Memorable 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.


A lot of pieces go into crafting a college application essay that will help you stand out from the competition, and quite possibly push you through the door to your dream school:

It needs to be engaging, especially at the start. (Here’s how you do that.)

It needs to have a topic that’s unique and interesting. (Here’s how you do that.)

It needs to showcase something about you that the college wouldn’t otherwise know. (Here’s how you do that.)

It needs to make you come across as likable. (Here’s how you do that.)

It needs to prove that you have what it takes to excel once you start school. (Here’s how you do that.)

It needs to connect with your reader. (Here’s how you do that.)

It needs to be memorable and leave a lasting impression. (Here’s how you do that.) 

But what’s the real secret to nailing your essay?

In my opinion, it needs to be personal.

What does that mean?

Personal means writing about things involving your private life, your relationships and emotion, thoughts and feelings, as opposed to only your public life and the things you do.

In an essay, the more personal you get, the more you reveal your one-of-a-kind individuality—which sets you apart from the crowd.

See how that works?

If you include all or many of the elements I just listed above, you will be well on your way to writing a personal essay.

But here are some other ways to make sure your essay is personal:

Getting personal is risky business. It usually means you have to step out of your comfort zone, and that’s not easy.

But this is how you connect with your reader.

Would you want to read an essay that only talks about how great the person who wrote it was?

Or one that listed all the impressive things they have done?

Or someone who talks in generalities and only says what everyone else has to say?


The people who are going to read your essay are admissions counselors, and they probably have fancy titles and are on a mission to find great students for their colleges, but above all they are people, just like you and me.

The main difference between them and us is that they have to read hundreds of these essays, so that makes it harder to stand out and connect with them.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

The trick is to try to share something personal about yourself.

Tell about something that happened to you (something on the bad end of the scale), or something about yourself that has been hard to deal with, or something in your background that has been a challenge.

That’s what we all want to hear and read about: Problems.

Your unique problems.

(I know that sounds terrible, but it’s true! It’s just not interesting when things are all smooth sailing.)

RELATED: Video tutorial on How to Answer Common App Prompt 4: What’s Your Problem?

Of course, you don’t want your entire essay to only be about your flaws, and insecurities and self doubts, and for you to come across as a whiner or a loser. That’s not the point.

But before you get to the good stuff about yourself, make sure to reveal some of your less-than-perfect side.

That way, we will relate with you (we’ve all been there at some point and can feel your pain) and cheer you on as you tackle your issues and learn from them.

If you don’t do that, we might get bored or feel jealous or annoyed by only hearing how great you are. And we probably won’t believe you anyway.

So how do you do that?

One trick is to find some type of problem you have faced, and then go onto share how you dealt with it and what you learned.

(There’s a reason that the newest Common App essay prompt literally asks students to write about a problem. They want you to get personal in your essay!)

This Jumpstart Guide can help you get started.

Works every time!





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