In keeping with CollegeVine’s goal of democratizing the admissions process, we’ll be sharing real essays sourced from our consultants’ applications that demonstrate effective storytelling strategies, major mistakes to avoid, and compelling essay topics. You’ll learn the difference between the essay of a rejected student and that of an admitted student, and you can pick up some valuable tricks that you can use in your own essays along the way.
In this essay, the student is responding to a prompt from Stanford University, to which they were accepted:
Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—know you better.
Hello, Future Roommate! Before we settle in together, there are a few things you should know about me. I am an only child. I often stay up late to watch the Daily Show with Jon Stewart or SNL. I’m Jewish and Cuban, which makes me Jewban. I wear contacts and glasses, sometimes at the same time. I double dip my chips, twice. I use self-deprecating humor but I always do a really bad job at it. I render Mark Twain’s realism absurd and then realize the absurdity of Edgar Allan Poe’s romanticism. I make book adaptations for movies. A small brigade of tigers carries my luggage to and from the airport. I listen to Arctic Monkeys while watching In the Heat of the Night. I plan to eradicate all forms of procrastination at some point in my life. My teeth shine like Sirius. I perform without audiences and still receive standing ovations. The water I drink is made from the finest hydrogen and oxygen money can buy. I have often been accused of excessive swag. My dog likes long walks on the beach, the rush of wind in her hair, and kisses. I flash mob by myself. I have never once planked. I can grow a gnarly beard. My profile pictures are pictures of my face in profile. I like thinking about how nostalgic I was when I was 12. I skimmed Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama, researched Audacity to Win by David Plouffe, and had the audacity to read neither in their entirety. I can count my ABC’s and spell all the way up to one million. I believe in evolution. I have more friends on Facebook than digits in pi. I have a chain mail Snuggie. I watched all of Bambi and did not cry. I have been an extra in every zombie movie ever made. All of my ideas are made in America. I also have a sense of humor.
What the author does well
In this essay, the author does a great job of using humor and self-deprecation to illustrate different aspects of his life. Jokes like “A small bridge of tigers carries my luggage to and from the airport” and “I have a chain mail Snuggie” grab the reader’s attention and are both unique and witty, conveying that the author does not take himself too seriously.
The prompt itself calls for a somewhat more playful tone than some other college essay prompts might, and the author has responded in kind. Likewise, he has done so in a compelling way that sets him apart from other candidates. He also includes plenty of details, which are very important when you are describing yourself to an admissions committee that needs to understand what differentiates you from thousands of other applicants.
The response called for a short answer, and given the limited space requirement, the author has managed to fit a lot of different facts about himself in a short paragraph. He also strikes a balance between not taking himself too seriously and avoiding coming across as overly confident—which, as we examine in “Mastering the Personal Statement: How to Be Confident Without Being Overconfident”, is essential in your college essay. Remember: this is not a place to brag about your academic accomplishments or list your extracurricular activities; admissions committees will be able to find that information in other parts of your application. Instead, your essay is a space to showcase your creativity and allow colleges to get to know you as a person. Of course, as we note in “5 DIY Tips for Editing Your Own College Essays,” it is important to capture a positive reflection of yourself. If you are overly critical of yourself, colleges will wonder why they should accept you at all. So be sure to demonstrate confidence without coming across as arrogant, as the author has done in this essay.
What the author could improve
This applicant has written a well-crafted, humorous essay, but his personality does not come through as much as it could. While he offers various statements about his likes and dislikes, he doesn’t really connect them to himself or how they influence him as a person.
You don’t need to have exceptionally rare qualities or have had anything particularly dramatic happen to you to write a compelling essay (although you can certainly write about these qualities if you do). As we discuss in the CollegeVine post, “What if I Don’t Have Anything Interesting to Write About in My College Essay?” what is most important is that your essay is well-written and unique and that it allows your personality to shine through. In this sample essay, the author has done a great job of responding to the prompt in a unique way, using wit and humor to illustrate different facets of his life, but does not describe his personal qualities as much as he lists different things he likes and does. While what you do does define who you are to an extent, an essay shouldn’t leave readers guessing; clearly connecting your hobbies and interests to your personal traits and experiences is key.
You’ve probably heard the advice “show, don’t tell” countless times in your English classes. This essay is an excellent example of an instance in which the author needs to do a little more in the way of showing. While he makes a series of statements about different aspects of himself, he doesn’t really illustrate them or describe how they are evidenced in his personality. As we discuss in “Mastering the Personal Statement: How to Be Confident Without Being Overconfident” showing rather than telling is key to making your personality come through.
For instance, the author starts by stating, “I am an only child,” but doesn’t elaborate any further. Given that being an only child is not an aspect of his personality—it is merely a fact—he needs to explain why this is important for him to mention. How does it affect his personality? He might offer some examples or anecdotes to illustrate how being an only child has shaped him and how it will define his experience at Stanford.
How to Address the Critique
Given the lack of space available, it might be difficult to address some of the issues with the essay without adding a substantial number of words to the total count. So the author would need to free up some space in order to better showcase his personality and add examples and anecdotes to successfully illustrate it.
One way to do this is to remove some of the more confusing jokes or those that don’t really do much in the way of showcasing the author’s personality. For instance, “I can count my ABC’s and spell all the way up to one million” and “The water I drink is made from the finest hydrogen and oxygen money can buy”, while humorous, don’t really help the reader get a sense of who the author is. Likewise, while “I wear contacts and glasses, sometimes at the same time” is funny, it may confuse the reader, since it really just begs the question, “But why?”—and that’s not the reaction you want from the admissions committee. While including lines like this can help set a quirky tone that can charm admissions committees, striking an appropriate balance is crucial.
If the author manages to free up some space by eliminating lines that are overly confusing or not necessary to the overall essay, he can add more illustrations of his personality, better grounding the otherwise fun and playful elements of himself, and allow the reader to get a better sense of who he is.
Need help writing your college essays? CollegeVine’s Essay Editing Program is here to help. Submit your essay online and receive comprehensive edits within 24-48 hours, or sign up for our complete program work with one of our elite essay specialists one-on-one.
For general tips and advice on writing your college essays, check out some of the posts below.
How to Write the Common App Essays 2016-2017
How Important is the College Essay?
How to Answer Rapid Fire Essay Questions
Mastering the Personal Statement: How to Be Confident Without Being Overconfident
How to Write the “Why Us” College Essay
Where to Begin? 3 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises
5 DIY Tips for Editing Your Own College Essays
How to Write Fewer College Essays
What If I Don’t Have Anything Interesting to Write About in My College Essay?
Whom Should I Ask for Help with My College Essay?
Looking for help on essays for specific colleges? Read our essay breakdowns for tips on responding to prompts from individual schools.
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in publishing. She also writes, dreams of owning a dog, and routinely brags about the health of her orchid.
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Most people don't know that the college admissions experience offers students and parents many opportunities for having a little fun. Reading about different schools in college guidebooks such as The Fiske Guide and Colleges That Change Lives can be very entertaining (as well as useful). Having a look at colleges at the likes of www.unigo.com and www.thecollegeprowler.com is a kick. Visiting colleges can be a totally enjoyable experience for budding college applicants, parents and, sometimes, younger siblings. Even writing a college essay can be fun.
"What?" you say, "Writing an essay is fun? Get real!" Okay, many students find answering essay questions the worst part of the application process. But if you write about something you care about and dare to be yourself, or perhaps use a bit of irony or "tongue in cheek," you might just end up having a good time.
Let's Have Some Fun Right Now
Over the years, Stanford University has asked applicants to answer some variation of a "Letter to your future roommate" essay question, e.g., "Virtually all of Stanford's undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate -- and us -- know you better."
Here is what one bushy-tailed student wrote:
TO MY FUTURE ROOMMATE:
IF YOU HAVE EVER--
l. Kidnapped your best friend at 3:00 a.m. with a bunch of buddies and taken him/her for an emergency milkshake run?
2. Made snow angels in the nude on the school ski trip when it's 0 degrees outside?
3. Told tourists that if they "pee in the ocean," they'll attract great white sharks?
4. Re-enacted Monty Python and the Holy Grail in its entirety before your history class?
5. Taken apart your broken MP3 because you are sure that you can fix it?
6. In the middle of the summer, dressed up in all of your ski clothes, gone to the nearest 7-Eleven to buy ice blocks and joined your friends to slide down the nearest grassy hill, all the while complaining how cold it is?
l. Memorized the first half of Whitman's Song of Myself, because there was nothing better to do?
2. Spent three days arguing with your friends about the socio-political ramifications of the word "Chick?"
3. Stayed up until 5:00 a.m. because the conclusion of your English paper just wasn't right?
4. Received a parking ticket because you had to respond to a piece of racist graffiti in a public bathroom?
5. Spent the entire day at a cafe re-reading a book by your favorite author?
6. When you were a second grader, explained to a classmate's mother why you thought screaming at her kid was inappropriate while she threatened to spank you for being so insolent--
THEN WE'RE GOING TO GET ALONG JUST FINE!
So if this isn't fun, I don't know what is. But there's more to it than you might think.
Application essays should allow people reading them know who you are by what you say.
What does this essay say about the student?
The Different "Messages" In The Essay
First and most obviously, the writer has a great sense of humor. College admissions readers love when you put smiles on their faces. Second, it says he's fun loving (the milkshake run) and also refreshingly audacious in his own twisted way (telling tourists that if they pee in the ocean, they'll attract great white sharks). Third, the student is curious (took apart his MP3). Admissions people look for inquisitiveness, resourcefulness, and students who are dying to learn. Fourth, he's a reader (his reference to Whitman's Song of Myself and re-reading a favorite book). Reading is a big deal in college. Fifth, he's a hard worker and wants to do things "better than very good" (making sure the conclusion of an English paper was just right). Sixth, he has a sense of social responsibility (responded to a piece of racist graffiti) and is also willing to stand up for other people (confronting his friend's mother about screaming at her kid). Finally, most people would think that the student is pretty smart. As you read it, what messages did you get?
Oh, yeah: The kid got into Stanford.
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