In your college application journey, you’ve probably consumed as much advice as you can about the college essay, whether from teachers, guidance counselors, or online sources. But sometimes what can really snap an essay into focus is seeing examples of how other students have successfully turned their ideas into a finished essay. These examples can be inspirational, informative, and encouraging—if other students could write successful college essays, so can you!
With that in mind, we’re launching a new series here on the college essay blog, spotlighting past essays that gained their applicants 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.
For the first entry in the series, we’re looking at “Lifelong Learning,” an essay that gained its writer, Rozanne, admission to Johns Hopkins University. The entire essay is available to read at the JHU admissions website (along with several other successful essays), and we’ll also be sharing key excerpts below. We recommend taking a look at the entire essay before reading the rest of this post.
Here’s how Rozanne begins her essay:
The white yarn slipped off my aluminium crochet hook, adding a single crochet to rows and rows of existing stitches, that looked to be in the form of a blob. Staring at the image of the little unicorn amigurumi lit up on the screen of my laptop, and looking back at the UMO (unidentified messy object) number five, I was extremely perplexed.
The essay goes on to put this scene in context: the crocheting is a metaphor for this student’s efforts to identify her passion, a process she found “confusing, messy, and at times infuriating.” While the essay enumerates activities that likely already appear elsewhere in this student’s application, the essay adds depth by putting these activities into a narrative of Rozanne’s journey to find her passion.
Ideas and content
One of the strengths of Rozanne’s essay is its focus. An essay that mentions so many activities runs the risk of meandering or becoming disorganized or confusing, but because Rozanne is clear on the theme of the essay, she never loses sight of the message she’s trying to convey. She captures some of the questions that motivated her exploration in the essay’s third paragraph:
Very much like learning how to crochet, my journey in forging my own path and finding a passion was confusing, messy and at times infuriating. Even in primary school, I had heard all the stories of individuals finding their own route in life. I had been told stories of those who found their passion at a young age and were exceptionally proficient at their craft, of those that abandoned their interests and pursued a lucrative career, even those who chose their dreams but regretted it afterwards. This weighed heavily on me, as I was determined to have a success story as many of my other family members had. The only problem was that I did not have a direction.
Each of Rozanne’s adventures with a new activity serves her central story about her determination to match her family members’ success and the frustration she felt when she couldn’t find a path to do so.
As you write your essay, consider the overall message you’d like to share with admissions officers about how you’ve become the person you are today. Can you distill this message into a sentence or two? Try using those sentences as a guide to keep your essay focused.
Organization is another strength of this essay. After the opening anecdote, which sparks questions about what Rozanne is crocheting and why that hooks the reader’s interest, the writer clearly lays out the stakes of her story by explaining the pressure she felt to find a passion. Then she takes a chronological approach, going through her activities in order and explaining how they contributed to her overall feeling of being lost. Finally, she becomes reflective, drawing a parallel between crocheting and her pursuit of an extracurricular passion and explaining how the lessons she’s learned from her activity exploration will serve her well in the future.
This section of the essay seems to have resonated with the application’s readers–in a note after the essay, one admissions officer wrote that this applicant came across as “someone who will take advantage of opportunities, engage with her community in a number of ways, push herself outside of her comfort zone, and be able to reflect on her own development. As we think about how she’ll contribute to the larger Hopkins community, it’s clear that…she’ll dive right in and make the most of her time with us.”
There are many ways to organize a successful essay, and there is no one template to follow. But this essay suggests a few approaches to try, including telling a narrative chronologically to keep it clear. If you begin with an anecdote, returning to that anecdote at the end can help an essay feel complete and intentionally crafted.
Voice, style, and language
When we evaluate the voice, style, and language of an essay, we’re looking at how well elements like word choice, sentence structure, and point of view convey the story the writer is trying to tell. In this case, the writer’s reference to crocheting a “UMO (unidentified messy object)” suggests her sense of humor. She uses imagery to convey the challenges she experienced, as in this passage:
Just like the tangles of white yarn on my desk, I was pulled in all directions. I still felt lost. To make things worse, it seemed as if everyone else had found their path in life, and they had all become white unicorns while I was still doubting the stitch I just made.
The writer also varies her sentence rhythms–shorter sentences, like “I still felt lost,” above, are interspersed with longer ones. Varied sentence rhythms can make an essay more readable, with shorter sentences often serving to deliver important emotional points.
The most important thing is that your essay sounds like you, so you don’t need to try to incorporate imagery or humor or particular types of sentences if that’s not how you usually sound. But try to write an essay that does sound like you–if a certain metaphor or joke occurs to you as you’re drafting your essay, add it in without second-guessing yourself. You can always edit it out later if you need to, and in the meantime, you’ll be on your way to crafting an essay that genuinely expresses your personality.
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.