Sample Short College Essays

In preparation for a segment on NBC’s “Today” show this morning, I reached out to the admissions offices at the University of Virginia and Occidental College in California for examples of essays that they considered memorable — for good, or ill.

Before I share some of these samples, a caveat (one familiar to regular readers of this blog): while it can be instructive to read actual college admissions essays, trying to copy a particular approach — or in some cases avoid it — can be perilous. That’s because how one responds to an essay can be an intensely personal experience.

That said, I would argue that there are some basic lessons to be gleaned from the following examples. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from an essay that was not especially well received at the University of Virginia, in part because the writer misjudged the age and sensibility of his or her audience:

John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ was sung by Fox’s new show, ‘Glee.’ In one particular episode, a deaf glee club performed this song. I heard it before when John Lennon sang it: unfortunately I did not care much for it. When I watched this episode while the deaf adolescents were singing it, and soon joined by another glee club, it surprisingly affected me…

John Lennon sang it like a professional, but what he did not have was the emotion behind the words. He sang it more staccato than legato. He sang it like it was his job, and nothing more. These singers from Glee sang with powerful emotions. …

Another essay, also musical in focus, got a more appreciative read at U.V.A.:

I strode in front of 400 frenzied eighth graders with my arm slung over my Fender Stratocaster guitar — it actually belonged to my mother — and launched into the first few chords of Nirvana’s ‘Lithium.’ My hair dangled so low over my face that I couldn’t see the crowd in front of me as I shouted ‘yeah, yeah’ in my squeaky teenage voice. I had almost forgotten that less than a year ago I had been a kid whose excitement came from waiting for the next History Channel documentary.

It was during the awkward, hormonal summer between seventh and eighth grade when I first heard Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ The song shocked my senses — until that point my musical cosmos consisted mainly of my father’s Beatles CDs.

I would argue that the admissions committee was able to relate a little more to this essay than the first. And it was certainly more evocative and detailed. It also conveyed more about the writer (and applicant) — a crucial quality in a college admissions essay.

I turn, now, to excerpts from a recent essay that struck a visceral chord within the admissions office at Occidental (where, as an aside, President Obama began his college career):

My head throbbed as I closed my eyes and tried to convince myself to give up.

‘Come on, Ashley. Put the pencil down. Just put the pencil down and go to bed,’ I told myself sternly. I had been hard at work for hours — brutal, mind-numbing hours. I groaned as I moved over to my bed, collapsing in a pile of blankets and closing my eyes.

I lay there for a moment or two, gathering strength, gaining courage. My tense shoulders began to unclench as I stretched out and opened my bleary eyes…

Suddenly, I bolted upright on my bed, eyes wide, blankets flying. Everything had fallen into place. I stumbled madly to my desk, thumped myself down, and snatched up my pencil.

‘I’ve got it! That’s it!’ I whooped, scribbling furiously, as my brother pounded on my wall for silence.

I had just won another skirmish in my ongoing battle with the crossword puzzle.

What worked here? I’m told the admissions officers appreciated how the writer conveyed her love of words — and in the process told them much about herself. As a writer, I admired the way she built a sense of mystery at the outset, one that served to draw the reader in.

I’ll close with an attempt at metaphor that fell a bit flat, at least in its reception at Occidental. The applicant writes:

I believe in jello; a silly greeting, tasty dessert, or the answer to life as we know it?

Factor #1: Have you ever tried to make jello? It takes patience. First you have to boil the water; then mix it with powder, stirring for two minutes; then finally adding the cold water and putting it in the fridge for forty-five minutes. Think about the creation of people…

To share your own thoughts on essay strategies — and, perhaps, some excerpts of your own — please use the comment box below.

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