Be careful where you look for essay inspiration.
When I was preparing to apply to college, someone gifted me a book containing what the author promised were successful college essays. I read it cover to cover, but some essays sure seemed a lot more interesting than others. Even at age 17, I just couldn’t believe any admissions officer enjoyed reading an essay that spent 500 words describing in painstaking detail how to dunk an Oreo into a glass of milk. After spending the last 22 years in college admissions, I’m even more certain that not all of those essays, especially the Oreo treatise, made a positive admissions impact.
Today, any curious student is just a few keystrokes away from the internet serving up dozens of examples of college essays. Sometimes it’s a promised collection of “essays that worked.” Or a student’s essay that “Got me in” to a highly selective college. Or even just a second-hand story about a friend who was admitted to their dream college because their essay compared their cat to their favorite Shakespearean villain. But here’s the problem with just about all those examples: you don’t know if the essay was actually successful.
Just because a sprinter wins a race doesn’t mean their new running shoes are the reason. And the same can be said about successful college applicants’ essays. Did the essay influence the decision, or was it a non-factor? Maybe the student was admitted in spite of the essay?
Without these insights, you can’t draw any informed conclusions about that particular essay’s admissions influence. You can guess. A knowledgeable counselor or admissions professional could give you their insight. But the only people who know for sure why a student was or was not admitted are the admissions committee members who discussed and voted on the decision.
And there it is—one of your most reputable sources for college essay advice and even examples.
Colleges are increasingly sharing insight about their admissions process, and yes, even essays. Check out the University of California system, Carleton, and Harvard as examples. Visit the websites of schools that interest you to see if they have any advice about the application process. Many colleges also have admissions bloggers who post regularly with tips and perspectives to help applicants feel more confident and informed. Tufts, MIT, University of Virginia, and Georgia Tech are some of our favorites. If a school you’re applying to is willing to share their take on essays, please follow their advice. They read the applications. They make the decisions about who to admit. And they know the real insight about the essays that worked for them.
But those promised “successful essays” you find in the online universe? Please don’t view them as blueprints for an approach you should take. Great college essays are not created from mimicking someone else’s story, approach, or tone. They’re created from thinking deeply about the topic and then sharing a story that helps the reader understand more about the writer. A school counselor, a knowledgeable older sibling, or an admissions professional can give you some advice about how to find and share your best story. But an unverified sample essay just doesn’t offer the same insight.
That book with the questionable essays? It’s still available for purchase today (worth noting that I applied to college in 1988 using a typewriter). If you’re looking for dessert inspiration, maybe it’ll work for you. But I’d get my essay inspiration from a different menu.
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