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Bad College Essay Examples: 5 Essay Mistakes To Avoid

what makes a bad college essay

Grades, GPA, and transcripts are important components when applying to college. But numbers only tell part of the story. The  college admissions essay  plays a much more powerful role in telling your personal story to college admissions officers. So while university admissions departments may set initial cut-offs based on numbers, they make their final decision based on your college personal statement essay.

At Wordvice, we know college admissions essays. Every year, we receive tens of millions of words to edit from students applying to college. Therefore, we know what good college essays, bad college essays, and great college essays look like–and what students should do in their essays to get the attention of admissions officers.

Here we will cover  how to write a good college personal statement  by looking at some  common college admission essay mistakes to avoid  and discuss ways to improve your college application essays.

What does a good college application essay look like?

Before looking at some essay mistakes to avoid (or “bad college essays” to be a bit more blunt), let’s discuss what a good admissions essay does. Effective college personal statements give broad, comprehensive insights into your personal and academic background, provide college admissions counselors with an overview of your goals, and answer the college prompt directly and clearly. 

One of the best ways to learn how to write a good college application essay is to look at what successful students wrote.  

Check out a few powerful  examples of successful personal statements  so you can recognize what a great college application essay looks like. Reading examples of college essays can help you to understand exactly what college admissions officers are looking for.

bad college essay examples

Useful Tips on How to Write a College Admissions Essay

Once you take a look at what some successful college essay examples look like, the second step should be looking at some useful tips and checklists. This will help organize your college essay writing process, so look at these tips  before  you start writing and check them off as you go. 

  • Quick Tips to Conquer the College Application Essay
  • Six Tips for Proofreading your College Admissions Essay

Why it’s Important to Avoid Mistakes in Your College Essay

Even if you include all of the above positive tips in your college application essay, you still need to be aware of and avoid common college application essay mistakes. The importance of this cannot be understated. 

Negativity bias  is the concept in psychology that people will remember, dwell on, and act upon unpleasant thoughts and emotions as compared to positive or correct ones. Therefore, applicants should focus on the positive and productive elements of their personal narrative in the essay, even if this story includes some negative events or circumstances.

What does this mean for your college application essay?

Your personal statement is not only scanned by AI-powered grammar and spell checker apps to weed out simple mistakes outright, they are also read, interpreted, and graded by real human college admissions officers. These are seasoned professionals who will reject your college essay for any reason they deem fit. 

Randi Heathman, an independent education consultant, gives a clear summary of  why application essays are rejected :

Weak essays get skimmed. If a student’s essay isn’t great OR good, the admission officer will probably just skim past the essay and move right on to your transcript and your test scores to evaluate your candidacy for admission. Bad essays don’t get read. Period. A bad essay will prompt an admission officer to assume one of two things: 1) either you don’t care enough about your future at their school to take the time to write a good essay or 2) you aren’t academically up to attending their college or university. Neither of those assumptions will help you get admitted.

Do you see a theme here? Your college admissions essay needs to not only engage in and answer the prompt but also not give admissions officers any reasons to discard it. 

For this reason, students must actively  avoid the following college admissions essay mistakes.

Common College Essay Mistakes To Avoid

Below is a list and analysis of the types of mistakes to avoid on your college personal statement and avoid writing a bad college essay that will likely NOT get you into your program of choice.

bad college essay examples, broken plate metaphor

Your Application Essay Repeats the Essay Prompt

Many universities have strict word counts that are designed to make the admissions process more efficient but also force you to write concisely. 

For example,  Villanova University has two application essays . The free choice essay is limited to 250 words while its “Why Nova?” essay is limited to just 100 words! 

So if you really want to ruin your chances of admission, repeat the essay prompt. Veteran college admissions officers will instantly trash your essay. It shows laziness and is interpreted as you not respecting their time. You need every opportunity to show who you are, your goals, and how you align with your target university. The best students have plenty to write about, and so should you.

Your Application Essay Uses Cliches

One of the biggest mistakes to avoid in your college admissions essay would be including tired clichés that don’t add interesting points or content. Don’t try to sound profound, exclusive, or postmodern in your writing. This will be obvious to the reader, and you probably will also not be the best writer or candidate on paper they have seen. What’s actually important is to demonstrate your self-awareness, your self-confidence, and your priorities and goals. 

Trying desperately to sound special will make you end up sounding like every other applicant, and admissions officers are experts at spotting fakes. You have plenty of resources to work with. Make sure your ideas are your own.

Example of clichés in an essay

When explaining a personal setback or a difficult decision, instead of writing, “This event was a disparate result antithetical to my character,” show some personal ownership and be straightforward. Here is a better way to phrase this sentiment:  “This is a decision I am not proud of, but it helped me learn a valuable lesson and put me in a better place today. Without this formative experience, I wouldn’t be the kind of person who applies myself in every challenging circumstance.”  

Need extra help improving your essay writing? Check out these  14 tricks to make your writing clearer and more engaging :

writing tips for essays

Your Admissions Essay Shares Too Much Personal Information

You have probably read everywhere that your personal statement should be, well, personal. Colleges want to get to know not just your academic background but also your personal worldview and interactions with successful people. 

This doesn’t mean you should discuss deeply personal issues at length or in too great of detail. Even controversial topics such as religion and politics are often welcomed if your perspective is well reasoned and fair. However, you must be able to demonstrate you can respect, recognize, and maintain personal boundaries. That is a key life skill that college admissions committees are looking for. 

Examples of sharing too much personal information

  • Don’t discuss your sexual experiences.  Your sexual orientation may be a key part of your overall identity. However, limit this by keeping out details of personal activities. Use common sense and understand that most admissions officers are members of the general public who might not respond favorably to explicit details of your personal life. 
  • Don’t confess to strange, illegal, or immoral behaviors or beliefs.  If you have a strange obsession, keep it to yourself. Only include unique aspects about your character or preferences if are key parts of how you view the world or your success as a student.
  • Don’t insult subgroups of people . You never know who your college admissions officer will be. You want to show you know how to interface with the world, and your college application is a big first step to showing your maturity and inclusive views.

Your Admissions Essay is a Sympathy Essay

This essay mistake is very similar to oversharing personal information. These types of essays are usually a long list of all the terrible things that have happened to you with the hope that the admissions committee will take pity because they feel bad for you. 

Newsflash: the “sympathy approach” likely is not going to work. A lot of prospective students have gone through the divorce of their parents, the death of a friend or family member, medical issues, disabilities, mental health issues, accidents, etc. 

If you do want to include these life-changing or identity-forming events, they must be used to explain how they shaped you as a person, what you learned, and how you handled adversity. Show how you grew as a person or how your worldview and character were altered to make you into the excellent college candidate you are today.

Examples of “sympathy essays”

  • “Everyone around me kept me from succeeding.”  Like the lyrics of an early-2000’s rock song, some application essays foreground their experiences on a canvas of pain and oppression by all the people around them. This is just self-defeating. Even if something happened that changed your plans, upset you, or harmed you in some way, reframe your story to show how you were able to shift your priorities and succeed after you learned what you were unable to do.
  • “Becoming injured my senior year ruined my plans.”  If you are an athlete and suffered a career or scholarship-ending injury, that is a big deal. But your potential doesn’t just disappear because of a setback. Whatever events and influences made you who you were before are still more important than a single unfortunate occurrence in your past. 

stanley from the office, bad college essay examples

Your Application Essay Gives You All the Credit

While you may have top SAT scores, a high GPA, and lots of awards, don’t forget this one simple truth: there are always bigger fish in the sea. No matter how good of an applicant you are, there will be someone better based on whatever metric you are proud of. 

So what should you write about in your college application essay to stand out from the many overachievers?

Try humility and perspective. Don’t forget to give credit where credit is due. No person is an island, so in your essay you can give recognition to those who helped you along the way. Try not to belittle or minimize the contribution of your high school teachers or mentors. Admissions counselors, as educational professionals, will be looking to see if you are ready to interact with the next level of academic educators. So including friends, family members, and mentors who helped you grow and develop could be a good topic for your college personal statement.

Examples of “giving yourself all the credit” in an essay

  • “I was valedictorian and did it all by myself.”  You should be proud of your academic achievements, as they are important for your college application among other goals. However, give credit to someone who helped you learn. You didn’t teach yourself!
  • “In the end, I found the only person I could rely on was myself.”  Some students come from very tough backgrounds, and so it can be tempting for these students to stress this in their essay. But remember that college admissions offices want you to add value to the university community as a college student at their school. Even the smartest students cannot do this if they fail to acknowledge the contributions of others. 

Your Personal Statement Has Not Received Proofreading or Editing

A sure way to get your college essay thrown aside is to have it full of grammar and spelling mistakes. The college admissions process is very competitive, and you need every edge you can get. You should spend a substantial portion of your essay preparation editing and proofreading after writing your personal statement.

Start by reviewing and revising the essay yourself. Read it aloud. Run it through a couple of online spelling and grammar checkers. And start early on each college application–at least two weeks before the application deadline. You should also consider giving your admissions essay to a friend, parent, or teacher to review. This can help you improve your essay in many ways because other people can give quite different perspectives. 

Check out the  Benefits of Peer Review vs Self-Editing .

Finally, you should look into using an application essay proofreading and editing service to revise and improve your application essay. Just as peer review is superior to self-editing alone, professional proofreading services and application essay editing services are superior to peer review. The hard truth is that too many other students (your competition) are going above and beyond in preparing these important essays. Being short on time and expertise makes using an editing and proofreading service a good solution.

How Does Wordvice Improve Your College Application Essay?

Wordvice editors  are required to have graduate or postgraduate degrees. This means you are getting guaranteed expertise compared to other services, which typically only require editors to hold a bachelor’s degree. Wordvice is also among the top-rated  essay editing services  and personal statement editing services by Wired.com. We achieved this recognition by following the  Wordvice Customer Promise . That means providing value to every student and every personal statement we edit. 

Additional Admissions Essay Steps to Take

We hope you learned a lot from these examples of successful college personal statements. So what’s next?

I want to learn more about the college admissions process

Interested in learning more tips from experts about the college admissions process, personal statements, or letters of recommendation? Check out the  Wordvice Admissions Resource blog .

I am interested in professional editing for my personal statement

We also got you covered! Check out our  English editing services to get started on improving your college essays. Or jump straight in and use our  editing price calculator to get an editing price quote and start the ordering process.

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Write Better Essays: 7 Mistakes to Avoid

Cari Bennette

Cari Bennette

ProWritingAid essay writing

Academic essays are an unavoidable part of the educational journey. Learning to write well may be one of the greatest skills you gain during your college years. Most students, however, will commit many errors before learning the art of academic essay writing.

While you can't avoid writing essays, you can avoid making some of these common mistakes:

Writing a Synopsis, Not An Analytical Essay

Not having a strong thesis statement, using too many quotes in an essay, making grammar, spelling and pronoun mistakes, not having a good bibliography, using resources that aren't credible, want to improve your essay writing skills.

The point of an essay is to create an argument and defend a thesis. If you're writing about a work of literature, some background to clarify the topic can be helpful. But the majority of your essay should involve your analysis based on credible research. Don't simply restate what happened in the book.

Coming up with a strong thesis statement is essential to writing a good essay. The thesis statement is the hook on which the rest of your essay hangs. It should state an opinion and be as specific as possible. Example weak thesis statement: The Great Gatsby is a great example of American Literature. Example strong thesis statement: The Great Gatsby captures the essence of America's Jazz Age in its decadence, materialism and ultimately, its tragic emptiness.

The essay is supposed to reflect your understanding of the topic and the research you've done to back up your argument. Overuse of quotes either from the work you're analyzing or from the research you've done undermines your authority on the topic. Quotes should be used sparingly and only when they drive home a point with an eloquence you can't match with your own words.

Defined as “the practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own,” plagiarism is a serious offense. Colleges and universities have strict policies against plagiarism and use various tools to check your work for plagiarised content. You won't get away with it, and sometimes it can even get you suspended. Professors can recognize if something sounds like a student wrote it or if it came from another source, so don't try to fool them.

There are two kinds of plagiarism:

  • The first kind is directly taking the words from a source and using them in your paper without quoting or giving credit.
  • The second kind is trickier and you should take special care to make sure you're not committing this kind of plagiarism. It consists of rewording an entire article or section of an article. In this case, instead of coming up with your own original ideas and analysis, you're just rewording someone else's ideas including the order in which they present those ideas.

Your essay should contain your own original thesis, analysis and ideas backed up by credible research from academic authorities.

Worried about plagiarism? ProWritingAid's plagiarism checker checks your work against over a billion web-pages, published works, and academic papers so you can be sure of its originality. Did you know that many of the free plagiarism checkers online sell your writing to other sources? With ProWritingAid, you can be certain that your original work is secure. Paying for this kind of service might feel like a lot, but trust me, it's worth it.

Okay, let's break these down:

  • Get your contractions right. You're = you are. Your = second person possessive. It's = it is. Its = third person possessive. They're = they are. Their =third person plural possessive.
  • Make sure your subjects and verbs agree.
  • Beware of incomplete sentences (there must be both a subject and a verb to be complete).
  • Use your spell check.
  • Essays should be written in the third person (he/she/it/they). Don't use the first or second person (I, you or we) in an essay.
  • Follow proper formatting ( MLA formatting is a common example.

You can check for all of these errors using ProWritingAid. The Homonym report will highlight all of the words in your essay that sound the same as others but are spelled differently. This will help you avoid any 'its/it's or 'their/they're/there' mistakes.

homonym report

The bibliography format for academic essays is usually the MLA style unless your professor specifically requests a different format. For a complete list of how to cite resources in MLA style, check out this site . Don't lose points over your bibliography. The hard part of your essay should be coming up with an original analysis of your topic. The bibliography is formulaic and easy to get right if you give it a little effort.

In the age of the Internet, it's easy to type in a keyword and find dozens of articles on it. But that doesn't mean all of those articles are credible. Make sure that the resources you use come from academic experts. For tips on how to find credible academic resources online, check out this site .

Avoiding these mistakes will improve your essay writing, so you can achieve higher quality and confidence in your academic writing. And it will make your professors happy, too.

Use ProWritingAid!

Are your teachers always pulling you up on the same errors? Maybe your sentences are too long and your meaning is getting lost or you're using the same sentence starter over and over again.

ProWritingAid helps you catch these issues in your essay before you submit it.

ProWritingAid for Students

Be confident about grammar

Check every email, essay, or story for grammar mistakes. Fix them before you press send.

Cari Bennette is an avid blogger and writer. She covers different aspects of writing and blogging in her articles and plans to try her hand in fiction writing.

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November 4, 2013

Bad College Essays

Terrible College Essays, Horrible College Essays, Bad College Admissions Essays

Curious to know what bad college essays look like? Pick any college essay at random submitted to a college — even the highly selective ones — and there’s a great chance that you’ll pull out a bad essay. And why’s that? Because high school students just plain can’t write. It’s a conclusion we came to years ago, one reinforced over the last several years. In fact, in all of our years helping students with their college admissions essays, we can remember one (one!) essay that was actually great before we started helping with revisions. The writing of American high school students (and the international applicants are way worse!) is, quite frankly, horrible.

Let’s give our readers an example of some bad college essay writing. Here is a sample paragraph from an essay. Tell us what you think is wrong with it in the Comments section below: Winning the race was a really big accomplishment for me. It made me really proud to stand on the podium and wave to the crowd, surrounded by so many people I love. I’ll never forget that moment. I’ll never forget that win. It taught me so many valuable life lessons about never giving up and about what it takes to succeed. In this way, sports symbolize life.

And let’s hear your comments on this sample paragraph from a terrible college essay that we’re making up on the spot: Being first chair violin can, at times, be very stressful. If I mess up a note, the whole orchestra can follow my lead. I sit right by the conductor. I am who the audience is looking at. There is so much pressure. And yet I love it. Playing the violin makes me feel alive.

So what’s wrong with these sample paragraph? Is anything right? Definitely not! If you thought anything was right, you might want us to have a look at your college essays. We promise that they’re a whole lot closer to these sample paragraphs than you might think!

Need help with your college essays ? We’re offering a college essay package. Email [email protected] for information.

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Recent posts, subscribe here, more expert advice, 5 college essay examples & what to avoid.

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College essays need to start strong. They’re competing for an admissions officer’s attention, and you don’t want to lose your reader before your story ever really gets going. Here are five opening college essay examples to avoid, in other words, what's more likely to lose a reader’s interest.

It's that time of year again. The point in the application timeline where students are, or should be, getting ready to write drafts of their essays. Crafting strong essays for the application can be difficult for students, even the most skilled writers. Especially with students expected to write multiple essays with very different styles, it can feel overwhelming to submit a confident essay.

Just remember that first impressions matter in life and in college essays.

Personal Statement vs. Supplemental Essays

When applying through the Common Application, students are typically expected to write one personal statement submitted to every college and at least one supplemental essay per college.

The supplemental essay(s) demonstrate cultural and institutional fit for admissions officers. Many students refer to these essays as the 'why us' essays. And simply put, admissions officers want to learn why students are interested in the college and what makes them a great addition to their campus.

The personal statement, however, is an opportunity to show college admissions committees who the student is beyond the four walls of their classroom. Typically 650 words in length, the personal statement is, well, unique to each student. There is no 'right way' to write the personal statement, but we have a few tips to help students maximize their writing and avoid crafting a weak opening for their college essay. Each tip will also include an example of a real opening written by a former Collegewise student to demonstrate the tips we share!

To learn more about how to crack the supplemental essay, watch our Cracking the Supplemental Essays video!

1. An Introduction to Your Story

Imagine a student is telling a friend a story about life as a pitcher on the baseball team. The student wouldn’t start with, “Often in life, we face difficult situations that ultimately benefit us. While we may not see it at the time….” The speaker would lose the person’s interest before ever getting to the good stuff.

College essays work the same way. They’re stories, and stories need a beginning, not an introduction; instead of writing a general introduction to warm the reader up to a particular topic, starting with a clear opening that ties to the story are the best way to pique an admissions officer's interest in what they might learn from reading the essay further.

Real college essay example: " The worst part about being the slowest runner on my school’s cross country team is that I occasionally fall so far behind that I have to stop and ask for directions."

2. A Famous Quote

An essay that begins, “John F. Kennedy once said…” is already on the wrong track. Unless the quote was actually directed at the writer, the reader cares a lot more about what the student has to say than they do about any famous person’s pithy words. The one exception? Quotes can be effective when they’re part of the story. Say a student is writing about their experiences on a sports team, including a quote from one of their coaches can make their story more impactful. 

Real college essay example: " My baseball coach always says, “We’re going to play smart baseball, gentlemen because dumb baseball is no fun to play and even less fun to watch.”

3. A Definition

Opening with a definition like “Persistence is defined as…,” will probably not be a strong start. The reader, an admissions officer, doesn’t need the student to define words; they need them to tell a story that will help them learn all about who they are. If the personal statement is about persistence, explain how that trait is personified. Additionally, with the limited space students are given to share their stories, focusing on providing necessary details and leaving definitions to Google will help them maximize their writing. 

Real college essay example: " I hate heights. I am a complete scaredy-cat when it comes to heights. It must be genetic because there’s not much else that scares me. I’m usually pretty calm and composed. I have to be. There’s no time to be scared when you’re in the back of a speeding ambulance doing chest compressions on a nineteen-year-old motorcycle accident victim who’s just gone into full cardiac arrest. I did that last week.” 

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4. Being Too Creative & Lacking Clarity

Some students try so hard to be creative, or to entice the reader with a sense of intrigue, that they sacrifice clarity. If the reader is one paragraph in and thinking, “I don’t have a clue what this student is talking about,” the arousing interest has moved to confusion. It’s certainly possible and often effective to begin an essay with a description that piques interest without necessarily revealing exactly what the description is about. What's important to remember is that although the personal statement is a unique essay, a student should stay true to the writing style they feel most comfortable with. 

Real college essay example: " Once you know what the chicken at Kentucky Fried Chicken looks like before it’s cooked, you will never want to eat it again. I love my part-time job, and I’ve worked there for almost three years. But I really don’t enjoy looking at that chicken before it’s cooked."

5. Anything that Would Show Up on Google

You might think you’ve read or heard the perfect opening someplace else—a book of sample essays, a speech, a line in your favorite movie, etc. But pirating someone else’s writing is plagiarism, and every college I can think of would frown on an applicant who steals other people’s work without crediting the source. There’s always that chance that your reader could recognize what you’re sharing. And if they have even the slightest suspicion, the answer will always be just a Google search away.

FAQs & Final Thoughts

While there is no 'right' way to start any college essay, a few approaches may not be the best use of the limited space students have. Our list is just a few of the many tips we share with our students to ensure they're submitting confident essays to the admissions committees. In addition to our essay don'ts, we've come across a few frequently asked questions regarding college essays or the personal statement.

What are the Common App Essay Topics?

Each year the Common App releases its 7 essay prompts from which students can choose and write. Although they usually stay the same, there may come a year where one of two may change. That's why it's important to review the prompts early. 

To read through the Common App's 2021-22 essay prompts, read our Common App Essay Topics blog!

Are there Essay Topics To Avoid?

In short, yes! What's important to remember is that admissions officers read hundreds, if not thousands, of essays every application year, and they've read it all. Students need to write about their experiences and what helped shape them to be who they are rather than what they feel admissions officers want to read. 

How Personal Should The Personal Statement Be?

Although the personal statement is a unique story for every student, many students write about personal struggles, challenges they face, and situations they overcame. And while there is no set list of topics to avoid, it is important to note that students should share how much they are comfortable with. After all, a stranger will be reading this essay.

Additional readings:

  • Is a Personal Struggle an Appropriate Essay Topic?
  • Is Your College Essay Ready to Submit?
  • Tackling the Common App Personal Essay

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Blog > Common App , Essay Examples , Personal Statement > 20 College Essay Examples (Graded by Former Admissions Officers)

20 College Essay Examples (Graded by Former Admissions Officers)

Admissions officer reviewed by Ben Bousquet, M.Ed Former Vanderbilt University

Written by Alex McNeil, MA Admissions Consultant

Key Takeaway

Have you ever wondered what goes through an admissions officer’s mind as they read college essays?

Now’s your chance.

This post takes you behind that dark, mysterious admissions curtain to show you what exceptional, good, and “bad” college essays look like. And we don’t just show them to you.

We’ve asked our team of former admissions officers to read through the essays, analyze them, offer editing ideas, and assign them grades.

So join us on this college essay example journey so you know what to do (and what not to do) as you write all your college essays this fall.

Let’s get started.

How to Use College Essay Examples

Here’s the thing. People in college admissions have lots of different opinions about whether students should read example essays. But we believe that reading example essays is a crucial step in the college essay writing process.

If you don’t know what a college essay looks like, then how should you expect yourself to write one?

So reading examples is important.

However! There’s a caveat. The point of reading college essay examples isn’t to copy them or even to get inspiration from them. It’s to analyze them and apply what you’ve learned to your own college essay.

To help you do that, our team of former admissions officers has taken this super-comprehensive compilation of college essay examples and pointed out exactly what you need to know before you start writing.

Let me break down how this post works:

Categories:

We’ve put together a great variety of college essay examples and sorted them into three categories, including…

  • Best college essay examples: these examples are the creme-de-la-creme. They’re written by a small percentage of students who are exceptional writers.
  • Good college essay examples: these examples are solid. They do exactly what they need to do on the admissions committee floor. You’re aiming to write a good college essay.
  • “Bad” college essay examples: these examples illustrate a few of the most common college essay mistakes we see.

Our former admissions officers have assigned each essay a letter grade to help you understand where it falls on the scale of “bad” college essays to exceptional college essays.

Alongside our categorization and grades, our former admissions officers have also annotated the essays and provided concrete feedback about what works and what could be improved.

The majority of essays you’ll see here are written in response to the Common Application personal statement prompts. We’ve also included a few stellar supplemental essays at the end of the post.

How an Admissions Officer Reads College Essays

All admissions officers are different. And all institutions ask their admissions officers to read in different ways.

But there are a few strategies that shape how the majority of admissions officers read college essays. (If you want a look behind the mysterious admissions curtain, read our post about how admissions offices read tens of thousands of applications every year .)

First, we need to talk about application reading as a whole.

Remember that admissions officers are reading your college essays in the context of your entire application. It’s likely that by the time they get to your essay, they’ve already glanced at your background information, activities , and transcript . They may have even looked at your letters of recommendation or additional information.

Why is this detail important? It matters because your college essays need to be in conversation with the rest of your application. We refer to this strategy as adopting a “ cohesive application narrative .” Your unique personal brand—who you are, what you’re good at, what you value—should emerge across all of your application materials.

To summarize: your college essays don’t exist in a vacuum. Your admissions officers learn about who you are from your entire application, and your college essays are the place where you get to tell them exactly what you want them to know. You should write them in a way that creates balance among the other parts of your application.

So once your admissions officers get to your college essays, what are they looking for?

They’re looking for several things. Each of your essays doesn’t have to address all of these points, but they are a great place to start:

  • Personal narrative that explains who you are and where you come from
  • Details about specific activities, accomplishments, or inclinations
  • Personality traits that make you who you are
  • Lessons you’ve learned throughout your life
  • Values that you hold dear
  • Information about how you interact with the world around you
  • Highlights about what makes you special, strong, interesting, or unique

What do all of these points have in common? They revolve around your core strengths . We’ve written more extensively about core strengths in our college essay writing guide . But for now, just know this: your college essays should tell admissions officers something positive about yourself. They want to know who you are, what motivates you, and why you would be an active contributor to their campus.

As we go through the following example essays, remember: college essays are read alongside the rest of your application, and college admissions officers read your essays to learn about your core strengths.

Okay, let’s get to it. Ready? Buckle up.

The Best College Essay Examples

As an admissions officer, every so often you come across an essay that blows you away. It stops you in your tracks, makes you laugh or cry, or resonates deeply with you. When exceptional essays come through your application bin, you’re reminded what an honor it is to get these fleeting glimpses into incredible students’ lives.

As an applicant, you may be wondering how to write this kind of exceptional college essay. Unfortunately, there’s no simple formula. You can’t “hack” your way into it. You have to write vulnerable, authentically, and beautifully—which is much easier said than done. We have a whole guide on how to write a personal statement that stands out, so we recommend that you start there.

For now, let’s take a look at some of our favorites.

College Essay Example #1: The Gospel of Steve

The first college essay we'll look at got an A+ grade and is about the writer's experience with depression and... Steve Irwin. It's a common application essay. Check it out:

" In sophomore year, I struggled with depression((While this is a fantastic essay, this hook could definitely be stronger.)) . I felt like I was constantly battling against the darkness that seemed to be closing in on me. Until, that is, I found solace in the teachings of Steve Irwin.((This unusual last sentence drew me in when I read this for the first time.))

When I first discovered Steve Irwin and his show "The Crocodile Hunter," I was captivated by his passion for wildlife. He was fearless, jumping into danger without hesitation to save an animal in need. But it was more than just his bravery that inspired me; it was his infectious energy and love for life. Watching him on TV, I couldn't help but feel a little bit better about my own struggles.((This explicit reflection does a fantastic job connecting the writer’s experiences to this Steve Irwin reference.))

But it wasn't until I read his biography that I truly felt the impact Steve had on my life. In the book, he talked openly about his own struggles with depression. He talked about the dark moments in his life, when he felt like he was drowning in despair. But he also talked about how he fought back against the darkness, how he refused to let it consume him, and how he turned his depression into a career that allowed him to follow his biggest passions.

Reading Steve's words, I felt like he was speaking directly to me.((Another beautiful transition)) I wasn't alone in my struggles if someone as brave and fearless as Steve had faced similar challenges. And that gave me the courage to keep going. I started visiting a therapist, exercising regularly, and practicing mindfulness meditation. Day by day, I lifted myself out of my depression–all with a healthy dose of “Crocodile Hunter” each evening after I finished my homework((The writer does a great job focusing on action steps here.)) .

One of the things that I admired most about Steve was his ability to find joy and laughter in the most unlikely places. He was always cracking jokes, even in the face of danger. He taught me that laughter and humor can be a powerful tool in the fight against depression. I went looking for the humor in my own struggles. I started learning about how stand-up comedy works, and wrote my own five-minute skit finding the humor and silver lining((The writer expands their connection to Steve Irwin even more through this comedy thread.)) in my depression. I wasn’t a great comic, let me tell you. But being able to channel my experience into something positive—something that helped others laugh—was extremely gratifying to me.

Depression((The reflection in this paragraph is exactly what writers need to tie all the information together before reaching the conclusion.)) is a bizarre thing. One day, you’re besieged by it from every side and it looks like there’s no way out. Then, two months later, if you’re diligent, you look around the world and wonder what you ever had to be upset about. You find goodness and light in the things around you—your friends, your family, your habits, and your hobbies. These forces act as buttresses to keep you standing up and moving forward.

As silly as it may sound, I credit Steve Irwin with that first buttress. His experience and outlook on life gave me the push I needed to cultivate bravery and resilience in the face of my struggle with mental health. My eternal goal is now to practice the gospel of Steve—to always pass along humor, passion, and encouragement to others, especially to those who seem down and out. Thank you, Steve."

Word Count: 525

Admissions Officer Notes on The Gospel of Steve

This essay captured my attention because of its unique pairing of a tough subject—depression—with a light-hearted and endearing topic—Steve Irwin.

The writer doesn’t dwell in the experience of depression but instead finds hope and light by focusing on how their favorite TV star changed their perspective. Why this essay stands out:

  • Great organization and sign-posting . The essay clearly progresses through each part of the writer’s journey. The first sentence of each paragraph signals to the reader what that paragraph will be about.
  • Focus on action steps. It’s very apparent that this writer is a do-er. The focus of the essay is on the way they emerged from their depression, not on the depression itself.
  • Meaningful reflection. Especially in the second-to-last paragraph and conclusion, the writer beautifully reflects on what depression and hope mean to them.
  • Core strengths. From this essay alone, I gather that the writer is a sage archetype . They clearly show their wisdom and ability to persist through challenges.

Most importantly, they’ve written the essay around communicating their core strengths.

College Essay Example #2: The Embroidery Scientist

This essay is about a writer's Etsy store and the connection she draws between fashion and science.

I stretch the thin fabric over my hoop and pull it tight, wedging the nested rings between my legs to secure them shut with my other hand((This hook is compelling. It makes us ask, “What in the world is the writer doing?” We are compelled to read on to find out.)) .

Next I get out the thread. Each color is wound tightly around a paper spool and stored in a container whose original purpose was to store fishing tackle.

I look at the pre-printed design on the fabric and decide what colors to select. Orange, red, pink, yellow–this design will be as bright and happy as I can make it.

Embroidery is where the STEM and creative parts of my identity converge((Here we get a clear, explicit statement of the writer’s main point. This isn’t always necessary, but it can help your reader navigate your essay more easily if you have a lot going on.)) . My STEM side is calculated. She meticulously plans the designs, mocks them up in photoshop, and painstakingly transfers them onto the fabric. She organizes each thread color by its place in ROYGBIV and cuts every piece to an identical length of 18”. Her favorite stitch is the French Knot, with its methodical “one, two” wrap sequence. For her, art is about precision.

My creative side, on the other hand, is messy. She throws thread scraps on the floor without hesitation, and she haphazardly adds design elements in pen. She does a Lazy Daisy stitch very lazily while adding an indescribable flourish to a simple backstitch. Her methods are indeed madness: she’ll border a design with glitter glue, hang a finished project upside down, or stitch a big red X over a perfectly good embroidery. For her, art is about meaning.

While these two sides of myself may seem at odds((Seamless transition to talking about Etsy accomplishment)) , they actually complement each other perfectly. At least, that’s what 3,000 of my Etsy customers think. From three-inch hoops to massive wall hangings, my Etsy shop is a compilation of the best embroidery I’ve ever done. My precision and meaning have earned me hundreds of five-star reviews from customers whose lives I’ve impacted with my art. And none of that art would have been possible without STEM me and creative me.

My STEM and creative side complement each other in more than my embroidery life too. What began as a creative side hustle has actually made me a better scientist((Another good transition to discussing passion and talent for science)) .

Before I started embroidering, I approached the lab bench with an eye like a ruler. Poured a millimeter too much liquid? Better get a pipette. Went a degree over boiling? Time to start over. My lab reports demonstrated my knowledge, skill, and care, but they didn’t show any innovation or ingenuity. My precision led me to be a good scientist but not an exceptional one.

I realized that to be exceptional, I needed to think like a real scientist. While scientists are careful and precise, they are also interrogators. They constantly question the world around them, identifying previously unseen problems and finding creative solutions. To become the scientist I wanted to be, I needed to allow myself to be more creative((This is a good example of what reflection throughout the essay should look like.)) .

When I had this realization, I had just begun my embroidery business. I didn’t understand that my creativity could also be so useful in the lab. I set out on a new path to use more creativity in the pursuit of science.

To inspire myself, I brought an embroidery project to the lab. On it, I stitched a compound microscope and a quote from one of my favorite scientists, Marie Curie. It reads, “ I am among those who think that science has great beauty.”

In the lab now, I’m not afraid to take risks and try new things((Here we see clear personal growth.)) . When I boil my mixture too long, I still start over. But occasionally, when my teacher permits, I do a second experiment on the rejected liquid just to see what will happen. Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes it results in utter failure. But other times, my mistakes create blue, green, and purple mixtures, mixtures that bubble and burst and fizz. All of these experiments are stitches in my quest to become a cancer researcher. They are messy, but they are beautiful((The conclusion ties beautifully back to the beginning, and we also learn what the writer is interested in pursuing in the future.)) .

Admissions Officer Notes on "Embroidery Scientist"

This writer has done an excellent job talking about two very different aspects of their identity. What I love about this essay is that the structure of the essay itself shows the writer’s creativity and precision. The essay is well-organized and precise, but the writing has a unique and creative flair. It demonstrates the writer’s point exactly. I also appreciate how the writer doesn’t just talk about these parts of their identity. They explicitly connect their creativity and precision to their future goals as a scientist.

Why this essay stands out:

  • Creative approach: The writer doesn’t just say, “I have two identities: creative and logical.” Instead, they illustrate that point through the wonderful example of embroidery. Connecting embroidery with science also shows this creativity.
  • Attention-grabbing hook : The introductory paragraphs place readers immediately into the essay. We’re drawn in because we’re curious what the writer is doing and how it will evolve into a more meaningful message.
  • Connection between personal and academic interests: The writer makes it clear why this story matters for their life in college. The creative and precise personalities aren’t inconsequential—they have a real effect on who this person wants to be.
  • Forward-looking conclusion: The writer ends by subtly telling admissions officers what they’re interested in doing during and after college.

College Essay Example #4: Poetry Slam

When I first met Simon, he was neither speaking nor singing. He was doing something in between(( This hook is a good “statement” hook that raises more questions than it answers.)) . With words that flowed together like an ancient tributary, he spoke music. His hands grasping a microphone, he swayed slowly from side to side. He was a poet. But unlike that of Yeats or Dickenson, Simon’s poetry wasn’t meant to be read on a page—it was meant to be experienced like an aural work of art. And I had never experienced anything more beautiful. Disheartened, I realized that my words would never sound like Simon’s(( These two sentences are essential because otherwise the introduction would be all about Simon, not the writer.)) .

I sat in my on-deck seat. Forgetting that I was up next, I admired his craft. The crescendos and decrescendos that mirrored his pacing, the quick staccatos that punctuated each stanza, the rhymes so subtle they almost disappeared—every second of his spoken word pulled me further from reality. I listened to his words like a devout in church(( This is good sentence pacing. A long, winding sentence is followed by a short one that keeps our attention and propels us forward.)) . Closing my eyes, I joined my hands together to count the syllables. From the outside, it probably looked like I was praying. And maybe I was. When Simon’s poem ended, the audience, though betrayed by the silence, erupted into applause.

It was my turn. I had spent an entire year perfecting my poem. My sister had grown accustomed to kicking me under the dinner table when someone asked me a question. She knew that my mind was in my beloved poetry notebook, mentally analyzing my latest draft. I’ve never been one for living in the moment. My report cards usually feature comments like, “She’s a good student but has trouble paying attention.” I’m always the first one out in dodgeball because my mind is completely absent from the school gym. But what seems like inattention to my teachers is actually a kind of profound focus(( This reflection widens the essay’s scope and reveals more about who the writer is as a person.)) .

When writing slam poetry, I become completely consumed. I like to start with the words. The rhythm and intonation come with time. For me, it’s about translating a feeling into language. It’s no easy task, but it feels like an obligation. Once the words come into being, they’re like a twister in my mind(( Good (and sparing) use of figurative language.)) . They spin and spin, destroying every other thought in their path. I can’t focus on anything else because, in the aftermath of a twister, nothing else exists.

And there on the stage, nothing else existed besides me and my poem. I spoke it into existence. Like Simon, I wrapped my hands around the microphone, willing my poem to be heard. The twister exited my mind and entered the world.

A few weeks ago(( Excellent signposting)) , I watched the recording of my first poetry slam, that slam two years ago when I saw Simon perform for the first time. I saw myself climb on stage from the dark abyss of the audience. I looked small, all alone on that big stage. My voice shook as I began. But soon, my poem rendered the stage smaller and smaller. I filled the darkness with words.

As I watched myself on my computer, I thought about how I felt that day, awe-struck in the audience by Simon’s work. I felt like I’d never be able to sound like him. And I was right. My poem didn’t sound like Simon’s, and none of my poems ever would. But in this moment, I realized that they were just as beautiful. My words sounded like me(( Beautiful conclusion that really drives home just how much this person has grown. They don’t need to sound like Simon. They need to sound like themself.)) .

Word Count: 552

Admissions Officer Notes on Poetry Slam

We would call this essay a “sacred practice” essay. It’s clear that slam poetry is deeply meaningful to the writer. They even call it “an obligation.” It’s a beautiful essay that also reflects the writer’s interest in poetry. They have some nice figurative language that adds interest to the story—it’s almost like the essay is in some ways a poem itself. And the story is a good one: it demonstrates the writer’s fears, strengths, and growth.

  • Deeply meaningful: We say it all the time because it’s true: college essays should be vulnerable and deeply meaningful. This essay oozes meaning. The writer even connects their love of slam poetry to who they are as a person.
  • Good organization and signposting: The narrative in this essay is a little complicated as the writer switches between the slam poetry event, reflection on past events, and reflection during current day. But because each paragraph is about a single topic, and because they use very clear topic sentences and transitions, it’s easy to follow the narrative thread.
  • Theme: The main theme in this essay is that the writer found their own voice through slam poetry. They had to experience growth to come to this realization. The very last sentence of the essay wonderfully ties back to the introduction and wraps up the entire essay.

College Essay Example #4: The Muscle Show

My parents are the scrapbooking type(( I’m intrigued by this hook! It makes me ask, “Where is this essay going?”)) . The crafty, crazy-cut scissors and construction paper, okay-everyone-make-a-silly-face-for-this-picture type.

Every summer, my entire family rents a small house in Wildwood, New Jersey for a week to catch up and enjoy the beach and good company. My favorite part is spending time with my cousin Steven, who is one year older than me. To us, there is nothing better than two pockets full of quarters, strolling down the boardwalk headed to an arcade, licking an ice cream cone, and laughing at all the novelty t-shirts for sale(( This sentence beautifully gives us a sense of place. It evokes a sense of nostalgia, too.)) .

We have a “down the shore” scrapbook proudly displayed on our coffee table that holds memories from each of our family vacations. The scrapbook(( Ah-ha. A quick answer to our scrapbooking question.)) is such a fixture in our house that it blends in with its surroundings and I fully forgot it existed until this past March. I happened to pick it up and look at pictures from the first year we went. I was four, Steven was five, and there we were, shirtless in the living room, proudly displaying our kid “muscles” in front of a handmade sign that said “WELCOME 2 THE MUSLE SHOW”.

I cried when I saw it.

No, not because we spelled muscle wrong. The four-year-old in that picture had such a small and fragile frame. I was the kind of child who almost looked like they had six-pack abs because they are so slim. There was so much naivety in that picture that no longer exists(( With this sentence, our writer begins to embark on their journey.)) .

I started gaining weight–a lot of weight–around the fifth grade. My parents are wonderful role models in the way they treat others, but they aren’t exactly paragons of healthy eating. Looking through the scrapbook, none of the adults in my family were particularly healthy. I distinctly remember my dad saying to me sometime in elementary school, “what do these people go to the gym for, anyway? What are you going to do with all those muscles?” I spent elementary and middle school on a steady diet of McDonald’s, Doritos, and video games.

I hit 200 pounds at age 14. One day in my least favorite class, PE, we had to do a push-up competition. Not only could I not do one, I was out of breath just getting up and down from the floor. Something had to change(( And here is our inciting incident in this narrative arc)) .

I turned to one thing I was good at to figure out a solution: reading. I read books like “Why We Get Fat” by Gary Taubes and started to learn the science behind calories, carbs, insulin, and soon, exercise. Even though neither of my parents had ever been inside a gym, I convinced them to buy me some training sessions and a membership that Christmas.

It’s remarkable what happens when you suddenly stop consuming fried chicken and soda, go for a daily 20-minute power walk, and exercise a few times a week. Progress in losing weight actually came sooner than I expected. By sophomore year, I was lifting weights four times a week after school and felt more comfortable in the gym than anywhere else.

I also noticed my attitude towards schoolwork was changing(( This is a good transition to widen the scope of the essay and talk about the broader implications of this journey on the writer’s life.)) . I felt like I had control in my life for the first time. I had spent countless hours trying to “level up” fake characters in video games (OK, I still do that…). But leveling up myself–my own body and mind–was life changing. So much in life is out of our control, but realizing that, at least to an extent, my own health is within my control brought a new sense of purpose, responsibility, and pride.

Today, I’m at a healthy weight, my grades have improved, and I have even taken several of my friends to the gym for their first time. I look forward to continuing my healthy trend in college and beyond.

I’ll see Steven again at this summer’s beach trip. We have decided to recreate the “musle show” picture–this time with better spelling and in better health(( This short conclusion wraps everything up and has a great callback to the beginning of the essay.)) .

Admissions Officer Notes on The Muscle Show

What I like about this essay is how it weaves together multiple parts of this writer’s life. We get their family background, their sense of self, and their values, interests, and goals. The writer takes us on a journey with them. We see their determination in finding solutions to the problems they’re facing, and we also clearly see their personality and voice.

  • Upward-trending growth structure : This writer nails this essay structure. We clearly see that they begin at a “point A” where things aren’t so great, and they steadily make their way to “point B.” By the end, we truly get a sense of how they’ve grown through the journey.
  • Connections: This essay isn’t just about the writer’s health journey. It’s also about their “sense of purpose, responsibility, and pride.” Their changes expanded to even more parts of their life, and we can see that they are a person who takes initiative and gets creative with solutions.
  • Conclusion: I especially love the way this conclusion brings everything full-circle. The “musle show” reference at the end ties the journey nicely together with a bow and ends with a sense of forward movement.

College Essay Example #5: The Stop Sign

While some high schoolers get in trouble for skipping class, I get in trouble for arguing with my local government officials on Twitter. But when lives are at stake, I can take the heat(( Very catchy, humorous, and personality-filled hook)) .

I live at the intersection of 33rd and Spruce. The intersection itself sits between a large bend and a bundle of white oak trees—a recipe for obstructed views. Drivers careen around the corner, Indy 500-style, and are abruptly met with oncoming traffic. Neither can see the other through the oaks. What is otherwise a beautiful intersection makes for awfully dangerous driving conditions.

Living by this intersection my whole life, I’ve heard countless crashes and collisions. The screeching tires and cacophony of crushing car parts is seared in my mind. As neighbors, we are often the first on the scene. Cell phone in hand, I’ve run out to help several motorists who didn’t know what was coming. After the most recent crash, where a car flipped into the ditch, I knew that something had to change(( The writer has set the scene with a vivid description, and these sentences draw our attention to what’s at stake. They need a stop sign, and it’s clear that the writer is on a mission to get one.)) . We needed a stop sign.

I began with a google search, which led me to my local Stop Sign Request Form. According to the form, a government official would reach out to me. If they deemed it appropriate, we’d work together to assess whether the intersection qualified for a stop sign.

Their response took months. While I waited, I began collecting evidence on my own(( The writer’s initiative shines through.)) . After noticing that the security camera on my house pointed toward the intersection, I decided to put the skills I’d been developing in AP Computer Science to work. I wrote a simple code that tabulated the number of cars that passed through the intersection each day(( Here we see the technical skills the writer is developing.)) . Briefly reviewing the footage each night also helped me determine how many cars were likely going over the posted speed limit of forty miles per hour. Alongside these statistics, I went back into our cloud history to find footage of the crashes that had occurred.

When I finally heard back from the city, I was ready to make my case. My confidence deflated as soon as I opened the email(( Oh no! There’s a roadblock. Things aren’t progressing as the writer hoped.)) : Thank you for filling out a Stop Sign Request Form , the email read. At this time, we do not have reason to believe that the intersection of 33rd Street and Spruce Street meets the criteria for a two-way stop sign. The city had disagreed with my recommendation and denied my request.

I took a moment to collect myself. How could the city not care about the safety of its citizens? Were human lives not worth looking into a simple stop sign? I took to Twitter, posting statistics from my research, photos of the obstructed view, and a security camera compilation of cars speeding by. I tagged my local representatives, and I asked for help(( But the writer doesn’t focus on the problem. They continue to focus on their action steps and solutions. That’s exactly how you talk about a personal challenge in a college essay.)) .

While not all of them were receptive to my post, one particularly helpful representative connected me with my city’s City Engineer. The representative instructed me to send the City Engineer all of the evidence I had collected along with another copy of my Stop Sign Request Form.

The engineer was impressed with the code I wrote and the tracking system I’d put together, and she agreed to meet me at my house to do an inspection of the intersection. I accompanied her on the inspection so I could watch what she did. After working so hard to advocate for my community, it felt good to have my opinions heard.

In the end, I got my stop sign(( The writer emphasizes that it wasn’t just about winning the stop sign debate. It was about the community impact. And what do admissions officers want to see? Yep, community impact.)) . Drivers still occasionally speed, but I was astounded by the outpouring of thanks I received after my neighborhood was alerted of the change. My foray into local government was an eventful but rewarding one. And even though I’ve secured my stop sign, I’ll still be doing stop sign research this summer— this time as an intern at the City Engineer’s office(( And the writer pops in this awesome opportunity they’ve earned as a result. As an AO, I would see that they are continuing to prepare for college as their high school career is coming to a close.)) .

Word Count: 641

Admissions Officer Notes on The Stop Sign

This essay combines a story of personal strengths with an impactful accomplishment. It’s not necessary to write about one of your accomplishments in your college essays, but if that’s the route you want to go down, then this approach is a good one. Notice how it focuses on concrete action steps, emphasizes the skills the writer learned and used, and highlights how their actions impacted their community. A stop sign may seem small in the grand scheme of things, but the writer shows just how important this effort was.

  • Community impact: The accomplishment this writer chose to write about is an impressive one. Admissions officers are always looking at how applicants interact with their communities , so this story showcases the writer’s willingness to help and engage with those around them.
  • Strengths: Above all, we see that the writer is solutions-oriented. They are a “founder” or “builder” archetype and aren’t afraid to tackle hard problems. The writer also explicitly shows how they solved the problem using impressive skills.
  • Narrative momentum : This essay is easy to read because we’re always wondering what’s going to happen next. The hook is very catchy, the ups and downs of the writer’s struggle to solve this problem are clear, and the conclusion points to the overall significance of the story and looks toward its future impact.

College Essay Example #6: Fran’s Flower Farm

Surrounded(( The hook is interesting and vivid.)) by carnations, dahlias, and marigolds, I laid down on the hard dirt, sweating from the midday sun. While my garden was a labor of love, it was still a labor. I’d spent months during the beginning of the pandemic researching how to set up beds correctly, choose seeds and fertilizers, and run a small business(( We get plopped right into the story without wasting any time.)) . A year later, this summer would be the second harvest of Fran’s Flower Farm.

As I prepared the yield for my small table at that week’s farmers market, I reflected on how far I had come(( This transitional phrase is a quick and convenient way to incorporate reflection.)) . Prior to the pandemic, I had never even dug in the dirt. I didn’t know anything about seed germination or nitrogen levels. I had my own Instagram, but I had never had to market anything or think about overhead costs. I was a total and complete newb.

But my life, like everyone’s, changed in spring of 2020. Lockdown rendered me depressed and hopeless until one day when my mom ordered me a bouquet of flowers along with our grocery delivery. The bouquet was a simple grocery store arrangement of sunflowers. A few petals were wilting at the ends, and the stems were smashed from the flour that had been in the same plastic bag. But they were perfect. Such a small and thoughtful gesture, that bouquet inspired me to get to work(( Nice—here we learn about the “inciting incident” that compelled the writer to get started on their flower farm.)) .

Lucky enough to have space for flower beds, I mapped out four different six-foot beds in my backyard. Garden tools stolen from my mom and borrowed from socially-distanced neighbors in hand, I added compost, arranged my seeds, watered, and mulched. I laid protective plastic over my beds, tucking them in like a child, and wrapped the garden in decade-old chickenwire I found in our barn. My garden was imperfect–compost trailed between beds, my hose wrapped around my shovel in a heap on the ground, and the chickenwire was dented and rusty. But it was all mine, and it was alive(( I like this paragraph because we really see the writer’s personality. They are determined, innovative, and grateful.)) .

As the pandemic waged on, I tended to my flowers. Each morning, I’d peek under the plastic to see how they had fared throughout the night. They gave me routine and purpose when the days seemed droning and neverending. The longer I kept them alive, the more their sprouts brought me life, too(( This is a very nice and poetic point.)) . In a world that seemed to come to a halt, my flowers showed me that growth wasn’t just possible–it was happening right in front of me.

The business side came soon after(( The transition here could be a touch smoother.)) . Later that summer, once my first crop had bloomed, I set up a roadside stand outside of my house. At that point, I had to put my flower buckets across the driveway from my stand to keep everyone safe. But my flowers brightened the days of hundreds of passing motorists. With growing confidence, I secured a spot at the farmer’s market by July, my business boomed(( I’d like to see some specific details here about how well the business was doing.)) . Returning all profits to my garden, I’ve expanded my operations to include two more flower beds this year.

I’m proud of how far my gardening and business skills have come, but what has been most fulfilling about Fran’s Flower Farm have been the connections I’ve made. The pandemic was difficult for everyone, but it was especially difficult for healthcare workers. As the child of a healthcare worker myself, these challenges have been close to home. Knowing how greatly that bouquet of sunflowers affected me, I make sure to donate flowers(( And this sweet gesture shows another one of the writer’s strengths.)) to my local hospital in thanks every week.

Three years ago, I would never have guessed that I’d own my own flower farm. It’s brought me so many joys, challenges, and friends. I know I won’t be able to bring my flower farm with me to college. But the heart of the farm is more than the flowers(( Here, the writer wraps up the main theme of the essay and makes sure the reader really understands the point.)) . It’s about me learning and using my skills to help others. Wherever I’m planted, I know that I will bloom(( This phrasing is cliche. The writer could re-write the idea in their own words.)) .

Word Count: 643

AO Notes on Fran’s Flower Farm Grade: A

I don’t know about you, but I’d love to buy a bouquet of flowers from this student! While the ending is a bit cliche, we really see how far this student has come in their journey as a farmer and a business person. We also see the magnitude of their impact. They not only grew a successful small business, but they also gave back to the healthcare workers in their community. The student is definitely one I could see thriving in a campus community.

  • Topic and accomplishments : Like The Stop Sign, this essay conveys an impressive accomplishment. But the essay isn’t bragging about it or overstating its significance. It works well because the writer tells a genuine story about a passion they developed.
  • Variety: The writer also manages to show us two distinct strengths in one essay. We see their strength as a DIY farmer and as a business person. They are clearly a founder archetype.
  • Organization and style: The essay opens with a beautiful description, and we get a lot of good language throughout. The writer is able to go through a fairly complicated timeline in a concise and digestible way.

Good College Essay Examples

Not every student can write an exceptional college essay. And that’s okay. Sometimes it’s not one of your priorities or in your particular skill set.

Thankfully, college essays don’t have to be exceptional to earn admission. They can simply be good. You can still write a solid college essay that does everything you need it to do.

So what’s the difference between the best college essays and good college essays? Usually it’s writing style. Some writers have a gift for writing or have spent years practicing their craft, and those are usually the writers who produce essays that make admissions officers gasp.

But admissions officers recognize good, solid writing and storytelling, too.

So writing a good college essay should always be your main goal. Focus on the basics first before trying to level up to an exceptional essay.

College Essay Example #7: My Emotional Support Water Bottle

I had a stuffed animal named Elephant when I was a child(( This hook makes a statement that compels me to read on so I can figure out what they’re referring to.)) . I’ve long since outgrown Elephant, but now I have a new object that I keep around for comfort: my emotional support water bottle. A gray thirty-two-ounce wide-mouth Hydroflask, my emotional support water bottle accompanies me everywhere.

The water bottle was a gift last Christmas after I begged my mom for one. The brand had become extremely popular at my school, and I wanted in on the trend. When I opened the package that Christmas morning, I was elated. I felt an immediate attachment, and I was proud that I could finally fit in with the other kids at my school(( Here we learn about the connection between the waterbottle and the writer’s values)) .

I had always felt like an outsider(( In this paragraph, the writer zooms the focus out to their life in general. We need this reflection to understand why the topic matters so much to the writer.)) . Other students seemed to fit together like puzzle pieces. But as much as I tried, I couldn’t find a picture that matched my piece. I envied the tight-knit friendships I saw among my peers.

As soon as I unwrapped my water bottle, I decided that I needed stickers to match. The kids at my school always had stickers on theirs. I found the perfect pack. It had animated depictions of every famous literary character imaginable. Jane Austen characters, Jay Gatsby, Sherlock Holmes, Guy Montag, Jane Eyre, and more. I couldn’t believe my luck.

No matter how disconnected I felt from my classmates, I could always find a community on my bookshelf(( The writer introduces another topic, literature, that tells us more about who they are.)) . I sat in the courtroom with Atticus Finch, walked through the streets of Saint Petersburg with Raskolnikov, and watched the revolution unfold alongside Satrapi. My literary friends kept me optimistic through difficult times, and I was glad to see them every day on my beloved Hydroflask.

After winter break ended, I couldn’t wait to debut my new accessory. I placed it atop my desk in each class, angling my favorite stickers outward in hopes of connection. I was profoundly comforted by its presence—I could always take a sip of water when I felt thirsty or uncomfortable, and its stickers promised to draw people in.

To my dismay(( This paragraph serves an important plot function. We see that everything, in fact, did not work out perfectly. By highlighting this challenge, we really get a sense of the writer’s problem-solving and resilience.)) , weeks went by, and no one noticed my Hydroflask or stickers. The school was filled with dozens more Hydroflasks after the holidays, so mine didn’t seem so special. What had once filled me with so much hope and support transformed into a reminder of an unfulfilled promise of friendship.

I coped with the disappointment by re-reading one of my childhood favorites, Le Petit Prince . Near the end, when the little prince returns to water his flower, I had a realization. I couldn’t wait around for people to come to me(( Ding, ding, ding! Here we have it. The main lesson the writer has learned. What’s great, too, is that they’ve stated it so clearly.)) . I had to bring the water to them.

The next day at school, I held my Hydroflask close and gathered all my courage. I headed into the lunch room and spotted Jordan, one of the people I’d chatted with in class. She was sitting alone at a table, reading a book I couldn’t identify. I asked if I could join her. Nodding, she told me about her book, White Teeth . When I placed my Hydroflask on the lunch table, she noticed my stickers(( This sentence is crucial because it ties all these threads together: the waterbottle, stickers, literature, and friendship/fitting in.)) . Together, we went through every sticker and talked about the character’s book.

Jordan and I spent the next day’s lunch exchanging laughter and book recommendations. She had a water bottle of her own, too. It was a classic Nalgene without a single sticker. As our friendship grew stronger, I brought Jordan the last sticker from my collection(( With this small gesture, we see a) the writer’s kindness and b) the writer’s personal growth.)) , a rainbow bookmark that read, “BOOKWORM.”

I’ve always looked to the world around me for comfort instead of finding courage within myself. Elephant still sits on my shelf, I continue to be an avid reader, and I always carry my Hydroflask around for hydration. But this learning process has taught me the importance of having confidence and finding the ability to reach out to others. I can’t wait to carry this skill with me to college— after I get some more stickers(( The conclusion ties all these threads together beautifully, and this final statement adds some spunk and forward movement.)) .

Word Count: 648

Admissions Officer Notes on My Emotional Support Waterbottle

Ah, the emotional support water bottle. We’ve all had one! This writer does a wonderful job connecting an otherwise simple object to a larger story about an important part of their life. We also learn a lot about the student, their background, their goals, and their interests from this essay. I especially like how the essay shows the writer’s academic passion (literature) without being an explicitly academic-focused essay.

What makes this essay good:

  • Storytelling: With their love of reading, it’s no wonder this writer is a good storyteller. As readers, we get a very clear sense of how the events progressed and changed the reader’s perspective.
  • Compelling hook: This essay’s introduction is attention-grabbing and quirky. It compels readers to continue on in the essay to find out what, exactly the writer is talking about.
  • Clean conclusion: The conclusion is a fantastic example of what college essay conclusions should do. It reflects back on the essay, ties up loose ends, and looks forward to how these lessons will apply to the writer’s future.

What the writer could do to level up:

  • Core Strengths: While we learn a lot about the writer from the essay, there could be a stronger sense of core strengths. We see that they are a strong reader, but that strength doesn’t necessarily connect to their overall message. We also see that they are eager to connect and become a good friend with Jordan, but they don’t all connect seamlessly into a specific archetype or two. A good question to ask yourself is: how would the strengths I show in this essay convince an admissions officer that I will be a good addition to their campus?

College Essay Example #8: Party of One

The sun shone through my airplane window, hitting the tray table exactly right to reveal the greasy handprint of a child. Beside me, a woman cleared her throat as she rifled through her purse, and the tween next to her tapped away on an iPad. The knees of the tall man behind me pushed against the back of my chair. Together, we headed to Pennsylvania(( We open with clear scene-setting, and the final sentence jumps right to the point: we’re on a journey to PA.)) .

This wasn’t my first trip to Pennsylvania, and it wouldn’t be my last. But it was my first trip traveling as a party of one. Barely past the unaccompanied minor cutoff, I departed for a month-long and court-ordered trip to my dad’s house. I wasn’t eager to travel alone. I felt afraid, too young to do this by myself. I wanted to go back home. But I decided to embrace the journey as an adventure(( This explicit reflection helps us, the reader, understand what mindset the writer is at at the beginning of this journey.)) .

With the growing whirr of the engines, the plane ascended. All around me, my neighbors breathed sighs of relief when we reached cruising altitude. I tightened my seatbelt across my lap, steadying myself for the five-hour trip, and took in the scene. Always the quiet and careful observer(( And here we really learn about who the writer is)) , a full flight was my Sistine Chapel.

The woman to my right was wearing all black. She extracted her laptop from her bag the moment the flight attendants permitted, and she created a PowerPoint presentation from scratch before the drinks cart had even started down the aisle. She was all business. I imagined that she signed her emails with nothing but her name, that she read Keynes in her free time, and that people listened when she spoke. She was everything I longed to be(( While the majority of this paragraph is about the writer’s seat mate, this final sentence brings the focus back to the writer. We learn that the description, in fact, was about the writer themself—everything they “longed to be.”)) .

Next was the tween, only a few years younger than I was. Clearly afraid of flying, the tween reached across the aisle to a man who was presumably her father. I found it endearing that she reached out in fear. The dad’s reassurance didn’t just comfort the tween. It comforted me. So far from home, his quiet calm reminded me of the parent waiting to pick me up at the other end of this journey. I remembered reaching out for my own father’s hand when we flew to Pennsylvania for the first time(( Here we have more great reflection about the writer’s relationship with their dad. )) . Now, I watched the dad squeeze the tween’s hand. I felt guilty for the frustration I felt about the trip. I was excited to see my dad.

And finally, there was the man behind me. Aside from the brief glimpse I got during boarding, I didn’t know what he looked like. But there were two things I knew to be true. First, he was tall. The longer the flight went on, the more apologetically his knees bumped against my seat. Second, I felt emboldened by his ability to take up space. With each nudge forward, I spread myself a little bigger(( The writer’s encounter with this man nudged their growth forward. At the beginning, they felt small and timid. Now, they’re more able to take up space.)) , daring to exist in a world I normally wanted to hide from.

Four hours into the flight, turbulence hit. The long-legged man yelped as his knee hit the metal of the seat. Bigger now(( And that growth is solidified even more through this brief transition statement.)) , I was able to brace myself against the impact. I looked to the tween, who I expected to be a wreck. Instead, I saw a calm girl handing napkins to her dad, whose drink had spilled in the commotion. Her care for him mirrored the care he had shown for her. The woman next to me, who had seemed so steadfast, gasped when the plane shot downward. Her hand reached for her chest as she caught herself, surprised. I moved my arm from our shared armrest, giving her space(( This last part gives a very subtle look at the writer’s growth, too. We see that the person the writer admired isn’t as strong as she had seemed. In fact, the writer’s growth has enabled them to help the woman in her moment of weakness.)) . She smiled in appreciation.

After the turbulence had ended, I looked at myself. My hands were folded neatly in my lap. I realized that although I was flying solo, I was surrounded by strangers whose stories intersected with my own(( This point could be more specific.)) . When we landed, I ran into my dad’s arms. “ You’ve grown ,” he smiled.

Admissions Officer Notes on Party of One

This essay is an endearing story about the writer’s first solo plane ride. The narrative is what we would characterize as a “going on a journey” essay—both literally and figuratively. As the writer makes this cross-country trip, they also go through a long personal journey. I especially like the tie between the introduction and conclusion. Along the way, we also learn about the writer through their observations of the other people on the flight.

  • Introduction: The first two paragraphs draw the reader in, descriptively set the scene, and establish what is at stake for the writer. We are dropped right into the journey alongside them.
  • Vivid language: Throughout the essay, the writer uses interesting and vivid language that helps draw the reader in. The details aren’t overwhelming but add depth to the narrative.
  • Reflection throughout: One of the most challenging parts of writing this kind of essay is figuring out how to incorporate your reflection throughout. Many writers mistakenly save it all to the end. But this writer does it the right way by adding reflection at each stop along their journey.

Focus on the self: As-is, this essay tells us a lot about the writer. But it’s nearing on committing one of the biggest college essay writing faux pas: focusing on people other than yourself. I think the writer is getting close to that line but doesn’t yet cross it because of the reflection throughout. But to make the essay even better, the writer could still draw more focus to their own experiences.

College Essay Example #9: My Greatest Talent

I’m a klutz(( Quirky but not too out-there hook that has a lot of personality)) —that’s it, that’s my greatest talent. I’ve honed my clumsiness to perfection, putting in more than my 10,000 hours over the last… 17 years of my life.

When I was six or seven, I was always the one tripping over my own feet, knocking things over. (“This is why we can’t have nice things!” my mom used to scream, half in jest and half in exasperation.) My parents used to joke that I was the only person who could trip on a flat surface. But unfortunately for me, despite doing my due diligence into flat-earth theory(( Here’s more humor that adds some interest and voice to the essay.)) , I found that there was a prevailingly devilish curve to everything around me. If it had a lip, an edge, or a slick spot, I found it.

As I got older(( Excellent signposting to guide the reader through the narrative)) , my talent for being a klutz grew. I managed to trip over my own backpack on a daily basis, and I once fell down a flight of stairs while holding a tray of cookies (I was trying to be a good hostess, but it didn't end well). My friends and family came to expect it, and after those first few years of irritated glances, they began to meet my clumsiness with a laugh and an extended hand.

Being a klutz isn't all bad(( Here, the writer flips our expectations on their head. We’re about to learn about how being clumsy is, in fact, a talent.)) . In fact, it has some pretty decent perks. For one thing, it’s helped me become more empathetic. I know what it feels like to stumble and fall (and stumble and fall, and stumble and fall, and…), and I’m always ready to offer a kind word and a hug to someone who’s having a tough time. I also have a great sense of humor(( We’ve already seen this strength in action at the beginning of the essay, so it’s another good one to highlight.)) —a defense mechanism thanks to all of the embarrassing moments that I’ve created for myself. And let's not forget the fact that I am never bored. There is always something to trip over or knock over. Neither I nor anyone around me ever lacks for entertainment.

One of the biggest benefits of being a klutz is the unexpected friendships(( Friendship is another good strength. But at this point, the essay is starting to feel somewhat list-like. It may have been better to delve more deeply into fewer strengths rather than try to cover so much at once.)) it has given me. For example(( This is a good concrete anecdote that demonstrates the point, though.)) , I once tripped and fell into a ditch while hiking with a group of near-strangers I had met at a trailhead. Surrounded by brambles and thorns, three of them jumped right down with me to hoist me out. My graceless tumble became an inside joke of the trip and we all ended up becoming good friends. I was still embarrassed, of course, but I’m grateful that my clumsiness opened up a new door for friendship that day.

Being a klutz has also taught me to be patient with myself(( Again, we have another good strength, but it’s a lot to cover in one short essay.)) , and to not take myself too seriously. It has taught me to always be prepared for the unexpected, and to always have a good sense of humor. And most importantly, it has taught me to be kind to others(( And yet another strength! Especially since these are related, combining them in a more substantial way may have been more effective.)) , especially when they are having a tough time.

So, if you are looking for someone who’s a little bit quirky and a lot of fun, I’m your girl. I may not be the most graceful person on the planet, or on your campus, but I am confident, kind, and always up for a good laugh. Anyway, where's the fun in being graceful? Just, please, if you do accept me—I’d really appreciate some foam bumpers on the sharp surfaces in my dorm(( More wonderful personality to wrap things up hete. It's approaching being too informal, though.)) .

Word Count: 548

Admissions Officer Notes on My Greatest Talent

This essay is kind of a goofy one. I’ve included it as an example because I want to show you that it’s okay for your college essay to have some personality! Your college essay doesn’t have to be a big, serious rumination on some deep topic. Especially if you’re a goofy person yourself, it’s completely okay for you to choose a more light-hearted topic that showcases your personality. If you do, just be sure to follow this writer’s lead and still write an essay that showcases your strengths.

  • Topic choice and personal voice: When we read this essay, we get a crystal clear picture of who the student is because the topic allows them to really write in their own voice. I feel like I know the student after reading it.
  • Strengths: All college essays should communicate a core strength to the reader. This essay does an exceptional job at transforming something most people would consider a weakness—being clumsy—into clear strengths—empathy, humor, friendship, patience. Overall, we see that the writer
  • Writing style: The biggest tweak this writer could make would be leveling up the writing style. As it is now, it reads like a five-paragraph essay: first I did this, then this, and then this third thing. Changing up the organization and topic sentences could help the writing come across as more mature.

College Essay Example #10: Counting Cards

I am a psychic who thinks in terms of fours and threes(( This hook raises a lot of questions: What is the writer referring to? It does read, however, as a bit disingenuous and overly quirky.)) . Deal me any hand of Gin, and I can guarantee I’ll have you beat. I stare at the cards in my hand and see numbers moving in my mind. Like a mathemetician at a chalkboard, I plan out my next move. I use logic, memory, and a little bit of luck to guess exactly what your hand looks like. The possible combinations seem endless—four Kings and a run of three, three nines and four Queens, a run of four and three sevens, and many, many more. What I love most about playing Gin is the predictability. While I may not know what’s coming, I can use what I already know to strategize, adapt, and have fun along the way(( Here we have a clear gesture toward the essay’s overall theme.)) .

My Gin career began as a small child. My aunt taught me how to play the game while we were camping. My hands were so small that we had to use a chip clip to keep the cards in place(( These first three sentences are very choppy because they all have the same length and structure.)) . I was at first intimated by the “big kid game,” as I called it then, but soon I couldn’t get enough. I forced my entire family to play, and I even roped in the kids at the campsite next to us. My aunt, a mathematician, is a skilled Gin player. She passed her tips and tricks along to me. After a few years of playing, she was the only opponent I couldn’t beat.

Last summer was the first time it finally happened. I bested her. I had a hand with three Aces and a run of Spades. I needed another Ace or a three or seven of Spades. When I drew that final Ace from the deck, I could hardly believe it. I paused to count my cards again(( This description paints a wonderful picture of the writer, their aunt, and the relationship between them.)) . I drew my hands to my chest, looked up at my aunt slowly and triumphantly, and calmly declared, “Gin.” My aunt squealed and embraced me, proud of all the progress her protegee had made.

This win came from a year of hard work(( This is an effective transition that allows the writer to talk about all the work they put in.)) . I read every book on Gin I could find at the library, watched countless YouTube videos, and became an expert on Gin’s more lively counterpart, Gin Rummy. Learning and practicing drew me into a huge online community of Gin enthusiasts. I never thought that I’d meet some of my best friends through a card game, but I did. Every night, we’d compete against each other. And with each match, my skills would sharpen like a knife on a honing steel. When I finally beat my aunt, I hadn’t just won the game. I’d won lifelong friends and greater reasoning skills(( And here is a bit of reflection sprinkled in at the end. There definitely could be more reflection throughout.)) .

Gin players aren’t internationally recognized for their intellectual prowess like chess or Scrabble. I’ve learned other games and played them successfully, but nothing has come close to the joy and challenge I feel while playing Gin. I love predicting what your opponent holds and what you’ll draw next, betting on your perfect card being in the draw deck, chatting with your opponent as you deal the next round, and earning bragging rights after winning a match—all of it is the perfect mix of strategy and community. When I head off to college in the fall, the first thing I’ll pack will be a deck of cards(( This is a sweet ending that looks forward to the future. The conclusion could have touched more specifically on why all of this is so meaningful to the writer.)) .

Word Count: 549

Admissions Officer Notes on Counting Cards

This essay chronicles a writer’s journey learning how to play the card game Gin. I really like how much the writer and their personality shine through. Like the My Greatest Talent essay, Counting Cards is a great example of how to write a fun, light-hearted essay that still speaks to your strengths.

  • Topic: Admissions officers see lots of essays about chess and sports. But it’s pretty rare to see one about Gin. The topic (and enthusiasm with which the student writes about the topic) give this essay a good personal voice.
  • Connections: The writer also makes stellar connections between a simple game and the people who are most meaningful to them: their family and friends.
  • Strengths: Even with a topic as simple as a card game, the writer manages to highlight their strengths of work ethic and camaraderie.
  • Higher stakes: We see that the game of Gin is really important to the writer. We also see how the game is connected to their relationship with their aunt and to the new community they found online. But I’m left wanting a little bit more reflection and vulnerability about why Gin is so meaningful to this writer.

College Essay Example #11: Golden Hills Animal Clinic

On my best days at work, I’m surrounded by puppies, kittens, and rainbows(( This hook is interesting, but it's quite cliche.)) . On my worst, I watch people say tearful goodbyes to their best friends. Working at the front desk of Golden Hills Animal Clinic, I’ve seen it all. I’ve learned a lot about people through their pets. I’ve also learned a lot about myself(( Here, we get straight to the point of what this essay is going to be about.)) .

I began working in the clinic two summers ago. I’m known in my family as the “ Snow White(( What a sweet detail about this writer’s background)) ” because I’ve always had a special connection with animals. I had nearly started a new colony of stray cats in my backyard by the time I was nine. I’ve nursed more sick and injured birds than I can count. I’ve discovered all kinds of insects, snakes, and lizards in my neighborhood. Now, at the front desk, I get to welcome the animals and their humans. I share in their joys and console them at their lows.

After(( This topic sentence does a good job structuring the paragraph, but it could be clearer how this paragraph connects to the overall idea of the essay.)) watching thousands of animals struggle, you think you’d get used to the pain and suffering. But each hurt, injured, or elderly animal I check in stings just the same. When I’m in the back room helping prepare the animals for surgeries or procedures, I look into their eyes and desperately try to communicate that everything will be okay. The worst part is knowing that the animals can tell something is wrong but don’t understand what is happening. And when their owners walk past my front desk, I reassure them that we’re treating their pets as our own.

But with life’s hard moments also come the happiest ones. It’s easy to become dejected by the sad times, but working at the clinic has actually given me more hope(( Ah-ha! We learn that even though the writer witnesses a lot of sadness at the clinic, the experience has actually given them more hope.)) . There’s nothing like seeing small puppies, feet too big for their bodies, prance through the waiting room. I’ve witnessed children comfort cats through holes in carriers, and I’ve become inspired by the assertiveness with which our veterinarians make critical decisions to help animals. Through all this, I’ve learned that those little pockets of happiness, care, and determination are what make life worth living(( This sentence helps ground the reader in the writer’s theme.)) .

I’ve also learned that veterinary medicine is as much about the people as it is the pets. Sometimes owners have to be convinced about the best care plan for their pets. Sometimes others aren’t able to afford the care they desperately want to get. People come in worried about nothing or not worried enough. Part of managing the front desk is having the ability to read where a person is coming from the moment they start speaking. Seeing things from customers’ perspectives helps me provide better customer service to the people and the pets. If I sense that a customer is worried about cost, I can talk to them about payment plans. If someone seems overwhelmed by the options, I ask if they’d like to speak with the vet again. In all these cases, I feel proud to provide as much help as I can. Doing so makes sure that our animals receive the best care possible(( We get a good sense of the writer’s strengths in this paragraph, but by the end, it still doesn’t really connect back to the theme.)) .

Now, as an aspiring veterinarian myself(( And with this small note, we learn all that’s at stake: the writer wants to be a vet in the future, so all of these experiences are important preparation .)) , I know that the rest of my career will be filled with the happiest and saddest moments of people’s lives. My care for animals will turn tragedies into miracles. I’ll console owners of sick pets, and I’ll help bring new life into the world. Veterinary medicine is a lot like life in general. You can’t have the good without the bad. But I’ve never met a pet owner who wouldn’t trade the pain of animal loss for even one fleeting, happy moment with their furry friend. Animals make the world a better place. Like Snow White(( Clever call back to tie the essay together)) , I’ll continue listening to animals so I can make their world a little better too.

Word Count: 615

Admissions Officer Notes on Golden Hills Animal Clinic

This essay tells a good story about this writer’s time working at an animal clinic. What I like about this essay is that the writer doesn’t sugar coat things, but they also don’t dwell on the sadness that passes through the clinic. They are real about their experiences, and they draw valuable lessons from them. They also show the importance of this story by connecting it to their future goals.

  • Strengths: We clearly see the strengths this writer brings to the clinic. They are understanding, patient, and positive. We also clearly see how these strengths will help the writer be a good veterinarian in the future.
  • Topic sentences and transitions: Although the paragraphs get unwieldy at times, the writer’s clear topic sentences and transitions help us seamlessly progress through the narrative.
  • Being more direct and concise: At times, it feels like the writer rambles instead of making clear, direct points. Rambling can distract the reader from the main point you’re trying to make, so it’s best to stay on track in each paragraph.
  • Fewer cliches: Relying on cliches shows immaturity in your writing. Cliches like “puppies, kittens, and rainbows” and “with the bad comes the good” get in the way of the writer’s own voice.

College Essay Example #12: The Filmmaker

Eye to the lens, I feel in complete control. The old camera weighs heavy in my hands as I quietly point my leading actor to the other side of the frame. Taking a moment to look at the world through my own eyes rather than a lens, I make a decision. I back up, careful not to trip, and capture the wide, panning shot I had envisioned. Filmmaking allows me to show others exactly how I see the world. With an odd angle or lingering aside, I can take my audience on a journey through my eyes(( This introduction raises a lot of questions that propel us forward through the essay: what is the writer doing? What is it that they want to show the world? Why does this all matter?)) .

What’s beautiful about filmmaking is that there are several art forms occurring simultaneously(( We begin with a paragraph that dives deep into the writer’s interest.)) . At the foundation of a scene is the script. Words that draw a viewer in and keep them there, the script is an essential act of creative writing. Next there’s the acting. An art of performance, acting brings the script to life. A good actor will make an audience feel as if they are with the characters, feeling what they feel and doing what they do. Then there’s the direction and filmmaking. Choices about how to translate a three-dimensional world to pixels on a screen drastically affect the audience’s experience. And, finally, there’s the editing. Editing is where all of the other art forms converge, selected and chopped up and stitched back together to create something even better than the original.

I’ve never been one for writing or acting. But the latter two, filmmaking and editing, are where my passions lie(( And here we learn about the writer’s main passion, inspirations, and journey as a filmmaker.)) . Inspired by my favorite movie, ET , I began filmmaking in elementary school. Borrowing my mom’s Flip UltraHD camera, I’d run around my home, filming everything in sight. Soon after, I started gathering my neighborhood friends in my backyard and directing them in made-up film productions. Our films took us on journeys around the world. We were pirates in the Atlantic, merchants in Paris, and kangaroos in Australia. We learned how to tell stories and create and resolve conflicts. In the process, we learned about ourselves, each other, and the world around us.

My love for editing didn’t come until later(( This is an okay topic sentence that helps us understand where we’re at in the narrative, but the paragraph as a whole could more clearly relate to the writer’s overall theme.)) . When my family upgraded our ancient Gateway 2000 to a sleek iMac, I became an iMovie aficionado. I learned how to use all the features and enter in keyboard shortcuts. I became a sculptor. Instead of clay, my material was digital. I’d split clips in half, manually zoom in to my subject, and add filters that changed the whole tone of a shot. Shift + Command + F, and I’d play my clips in full screen, evaluating them with the eye of a film critic. Was my shot effective? Are the actors convincing? Is there anything odd in the background? If I had never seen this, what would I think and feel? Then I’d repeat the process, over and over again.

Some people might say that dedicating myself to filmmaking is frivolous in a world with more pressing problems. But filmmaking is a way to spread messages and give people hope. From the change wrought by An Inconvenient Truth to the laughter Mr. Bean has incited in millions, filmmaking is a way to bring art, truth, and laughter to everyone. More accessible than books or newspapers, film and TV couldn’t be more essential media to confront the problems of today. With the passion of my ten-year-old self, the films I’ll continue to make will have an impact(( We conclude by learning about the writer’s interest in using filmmaking to impact the world. The writer could dig a little deeper here—it stays mainly on the surface.)) .

Word Count: 563

Admissions Officer Notes on The Filmmaker

In this essay, we get a great sense of how excited the writer is about filmmaking. They take us on their journey learning about filmmaking, and they explain how their interest will serve them in the future. I especially enjoy how this essay oozes passion. By the end of the essay, we have no doubt about what this writer sees as their life’s calling.

  • Organization: The introduction , background, explanation, and discussion of personal growth all cohere perfectly. The writer walks us through each step of their journey in a clear and logical way.
  • Voice: Through all the rich descriptions of the writer’s childhood, we really see their personality and voice.
  • Significance and meaning : While it’s clear that this topic is one the writer is passionate about, the essay could evoke more meaning. It’s not apparent what’s truly at stake. The writer should ask and answer the question: “So what?” In answering that question, they’ll be able to be more vulnerable throughout the essay.

“Bad” College Essay Examples

“Bad” is in quotation marks here because writing is always relative.

In the case of these examples, we have categorized them as “bad” because they don’t adequately meet the expectations of a college essay. That doesn’t mean that they’re objectively bad or that their writers are bad writers. It means that the essays need some more attention.

“Bad” essays can always become good essays. Sometimes they can even become the best essays. What matters most is identifying what’s not working and putting in a lot of effort to address the problems.

Across the thousands of college essays we read as admissions officers, there are several issues that arise again and again. Learning from these issues can help you avoid them.

We have a whole post about those biggest college essay mistakes. But the following examples commit three different writing faux pas:

  • Too much metaphor and not enough substance
  • No main point or clear organization
  • About a topic that is important to the writer but not actually that high-stakes

With these mistakes in mind, let’s do some analysis.

College Essay Example #13: Lost in the Forest

I look into the forest, moss wet on my feet(( This is an intriguing hook.)) . There’s fog everywhere—I can barely see the glasses that sit on my nose. I feel a cool breeze rustle against my coat. I am cold and warm all at once. The sun shines through the fog, casting the shadow of a tree whose roots know no end. At the entrance to the forest, I stand frozen in time and space. I can’t see what’s ahead of me or behind me, only what is(( After this sentence, the metaphor becomes unclear.)) . And what is suddenly transforms into what could be. I see a fork in the pathway in front of me. The noise—the noise is so loud. Crickets and owls and tigers, oh my(( Avoid cliche phrases.)) . My thoughts scream even louder. I can’t hear myself think through the sounds of the forest of my mind. Off in the distance, I see a figure. It’s a shadow figure. It’s my mother. She’s walking towards me. I take a step into the forest, fearlessly ready to confront any overwhelming obstacle that comes my way(( This is a nice sentence that encapsulates the main theme of the essay.)) .

When I was a child, I used to play in the forest behind my house. Until one day when I caught my mom sneaking a cigarette outside. She tried to hide it behind her back, but I could see the smoke trailing over her head like a snail. I didn’t know what to do, so I ran farther into the forest. I am used to being disappointed by her. I ran and ran and ran until I tripped over a tree branch that fell in the storm the week before. I laid on the cold, hard ground. The back of me was soaked. Would I turn into my mom? After that, I decided to turn back. The cold was encroaching. I got home and saw my mom in the kitchen. We agreed not to speak of what I saw(( This paragraph could use some more details about what’s at stake: why does all of this matter? As readers, we need more information about the writer’s relationship with their mom to understand why this confrontation was so significant.)) .

While taking a history test, I looked around at my classmates. The gray desk was cold against my skin. I started counting the people around me, noting those who I knew well and those I had never really talked to. I looked at all the expensive backpacks and shoes. After our test, I asked the person next to me how she thought she did. She said it was a difficult test, and I agreed. Every class period, we’d talk more and more. We became friends. We started hanging out with another friend from biology class. We were inseparable, like three peas in a pod. We’d study together and hang out together and dance. They were the best friends I ever had. We liked to play soccer after school and sing loudly to music in my room. But one day it all stopped. They both stopped talking to me((It's not clear how this anecdote relates to the anecdote about the writer’s mother. The significance of the forest metaphor could also be drawn out more.)) . It was like I had been yanked out of the forest and thrown on to the forest floor. I became moss, the owls pecking at my spikey green tendrils. They found two other friends, and I sat alone at my desk in history again. It was like another test, but this time a history of my own.

Things went on like this for years. Over and over again I got put back into the forest. My friends who I thought were my friends actually were just drama machines. Life is foggy when you don’t know what’s going on. And I live in a forest that’s always foggy. Try as I might to find myself, it’s easy to get lost in all the trails and hills. I’m climbing a mountain each and every day. But I keep going back into the forest, looking for answers(( The return to the metaphor almost works here. But because the metaphor has gotten in the way of the main point, we need more explicit reflection to tie everything together.)) .

Word Count: 603

Admissions Officer Notes on Lost in the Forest

So. Writers know that college essays should be meaningful reflections and exercises in creative writing. But sometimes writers take this advice to the extreme and write essays that are too metaphorical and too focused on internal reflection.

This essay is the perfect example of what happens when a writer goes over the top with metaphor. The forest metaphor could be a useful tool given the writer’s topic, but as it is now, everything else gets lost within the metaphor. It’s difficult to extract what the writer actually says about their life.

The writer’s reflection is also deep and removed from specific examples. After reading the essay, I still don’t feel like I know the writer. The topic also changes halfway through the essay, so following the thread throughout is challenging.

What this essay does well:

  • Topic: Even though the writer’s topic switches in the middle of the essay, it’s clear that the topics are both meaningful to the writer. The first topic especially may still be grounds for a great college essay.
  • Vulnerability: The writer’s vulnerability shines through. They are willing to share an important part of themselves.

What the writer could improve upon:

  • Pick a main topic and stick with it: Part of what makes this essay challenging to follow is that it’s doing too many things at once. Narrowing the topic would help the writer focus all their thoughts on communicating one overall idea.
  • Use the metaphor sparingly: Remember that metaphors are best when used sparingly. Pulling off an overarching metaphor is very difficult, so it’s generally easier for writers to sprinkle in small references to the metaphor throughout. A great way to accomplish this is the “bookend technique,” where you introduce a metaphor in the introduction and return to it in the conclusion. 
  • Tighten up each paragraph : All of the paragraphs in this essay have a lot of information that doesn’t necessarily flow logically from one sentence to the next. My final recommendation would be to edit the paragraphs themselves for clarity. The writer should think about what information is essential and cut the rest.

College Essay Example #14: The Chemist

You(( There are always different opinions about addressing your reader. Sometimes it can work okay, but this instance doesn't work quite as well.)). may be wondering why I’ve taken so many chemistry classes. Well, that’s because I love chemistry. I used to hate chemistry with a fiery passion but now I love it more than anything. I remember that I used to struggle through every single chemistry assignment I ever got. My sister would try to help me but I’d just get upset, like I really just didn’t understand it and that was so frustrating so I just kept not wanting to do more but eventually I started to think “oh chemistry is at the foundation of everything that makes up our universe,” and isn’t that just fascinating?(( Whew—that was a long sentence! This is a run-on sentence, but we do learn about the writer’s primary motivation for studying chemistry.)) So then I decided to make a change and actually try to learn chemistry. I started paying attention in class and asking my teacher for help after class and finally one day my sister said, “Wow, you’re really improving.” And that meant so much to me. When my great-grandparents immigrated to the United States(( This reference is nice, but it's an abrupt topic change. It’s not clear why the writer is bringing up their great-grandparents.)) , they had no idea what would be in store for their great-grandkids. We really don’t learn chemistry in school until high school, so it’s no wonder I didn’t understand it in high school when I started taking it. Electrons and atoms and acids and alcohols. There’s so much to learn. I really have never been good at math so I’d say that’s one of my biggest challenges in chemistry now is learning how to do the equations and figuring out how the math works. In fifth grade I used to be in advanced math but then it just got worse from there until I learned about tutoring. I started doing tutoring through the high school when I was in ninth grade and it helped a lot because I just needed a little more help for each lesson to really understand it. But even with that the math part of chemistry is still hard for me. But I always keep trying! That’s the most important thing to me I think is to keep trying(( This is a good statement of values.)) . Even when problems are hard and I can’t solve them I try to have a good attitude because even if I can’t get it right, doing chemistry is about unlocking the secrets of the universe and that really is interesting even if you can’t completely understand them. When I started taking chemistry in my sophomore year I almost gave up but I was also really inspired by my teacher who guided me through everything. She gave me extra time to do my lab work and was even my lab partner a couple times because our class has an uneven number of students. My favorite part of chemistry lab is mixing solutions and testing them. I don’t like the lab report writing so much but I know it’s an important part. So I try to just get through that so I can get back to doing experiments and such. My favorite experiments was about building a calormieter to measure how many calories is in our food(( Pay attention to small errors and typos like this one.)) . Calories are energy so you burn your food to measure how much energy they have. Then you write up a report about how many calories each food item like bananas, bread, a cookie, had. The best part of doing labs is having your lab partner there with you. You’re both wearing goggles and lab coats and gloves and you feel really like a professional chemist and it’s nice that you’re not doing it alone. You just read the lab instructions and do each of the steps in order. It’s like baking a cake! You just follow the recipe. But you don’t eat the results! You might use beakers or bunsen burners to hold liquid or burn or heat up whatever it is you’re experimenting on. And when I say “find the meaning of the universe” I really mean it(( The writer is trying to return to a bigger reflection here, but the transition needs to be much smoother.)) . It’s amazing how much chemistry is in everything. Cooking is doing chemistry because you’re changing up the properties of the food. The air we breathe, the way plants get energy, the medicines we take, we understand it all because of chemistry. I know that becoming a chemist is hard work and isn’t easy. But I know that it’s rewarding and that’s why I want to do it. Helping people is so important to me and I think that chemistry can help me get there(( Here, we also learn about the writer’s values and motivations.)) . I also like the health and beauty industry and I think it would be fun to get to develop new products or perfumes or medicines.

Word Count: 746

Admissions Officer Notes on The Chemist

There’s no easy way to say it, but this essay just doesn’t meet the mark. That’s why it gets an F. It reads like a free write rather than an essay because it is stream-of-consciousness and doesn’t really make a clear point. I learn that the writer loves chemistry, but the overall message is not clear.

  • Ideas : All hope is not lost! Once we dig into what each sentence of the essay is saying, there are some good ideas that the writer can turn into a more cohesive topic.
  • Organization: I hesitate to make any extreme claims about college essays, but I feel pretty confident in saying that the vast majority of college essays should always be more than one paragraph. You need paragraphs to break up your thoughts into digestible chunks. Each paragraph should contain a single point you’re trying to convey to the reader. This writer should break all these ideas up into several paragraphs.
  • Theme: We see that the topic of the essay is chemistry, that chemistry is interesting because it’s the foundation of everything, and that chemistry can help people. But we don’t really get any deeper meaning from the writer. They haven’t made an attempt to be vulnerable or to show us something significant about themself.
  • Length: The essay is almost a hundred words over the word count. The writer needs to pare things down as they organize and clarify their ideas.

Supplemental Essay Examples

In addition to your personal statement, many colleges will also have you write what are called “supplemental essays.”

These essays do exactly as the name implies: they supplement your personal statement. They’re the perfect opportunity for you to tell admissions officers even more about yourself beyond the information you put in your personal statement. Specifically, ou can use them strategically to highlight even more of your strengths.

There are no universal supplemental essay prompts like there are for the Common Application personal statement.

Instead, colleges provide their own supplemental essay prompt(s) as part of their applications.

The good news, however, is that these prompts generally fall into a few common categories: Why Us, Community, Personal Challenge, Extracurricular Activities, Academic Interest, Diversity, and Why this Major prompts.

If you want to learn more about what these prompts entail, or about how to even write a supplemental essay in the first place, check out our complete guide to writing supplemental essays (it’s really good).

For now, let’s take a look at standout example essays for four of the most common supplemental prompt types.

Community Essay: The DIY-ers

Prompt from MIT: Describe the world you come from (for example, your family, school, community, city, or town). How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations?

225 words or fewer"

I come from a family of do-it-yourselfers(( Straightforward but attention-grabbing. Nice!)) . In part, this lifestyle is one of necessity. Hiring professionals isn’t cheap, after all. But our DIY proclivities are also a product of a longstanding family tradition of ingenuity.

My first DIY was a fix on my Cozy Coupe, whose steering wheel had fallen off. Since then, my DIYs have become larger scale. With my dad, I’ve replaced loose bike chains, put in a new car clutch, and re-tiled our kitchen.

But our biggest DIY to date has been building a six-foot telescope(( Great topic choice that connects to the writer’s academic interests)) together. Made of scraps and spare parts, it’s not the most beautiful telescope. But our focus is on the stars anyway. My entire family has evening picnics, taking turns to look through the makeshift eyepiece. Occasionally the eyepiece falls off, and we all laugh(( I love the personality that emerges with this detail.)) as I run over to replace it.

Coming from a DIY family has made me self-reliant. And when the fixes just aren’t working, my dad reminds me to take a step back and think creatively about solutions. It’s from this mindset that my dream of being an environmental engineer has evolved(( The writer could get to this point sooner.)) .

I know that engineering isn’t just about fancy gadgets. It’s about ingenuity. I want to adapt my DIY ingenuity, mind and hand(( A cheeky nod to the school’s motto—interesting!)) , to even bigger projects that mitigate climate change and lead to a safer tomorrow(( I also like this gesture to the broader significance of their dreams and aspirations.)) .

Word Count: 220

Admissions Officer Notes

  • Topic: The writer has chosen a pretty interesting topic for this community essay that will most likely stand out among other candidates. More importantly, the community they’ve chosen to write about is one that they hold dear and have learned a lot from. The story connects in specific ways to who they are as a person and what their dreams and aspirations have come to be.
  • Growth: The prompt asks how the community has “shaped” your dreams and aspirations. This writer focuses on the progression of their aspirations while telling endearing stories about their relationship with their family members.
  • Future goals: The writer explicitly states how this community has shaped how and what they want to do in the future.

What it could improve on:

  • Pacing: Aside from describing your community, the main question of the prompt is how that community has shaped your dreams and aspirations. While the writer does get to an answer, they could spend more time in the essay focusing on that answer.

Diversity Essay: Bumpass

Prompt from Duke:  We seek a diverse student body that embodies the wide range of human experience. In that context, we are interested in what you’d like to share about your lived experiences and how they’ve influenced how you think of yourself.

There((A great, interesting hook that also jumps into a connection with Duke.)) are more traffic lights on the Duke University campus than there are in my entire hometown.

I don’t actually know how many traffic lights Duke has, but it’s a pretty safe bet that it has more than zero, which is how many we have here in Bumpass, Virginia.

Yes, Bumpass. Pronounced “bump-us”.

I’m from a weird little lake town in central Virginia((This paragraph gives us a clear picture of the writer's lived experiences.)) that has two types of residents: part-timers (that’s what we call them), mostly from DC, Richmond, or Charlottesville, with million-plus dollar homes on Lake Anna. They swim and boat on the private side of the lake, which is heated (yes, the lake is heated) by a nuclear power plant. And then there are families like mine. The locals. I’ve always thought “working class” was a nice way for rich people to call poor people poor, but that’s what we are. Families like mine clean the power plant. I’ve never swam in the private side, and our boat is a canoe.

Officially((And this paragraph gives us a good sense of how those lived experiences have influenced them.)) , I’ve had a job since my 16th birthday, which is the legal age in Virginia. But I’ve worked cleaning rental homes and fixing boats for part-timers with my uncle since I was old enough to use a Swiffer and turn a wrench. I’ve cleaned homes that cost more than my extended family’s combined net worth, but oddly I enjoy it. When I see inside their homes, I have something to aspire to, and that’s more than most of my hometown peers can say.

Success around here means making it through community college. Doing so in two years all without abusing alcohol or drugs? I don’t know many people who have done that. But I want to bring my Bumpass experience to Duke.((Nice job bringing the story back to the connection with Duke.)) I know how to rise before the sun and get a day’s worth of work in before noon. I know how to talk to goat farmers and postal workers (my best friend’s parents) just as well as neurosurgeons and pilots (my favorite part-timers whose docks I maintain in the off-season).

I’m looking forward to learning from the diverse body at Duke, making friends from around the world, and gaining a better understanding of the world beyond Bumpass((This conclusion ties the essay together nicely and communicates good school fit.)) .

  • Humor and personality: From the topic of the town’s name to the introduction, the writer uses humor (when appropriate) and clearly shows their own voice. They take an authentic approach to the diversity essay prompt. I feel like I know the student after reading this, which is always good.
  • School Connections: While there aren’t a ton of references to Duke here, the prompt doesn’t necessarily ask for them. The writer still does a good job connecting their lived experience to how they see themself at Duke.

Personal Challenge Essay: Tutoring Charlotte

Prompt from Brown: Brown’s culture fosters a community in which students challenge the ideas of others and have their ideas challenged in return, promoting a deeper and clearer understanding of the complex issues confronting society. This active engagement in dialogue is as present outside the classroom as it is in academic spaces. Tell us about a time you were challenged by a perspective that differed from your own. How did you respond? (200-250 words)

Asking Charlotte to answer a math question was like asking a cat to take a bath. Her resistance was almost instinctual. When I first met her, I had been doing after-school tutoring for about six months. The program paired up high school students with middle schoolers who were falling behind in their classes. Charlotte was my first student and biggest challenge(( Nice wording to make it abundantly clear that the writer is answering the prompt)) .

At first, her unwillingness to try came across as lazy(( This sentence gets at what the prompt is asking for: “a perspective that differed from your own”)) . I used everything I had in my tutoring arsenal. I encouraged her to give her confidence, and I even brought candy to bribe her. To my dismay, nothing worked. Each time I introduced a new problem, Charlotte simply refused.

My frustration grew so immense that I caught myself being curt with her. When I saw the look of betrayal in her eyes, I was ashamed at my impatience(( Here we have an inciting incident and growth that resulted from a realization. The writer begins to address the “how did you respond?” part of the prompt.)) . I realized that Charlotte’s struggles weren’t her fault. Math has always come easy to me. Whereas every math problem I encounter is like a code I’m excited to crack, Charlotte sees math problems as threats. After years of struggling, it’s no wonder that she stopped trying.

Once I understood that we approach math from different perspectives, I tried something new. I got rid of the math book and graph paper, and I brought out gummy bears. We did an algebra problem without her even knowing it. Together(( The writer zooms the focus out to a larger reflection about what they learned from this interaction. Nice.)) , we worked to overcome her fear of math. Along the way, I learned to teach the person, not the subject matter.

World Count: 247

  • Topic choice: Personal Challenge prompts can be some of the most difficult, especially if you don’t have a specific challenge you’ve faced in your life. This writer’s topic choice works great. They show that you don’t have to have a life-altering challenge to answer this prompt well.
  • Clear narrative: This prompt is a lengthy one, but the writer has clearly read it and used it to structure the story. As a reader, it’s easy to follow along as the writer identifies the problem, works toward a solution, overcomes hurdles, and eventually comes out successful in the end.
  • Connections: Different prompts require different levels of connections to the school. This writer incorporates some of Brown’s institutional values, but, especially since the prompt says so much about Brown’s community, the writer could have made more effort to connect their story to Brown.

Extracurricular Essay: Working Retail

Prompt from Vanderbilt:  Vanderbilt offers a community where students find balance between their academic and social experiences. Please briefly elaborate on how one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences has influenced you.

“ Would(( Beginning any essay with dialog can be hit or miss. But this is a hit. The dialog quickly captures the essence of working in retail and plops the reader directly into the writer’s extracurricular activity.)) you like another size? Sure thing, I’ll get a medium.”

“Are you interested in saving 10% today with an Old Navy Card? No, no worries…”

“I can clean the bathrooms if someone covers the fitting room!”

I didn’t expect much from my first job. Mostly, I expected to earn $12 an hour and improve my denim folding skills at Old Navy. I didn’t think I could learn so much about people and develop life skills.

As(( This paragraph could be a little more specific to the writer rather than their coworkers.))  odd as it may sound, retail work brought people together during COVID. I started in July of 2020. Our store had always met for monthly meetings, but everyone emphasized how much closer they’d become since the pandemic. Stepping up to cover someone’s shift when they got sick–or their spouse or child did–used to elicit a quick “thank you!”, but took on a more profound meaning in 2020. Though I started mid-pandemic, everyone I worked with remarked that, with a few notable exceptions, the overall demeanor of the clientele was much more empathetic. My coworkers seemed to go from sales associates to brave workers keeping the economy afloat overnight.

After about seven months of dutiful work, I was promoted(( The writer seamlessly incorporates the information that they earned a promotion after a relatively brief time of working at the store.)) to senior associate and had new responsibilities of closing and opening the store. Sure, I had dreams of working in an infectious disease lab. But having adults put real trust in me to account for several thousand dollars and secure a major outlet made me value and understand work perhaps even more than the research internship I missed out on(( I appreciate the perspective here. The writer makes a good argument for the importance of retail work, especially in relation to their academic interests.)) .

I am thankful for this opportunity to work and learn with a dedicated staff. Now, I look forward to pursuing more experiences that will relate to my career in biotech in college. Oh, and I won’t miss soliciting credit card sales with each purchase(( This humor bookends the essay wonderfully and adds some extra personality.)) !

  • Focus on strengths: Maintaining the right focus in extracurricular essays can be tricky. It can be easy to get caught up in the details of the activity and brag too much or not enough. Especially with extracurricular activities that aren’t based in competition, it can be challenging to draw out strengths. But this writer finds the perfect way to talk about their accomplishments and strengths (being promoted and being a team player) while also seeming personable and humble.
  • Connection to future goals : Importantly, the writer doesn’t just leave the story at their retail job. They show the admissions officer how they see this job as contributing toward their future goals.
  • Transitions: The transitions between paragraphs and into the detail about a future biotech career could be smoother.

Why this Major: Watchers

Prompt from USC: Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests and why you want to explore them at USC specifically. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections. (Approximately 250 words)

As a child(( I like how the writer takes a more creative approach to a standard “why this major” essay.)) , I always got in trouble for staring. My mom would nudge me whenever I looked at someone too long. My uncontrollable staring was an embarrassment for her, but it’s one of the things I love most about myself. Whereas some people are do-ers, I am a watcher, a listener, and a documenter(( We learn a lot about the writer’s personality here.)) . Like introverts and extroverts, the world needs both kinds of people.

Watchers have an admirable task: to see what exists and give it meaning. That’s exactly what I want to do while pursuing my academic interests in anthropology(( And at this point, we jump quickly into the connections between the opening story and the writer’s academic interests. )) . In particular, I’m interested in learning about art, language, and culture in Russia. Pursuing a research career in anthropology would open up opportunities for me to do research for government offices and move toward my ultimate goal(( Incorporating a future goal that they’re working towards is an effective approach.)) of working for the United Nations.

As(( This paragraph has a number of specific, detailed, and relevant connections to the school.)) a Visual Anthropology and Russian double major at USC, I would hone my social scientist skills and improve my Russian language abilities. I’m also eager to participate in a directed internship and to connect with fellow watchers in the Anthropology and Global Studies club. The Center for Visual Anthropology, minor in Folklore and Popular Culture, and the anthropology-focused study abroad opportunity in St. Petersburg all converge to make USC the ideal place for me to learn.

With USC’s global focus and emphasis on creativity, research, and public service, I know that I could develop my watching skills into a successful anthropology career(( And the writer concludes by drawing on some of the institution’s core values, which helps ground all of those disparate connections into something meaningful that the writer aligns themself with.)) .

  • Writing style and storytelling: This essay shows that supplemental essays don’t have to be boring. The writer opens with an interesting hook and writes about their major interest in a compelling way.
  • School research and connections: The writer does a good job specifically answering the “how you plan to pursue your academic interests and why you want to explore them at USC” part of the prompt. It’s clear that they’ve done their research, and the connections they’ve chosen to focus on make sense in the context of the story they’ve told. They also incorporate school values in addition to simple facts.
  • Writing about school connections : To take this essay to the next level, the student could write about the school connections in a slightly more elegant way. As they are now, they feel quite list-like.

Academic Interest: Everyday History

Prompt from Barnard: At Barnard, academic inquiry starts with bold questions. What are some of the bold questions you have pondered that get you excited and why do they interest you? Tell us how you would explore these questions at Barnard. (max 300)

As I walked through the ancient city of Pompeii(( This is a beautiful hook that stops and makes the reader think, too.)) on a family vacation, I thought about the children. I imagined how scared they must have been when the volcano erupted, how they must have reached out to their caregivers for protection. When a large group of people mobbed through the alley next to us, I reached out to my own mother(( With a simple phrase, the writer shows the connection between themself and the people of the past who have captured their attention.)) as an anchor.

What interests me most about history is that the people of the past(( The writer adeptly transitions from a poetic introduction to a straightforward answer to the prompt.)) were just like us. They had likes and dislikes, they became frightened and love-struck and tired. While the history of royalty and great wars captures most people’s attention, what I want to study is the history of everyday people.

What(( These questions respond exactly to what the prompt is asking for. )) was it like to be a child in Pompeii? How did prisoners feel on their way to Australia? What kinds of recipes did the Aztecs cook?

I know that with Barnard’s culture of multidisciplinarity, discovery, and creative thinking, I’d be able to pursue these questions and more(( The writer draws on Barnard’s own values and connects their interests, goals, and questions to specific offerings at Barnard.)) . In classes like Gender and Empire, I’ll learn about the ways European expansion was gendered. And in Children and Childhood in African History or Reproducing Inequalities: Family in Latin American History, I’ll be able to ask questions about the history of the family: How have family structures varied across time and place? What historical role have children played? In what ways have parenting practices changed and why?

While they may seem inconsequential for life today, I believe that answering these questions helps us better understand ourselves. With Barnard’s Building Strong Voices(( And they also reference out-of-the-classroom opportunities.)) mission, I’ll learn how to present my research and advocate for the importance of history.

The world needs more histories of everyday people. We have a lot to learn from them, and Barnard’s offerings will help me lead us to better historical and current understandings(( With this conclusion, it’s clear how Barnard will help the writer accomplish their goals. )) .

Word Count: 299

  • Introduction: Academic interest essays are your chance to go all-in. The introduction to this essay does just that. We’re immediately transported into this writer’s academic interest, and we begin to ask these questions alongside them.
  • Answering all parts of the prompt: This can be a tricky feat when responding to complex prompts like Barnard’s. But this writer does just that. They tackle each part of the prompt in order, and they make clear transitions between them.

College Essay Example Takeaways

Whether you’re writing a personal statement or supplemental essay, reading and analyzing college essay examples is an important tool. Good examples can give you insight into the proper form and structure to use. And bad examples can be just as helpful by showing you what not to do.

All admissions officers will approach your college essays from different perspectives. But hopefully the grades and comments—provided by our team of former admissions officers and professional writing coaches—have helped you understand what works, what doesn’t work, and why.

As you’ve seen, there are so many essays, topics, personalities, approaches—you can write a college essay about almost anything.

Remember that the key to any successful college application is a cohesive application narrative . 

And if you want to take your own college essays to the next level, join the Essay Academy for an entire course of professional guidance.

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College Admissions , College Essays

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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 11 different schools. Finally, I'll break down two of these published college essay examples and explain why and how they work. With links to 177 full essays and essay excerpts , this article is 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.

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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.

And if you need more guidance, connect with PrepScholar's expert admissions consultants . These expert writers know exactly what college admissions committees look for in an admissions essay and chan help you craft an essay that boosts your chances of getting into your dream school.

Check out PrepScholar's Essay Editing and Coaching progra m for more details!

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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.

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. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? 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.

Now, let's get to the good stuff: the list of 177 college essay examples responding to current and past Common App essay prompts. 

Connecticut college.

  • 12 Common Application essays from the classes of 2022-2025

Hamilton College

  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2026
  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2022
  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2018
  • 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2012
  • 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2007

Johns Hopkins

These essays are answers to past prompts from either the Common Application or the Coalition Application (which Johns Hopkins used to accept).

  • 1 Common Application or Coalition Application essay from the class of 2026
  • 6 Common Application or Coalition Application essays from the class of 2025
  • 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2024
  • 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2023
  • 7 Common Application of Universal Application essays from the class of 2022
  • 5 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2021
  • 7 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2020

Essay Examples Published by Other Websites

  • 2 Common Application essays ( 1st essay , 2nd essay ) from applicants admitted to Columbia

Other Sample College Essays

Here is a collection of essays that are college-specific.

Babson College

  • 4 essays (and 1 video response) on "Why Babson" from the class of 2020

Emory University

  • 5 essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) from the class of 2020 along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on why the essays were exceptional
  • 5 more recent essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on what made these essays stand out

University of Georgia

  • 1 “strong essay” sample from 2019
  • 1 “strong essay” sample from 2018
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2023
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2022
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2021
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2020
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2019
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2018
  • 6 essays from admitted MIT students

Smith College

  • 6 "best gift" essays from the class of 2018

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Books of College Essays

If you're looking for even more sample college essays, consider purchasing a college essay book. The best of these include dozens of essays that worked and feedback from real admissions officers.

College Essays That Made a Difference —This detailed guide from Princeton Review includes not only successful essays, but also interviews with admissions officers and full student profiles.

50 Successful Harvard Application Essays by the Staff of the Harvard Crimson—A must for anyone aspiring to Harvard .

50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays and 50 Successful Stanford Application Essays by Gen and Kelly Tanabe—For essays from other top schools, check out this venerated series, which is regularly updated with new essays.

Heavenly Essays by Janine W. Robinson—This collection from the popular blogger behind Essay Hell includes a wider range of schools, as well as helpful tips on honing your own essay.

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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

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

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.

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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.

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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 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.

what makes a bad college essay

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Example 2: By Renner Kwittken, Tufts Class of '23 (Common App Essay, 645 words long)

My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver. I saw it in my favorite book, Richard Scarry's "Cars and Trucks and Things That Go," and for some reason, I was absolutely obsessed with the idea of driving a giant pickle. Much to the discontent of my younger sister, I insisted that my parents read us that book as many nights as possible so we could find goldbug, a small little golden bug, on every page. I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.

Then I discovered a real goldbug: gold nanoparticles that can reprogram macrophages to assist in killing tumors, produce clear images of them without sacrificing the subject, and heat them to obliteration.

Suddenly the destination of my pickle was clear.

I quickly became enveloped by the world of nanomedicine; I scoured articles about liposomes, polymeric micelles, dendrimers, targeting ligands, and self-assembling nanoparticles, all conquering cancer in some exotic way. Completely absorbed, I set out to find a mentor to dive even deeper into these topics. After several rejections, I was immensely grateful to receive an invitation to work alongside Dr. Sangeeta Ray at Johns Hopkins.

In the lab, Dr. Ray encouraged a great amount of autonomy to design and implement my own procedures. I chose to attack a problem that affects the entire field of nanomedicine: nanoparticles consistently fail to translate from animal studies into clinical trials. Jumping off recent literature, I set out to see if a pre-dose of a common chemotherapeutic could enhance nanoparticle delivery in aggressive prostate cancer, creating three novel constructs based on three different linear polymers, each using fluorescent dye (although no gold, sorry goldbug!). Though using radioactive isotopes like Gallium and Yttrium would have been incredible, as a 17-year-old, I unfortunately wasn't allowed in the same room as these radioactive materials (even though I took a Geiger counter to a pair of shoes and found them to be slightly dangerous).

I hadn't expected my hypothesis to work, as the research project would have ideally been led across two full years. Yet while there are still many optimizations and revisions to be done, I was thrilled to find -- with completely new nanoparticles that may one day mean future trials will use particles with the initials "RK-1" -- thatcyclophosphamide did indeed increase nanoparticle delivery to the tumor in a statistically significant way.

A secondary, unexpected research project was living alone in Baltimore, a new city to me, surrounded by people much older than I. Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research. Whether in a presentation or in a casual conversation, making others interested in science is perhaps more exciting to me than the research itself. This solidified a new pursuit to angle my love for writing towards illuminating science in ways people can understand, adding value to a society that can certainly benefit from more scientific literacy.

It seems fitting that my goals are still transforming: in Scarry's book, there is not just one goldbug, there is one on every page. With each new experience, I'm learning that it isn't the goldbug itself, but rather the act of searching for the goldbugs that will encourage, shape, and refine my ever-evolving passions. Regardless of the goldbug I seek -- I know my pickle truck has just begun its journey.

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

One Clear Governing Metaphor

This essay is ultimately about two things: Renner’s dreams and future career goals, and Renner’s philosophy on goal-setting and achieving one’s dreams.

But instead of listing off all the amazing things they’ve done to pursue their dream of working in nanomedicine, Renner tells a powerful, unique story instead. To set up the narrative, Renner opens the essay by connecting their experiences with goal-setting and dream-chasing all the way back to a memorable childhood experience:

This lighthearted–but relevant!--story about the moment when Renner first developed a passion for a specific career (“finding the goldbug”) provides an anchor point for the rest of the essay. As Renner pivots to describing their current dreams and goals–working in nanomedicine–the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” is reflected in Renner’s experiments, rejections, and new discoveries.

Though Renner tells multiple stories about their quest to “find the goldbug,” or, in other words, pursue their passion, each story is connected by a unifying theme; namely, that as we search and grow over time, our goals will transform…and that’s okay! By the end of the essay, Renner uses the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” to reiterate the relevance of the opening story:

While the earlier parts of the essay convey Renner’s core message by showing, the final, concluding paragraph sums up Renner’s insights by telling. By briefly and clearly stating the relevance of the goldbug metaphor to their own philosophy on goals and dreams, Renner demonstrates their creativity, insight, and eagerness to grow and evolve as the journey continues into college.

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An Engaging, Individual Voice

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

Technique #1: humor. Notice Renner's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks their 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).

My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver.

I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.

Renner gives a great example of how to use humor to your advantage in college essays. You don’t want to come off as too self-deprecating or sarcastic, but telling a lightheartedly humorous story about your younger self that also showcases how you’ve grown and changed over time can set the right tone for your entire essay.

Technique #2: intentional, eye-catching structure. The second technique is the way Renner uses a unique structure to bolster the tone and themes of their essay . The structure of your essay can have a major impact on how your ideas come across…so it’s important to give it just as much thought as the content of your essay!

For instance, Renner does a great job of using one-line paragraphs to create dramatic emphasis and to make clear transitions from one phase of the story to the next:

Suddenly the destination of my pickle car was clear.

Not only does the one-liner above signal that Renner is moving into a new phase of the narrative (their nanoparticle research experiences), it also tells the reader that this is a big moment in Renner’s story. It’s clear that Renner made a major discovery that changed the course of their goal pursuit and dream-chasing. Through structure, Renner conveys excitement and entices the reader to keep pushing forward to the next part of the story.

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, Renner emphasizes that the reader needs to sit up and pay attention by switching to short, colloquial, differently punctuated, and sometimes fragmented sentences.

Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research.

In the examples above, Renner switches adeptly between long, flowing sentences and quippy, telegraphic ones. At the same time, Renner uses these different sentence lengths intentionally. As they describe their experiences in new places, they use longer sentences to immerse the reader in the sights, smells, and sounds of those experiences. And when it’s time to get a big, key idea across, Renner switches to a short, punchy sentence to stop the reader in their tracks.

The varying syntax and sentence lengths pull the reader into the narrative and set up crucial “aha” moments when it’s most important…which is a surefire way to make any college essay stand out.

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

Connecting the research experiences to the theme of “finding the goldbug.”  The essay begins and ends with Renner’s connection to the idea of “finding the goldbug.” And while this metaphor is deftly tied into the essay’s intro and conclusion, it isn’t entirely clear what Renner’s big findings were during the research experiences that are described in the middle of the essay. It would be great to add a sentence or two stating what Renner’s big takeaways (or “goldbugs”) were from these experiences, which add more cohesion to the essay as a whole.

Give more details about discovering the world of nanomedicine. It makes sense that Renner wants to get into the details of their big research experiences as quickly as possible. After all, these are the details that show Renner’s dedication to nanomedicine! But a smoother transition from the opening pickle car/goldbug story to Renner’s “real goldbug” of nanoparticles would help the reader understand why nanoparticles became Renner’s goldbug. Finding out why Renner is so motivated to study nanomedicine–and perhaps what put them on to this field of study–would help readers fully understand why Renner chose this path in the first place.

4 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: Get Help From the Experts

Getting your college applications together takes a lot of work and can be pretty intimidatin g. Essays are even more important than ever now that admissions processes are changing and schools are going test-optional and removing diversity standards thanks to new Supreme Court rulings .  If you want certified expert help that really makes a difference, get started with  PrepScholar’s Essay Editing and Coaching program. Our program can help you put together an incredible essay from idea to completion so that your application stands out from the crowd. We've helped students get into the best colleges in the United States, including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale.  If you're ready to take the next step and boost your odds of getting into your dream school, connect with our experts today .

#2: 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.

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#3: 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.

Check out essays by authors like John Jeremiah Sullivan , Leslie Jamison , Hanif Abdurraqib , and Esmé Weijun Wang to get more examples of how to craft a compelling personal narrative.

#4: 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!

For more editing tips, check out a style guide like Dreyer's English or Eats, Shoots & Leaves .

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What's Next?

Still not sure which colleges you want to apply to? Our experts will show you how to make a college list that will help you choose a college that's right for you.

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:

Get eBook: 5 Tips for 160+ Points

The recommendations in this post are based solely on our knowledge and experience. If you purchase an item through one of our links PrepScholar may receive a commission.

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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

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What to Avoid: Bad College Essay Examples

  • by Joseph Kenas
  • February 13, 2024

bad college essay examples

Avoiding common pitfalls is often the difference between a good application and one that lands in the recycle bin. When it comes to college essays, you will want to make sure your essay shines compared to the others.

Better yet, you do not want to lose it amongst all the other essays the admission counsellors are reading.First impressions are everything.

A bad college essay will make a bad impression on the admission board and never make it past the applicant tracker. Here are some tips you should avoid if you want to get accepted into college.

Causes of Bad College Essays

1. not answering the question.

Some students tend to impress by writing about their ideas rather than answering the question given.

If you start writing without thinking about what the question asks for, you will likely have difficulty catching up in the middle of your essay. Make sure that you understand the question and then answer it logically.

2. Thinking that a Topic is “Smart” or “Important.”

Bad Essay

If you think your essay can be about something interesting because it is important, you are approaching it from the wrong angle. What matters is not the topic — it is how you write about it.

3. Believe that a Topic is “Unique”

If you think your essay topic can be unique because it is unrelated to anything else in your application, you are approaching it from the wrong angle.

Your topic does not have to be unique for admission officers to like it. What matters is how well you write about the topic.

4. Not Reading the Prompt Carefully Enough

Many students write entire essays without paying attention to what they have been asked to write about.

They either do not know what to write about or think they know but do not understand what they have been asked to do when they sit down and start writing their essay. 

Either way, their work falls short of their expectations because they waste time writing an essay that does not answer the prompt correctly.

5. Lack of Preparation

This is the most common reason students give for why they do not do well on tests and exams. Yet, it is also the most within their control. When you fail to prepare, you wont prepare for each part of the application process. This leads to application burnout and being overwhelmed.

The best way to prepare for any college essay is to work through as many sample questions as possible. 

6. Lack of Understanding

It may seem obvious that you need to understand the material to do well on an exam.  More often, students gloss over concepts they just do not get with the assumption that they will be able to learn them later when they have more time.

Do not let this happen! If there is something, you do not understand, ask. Lack of understanding leads to below average essay which should be avoided.

What to Avoid When Writing College Essays

1. avoid using clichés.

Avoid using clichés in your college admission essays. Although it can be useful to draw on the experiences of others, your essay should reflect your unique perspective and experience. 

Bad Essays

Also, keep in mind that many people (especially adults) may have told you that you are special or have a unique perspective. 

However, this does not mean that colleges will see you this way if you do not provide specific examples and details in your essay.

Avoid simply listing the facts about yourself; use colorful and specific examples from your life experiences.

2. Don’t Overload on Adjectives

There is a temptation to show off everything you know about a word in your essay, but the more you show, the less effective it is. It is better to stick to one or two really good examples and use them repeatedly.

If you do not do this, you will be writing many words that do not help your application at all!

3. Avoid Using Big Words 

Admissions officers want to know that you understand what you are talking about and can express it clearly. If a sentence does not sound like something, you would normally say, rewrite it so that it does.

The last thing you want is for admissions officers to think that you are being insincere or fake in your essay!

Many students think they have to use big words and write about something extraordinary for their essay to be interesting.

This is not true! All you have to do is tell your story, whether it is ordinary or extraordinary. It does not matter if you have not done anything special yet; you will get the opportunity if you are admitted anyway!

4. Don’t Forget to Follow Directions!

It may seem obvious, but it happens more than you think. Students will write an essay about something they’ve done in the past year, only to realize halfway through that the prompt asked them to write about something they hope to accomplish or achieve in the future. 

Or, they will write about their favorite book without linking it to their life or personality. These are easily avoidable mistakes; proofread your essay. 

Read other tips to look out for in your college application process.

Others are 

1. Avoid being too vague or general.

2. Avoid platitudes (e.g., “the most important thing in life is your family”).

Bad Essays

3. Avoid talking about hot-button political or religious issues unless you have a very good reason for doing so.

4. Avoid being overly dramatic or theatrical.

5. Avoid using sentimental phrases such as “the greatest gift I’ve ever received,” “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” etc., unless their story is truly compelling and unique.

Bad College Essay Examples 

  • How I broke my arm and learned to never trust anyone again
  • Why I love the color green and why it is my favorite food. 
  • How I learned to love reading and writing (this one is also applicable for college application essays)
  • Describe a problem you solved or a problem you would like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, or an ethical dilemma — anything 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.
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • 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?

what makes a bad college essay

Joseph is a freelance journalist and a part-time writer with a particular interest in the gig economy. He writes about schooling, college life, and changing trends in education. When not writing, Joseph is hiking or playing chess.

what makes a bad college essay

15 College Essay Topics To Avoid and Why | Tips & Examples

Blonde student wearing organge t shirt sitting at desk and worryingly looking at her flawed colege essay on her laptop

Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 3/12/24

Entrance essays are an integral part of your college application. Beyond your test scores, GPA, and other achievements, your essays are essentially the heart of your application. Essays help admissions committees get to know the person behind the stats. 

While your essays showcase your adept writing skills , they also uncover your personality, voice, background, experiences, and more. 

You can choose your essay topics when you apply through the Common Application, Coalition Application, or any other online application portal. However, there are some topics you should avoid, or at the very least, slightly steer your narrative in another direction. 

Below we’ll walk you through why it’s best to avoid some topics in your college entrance essays and a brief overview of some common topics to steer clear of or adjust the trajectory.

Why Should You Avoid Certain Topics for College Entrance Essays? 

Your college entrance essay is your chance to make a lasting impression on admissions officers. It's a way to reveal who you are as a person, separate from your grades and test scores. But some topics can backfire, hindering your application instead of highlighting your strengths. Starting an essay topic right can be your ticket into your desired school.

Adam Sapp , Assistant Vice President and Director of Admissions at Pomona College, said, “The essays are important in part because this is a student's chance to really speak directly to the admissions office.” 

What Do Colleges Look For in College Essays?

When it comes to college essays, colleges are on the hunt for a few key things. They want to get to know you beyond just your grades and test scores, so your essay is your chance to shine. Here's what they're generally looking for:

  • Your Personality : Colleges want to see your personality come through in your essay. They want to know what makes you tick, what you're passionate about, and what kind of person you are. This is your chance to let your individuality shine.
  • Writing Skills : Of course, colleges also want to see that you can write well. They'll be looking at your grammar, punctuation, and overall writing style. So, make sure your essay is well-structured and free of errors.
  • Your Story : Everyone has a unique story to tell, and colleges are interested in yours. They want to know about your experiences, the challenges you've faced, and how you've grown as a result. Share something personal and meaningful.
  • Why You're a Good Fit : Colleges also want to see that you've done your homework. They want to know why you're interested in their school specifically. What do you like about their programs, campus, or culture that makes you a good fit?
  • Thoughtfulness : Your essay should show that you've put thought into your future and your academic goals. They want to see that you're serious about your education and have a clear sense of purpose.
  • Creativity : While you want to be thoughtful and serious, don't be afraid to be creative and unique in your writing. A fresh perspective can make your essay stand out.
  • Impact and Growth : Colleges love to see how you've made an impact in your community or how you've grown through your experiences. Share any leadership roles, volunteer work, or challenges you've overcome.
  • Adherence to Guidelines : Finally, make sure your essay follows the specific guidelines provided by the college. Don't go over the word limit or ignore any prompts they've given.

Overall, colleges are looking for an authentic, well-written essay that gives them insight into who you are as a person, why you're interested in their school, and how you can contribute to their community. So, be yourself, put some thought into it, and don't forget to proofread! 

15 Topics to Avoid in Your College Essays 

what makes a bad college essay

The perfect college essay demonstrates your growth, character, and fit with the school. To drive the point home, choose an essay topic that has proven results . Before you start brainstorming, know there are many college essay topics to avoid altogether. 

Some college essay topics are cliche, and some are risky, uncreative, or just downright inappropriate. We’ll talk you through all the topics to avoid in college essays. 

1. Inappropriate Topics

Some people think rolling with an inappropriate topic and shocking the admissions committee is a great idea, but it’s not. Stay far, far away from anything to do with illegal activity, alcohol, substance use, and anything else following these themes. 

You don’t set yourself up for success using topics like these. The admissions committee could cast judgment, and you’re certainly not putting your best foot forward. 

The only time something like this may be appropriate is if you volunteered at a needle exchange or harm reduction facility. Even then, you’d want to delve into the topic with tact and grace or consider choosing another topic altogether. 

Why Is This A Bad Topic For a College Essay?

Inappropriate topics like these are ill-advised because they can portray the applicant in an extremely negative light to admissions officers. Writing about illegal activities or substance abuse raises major red flags about the applicant's judgment and ability to make good choices. The admissions committee will likely view such topics as a lack of maturity and responsibility - qualities that are essential for college students.

2. A Rehash of Your Activities List and Transcripts 

Essentially summarizing your achievements won’t make for a compelling narrative. The admissions committee already has access to your activities list and transcripts, so there’s no need to reiterate all of the items you wrote down. 

Summarizing these documents is a mistake because it won’t add anything else to your application. Remember, you want to tell the admissions committee something they don’t already know. 

If you want to write about a specific extracurricular, get close and personal with just one. Select the most meaningful activity or the one you were most passionate about and delve beyond the surface. Focusing on one activity can make for a successful essay if it shows your growth, positive character traits, or personality. 

Rehashing information from other parts of the application is a wasted opportunity for the personal essay. The essay is meant to provide new insights into the applicant's personality, values, and experiences that transcripts and lists cannot convey. Simply recapping accomplishments fails to reveal anything meaningful about the applicant as an individual.

3. Relationships, Romance, and Breakups 

As much as you may be head over heels for your partner, or scraping the bottom of ice cream tubs after a breakup, don’t turn these experiences into essay topics. It sounds a little harsh, but your love life doesn’t matter to the admissions committee. Besides that, love is a gigantic and complex topic not well-suited to a college application essay. 

The other problem with this topic is it takes the focus off of yourself and onto another person. You want to ensure your essay is all about you . That's the person most important to the admissions committee, so put yourself first. 

Romance and relationship drama makes for poor college essay topics because they are too personal and not relevant to the applicant's qualifications for admission. Admissions officers are focused on evaluating the applicant's academic potential, not their romantic endeavors. Essays on this topic come across as immature and could raise doubts about the applicant's ability to prioritize their studies over their love life.

4. Writing About Your Hero

Writing a story about your hero sounds nice in theory. However, it’s a cliche college essay topic to avoid. Like writing about your sweetheart (or ex-sweetheart), writing about your hero takes the spotlight away from you and directs it to someone who isn’t applying to college. 

If you wanted to write about your hero in the first place, why? What did they inspire in you, or what experiences did you go through together? How did those experiences or “a-ha” moments make you a better person or a better candidate? Cut through the fluff and focus the lens back on yourself. 

The problem with writing about a hero is that the essay becomes more about glorifying someone else rather than providing insights into the applicant's own life experiences, growth, and motivations. Admissions committees want to learn about the applicants themselves, not read an ode to someone else's accomplishments. The personal statement should maintain a strong focus on the applicant as an individual.

5. The Sports Story

Ah yes, the classic sports story. These essays typically follow different plots. Maybe you scored a point in the last moment, or your team won a championship game against all odds, or you wanted to showcase your training regimen. 

Most people will tell you to stay away from sports topics altogether. If you are dead-set on writing about your sports experiences, don’t let your essay fall into cliche and predictable patterns. 

Approach your sports story from a creative and new angle. Ask yourself the following questions: 

  • How did the skills you learned from sports impact another experience? 
  • Did being team captain give you the leadership skills you needed to succeed in leading an unrelated project? 

Think critically about your experiences, and you could have a stellar essay topic on your hands to start writing . 

Laura Stratton , Director of Admission at Scripps College in California, recounts an exceptionally well-written sports essay about a student benched in a final game. 

“The self-awareness the student showed of being a good team member and showing up for her teammates, and continuing to be positive even though it wasn't the personal experience that she wanted to have, said a lot about her character and about the type of roommate she would be or classmate she would be.” 

Always look for a fresh angle in your sports story if it’s the one you want to tell. 

Sports stories are often cautioned against because they tend to be cliché and unoriginal. There are only so many ways to rehash the "big game" narrative before it becomes stale and uncompelling. Unless the applicant has a truly unique angle, a sports essay runs the risk of blending in with other applications and failing to make a memorable impression on admissions officers.

6. Tragedies

While tragedies you’ve faced can be formative experiences, this may be a college application essay topic to avoid. Some people aren’t comfortable sharing the intimate details of a tragedy they’ve faced, and that’s okay. Similarly, some people aren’t comfortable reading about the personal details of someone else’s tragedy. 

However, if a tragic event such as the death of a loved one is imperative to your narrative, you can carefully craft a story including it. How was the tragedy an index event that impacted your thoughts or actions?

Tragic events require an extremely delicate approach in college essays. There is the risk of either oversharing disturbing details that make readers uncomfortable, or glossing over the tragedy too briefly to give it proper context. 

Admissions officers may also worry that an applicant who has experienced major trauma is not in a good mindset for the rigors of college life. Overall, tragedies are very personal topics better avoided unless absolutely essential to the narrative.

7. Highly Personal Topics

Like tragic events, highly personal topics don’t always make the best essays . Examples of highly personal topics include past trauma, severe illnesses, and injuries. To fully explore the details of their stories, writers may get too graphic or go into way too much detail about these situations. 

If a highly personal topic is central to the story you want to tell, ensure you handle your narrative delicately. It’s okay to briefly share these anecdotes as long as you don’t go into way too much personal detail. 

Similar to tragic events, highly personal topics involving trauma, health issues, or other very private matters should be avoided unless directly relevant to the main narrative. Oversharing disturbing or graphic personal details can make readers uncomfortable and detract from the overall essay.

8. Controversial Topics: Politics, Religion, and More 

Controversial topics are typically college essay topics to avoid. The problem with these is that not everyone will share the same views, and you may open yourself up to judgment from the admissions committee members who don’t. 

Of course, admissions committees don’t make decisions based on criteria such as what political party you voted for or whether or not you attend a place of worship consistently. These topics work against you. Instead of showing why you’re the right candidate, writing about politics and religion can feel like you’re trying to convince the committee your views are correct. 

The only time you may want to write about a polarizing topic like religion is if you plan to attend a school where religion is a part of its heritage, founding, and teaching, such as Notre Dame University. 

Touching on controversial topics like politics or religion is inadvisable because it injects personal opinions and beliefs that may not align with the admissions officer reading the essay. This creates the potential for bias and judgment based on the applicant's stance on the issue. 

The personal statement should aim to unite readers around the applicant's strengths, not divide them over polarizing debates.

9. The Confessional 

If you want to craft a narrative about an obstacle you’ve faced or to share your growth throughout your high school years, avoid “the confessional.” 

You may feel guilty about something you’ve done that no one else knows about: it’s probably best not to share these confessions with the admissions committee. Your confessional probably won’t paint you in the light you were hoping for. 

Instead, focus on an experience where something or someone changed your perspective or how you navigated a challenging situation in the best way you could. These anecdotes show growth, adaptability, and the willingness to change your perspective when offered new information. 

Confessional-style essays delving into past mistakes, guilt, or skeletons in the closet are cautioned against because they can very easily misfire. What the applicant intends as a narrative of growth may come across as a laundry list of poor choices and immaturity. Admissions officers want to see the present, best version of the applicant, not dwell on their past missteps.

10. Throwing the Box Away 

It’s one thing to think outside the box, it’s another to throw the box out entirely and send it downriver. Sometimes students think an ultra-creative essay means going for an entirely new format, like writing a song or poem. While it might be more fun, it could put you at a disadvantage. 

Being creative doesn't mean you have to reinvent the wheel with your essay. It means you can describe an anecdote or situation using detailed description and vibrant imagery. Pour your creativity into your word choice and how you set up a scene, and it’s sure to strike a much better chord with the admissions committee than a poem or song would (pun intended).

While creative writing is encouraged, completely disregarding traditional essay formatting and structure can be a gamble. Admissions officers have to read thousands of personal statements, so presenting the information in an unconventional way like a poem or song may just come across as gimmicky. It's better to channel creativity into excellent writing within the bounds of a standard essay format.

11. The Service/Mission/Class Trip 

One of the problems with these essay topics is that everyone who has had the opportunity to participate in one of these trips wants to write about them. The second problem is that these narratives tend to follow similar themes and that students tend to write about the trip as a whole. 

If your heart is set on sharing an experience from a trip, pick one meaningful moment to focus on. Did you meet someone on your trip that impacted your character or beliefs? Did you face an unexpected challenge that made you need to rise to the occasion? 

Whitney Soule , Senior Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Student Aid at Bowdoin College, said, “Overuse of a topic doesn’t make it a bad topic.” Remember, honing in on one element of your trip can help differentiate your essay and show more depth than just glazing over your excursion.

Service trips, mission trips, or class trips are very common sources for college essays, which makes standing out difficult. Simply recounting the trip itself in a play-by-play fashion is unoriginal and doesn't reveal much about the applicant's unique perspective or growth. To make this topic work, the applicant needs to go beyond just describing the trip and pinpoint specific moments or interactions that were transformative.

12. Something That Happened Way Before High School 

Many of our most formative experiences can happen long before reaching high school. While these moments are important to you, writing about something that happened to you way before high school may not make the best admissions essay. Your experiences before high school don’t show the admissions committee who you are right now; they show who you were before. 

If you want to pick out a story about your childhood, ensure you relate it to high school or current events. This way, you get to tell that story, but you make it relevant to the person you are today. 

For example, if both your parents are scientists and you used to put on their lab coats at five years old, relate it to how your love of science grew over time to lead you to your school choices now. Don’t just stick to the first part of the story. 

While childhood experiences shape who we become, dwelling too much on events from the distant past can make the essay feel irrelevant to the present-day applicant. Admissions officers want to get a sense of the applicant's current identity, maturity, and mindset - not the person they were as a young child.

13. Your Privilege or Luck

If you’ve lived a privileged life or you’ve had stroke after stroke of good luck, focusing only on these elements isn’t in your best interest. It can come across like you haven't experienced any challenges or have a skewed vision of how the world works. 

It’s fortunate if you’ve lived a reasonably trouble-free life thus far. However, dig deep and look for something beyond the surface of sunshine and rainbows—admissions committees like some vulnerability and honesty. 

Essays that are overtly privileged or present a life of constant good fortune can come across as out-of-touch or lacking perspective. Admissions officers want to see that applicants have dealt with obstacles, learned from setbacks, and developed resilience. 

An essay that reads as completely devoid of any challenges or hardships may raise questions about the applicant's ability to cope with future difficulties in college.

14. Anything That Involves Lying

You would think this one is obvious, but many people feel like their stories just aren’t good enough to tell, so they fabricate elements. The bottom line is you should never lie about anything in your college admissions essays . Admissions committees can smell insincerity. That’s not a personal quality you want to communicate to them. 

Rest assured that you don’t need to have written a dramatic story filled with twists and turns. Excellent college essays can revolve around mundane topics. Write your truth, and don’t fudge any of the details. 

Lying or embellishing details in a college essay is a surefire way to undermine the entire application. If caught, it demonstrates a serious lack of integrity that will disqualify the applicant. 

Even if the lie slips through, the essay will likely come across as inauthentic. Admissions officers can usually spot when an applicant is exaggerating or fabricating stories. Honesty is always the best policy for personal statements.

15. Risky Topics Like Pointing Out a School’s Shortcomings 

This type of writing is uncommon for a reason: it won’t work. Some students may think pointing out a school’s shortcomings and how their attendance may help bridge them will give their essay the shock factor they need to stand out. 

Unfortunately, you’ll stand out in the wrong way. As a general rule, you probably shouldn’t rip apart the school you want to attend. 

A better option is to describe how your acceptance will add to the school and campus culture. A response like this may be better suited to a “Why this school?” supplementary essay, but schools want to admit students who contribute to its culture and add a unique perspective to classrooms.

Criticizing or calling out perceived flaws in the school is an extremely risky move that is very unlikely to pay off. It comes across as arrogant and presumptuous for an applicant to claim they can single-handedly fix an institution's issues before even being admitted. 

This tactic shows a lack of respect for the school and its existing community. Applicants are much better off highlighting their strengths as an additive force.

How To Write a Cliche College Essay That Works? (If You Really Want To)

While certain topics like inappropriate content, rehashing accomplishments, sports stories, and personal topics are generally cautioned against for college essays, there are ways to approach them thoughtfully if you insist on using them.

The key is to find a unique angle that shows personal growth, adaptability, vulnerability, or how the experience shaped you as an individual. 

Rather than just recounting events, analyze how a relationship taught you empathy, how a tragedy changed your perspective, or how being a team captain demonstrated leadership. 

Handle sensitive topics delicately without oversharing graphic details. Above all, ensure your narrative maintains an inward focus on your own insights, strengths, and fit for the university rather than distracting from your candidacy. 

With creativity and self-awareness, even cliched topics can make compelling essays that showcase who you are.

Check out our College Essay Examples Database for a detailed look at successful essays.

Do you still have questions about college application essays? We've got answers! Check out this FAQ section to find the information you need to ace your application.

1. Are There Any Sensitive Personal Experiences I Should Avoid Discussing in My Essay?

Avoid overly sensitive topics that might be uncomfortable for admissions officers. Instead, choose experiences that demonstrate personal growth and resilience.

2. Are There Any Topics That Might Come Across as Boastful or Arrogant in a College Essay?

Avoid bragging about achievements or sounding self-important. Focus on how experiences shaped your character and values.

3. How Can I Identify Potentially Overdone or Unoriginal Essay Topics?

Think about common themes like sports victories or mission trips. To stand out, find a unique angle or a more personal way to approach these topics. 

4. What Are Considered Cliché Topics in College Application Essays?

Cliché topics include sports victories ("the big game"), mission/volunteer trips, and overcoming a generic obstacle. Seek a fresh perspective to make these experiences more impactful.

5. Should I Avoid Discussing Controversial Political or Religious Beliefs in My College Essay?

Yes. It's generally best to avoid divisive topics. Focus on sharing experiences that highlight your values, problem-solving skills, and open-mindedness.

Final Thoughts 

There are many cliche essay topics to avoid and some inappropriate to share with admissions committees. Your college admissions essays should always carry a professional yet conversational tone, and you shouldn’t write about anything that would be detrimental to your application. 

Even though the above list is filled with topics to avoid in college essays, it doesn’t mean you can’t tweak them to make them more appropriate and a better story to tell. Your writing should authentically show your voice and character. Put your best foot (and best writing) forward, and you’re sure to produce stellar pieces of writing! 

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11 Cliché College Essay Topics + How to Fix Them

←11 Stellar Common App Essay Examples

5 Awesome College Essay Topics→

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What makes a good college essay? It’s a question many high school seniors ask while going through the application process. A winning college essay engages admissions officers and shares with them the student’s identity and personality, painting a picture that goes beyond grades and test scores—compelling the reader to become an advocate for the student’s admission. 

The Four Core Questions are at the heart of college essays and answering them is critical. Those questions are: 

  • Why am I here?
  • What is unique about me?
  • What matters to me? 

By answering these questions, a student is able to share information that is otherwise hard to ascertain with admissions officials—things like personality traits, personal journey, interests, skills, and ambitions. A well-conceived and well-written essay is a way for students to separate themselves from other applicants; conversely, an ineffective essay does nothing to distinguish a student, which is why it’s so important to avoid writing a cliché college essay. 

Cliché College Essay Topics to Avoid + How to Fix Them

1. résumé of your life and achievements.

Résumés are an effective method to demonstrate achievements, but they’re boring to read. This is why, in the professional world, résumés are often accompanied by a cover letter. A college application is essentially a student’s résumé—it contains their grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities—which makes an essay listing achievements redundant. 

A better strategy is for students to pick one experience that stands above the rest and write about how it shaped the person they are today. This is especially effective for any experiences that would benefit from further explanation, or those that have an interesting backstory. For example, maybe you participate in a unique extracurricular that most people aren’t familiar with, such as being on a Chinese yoyo/diabolo team. You might choose to focus on that aspect of your identity and what it means to you. Or, maybe you love math, but never had the chance to explain on your application that you used to hate math, until a tutor showed you a different way to appreciate it (and that’s one of the reasons you want to become a math teacher). This would be another strong topic.

You don’t necessarily have to focus on one specific event, but your essay should be cohesive. Another traditional essay structure is telling a narrative over an extended period of time. This structure incorporates a handful of different experiences that are joined by a common thread. If you have a story of growth, change, or development, this is the classic essay structure for you. An example of this might be a football player who was embarrassed to admit he liked writing and poetry, but how he eventually became a published author, and came to accept and own his identity as a poet.

2. Sports injury, challenge, or success

Coaches on every level are known for telling their athletes about how the lessons learned on the field/court/ice translate to life. Unfortunately, these lessons and stories have been told in numerous movies and books, along with countless college essays

To successfully write a college essay about sports, it’s important to steer clear of the common themes.

  • Overcoming adversity
  • Trusting teammates
  • Refusing to quit
  • The thrill of victory
  • The agony of defeat

For example, instead of an applicant talking about how their team trained and improved to beat their rivals or win a championship, they should write about a unique way that sports shaped who they are. For example, here’s an unexpected way to write about a sports injury: maybe tearing your ACL in a soccer game actually led you to start a podcast while you were recovering, which became one of your biggest passions. 

Along a similar line, a student could write about discovering their motivation for playing sports.  Maybe they always played basketball because they were good, or their parents expected them to play, but they realized they didn’t enjoy the competitive nature of the sport and wanted to gravitate toward less competitive activities like hiking or surfing. 

3. Immigrant story

The U.S. is a nation of immigrants and while not every student has an immigrant story, a lot of them do. Consequently, these immigrant themes are ones that every admissions officer has read before:

  • Learning a new language
  • Adapting to new customs
  • Adjusting to a new lifestyle
  • Struggling to fit in

Asian students, in particular, should avoid immigrant-themed essays, as they have a harder time getting into college due to demographics, and this topic only calls attention to their background. 

To make an immigration essay work (and avoid being another cliché college essay), a student needs to make it extremely unique or incredibly personal. One tactic is to write about a singular experience—moments of conflict are always an interesting topic. For example, a student might write about a time they were made to feel unwelcome in the U.S. and how they responded to that moment, such as volunteering at the community cultural center or creating a welcoming committee for new immigrants. 

Another essay opportunity is to write about an experience that is truly unique. Perhaps, when a student first came to the U.S., they didn’t have access to a vehicle or public transportation and needed to walk to school or their job. That student could use their college essay to focus on what they learned on their walks and the ambitions it sparked—such as tenacity to succeed against all odds, or a desire to found a program for immigrants in a similar position.  

4. Tragedy – death, divorce, abuse

Tragedies are formative experiences, which in theory make them a natural theme for a college essay; however, tragedies are often a universal experience. Furthermore, essays on this topic are too often centered on the tragedy itself, rather than the applicant.

It is possible to write a college essay about a tragedy that isn’t cliche, however. The key is to keep it focused on the applicant and highly personal. To start, avoid overused themes like “life is short” and “make every day count.” Instead, highlight how the tragedy affected the writer. For example, if you had a friend who passed away from substance abuse, an essay centered around your subsequent commitment to drug prevention programs and advocacy is an interesting angle. 

In the case of an applicant who had a parent pass away, writing about shifting family dynamics, new responsibilities, and increased challenges are all great themes. For example, a student went from worrying just about academics to becoming the other adult in the house—preparing meals for their siblings, sending them off to school, and helping them with their homework.

5. Working hard in a challenging class

Working hard in a challenging class doesn’t work as an essay topic for a handful of reasons. If you’re applying to a highly ranked institution, it’s likely that most of their applicants took tough classes and worked hard. They also likely faced challenging classes, struggled, and ultimately succeeded. Another reason to avoid this topic? The traits conveyed are likely covered by recommendation letters: 

  • Perseverance
  • Work ethic 
  • Intellectual ability

Instead of writing your essay about overcoming a tough class, think about the personality traits you want to highlight. If you feel that your determination is already covered in other aspects of your application, pick another trait to feature in your essay. Or maybe, you feel like your determination isn’t emphasized enough. Which other experiences highlight this trait?

Another idea is to make the essay less about the class and more about the writer. Instead of sharing how you struggled to understand Crime and Punishment in your advanced lit class, you might detail how the class inspired a desire to write, or how the works covered made you reflect on your own life. 

You could also pick a problem or research question you want to solve, as per the fourth Common App essay prompt. Just remember that while the topic is an intellectual problem, your essay should still highlight your personality, identity, and way you think about the world. Pick something that is deeply personal to you and your background. For instance, maybe you want to create a proposal to solve food deserts in your county. This would allow you to share your personal experiences growing up in a food desert, your passion for increasing access to healthy food, and your analytical abilities.

6. Someone you admire (a person you know or historical figure)

The primary pitfall of writing about an admired person is that the essay is often focused more on the other person than the applicant. Even if students steer the essay toward themselves, they usually find themselves covering familiar themes:

  • Learning something about themselves
  • Learning something about life
  • Learning something about the world

The key to keeping writing about another person from becoming another cliché college essay is to keep the focus on the applicant. A great way to do this is to highlight a specific moment where they exemplified an attribute or action that they commend in a person that they admire. For example, if an essay writer admires their father’s ethos of standing up for what is right, an excellent essay theme is the time they stood up for another student who was being bullied, even though they knew they risked losing popularity, or finding themselves in the crosshairs of the bully as the result. 

If the person they admire is historical, they can talk about how they are trying to live their life according to those ideals. For example, the aspiring writer can focus their essay on how they adopted Hemingway’s ritual of writing every morning as soon after first light as possible, and what they’ve learned from that process. 

7. Volunteer trip

Building a winning essay about a volunteer trip is tricky—at best, these essays come off as cliché; at their worst, they can make an applicant seem pretentious, condescending, and privileged. Like other topics, the key is for the writer to focus on themself, not the group they volunteered for or the place they went. 

One way to avoid the cliché volunteer essay is to write about a specific moment on your trip, rather than giving a chronological account of your time. Get really specific and bring the reader into the moment and share with them how it affected you. An attention-grabbing essay will show the reader how you changed, instead of telling them. 

Another trick for turning volunteer essays from cliché to eye-catching is focusing on an unusual experience that happened during the volunteer trip. For example, a delayed flight while travelling home that left you stranded in a foreign city all alone and how it’s a parable for stepping on campus for the first time.

8. Moving to a different part of the country 

Similar to the immigrant story, writing about moving to a new place is also an overly-done topic. Countless students move or switch schools each year. Many have trouble fitting in or adjusting to a new place, but eventually make new friends. 

If moving was really integral to your high school experience and identity, think about why that is. Did it push you to try new interests or become more outgoing? Focus your essay less on the move itself and your adjustment, and more on how exactly it changed your life. 

For instance, some more original ways of spinning this topic would be:

  • How moving led you to start an organization that picks up unwanted furniture for free, and resells or donates items in good condition. For items in bad condition, you find ways to repair and upcycle them. This was motivated by all the trash you saw your family produce during the move.
  • At your new school, you joined the gymnastics team because you were known as the uncoordinated, awkward girl at your old school, and you wanted to shed that image.
  • After moving, you decided to go by the proper pronunciation of your Spanish name, rather than the anglicized version. You could write your essay on why you made this decision, and how it impacted your experience in your new community.

9. Your religious institution or faith

Religion is generally a very tricky topic, and it’s difficult to cover it in an original way in your essay. Writing about your faith and reflecting on it critically can work, but basic religious essays about why your faith is important to you are a little more clich é . 

It’s important to also remember your audience. If you’re applying to a religious school, essays about your faith will likely be expected. If you’re applying to a super liberal school, you might want to avoid writing your essay about your conservative religious views.  

Regardless of your situation, if you decide to write an essay on religion, share your personal relationship with your faith. Anyone can write broadly about how much their faith means to them or how their life changed when they found religion, but only you can share your personal experiences, thoughts, and perspectives.

10. Romantic relationships and breakups

Your college essays should be personal, but romantic relationships and breakups are a little too personal. Remember that applying to college is kind of like applying to a job, and you want to present yourself in a professional light. This means that writing about your romantic life is a bad idea in general. 

Unlike the other clich é topics, there are not really any directly-relevant alternatives. If you wanted to write your essay on your relationship, think about what traits that story would’ve brought out. For a breakup, was it your ability to overcome a setback? For a happy relationship, is it being emotionally intelligent or finding a compromise during conflict? Think about how you could still write an essay that conveys the same aspect of your identity, without mentioning this cliché topic.

11. Family pressure to pursue a particular major or field

Many students unfortunately experience family pressure to do certain activities or choose specific career paths. If this is the case for you, you shouldn’t focus your essay on this topic—it will only make it look like you lack independence from your parents. This is not a good sign to admissions committees, as they want a campus full of students who have the autonomy to make their own decisions. 

That’s not to say that parental input isn’t valid—you may have very legitimate reasons to follow your parents’ advice to pursue a particular career, especially if your family is low-income and you need to provide for them. But there are absolutely better topics to share your identity and background, beyond parental pressure.

Some ways to make this topic more original are:

  • If you have strict parents, discussing how you became more independent from them, and an example of when you did something for your personal development that they might not have agreed with at the time.
  • For those whose background influenced their decision to choose a “practical” field, you might talk about your situation growing up and how that influences your perspective and choices. Of course, you should still try to show genuine interest in your plans, as you don’t want to make it seem like you’re being “forced” to do something. 

Wondering if your personal essay topic is cliché? You can ask for the advice of peers and experts in our free  Q&A forum . If you’re looking for feedback on your essay, you can also get your essay  peer-reviewed for free . Just  sign up for your free CollegeVine account  to get started!

Related CollegeVine Blog Posts

what makes a bad college essay

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Articles & Advice > College Admission > Articles

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College Admission Essay Topics: Best and Worst

What should you write your college admission essay about? Which topics should you avoid? Check out some of the best (and the worst) college essay topic ideas!

by Phoebe Bain Freelance Writer

Last Updated: Apr 6, 2023

Originally Posted: Aug 16, 2017

The essay is easily one of the most difficult parts of the college application process. How can someone describe themselves in such a short amount of space, especially when all their accomplishments are listed on the page before and they don’t want to sound repetitive? There are a few clichés to avoid in the college essay world. Keep reading to find out what to avoid and what to approach in your college essay writing journey.

Worst of the worst

The sports game.

A great college admission essay makes the reader say something along the lines of, “Wow, I’ve never heard of someone who did/experienced that before.” Know what nearly everyone has experienced before? Winning or losing. More specifically, almost everyone has either won or lost a sports game. Talking about your experience coping with your win or loss will pile you in with every other applicant that the admission officer reads about that day, aka the exact opposite of what you want to happen to you and your beloved essay.

The breakup

A lot like dating a bad boy, this essay tempts you. Think about it: talking about your love life seems deep . Maybe a breakup feels like the biggest hardship you have faced thus far, or perhaps you think the way you supported your 10th grade girlfriend during her science competition seems like a great metaphor for how you plan to support your university community. However, just like with any good piece of writing, you need to know your audience. And in this case, your audience does not think anything about your high school relationship sounds impressive. College admission officers have not been in high school for a very long time. They might have been through a divorce or had to support their spouse through the death of one of their parents or children. But they have a bit more perspective on relationships than the average high school senior, so they will probably not find the demise of your junior year relationship as poignant as you do. 

The mission trip

Everyone who has been to Togo/Haiti/Guatemala wants to write about the time they saw real Third World poverty for the first time and extrapolate on how their lives were never the same after said experience. And while that experience may have really affected your life, it affects the lives of thousands of upper–middle class students around America in the exact same way, and they are all writing the same essay about it as we speak. If your time in Sierra Leone really feels like what you need to tell your dream school about, talk about a specific experience, like a conversation you had with someone who lived there. The cliché service trip essay often sounds incredibly vague, so if you must write about your experience, make sure you tell a very specific story that brings the reader into a certain moment with you (more on that later). 

The “different” essay

I once had a friend show me an essay he wrote in which he had to describe the best day of his life. Naturally, he wrote about the time he slept until five in the evening, ate some ice cream, then went back to sleep. However, he was not a lazy kid at all. He was really into piano and lacrosse, but he wanted his essay to sound off the beaten path and unique. So rather than talking about one of his passions, he decided to write about something he knew no one else would try…the time he slept all day. Unfortunately, there is a really good reason no one else wrote that essay. The same goes for trying to be creative and responding with one word, one sentence, or a poem. Although those are very different responses from what admission officers reads, this does not mean they are good responses. There are other ways to stand out without compromising your intelligence. 

Related:  Admission Essay Ideas That Just Don't Work

Better essay ideas

The ridiculous way you grew up (and how it affects you now).

The first time I went to Harvard to hang out with friends, I met a student who was raised by wolves. Yes, you read that right; she actually grew up in a wolf rehabilitation community. Sure, she was also a model and an Economics major, but the whole raised by wolves thing was definitely more memorable than anything else about her. If you grew up in a unique way that affects who you are now, it might be worth writing about in a college essay to make your application more memorable. 

Focusing on a moment

If you decide you have to talk about one of the cliché essay topics mentioned above, a good way to tell a more common story is to focus on one specific moment and build from there. For instance, if I were only interested in field hockey and felt I absolutely had to write about the sport in my essay, I would not write about some vague game and how good it felt when my team won. I would write about the sound the ball makes hitting the back of the goal, how my adrenaline changes in that moment, how all the sounds around me slowly rush into my ears afterwards. Then, most importantly, after describing the moment, I would write about its significance by connecting it to some larger idea or meaning or characteristic about myself. Focusing on a moment that changed your life—such as the time you broke your back as a kid in a car crash, or the time your dad told you the family was moving to a different country—can also function well in your college essay. 

Personality pic

A good friend of mine in high school had to answer an interesting question for the school where he ended up enrolling. The university’s supplemental application asked him to describe one of his quirks. I distinctly recall reading my friend’s essay about him being a storyteller above all else and visibly grinning as my eyes passed over each line, because the essay was just so genuine and true. He was a storyteller; he told all of us tales of his fly-fishing summer job in the Adirondacks, spun yarns about wolves that spoke to him while he was camping, and talked about his skydiving uncle like he was a superhero in a comic book. The storyteller anecdote never would have come through in the rest of his Common Application, but it was truly one of his most significant personality traits. So, lesson learned, read over your Common Application, and at the end, ask yourself, “What’s missing?” Who knows—the answer to that question might be the basis for your admission essay.

Lust for literature

If you have a friend or family member who reads a lot of books in their free time, I bet you think they’re pretty intelligent. Fortunately, colleges will think the same thing about you if you decide to incorporate your love of literature into your essay. Maybe you have a book in which you strongly relate to one of the characters. Perhaps a philosophical text really elucidates your current paradigm. Or maybe you strive to write like a certain author one day. Whatever the case, you really cannot go wrong writing about the literature you love, as your passion for it will shine through the pages.

Related: Top College Admission Essay Myths Debunked

We hope these tips help guide your topic selection when it comes time to write your college application essay! Find even more college essay advice in our Application Essay Clinic .

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what makes a bad college essay

Frequently asked questions

Can i use my college essay to explain bad grades.

If you have bad grades on your transcript, you may want to use your college admissions essay to explain the challenging circumstances that led to them. Make sure to avoid dwelling on the negative aspects and highlight how you overcame the situation or learned an important lesson.

However, some college applications offer an additional information section where you can explain your bad grades, allowing you to choose another meaningful topic for your college essay.

Frequently asked questions: College admissions essays

When writing your Common App essay , choose a prompt that sparks your interest and that you can connect to a unique personal story.

No matter which prompt you choose, admissions officers are more interested in your ability to demonstrate personal development , insight, or motivation for a certain area of study.

The Common App essay is your primary writing sample within the Common Application, a college application portal accepted by more than 900 schools. All your prospective schools that accept the Common App will read this essay to understand your character, background, and value as a potential student.

Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs; instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.

Most importantly, your essay should be about you , not another person or thing. An insightful college admissions essay requires deep self-reflection, authenticity, and a balance between confidence and vulnerability.

Your essay shouldn’t be a résumé of your experiences but instead should tell a story that demonstrates your most important values and qualities.

When revising your college essay , first check for big-picture issues regarding your message and content. Then, check for flow, tone, style , and clarity. Finally, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors .

If your college essay goes over the word count limit , cut any sentences with tangents or irrelevant details. Delete unnecessary words that clutter your essay.

If you’re struggling to reach the word count for your college essay, add vivid personal stories or share your feelings and insight to give your essay more depth and authenticity.

If you’ve got to write your college essay fast , don’t panic. First, set yourself deadlines: you should spend about 10% of your remaining time on brainstorming, 10% on outlining, 40% writing, 30% revising, and 10% taking breaks in between stages.

Second, brainstorm stories and values based on your essay prompt.

Third, outline your essay based on the montage or narrative essay structure .

Fourth, write specific, personal, and unique stories that would be hard for other students to replicate.

Fifth, revise your essay and make sure it’s clearly written.

Last, if possible, get feedback from an essay coach . Scribbr essay editors can help you revise your essay in 12 hours or less.

Avoid swearing in a college essay , since admissions officers’ opinions of profanity will vary. In some cases, it might be okay to use a vulgar word, such as in dialogue or quotes that make an important point in your essay. However, it’s safest to try to make the same point without swearing.

Here’s a brief list of college essay topics that may be considered cliché:

  • Extracurriculars, especially sports
  • Role models
  • Dealing with a personal tragedy or death in the family
  • Struggling with new life situations (immigrant stories, moving homes, parents’ divorce)
  • Becoming a better person after community service, traveling, or summer camp
  • Overcoming a difficult class
  • Using a common object as an extended metaphor

It’s easier to write a standout essay with a unique topic. However, it’s possible to make a common topic compelling with interesting story arcs, uncommon connections, and an advanced writing style.

Yes. The college application essay is less formal than other academic writing —though of course it’s not mandatory to use contractions in your essay.

In a college essay , you can be creative with your language . When writing about the past, you can use the present tense to make the reader feel as if they were there in the moment with you. But make sure to maintain consistency and when in doubt, default to the correct verb tense according to the time you’re writing about.

The college admissions essay gives admissions officers a different perspective on you beyond your academic achievements, test scores, and extracurriculars. It’s your chance to stand out from other applicants with similar academic profiles by telling a unique, personal, and specific story.

Use a standard font such as Times New Roman or Arial to avoid distracting the reader from your college essay’s content.

A college application essay is less formal than most academic writing . Instead of citing sources formally with in-text citations and a reference list, you can cite them informally in your text.

For example, “In her research paper on genetics, Quinn Roberts explores …”

There is no set number of paragraphs in a college admissions essay . College admissions essays can diverge from the traditional five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in English class. Just make sure to stay under the specified word count .

Most topics are acceptable for college essays if you can use them to demonstrate personal growth or a lesson learned. However, there are a few difficult topics for college essays that should be avoided. Avoid topics that are:

  • Overly personal (e.g. graphic details of illness or injury, romantic or sexual relationships)
  • Not personal enough (e.g. broad solutions to world problems, inspiring people or things)
  • Too negative (e.g. an in-depth look at your flaws, put-downs of others, criticizing the need for a college essay)
  • Too boring (e.g. a resume of your academic achievements and extracurriculars)
  • Inappropriate for a college essay (e.g. illegal activities, offensive humor, false accounts of yourself, bragging about privilege)

To write an effective diversity essay , include vulnerable, authentic stories about your unique identity, background, or perspective. Provide insight into how your lived experience has influenced your outlook, activities, and goals. If relevant, you should also mention how your background has led you to apply for this university and why you’re a good fit.

Many universities believe a student body composed of different perspectives, beliefs, identities, and backgrounds will enhance the campus learning and community experience.

Admissions officers are interested in hearing about how your unique background, identity, beliefs, culture, or characteristics will enrich the campus community, which is why they assign a diversity essay .

In addition to your main college essay , some schools and scholarships may ask for a supplementary essay focused on an aspect of your identity or background. This is sometimes called a diversity essay .

You can use humor in a college essay , but carefully consider its purpose and use it wisely. An effective use of humor involves unexpected, keen observations of the everyday, or speaks to a deeper theme. Humor shouldn’t be the main focus of the essay, but rather a tool to improve your storytelling.

Get a second opinion from a teacher, counselor, or essay coach on whether your essay’s humor is appropriate.

Though admissions officers are interested in hearing your story, they’re also interested in how you tell it. An exceptionally written essay will differentiate you from other applicants, meaning that admissions officers will spend more time reading it.

You can use literary devices to catch your reader’s attention and enrich your storytelling; however, focus on using just a few devices well, rather than trying to use as many as possible.

To decide on a good college essay topic , spend time thoughtfully answering brainstorming questions. If you still have trouble identifying topics, try the following two strategies:

  • Identify your qualities → Brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities
  • Identify memorable stories → Connect your qualities to these stories

You can also ask family, friends, or mentors to help you brainstorm topics, give feedback on your potential essay topics, or recall key stories that showcase your qualities.

Yes—admissions officers don’t expect everyone to have a totally unique college essay topic . But you must differentiate your essay from others by having a surprising story arc, an interesting insight, and/or an advanced writing style .

There are no foolproof college essay topics —whatever your topic, the key is to write about it effectively. However, a good topic

  • Is meaningful, specific, and personal to you
  • Focuses on you and your experiences
  • Reveals something beyond your test scores, grades, and extracurriculars
  • Is creative and original

Unlike a five-paragraph essay, your admissions essay should not end by summarizing the points you’ve already made. It’s better to be creative and aim for a strong final impression.

You should also avoid stating the obvious (for example, saying that you hope to be accepted).

There are a few strategies you can use for a memorable ending to your college essay :

  • Return to the beginning with a “full circle” structure
  • Reveal the main point or insight in your story
  • Look to the future
  • End on an action

The best technique will depend on your topic choice, essay outline, and writing style. You can write several endings using different techniques to see which works best.

College deadlines vary depending on the schools you’re applying to and your application plan:

  • For early action applications and the first round of early decision applications, the deadline is on November 1 or 15. Decisions are released by mid-December.
  • For the second round of early decision applications, the deadline is January 1 or 15. Decisions are released in January or February.
  • Regular decision deadlines usually fall between late November and mid-March, and decisions are released in March or April.
  • Rolling admission deadlines run from July to April, and decisions are released around four to eight weeks after submission.

Depending on your prospective schools’ requirements, you may need to submit scores for the SAT or ACT as part of your college application .

Some schools now no longer require students to submit test scores; however, you should still take the SAT or ACT and aim to get a high score to strengthen your application package.

Aim to take the SAT or ACT in the spring of your junior year to give yourself enough time to retake it in the fall of your senior year if necessary.

Apply early for federal student aid and application fee waivers. You can also look for scholarships from schools, corporations, and charitable foundations.

To maximize your options, you should aim to apply to about eight schools:

  • Two reach schools that might be difficult to get into
  • Four match schools that you have a good chance of getting into
  • Two safety schools that you feel confident you’ll get into

The college admissions essay accounts for roughly 25% of the weight of your application .

At highly selective schools, there are four qualified candidates for every spot. While your academic achievements are important, your college admissions essay can help you stand out from other applicants with similar profiles.

In general, for your college application you will need to submit all of the following:

  • Your personal information
  • List of extracurriculars and awards
  • College application essays
  • Transcripts
  • Standardized test scores
  • Recommendation letters.

Different colleges may have specific requirements, so make sure you check exactly what’s expected in the application guidance.

You should start thinking about your college applications the summer before your junior year to give you sufficient time for college visits, taking standardized tests, applying for financial aid , writing essays, and collecting application material.

Yes, but make sure your essay directly addresses the prompt, respects the word count , and demonstrates the organization’s values.

If you plan ahead, you can save time by writing one scholarship essay for multiple prompts with similar questions. In a scholarship tracker spreadsheet, you can group or color-code overlapping essay prompts; then, write a single essay for multiple scholarships. Sometimes, you can even reuse or adapt your main college essay .

You can start applying for scholarships as early as your junior year. Continue applying throughout your senior year.

Invest time in applying for various scholarships , especially local ones with small dollar amounts, which are likely easier to win and more reflective of your background and interests. It will be easier for you to write an authentic and compelling essay if the scholarship topic is meaningful to you.

You can find scholarships through your school counselor, community network, or an internet search.

A scholarship essay requires you to demonstrate your values and qualities while answering the prompt’s specific question.

After researching the scholarship organization, identify a personal experience that embodies its values and exemplifies how you will be a successful student.

A standout college essay has several key ingredients:

  • A unique, personally meaningful topic
  • A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
  • Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
  • Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
  • Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
  • A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending

While timelines will differ depending on the student, plan on spending at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing the first draft of your college admissions essay , and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Don’t forget to save enough time for breaks between each writing and editing stage.

You should already begin thinking about your essay the summer before your senior year so that you have plenty of time to try out different topics and get feedback on what works.

Your college essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s weight. It may be the deciding factor in whether you’re accepted, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurricular track records.

In most cases, quoting other people isn’t a good way to start your college essay . Admissions officers want to hear your thoughts about yourself, and quotes often don’t achieve that. Unless a quote truly adds something important to your essay that it otherwise wouldn’t have, you probably shouldn’t include it.

Cliché openers in a college essay introduction are usually general and applicable to many students and situations. Most successful introductions are specific: they only work for the unique essay that follows.

The key to a strong college essay introduction is not to give too much away. Try to start with a surprising statement or image that raises questions and compels the reader to find out more.

The introduction of your college essay is the first thing admissions officers will read and therefore your most important opportunity to stand out. An excellent introduction will keep admissions officers reading, allowing you to tell them what you want them to know.

You can speed up this process by shortening and smoothing your writing with a paraphrasing tool . After that, you can use the summarizer to shorten it even more.

If you’re struggling to reach the word count for your college essay, add vivid personal stories or share your feelings and insight to give your essay more depth and authenticity.

Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit to write a developed and thoughtful essay.

You should aim to stay under the specified word count limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, don’t write too little, as it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a detailed and insightful narrative about yourself.

If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.

In your application essay , admissions officers are looking for particular features : they want to see context on your background, positive traits that you could bring to campus, and examples of you demonstrating those qualities.

Colleges want to be able to differentiate students who seem similar on paper. In the college application essay , they’re looking for a way to understand each applicant’s unique personality and experiences.

You don’t need a title for your college admissions essay , but you can include one if you think it adds something important.

Your college essay’s format should be as simple as possible:

  • Use a standard, readable font
  • Use 1.5 or double spacing
  • If attaching a file, save it as a PDF
  • Stick to the word count
  • Avoid unusual formatting and unnecessary decorative touches

There are no set rules for how to structure a college application essay , but these are two common structures that work:

  • A montage structure, a series of vignettes with a common theme.
  • A narrative structure, a single story that shows your personal growth or how you overcame a challenge.

Avoid the five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in high school.

Campus visits are always helpful, but if you can’t make it in person, the college website will have plenty of information for you to explore. You should look through the course catalog and even reach out to current faculty with any questions about the school.

Colleges set a “Why this college?” essay because they want to see that you’ve done your research. You must prove that you know what makes the school unique and can connect that to your own personal goals and academic interests.

Depending on your writing, you may go through several rounds of revision . Make sure to put aside your essay for a little while after each editing stage to return with a fresh perspective.

Teachers and guidance counselors can help you check your language, tone, and content . Ask for their help at least one to two months before the submission deadline, as many other students will also want their help.

Friends and family are a good resource to check for authenticity. It’s best to seek help from family members with a strong writing or English educational background, or from older siblings and cousins who have been through the college admissions process.

If possible, get help from an essay coach or editor ; they’ll have specialized knowledge of college admissions essays and be able to give objective expert feedback.

When revising your college essay , first check for big-picture issues regarding message, flow, tone, style , and clarity. Then, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors.

Include specific, personal details and use your authentic voice to shed a new perspective on a common human experience.

Through specific stories, you can weave your achievements and qualities into your essay so that it doesn’t seem like you’re bragging from a resume.

When writing about yourself , including difficult experiences or failures can be a great way to show vulnerability and authenticity, but be careful not to overshare, and focus on showing how you matured from the experience.

First, spend time reflecting on your core values and character . You can start with these questions:

  • What are three words your friends or family would use to describe you, and why would they choose them?
  • Whom do you admire most and why?
  • What are you most proud of? Ashamed of?

However, you should do a comprehensive brainstorming session to fully understand your values. Also consider how your values and goals match your prospective university’s program and culture. Then, brainstorm stories that illustrate the fit between the two.

In a college application essay , you can occasionally bend grammatical rules if doing so adds value to the storytelling process and the essay maintains clarity.

However, use standard language rules if your stylistic choices would otherwise distract the reader from your overall narrative or could be easily interpreted as unintentional errors.

Write concisely and use the active voice to maintain a quick pace throughout your essay and make sure it’s the right length . Avoid adding definitions unless they provide necessary explanation.

Use first-person “I” statements to speak from your perspective . Use appropriate word choices that show off your vocabulary but don’t sound like you used a thesaurus. Avoid using idioms or cliché expressions by rewriting them in a creative, original way.

If you’re an international student applying to a US college and you’re comfortable using American idioms or cultural references , you can. But instead of potentially using them incorrectly, don’t be afraid to write in detail about yourself within your own culture.

Provide context for any words, customs, or places that an American admissions officer might be unfamiliar with.

College application essays are less formal than other kinds of academic writing . Use a conversational yet respectful tone , as if speaking with a teacher or mentor. Be vulnerable about your feelings, thoughts, and experiences to connect with the reader.

Aim to write in your authentic voice , with a style that sounds natural and genuine. You can be creative with your word choice, but don’t use elaborate vocabulary to impress admissions officers.

Admissions officers use college admissions essays to evaluate your character, writing skills , and ability to self-reflect . The essay is your chance to show what you will add to the academic community.

The college essay may be the deciding factor in your application , especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.

Some colleges also require supplemental essays about specific topics, such as why you chose that specific college . Scholarship essays are often required to obtain financial aid .

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Your chance of acceptance, your chancing factors, extracurriculars, what makes a good college essay.

Hey peeps, I'm starting to brainstorm for my college essay and I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed. Can anyone help me understand what makes a good college essay? Or maybe share some examples of essays that impressed admissions officers? Thanks in advance!

Hey there! I understand that college essay brainstorming can feel overwhelming, but you're taking the right first step by asking for advice. A good college essay generally has the following qualities:

1. Unique and authentic: The essay should reflect your genuine voice, personality, and life experiences. It's important to avoid clichéd topics (e.g., sports victories, learning a new language, or overcoming adversity) unless you have a unique and specific angle.

2. Clear focus and structure: Choose a specific moment, idea, or perspective and build your narrative around it. Strong essays often follow a clear structure with a captivating introduction, engaging main body, and a thoughtful conclusion.

3. Personal growth and introspection: Demonstrating personal growth, reflection, or a realization in your essay can show admissions officers your ability to learn from experiences and adapt. Share how a particular experience or event shaped your values, beliefs, or outlook on life.

4. Strong storytelling and writing: A well-written essay captivates the reader with vivid descriptions, engaging anecdotes, and strong storytelling. Be mindful of grammar, punctuation, and flow. It's crucial to proofread and revise multiple times to ensure clarity and coherence.

5. Show, don't tell: Use descriptive language and details to help your reader visualize your story rather than simply stating facts or opinions. Concrete examples and anecdotes make your essay more engaging and memorable.

To further help you with brainstorming, here's a brief example of an essay with these qualities: A student writes about their passion for astronomy and the experience of trying to spot a rare celestial event, despite a cloudy night. Instead of focusing on the disappointment, the student reflects on the moment they realized their passion extended beyond simply observing phenomena; they became curious about the underlying science. The essay concludes by connecting this revelation to their desire to study astrophysics in college, thus showing growth, introspection, and a clear focus.

Remember, practice makes perfect and don't be afraid to seek feedback from trusted friends, family, or teachers. Good luck with your essay writing journey!

About CollegeVine’s Expert FAQ

CollegeVine’s Q&A seeks to offer informed perspectives on commonly asked admissions questions. Every answer is refined and validated by our team of admissions experts to ensure it resonates with trusted knowledge in the field.

I Hope You All Feel Terrible Now

How the internet—and Stephen Colbert—hounded Kate Middleton into revealing her diagnosis

Kate Middleton

Updated at 4:04 p.m ET on March 22, 2024

For many years, the most-complained-about cover of the British satirical magazine Private Eye was the one it published in the week after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. At the time, many people in Britain were loudly revolted by the tabloid newspapers that had hounded Diana after her divorce from Charles, and by the paparazzi whose quest for profitable pictures of the princess ended in an underpass in Paris.

Under the headline “Media to Blame,” the Eye cover carried a photograph of a crowd outside Buckingham Palace, with three speech bubbles. The first was: “The papers are a disgrace.” The next two said: “Yeah, I couldn’t get one anywhere” and “Borrow mine, it’s got a picture of the car.” People were furious. Sacks of angry, defensive mail arrived for days afterward, and several outlets withdrew the magazine from sale. (I am an Eye contributor, and these events have passed into office legend.) But with the benefit of hindsight, the implication was accurate: Intruding on the private lives of the royals is close to a British tradition. We Britons might have the occasional fit of remorse, but that doesn’t stop us. And now, because of the internet, everyone else can join in too.

Read: Just asking questions about Kate Middleton

That cover instantly sprang to mind when, earlier today, the current Princess of Wales announced that she has cancer. In a video recorded on Wednesday in Windsor, the former Kate Middleton outlined her diagnosis in order to put an end to weeks of speculation, largely incubated online but amplified and echoed by mainstream media outlets, about the state of her health and marriage.

Kate has effectively been bullied into this statement, because the alternative—a wildfire of gossip and conspiracy theories—was worse. So please, let’s not immediately switch into maudlin recriminations about how this happened. It happened because people felt they had the right to know Kate’s private medical information. The culprits may include three staff members at the London hospital that treated her, who have been accused of accessing her medical records, perhaps driven by the same curiosity that has lit up my WhatsApp inbox for weeks. Everyone hates the tabloid papers, until they become them.

In her statement, Kate said that after her abdominal surgery earlier in the year, which the press was told at the time was “planned”—a word designed to minimize its seriousness—later tests revealed an unspecified cancer. She is now undergoing “preventative chemotherapy,” but has not revealed the progression of the disease, or her exact prognosis. “I am well,” she said, promising that she is getting stronger every day. “I hope you will understand that as a family, we now need some time, space and privacy while I complete my treatment.”

This news will surely make many people feel bad. The massive online guessing game about the reasons for Kate’s invisibility seems far less fun now. Stephen Colbert’s “spilling the tea” monologue , which declared open season on the princess’s marriage, should probably be quietly interred somewhere. The sad simplicity of today’s statement, filmed on a bench with Kate in casual jeans and a striped sweater, certainly gave me pause. She mentioned the difficulty of having to “process” the news, as well as explaining her condition to her three young children in terms they could understand. The reference to the importance of “having William by my side” was pointed, given how much of the speculation has gleefully dwelt on the possibility that she was leaving him or vice versa.

Read: The eternal scrutiny of Kate Middleton

However, the statement also reveals that the online commentators who suggested that the royal household was keeping something from the public weren’t entirely wrong. Kate’s condition was described as noncancerous when her break from public life was announced in late January . The updated diagnosis appears to have been delivered in February, around the time her husband, Prince William, abruptly pulled out of speaking at a memorial service for the former king of Greece. Today’s statement represents a failure of Kensington Palace to control the narrative: first, by publishing a photograph of Kate and her children that was so obviously edited that photo agencies retracted it, and second, by giving its implicit permission for the publication of a grainy video of the couple shopping in Windsor over the weekend. Neither of those decisions quenched the inferno raging online—in fact, they fed it.

Some will say that Kate has finally done what she should have done much earlier: directly address the rumors in an official video, rather than drip-feed images that raised more questions than they answered. King Charles III has taken a different approach to his own (also unspecified) cancer, allowing footage to be filmed of him working from home. But then again, Kate has cancer at 42, is having chemo, and has three young children. Do you really have it in you to grade her media strategy and find it wanting?

Ironically, Britain’s tabloid papers have shown remarkable restraint; as I wrote earlier this month , they declined to publish the first paparazzi pictures of Kate taken after her withdrawal from public life. They have weighted their decisions toward respect and dignity—more so than the Meghan stans, royal tea-spillers, and KateGate theorists, who have generated such an unstoppable wave of interest in this story that its final destination was a woman with cancer being forced to reveal her diagnosis. If you ever wanted proof that the “mainstream media” are less powerful than ever before, this video of Kate Middleton sitting on a bench is it.

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What is NIL in college sports? Did it cause Nick Saban and other coaches to leave NCAA?

what makes a bad college essay

Nick Saban left college football in large part because of the changing rules surrounding NIL .

The legendary Alabama coach said as much March 12 at a congressional roundtable hosted by Sen. Ted Cruz. Saban is regarded as the greatest coach of his generation, winning seven national championships, but he shockingly retired after the Crimson Tide's loss in January's College Football Playoff. (FSU coach Mike Norvell nearly replaced him at Alabama.)

On Capitol Hill, Saban recounted a conversation he had with his wife in which she told him players only cared about how much they were going to get paid for the next season. "All the things I believed in for all these years, 50 years of coaching, no longer exist in college athletics," Saban said. "It was always about developing players, it was always about helping people be more successful in life."

Saban has said si m ilar things since retiring in January. And he isn't the only high-profile coach to step down in recent years as NIL legislation has expanded across the country. College basketball greats Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Jim Calhoun have surprisingly retired . Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley left to be the defensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers, and Chip Kelly made the stunning move to leave as head coach of UCLA to take the offensive coordinator job at soon-to-be conference rival Ohio State, both moves that were pinned in part on the difficulties of coaching in the NIL era.

Is NIL really to blame? Why is it such a big deal? What does it even mean? Here's what you need to know.

What does NIL mean?

NIL is short for "name, image and likeness." Basically, a student athlete being able to sign NIL deals means they are able to enter into contracts to endorse products and make money off their personal brand. They can do commercials for TV, post branded ads on their social media channels and have companies do the same. It's what professional athletes have been doing for decades.

Why is NIL legislation so important?

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 2021 that the NCAA's rules restricting benefits to athletes was unconstitutional, paving the way for states to decide whether to allow student athletes to profit off NIL deals. Previously, athletes were not permitted to receive any benefits except through scholarships.

That didn't sit right with a lot of athletes and fans. Coaches, schools and conferences made millions of dollars off major college sports and especially their lucrative TV contracts . For instance, Saban made more than $11 million for his final season at Alabama. He even had a clause in his contract that basically ensured he would always be the highest-paid coach.

Allowing NIL deals allows the athletes taking part in those games a way to earn some compensation for their work.

“Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion to the court's decision. “And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different. The NCAA is not above the law.”

In Washington, Saban did give some support for athletes making NIL money. "I want their quality of life to be good," he said. "Name, image and likeness is a great opportunity for them to create a brand for themselves. I'm not against that at all. To come up with some kind of a system that can still help the development of young people I still think is paramount to the future of college athletics."

How does NIL work in college football? Where does NIL money come from?

It's important to note college athletes still cannot be paid directly by the school. Instead, that's done through NIL collectives , which organize funds from donors. The money is directed to pay athletes through NIL deals.

Collectives cannot be directly involved in recruiting, just like boosters in the old days. However, most operate in coordination with the schools and tend to be endorsed by coaches and school officials. According to Business Insider, 80% of money going toward NIL comes from collectives, with the rest coming from brand deals.

There are still limits. The NCAA investigated the University of Florida over the Gators' botched recruitment of Jaden Rashada , and in January, FSU became the first school to be sanctioned for improper NIL recruiting.

Can non-athletes get NIL?

Yes. But this isn't anything new: Any college student except NCAA athletes could enter into endorsement deals before the landmark NCAA v. Alston decision by the Supreme Court in 2021.

Can high school athletes make money from NIL?

That depends on state laws. According to the tracker at Business of College Sports , 30 states plus Washington, D.C., allow for high school athletes to enter NIL deals. Florida is one of the states that still prohibits high school athletes from NIL, but the FHSAA is working on a plan .

What is Florida's NIL law?

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis initially signed NIL legislation into law in 2020, and it went into effect on July 1, 2021. The law allowed college athletes in Florida to earn compensation for the use of their name, image and likeness, and it prohibits colleges and universities from preventing athletes from earning money or goods. Schools themselves cannot compensate athletes.

The law was amended in 2023 to let schools, teams and coaches facilitate NIL deals for players. And the FHSAA is working on rules for allowing high school athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness. A workshop is scheduled for April .

What are the highest NIL deals? Who are the highest NIL earners?

According to On3's NIL tracker , the highest NIL earner is USC basketball player Bronny James, son of NBA superstar LeBron James. The site lists the freshman's NIL valuation at $4.9 million. Here are the top 5 as of March 16:

  • Bronny James , USC basketball: $4.9 million
  • Shedeur Sanders , Colorado football: $4.7 million
  • Livvy Dunne , LSU gymnastics: $3.6 million
  • Caitlyn Clark , Iowa basketball: $3.1 million
  • Arch Manning , Texas football: $2.8 million

Of note, two Texas quarterbacks, Manning and Quinn Ewers ($1.9 million), rank in the top 10 for NIL. Also, while the NIL industry is worth an estimated $1 billion annually , according to NIL company Overdorse, On3's tracker lists only 22 athletes nationwide worth $1 million in NIL valuation. And college football reporter Ross Dellenger has reported that the average Power 5 football player makes about $10,000 to $50,000 through NIL collectives.

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Baltimore Investigation Turns to Ship’s Deadly Mechanical Failure

The Dali reported a power blackout and steering problems before hitting the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. But what went wrong so far has not been explained.

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An aerial view of a large cargo ship, with the front of the ship sitting under a collapsed bridge.

By Mike Baker and Peter Eavis

Just minutes before the cargo ship Dali was set to glide under Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge, the ship’s alarms began to blare. The lights went out. The engine halted. Even the rudder, which the crew uses to maneuver the vessel, was frozen.

As a frantic effort to restore the ship was underway, the pilot soon recognized that the aimless vessel was drifting toward disaster, and called for help.

The cascading collapse of the vessel’s most crucial operating systems left the Dali adrift until it ultimately collided with the Key bridge, knocking the span into the river and killing six people. But as crews this week were still sorting out how to disentangle the ship and recover the bodies of those who died, investigators were also turning to the most central question: What could have caused such a catastrophic failure at the worst possible moment?

Engineers, captains and shipping officials around the world are waiting for that answer in an era when the industry’s largest ships can carry four times as much cargo as those just a few decades ago, navigating through congested urban ports under bridges that may carry tens of thousands of people a day,

Already, a few key questions are emerging, according to engineers and shipping experts monitoring the investigation, and most of them point to the electrical generators that power nearly every system on the 984-foot vessel, not only the lights, navigation and steering, but the pumps that provide fuel, oil and water to the massive diesel engine.

The “ complete blackout ” reported by the pilot is hard to explain in today’s shipping world, in which large commercial vessels now operate with a range of automation, computerized monitoring, and built-in redundancies and backup systems designed to avert just such a calamity.

“In the last 30 to 40 years, the level of that redundancy has been increasing quite considerably,” said John Carlton, a professor of marine engineering at City, University of London. “The ship of today is so very different to the one of 30 years ago.”

Yet there is a wide range of possible factors contributing to the failure that investigators will have to sift through as they interview crew members, examine fuel supplies and scrutinize the ship systems that broke down that night.

If there was faulty maintenance, it could have caused a delay in starting the emergency backup generator, or an electrical fault could have prevented it from remaining engaged. Contaminated fuel or an inadvertently closed valve could have fouled or starved the main generators. Human error could have set off problems or failed to overcome them. The ship’s own automation could have led to equipment glitches. Or a fire could have broken out and damaged crucial equipment.

The answers will have implications not only for international shipping but also for who is liable for damages that S&P Global Ratings estimated at more than $2 billion.

Grace Ocean Private, the Singapore-based company that owns the Dali, said it was “fully cooperating with federal and state government agencies.” Grace Ocean’s owner is Yoshimasa Abe, a Japanese citizen who owns at least two shipping lines and more than 50 vessels, including some of the world’s biggest container ships. While the Dali was insured, Mr. Abe’s company potentially faces large claims against it, depending on the findings of the accident investigators.

Given the scope of the failure, it is possible that there were multiple problems. Timothy McCoy, a professor specializing in marine engineering at the University of Michigan, said that much like a plane crash, an extensive breakdown of a ship’s systems typically involves a sequence of events.

A close look at the potential factors would include many of the most essential elements in the operation of a modern cargo vessel — including the fuel that feeds the ship’s 55,000-horsepower diesel engine that in turn powers the ship’s propeller.

Fuel also powers the huge generators that provide electricity to container ships. And a ship like the Dali needs electrical power to run its main engine — its fuel injectors are electrically powered, for instance — and steer its rudder. Without electricity, the ship can go adrift.

An outbreak of contaminated fuel led to reported problems with 32 vessels from Texas to Singapore last August, maritime industry officials reported , with some of them reporting loss of power and propulsion at sea.

In Washington State last year, a large passenger ferry ran aground after losing power as a result of bacterial and fungal growth in the vessel’s fuel tanks that fouled the ship’s filtration systems.

At the time it was built, 2015, the Dali had four generators, according to S&P Maritime Portal, a shipping data service. Not all of them run at once, usually, but container vessels leaving port will typically have an extra generator running, to provide reserve power if needed. “At least two should be online at the same time,” said Mark Bulaclac, an academic on maritime issues who has also served as an engineer on container ships.

If all generators were running on a common source of bad fuel, that might have caused them all to fail.

Henry Lipian, a forensic crash investigator who previously worked in the Coast Guard, said the sudden loss of the ship’s generators led him to think of fuel problems as a potential culprit.

He said investigators would need to look at the fuel on board, how it was delivered, whether it had been tested beforehand and what filtration systems were on the ship. But he said that a problem with the fuel valves could be another explanation.

“I’d want to start tracing all of those fuel lines,” he said.

In Baltimore, investigators were in the process of collecting a fuel sample from the Dali in order to examine the quality, viscosity and signs of any contaminants, said Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Yet other experts said there were also reasons to doubt the contaminated fuel scenario. New fuels typically undergo testing, and duplicate filtration systems can help clean out problematic components that were not flagged in testing. No reports have emerged of other ships having a problem from the same batch of fuel.

Maritime engineers say an electrical chain reaction could also have caused all the generators to go down. When one generator fails, it can create a situation in which there is too much demand for too little supply of electricity. Other generators are then at risk of being damaged, so the system will shut them down, too, said Richard Burke, a professor of naval architecture and marine engineering at SUNY Maritime College in New York.

“It’s as if you and I are both holding up a heavy weight and I let go,” he said, “You can’t hold it by yourself, so you drop the weight.”

A haywire generator could also zap the electrical distribution system on the ship, said Capt. Morgan McManus, an instructor at SUNY Maritime College.

When all the main generators fail, ships rely on a backup generator that is typically situated above the water line in another area of the ship, with its own fuel source.

Marine engineers say backup generators provide electricity to run some lights, the navigation system — and, crucially, the ship’s steering system. Without at least backup power, the rudder cannot be moved.

Because some lights came back on after the Dali experienced its initial blackout, it appears the backup generator did activate, but only after a roughly one-minute delay. Even then, the lights appeared to go back off, then on again, raising the possibility of a problem with the backup generator.

Ms. Homendy of the N.T.S.B. said this week that investigators had collected data “consistent with a power outage” but were still trying to determine the extent.

Clay Diamond, the head of the American Pilots’ Association, a trade group that has been in close contact with the harbor pilots in Maryland, said that steering was restored after the emergency generator came online. But even with a hard turn to the left and the dropping of an anchor, there was not enough time to turn or stop the ship.

Mr. Bulaclac, the shipping engineer, said backup generators are meant to be regularly tested by turning them on for two hours once a month. “What I would like to know is when that emergency diesel generator was last tested,” he said.

The Coast Guard inspected the Dali when it docked in the Port of New York in September but found no deficiencies on the ship. The Coast Guard did not provide details of what it inspected.

The modernization of ships may have introduced other ways vessels can fail. They have increasingly depended on computers to monitor for troubles and take action when a problem is identified. In some ways, this is a built-in layer of automatic protection: If one component gets overloaded, it can be automatically shut down to prevent further damage. But those shutdowns can cause problems on their own.

“I could not rule out that some computer failure shut all the valves off or shut off pumps that provide the fuel,” Mr. Lipian said.

Michael Forsythe and Jenny Gross contributed reporting.

Mike Baker is a national reporter for The Times, based in Seattle. More about Mike Baker

Peter Eavis reports on business, financial markets, the economy and companies across different sectors. More about Peter Eavis

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  1. IMPROVE Your College Essay With These 30-SECOND Fixes

  2. Why Your College Essay SUCKS

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  4. The Most COMMON College Essay Question

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COMMENTS

  1. Bad College Essays: 10 Mistakes You Must Avoid

    What Makes Bad College Essays Bad. What exactly happens to turn a college essay terrible? Just as great personal statements combine an unexpected topic with superb execution, flawed personal statements compound problematic subject matter with poor execution. Problems With the Topic.

  2. What makes a college essay bad?

    A bad college essay can suffer from several issues: 1. Poor grammar and punctuation: Proofread, proofread, proofread! No matter how great your story is, if it's plagued with grammar and punctuation errors, it gives the impression that you didn't put in the effort. Ask others to review your essay and use tools like Grammarly to catch any errors ...

  3. Bad College Essay Examples: 5 Essay Mistakes To Avoid

    Period. A bad essay will prompt an admission officer to assume one of two things: 1) either you don't care enough about your future at their school to take the time to write a good essay or 2) you aren't academically up to attending their college or university. Neither of those assumptions will help you get admitted.

  4. 7 Worst Essay Writing Mistakes: How to Boost Your Grades

    Most students, however, will commit many errors before learning the art of academic essay writing. While you can't avoid writing essays, you can avoid making some of these common mistakes: Contents: Writing a Synopsis, Not An Analytical Essay. Not Having a Strong Thesis Statement. Using Too Many Quotes in An Essay. Plagiarism.

  5. What Not to Write About in a College Essay

    Sometimes, what makes a topic a bad college essay is that it doesn't really do anything new. And that's the case when it comes to the cliche immigration essay. We say "cliche" because the vast majority of college essays focusing on immigration emphasize the same things: moving to a new home, feeling out of place, and eventually learning ...

  6. Bad College Essays

    Let's give our readers an example of some bad college essay writing. Here is a sample paragraph from an essay. Tell us what you think is wrong with it in the Comments section below: Winning the race was a really big accomplishment for me. It made me really proud to stand on the podium and wave to the crowd, surrounded by so many people I love.

  7. 5 College Essay Examples & What to Avoid

    Real college essay example: "My baseball coach always says, "We're going to play smart baseball, gentlemen because dumb baseball is no fun to play and even less fun to watch.". 3. A Definition. Opening with a definition like "Persistence is defined as…," will probably not be a strong start. The reader, an admissions officer, doesn ...

  8. 20 College Essay Examples (Graded by Former Admissions Officers)

    "Bad" College Essay Examples "Bad" is in quotation marks here because writing is always relative. In the case of these examples, we have categorized them as "bad" because they don't adequately meet the expectations of a college essay. That doesn't mean that they're objectively bad or that their writers are bad writers.

  9. College Essay Examples

    Essay 1: Sharing an identity or background through a montage. Essay 2: Overcoming a challenge, a sports injury narrative. Essay 3: Showing the influence of an important person or thing. Other interesting articles. Frequently asked questions about college application essays.

  10. Avoiding common admissions essay mistakes

    If you're filling out the common App, here at the 2016 - 2017 essays: 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.

  11. On the Bright Side: My Bad College Essay

    Pretentious Essays. The whole point of this essay is to make yourself look good, and it can be really easy to go from making yourself look good to coming off as pretentious, snobbish, or just downright unpleasant. Admissions officers admit people, not just some cardboard cutout of "the perfect college student.".

  12. 177 College Essay Examples for 11 Schools + Expert Analysis

    Technique #1: humor. Notice Renner's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks their 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). My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver.

  13. What to Avoid: Bad College Essay Examples

    Bad College Essay Examples. How I broke my arm and learned to never trust anyone again. Why I love the color green and why it is my favorite food. How I learned to love reading and writing (this one is also applicable for college application essays) Describe a problem you solved or a problem you would like to solve.

  14. 9 College Essay Topics to Avoid at ALL COSTS

    Essays are a critical part of the college admissions process. A fantastic essay can make your application much more likely to be accepted. Likewise, a bad college essay can spell disaster for your chances of getting into the university of your choice.

  15. What If I Don't Have Anything Interesting To Write About In My College

    Identifying an experience that exemplifies that value or fundamental truth. Writing a thoughtful essay that uses your "uninteresting" experience to say something interesting about yourself. 1. Get the Ball Rolling. There are many different practices you might find useful as you start brainstorming your college essay.

  16. How to Avoid Writing a Bad Hook and Telling, Not Showing

    The reader feels disconnected from the events of the essay because the writing is mostly telling and not showing. There are other ways to communicate your passion for cooking without explicitly saying it: "Three hundred fifteen grams of flour, two spoons of yeast, a little bit of sugar and salt, and my secret ingredient: whole-milk, Greek yogurt.

  17. 15 College Essay Topics To Avoid and Why

    Unless the applicant has a truly unique angle, a sports essay runs the risk of blending in with other applications and failing to make a memorable impression on admissions officers. 6. Tragedies. While tragedies you've faced can be formative experiences, this may be a college application essay topic to avoid.

  18. 11 Cliché College Essay Topics + How to Fix Them

    9. Your religious institution or faith. Religion is generally a very tricky topic, and it's difficult to cover it in an original way in your essay. Writing about your faith and reflecting on it critically can work, but basic religious essays about why your faith is important to you are a little more cliché.

  19. College Admission Essay Topics: Best and Worst

    Unfortunately, there is a really good reason no one else wrote that essay. The same goes for trying to be creative and responding with one word, one sentence, or a poem. Although those are very different responses from what admission officers reads, this does not mean they are good responses.

  20. Can I use my college essay to explain bad grades?

    If you have bad grades on your transcript, you may want to use your college admissions essay to explain the challenging circumstances that led to them. Make sure to avoid dwelling on the negative aspects and highlight how you overcame the situation or learned an important lesson. However, some college applications offer an additional ...

  21. What are some bad college essay topics to avoid?

    It's important to choose a unique and engaging essay topic that will showcase your authentic self and stand out in the eyes of admissions officers. Here's a list of overused or cliché topics you should avoid, along with some tips to make seemingly cliché topics more personal and creative: 1. Sports injuries or victories: Writing about a sports injury or triumph can be quite cliché unless ...

  22. What makes a good college essay?

    A good college essay generally has the following qualities: 1. Unique and authentic: The essay should reflect your genuine voice, personality, and life experiences. It's important to avoid clichéd topics (e.g., sports victories, learning a new language, or overcoming adversity) unless you have a unique and specific angle. 2.

  23. I Hope You All Feel Terrible Now

    This news will surely make many people feel bad. The massive online guessing game about the reasons for Kate's invisibility seems far less fun now.

  24. $2,000 No Essay Scholarship

    Niche is giving one student $2,000 to put toward tuition, housing, books or other college expenses — no essay required. Apply below for your chance to win so you can focus on your education, not your finances. Good luck! Help cover the cost of college without writing a single essay! Niche is giving one student $2,000 to put toward tuition ...

  25. What we know about the Baltimore bridge collapse

    A massive cargo ship plowed into Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge early Tuesday, causing the 1.6-mile structure to crumble like a pile of toothpicks - plunging cars and people into the ...

  26. Opinion

    Even so, the nation's diverse, aspirational college students are trying to make college choices that align with their political values. According to this survey, they are remarkably progressive ...

  27. What is NIL? How much money do college athletes make off NIL deals?

    Nick Saban left college football in large part because of the changing rules surrounding NIL. The legendary Alabama coach said as much March 12 at a congressional roundtable hosted by Sen. Ted Cruz.

  28. Ronna McDaniel, TV News and the Trump Problem

    The Daily is made by Rachel Quester, Lynsea Garrison, Clare Toeniskoetter, Paige Cowett, Michael Simon Johnson, Brad Fisher, Chris Wood, Jessica Cheung, Stella Tan ...

  29. Baltimore Investigation Turns to Ship's Deadly Mechanical Failure

    The Dali reported a power blackout and steering problems before hitting the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. But what went wrong so far has not been explained. By Mike Baker and Peter Eavis ...