You can go to many sites and read many books about applying to college. They all suggest good game plans, and they even will give you some ideas to get you thinking. Another thing these sources do is give you sample essays that illustrate the best college applications essays or the winning college application essays.
It’s nice when college application experts provide you a model or an example of a successful college application essay, but what if you just can’t see what is so good about the essay. “Nice,” you say to yourself, “but what’s the big deal?” Or, you might think: “Okay, I see this is a great essay, but how can I write like that; I can’t even get a word down on paper.
Collegebasics is going to attempt to help you with that. We will provide you with one of those samples of a GOOD COLLEGE APPLICATION ESSAY, but then we will talk about
- what to look for,
- why what you look for works well in the essay, and finally,
- offer tips to help you effect the same kind of writing.
Here we go:
Let’s start a prompt that covers the basics asked for by most colleges:
Evaluate a significant experience and its impact on you.
Below is an essay that is a good response to this prompt:
“Hello my name is Roy Hon nice to meet you,” stiffly mumbled a boy with an awkward accent, eyes full of fear and uncertainty. Immersed in an unknown environment at the age of thirteen, everything seemed uncertain to him. In this mysterious land, people existed in all shapes and colors: black, white, blonde, brunette, and every combination in between. Despite these physical differences, however, everyone shared one thing in common: English, the language that tied lives together and facilitated communication between diverse individuals. The foreign boy, however, knew little of the English language, able to understand and speak no more than a toddler in that tongue. He never imagined one day settling in the United States or eventually sitting in his room and composing a college essay in English.
Upon first arriving in the U.S, I was extremely lonely, lacking any friends or family in whom to confide. This massive transition in my life saddled me with great pain and sadness. At school I seemed invisible while at home, television provided my only companionship. I missed China, longing for delicious authentic Chinese foods and thirsting for the love of my big family and dear friends. I clung to memories of my previous home to inject warmth and happiness into my otherwise dismal life.
Building relationships was not easy, as I was fearful of approaching others due to my language deficiencies. “If only I could speak English,” I constantly thought.
“If only I could speak English,” I would not seethe with anger whenever someone openly mocked me, responding with a bowed head or fake smile.
“If only I could speak English,” I would stop shaking when speaking in front of my class.
“If only I could speak English,” I would earn grades that accurately reflected my intellect, rather than simply marks of “OK” on tests.
“If only I could speak English,” I would not have to answer questions by simply nodding or shaking my head.
Such thoughts filled my head every day, each tantalizing me with how my life would improve if I could speak English. Again, however, I realized I was living in a fantasy world; I had fallen into the habit of simply dreaming about how my life could improve and wishing that things were better rather than actually striving to enact those improvements. Realizing this, I became a pragmatic person, focused on the present and working to turn thoughts into action. I forced myself to communicate, even if doing so occasionally caused embarrassment. Once upon arriving to class late, the teacher greeted me with, “What’s up, Roy?” Not understanding this colloquial phrase, my eyes glanced upwards, before refocusing on the teacher as I answered, “Nothing.” Immediately laughter rippled across the classroom; I laughed too, though without knowing why. When class ended, I gathered my courage and asked my teacher to explain what had happened; I wanted to learn, even if it was initially embarrassing or confusing.
If only I could speak English: instead of a refrain of remorse, I used this thought to motivate my growth. It helped me overcome the struggles I faced in this new land, turning me into a realistic, social, and confident individual. By forcing myself to make friends in school, I became outgoing and independent, willing to interact with diverse classmates. As I did so, I realized that I had become friends with half of the people in my grade. In opening up, I found that the world was not as scary or dreadful as I had feared; instead, it was full of warmth and positive energy. Previously, I had lacked friends not because I couldn’t speak English, but because I had built wall around myself with my negative energy and focus on what I could not do. Now, though, I am vice president of the Chinese Culture Club, a top student, and a confident friend to many.
Looking back, I still remember the innocent and quiet boy who arrived in this country, afraid of even trying to talk. How far that boy has grown; now, I am a man who loves greeting others: “Hey! What’s up, I’m Roy, it’s a pleasure to meet you!”
What are people looking for to determine if an essay is good, not-so-good, or bad?
Here is a list of what readers think about and look for in essays; and, no, evaluating an essay is not just a subjective shot in the dark.
- Content: Admissions readers look to see the prompt is really answered. In this case, they do not want a writer to spend more time describing the experience than illustrating how the experience impacted the person. They are also looking to see that the writer can connect the experience to the impact or change and then illustrate that change in his/her life experience day-to-day.
- Voice: Voice is the flow and word choice that let’s a reader hear the real person. Readers want to hear a mature tone but also glimpse an honest and true portrayal of what the writer is like. Textbooks don’t have voice; they are written to erase voice and opinion, thought and feeling. The applicant to college, however, is actually charged with having to reveal himself or herself in the application essay.
- Structure: Readers want a road map for reading. That means a writer must be organized, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. They don’t want the writer to wander from one topic to another, and they want support and examples for statements the writer makes. They also look for something to unify the whole, and they like introductions and conclusions.
- Style: Readers think about use of detail; dialogue; and tight writing, not rambling, when they think of style. A writer needs to choose the right word, capture a moment, show more and tell less. Each writer has his or her own style. If they let it show, it becomes their identity, but if a writer is voiceless, all seriousness, and blah, that leads, again, to textbook writing.
- Mechanics/Usage: Readers want correct English, good punctuation, and appropriate usage—that is, knowing when to use it’s vs its or knowing stationary doesn’t mean stationery.
Let’s see how the writer of this sample essay was able to give the readers what they want based on the categories above and get some tips for how you might improve these things in your own writing.
Content: This writer went with an experience that impacted him, as the prompt calls for. It was a risk for him to speak up and reach out. The pivotal point was asking his teacher after an embarrassing class moment to explain the laughter; it changed his “refrain of remorse” to a reason to be motivated to learn English. The end of the essay clearly shows the impact of this change of heart, especially as contrasted with the first part of the essay. The writer has let the reader know about his loneliness and embarrassment, even his wrong-headed thinking that changed to allow him a sense of confidence and connection. He has not spent more time on what happened than on how it made him feel and how he’s changed.
- Read the prompt several times before even brainstorming it, and read it with the sense that the college is asking you always to write about who you are more than what you’ve done.
- Capture the simply times of your life and be honest about your feelings.
- Write from the heart rather than write what you think sounds good or impresses someone else.
Voice: As said above, you feel what this person feels. One sentence really captures his alienation: At school I seemed invisible while at home, television provided my only companionship. The writer is also himself, not a shy student and not a better-than-everyone else person. He uses simple words without being monosyllabic, and he lets you into his house while he watches TV, and he let’s you see his embarrassment when other students laughed at him. You have a sense this is a real person, and not just a robot applicant.
- Write with the pronoun “I.”
- Write as though you were talking with another friendly person. (Maybe not your best friend; you don’t want to be too colloquial.)
Structure: The organization of the essay is Before – Realization – After, a pretty straight forward and simple plot/plan. It has a good introduction that has style. The intro is written in the third person, which switches to first person for the rest of the essay, emphasizing the back-when. The conclusion clearly contrasts with the introduction and shows the After or transformation. The dialog in the first and last paragraphs, changed to reflect the transformation but remains the same in essence, is a great unifier. There are also plenty of illustrations to show the basic meaning of the essay. Here are some examples: I was shy – we see he felt invisible, kept his head down, and knew few people. He decided to try – we see him ask his teacher about a reaction to his response to “What’s up?” and we hear that he makes friends. He’s more confident – we are told he knows more than half his class and that he is president of the Chinese Culture Club.
- Don’t start your essay with words from the prompt or even with a thesis statement. You want to get away from the dry writing of classroom essays and try to get the reader into the essay quickly, perhaps with a little hook.
- Make sure you are chunking (paragraphing) the parts of the essay: the before – after or first – second – third, or even today – flash back.
- Make sure to have at least two examples of all your most important points: two examples, two stories, two facts, two reasons, or two illustrations.
Style: The writer’s use of words is good. He uses massive, longing, and thirsting in the second paragraph. These are not common words but words that fit and are not shoved in there because they appear in a thesaurus. In other places you see the words pragmatic and tantalizing. Most impressive is his use of dialog and quotation marks. Many writers do not venture far from regular prose. Also, the center section that repeats the refrain: “If only I could speak English,” shows and doesn’t tell. He could so easily have simply written I was angry, nervous, undervalued, and silent (period). Instead, he used words like seething and showed he was bowing his head and nodding or shaking. Even the repetition of the quote as a refrain is different.
- Whenever you write a statement about yourself ask if you could replace it with a two sentence story or with a strong verb. How could you re-write I’m confident by showing instead of using this single statement?
- Don’t use a thesaurus and think it’s good. You might find better words for your writing by asking other people to talk about what you’re talking about; maybe they have different ways of phrasing it or new ways to say it.
- Don’t be afraid to use dialog, even if only for one sentence.
Mechanics/Usage: The quotations are correctly punctuated—unusual. They are also paragraphed correctly. The writer impressively uses semicolons correctly. (See the second to the last sentence as an example.) He uses commas for series and for direct address correctly, too, and he sets off interrupters like however. There are no misuses of words, even though he has used contractions which are often misused – “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” not “Its a pleasure to meet you.” The mechanics of this section are correct and mature: In opening up, I found that the world was not as scary or dreadful as I had feared; instead, it was full of warmth and positive energy. Previously, I had lacked friends not because I couldn’t speak English, but because I had built wall around myself with my negative energy and focus on what I could not do.
There also are no spelling errors—great!
But, he does have mistakes. Both the first and last sentences have a run on. He might get away with this as he may be writing it as it was spoken, colloquially. His colons are also misused. So you can see, you do not need to perfect, but you need to have the standard English grammar down.
- Never trust yourself to proof your mistakes. Have a friend, a parent, and maybe a teacher proof it for grammar, English usage, and spelling!
Now, maybe, you can get more out of reading samples of excellent application essays and understand better what you need to try to do when you write and revise.