For many high school students, writing an essay is one of the most daunting parts of the college application process, especially when students are unsure of each university’s expectations.
Going over top college essay examples is a great way for students to learn more about expectations for essay submissions. Check out these tips for ideas and inspiration, and read these example essays before getting started!
The Importance of Good Essay Writing
Being able to write a great essay is extremely important when applying for college, but the skills students use to write their essays don’t end with college applications. Writing skills are some of the most important, not only preparing students to write a top college essay, but they are preparing to write well for life.
College Admission Essay 1
Prompt:Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
Pushing through the hordes of people, I catch a glimpse of my train’s boarding check-ins. Like a captain frantically seeking a lighthouse in a storm, I haul myself across the ocean of human bodies, trying to stay afloat, to avoid being stranded – or trampled – in the dustiest city in the world: Beijing, capital of both China and smog.
Luckily, I find my train with plenty of time to spare, and without being turned into a pancake, which is always a plus. The train conductor in his freshly pressed dark green uniform checks my ticket and welcomes me to the train. At last, it is time to return home to Shanghai.
This is the summer of 2012 and Shanghai isn’t to be my home for much longer. Another week and I will cross the globe to start a new life in a foreign land called Charlotte. But which is home? The place I am leaving or the place I am going? Arrival or departure? Like a compass with a broken magnetic strip, I can’t decide where to call home.
This uncertainty is unsettling, leaving me consumed by worry. I take The Things They Carried from my backpack and run my fingers over the slightly crumpled pages. It doesn’t take me long to lose myself; I’m sucked in, broken down, and shot off into the distance by this book of memories.
They say the best books tell you what you already know, resonating with your own thoughts and emotions. As I read The Things They Carried on the train to Shanghai, it is as if the tempest of my thoughts has become unraveled and spelled out on paper. The overflowing sense of hyper-reality in Tim O’Brien’s words of warfare spills into my world. His words somehow become my words, his memories become my memories. Despite the high speed of the train on the tracks, my mind is held in a perfectly still state – trapped between the narrative of the book and the narrative of my own life.
I feel like I should be disturbed, but I’m not. I read the last page and close the book, staring out the window at the shining fish ponds and peaceful rice paddies. I feel like I am a speck of dust out there, floating, content, happy. I realize that I am at home between worlds. I speak both English and Chinese. I use Chinese for math, science, quantity, and process. English, however, is my language of choice for art, emotion, and description. America owns my childhood, filled by pine trees, blockbusters, and Lake Tahoe snow; China holds my adolescent years, accompanied by industrial smog, expeditious mobility, and fast-paced social scenes. Shanghai is the place where I fought my first bully, discovered mobile phones, became acquainted with heartaches, and tasted independence.
I look out the window and realize we are drawing into Shanghai Hong Qiao station. My reverie is at an end, but I have the answer to my question. Home isn’t arrival or departure. Home isn’t America or China. Home is the in-between, the cusp of transition, the space between breaths, and that is where I feel most content.
College Admission Essay 2
Prompt: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
I won “Most Original” pumpkin at a Halloween party years ago. I hate the “Most Original” award. It’s a consolation prize. You can’t be the best, or the prettiest, so you have to be “original”. I’ve won the “Most Original” award a fair amount of times. I was even named “Most Original” at a basketball awards banquet. What does that mean? How can anybody be “Most Original” when she’s playing basketball?
Recognizing the “Most Original” award for the pity-prize that it was, I grew increasing hostile toward the very word “original”. If you win this cursed award, everyone around you feigns sympathy for your circumstances. Phrases like “oh, bummer” and “well, good for you” often circle around the recipient. This creates a cyclone of cynicism and regret, one from which the “winner” will never quite recover.
Okay. Maybe I’m overreacting, but I cannot for the life of me understand that award. “Most Original” always let me down, and as a result, I hated to be original in any context. In my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, where normality was… well, the norm, I tried to be a typical student, absolutely, perfectly normal.. I blended into crowds, the definition of the classic American teenager. I became a person who refused to surprise people. Just another brick in the wall. Dull.
And then I moved to Berkeley for 6 months. It’s an odd, vibrant place, with odd, vibrant people. I love it because originality is celebrated there. I became friends with a student who dressed outlandishly, wearing corset tops and tutus, and on some days, carrying around a parasol. Her best friend was a boy with purple hair who once wore a shirt with built in LED lights for Christmas. They were the most popular people in school, despite being contradictions to all that was admired in New Haven. Our peers recognized them as being unique, but instead of ostracizing them, as would likely have happened in New Haven, the students in Berkeley accepted and celebrated their originality.
In Berkeley, I learned the value of originality: Those who celebrate their individuality are not only unique, but strong. It takes great strength to defy the definitions of others, and because of that strength, those who create their own paths discover a different world than those who travel the same worn road.
When I returned to New Haven, I had changed. My hair was dyed with red streaks, and I wore crazy clothes that instantly made me stand out. Suddenly, everyone knew who I was. Once, such notoriety would have made me nervous, as if I had painted a large target on my forehead. But I had changed more than just my hairstyle and clothing – I had embraced the idea of being original. Spending time in a place where “most original” was the highest compliment allowed me to explore myself without fear of being different, lesser.
I’m still skeptical about the “Most Original” award. In the context of an award ceremony, it’s still just a meaningless consolation prize. But I don’t think of being “most original” as an insult anymore. I wear it as a badge of honor, proof that I am myself and no one else.
Very recently, a friend joked, “If there were a ‘Quirkiest’ award in the yearbook, you would definitely be in it.” We were standing outside of a classroom, and I was wearing a pair of gold colored shorts that definitely caught the eye. Her comment made me laugh. “‘Quirkiest’ makes me sound awkward.” I answered. “How about ‘Most Original’?”
College Admission Essay 3
Prompt: Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
The sweet smell of cinnamon resonated through the house. A wave of warmth washed over my face as I opened the oven door to reveal my first batch of snicker doodles. Small domes of sugary cookies shyly peeked from the edge of the door. I smiled in excitement as I thought about the laughter these cookies would bring to my friends. They like to compare me to the witch in Hansel and Gretel, except that I fatten children up and then forget to eat them. I am inclined to send a slight glare at this comparison, but any rancor is overwhelmed by my enjoyment of their anticipation of my baked goods.
There is something about the warmth of a kitchen filled with the buttery smell of pastry that evokes a feeling of utter relaxation. I find joy in sharing this warm and homey experience by showering the people around me with the sweets. The smile that creeps up in the corners of someone’s mouth as he or she bites into my food gives me a sense of pride and accomplishment.
For as long as I can remember, baking has been an integral part of my life. Thanks to busy parents and hungry siblings, I was encouraged to cook from a relatively young age. Time spent in the kitchen naturally piqued my interest in baking. Such interests expanded into a heart-warming hobby that rejuvenates my stressful days, improves upon even my happiest moments, and brings joy to the people around me.
They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. It has been my experience that the way to ANYONE’S heart is through the stomach. To me, food is not simply about sustenance. The time that I spend in my kitchen, the effort and care that I pour into my confectionary creations, is a labor of love that brings me just as much satisfaction as it does my hungry friends and family.
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Tell my story? Fine, but how?
The common advice to "tell your story" has probably been around as long as the admission essay itself. But since when have high school students been afforded the time and feedback to practice telling their stories? And how are you supposed to approach this advice? What parts of your story are you supposed to share in your college essay, how, and why?
When I left teaching high school English a little more than two years ago, the curriculum even then was too packed with everyday academic concerns and standardized testing preparation to invite seniors to practice personal narrative with the same level of structured feedback that they received for academic writing. I have heard from high school teachers that this condition has only intensified since the rollout of the Common Core.
The five-paragraph essays and thesis statements they are accustomed to writing for class do students little good in personal writing, including on their college applications. These are inventions designed for American students to practice national conventions of argumentation—despite the fact that expectations for academic writing change from high school to college. Yet they are what high school students have to work with when put on the spot in their college applications.
In a way the college admission game is a standardized assessment, but it differs in that students are suddenly supposed to write not academically but personally. Given this lack of training in personal writing and the stresses of college admission, it’s important that students find a structured yet creative way to tell their own stories when dealing with low word counts.
So here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Only you, the student, can determine what is worth writing about. While family may have suggestions, it’s ultimately your story to tell and how.
- In personal writing, there is no need to justify why you are writing about one thing or another. This is the academic habit of proving a thesis. When it seeps into personal writing, it limits the creative potential of the personal essay.
- Choose one or two narrative moments and tell them in the moment. These moments are representative of your story.
- It’s important to accept that any story you attempt to tell will necessarily be incomplete. Avoid the temptation of recounting your memory “exactly” as you remember it. Rather, remember that you are being assessed on the quality of your personal essay, not the quality of your memory. So use the memory as a starting point for the essay, but make sure you end up with a narrative that stands solidly and creatively on its own.
- Try free writing without a prompt and without worrying about the word count—at least at first. A narrative will likely suit at least two of your college’s prompts.
The college personal statement is a strange beast. To my knowledge, college applicants are the only personal essayists who have to write about themselves because someone else expects them to and because big stakes are riding on it. From the birth of the personal essay—typically traced to Michel de Montaigne in the 16th century—the tradition of the genre is self-exploration and discovery, the personal somehow tied to universally human concerns, driven by the curiosity to know more about both. Yet this American rite of passage has given rise to a peculiar kind of de facto national literature.
In short, despite students’ ever-intensifying pressures, schedules, and responsibilities, I hope that by engaging with the genre of the personal essay, students can write for themselves with this sense of curiosity—first, for themselves.
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