Senior Essay Example

Model Proposal #1

This Island’s Mine: Shakespeare’s Romances and the Power of Language in Ulysses

Much has been made of the role of Shakespeare’s tragedies in James Joyce’s Ulysses, particularly the allusive, even allegorical role of Hamlet in shaping the trajectory and consciousness of Stephen Dedalus. Yet surprisingly little has been said on Joyce’s relationship with Shakespeare’s romances (namely, Pericles; Prince of Tyre, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest)[1]. Very little scholarly work has discussed either the direct or implicit references to these later plays, and even less has addressed their structural relevance to Joyce’s work. Though Hamlet may be the primary Shakespearean reference point for Ulysses, seemingly surface allusions to the romances are in fact essential to the novel’s interests in redemption, art and most importantly language. More specifically, I propose to explore the ways in which Joyce uses Shakespeare’s romances to articulate the dynamic between mastery over language and mastery over artistic self-expression of the interior.

I plan to begin at the beginning—that is, with “Telemachus,” and a seemingly offhand quip by Buck Mulligan: “The rage of Caliban at not seeing his face in a mirror, he said. If Wilde were only alive to see you!” (Joyce 1.143). I contend that this early reference to Caliban frames Stephen’s struggle for independence as an artist as one also for control over the presentation of his own image through language. Joyce introduces Shakespeare’s monster through the gregarious Mulligan, a man whose flashy linguistic and textual fluency overwhelms Stephen’s more cautious persona. The remark is characteristically intertextual, a rephrasing of Oscar Wilde’s epigraph to The Picture of Dorian Gray, a piece of brief yet incisive commentary on the tension between Realist and avant-garde art: “The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. / The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass” (Wilde 3). Two potential readings surface. Most scholars contend that Joyce is engaged primarily with Wilde as a fellow, near contemporary Irish writer. In this case the question is semi-historical and largely abstract. Realist art has the possibility for honesty, yet the portrait it produces is often unlikable; it depicts an accurate exterior at odds with the interior and the desired self-perception. Romantic art demonstrates the artist’s ability, creating an image too beautiful to be representative of either the subject’s exterior or interior. Yet an interpretation that prioritizes Joyce’s engagement with Shakespeare provokes prioritizing Caliban as a key touchstone for Stephen throughout the novel; if Caliban is the focal point, rather than Wilde, the concern shifts to the—far more comprehensive—question of Stephen’s desire for mastery of self-expression.

Both Stephen and Caliban are highly aware of their relative lack of control over language, and a consequent lack of control over self-presentation. Two passages seem particularly relevant to this method of analysis: Prospero’s introduction of Caliban,

[I] took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour

One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,

Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like

A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes

With words that made them known. (Shakespeare, 1.2.354-358)

and Caliban’s reply, almost a second introduction, this time by himself:

You taught me language; and my profit on’t

Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you

For learning me your language! (Shakespeare, 1.2.363-365)

Language is power, not only as a marker of self-expression, but as one of the civilization and, perhaps more importantly, artistry. It is Prospero’s command of language, much like Mulligan’s, that enables him to continue this twisted master-slave, master-student relationship.

I propose that this brief, yet deeply intertextual moment is a critical lens through which to examine the rest of Ulysses. I plan to trace this paradigm first through the Telemachiad, honing in on Joyce’s combined incorporation of Ariel’s song into Stephen’s extended meditation on a corpse on the beach at the close of “Proteus.” “Aeolus” is likewise a point of interest as it most directly addresses Joyce’s preoccupation with rhetoric and style, and Stephen’s linguistic reticence, self-consciousness, and susceptibility to persuasion. I also plan to examine the various mentions of Tempest in “Scylla and Charybdis,” particularly those focusing on Prospero and his powers of artistry.

This helps to open up a conversation about Shakespeare’s other romances. Of the already minimal scholarly discussion of these plays, there is still less on Pericles, Cymbeline, and Winter’s Tale than Tempest. I contend that the relevance of Winter’s Tale has been particularly overlooked, and that Stephen and Bloom’s frequent corrupted references to this text have important implications for Ulysses’ linguistic and artistic schematics. Firstly, the Bloom family unit is uncannily similar to Shakespeare’s Sicilian royalty, most notably in the unspoken grief of both protagonist’s lost sons, and the ways in which the authors address the modes of atonement and recovery. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to draw connections between Stephen’s cynical discourse on wives in “Scylla and Charybdis” and Bloom’s museum musings in “Lestrygonians” as the King’s competing theories of female sexuality. Both men think and verbalize permutations of Leontes’ angry ramblings in Act I Scene II, and both scenes are contextualized by discussions of linguistic and artistic control—here, one and the same—and perhaps more importantly, explicit discussions of attaining freedom through those mediums. While I have less experience with Pericles and Cymbeline and their particular employment in Joyce’s work, I think there is a lot of potential supplemental material on the gender politics and the place of women in Ulysses’ larger schematics on the role of mastery of language in self-presentation.

As yet, I am uncertain of the role of scholarly research in my thesis plans. The only substantive body of work on this topic as yet is largely concerned with Caliban’s potential Irishness, and the difficult dynamics of artistic self-definition for a colonized island. My planned methodology is, admittedly, largely internal to Joyce and Shakespeare’s work, even closed-off from much current scholarship. I hope to counteract this potential danger with a firm grounding in the precise intellectual history surrounding Shakespeare’s romances in early twentieth century Ireland.

Model Proposal #2

Pranks, Winks, and Knowing Artifice: J.D. Salinger as a Master Trickster

“I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot.”

—J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

            While enduringly popular with the American reading public, particularly young people and aspiring writers, the works of J.D. Salinger have, somewhat perplexingly, failed to generate much in the way of serious scholarship. Shortly following the near-universal acclaim of The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger’s “Franny” and “Zooey” and subsequent installments meditating on the Glass family were met with increasingly critical resentment and weariness of Salinger’s devotion to a set of precocious, misunderstood geniuses, so much so that by the time “Hapworth 16, 1924” appeared in The New Yorker in 1965, it was “greeted with unhappy, even embarrassed silence” (Malcolm). Since then, many authors and fans have sought to redeem Salinger from a writerly perspective (Samuels; Kotzen and Beller), while his status in the world of literary criticism remains uncertain. What qualities do readers (especially writer-readers) admire in Salinger’s stories? And what about these qualities and others make Salinger’s body of work difficult or unappealing from a critical standpoint? Devotees often speak of Salinger’s writing in terms of its mysterious, heightened quality—Janet Malcolm notes “its fundamental fantastic character,” and Adam Gopnick refers to the recurrence of “childlike enchantment” in the work.

            I plan to explore the mysterious, heightened quality of Salinger’s writing by putting language to the techniques and devices that contribute to a sense of the fantastical. And I propose to talk about these techniques and devices in the context of writerly tricks, games, and pranks. Perhaps much of what lends Salinger’s work its magical character is, in fact, magic, in the sense of sleight of hand and intentional artifice and trickery. Salinger’s writing is full of feints and winks and a willingness to play. For example, Salinger’s signature snappy vernacular dialogue often takes on properties of theatrical improvisation through which characters play off one another with the aim of keeping the conversation going to reach a point of emotional payoff. This is particularly evident in the exchange between Seymour and Sybil in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” in which the collaborative back-and-forth between the two players leads to the creation of the myth of the bananafish. A kind of prank Salinger plays on the reader is the couching of his narratives in the authorship of the fictional Buddy Glass and the creation of a Glass superstructure of linked stories. In the opening section of “Zooey,” Buddy says, “what I’m about to offer isn’t really a short story at all but a sort of prose home movie” (Franny and Zooey 47). Buddy’s proclamation of documentary is complicated by the fact that we know this is fictional story by Salinger and, even within the logic of the Glass family chronicling, it’s clear that Buddy was not there for the events of the story. Buddy, like his trickster creator, seems to be almost daring the reader to accuse him of invention. Salinger also incorporates visual tricks in his narratives in what Martin Bidney calls “aesthetic epiphanies” (117). Bidney talks about how the turning point in a Salinger story is often accompanied by a game of fort-da with a coded aesthetic object, such as the blue-coated Phoebe disappearing and reappearing as she goes round and round the carousel in Catcher, or the little girl turning her doll’s head to face Seymour in the poem in “Zooey.” Other forms of games and tricks in Salinger include the use of framing devices, the employment of a play-set New York that is at once familiar and fake, and the winking italicization of words and syllables to inflect layers of meaning.

            By using literary tricks and games and playfully drawing attention to his fiction’s constructedness, Salinger leaves his secrets hiding in plain sight. In this way, Salinger is not giving us the typical things to interpret—characters don’t stand for things; plots are abandoned ambiguously—which may point to the frustrating quality that has made Salinger difficult from a critical standpoint and has contributed to many critics’ dismissals of Salinger as cute or gimmicky. There’s a quality of beating readers to the punch and explicitly showing them how his effects are achieved. Moreover, by working in framed miniature, Salinger does not take on the big social issues that often invite literary analysis—George Steiner once complained that Salinger “demands of his readers nothing in the way of literacy or political interest.” When thinking about Salinger as troublesome to critics, it is important to note that, conversely, critics and analysts were difficult for Salinger. His works contain a number of scathing portraits of academia and psychoanalysis, including the pompous Lane Coutell bragging about his A-grade English paper in “Franny,” the hopeless teachers at Holden Caulfield’s lousy prep school, and the amateur-analyst figure of Muriel’s mother, who tries to diagnose Seymour in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.” Salinger’s work seems to favor a phenomenological approach, emphasizing the experience of reading over interpretation, one that might win the embrace of Holden, who reflects, “I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot” (24).

In analyzing Salinger as a purveyor of tricks, who in some ways defies critical study, I will look at his earlier, uncollected stories to track the development of mastery. How does Salinger’s playful technique change over time? Are the tricks in the earlier stories more transparent, less well pulled-off? Are they more gimmicky? Many of the early stories, including “The Varioni Brothers,” “I’m Crazy,” and “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” contain precursors and initial sketches of characters and situations that feature prominently in The Catcher in the Rye and the Glass family stories, allowing for the tracking of specific approaches and tropes. As part of my investigation of Salinger’s early work, I plan to visit and perform research at Princeton’s Firestone Library, which houses a sizeable archive of letters and stories, including several unpublished manuscripts.

            To contextualize Salinger in the tradition of the American short story, I will examine him against two of his contemporaries—Ring Lardner and William Saroyan. Both Lardner (whom Salinger refers to with admiration in Catcher and “Zooey”) and Saroyan once enjoyed popular success as short story smiths while retaining a kind of hack status in the literary world. Lardner was known first as a sportswriter, and Saroyan was also a playwright and pop songwriter. They each employed tricks and gimmicks similar to Salinger’s, but neither has endured to the degree Salinger has. I am interested in the ways in which Salinger imitates and explodes these tropes, and what role his aligning himself with these perceived hacks plays in his critical reception. The overall goal is to examine J.D. Salinger as a popular success and a critical difficulty, putting language to the literary trickery that renders his work at once enigmatic and completely captivating.

Works Cited

Bidney, Martin. “The Aestheticist Epiphanies of J.D. Salinger: Bright-Hued Circles, Spheres, and Patches; ‘Elemental’ Joy and Pain.” Style. 34.1 (2000): 117-131. Print.

Gopnick, Adam. “Postscript: J.D. Salinger.” The New Yorker. 8 Feb. 2010. Web.

Malcolm, Janet. “Justice to J.D. Salinger.” The New York Review of Books 21 Jun. 2001. Web.

Salinger, J.D. Franny and Zooey. New York: Little, Brown, 1961. Print.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown, 1951. Print.

Samuels, David. “Marginal Notes on the Inner Lives of People with Cluttered Apartments in the East Seventies.” Rereadings: Seventeen writers revisit books they love. ed. Anne Fadiman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. 3-17 Print.

Steiner, George. “The Salinger Industry.” The Nation. 14 Nov. 1959. Print. 360-363.

With love and squalor: 14 writers respond to the work of J.D. Salinger. ed. Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller. New York: Broadway Books, 2001. Print.

Additional Resources

Chabon, Michael. Introduction. The Wes Anderson Collection. By Matt Zoller Seitz. New York: Abrams, 2013. 21-23. Print.

Geismar, Maxwell. “The Wise Child and the New Yorker School of Fiction.” American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity. New York: Hill and Wang, 1958. 195-209. Print.

Kazin, Alfred. “J.D. Salinger: ‘Everybody’s Favorite.’” Contemporaries. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962. 230-240. Print.

Lardner, Ring. Selected Stories. New York: Penguin Group, 1997. Print.

Salinger, J.D. Nine Stories. New York: Little, Brown, 1953. Print.

Salinger, J.D. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. New York: Little, Brown, 1963. Print.

Saroyan, William. The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. New York: New Directions, 1934. Print.

Smith, Dominic. “Salinger’s Nine Stories: Fifty Years Later.” The Antioch Review. 61.4 (2003): 639-649. Print.

Model Proposal #3

A Portrait of the Artist as a Murderer:

Distant Star, Hegel, and the Aesthetics of Human Rights

Roberto Bolaño’s novella Distant Star tells the story of Carlos Wieder, a Chilean avant-garde poet who commits a series of brutal murders during the Pinochet regime. The novella is narrated from the perspective of Arturo B., another poet whose simultaneous attraction and aversion to Wieder motivate both the novella’s plot and its thematic concern with the relationship between art and violence. This concern permeates the entire structure of the novella and informs its internal logic: the poet-murderer Wieder unites the creative and violent impulse in the psyche of a single character; the strange affinity between the murderous Wieder and artistic Arturo combines them in the interpersonal relationship between two characters; and the portrayal of Santiago’s art world during the brutal Pinochet regime merges them in both setting and plot. Combined, these relationships suggest that one can only understand violence and art in relation to one another.

            Furthermore, if one admits—as Bolaño certainly does—that all violence is in some sense political, Distant Star’s insistence on the intimacy between art and violence calls attention to a broader relationship between art and politics. It links the artistic activity of Wieder, who in addition to being a murderer is an air-force pilot in the Chilean army and a self-proclaimed fascist, with the brutality and human rights violations of the Pinochet regime, urging the reader to seek a language common to both aesthetic and political experience. This in turn raises a host of critical questions regarding both areas. How, for instance, does a creative act commonly associated with the individual affect a political act commonly associated with the social? Can the application of aesthetic theory to politics yield novel insights in political theory, or, conversely, can the application of political theory to aesthetics yield novel insights in aesthetic theory? Is it even possible to theorize either as an autonomous domain, or do they both flow from a common source?

            For my senior thesis, I would like to draw upon my background as double-major in English and political science to address these questions through a specifically Hegelian reading of Distant Star. I believe Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit—both in itself and through the critical discourse it has inspired among later theorists such as Lacan, Kojeve, and Butler—provides a particularly fruitful theoretical framework with which to study the intersection between art and politics, as it describes the development of self-consciousness in a manner that lays the foundations for both artistic activity and political organization. It underlies the former in positing that the world is socially constructed—that it is, in other words, malleable and open to the kind of existential reinterpretation that is the domain of art—and it underlies the latter in describing the emergence of individual, historical, and desiring entities; in other words, the preconditions that both enable and require politics. Hegelian philosophy thus provide a single vocabulary with which to analyze both aesthetic and political impulses, both of which shape the formal, thematic, and narrative logic of Distant Star and the aforementioned theoretical questions that it raises.

Within this framework, I would like to focus more narrowly on the novella’s treatment of human rights. Hegel’s dialectic may prove particularly illuminating in this regard due to two important traits it shares in common with both popular human rights discourse and Bolaño’s specific political and aesthetic vision. First, the endpoint of Hegel’s historical teleology is a state of “mutual recognition of equals,” an ideal that sounds strikingly similar to the utopic society imagined in legal human rights documents, which are also premised on the concept of recognition, and to Distant Star’s formal structure that makes incessant narrative detours into the lives of seemingly peripheral characters and which democratically allocates to these characters through its stylistic consistency a voice of high literary quality. Second, both Hegel’s dialectic and human rights discourse encounter the same semantic challenge of attempting to affirm in the present tense a phenomenon—self-consciousness for Hegel and universality for human rights—that has yet to come into being at the moment of its theorizing, a paradox that the schema of Bolano’s novella brings to the fore.

A Hegelian reading of Distant Star may thus untangle the linkages between art and politics within the specific context of human rights. Indeed, one can understand the novella in one sense as a literary enactment of the abstract relations posited in Phenomenology: the duality of Wieder’s creative and violent nature; the ambiguous relationship between the murderous Wieder and artistic Arturo; and the implied kinship between Santiago’s art world and Pinochet’s rights-violating regime appear as concrete manifestations of Hegel’s simultaneously creative and destructive self-consciousnesses. The final aim of my project is to leverage this interdisciplinary framework and the reading of Distant Star that it engenders to lay the foundations for an argument that equivocates the political notion of the universality of human rights with the aesthetic notion of the intentional fallacy, and which applies the latter’s insights—as explicated by theorists such as Wimsatt, Focault, and Barthes—to the former.  Ultimately, I hope that this argument may illuminate both the aesthetic and political shape of the “mutual recognition of equals” that Bolaño, Hegelians, and human rights advocates all envisage as their ideal.


[1] I have decided to exclude the occasionally included The Two Noble Kinsmen, on the grounds of both its contested authorship, and of Joyce’s own apparent disinterest in the play.

The personal statement might just be the hardest part of your college application. Mostly this is because it has the least guidance and is the most open-ended. One way to understand what colleges are looking for when they ask you to write an essay is to check out the essays of students who already got in—college essays that actually worked. After all, they must be among the most successful of this weird literary genre.

In this article, I’ll go through general guidelines for what makes great college essays great. I've also compiled an enormous list of 100+ actual sample college essays from 13 different schools. Finally, I’ll break down two of these published college essay examples and explain why and how they work. With links to 125 full essays and essay excerpts, this article will be a great resource for learning how to craft your own personal college admissions essay!

 

What Excellent College Essays Have in Common

Even though in many ways these sample college essays are very different from one other, they do share some traits you should try to emulate as you write your own essay.

 

Visible Signs of Planning

Building out from a narrow, concrete focus. You’ll see a similar structure in many of the essays. The author starts with a very detailed story of an event or description of a person or place. After this sense-heavy imagery, the essay expands out to make a broader point about the author, and connects this very memorable experience to the author’s present situation, state of mind, newfound understanding, or maturity level.

Knowing how to tell a story. Some of the experiences in these essays are one-of-a-kind. But most deal with the stuff of everyday life. What sets them apart is the way the author approaches the topic: analyzing it for drama and humor, for its moving qualities, for what it says about the author’s world, and for how it connects to the author’s emotional life.

 

Stellar Execution

A killer first sentence. You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again: you have to suck the reader in, and the best place to do that is the first sentence. Great first sentences are punchy. They are like cliffhangers, setting up an exciting scene or an unusual situation with an unclear conclusion, in order to make the reader want to know more. Don’t take my word for it—check out these 22 first sentences from Stanford applicants and tell me you don’t want to read the rest of those essays to find out what happens!

A lively, individual voice. Writing is for readers. In this case, your reader is an admissions officer who has read thousands of essays before yours and will read thousands after. Your goal? Don’t bore your reader. Use interesting descriptions, stay away from clichés, include your own offbeat observations—anything that makes this essay sounds like you and not like anyone else.

 

Enchanted Prince Stan decided to stay away from any frog-kissing princesses to retain his unique perspective on ruling as an amphibian.

 

Technical correctness. No spelling mistakes, no grammar weirdness, no syntax issues, no punctuation snafus—each of these sample college essays has been formatted and proofread perfectly. If this kind of exactness is not your strong suit, you’re in luck! All colleges advise applicants to have their essays looked over several times by parents, teachers, mentors, and anyone else who can spot a comma splice. Your essay must be your own work, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help polishing it.

 

Links to Full College Essay Examples

Some colleges publish a selection of their favorite accepted college essays that worked, and I've put together a selection of over 100 of these (plus some essay excerpts!).

 

Common App Essay Samples

Please note that some of these college essay examples may be responding to prompts that are no longer in use. The current Common App prompts are as follows:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

 

Carleton College

 

Connecticut College

 

Hamilton College

 

Johns Hopkins

These essays are answers to past prompts from either the Common Application or the Universal Application, both of which Johns Hopkins accepts.

 

Tufts University

 

Essay Examples Published by Other Websites

  • 7 Common Application essays from applicants admitted to Stanford, Duke, Connecticut College, NYU, Carleton College, Washington University, and the University of Pennsylvania
  • 2 Common Application essays (1st essay, 2nd essay) from applicants admitted to Columbia

 

Other Sample College Essays

Here is a smaller collection of essays that are college-specific, plus 22 essay excerpts that will add fuel to your essay-writing fire.

 

Smith College

Each year, Smith asks its applicants to answer a different prompt with a 200-word essay. Here are six of these short essays answering the 2014 prompt: "Tell us about the best gift you’ve ever given or received."

 

Tufts University

On top of the Common Application essays students submit, Tufts asks applicants to answer three short essay questions: two mandatory, and one chosen from six prompts.

 

University of Chicago

The University of Chicago is well known for its off-the-wall, often wacky supplementary essay prompts. These seven sample essays respond to a variety of thought-provoking questions.


 

Analyzing Great Common App Essays That Worked

I've picked two essays from the examples collected above to examine in more depth so that you can see exactly what makes a successful college essay work. Full credit for these essays goes to the original authors and the schools that published them.

 

Example #1: "Breaking Into Cars," by Stephen, Johns Hopkins Class of '19  (Common App Essay, 636 words long)

I had never broken into a car before.

We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.

Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.

“Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?”

“Why me?” I thought.

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window’s seal like I’d seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame. Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I’d been in this type of situation before. In fact, I’d been born into this type of situation.

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally. My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed. “The water’s on fire! Clear a hole!” he shouted, tossing me in the lake without warning. While I’m still unconvinced about that particular lesson’s practicality, my Dad’s overarching message is unequivocally true: much of life is unexpected, and you have to deal with the twists and turns.

Living in my family, days rarely unfolded as planned. A bit overlooked, a little pushed around, I learned to roll with reality, negotiate a quick deal, and give the improbable a try. I don’t sweat the small stuff, and I definitely don’t expect perfect fairness. So what if our dining room table only has six chairs for seven people? Someone learns the importance of punctuality every night.

But more than punctuality and a special affinity for musical chairs, my family life has taught me to thrive in situations over which I have no power. Growing up, I never controlled my older siblings, but I learned how to thwart their attempts to control me. I forged alliances, and realigned them as necessary. Sometimes, I was the poor, defenseless little brother; sometimes I was the omniscient elder. Different things to different people, as the situation demanded. I learned to adapt.

Back then, these techniques were merely reactions undertaken to ensure my survival. But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: “How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?”

The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.

Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It’s family. It’s society. And often, it’s chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.

 

What Makes This Essay Tick?

It's very helpful to take writing apart in order to see just how it accomplishes its objectives. Stephen's essay is very effective. Let's find out why!

 

An Opening Line That Draws You In

I had never broken into a car before.

In just eight words, we get: scene-setting (he is standing next to a car about to break in), the idea of crossing a boundary (he is maybe about to do an illegal thing for the first time), and a cliffhanger (we are thinking: is he going to get caught? Is he headed for a life of crime? Is he about to be scared straight?).

 

Great, Detailed Opening Story

We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.

Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.

“Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?”

“Why me?” I thought.

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window’s seal like I’d seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame.

It’s the details that really make this small experience come alive. Notice how whenever he can, Stephen uses a more specific, descriptive word in place of a more generic one. The volunteers aren’t going to get food or dinner; they’re going for “Texas BBQ.” The coat hanger comes from “a dumpster.” Stephen doesn’t just move the coat hanger—he “jiggles” it.

Details also help us visualize the emotions of the people in the scene. The person who hands Stephen the coat hanger isn’t just uncomfortable or nervous; he “takes a few steps back”—a description of movement that conveys feelings. Finally, the detail of actual speech makes the scene pop. Instead of writing that the other guy asked him to unlock the van, Stephen has the guy actually say his own words in a way that sounds like a teenager talking.

 

Coat hangers: not just for crows' nests anymore! (Götz/Wikimedia)

 

Turning a Specific Incident Into a Deeper Insight

Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I’d been in this type of situation before. In fact, I’d been born into this type of situation.

Stephen makes the locked car experience a meaningful illustration of how he has learned to be resourceful and ready for anything, and he also makes this turn from the specific to the broad through an elegant play on the two meanings of the word “click.”

 

Using Concrete Examples When Making Abstract Claims

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally.

“Unpredictability and chaos” are very abstract, not easily visualized concepts. They could also mean any number of things—violence, abandonment, poverty, mental instability. By instantly following up with highly finite and unambiguous illustrations like “family of seven” and “siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing,” Stephen grounds the abstraction in something that is easy to picture: a large, noisy family.

 

Using Small Bits of Humor and Casual Word Choice

My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.

Obviously, knowing how to clean burning oil is not high on the list of things every 9-year-old needs to know. To emphasize this, Stephen uses sarcasm by bringing up a situation that is clearly over-the-top: “in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.”

The humor also feels relaxed. Part of this is because he introduces it with the colloquial phrase “you know,” so it sounds like he is talking to us in person. This approach also diffuses the potential discomfort of the reader with his father’s strictness—since he is making jokes about it, clearly he is OK. Notice, though, that this doesn’t occur very much in the essay. This helps keep the tone meaningful and serious rather than flippant.

 

"Mr. President? There's been an oil spill!" "Then I want our best elementary school students on it, STAT."

 

An Ending That Stretches the Insight Into the Future

But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: “How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?”

The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.

Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It’s family. It’s society. And often, it’s chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.

The ending of the essay reveals that Stephen’s life has been one long preparation for the future. He has emerged from chaos and his dad’s approach to parenting as a person who can thrive in a world that he can’t control.

This connection of past experience to current maturity and self-knowledge is a key element in all successful personal essays. Colleges are very much looking for mature, self-aware applicants. These are the qualities of successful college students, who will be able to navigate the independence college classes require and the responsibility and quasi-adulthood of college life.

 

What Could This Essay Do Even Better?

Even the best essays aren't perfect, and even the world's greatest writers will tell you that writing is never "finished"—just "due." So what would we tweak in this essay if we could? 

Replace some of the clichéd language. Stephen uses handy phrases like "twists and turns" and "don’t sweat the small stuff" as a kind of shorthand for explaining his relationship to chaos and unpredictability. But using too many of these ready-made expressions runs the risk of clouding out your own voice and replacing it with something expected and boring. 

Use another example from recent life. Stephen's first example (breaking into the van in Laredo) is a great illustration of being resourceful in an unexpected situation. But his essay also emphasizes that he "learned to adapt" by being "different things to different people." It would be great to see how this plays out outside his family, either in the situation in Laredo or another context.

 

Example #2: By Bridget Collins, Tufts Class of '19 (Common App Essay, 608 words long)

I have always loved riding in cars. After a long day in first grade, I used to fall asleep to the engine purring in my mother's Honda Odyssey, even though it was only a 5-minute drive home. As I grew, and graduated into the shotgun seat, it became natural and enjoyable to look out the window. Seeing my world passing by through that smudged glass, I would daydream what I could do with it.

In elementary school, I already knew my career path: I was going to be Emperor of the World. While I sat in the car and watched the miles pass by, I developed the plan for my empire. I reasoned that, for the world to run smoothly, it would have to look presentable. I would assign people, aptly named Fixer-Uppers, to fix everything that needed fixing. That old man down the street with chipping paint on his house would have a fresh coat in no time. The boy who accidentally tossed his Frisbee onto the roof of the school would get it back. The big pothole on Elm Street that my mother managed to hit every single day on the way to school would be filled-in. It made perfect sense! All the people that didn't have a job could be Fixer-Uppers. I was like a ten-year-old FDR.

Seven years down the road, I still take a second glance at the sidewalk cracks and think of my Fixer-Uppers, but now I'm doing so from the driver's seat. As much as I would enjoy it, I now accept that I won't become Emperor of the World, and that the Fixer-Uppers will have to remain in my car ride imaginings. Or do they? I always pictured a Fixer-Upper as a smiling man in an orange T-Shirt. Maybe instead, a Fixer-Upper could be a tall girl with a deep love for Yankee Candles. Maybe it could be me.

Bridget the Fixer-Upper will be slightly different than the imaginary one who paints houses and fetches Frisbees. I was lucky enough to discover what I am passionate about when I was a freshman in high school. A self-admitted Phys. Ed. addict, I volunteered to help out with the Adapted PE class. On my first day, I learned that it was for developmentally-disabled students. To be honest, I was really nervous. I hadn't had too much interaction with special needs students before, and wasn't sure how to handle myself around them. Long story short, I got hooked. Three years have passed helping out in APE and eventually becoming a teacher in the Applied Behavior Analysis summer program. I love working with the students and watching them progress.

When senior year arrived, college meetings began, and my counselor asked me what I wanted to do for a career, I didn't say Emperor of the World. Instead, I told him I wanted to become a board-certified behavior analyst. A BCBA helps develop learning plans for students with autism and other disabilities. Basically, I would get to do what I love for the rest of my life. He laughed and told me that it was a nice change that a seventeen-year-old knew so specifically what she wanted to do. I smiled, thanked him, and left. But it occurred to me that, while my desired occupation was decided, my true goal in life was still to become a Fixer-Upper. So, maybe I'll be like Sue Storm and her alter-ego, the Invisible Woman. I'll do one thing during the day, then spend my off-hours helping people where I can. Instead of flying like Sue, though, I'll opt for a nice performance automobile. My childhood self would appreciate that.

 

What Makes This Essay Tick?

Bridget takes a somewhat different approach than Stephen, but her essay is just as detailed and engaging. Let's go through some of the strengths of her essay.

 

A Structure That’s Easy to Follow and Understand

The essay is arranged chronologically. Bridget starts each paragraph with a clear signpost of where we are in time:

  • Paragraph 1: “after a long day in first grade”
  • Paragraph 2: “in elementary school”
  • Paragraph 3: “seven years down the road”
  • Paragraph 4: “when I was a freshman in high school”
  • Paragraph 5: “when senior year arrived”

This keeps the reader oriented without being distracting or gimmicky.

 

One Clear Governing Metaphor

I would assign people, aptly named Fixer-Uppers, to fix everything that needed fixing. That old man down the street with chipping paint on his house would have a fresh coat in no time. The boy who accidentally tossed his Frisbee onto the roof of the school would get it back.

Seven years down the road, I still take a second glance at the sidewalk cracks and think of my Fixer-Uppers, but now I'm doing so from the driver's seat. As much as I would enjoy it, I now accept that I won't become Emperor of the World, and that the Fixer-Uppers will have to remain in my car ride imaginings. Or do they? I always pictured a Fixer-Upper as a smiling man in an orange T-Shirt. Maybe instead, a Fixer-Upper could be a tall girl with a deep love for Yankee Candles. Maybe it could be me.

I wanted to become a board-certified behavior analyst. A BCBA helps develop learning plans for students with autism and other disabilities. Basically, I would get to do what I love for the rest of my life. …But it occurred to me that, while my desired occupation was decided, my true goal in life was still to become a Fixer-Upper.

What makes this essay fun to read is that Bridget takes a child’s idea of a world made better through quasi-magical helpers and turns it into a metaphor for the author’s future aspirations. It helps that the metaphor is a very clear one: people who work with students with disabilities are making the world better one abstract fix at a time, just like imaginary Fixer-Uppers would make the world better one concrete physical fix at a time.

 

Every childhood Fixer-Upper ever. Ask your parents to explain the back row to you. (JD Hancock/Flickr)

 

An Engaging, Individual Voice

This essay uses many techniques that make Bridget sound genuine and make the reader feel like we already know her. 

Technique #1: humor. Notice Bridget's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks her younger self’s grand ambitions (this is different from the more sarcastic kind of humor used by Stephen in the first essay—you could never mistake one writer for the other).

In elementary school, I already knew my career path: I was going to be Emperor of the World.

I was like a ten-year-old FDR.

Technique #2: invented terminology. The second technique is the way Bridget coins her own terms, carrying them through the whole essay. It would be easy enough to simply describe the people she imagined in childhood as helpers or assistants, and to simply say that as a child she wanted to rule the world. Instead, she invents the capitalized (and thus official-sounding) titles “Fixer-Upper” and “Emperor of the World,” making these childish conceits at once charming and iconic. What's also key is that the titles feed into the central metaphor of the essay, which keeps them from sounding like strange quirks that don’t go anywhere.

Technique #3: playing with syntax. The third technique is to use sentences of varying length, syntax, and structure. Most of the essay's written in standard English and uses grammatically correct sentences. However, at key moments, Bridget emphasizes that the reader needs to sit up and pay attention by switching to short, colloquial, differently punctuated, and sometimes fragmented sentences.

The big pothole on Elm Street that my mother managed to hit every single day on the way to school would be filled-in. It made perfect sense! All the people that didn't have a job could be Fixer-Uppers.

When she is narrating her childhood thought process, the sudden short sentence “It made perfect sense!” (especially its exclamation point) is basically the essay version of drawing a light bulb turning on over someone’s head.

As much as I would enjoy it, I now accept that I won't become Emperor of the World, and that the Fixer-Uppers will have to remain in my car ride imaginings. Or do they?

Similarly, when the essay turns from her childhood imagination to her present-day aspirations, the turn is marked with “Or do they?”—a tiny and arresting half-sentence question.

Maybe instead, a Fixer-Upper could be a tall girl with a deep love for Yankee Candles. Maybe it could be me.

The first time when the comparison between magical fixer-upper’s and the future disability specialist is made is when Bridget turns her metaphor onto herself. The essay emphasizes the importance of the moment through repetition (two sentences structured similarly, both starting with the word “maybe”) and the use of a very short sentence: “Maybe it could be me.”

To be honest, I was really nervous. I hadn't had too much interaction with special needs students before, and wasn't sure how to handle myself around them. Long story short, I got hooked.

The last key moment that gets the small-sentence treatment is the emotional crux of the essay. As we watch Bridget go from nervously trying to help disabled students to falling in love with this specialty field, she undercuts the potential sappiness of the moment by relying on changed-up sentence length and slang: “Long story short, I got hooked.”

 


The best essays convey emotions just as clearly as this image.

 

What Could This Essay Do Even Better?

Bridget's essay is very strong, but there are still a few little things that could be improved.

Explain the car connection better. The essay begins and ends with Bridget's enjoying a car ride, but this doesn't seem to be related either to the Fixer-Upper idea or to her passion for working with special-needs students. It would be great to either connect this into the essay more, or to take it out altogether and create more space for something else.

Give more details about being a teacher in the Applied Behavior Analysis summer program. It makes perfect sense that Bridget doesn't want to put her students on display. It would take the focus off of her and possibly read as offensive or condescending. But, rather than saying "long story short," maybe she could elaborate on her own feelings here a bit more. What is it about this kind of teaching that she loves? What is she hoping to bring to the lives of her future clients?

 

3 Essential Tips for Writing Your Own Essay

How can you use this discussion to better your own college essay? Here are some suggestions for ways to use this resource effectively.

 

#1: Read Other Essays to Get Ideas for Your Own

As you go through the essays we've compiled for you above, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you explain to yourself (or someone else!) why the opening sentence works well?
  • Look for the essay's detailed personal anecdote. What senses is the author describing? Can you easily picture the scene in your mind's eye?
  • Find the place where this anecdote bridges into a larger insight about the author. How does the essay connect the two? How does the anecdote work as an example of the author's characteristic, trait, or skill?
  • Check out the essay's tone. If it's funny, can you find the places where the humor comes from? If it's sad and moving, can you find the imagery and description of feelings that make you moved? If it's serious, can you see how word choice adds to this tone?

Make a note whenever you find an essay or part of an essay that you think was particularly well-written, and think about what you like about it. Is it funny? Does it help you really get to know the writer? Does it show what makes the writer unique? Once you have your list, keep it next to you while writing your essay to remind yourself to try and use those same techniques in your own essay.

 

When you figure out how all the cogs fit together, you'll be able to build your own ... um ... whatever this is.

 

#2: Find Your "A-Ha!" Moment

All of these essays rely on connecting with the reader through a heartfelt, highly descriptive scene from the author's life. It can either be very dramatic (did you survive a plane crash?) or it can be completely mundane (did you finally beat your dad at Scrabble?). Either way, it should be personal and revealing about you, your personality, and the way you are now that you are entering the adult world.

 

#3: Start Early, Revise Often

Let me level with you: the best writing isn't writing at all. It's rewriting. And in order to have time to rewrite, you have to start way before the application deadline. My advice is to write your first draft at least two months before your applications are due.

Let it sit for a few days untouched. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and think critically about what you've written. What's extra? What's missing? What is in the wrong place? What doesn't make sense? Don't be afraid to take it apart and rearrange sections. Do this several times over, and your essay will be much better for it!

 

What’s Next?

Interested in learning more about college essays? Check out our detailed breakdown of exactly how personal statements work in an application, some suggestions on what to avoid when writing your essay, and our guide to writing about your extracurricular activities.

Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying.

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

 

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