In preparation for a segment on NBC’s “Today” show this morning, I reached out to the admissions offices at the University of Virginia and Occidental College in California for examples of essays that they considered memorable — for good, or ill.
Before I share some of these samples, a caveat (one familiar to regular readers of this blog): while it can be instructive to read actual college admissions essays, trying to copy a particular approach — or in some cases avoid it — can be perilous. That’s because how one responds to an essay can be an intensely personal experience.
That said, I would argue that there are some basic lessons to be gleaned from the following examples. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from an essay that was not especially well received at the University of Virginia, in part because the writer misjudged the age and sensibility of his or her audience:
John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ was sung by Fox’s new show, ‘Glee.’ In one particular episode, a deaf glee club performed this song. I heard it before when John Lennon sang it: unfortunately I did not care much for it. When I watched this episode while the deaf adolescents were singing it, and soon joined by another glee club, it surprisingly affected me…
John Lennon sang it like a professional, but what he did not have was the emotion behind the words. He sang it more staccato than legato. He sang it like it was his job, and nothing more. These singers from Glee sang with powerful emotions. …
Another essay, also musical in focus, got a more appreciative read at U.V.A.:
I strode in front of 400 frenzied eighth graders with my arm slung over my Fender Stratocaster guitar — it actually belonged to my mother — and launched into the first few chords of Nirvana’s ‘Lithium.’ My hair dangled so low over my face that I couldn’t see the crowd in front of me as I shouted ‘yeah, yeah’ in my squeaky teenage voice. I had almost forgotten that less than a year ago I had been a kid whose excitement came from waiting for the next History Channel documentary.
It was during the awkward, hormonal summer between seventh and eighth grade when I first heard Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ The song shocked my senses — until that point my musical cosmos consisted mainly of my father’s Beatles CDs.
I would argue that the admissions committee was able to relate a little more to this essay than the first. And it was certainly more evocative and detailed. It also conveyed more about the writer (and applicant) — a crucial quality in a college admissions essay.
I turn, now, to excerpts from a recent essay that struck a visceral chord within the admissions office at Occidental (where, as an aside, President Obama began his college career):
My head throbbed as I closed my eyes and tried to convince myself to give up.
‘Come on, Ashley. Put the pencil down. Just put the pencil down and go to bed,’ I told myself sternly. I had been hard at work for hours — brutal, mind-numbing hours. I groaned as I moved over to my bed, collapsing in a pile of blankets and closing my eyes.
I lay there for a moment or two, gathering strength, gaining courage. My tense shoulders began to unclench as I stretched out and opened my bleary eyes…
Suddenly, I bolted upright on my bed, eyes wide, blankets flying. Everything had fallen into place. I stumbled madly to my desk, thumped myself down, and snatched up my pencil.
‘I’ve got it! That’s it!’ I whooped, scribbling furiously, as my brother pounded on my wall for silence.
I had just won another skirmish in my ongoing battle with the crossword puzzle.
What worked here? I’m told the admissions officers appreciated how the writer conveyed her love of words — and in the process told them much about herself. As a writer, I admired the way she built a sense of mystery at the outset, one that served to draw the reader in.
I’ll close with an attempt at metaphor that fell a bit flat, at least in its reception at Occidental. The applicant writes:
I believe in jello; a silly greeting, tasty dessert, or the answer to life as we know it?
Factor #1: Have you ever tried to make jello? It takes patience. First you have to boil the water; then mix it with powder, stirring for two minutes; then finally adding the cold water and putting it in the fridge for forty-five minutes. Think about the creation of people…
To share your own thoughts on essay strategies — and, perhaps, some excerpts of your own — please use the comment box below.
Found on AskReddit.
1. An essay on a made-up book.
One of my teachers that is an APUSH grader posts Facebook statuses each day about the dumbest things she reads, so they are allowed to say. But my favorite story was from a teacher that did the AP Lit grading. The teachers are allowed to read the responses to open ended questions on books they haven’t read, but she says that if people aren’t too familiar with them they tend to pass it off to someone who has actually read it. One day she got a response on a book she had never heard of, so she tried to pass it on to someone else. But no one else at her table, or in her room, had heard of it either. Which in this case is strange, because this is a room full of English teachers, and all of the source works for that response are supposed to be of a certain academic caliber. After finally resorting to looking the book up online and calling around to a few bookstores, they determined the book did not exist. Someone had made up an entire plot-line, and then analyzed it and wrote an essay on it.
2. An illustration of College Board’s annihilation.
My comparative government teacher told me about the essay that contained no words — just a picture of Godzilla and King Kong attacking the College Board building.
3. At least he was an honest test-taker?
My stat teacher told us that all he saw on a FRQ was ” I know I failed this, but the teacher was a milf, so it was totally worth it.”
4. A pretty brief summary of the reformations in England and Germany.
Best story from my AP European History teacher, who was also an AP grader. An essay question one year asked to describe the similarities and differences between the protestant reformation in England and Germany. One student wrote, “In Germany, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. In England, Henry VIII nailed Anne Boleyn.”
5. This is what happens when you translate “laughter” in spanish to “crying”:
I took AP Spanish this year. I mistranslated the words for laughter and smile in my head as crying and sadness. I ended up writing 200+ words about the health benefits of being sad.
6. A slip-up on the AP Music Theory exam.
Friend of the family used to grade AP Music Theory exams. There’s a sight-singing section on the exam where, at least when I took it, you had to sing onto a tape that would be scored based on accuracy. He had to hear a TON of really horrible ones, but he told us one story that I remember.
The student’s recording began fine, and then the student made a mistake, yelled “Ahh FUCK!” and then proceeded to start singing “Tooty Fruity”.
7. An AP Euro student who evidently didn’t know one Enlightenment thinker.
My AP European history teacher told us that one year, the essay was on Enlightenment thinkers. One student wrote “The Enlightenment had many great thinkers, none of which come to mind currently.” and nothing else.
8. A kid who wrote a two-act play across two different AP tests.
When I was taking AP exams my senior year, one kid in my class wrote a two-act play about a couple trapped in zoo over night. While trapped there, a radioactive source causes the animals to mutate into human/animal hybrids and the human/animal hybrids chase the couple throughout the zoo, trying to eat them (the giraffe was named puzzles). The first act was in his AP English Lit exam; the second act was in his AP Euro exam.
9. A somewhat hostile illustration.
My English teacher told us that one of his favorite essays that he graded was actually not an essay at all, but a “perfectly drawn and shaded” picture of a middle finger.
Said he almost didn’t have the heart to give him that zero.
10. When in doubt: fake poor handwriting.
When I took AP US history I couldn’t remember which amendment abolished slavery, so I made the number look like really bad hand writing. I got a 5.
11. A student trying to make light of a bad situation.
My History teacher told us that one time there was a test where the student just traced an outline of their hand, with a small caption underneath that said “high five! :D.”
She gave the paper a high five, but still gave the student a zero.
12. An essay that never really got to the point, but was funny nonetheless.
My AP US History teacher grades the AP Exam ever year and his favorite was one sentence: “Booker T. was a guy who take a trip.” That was all that was on the essay. The question was about how W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington planned to improve the condition of blacks following the Civil War.
13. An essay about ice cream for the AP US History exam.
For US History, my teacher always showed us this one example of a DBQ essay that a kid wrote. It was about ice cream and he drew a stick figure and labeled it George Washington. The essay was supposed to be about slavery…
14. A very creative short story.
My AP Human Geography teacher told us about how he graded a paper where a kid wrote a 6-page short story about a rabbit and managed to incorporate the correct answer and got full credit. I called bullshit but he swore it was true.
15. A $5 bill taped to the exam.
I read AP exams in the past. Most memorable was an exam book with $5 taped to the page inside and the essay just said, “Please, have mercy.” But I also got an angry breakup letter, a drawing of some astronauts, all kinds of random stuff.
16. A very creative poem about Joseph Stalin.
A poem about Joseph Stalin. It was fucking amazing. The only line I really remember was ‘he had eyes made of death and a ‘stache of pig iron.’
17. A pretty glaring mistake on the AP US History exam.
One of my high school history teachers was one. He told us he once read an entire essay about a sex scandal between Betsy Ross and Thomas Jefferson.
18. The ol’ writing dirty jokes and then crossing them out trick.
When I took my test, I would put really irrelevant jokes/dirty jokes in the middle of my essays, then cross them out (because they can’t be graded) but sure as hell could be read.
19. A two-act play plus a review of it on an AP Physics exam.
One of my friends decided that a good use of his AP Physics-C exam was to write a 2-act play and then top it off by writing a review of it. If I remember correctly, he gave it 4/5 stars.
20. A student who couldn’t handle the elitist tone on his AP English exam.
When I took my AP English exam, the final of the three essays had a prompt that said “Pick a work from this list or one of similar literary quality and discuss character foils.”
Well, I got pissed off at the elitist tone of the “literary quality” bit, so I started my essay: “Literary quality is a very subjective thing. Nowhere are character foils more evident than in Dr. Seuss’s masterpiece, Go Dog Go.”
I then proceeded to write an entire essay on character foils in Go Dog Go, comparing the black dogs to the white dogs, the dogs over the house to the dogs under the house, etc.
21. An essay written backwards.
My Government teacher is a reader and told us of an essay they received one year that was written perfectly backwards. The grader had to hold it up to a mirror to decipher it.
22. This is what happens when you take an AP exam that you haven’t studied for.
When I took the AP World History exam, I had the option of taking the Comparative Politics exam for free. Sure, why not. I didn’t study for it at all. After answering a few of the essay questions, I got bored/stumped/wanted to leave because I had bronchitis and felt bad for the serious test takers who had to listen to me coughing…so I drew an elaborate picture of a dinosaur holding a sign that said “Sorry, I didn’t even take this class.” Got a 2!
23. A sympathetic letter to the grader.
I just took my AP Lit test today. I think they might get a bit of a chuckle out of my third essay. I didn’t intentionally do something funny, it just sucks so bad.
But relating to the question, my English teacher told my class of how she knew of one student who just didn’t write the final essay. Instead, they wrote a letter to the grader telling them to take a break and go get a cup of coffee. They went on to compare themselves to the grader, talking about how they were both confined in a room to do something that they didn’t want to do, yet they’re still doing it all the same. Somehow, they got a 2.
24. An essay that fully channeled Billy Madison.
On my AP Euro test a few years back there was an Essay about post WWII life and we hadn’t gotten that far in the class and I wasn’t sure of the answer. I wrote as much of an essay as I could but the majority of it was a detailed sketch of the entire bathtub scene from Billy Madison. Shampoo vs. Conditioner.
25. A pretty harsh “free response” essay.
Fun fact. The teachers of your AP classes get the free response parts back. I wrote awful things about my AP physics teacher on the exam (essays about how he didn’t teach), and the next school year he came and showed the booklet to me.
26. The entire lyrics to N.W.A’s “Fuck The Police.”
I took the AP Lit exam today. My friend, in order to increase the essay length, wrote out the entire lyrics to N.W.A’s “Fuck The Police” in the middle of his essay and proceeded to cross it out, which meant they can’t grade the test. As we were in the back of the room, I was able to be shown a glance of his test, and can confirm this.
27. A virus written on the AP Computer Science exam.
When I took the AP computer science exam, one of my classmates, frustrated with his inability to figure out what the hell they wanted versus his years of actual programming experience, wrote a virus.
28. When in doubt, go for panda facts.
One of my friends was taking the Lit one, but she totally blanked on one of the essay responses and just ended up writing every fact she knew about pandas. Got a 2.
29. A one-sentence essay.
I took my AP Lit test about three years ago and one of the prompts was about an incredibly dull poem called the “Century Quilt.” I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm, so with 10 minutes to go I wrote a grammatically correct 2-page single sentence essay.
My AP Lit teacher’s face turned purple when I told him- but I still got a 4!
30. A plea of sorts.
My AP US History teacher had a few funny stories. One kid wrote a rap about how his mother made him take the class and begged the reader to give him a 5. Her group also got a lot of bribes in the booklets. She said that they put it all together and bought lunch with it. Solid.
31. A scary-looking clown and Breaking Bad quotes.
I took an AP Chemistry exam and I had no idea what I was doing. So on one of the pages where I was supposed to be answering a question about batteries I put a very large, very menacing picture of an evil clown. Also, a bunch of “Breaking Bad” quotes.