In keeping with CollegeVine’s goal of democratizing the admissions process, we’ll be sharing real essays sourced from our consultants’ applications that demonstrate effective storytelling strategies, major mistakes to avoid, and compelling essay topics. You’ll learn the difference between the essay of a rejected student and that of an admitted student, and you can pick up some valuable tricks that you can use in your own essays along the way.
In this essay, the student is responding to a prompt from Stanford University, to which they were accepted:
Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—know you better.
Hello, Future Roommate! Before we settle in together, there are a few things you should know about me. I am an only child. I often stay up late to watch the Daily Show with Jon Stewart or SNL. I’m Jewish and Cuban, which makes me Jewban. I wear contacts and glasses, sometimes at the same time. I double dip my chips, twice. I use self-deprecating humor but I always do a really bad job at it. I render Mark Twain’s realism absurd and then realize the absurdity of Edgar Allan Poe’s romanticism. I make book adaptations for movies. A small brigade of tigers carries my luggage to and from the airport. I listen to Arctic Monkeys while watching In the Heat of the Night. I plan to eradicate all forms of procrastination at some point in my life. My teeth shine like Sirius. I perform without audiences and still receive standing ovations. The water I drink is made from the finest hydrogen and oxygen money can buy. I have often been accused of excessive swag. My dog likes long walks on the beach, the rush of wind in her hair, and kisses. I flash mob by myself. I have never once planked. I can grow a gnarly beard. My profile pictures are pictures of my face in profile. I like thinking about how nostalgic I was when I was 12. I skimmed Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama, researched Audacity to Win by David Plouffe, and had the audacity to read neither in their entirety. I can count my ABC’s and spell all the way up to one million. I believe in evolution. I have more friends on Facebook than digits in pi. I have a chain mail Snuggie. I watched all of Bambi and did not cry. I have been an extra in every zombie movie ever made. All of my ideas are made in America. I also have a sense of humor.
What the author does well
In this essay, the author does a great job of using humor and self-deprecation to illustrate different aspects of his life. Jokes like “A small bridge of tigers carries my luggage to and from the airport” and “I have a chain mail Snuggie” grab the reader’s attention and are both unique and witty, conveying that the author does not take himself too seriously.
The prompt itself calls for a somewhat more playful tone than some other college essay prompts might, and the author has responded in kind. Likewise, he has done so in a compelling way that sets him apart from other candidates. He also includes plenty of details, which are very important when you are describing yourself to an admissions committee that needs to understand what differentiates you from thousands of other applicants.
The response called for a short answer, and given the limited space requirement, the author has managed to fit a lot of different facts about himself in a short paragraph. He also strikes a balance between not taking himself too seriously and avoiding coming across as overly confident—which, as we examine in “Mastering the Personal Statement: How to Be Confident Without Being Overconfident”, is essential in your college essay. Remember: this is not a place to brag about your academic accomplishments or list your extracurricular activities; admissions committees will be able to find that information in other parts of your application. Instead, your essay is a space to showcase your creativity and allow colleges to get to know you as a person. Of course, as we note in “5 DIY Tips for Editing Your Own College Essays,” it is important to capture a positive reflection of yourself. If you are overly critical of yourself, colleges will wonder why they should accept you at all. So be sure to demonstrate confidence without coming across as arrogant, as the author has done in this essay.
What the author could improve
This applicant has written a well-crafted, humorous essay, but his personality does not come through as much as it could. While he offers various statements about his likes and dislikes, he doesn’t really connect them to himself or how they influence him as a person.
You don’t need to have exceptionally rare qualities or have had anything particularly dramatic happen to you to write a compelling essay (although you can certainly write about these qualities if you do). As we discuss in the CollegeVine post, “What if I Don’t Have Anything Interesting to Write About in My College Essay?” what is most important is that your essay is well-written and unique and that it allows your personality to shine through. In this sample essay, the author has done a great job of responding to the prompt in a unique way, using wit and humor to illustrate different facets of his life, but does not describe his personal qualities as much as he lists different things he likes and does. While what you do does define who you are to an extent, an essay shouldn’t leave readers guessing; clearly connecting your hobbies and interests to your personal traits and experiences is key.
You’ve probably heard the advice “show, don’t tell” countless times in your English classes. This essay is an excellent example of an instance in which the author needs to do a little more in the way of showing. While he makes a series of statements about different aspects of himself, he doesn’t really illustrate them or describe how they are evidenced in his personality. As we discuss in “Mastering the Personal Statement: How to Be Confident Without Being Overconfident” showing rather than telling is key to making your personality come through.
For instance, the author starts by stating, “I am an only child,” but doesn’t elaborate any further. Given that being an only child is not an aspect of his personality—it is merely a fact—he needs to explain why this is important for him to mention. How does it affect his personality? He might offer some examples or anecdotes to illustrate how being an only child has shaped him and how it will define his experience at Stanford.
How to Address the Critique
Given the lack of space available, it might be difficult to address some of the issues with the essay without adding a substantial number of words to the total count. So the author would need to free up some space in order to better showcase his personality and add examples and anecdotes to successfully illustrate it.
One way to do this is to remove some of the more confusing jokes or those that don’t really do much in the way of showcasing the author’s personality. For instance, “I can count my ABC’s and spell all the way up to one million” and “The water I drink is made from the finest hydrogen and oxygen money can buy”, while humorous, don’t really help the reader get a sense of who the author is. Likewise, while “I wear contacts and glasses, sometimes at the same time” is funny, it may confuse the reader, since it really just begs the question, “But why?”—and that’s not the reaction you want from the admissions committee. While including lines like this can help set a quirky tone that can charm admissions committees, striking an appropriate balance is crucial.
If the author manages to free up some space by eliminating lines that are overly confusing or not necessary to the overall essay, he can add more illustrations of his personality, better grounding the otherwise fun and playful elements of himself, and allow the reader to get a better sense of who he is.
Need help writing your college essays? CollegeVine’s Essay Editing Program is here to help. Submit your essay online and receive comprehensive edits within 24-48 hours, or sign up for our complete program work with one of our elite essay specialists one-on-one.
For general tips and advice on writing your college essays, check out some of the posts below.
How to Write the Common App Essays 2016-2017
How Important is the College Essay?
How to Answer Rapid Fire Essay Questions
Mastering the Personal Statement: How to Be Confident Without Being Overconfident
How to Write the “Why Us” College Essay
Where to Begin? 3 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises
5 DIY Tips for Editing Your Own College Essays
How to Write Fewer College Essays
What If I Don’t Have Anything Interesting to Write About in My College Essay?
Whom Should I Ask for Help with My College Essay?
Looking for help on essays for specific colleges? Read our essay breakdowns for tips on responding to prompts from individual schools.
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in publishing. She also writes, dreams of owning a dog, and routinely brags about the health of her orchid.
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The point of this essay is to invoke the casual nature of roommate relationships and invite students to take a more relaxed approach to writing about themselves. It brings the application to life by asking you to write only about your own personality, which feels more open than other essays that ask you to answer a specific question like “Describe your community” or “Talk about a mentor who got you through a difficult time.” While answering both of those prompts still offers insight into who the author is, they are fundamentally centralized around another person or topic, which is why Stanford cuts straight to the chase with this prompt to actually get to know you better.
Stanford is looking for an extremely authentic 250-word portrayal of your character that could distinctly identify you from a crowd of essays. If you got to meet your admissions officer in person, and only had 60 seconds to pitch yourself without using anything from your activities or awards, what would you say first? If you were legitimately writing a letter to your roommate at Stanford, what would you want them to know about the prospect of living with you? If you imagine how your Stanford alumni interview might play out, what topics do you hope to steer towards?
Think deeply about these questions and first see if there is something meaningful that you want to convey, and look through Prompt 3 to see if it would best serve answering the question, “What matters to you, and why?” instead of this roommate prompt. If you do have a more serious answer, you can style the essay like a very formal letter or like a traditional 1-2 paragraph short essay without any of the letter gimmicks at all to stand out syntactically.
If you don’t think you have any important topics on the serious side that you want to specifically cover in the space for this prompt (an extreme medical condition, a family hardship etc.), you could also go for another popular tactic by creating a fun, miscellaneous essay.
This prompt can arguably be one of the most entertaining to write and read of all college supplemental essays because of the opportunity to present the admissions office with an amalgamation of weird topics. Last year’s CollegeVine guide encouraged students to explore their quirky side with this prompt by writing about unique hobbies or interesting personality oddities. It also advises staying away from things like politics (i.e., don’t indicate which party or ideology you tend to support, even through jokes or minor references, since you don’t want to step on any toes).
Don’t sweat too much over the exact way to put the essay in letter format. Starting with something like “Hi! I am ridiculously stoked to meet you!” or any other straightforward greeting that doesn’t sound too cheesy is totally fine. If you decide to, you can essentially make a bullet list of “fun me facts” if you want to include the maximum amount of content. Remember that this essay should be fun!
Since it is usually hard to come up with good material about your own diverse personality while staring at a blank computer screen, try keeping a note on your phone and adding to it gradually as you think of things throughout the day. Think about what you enjoy and jot down notes like:
I love Sandra Bullock movies. I wish I could stop biting my nails, and sometimes I do, but only until I take a test or watch a freaky movie. I hate doing my laundry and the song ‘Drops of Jupiter.’ I planned myself a Cutthroat Kitchen-themed birthday party last year because I love cooking contest shows. My favorite store is the Dollar Tree, and when I’m there I always feel like I’m getting too much stuff, but when I leave I regret putting stuff back. Before I go to bed, I like to watch clips from Ellen or Jimmy Fallon because I think it gives me funny dreams. I’m attracted to buying gift wrap even if I have no reason for it, a trait I inherited from my mom. I love chicken. I sleep like a rock and unfortunately, that means I need an incredibly loud alarm clock, but I also will never be bothered by late night noise, etc.
You can see by how long this section got just how easy it can be to talk about yourself once you get started…
Try to intersperse some facts that relate to activities you could do together or things that would be important for an actual roommate to know to stay true to the prompt. Juxtaposing random facts might not be the way to go if you feel they are redundant with your short answers or too all over the place for you. Putting together just a few key aspects of your personality and typical habits with more coherent elaboration on each and topping it off with a “Love, your future roomie” holds the potential to become an engaging essay as well.
Here is another example that shows a ton of personality and utilizes a list format: