In our new college essay spotlight series, we look at past essays that gained their writers college admission. We’ll share our notes on what makes each essay work using the same rubric we use to evaluate college essays submitted to Write the World’s College Essay Review Service. This rubric looks at an essay’s ideas and content; organization; voice, style, and language; and grammar and usage. We hope that deconstructing what made another student’s essay successful will inspire you as you work on your own college essay.
In this spotlight post, we’re looking at an essay by a Connecticut College student, Rebecca. The essay is available on the Connecticut College admissions website, and we’ll also be sharing excerpts below. We recommend looking at the entire essay before reading the rest of this post.
Here’s how Rebecca’s essay begins:
The air thickened with red dust as I walked into the basement of Washington Studio School for my first sculpting class – a way to be creative after a stressful day. As I pulled back a thick curtain to enter, I looked around the room, examining the surfaces, all covered in a thin layer of that same dust. The bookshelves behind me were sporting a small collection of sculptures.
From this opening scene, we know that Rebecca has a goal she’s trying to accomplish: She wants to add more creativity to her day. We also know that the setting of the story she’s about to tell is a relatively ordinary one, a basement art classroom. What she’s going to experience next isn’t the product of participating in an extraordinary activity or having something unusual happen to her, but rather the result of thinking deeply about what she learned from an everyday situation.
Ideas and content
Reflection is a tremendous strength of Rebecca’s essay. Reflection—or looking back at the situation you’re describing to explain its greater impact on you—is one of the best ways to show college admissions officers the kind of community member you would be on campus. (And, even more importantly, it can help you understand your own goals and aspirations for your time in college.)
The story Rebecca tells in this essay, about taking steps to become more adventurous via a sculpting class, is a relatively straightforward one. But she takes every opportunity to reflect on the experience, interspersing the small actions of the sculpting lesson with her thoughts on what these actions say about her. She writes about receiving some feedback from her instructor:
He took one of my tools and started shaving away clay and suggested that I remove even more. He continued to visit the rest of his students as I continued to shave miniscule pieces of clay off of my now hexagonal prism.
I wanted to act on his advice, I wanted to take this opportunity to learn, but I did not want to do something wrong. I was afraid of the permanence of my choices. This fear continued to hold me back throughout the 3-hour lesson. By the end of the class, rather than my piece looking like the model sitting in front of me, my piece looked like Mario from the 1985 Super Mario Bros. I left the class, wondering when I started letting fear control my actions.
This experience changes how Rebecca approaches her next sculpting class, and she embraces the fact that she’ll need to make mistakes in order to grow. In a comment on the essay, a Connecticut College admissions officer acknowledges Rebecca’s “growth mindset” as displayed in the essay and notes that it “provides context for what she would bring to campus.” The essay conveys aspects of Rebecca’s personality in ways that likely add to the rest of her application.
Weaving story and reflection together into a cohesive essay can be challenging, and the early drafts of your essay might feel too heavy on one or the other. Rebecca’s essay does an excellent job of striking a balance: she shares enough about her experience in the sculpting class to tell an engaging story and give readers important context while also offering enough reflection to demonstrate how she changed.
Rebecca’s essay begins with three paragraphs of narrative, setting the scene for the change she will later undergo. Then she explains how she feels in the present, how it’s different from her past self, and the way in which she hopes to change by reclaiming “that feeling of fearlessness” she recalls from childhood. She ends the essay by explaining how she has made progress toward that change by taking clay out of her sculpture without fear.
There is no formula for a successful balance of narrative and reflection, but as Rebecca does in her essay, sometimes it can be helpful to start with a specific moment and dive into it deeply. When you’re thinking about the aspects of your personality you want to share with admissions officers through your essay, think about the ways in which you’ve grown most during high school. Try to become as precise as you can about the moments when that change occurred, and then describe one of those moments in detail. What is your equivalent of the slow shaving of clay that Rebecca describes?
You can also experiment with how much reflection you include in your essay. Perhaps it would make sense for you to include, as Rebecca did, a short paragraph explaining who you were in the past to give the reader more context for how you’ve changed. Perhaps you can give the reader that context in just one sentence. Playing around with your essay is one of the best ways to find this balance—remember that your words aren’t set in stone, and you can always add more or cut what you’ve written until you arrive at an amount of reflection that feels right.
Voice, style, and language
Voice, style, and language are often the most personal aspects of a college essay—they are ways to make an essay sound like you, even if the story you’re telling or the change you went through is something your peers might have experienced, too.
In this essay, Rebecca’s writing stands out for the richness of its descriptions, which she uses to paint a picture of the room where the sculpting class takes place. We can see the “air thickened with red dust,” the curtain marking the entrance to the space, the bookshelves filled with sculptures. Her precise word choices capture the small scope of the changes she makes to her block of clay over the first class session, as she goes from a “rectangular prism” to a “pentagonal prism” to a “hexagonal prism.” She compares her sculpture at the end of that class to “Mario from the 1985 Super Mario Bros,” the kind of description that gives the reader a glimpse into how her brain works.
Finally, Rebecca uses changes in sentence rhythms to emphasize particular moments and realizations. As she starts to understand why she’s struggling in the sculpting class, she writes: “I wanted to act on his advice, I wanted to take this opportunity to learn, but I did not want to do something wrong. I was afraid of the permanence of my choices.” The second sentence makes an impact partly because it is short and direct compared to the previous one. It’s important that this sentence lands with the reader, because it marks a turning point in Rebecca’s understanding of herself and in how she approaches the class.
Your voice is an expression of who you are on the page, which means it’s present in even the first draft of any essay you write. But you can also refine the voice, style, and language of your essay as you revise. Ask yourself what your reader needs to know to visualize the story you’re telling. The answer might give you ideas for what to describe more fully in the next draft of your essay. Think about the turning points you mention in your essay—perhaps there are ways you could set those sentences apart using varied sentence lengths and structures or by using paragraph breaks. As with the organization of your essay, the best way to arrive at the final style choices in your essay is to experiment.
We hope this essay example leaves you feeling inspired to tackle the next draft of your college essay. If you’re looking for an expert advisor to evaluate the content, organization, voice, and grammar of your essay, check out our College Essay Review Service.
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About the Author:
Sara Polsky is a writer and editor based in New York City. She has a master’s in education degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and has worked as a journalist, editor, and college admissions application reader. As an Expert Advisor in our College Essay Program, Sara loves helping people share their stories.