12 Unforgettable College Application Essays

college app essay reddit

It's been a long time since I penned my college application essays, but that doesn't mean I don't still appreciate them. On the contrary: I think memorable college admissions essays are to be applauded. Why? Because anyone who can make theirs interesting, thus bringing a modicum of relief to those who have to actually sit there and plow through them all, definitely deserves some acknowledgment for their work. And hey, wouldn't you know it? That's the subject of today's AskReddit thread: “ College admissions counselors of Reddit , what's the weirdest/worst/most memorable essay you've read?”

As is wont to happen in an AskReddit thread, many — possibly even the majority, although I haven't actually counted them, so do with that what you will — of the responses did not come from their intended source; in this case, we're talking about college admissions officers. Some of them were submitted by the people who wrote them; others by people who knew the writers in question; and still others have the “a friend of a friend who dated my cousin's best friend” level of remove that can sometimes bring their veracity into question. Either way, though, they're all good for a laugh — and a few of them might even teach you something. Full steam ahead for a wide variety of lessons in what to do while writing your college application essays — and what not to do, too.

Here are 12 of the most notable examples; head on over to AskReddit for more . Oh, and for anyone who's waiting on their acceptance letters? Good luck! I believe in you!

1. The Theory of Cat/Toast Equilibrium

college app essay reddit

But… what does happen? I must know!

While we're on the subject, the University of Chicago seems like they've mastered the art of making college applications not boring for the people who actually have to read them. Check out some of essay prompts from this year's app:

college app essay reddit

Not going to lie: I am considering writing answers for them just for the hell of it. Because you know what? It actually sounds — dare I say it? — fun.

2. Law and Order: College Application Essays Unit

college app essay reddit

I would imagine that would be a pretty terrifying read. Quick, teach her to use her powers for the forces of good!

3. The Legendary Hugh Gallagher Essay

college app essay reddit

You may already be familiar with this one, but for the curious, here's the story behind it: Humorist, writer, and musician Hugh Gallagher penned the glorious satiric creation excerpted here for Scholastic Press' national writing contest when he was in high school. Unsurprisingly, he won. For some years, there was confusion surrounding whether or not he actually used it as his college essay; in 1998, though, Gallagher emailed University of York comp sci professor Susan Stepney , who had posted the essay on her website, noting that he did in fact send it along with his applications. For the curious, he ultimately attended NYU. Here's the permalink for the full comment — it's worth just for the final line. Trust me.

4. The Power of the Mighty Trombone

college app essay reddit

I was unable to discern whether or not this one actually happened or whether it's just an urban legend — but I'm willing to bet it's the latter. Either way, though, I think it's a terrible way to try to teach the “think outside the box” lesson; I feel like it encourages laziness more than anything else. But maybe that's just me.

5. How to Get Into Yale

college app essay reddit

That, though? That's pretty funny. Well played.

6. The Key to Effective Multitasking

college app essay reddit

Here's the thing with writing humorous college application essays: They only work if you're actually… y'know… funny. I feel like maybe the right person might have been able to make this idea work, but the execution of the idea this time around just wasn't up to par. However, this also happened:

college app essay reddit

Small world, no?

7. Art History Is Best History

college app essay reddit

Either the admissions officers loved it, or they didn't actually read it. The jury's still out on which one it is.

8. We Are Gathered Here Today…

college app essay reddit

To be fair, I'm not totally sure what's to be gained by sending your own obituary as a college essay; unless the prompt was something like, “Write whatever you want, as long as it is at least 500 words long,” it doesn't seem like it would really answer any questions the admissions committee might be relying on the essay to fill them in about. At the same time, though, clearly someone could have used a little Journalism 101.

9. An Act of Valor

college app essay reddit

This one was copied from another thread and pasted in this one , but I think it's definitely a winner.

10. The Importance of Proofreading

college app essay reddit

Ouch. Just… ouch.

11. The Legacies

college app essay reddit

Oh, come on. I wouldn't blame these two for using their legacy to help them get a leg up — but relying solely on it like this? That's cheating. Also, shame on the school that let them get away with it.

12. Hardboiled Washington

college app essay reddit

I hope this Redditor is planning on studying creative writing. You've got a great future ahead of you, kid — even if you do need a little work with your punctuation and grammar.

Images: churl /Flickr; Giphy (2); Pandawhale

college app essay reddit

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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!

college app essay reddit

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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.

college app essay reddit

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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:

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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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The Write Stuff: 4 College Admissions Essay Editing Services Reviewed

Looking for good news about the college admissions process these days? You won't find much of it. Not only has the cost of attending college doubled on average since the 1980s, but also it's gotten considerably harder to get in. The majority of colleges in America have witnessed a plummeting acceptance rate as the number of student applications has exploded. Fifty years ago you had a 20 percent shot at getting into Harvard (all things equal, of course). Now the Crimson's acceptance rate is about 5 percent. In the last 10 years alone, the acceptance rate at many major universities has been cut in half . It's almost enough to make a kid consider trying out for the rowing team .

As if applicants didn't have enough to stress about, colleges have been making it more onerous to apply—requiring additional interviews, recommendations, and SAT Subject Tests. But the most burdensome of them all is an old standby: the application essay.

Essay requirements vary widely from school to school. The 150-plus members of the Coalition for College (which includes Harvard and Vanderbilt) requires a single 500-word essay selected from prompts such as "Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution." Those with eyes on the University of California system must write a whopping four essays, with prompts such as "Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced."

Students can reuse essays with other colleges if the prompts are similar enough—or if the schools happen to be members of the same application partnership—but you'd be surprised how seldom this occurs. My daughter found that out the hard way, when she learned that she'd have to write 12 separate essays to cover just five schools.

What's a kid to do who doesn't have parents who both work full-time as writers and editors? Just run their essay through Microsoft grammar check and hope for the best? Good luck. The acceptance rate at the University of Chicago has dropped 81 percent in the last 12 years. It doesn't take a Rhodes scholar to know that if you don't put your best foot forward, you may as well not even bother.

All of this led me to the curious world of online editing services. While you can hire a consultant to help guide your child through this overwhelming maze, these consultants are expensive and much of their work involves managing the complex application process, figuring out which colleges are a good fit, and brainstorming essay topics. If you just need help whipping an already written essay into better shape, an online editor might be a better (and much cheaper) fit.

To be sure, some of these services are exorbitantly expensive. Services like EssayEdge and TopAdmit can run you close to $200 for editing a single essay of fewer than 400 words. I've seen prices as high as $379 after various upsells. Word for word, that's more than what my editor at WIRED makes. (Hi, Mike!)

The good news is there are plenty of more affordable options available. I tested four of them, all reasonably priced and seemingly legitimate. Most of these services charge based on a combination of the word count of the original essay and the turnaround time required. I used the same raw essay from my daughter as a test piece for each of the four services, and requested the slowest turnaround time each of them offered to minimize the cost. I submitted her 383-word raw essay at the same time to each of the services, on a Wednesday afternoon. I gave all the services minimal guidance with my submission, noting only (when prompted) that this was a college application essay. All four of the services allow you to upload a Microsoft Word document and receive a red-lined and comment-filled Word document in return.

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When I received the revised essays, I reviewed them along with my wife (also a professional writer) and my daughter, the author. The reviews were done blind, without indicating the source of any of the edits, and we all rated each essay on a 1 to 10 scale. I also threw in a copy that I roughly edited. For the sake of comparison, the raw essay scored an average of 4.8, while my edit garnered a 6.9.

Here's what the various services cost, and how well they performed.

Note: When you buy something using the retail links in our stories, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Read more about how this works.

Total price: $13.91, 48-hour turnaround promised. Edit received within 24 hours.

Scribendi offers seven different turnaround time tiers, but its 72-hour and one-week turnarounds were the same price as the 48-hour turnaround. A four-hour turnaround was quoted at $28.53. Scribendi returned both a changes-tracked version of the document and a "clean" version with all edits accepted. Scribendi's edit was not just the fastest, it was incredibly thorough—almost nitpicky—with 16 comments or prompts to the writer suggesting avenues for additional content or revisions that were beyond the scope of a simple edit. Oddly, the final edit didn't resonate with readers, who largely felt it was somewhat awkward and clunky in its overall flow. That said, the editor's notes and the service's overall speed were a big plusses.

Readers' rating: 5.0

Total price: $13.90, three-day turnaround promised. Edit received after two days.

Elite Editing has an Advanced Editing service for $40, but the $13.90 plan I chose offers only "basic editing," which doesn't include "suggested rewrites to eliminate awkward phrasing, repetition, passive voice, etc." and "taking into account your original assignment." Three days is the standard turnaround; one-day turnaround for the Basic Editing plan would have cost $19.90. The site crashed when I checked out, but my payment and submission both went through successfully. As promised, Elite's edit was indeed basic. Its editor made the fewest changes of any of the services and left only three comments, one of which was about whether the use of indentations and double-spacing was appropriate. While Elite's edits were correct, they weren't terribly deep—although that was enough to propel it to a second-place finish from the readers.

Readers' rating: 5.7

Total price: $15.32, five-day turnaround promised. Edit received after four days.

Wordvice has eight different pricing tiers, with rates as low as 4 cents per word for a seven-day turnaround, though that tier was limited to materials longer than 3,000 words. The five-day turnaround tier was only marginally more expensive. When I received Wordvice's edited document, I was offered an upsell for a "second look" (basically another edit) for 30 percent off. Wordvice's embedded commentary was nearly as thorough as Scribendi's, though Wordvice was less obsessive over grammar and more focused on overall clarity. Turns out that was the right move: Wordvice's edit was the overall favorite of the quartet, and the finished draft reads cleanly and clearly.

Readers' rating: 6.3

Total price: $31.33, seven-day turnaround promised. Edit received after four days.

Scribbr initially quoted a price of $25.36, but I shelled out an extra $6 for both the "structure check" and "clarity check" options, despite not really understanding what those were. Prices include a 2 percent surcharge for using a credit card. For those in a hurry, 24-hour turnaround doubles the price. Scribbr seems more focused on editing academic coursework essays than admissions essays, with a relatively formal structure applied to its edits (removing contractions completely, for example). Editor's commentary was sparse, though on target. This draft was the most divisive of the services, earning high marks from my wife but very low marks from my daughter, who thought it stripped the writing of her voice.

Readers' rating: 5.3

Any good college essay has to end with a conclusion, so here are a few takeaways. First, all of the services sent back essays that were, on average, felt to be an improvement over the original draft, with all of them catching numerous spelling and grammatical errors—so students with no professional editing help may do well to consider them, especially given how affordable these services are. That said, also remember that when you engage with an editing service, you're really engaging with a single (anonymous) editor who you won't ever meet or be able to interact with. That editor won't have any level of understanding of the writer's personality beyond what's on the page, and quality will necessarily vary from one editor to another, even within a given editing service.

Further still, remember that editing quality is always going to be subjective, just like any piece of writing. Except for this story, of course. It's amazing.

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‘They’re Not Fact-Checking’: How Lies on College Applications Can Slip Through the Net

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By Anemona Hartocollis

  • Dec. 16, 2018

Sally Goebel was working in admissions at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania when an applicant submitted a moving essay about his mother’s death. He was admitted.

Just before school began, someone from the university called his home and a woman answered the phone. She was the student’s mother, alive and well.

“It was kismet,” Ms. Goebel, now head of Selective Admissions Consulting, said, still shocked by it years later. “There wasn’t any strategy there, and we didn’t suspect him.” His admission was revoked.

As college admissions become ever more competitive, with the most elite schools admitting only 4 percent or 5 percent of applicants, the pressure to exaggerate, embellish, lie and cheat on college applications has intensified, admissions officials say. The high-stakes process remains largely based on trust: Very little is done in the way of fact-checking, and on the few occasions officials do catch outright lies, they often do so by chance.

A recent New York Times investigation found that the leaders of T.M. Landry College Preparatory School, a private high school in Louisiana, doctored transcripts and fabricated up-from-hardship stories on college applications in a systematic effort to land students at selective universities. The revelations have highlighted critical vulnerabilities in the admissions process and cast doubts on a system that some officials and consultants say inadvertently invites exploitation.

In the Landry case, school officials made up tales drawn from racial stereotypes, with the aim of enhancing a student’s chances of admission. But universities that encourage students to write such hard-luck stories, experts say, share the blame.

“There is an alignment of incentives to work the system,” said Christopher Hunt, who runs College Essay Mentor, a consulting service. “Landry is an extreme. Much more common is students, parents and school college counselors trying to figure out what admissions officers ‘want’ and molding students’ lives and applications to the vision of success.”

This is the time of year when high school seniors are starting to see the fruits of those labors. Some students are just finding out about early decisions; others will be sending in their applications in the next few weeks.

Admissions officers and consultants said that the kind of outright fraud in the Landry case was rare. But with colleges receiving tens of thousands of applications a year, it is virtually impossible to check them all for cheating, officials said. They said they do not routinely put essays, for example, through plagiarism checkers. Instead, they rely on experience, intuition and the honor system.

It is not a foolproof process.

James Arthur Hogue, a serial impostor, got into Princeton University in 1988 by posing as a self-educated ranch hand. He ran on the track team and was admitted to an exclusive eating club before being unmasked.

Short of outright fraud, popular culture has glorified the hardship story in college admissions, persuading many students to make it an essential part of their application.

A well-publicized 2010 memoir by Liz Murray, for example, was subtitled, “My Journey From Homeless to Harvard.” The online Common Application, used by more than 800 colleges and universities, taps into that vein. It encourages students to write about overcoming obstacles and to share “a background, identity, interest or talent that is so meaningful” that their application would be incomplete without it.

The Common Application asks students to certify that they are telling the truth, but does not try to independently confirm that they are. It is up to colleges to take that extra step, said Daniel Obregon, a spokesman for the Common Application.

Some universities require students to sign a sworn statement that they are telling the truth, under pain of prosecution. But officials admit they are not seeking to be law enforcement.

Mainly, officials and counselors said, they look for inconsistencies. Do standardized test scores and grades match? Do certain words and phrases in an essay jump out as being in the vocabulary of an adult rather than a teenager? Are a student’s extracurricular activities too good to be true?

And they depend on high school counselors to give them honest appraisals of students who are applying. “If each component is not all pulling in the same direction, it becomes a kind of red flag,” said Katharine Harrington, vice president of admissions and planning at the University of Southern California.

As at Landry, the officials said, it is often the adults, not the young people, who have the temerity to manipulate the application process.

“The kids are scared,” Mr. Hunt, the essay consultant, said. “They’re thinking there’s fact-checking.” But admissions officers, Mr. Hunt added, have “12 minutes to read the application. They’re not fact-checking.”

Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon, said that he always looked at essays with a grain of salt, but that checking extracurricular activities was rare. “If they say they were on the football team from ninth to 12th grade, who’s going to check it?” he said.

But Mr. Rawlins defended the system. “I love that we’re a profession that assumes, more of the time than not, you can trust what students turn in,” he said.

Foul play can be hard to prove. Scott Burke, the undergraduate admissions director at Georgia State University, knew something was amiss when the birth date on an application was far too old to belong to the high school student who supposedly filled it out.

With a little sleuthing, his office discovered that it was a parent’s birth date — the second time that Mr. Burke had seen this particular slip in his 10 years at Georgia State.

“All of us sitting here looking at those applications came to that thinking that the parent likely filled out the whole application,” Mr. Burke said. But they could not say for sure whether that was the case, and after contacting the student, they gave the family the benefit of the doubt.

Just how much parental help is allowed is rarely made clear.

“If it’s not fundamentally changing the thinking, or if it’s expounding on a place where you have writer’s block, I have no problem with that,” Mr. Burke said.

For Dr. Harrington, “proofreading’s acceptable.”

“It’s honestly not too difficult to sniff out an essay that’s just kind of made up,” she said.

Colleges can revoke admission for applicants found to have lied, but the Landry case has raised the uncomfortable question of what to do when adults are primarily to blame. St. John’s University, one of the colleges that accepted Landry students, said it was offering support, not meting out discipline, to those students.

“Student wellness and the ongoing personal support of our students is an essential part of the Catholic and Vincentian mission of St. John’s University,” Brian Browne, a university spokesman, said.

Plenty of students resist the temptation to embellish or go for pity and succeed, said Debra Felix, a former assistant dean for admissions at Columbia who is now in private admissions consulting.

Ms. Felix said one of her students, who was just accepted to his first choice via early action, had written an essay about a canoe accident that he was blamed for. He is black and was raised by a single mother, but he did not discuss race in his essay, she said.

“Living with a single mom has not been a cakewalk,” Ms. Felix said. But the accident “was the worst thing he could come up with. He didn’t come up with something false.”

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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

college app essay reddit

I asked ChatGPT to write college entrance essays. Admissions professionals said they passed for essays written by students but I wouldn't have a chance at any top colleges.

  • I asked OpenAI's ChatGPT to write some college admissions essays and sent them to experts to review.
  • Both of the experts said the essays seemed like they had been written by a real student.
  • However, they said the essays wouldn't have had a shot at highly selective colleges.

Insider Today

ChatGPT can be used for many things: school work , cover letters , and apparently, college admissions essays. 

College essays, sometimes known as personal statements, are a time-consuming but important part of the application process . They are not required for all institutions, but experts say they can make or break a candidate's chances when they are.

The essays are often based on prompts that require students to write about a personal experience, such as:

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?

I asked ChatGPT to whip up a few based on some old questions from the Common App , a widely used application process across the US. In about 10 minutes I had three entrance essays that were ready to use.

At first, the chatbot refused to write a college application essay for me, telling me it was important I wrote from my personal experience. However, after prompting it to write me a "specific example answer" to an essay question with vivid language to illustrate the points, it generated some pretty good text based on made-up personal experiences. 

I sent the results to two admissions professionals to see what they thought. 

The essays seemed like they had been written by real students, experts say

Both of the experts I asked said the essays would pass for a real student. 

Adam Nguyen, founder of tutoring company Ivy Link , previously worked as an admissions reader and interviewer in Columbia's Office of Undergraduate Admission and as an academic advisor at Harvard University. He told Insider: "Having read thousands of essays over the years, I can confidently say that it would be extremely unlikely to ascertain with the naked eye that these essays were AI-generated."

Kevin Wong, Princeton University alumnus and cofounder of tutoring service PrepMaven, which specializes in college admissions, agreed.

"Without additional tools, I don't think it would be easy to conclude that these essays were AI-generated," he said. "The essays do seem to follow a predictable pattern, but it isn't plainly obvious that they weren't written by a human."

"Plenty of high school writers struggle with basic prose, grammar, and structure, and the AI essays do not seem to have any difficulty with these basic but important areas," he added.

Nguyen also praised the grammar and structure of the essays, and said that they also directly addressed the questions.

"There were some attempts to provide examples and evidence to support the writer's thesis or position. The essays are in the first-person narrative format, which is how these essays should be written," he said.

Wong thought the essays may even have been successful at some colleges. "Assuming these essays weren't flagged as AI-generated, I think they could pass muster at some colleges. I know that students have been admitted to colleges after submitting essays lower in quality than these," he said. 

OpenAI did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.

They weren't good enough for top colleges

Nguyen said I wouldn't be able to apply to any of the top 50 colleges in the US using the AI-generated essays.

"These essays are exemplary of what a very mediocre, perhaps even a middle school, student would produce," Nguyen said. "If I were to assign a grade, the essays would get a grade of B or lower."

Wong also said the essays wouldn't stack up at "highly selective" colleges . "Admissions officers are looking for genuine emotion, careful introspection, and personal growth," he said. "The ChatGPT essays express insight and reflection mostly through superficial and cliched statements that anyone could write."

Nguyen said the writing in the essays was fluffy, trite, lacked specific details, and was overly predictable.

"There's no element of surprise, and the reader knows how the essay is going to end. These essays shouldn't end on a neat note, as if the student has it all figured out, and life is perfect," he said. 

"With all three, I would scrap 80-90% and start over," he said.

college app essay reddit

  • Main content

My college essays are being marked as AI? @ any admission officers here?

My personal essay and supplementals are being flagged as AI when I wrote it myself. This started when I asked people for feedback and some would say it’s really good, others would say it’s kind of robotic. So I ran it through those generators like copyleaks, gptzero, and Winston ai, and the results flagged like most of my essays and I would get like 50% is likely to be generated by Ai from gptzero, and Winston ai and copyleaks would say it’s like completely generated.

However my personal statement is a really unique topic, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do it, but I just wrote it really broad. I included like specific details of my own experiences like some of my ECs i listed how it impacted me and etc, but nothing like sensory or “descriptive and in the moment” like the ones you see on those “Essays that got me into… Essays that worked…Essay that got me into harvard”. As for my “Why us” essay I talked about my personal experience working in a lab and my own interests, just broadly written, but nobody else could have like wrote about it because they don’t have the same ECs that I do.

A college counselor we hired to look over my essays and give feedback told me that my personal essay was really strong, my supplementals were also good at responding to the prompt, and that college admission officers really review your application holistically, so it’s not just all about essays. I also asked around for other people and some would say it’s really good, others would say it’s kind of robotic.

I can’t get this off my head, because when I do go back and read my essays they do In fact sound really generic and boring, and monotone and robotic. But that’s just my “personal” tone, and the writer’s tone that I have developed over time. So I’m scared colleges will run it through and think I used AI and also email my other colleges if I get blacklisted from them.

Do college admissions use AI in their essays? Because I read many articles about how they use AI in the admissions process for separating scores and gpa. Some articles even said they did in fact use detectors for essays. But what about all the false positives?? To test some of the accuracy of those models, I would like place my AP lang research projects, essays, and my AP Lit essays I’ve done that were also completely my entire work that I even handwrote in class (my teachers made us handwrite drafts), and they came back as also AI generated. So I don’t know who to trust, when they say my essays are great or bad. But now I also have to worry about my writing potentially coming off as AI generated just because I write in a similar style.

Professors know that AI detectors are unreliable. Trust me, they have looked into this a lot due to students using them for their course assignments. I would be surprised if any admissions offices are screening essays with AI detection software. If they are, the professors would be dismayed to learn that.

You wrote in a way that is true to yourself, about unique topics, and you got positive feedback on your essays. I know it’s hard to take this advice, but don’t worry about it!

What do you mean they’ve been flagged? Were you contacted?

No, just I pasted my own essays into an Ai detector and it flagged most of my content.

Admissions officers don’t have time to read an essay more than once. It will either click with them or it won’t. As a general rule, it would have to either be extremely good or extremely bad to have much impact at all. Ninety percent probably fall somewhere in the “meh” category.

Agree with @circuitrider . Essays may have to be outstanding or truly terrible to have a significant effect. Your just needs to be “good enough” to avoid doing harm.

I think it is too bad so many students read essays “that got me in to X.” Don’t worry about AI or plagiarism accusations if you wrote it yourself.

Did you change your user name? Did you use an essay reader here on CC?

Maybe don’t worry about AI accusations if you indeed wrote it yourself, but do worry about “the kid writes like a robot” reactions from readers. If you sound like AI that in itself is an issue–the essay is where your personality is on full display, so appearing to be an algorithm doesn’t seem ideal.

I kinda already submitted most of mine to all my early action colleges, but I will take that advice and try to rewrite it for my regular decisions.

No, I didn’t change my name - and I didn’t use an essay reader here either. Idk if I should use an essay reader here because I’ve been cautioned against sharing essays with random people online, because I may be prone to people who may steal my ideas or the entire essay.

The essay readers work using private messaging, which is not accessible to anyone else.

The essay readers here are all senior members of this site and have been “vetted” by the admins. As far as I know, we are all parents. We communicate with students via private message, not on the site.

But yes, in general, you shouldn’t post your essay online anywhere.

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