It's much harder to explain what sets apart a great essay from a mediocre one than it is to simply read a successful sample essay. Here's an essay that really does speak for itself, immediately bringing us along to experience the ethical dilemma that this student faced. Not only does she draw us into her struggle, but she comes out having made the best decision for herself and her school. While the topic can seem risky, it clearly conveys her strength of character and ability to realize how the decisions she makes can impact various lives. And which college wouldn't want those qualities on its campus?
I sat in my principal’s office along with two friends, wondering if I was making a serious mistake. My principal stared at us from across his desk and adjusted his glasses.
“Why are you all here?”
I hesitantly said, “We want to talk to you about plagiarism.”
One of our classmates, an extremely bright student capable of achieving excellent grades without cheating, had lifted a full lab report from the internet for our chemistry assignment. She was a friend of mine and we were often lab partners who enjoyed discussing the orbital distribution of electrons and the effects of a water molecule’s polarity. A week earlier I had sat at my desk reading her lab report, growing evermore frustrated and angry. The level of analysis in the report transcended anything she could have come up with on her own. No sophomore I knew could write as she had, and it did not appear to be written in her style. My classmates and I had spent hours upon hours working on the same report that we soon discovered she had simply copied and pasted from different websites.
I am a naturally empathetic person and pride myself on my loyalty to friends. I have made some great sacrifices on behalf of those close to me and initially wanted to keep this particular issue between me and my friend. When I approached her about this, she refused to listen to me. I suggested she simply re-do the report on her own and turn in a new draft, but she dismissed me. When I asked her again later to reconsider resolving this on her own, she accused me of ridiculous claims.
All the people I had asked for advice—my parents, my friends, even a teacher—had given me different suggestions. I’m not a confrontational person and try not to judge others, especially since I have made foolish mistakes in the past and have also at times stood on the sidelines in the face of injustice, waiting for someone else to step forward. But this plagiarism was so blatant, so in our faces, and our principal had just recently spoken to us about our honor code, which we felt would be relegated to a bankrupt phrase unless we, well, honored it here. Ultimately, my classmates and I agreed that school and the pressures to perform would turn into a charade if we ignored this.
As we sat in his office, we had to take our principal’s earlier discussion about moral dilemmas and apply it to an actual situation. If there is one thing in life I value most it is honesty. Each person has the responsibility to approach the many challenges he or she encounters with integrity—and just as important, each person has choice. My friend who had plagiarized was cheating her classmates, herself, and our school. And she was unwilling to listen to any of us, knowing that her grade would affect ours. So we made the difficult decision.
When our discussion with the principal came to an end, he said, “You were right to come to me.” Our classmate who had plagiarizedwas reprimanded and ultimately apologized to all of us.
“I’m sorry to have put you through that,” she later told me.
“I’m sorry, too.” Because even though I know we did the right thing, it didn’t always feel that way.
As you're gearing up to write a mountain of essays, it's easy to toss out those optional essay questions. After all, they are optional, and what else could you possibly have to say after writing 30 other essays? Okay, we definitely get that, but let's slow down and rethink this. Colleges want to know you as more than just a constellation of numbers, and they want to know that to you their college is the most important. What better opportunity than to take the time out to write an optional essay that shares even more about yourself with the college of your dreams? Even if you are simply submitting your resume in order to give a more complete summary of your experiences, or as the below essay does, giving more background on the Common App main essay and sharing further information about a passion, the extra effort won't be overlooked.
When I was five years old, my grandparents took me to the Museum of Modern Art, and as we entered Chuck Close’s exhibit, I approached with curiosity the portrait entitled “Emma.” I suddenly realized that the striking and colorful pixilated image I had seen from afar was actually composed of hundreds of individually painted squares. I was totally blown away. At the time I was drawn to the purely aesthetic value of the painting, but as I grew older it was Close’s unique process of creating art that inspired me.
Process would become everything to me in the years ahead. In fact, the process of trying to find the right college allowed me to develop a much better understanding of who I am and what I’m looking for in the next four years, and I now see that Bucknell encapsulates everything I’m seeking academically, socially, and personally. I believe Bucknell’s Affinity housing option embodies my belief that many individual voices coming together can create something powerful and surprising that goes far beyond what any one person can achieve alone.
In my early teens I started exploring subjects like psychology, politics, history, and business, and can see now that what I appreciated was how, like in Close’s abstract impressionism, every story or idea was composed of smaller stories and ideas, each building on the other. This concept was made real when I was developing the trip to India for Kaiizen (see my Common App essay). I had a grand vision and needed to break that big goal down into many small goals, each with its own set of responsibilities and staff members. Throughout the process of designing this service trip, I continually expressed the importance of small contributions coming together (whether in fundraising or staff support) to reach a loftier goal. I led the group, keeping in mind that inter-relationships were key, and was able to motivate the members of the group to contribute small pieces of what, in the end, turned out to be a massively successful and inspirational trip.
Bucknell offers students the opportunity to get involved in things like The Global Friendship Club and B.A.C.E.S. These on-campus organizations make it clear to me that Bucknell values the idea that individuals working together for the greater good can achieve great things. I believe any challenge in life can be broken down into small, manageable parts, and that understanding those parts is crucial for arriving at a successful outcome. The notion that Bucknell supports this way of thinking makes me very excited about the prospect of calling it my home for the next four years.
Almost all students apply using the Common App, and the Common App main essay is always the first essay students write. The Common App released new questions before the summer, providing ample time for students to get their creative juices flowing. While there is no longer a "choose your own topic" option, many would agree that the topics are still open-ended enough to provide the possibility of writing on almost any topic. While you may be several drafts in by now, it's always helpful to read a really strong sample essay filled with heart and authenticity where you get a real feel for a person's character, hopes and dreams. We think this one does the job nicely.
At age 12, Nosibusiso lost nearly her entire family to AIDS. She had no money, no home, and no food, yet had to somehow care for her two younger brothers. I listened intently as she told me of how she lived on the streets of Swaziland and how she no longer had a fear of death. The familiar has a way of losing its power.
Then 15, I went back to my place, a dilapidated mud barn strewn with 16 straw mattresses, and wept. I thought about how my life’s path had displaced me from my own home and family for the preceding few years. In that moment, I felt a deep and basic connection to Nosibusiso. Though we came from different worlds and I had much more security and comfort in my life, we were both young kids who desperately wanted guidance and help while growing up, but felt lost.
My journey to Swaziland began when I met Josh Brazier, the head of Kaiizen, a non-profit organization that works globally with underprivileged kids. He was affiliated with Telos, my therapeutic boarding school. I became involved with Kaiizen and was soon offered the opportunity to go on a three-week service trip to South Africa and Swaziland. I eagerly jumped at the opportunity and began the process of raising money right away. Fundraising was vital to the success of Kaiizen, for this was no “teen tour” that collected several thousand dollars from parents eager to send their children hopscotching through Europe on coach buses and sleeping at high-end hotels. After we reached our goal of $50,000, which funded our own travels and the support we intended to provide, we left.
We arrived in Johannesburg two days later, navigated to Mlilwane, Swaziland, settled into our hut, and then went to work. Our main projects centered on improving a day care center for children whose families had been affected by HIV. We played with kids and educated them about the disease, and also traveled to nearby villages, providing food, basic medical support, and building supplies for dozens of homes and shelters.
The work lit a fire under me, and it wasn’t long before Josh acknowledged my enthusiasm and dedication. He asked me to come on another trip with him, and I, of course, said yes. However, my role on this next trip would be different for he raised the stakes and proposed that I spearhead its planning, saying, “Ethan, you take the reigns, and I’ll provide the infrastructure.”
Little did I know I would spend the next year of my life researching and collaborating with Josh on a program to improve an orphanage in India. As my role shifted from participant to architect, I conceptualized and micromanaged nearly every aspect: finding the orphanage, coordinating dates, and exploring service opportunities. In the process, I grew fascinated with the leprosy epidemic, and arranged for us to provide food and supplies to three separate leprosy colonies in Chennai and to work with an afterschool program that supported kids whose parents had been affected by the disease. Ultimately, we became companions to these children. We made them feel like they mattered. They had no one; they were separated from their families, and had lost touch with what it’s like to be loved. We reminded them.
As the trip came to a close, I remembered how years earlier I had heard Margaret Mead’s quote about a small group of thoughtful citizens changing the world. At the time I thought it was naïve, but now I see just how true it is. I thought of how many lives we had touched during our short time in India. When I got home, I thought of my first encounter with Nosibusiso and hoped I would see her again. I know my kindness helped her at least that summer, but I wanted to tell her how her inspirational strength had changed me for a lifetime.
For many, school is right around the corner, so take advantage of this time to get a jumpstart on your essays! One of the most common types of essays that you will have to write, and perhaps the most tricky, is why you want to attend a certain program. This is a great way to set yourself apart from other applicants, and the last thing that you want to do it to regurgitate a school's brochure. Here's a great example from a student who was accepted to a special program at Colby:
Colby’s 360-Degree Residential Learning Plan embodies my belief that many individual voices coming together can create something powerful and surprising that goes far beyond what any one person can achieve alone. I am fascinated by psychology, politics, history, and business, and am seeking the kind of interdisciplinary study that Colby offers so I can build on my existing service background designing programs that aim to understand and support poverty-ridden regions of the world. Developing the service trip to India for Kaiizen (see my Common App essay) showed me that having a grand vision requires breaking that big goal down into many small goals, each with its own set of responsibilities and staff members. This spirit of business acumen and collaboration at Colby is evident by your recent hosting of the CBB annual economics conference. I also had an opportunity to read Guillermo Vuletin’s fascination discussion on “Fiscal policy in developing countries”—this is exactly the kind of structure that my personal drive and raw experience require.
Taking practical action to implement change is something that Colby students clearly value through their work with Amnesty International, the Social Entrepreneurs Club, and United Work at Colby.With a beautiful campus, engaged professors, a tight-knit student body, and academic programs that match my skills and interests, Colby is the ideal collaborative community (in my current state of residence!) that I’ve always wanted to be a part of.
Colleges want to know that students will be committed to being an active member of their communities when they get there. This student wrote the essay below when colleges asked her to describe a significant community experience. Through describing her commitment to her current school, she demonstrated that she will be a valuable member of her future college.
At the end of my junior year I decided to run for Student Council President, rhyming my entire speech, with friends on backup vocals, to Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di.” Although I did not win, I stand by my platform: more social unity and school spirit—cliché maybe, but valid nonetheless. No one ever came to my basketball games and most of the students didn’t even know what our school colors were. Without a football team or pep rallies, Highland High suffers from a lack of student involvement. I wanted to change that.
Since 9th grade I have been heavily involved in Red Door, a club whose student members tour prospective parents around the school. This club encourages students to take pride in themselves and in the school, and has always meant a great deal to me. A parent I toured last year asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’m sure he expected to hear “doctor” or “lawyer” but I proudly said, “Rock star!” and prepared for the questions. I explained that Highland High offers a wide variety of classes for future rock stars. Aside from regular music classes, there are music writing classes using computers, a music appreciation club that experiments with instruments, and speech class to help with press conferences after the show.
My commitment to Highland High continues through the Arts and Crafts Club I started last year—objectively the greatest club in Highland High's prestigious history. In truth, it does have the most regular members who meet once a week, and the main goal is to add a spike of childhood back into our busy city lives. We use things we don’t have in our art classes, like Play-Doh or Silly String, and make ginger bread houses, bracelets, and tye dye. Together we strive to build a creative environment that adds to the Highland High community and makes us all view our school like a second home.
Colleges may ask you to describe your family, but what they are often trying to understand is the type of values your family hold. This student creatively responds to the question by not only talking about his family, but also his friends and the way he views others with an open mind.
Every high school has its stereotypical cliques. The jocks, the nerds, the popular ones, and on and on. I have always found these labels so narrow-minded and unfair. I move comfortably from one group to another, always at ease with whom I am among. But some friends don’t understand this. Sometimes I am with a friend and am told that I can’t bring him to some get-together going on elsewhere. I either defend my friend or simply don’t meet up with the others, but I would never abandon him. Respect is the cornerstone of any true friendship, and I have always valued the differences that others embody.
Differences are what I am all about. My father is a French-Lebanese immigrant who moved to the United States in 1979, while my mother is a native Brazilian who came to the US in 1978. They both arrived in America eager to explore their new opportunities and discover different parts of their existing identities, and this hunger for adventure and possibility has been cultivated in me.
Their upbringings have created vast distinctions between my home life and that of my friends. My parents’ cultural backgrounds stress a greater emphasis on the family unit, whereas my friends tend to be pushed into more individualistic roles that prioritize the importance of doing things on their own.
Then there is also the matter of travel. I have visited many different countries and every vacation must be a family trip. We’re more travelers than tourists, looking to experience different nations and peoples from the inside perspective. I’m sure this is largely because of my experience going so often to Brazil. I travel there yearly, spending two or three months there each year. As a Brazilian citizen fluent in Portuguese, with family in Rio de Janeiro, I am able to mingle with the culture from the inside.
This diverse background, especially in the most multicultural city in the world, has given me a very unique perspective on life. When many people mention the term “diversity,” it is often just a concept or a word. It has little relevance to their actual lives. For me, diversity is my life, and this diversity of background has opened me to political movements, social ideas, and personal attitudes that more traditional Americans might not be receptive to. As a result, I am able to look beyond a limited perspective and consider issues in more global terms.
Personal values are qualities that represent your priorities and highest motivations. Asking about personal values allows colleges to gain insight into the traits that students hold dear. This student wrote the essay below when colleges asked him to describe one of his personal values. He also used it in modified form to address such essay topics as adversity, personal trait/identity, community, diversity, social issue, and greatest accomplishment, among others. The key is to interpret the questions creatively and apply them to your own personal characteristics.
Grapes, box scores, and musical fugues – not a list of things commonly associated with one another but, in my life, these items are forever linked.
One day, as I was sitting in my highchair, pretending to be king of all babies perched on my throne, my parents decided to interrupt my fantasy for a meal. A bowl of voluptuous grapes was placed before me. "How many grapes are there, Joshie?" my mom asked. "Ten!" When she took three away, I counted seven. And with that, my passion for numbers took its alpha step into what would become a lifelong pursuit of numerical wisdom, a love I have always referred to as The Grapes Of Math.
The eminent physicist Richard Feynman once remarked that, in order to do multiplication, all one needs is to know how to count. I proved this concept a few years later. My dad, recognizing my early proficiency for addition and subtraction, and my early passion for all things athletic, decided to test my knack for multiplication with batting averages and box scores in the New York Times.
Perhaps the only other activity in my life that conjures up such passion for me is music. From the age of three, I sang the concluding prayers at my synagogue. Congregants would tell me what a beautiful voice I had, but I never believed them. As I got older, my confidence as a singer began to grow and I joined a small choral group in fourth grade. Unfortunately, by fifth grade, my voice experienced that inevitable adolescent mutiny and I became embarrassed to continue in the chorus.
Last year, several juniors at my school performed at Fugue Night to an audience of peers and parents. I composed a fugue and helped perform another. Our music teacher, who happened also to be the chorus director, heard me sing and told me that I had an amazing ear and great voice. At her urging, I auditioned for chorus, and, with her support, I became one of 15 students chosen for the school’s prestigious chamber choir.
Just as my “grapes of math” have aged, so too has my passion for math. As I have learned more, math has become more exquisite and flavorful to me. Similarly, musical tastes change with age, and my musical development has seen me evolve from a carefree singer, to an insecure one, to a skilled one, to an educational one. For a while, music represented a suppression of a love, for which I struggled internally with self-doubt. But it always remained inside me; a true passion, after all, cannot be kept silent for long.
In an effort for colleges to better understand you as a person beyond grades and test scores, they may invite students to write about important influences in their lives. Below is a student's response when asked to describe a person who influenced him in a meaningful way.
Sometimes you find your inspiration where you least expect it. I found mine in Mr. Glick, my high school’s long-time vocal teacher. Given my love of math and science, I certainly did not walk into his class in seventh grade expecting anything more than a few hours a week listening to and learning about music. Instead, I found a new passion, singing, and a teacher who, through the zeal and energy he brought to each moment in class, served as a standard against which I could measure my own efforts.
My growing love for singing has led me to audition and become a part of Mr. Glick’s most selective choir group, the A Cappella singers. Singing without the aid of any instruments, turning our combined voices into the instruments themselves, is difficult work. It requires trust, teamwork, and the willingness to take risks, because any one person out of tune will ruin the sound. When everyone works together, though, the sound that is produced is simply amazing.
Through his boundless enthusiasm for music and tireless zest for teaching, Mr. Glick has been an indirect inspiration to me since seventh grade. As my vocal teacher and my advisor (a title similar to that of homeroom teacher), he has also directly encouraged me to seek out the camaraderie, solidarity, and shared passion I experience in choir through other activities. Sports turned out to be a natural outlet for me, and I was amazed to find the same sense of intuitive and collaborative bond with my school football and basketball teams as I did in choir.
The pleasure of being part of a community defines much of my time spent in high school. This feeling of connectedness to others, of having learned from and supported others in our common path toward a shared goal, is largely the result of finding myself in Mr. Glick’s music class five years ago. Now, as a senior in the A Capella choir who is also on the varsity football and basketball teams, I am fortunate to be part of such a wonderful high school family that I helped create.
Colleges may want students to describe a significant work experience. If you don't feel you have this under your belt yet, consider hunting for an internship this summer, or volunteering for a worthy cause. It cannot only lead you to a great topic for an essay, but it will also give you real world experience which will help you learn more about your goals as you prepare for college. Below is how one student described her summer work experience:
I have always had a passion for science, especially for seeing it applied in the laboratory. This past summer I seized an opportunity to further my interests in molecular biology through a program concentrating on the genetic mutations that cause Pompe’s Disease, an autosomal recessive disorder resulting in rapid muscle degeneration. At Bellevue Hospital’s Muscle Rehabilitation Unit, I assisted a research scientist in his study of the genetic disease, and learned how to actively participate in the actual manipulation of patients' genes. First, I would isolate a particular group of exons and then amplify and replicate these nucleic sequences. Next, I would strip the DNA of contaminations added in the previous procedures, thus purifying it. But a complicated step followed. It involved adding radioactive substances that would bind to certain nucleotides, enabling the depiction of the separate nucleotides. Handling such things as radioactive chemicals, fragile materials, and microscopic elements entailed meticulous efforts, and together with the research scientist, we were able to create a film with the imprints of a patient's DNA sequence, whereupon I could identify the location of a mutation. It was an effort that required an attention not only to detail, but also to safety and technique. It was a unique experience and showed me the levels to which science can rise when separate talents are united.
Colleges want to know your passions and what drives you, and asking to describe a personal goal is one way of exploring those topics. Below is how one student responded when a college asked her to discuss a significant personal goal she achieved. She also used it in modified form to address similar essay topics addressing personal value, intellectual interests, adversity, a personal activity, among others:
The room resonates with the sound of the last note. The echo hovers softly above the crowd until it fades into the applause of a packed auditorium. My heart races, still feeling the excitement of the piece pulsating in my blood. The entire orchestra stands up for a bow. For a second, it seems like all eyes are on just me. Now I was the Concert Master I had admired three years ago.
I switch hands into a non-dominant cradle and whip my lacrosse stick toward a fleeting opening I see in the goal. I look over to the sideline and my coach is smiling at me—a rare sign of emotion. I feel the momentum build within myself and my teammates; although we are down by two and time is winding down, there is a newly inspired hope.
After reading Albert Camus’s The Stranger, translated into English, I understand the basic plot, but the allegedly philosophical power of this novel continues to elude me. I now realize how much is really “lost in translation,” as words that technically mean the same thing in English don’t make the same impression on me as they do in their original French. I am suddenly closer to Camus and his ideas.
Existentialism itself captivated me immediately, and not merely because of Camus’s brilliant prose. I was drawn to the whole idea that a person’s existence is determined by that person’s own choices in life, that there is a freedom to one’s actions. I have made various sacrifices in my life, forgoing short-term gratification in order to strive toward long-term goals, and I used to resent these sacrifices.
But these efforts were, in the end, what mattered. Success is only as gratifying as it is because of the struggle and energy it entails. If success came gift-wrapped in a box waiting for me at my front door, it would not mean as much to me. That violin note, that lacrosse goal, that linguistic epiphany—each is beautiful to me because of what came before it. The memory of those private struggles is, in truth, what I experience most intensely during my moments of glory.