. But once again, let's focus on the positive first.

I used my violin teacher as a vehicle for talking about what the violin meant to me. (You can tell I love the concept of the vehicle in essays.) He represented passion for the violin—I represented my academic priorities. Our personal conflict was really the conflict between what we represented.

By the end of the essay, I'd articulated the value of musical training to me—it was cathartic and a way to balance my hard academic pursuits.

Halfway in the essay, I also explicitly acknowledged the Asian stereotype of parents who drove their kids, and said my parents were no different. The reader underlined this sentence. By pointing this out and showing how my interest took on a life of its own, I wanted to distance myself from that stereotype.

So overall I think my aims were accomplished.

Despite all that, this essay was WAY overdramatic and overwrought . Some especially terrible lines:

"I was playing for that cathartic moment when I could feel Tchaikovsky himself looking over my shoulder."

"I was wandering through the fog in search of a lighthouse, finally setting foot on a dock pervaded by white light."

OK, please. Who really honestly feels this way? This is clumsy, contrived writing. It signals insincerity, actually, which is bad.

To be fair, all of this is grounded in truth. I did have a strict violin teacher who did get pretty upset when I showed lack of improvement. I did appreciate music as a diversion to round out my academic focus. I did practice hard each day, and I did have a pretty gross callus on my pinky.

But I would have done far better by making it more sincere and less overworked.

As an applicant, you're tempted to try so hard to impress your reader. You want to show that you're Worthy of Consideration. But really the best approach is to be honest.

I think this essay was probably neutral to my application, not a strong net positive or net negative.

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Supplementary Recommendations

Harvard lets you submit letters from up to two Other Recommenders. The Princeton application, Penn application, and others are usually the same.

Unlike the other optional components (the Additional Information in the Common App, and the Supplementary Essay), I would actually consider these letters optional. The reader gets most of the recommendation value from your teacher recommendations—these are really supplementary.

A worthwhile Other Recommender:

  • has supervised an activity or honor that is noteworthy
  • has interacted with you extensively and can speak to your personality
  • is likely to support you as one of the best students they've interacted with

If your Other Recommenders don't fulfill one or more of these categories, do NOT ask for supplementary letters. They'll dilute your application without adding substantively to it.

To beat a dead horse, the primary component of my Personal Narrative was my science and research work. So naturally I chose supervisors for my two major research experiences to write supplemental letters.

First was the Director of Research Science Institute (the selective summer research program at MIT). The second was from the head of Jisan Research Institute, where I did Computer Science research.

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This letter validates my participation in RSI and incorporates the feedback from my research mentor, David Simon. At the time, the RSI students were the most talented students I had met, so I'm also flattered by some of the things the letter writer said, like "Allen stood out early on as a strong performer in academic settings."

I didn't get to know the letter writer super well, so he commented mainly on my academic qualifications and comments from my mentor.

My mentor, who was at one of the major Harvard-affiliated hospitals, said some very nice things about my research ability, like:

"is performing in many ways at the level of a graduate student"

"impressed with Allen's ability to read even advanced scientific publications and synthesize his understanding"

Once again, it's much more convincing for a seasoned expert to vouch for your abilities than for you to claim your own abilities.

My first research experience was done at Jisan Research Institute, a small private computer science lab run by a Caltech PhD. The research staff were mainly high school students like me and a few grad students/postdocs.

My research supervisor, Sanza Kazadi, wrote the letter. He's requested that I not publish the letter, so I'll only speak about his main points.

In the letter, he focused on the quality of my work and leadership. He said that I had a strong focus in my work, and my research moved along more reliably than that of other students. I was independent in my work in swarm engineering, he says, putting together a simulation of the swarm and publishing a paper in conference proceedings. He talked about my work in leading a research group and placing a high degree of trust in me.

Overall, a strong recommendation, and you get the gist of his letter without reading it.

One notable point—both supplemental letters had no marks on them. I really think this means they place less emphasis on the supplementary recommendations, compared to the teacher recommendations.

Finally, finally, we get to the very last piece of my application.

Let me beat the dead horse even deader. Because research was such a core part of my Personal Narrative, I decided to include abstracts of both of my papers. The main point was to summarize the body of work I'd done and communicate the major results.

As Harvard says, "These materials are entirely optional; please only submit them if you have unusual talents."

This is why I chose not to submit a tape of my music: I don't think my musical skill was unusually good.

And frankly, I don't think my research work was that spectacular. Unlike some of my very accomplished classmates, I hadn't ranked nationally in prestigious competitions like ISEF and Siemens. I hadn't published my work in prominent journals.

Regardless, I thought these additions would be net positive, if only marginally so.

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I made sure to note where the papers had been published or were entering competitions, just to ground the work in some achievement.

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  • Recommendation Letters: Hopefully you should have developed strong, genuine relationships with teachers you care about. The letters should flow naturally from here, and you will only need to do gentle prodding to make sure they meet deadlines.
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    How to Write a Strong Letter of Recommendation for College

    personal essays for college admission examples

    If you’re a college counselor, coach, teacher, or mentor looking to support your college-bound students, chances are you’ve been asked to write a strong letter of recommendation. Stand-out letters of recommendation can give students a serious leg-up during college admissions. According to a 2024 post from Admit Report , college admissions officers will read as many as than 50,000 applications per admission cycle for a given university.

    With that much competition, it can take a lot to help your student stand out. So, what catches an admissions officer’s eye? Strong letters of recommendation.

    In that same survey, admissions counselors said letters of recommendation were more important to them than a student’s extracurricular activities, AP test scores, or even class rank. That means it’s worth putting a little extra effort into your next letter. Here’s how to write a college letter of recommendation that will blow the admission committee’s socks off. 

    Need more help? Check out Going Merry’s high school counselor hub for email templates, how-to’s, and other resources.

    Introduction

    The introduction is one of the most important parts of your letter. This is your chance to hook the reader and draw them in. Here’s how to ace one common recommendation letter format. 

    1. Open with a formal salutation

    Your letter of recommendation should begin like any business letter. Keep in mind that, while common, “Dear Sir or Madam,” can feel gendered or outdated. “To Whom It May Concern,” is acceptable but can feel a little impersonal. If you can, find out the name of the admissions director. If you can’t find a direct contact, simply address your letter to “Dear Admissions Counselor.” Be sure to type on your official letterhead to give your letter an even more professional look.  

    2. Introduce the student 

    Start your first paragraph with a sentence or two explaining how long you’ve known the student and in what capacity. Were you their baseball coach, English teacher, or high school counselor ? Explain how you met. If possible, use a little descriptive detail to bring this anecdote to life, and mention your first impressions of the student. It’s usually standard to use the student’s first and last name upon first mention, then refer to them by their first name going forward.

    3. Establish a personal connection 

    Next, add a sentence or two demonstrating your connection to the student. This is one of the most crucial parts of writing a strong college letter of recommendation. Admissions officers are looking for endorsements from people who really know the candidate well. If you don’t have a personal connection to the student that goes beyond simply being their teacher or counselor, that’s okay. Remember, you can always say no and encourage them to ask someone else to write their letter instead.

    One of the best ways to establish this connection and help a student stand out is to tell a memorable story that illustrates their character. Include an example of a time when their qualities or skills really shone. Maybe this is a story about how they stepped up in a leadership position, reacted well in a moment of success or failure, or went out of their way to help another student. Make sure it’s specific and personalized.

    Use this section to paint a picture of this young person and explain what makes them stand out. 

    1. Highlight the student’s achievements  

    Use the next paragraph to mention the student’s top accomplishments. Keep in mind that the admissions officer will already have the student’s resume and GPA in front of them, so don’t waste time listing a bunch of achievements. 

    Instead, mention a specific example or short anecdote that might add color to a prominent resume item. For example, the admissions officer probably already knows that your student is a varsity basketball player or a debate team captain. But if this is the hardest-working student-athlete you’ve ever coached or the most brilliant debater the school has ever seen, that’s worth a mention.

    Another tip: While it can be helpful to use a letter template , try to avoid using the same formula for every student on your list. College admissions officers are often assigned to a particular region. That means the same person will likely end up reading the same high school teachers’ or counselors’ letters year after year. If your letters are practically the same for each student, the admissions officer will notice.

    2. Speak to the student’s character 

    Now that you’ve mentioned a student’s successes, it’s time to explain what personal qualities led to such success. Try to make this part of the letter flow naturally from the previous section. 

    This is your chance to talk about the student’s hard work, magnetic personality, or aptitude for learning. That said, it’s best to avoid generic statements and clichés . The phrases “great work ethic,” and “strong team spirit” show up on thousands of letters each year. Instead, use concrete examples and descriptive detail to bring your student’s character traits to life. 

    Instead of “He’s thoughtful,” say “He’s capable of discussing even the most complex topics with humility and nuance.” Instead of “She’s intellectually curious,” say, “She thinks like a scientist, and over the last four years, she’s turned in such thoughtful lab assessments that sometimes I worried she was teaching me more than I was teaching her.” It’s that kind of vivid description and personalization that catches the attention of college admissions counselors. 

    Also be mindful of racial biases and gender biases in letter writing . If you’re not mindful, these unconscious biases can sneak into your letter and negatively color the admissions officer’s view of your student.

    3. Provide context 

    Praise doesn’t mean much without context. Be sure to benchmark your student’s achievements against those of their peers. This kind of context gives college admissions counselors a better understanding of the student’s abilities. It will be easier for them to make admissions decisions when they can clearly evaluate a student’s performance relative to others. 

    So, for example, a weak recommendation letter might state that a student “writes well and participates often in class.” A strong recommendation letter might say something like, “I’ve taught more than 2,000 students in my time as an educator and I’ve never met someone with such a knack for the written word. Many young people struggle to describe their inner world in vivid detail, but Henry succeeded in capturing both me and his classmates with his thoughtful, relatable prose.”

    Your final paragraph is your chance to remind your reader why this student is so unique and deserving of a spot at this particular school. Be sure to follow these general guidelines:  

    1. End on a positive note 

    Your final paragraph should provide a brief summary of your recommendation so far and express why you believe so strongly in this particular student’s likelihood of success. It’s standard to include your contact information in the conclusion in case the admissions office has any further questions for you. This could include your email or office phone number — whatever you’re comfortable providing.   

    2. Use a formal closing

    As with your opening, the closing of your letter should be professional and businesslike. “Best Regards,” is a common closing, though “Sincerely,” or “Respectfully,” will also work.

    Guidelines to follow as you write 

    Writing a strong letter of recommendation isn’t just about what you write – it’s how you write, too. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind.

    • Keep it relatively brief: The audience you’re writing for has to evaluate countless recommendation letters just like the one you’re writing. Be respectful of their time and try to keep your letter to around one page in length.
    • Be honest and balanced : While it’s important to emphasize the student’s positive qualities, it’s just important to be honest and balanced in your assessment. Avoid exaggerations or misleading statements.
    • Tailor the recommendation to the college: Do some research on the colleges the student is applying to and customize your letter accordingly. Highlight traits or experiences that align with the particular college’s values or programs. This shows that you’ve taken the time to understand the student’s goals and aspirations.
    • Avoid cliches: Steer clear of overused phrases and generic statements. Instead, provide original and thoughtful insights about the student.
    • Use professional language and tone : The admissions process is serious business. Maintain a professional tone throughout the letter and use appropriate language. Avoid slang or informal expressions.
    • Proofread and edit : Take the time to review and edit your letter carefully. Check for any spelling or grammatical errors, and ensure that the letter flows smoothly and is well-organized. Consider asking a colleague to proofread it when you’re done.
    • Follow the guidelines : If the college or university provides specific guidelines or requirements for the letter of recommendation, make sure to follow them closely. This may include details on formatting, submission methods, or specific questions to address.
    • Give yourself enough time to write: Writing a college letter of recommendation can take hours, days, or weeks depending on who you are and your relationship to the student. Give yourself plenty of time to sit down, write a draft, and revisit it to make sure it’s polished enough to submit. 

    Support your students with Going Merry 

    Letters of recommendation are one of the most critical parts of the college application process . That’s because the rest of a college application is pretty dry. Grades and ACT scores only say so much about a person, and colleges want to see more than just academic performance. 

    The best students are born leaders with courage, drive, and personality. A good letter can bring your student to life for an admissions committee and even help sway their decision. 

    As a high school counselor, you may write dozens — if not hundreds — of recommendation letters each year. Fortunately, Going Merry can help take the busywork off your plate so you focus on what matters. 

    With Going Merry’s high school counselor resource hub, you can find everything from free email templates and financial aid lesson plans, to thousands of scholarships sorted by amount, location, and eligibility requirements. Sign up now or schedule a demo to find out how Going Merry can streamline your workflow. 

    Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.

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    Personal Narrative: my Experience at Nova Community College

    This essay about the author’s experience at Nova Community College recounts their transformative journey of growth and discovery. It highlights the diverse perspectives encountered, the hands-on learning opportunities provided, and the supportive community that nurtured their academic and personal development. Through anecdotes and reflections, the essay emphasizes the importance of open-minded inquiry, experiential learning, and belonging in shaping the college experience.

    How it works

    My odyssey at Nova Community College has been an adventure teeming with discovery and growth, painting the canvas of my life with vibrant hues of knowledge and experience. As a fledgling scholar stepping onto the bustling campus grounds, I was greeted not just by the physical edifice of academia, but by a tapestry of diverse faces, each carrying their own story and dreams. In that kaleidoscope of humanity, I found not just classmates, but kindred spirits on a shared journey of exploration and self-realization.

    What struck me most profoundly during my time at Nova was the kaleidoscope of perspectives that colored every interaction, turning each classroom discussion into a symphony of contrasting ideas and beliefs. From the impassioned debates in political science to the soul-searching discussions in philosophy, I was constantly challenged to reassess my assumptions, broaden my horizons, and embrace the richness of human diversity. In that crucible of intellectual exchange, I discovered that true growth lies not in the echo chamber of conformity, but in the fertile soil of respectful discourse and open-minded inquiry.

    Moreover, Nova Community College served as a fertile ground for experiential learning, where theory and practice converged to create a holistic educational experience. Whether it was conducting experiments in the chemistry lab or immersing myself in community service projects, I found myself not just absorbing knowledge, but actively engaging with it in meaningful ways. These hands-on experiences not only deepened my understanding of academic concepts but also fostered the practical skills and confidence needed to navigate the complexities of the real world.

    Furthermore, what truly set Nova apart was its unwavering commitment to fostering a sense of belonging and support among its students. From the tireless dedication of faculty and staff to the camaraderie and solidarity among peers, I found myself enveloped in a nurturing community that embraced me for who I was and empowered me to become who I wanted to be. Whether it was seeking guidance from mentors or finding solace in the company of friends, I never felt alone on my journey through college.

    In conclusion, my experience at Nova Community College has been a transformative voyage of self-discovery, empowerment, and growth. From the kaleidoscope of perspectives to the hands-on learning opportunities and the supportive community, every aspect of my journey has left an indelible imprint on my mind and heart. As I prepare to set sail towards new horizons, I carry with me the lessons learned and the memories forged at Nova, knowing that they will continue to guide me on the path to realizing my dreams and aspirations.

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    6. Should You Talk About Mental Health in Your College Essays?

    COMMENTS

    1. 27 Outstanding College Essay Examples From Top Universities 2024

      This college essay tip is by Abigail McFee, Admissions Counselor for Tufts University and Tufts '17 graduate. 2. Write like a journalist. "Don't bury the lede!" The first few sentences must capture the reader's attention, provide a gist of the story, and give a sense of where the essay is heading.

    2. How to Write an Amazing Personal Statement (Includes Examples!)

      5. Use an authentic voice. Your personal statement reflects who you are, so you should use a tone that represents you. That means you shouldn't try to sound like someone else, and you shouldn't use fancy words just to show off. This isn't an academic paper, so you don't have to adopt a super formal tone.

    3. 10 Personal Statement Essay Examples That Worked

      Personal Statement Examples. Essay 1: Summer Program. Essay 2: Being Bangladeshi-American. Essay 3: Why Medicine. Essay 4: Love of Writing. Essay 5: Starting a Fire. Essay 6: Dedicating a Track. Essay 7: Body Image and Eating Disorders. Essay 8: Becoming a Coach.

    4. 177 College Essay Examples for 11 Schools + Expert Analysis

      With links to 177 full essays and essay excerpts, this article is a great resource for learning how to craft your own personal college admissions essay! What Excellent College Essays Have in Common Even though in many ways these sample college essays are very different from one other, they do share some traits you should try to emulate as you ...

    5. Common App Essays

      Prompt 2: Overcoming challenges. Prompt 3: Questioning a belief or idea. Prompt 4: Appreciating an influential person. Prompt 5: Transformative event. Prompt 6: Interest or hobby that inspires learning. Prompt 7: Free topic. Other interesting articles. Frequently asked questions about college application essays.

    6. How to Write a Personal Statement That Wows Colleges

      For example, the Common App Essay and Coalition Application Essay are examples of personal statements. Similarly, the ApplyTexas Essays and University of California Essays are also good examples. Personal statements in college admissions are generally not school-specific (those are called "supplemental essays").

    7. Personal Statement Examples

      How closely each of your college application essays is read will vary depending both on the school and the other components of your application. However, as more schools become test-optional, admission officers say that college essays are becoming even more important in the admissions process. ... In this personal essay example, the writer uses ...

    8. How to Write a College Essay

      Your college admissions essay accounts for about 25% of your application's total weight一and may account for even more with some colleges making the SAT and ACT tests optional. The college admissions essay may be the deciding factor in your application, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test ...

    9. How to Write About Yourself in a College Essay

      Good example. I peel off my varsity basketball uniform and jump into the shower to wash away my sweat, exhaustion, and anxiety. As the hot water relaxes my muscles from today's 50 suicide drills, I mull over what motivating words I should say to my teammates before next week's championship game against Westmont High.

    10. How to Write a Personal Statement (Tips + Essay Examples)

      In a great personal statement, we should be able to get a sense of what fulfills, motivates, or excites the author. These can be things like humor, beauty, community, and autonomy, just to name a few. So when you read back through your essay, you should be able to detect at least 4-5 different values throughout.

    11. Ultimate Guide to Writing Your College Essay

      Sample College Essay 2 with Feedback. This content is licensed by Khan Academy and is available for free at www.khanacademy.org. College essays are an important part of your college application and give you the chance to show colleges and universities your personality. This guide will give you tips on how to write an effective college essay.

    12. 14 College Essay Examples From Top-25 Universities (2024-2025)

      College essay example #1. This is a college essay that worked for Harvard University. (Suggested reading: How to Get Into Harvard Undergrad) This past summer, I had the privilege of participating in the University of Notre Dame's Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program .

    13. How to Write a Personal Statement

      Insert a quote from a well-known person. Challenge the reader with a common misconception. Use an anecdote, which is a short story that can be true or imaginary. Credibility is crucial when writing a personal statement as part of your college application process. If you choose a statistic, quote, or misconception for your hook, make sure it ...

    14. Essays That Worked

      The essays are a place to show us who you are and who you'll be in our community. It's a chance to add depth to something that is important to you and tell the admissions committee more about your background or goals. Below you'll find selected examples of essays that "worked," as nominated by our admissions committee.

    15. 21 Stellar Common App Essay Examples to Inspire Your College Essay

      Common App Essay Examples. Here are the current Common App prompts. Click the links to jump to the examples for a specific prompt, or keep reading to review the examples for all the prompts. Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without ...

    16. How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application

      Here are some tips to get you started. Start early. Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don't have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to ...

    17. College Personal Statement Examples and Writing Tips

      1. Personal statements give broad, comprehensive insights into your personal and academic background. Ultimately, your academic, personal, and even professional background can be the determining factor in your admission to any college program. But there's a big difference between a personal statement and resume or CV. 2.

    18. Examples of College Essays: 10 College Essays and Why They Worked

      A college essay is a piece of writing that responds to a given prompt, either on the Common App lication, Coalition Application, or on a school's individual application. College essays can range anywhere from 50 to 800 words. There are two main types of college essays: personal statements and supplemental essays.

    19. College Essay Examples

      Essay 1: Sharing an identity or background through a montage. Essay 2: Overcoming a challenge, a sports injury narrative. Essay 3: Showing the influence of an important person or thing. Other interesting articles. Frequently asked questions about college application essays.

    20. My Successful Harvard Application (Complete Common App

      In my complete analysis, I'll take you through my Common Application, Harvard supplemental application, personal statements and essays, extracurricular activities, teachers' letters of recommendation, counselor recommendation, complete high school transcript, and more. I'll also give you in-depth commentary on every part of my application.

    21. Personal Narrative: My Journey To Raritan Valley Community College

      Essay Example: As I reflect on my journey to Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC), I am reminded of the winding path that led me to this pivotal moment in my life. Like many others, my journey was filled with twists and turns, challenges and triumphs, and ultimately, a sense of purpose and

    22. How to Write a Strong Letter of Recommendation for College

      3. Establish a personal connection . Next, add a sentence or two demonstrating your connection to the student. This is one of the most crucial parts of writing a strong college letter of recommendation. Admissions officers are looking for endorsements from people who really know the candidate well.

    23. Personal Narrative: my Experience at Nova Community College

      This essay about the author's experience at Nova Community College recounts their transformative journey of growth and discovery. It highlights the diverse perspectives encountered, the hands-on learning opportunities provided, and the supportive community that nurtured their academic and personal development.

    24. Special Guest Dr. Jill Biden to Speak at Mesa Community College 2023

      The First Lady of the United States, Dr. Jill Biden, Ed.D. will deliver remarks as special guest speaker at Mesa Community College's (MCC) commencement ceremony on May 11, 2024. As a classroom teacher for more than 30 years, Dr. Biden is a long-time advocate for higher education, particularly community colleges. While serving as First Lady, Dr. Biden has continued teaching English and ...