Here’s a tip: Choose a topic you really want to write about. If the subject doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to the reader. Write about whatever keeps you up at night. That might be cars, or coffee. It might be your favorite book or the Pythagorean theorem. It might be why you don’t believe in evolution or how you think kale must have hired a PR firm to get people to eat it.
A good topic will be complex. In school, you were probably encouraged to write papers that took a side. That’s fine in academic work when you’re being asked to argue in support of a position, but in a personal essay, you want to express more nuanced thinking and explore your own clashing emotions. In an essay, conflict is good.
For example, “I love my mom. She’s my best friend. We share clothes and watch ‘The Real Housewives’ of three different cities together” does not make for a good essay. “I love my mom even though she makes me clean my room, hates my guinea pig and is crazy about disgusting food like kale” could lead somewhere
While the personal essay has to be personal, a reader can learn a lot about you from whatever you choose to focus on and how you describe it. One of my favorites from when I worked in admissions at Duke University started out, “My car and I are a lot alike.” The writer then described a car that smelled like wet dog and went from 0 to 60 in, well, it never quite got to 60.
Another guy wrote about making kimchi with his mom. They would go into the garage and talk, really talk: “Once my mom said to me in a thick Korean accent, ‘Every time you have sex, I want you to make sure and use a condo.’ I instantly burst into laughter and said, ‘Mom, that could get kind of expensive!’ ” A girl wrote about her feminist mother’s decision to get breast implants.
A car, kimchi, Mom’s upsizing — the writers used these objects as vehicles to get at what they had come to say. They allowed the writer to explore the real subject: This is who I am.
Don’t brag about your achievements. Instead, look at times you’ve struggled or, even better, failed. Failure is essayistic gold. Figure out what you’ve learned. Write about that. Be honest and say the hardest things you can. And remember those exhausted admissions officers sitting around a table in the winter. Jolt them out of their sugar coma and give them something to be excited about.
10 Things Students Should Avoid
REPEATING THE PROMPT Admissions officers know what’s on their applications. Don’t begin, “A time that I failed was when I tried to beat up my little brother and I realized he was bigger than me.” You can start right in: “As I pulled my arm back to throw a punch, it struck me: My brother had gotten big. Bigger than me.”
LEAVE WEBSTER’S OUT OF IT Unless you’re using a word like “prink” (primp) or “demotic” (popular) or “couloir” (deep gorge), you can assume your reader knows the definition of the words you’ve written. You’re better off not starting your essay with “According to Webster’s Dictionary . . . .”
THE EPIGRAPH Many essays start with a quote from another writer. When you have a limited amount of space, you don’t want to give precious real estate to someone else’s words.
YOU ARE THERE! When writing about past events, the present tense doesn’t allow for reflection. All you can do is tell the story. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. Some beginning writers think the present tense makes for more exciting reading. You’ll see this is a fallacy if you pay attention to how many suspenseful novels are written in past tense.
SOUND EFFECTSOuch! Thwack! Whiz! Whooooosh! Pow! Are you thinking of comic books? Certainly, good writing can benefit from a little onomatopoeia. Clunk is a good one. Or fizz. But once you start adding exclamation points, you’re wading into troubled waters. Do not start your essay with a bang!
ACTIVE BODY PARTS One way to make your reader giggle is to give body parts their own agency. When you write a line like “His hands threw up,” the reader might get a visual image of hands barfing. “My eyes fell to the floor.” Ick.
CLICHÉS THINK YOUR THOUGHTS FOR YOU Here’s one: There is nothing new under the sun. We steal phrases and ideas all the time. George Orwell’s advice: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
TO BE OR NOT TO BE Get rid of “to be” verbs. Replace “was” in “The essay was written by a student; it was amazing and delightful” and you’ll get: “The student’s essay amazed and delighted me.” We’ve moved from a static description to a sprightlier one and cut the word count almost in half.
WORD PACKAGES Some phrases — free gift, personal beliefs, final outcome, very unique — come in a package we don’t bother to unpack. They’re redundant.
RULES TO IGNORE In English class, you may have to follow a list of rules your teacher says are necessary for good grammar: Don’t use contractions. No sentence fragments. It’s imperative to always avoid split infinitives. Ending on a preposition is the sort of English up with which teachers will not put. And don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction like “and” or “but” or “because.” Pick up a good book. You’ll see that the best authors ignore these fussy, fusty rules.Continue reading the main story
Sure, you might know the theory behind what a college essay is supposed to sound and look like. But just like reading a description of the Golden Gate Bridge pales in comparison to seeing it in person, there’s no replacement for seeing actual college essays written by students just like you. Well, almost like you – they’ve since gotten into college.
But where do you find good sources for reading sample college essays? How can you make sure that these resources will actually strengthen and improve your writing? And what is the best way to use the college essay examples that you do find? In this article, I’ll go over the best books and websites for finding essays, I’ll point out a few to avoid, and I’ll explain how to make the most out of other people’s essays while avoiding common pitfalls.
Why Look At College Essay Examples?
There are some very good reasons for wanting to check out how other people have handled the college admissions essay.
First, because you'll be able to get a better sense of what colleges are looking for, you will necessarily broaden your own topic brainstorming past your first, easiest, and most clichéd ideas. It's one thing to hear that a completely mundane topic is way better than one focusing on your greatest sports moment. But once you see other students writing about a family meal, or an obsession with a particular board game, or a love of cultivating cacti, you'll be convinced to find your essay in the small moments of your life.
Second, you'll see how your life and writing compares to that of your peers. The great diversity of voices, topics, tones, points of view will show you just how many things you could possibly write about, and how to keep the essay connected to your personality and your voice.
Finally, if you really do have a good story to tell about something that gets written about a lot, like divorce, pet death, a community service trip, or winning the big game, you can get ideas for how to approach a potentially lackluster essay topic in a novel and striking way.
What Makes A Good Sample College Essay Resource?
First, the basics. A source is only as good as its content, so make sure you're reading college essays that worked, from people who actually got into the schools they applied to. Also, it's best to focus on new essays (not older than 10-15 years), so you are reading what has worked in the most recent past, rather than seeing outdated ideas and historical perspectives.
Next, what you really want is diversity in voice and perspective. Make sure the essays featured come from many different kinds of students: either from applicants to both top and lower-tier schools; or from students with different ethnic, economic, and racial backgrounds; or from writers using both formal and more experimental essay techniques.
Finally, the best sources of admission essays will feature explanatory material. This will give each essay some kind of context: commentary on what makes the essay good, explanations of the drafting process, or, at least, biographical information about students. Without commentary or context, it’s hard to know what you’re supposed to learn from the essays you read.
Looking at a bunch of identical koi isn't the best way to learn about freshwater fish varieties.
Where to Find Great College Essay Examples
Here are my recommendations for excellent resources, as well as some warnings about resources that I think you should avoid.
College Essays Collected in Books
I've taken a look at many of the books that collect college essays, so here are my recommendations. I've divided them into three categories:
- Excellent – meaning having really diverse essays or very helpful commentary on each essay, or both
- Worthwhile – meaning either a helpful collection of essays without a lot of context or commentary, or some great advice but a narrow selection of essays geared toward one particular type of school
- Don't Bother – not useful either as a source of college essays or as a source of essay-writing advice and explanations
Also, please note that although I’ve listed the Amazon prices for all the books, you should definitely check your school and public library for copies before buying them. And even if your library doesn't have a copy, ask them to request one either from another library in the same system or even from the Library of Congress through interlibrary loan.
Heavenly Essays: 50 Narrative College Application Essays That Worked
Written by Janine W. Robinson, who blogs about college essays at EssayHell, this book features great sample essays. But it's Robinson's precise and clear explanations of how to use a narrative style in your essay to tell a story about your life that make the book really outstanding. Through long and detailed commentary on each essay, Robinson shows why narrative is exactly the kind of structure that works best for personal essays. You can check out samplesections from the book on her blog. The book retails for $10 new on Amazon.
On Writing the College Application Essay, 25th Anniversary Edition: The Key to Acceptance at the College of Your Choice
Harry Bauld used to be an admissions officer at Brown, so he certainly knows what he is talking about when he writes about how and why to avoid clichés and explains how to find and keep your specific voice. Bauld demonstrates his points with sample essays, showing how they go from first to final draft. The book is easy to read, uses humor to make points, and his advice will carry over into your college writing as well. It is $12.50 new on Amazon, but there are much cheaper used copies available there as well.
The Berkeley Book of College Essays: Personal Statements for California Universities and Other Select Schools
This compilation features college admissions essays written by seniors from Berkeley High School (which is not affiliated with UC Berkeley). Because the city of Berkeley is economically, racially, and ethnically very diverse, these essays are about many different interests, perspectives, and experiences, and are written in many different styles and tones. Although there is no commentary for the essays, this collection is a great way to get a sense of the broad array of essay possibilities.
Also, because many of the students from Berkeley High apply to UC schools, this collection separates out UC application essay packages. (If you are interested in UC, also check out our own guide to writing excellent UC essays!) This book is currently $15 on Amazon.
50 Successful Harvard Application Essays: What Worked for Them Can Help You Get into the College of Your Choice
Edited by the staff of the Harvard Crimson, this is a great collection of essays from a not particularly diverse group of students. It is very useful to see how the very top students approach the college essay, as long as their best effort neither intimidates nor stymies you. The contextual material is excellent, with helpful explanations of what makes each essay work well. This book retails for $12 new on Amazon, with much cheaper used copies also available.
College Essays That Made a Difference, 6th Edition
This Princeton Review guide is mostly distinguished by its introductory material, which has detailed interviews with many different colleges at many different tiers about what role essays play in college applications, what kind of mistakes are okay, and what to write and not to write about. The sample essays themselves come without commentary, but each features a very short bio of the student, including test scores, GPA, a list of colleges where the person applied, and a list of colleges where the person got in. Right now, it's $11.50 new on Amazon, but there are cheaper used copies as well.
50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays
This collection of of college essays that worked, edited by Gen and Kelly Tanabe, has somewhat spare, but insightful, commentary explaining what each essay does well and what it could have done better. It also includes an interview with an admissions officer explaining how essays are used in admissions decisions and some comments from students about the writing process. The link above is to a downloadable PDF file.
50 Successful Stanford Application Essays: Get into Stanford and Other Top Colleges
If you like the Tanabes' approach (they are the authors of the previous book), then you will find this one useful as well. The narrow diversity of essay content and the style of commentary (thoughtful, but not particularly detailed or expansive) is very similar. It's priced at $13.25 new on Amazon with some used options as well.
Fiske Real College Essays That Work
The "Fiske" of the title is Edward Fiske, who used to be the Education editor of the NY Times, and who therefore has some experience with what colleges want from their applicants. The book itself features an introduction with some helpful essay-writing tips, a diverse selection of essays built around narrative, but unfortunately has very little commentary to go with each essay. It retails for $12.50 new on Amazon, with cheaper used options available.
2015 Elite College Application Essays
Although there's almost no commentary or discussion of what makes these essays work, this book is a reasonably good collection of essays from students who are now enrolled at Ivy and other top-tier schools. What's particularly appealing about this college essay compilation is how very new these essays are: all are from students who became freshmen in 2015. The book is $14 new on Amazon.
100 Successful College Application Essays
I'd recommend not spending your time on any of the editions of this collection. The essays are decades old in some cases, the topics are clichéd and boring, and there is little to no commentary to make any of them useful.
College Essays Published Online
I'll split my recommendations here into "worthwhile" and "don't bother" categories. There aren't any truly great collections of sample college essays online.
Individual College Websites. There are many essays published online by the various colleges where these students now go. This means these essays are guaranteed to be real, authentic, and to have worked on someone's application. Some of the essays even come with brief commentary by admissions officers about what makes them great. (The link will take you to our list of over 130 essays from more than 15 different colleges.)
Teen Ink Magazine. Teen Ink publishes all sorts of writing by teens, including college admission essays, which are split off into their own section on the site. The essays necessary feature a wide range of experiences and perspectives, so this is a great place to get a broad sense of what other students are writing about. The essays don't have any context except comment sections that run the gamut from generic “this is good” comments to some insight. Readers also get a chance to vote on which essays are featured as #1, #2, etc., which may be misleading because readers of Teen Ink aren't admissions officers.
Watch out for paid websites like AdmitSee, CollegeMapper, and Acceptional, which claim to give you access to college essays for a monthly or fixed fee. Because of the paywall, there's no way to verify the quality of the essays these sites have. Also, there are enough books that you could borrow from your library that you don’t need to pay monthly fees to these places. Finally, I would particularly stay away from AdmidSee, which uses Amazon reviews for other essay resources as a marketing platform.
Frogs piggybacking on each other? Super cute. A company piggybacking its advertising onto book reviews? Really not cute at all.
The Best Ways To Use College Admission Essay Samples
So now that you've rounded up a bunch of sample college essays, what should you do with them? Here are some tips for your next steps.
When Should You Read Essay Examples?
I'd advise waiting until after you've done some brainstorming of your own before you start immersing yourself in other people's work and ideas. (If you're not sure how to brainstorm, check out our guide to coming up with great college essay topics.)
This way, you can use other people’s essays to think about different possibilities for writing about your own topic. For example, looking at how other people tackled their life experience can show you:
- how to focus on a different detail in your own story
- how to change the insight you want to draw from your story
- how to think about different ways to start and end your narrative
What Can Good College Essays Teach You?
There are both broad and specific learning opportunities to be found in reading other people's work.
Broadly speaking, seeing how other people are approaching the problem of writing a college essay can jog your own creative process. Likewise, reading a diversity of thoughts and voices will show you that even the most normal and boring seeming experiences be made into riveting essays.
More specifically, if you find essays from applicants to your target school, you can get some sense of the level of sophistication they expect to see from your writing.
Finally, good context and commentary on the essays can show you how they are put together and what makes them work. You can then put this advice to use when rewriting your essay later.
Pitfalls To Avoid
Of course, being surrounded by other people's work, especially when some of that work is much better than what you think you can manage, has its share of temptations. So what do you need to guard against when looking at sample essays?
Plagiarism. This one is basic and obvious. Do not copy these sample essays! Admissions officers have seen them all, read them all, memorized them all – you will not get away with it.
Copying and mimicry. Think of this as a softer kind of plagiarism. Even if you really like someone else’s style, don’t borrow it. Even if someone’s life sounds more exciting than yours, don’t steal a piece of it for your own essay. Why? Because if you don’t sound like yourself, it will be visible to an experienced reader (and guess what, admissions officers are very experienced readers). Also, if you’re writing about experiences that aren't yours, your unfamiliarity will show through the lack of believable details.
Let this hand-in-the-alligator's-mouth image pop up in your brain every time you think about stealing someone else's work.
Resources for Essay Writing Advice
In researching this article, I came across books and websites that don't necessarily feature a lot of sample essays, but that give really excellent advice on writing your own college essay. I strongly recommend you spend some time checking them out.
Essay Hell blog. This great resource is written by Janine Anderson Robinson, an English teacher and a journalist, whose book Heavenly Essays I recommended above. The blog posts feature lots and lots of well-explained, detailed, easy to understand advice about how to write your essay, and are broken down into easy to understand, bite-sized nuggets of usefulness.
Slate's Getting In podcast. The entire series is an interesting look at the college application process, with useful tips and explanations about all aspects what seniors are going through. Check out Episode 2: The Essay, in which a student gets feedback in real time on their essay from a former Princeton director of admissions and a panel of experts talk about essay dos and don’ts. The episode is 26 minutes long.
The College Essay Trap: Rescue Your College Application Essay From the "Maybe" Pile
This is incredibly concise and excellent explanation of what not to do and what to avoid when writing your personal statement. It's short, sweet, to the point, and is praised to the skies by legendary Princeton admissions dean Fred Hargadon. Currently $12 new on Amazon.
The Bottom Line
- Look at college essay examples to broaden your own topic brainstorming and get ideas for fixing lackluster topics.
- Look for resources with diverse and recent essays, from many different kinds of students and with explanatory material that explains what makes each essay good.
- Look at essay samples after you’ve generated some of your own ideas to think about different possibilities for writing about your own topic.
- Seeing how other people are approaching the problem of writing a college essay can jog your creative process.
- Avoid both actual plagiarism and “borrowing”: don’t use someone else’s style, voice, or life experiences as your own.
If you’re starting to work on college essays, check out our article laying out every single kind of essay prompt out there and a step by step guide to writing a great college essay.
Are you working on the Common App essay? Read our breakdown of the Common App prompts and our guide to picking the best prompt for you.
Or maybe you're interested in the University of California? Check out our complete guide to the UC personal statements.
Working on other pieces of your college applications? We’ve got guides to choosing the right college for you, writing about extracurriculars, and requesting teacher recommendations.
Thinking about taking the SAT one last time, or prepping for your first run at it? Read our ultimate guide to studying for the SAT and make sure you're as prepared as possible.
Want to improve your SAT score by 240 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 it for free now: