Sample Essay on an Ethical Dilemma

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.

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Essay Sample: The Optional Essay

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.

Essay Sample: Why Colby?

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.

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Essay on Community

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.

Essay on a Person of Influence

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.

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Essay on a Personal Goal

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.

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