In this blog, we’re going to do a ten-question quiz to see which college essay is better, and I’m going to go through what worked and what didn’t work.
Let’s start with number one. essay A, my fear of vomiting, or choice B, my fascination with animal scats. I’m going to say B is the winner here because shocking people or jolting them into paying attention doesn’t automatically make your essay great. Your goal is not just to shock people, but to get people’s attention with the purpose of revealing something about yourself. So the scat essay actually revealed a lot about the student and his intellectual curiosity, his desire to study science and the natural sciences, and how even something as gross as animal scat can tell us so much about the environment and these animals. That was a great essay, and the vomit essay never saw the light of day.
Next one: A, my brother’s autism, or B, my idea to improve street lamps. Well, I’m sure there’s some essay on improving street lamps that’s probably good. In this case, the streetlamp essay was just not very convincing. If you can warm our hearts, and as long as the essay focuses on how this particular circumstance affects you, it can be really powerful to write about your family. So, I always say family is at the top of my list of essay topics. It doesn’t mean you can’t improve streetlamps, but you have to honestly ask if you actually have a good idea or if it’s not that great of an idea. Ask your friends, ask your teachers, and pray that they’re honest with you.
Moving on: how I upped my GPA or what I think of as I walk to my locker every day. Now, I know most of you are thinking that walking to your locker sounds pretty boring. But that was actually the better essay. And the takeaway here is that your essay topic doesn’t matter as much as how you write it. The walking to the locker essay was brilliant. It was a philosophical piece about how this kid thinks, how he thinks about the world, and how he takes five minutes out of his day every day to meditate and think about how he’s going to make a difference. In general, I don’t like essays about how you got an A or how you upped your GPA. I’ve heard it before, and it’s kind of boring. I want to know more about you, not just how you got good grades, because I already know that from your transcript.
Next: A, how I’m great at the Rubik’s Cube, or B, how I’m a cheerleader, but I’m skeptical of the whole ordeal. The skeptical cheerleader essay in my book wins. It’s cool to be skeptical of even the things that you do. I mean, we’re all human, and I think being able to see the world in gray instead of black and white is something that can be really interesting to colleges. The Rubik’s Cube is a game and a toy for kids, and though it’s kind of cool, I’ve read that essay five times. And if I’ve seen five, somebody at Yale probably gets a Rubik’s Cube every year. It’s not as original or quirky as you think it is, and it doesn’t really show me anything about you.
A, how I encouraged my mom to be a stand-up comic, or B, my fascination with Middle Eastern mystic poetry. Though I love the Middle Eastern mystics essay, this essay from this girl who convinced her mom to be a stand-up comic is one of the best college essays I’ve read in my life. And it was published by The New York Times, so you can go read it. So, the thing to learn here is that I think a lot of people assume that you can’t write an essay about someone else. It has to be about you. But oftentimes, we learn about you through your relationships with other people. And that’s something that I think a lot of students overlook. So, remember, to learn about you, I need to see the actions you take and the choices you make, but you can make those actions and those choices in your relationships with others, and often, if you’re encouraging your mom to do something, that’s you acting. I don’t live in a world by myself, and I really hope you don’t either. And if your essay only talks about me, me, me, me, you just sound selfish. You’re going to tell stories, hopefully, and if you tell stories, there should be other humans in them, and there may even be a star, and that star might not be you. But as long as you are the person taking action, as long as you are the person who we see developing and who we see expressing your thoughts and desires, it can totally work. So, check out that essay.
A, how I didn’t like my internship, but the process helped me figure out what I might be interested in or, B, how I overcame my depression. I do not recommend talking about mental health. I’ve really doubled down on this, especially post-COVID. People don’t want to hear about it, and it’s scary for colleges to be taking on someone with mental health issues. So, I recommend that you don’t disclose it and find something else to write about.
Okay, next, how I work through my ADHD to study smarter, or how my coworkers at Domino’s Pizza have taught me so much. So, the Domino’s Pizza essay wins. If you paid attention to my last one on mental health, you’ll know that disclosing your ADHD is probably not a good idea. But quirk works. Colleges love quirky essays and also the unexpected: that you will learn something awesome from working at Domino’s. That’s kind of a cool narrative. If you happen to have worked in fast food, that can make for a really interesting essay. The Domino’s Pizza essay is also a New York Times essay, so you can read that on its website.
If you are looking to write a college essay, I coach people through the college essay process, and you can find out more about me and the team that I work with. We have lots of awesome storytellers who’ve gone to places like Stanford and Duke; you can check those out. And if you’re trying to up your college game on test scores, we also teach SAT and ACT prep. We have a digital SAT course coming out with practice tests if you need more material for that.
Next: essay A, how I built a plane, or essay B, how breaking my arm inspired me to study medicine. The plane essay was hilarious, awesome, and crazy, and it was so good. I’ve heard the arm breaking and the “I now want to be a doctor” essay before. It’s not that interesting. If you are actually interested in medicine and you can’t get away from it because your transcript is just pre-med all over the place, don’t talk about how you got sick and then you love doctors. I’m more interested in how you have pursued this interest. Especially if you’re applying to BS/MD programs. I want to know who you have shadowed or what jobs you have done in public health or medicine in some way. Have you trained to be an EMT? What steps have you taken to try to explore the healthcare field? That’s what I want to know more about.
Next: A, why I homeschooled because I don’t like traditional school; or B, I run a community service organization with the homeless, but I’m not going to change the world with it. So you’ve got to really be careful about the message that you’re sending. The homeschool essay sent the totally wrong message. It was about not being able to stand traditional school, and when you’re applying to a traditional college or university, that’s a really crazy message to be sending, because it tells me maybe you’ll come for a semester, decide you don’t like it, and then drop out and fly around the world like you did when you homeschooled. The second essay, on the other hand, might sound bad at first: that I created this community service organization, and it’s not going to change the world. That might sound negative, but the student continued to say that if I attend your university, I can study urban development through these courses through this particular pathway, and I can gain the tools to change the world and to make a difference in the world. But I can’t do it now because I’m just some 16-year-old kid with peanut butter and jelly. And that was a really powerful message because it was authentic, because it was real, and because it didn’t sound like some teenager was trying to say that they’ve accomplished so much and they’re so amazing. Sometimes, you guys are melodramatic with your accomplishments.
All right, next up, how I tutored in a poor province, or how I’ve modeled my life after my favorite Bollywood character. So it is true that I do recommend that you don’t randomly bring up an overrepresented culture in your essays, and I say the opposite if it’s underrepresented. I will say that people of South and East Asian descent tend to be overrepresented in the highly competitive admissions game, but this person had so much gusto, energy, and pizzazz. It was so entertaining to read that essay, and it was really fun. I always say, go big or go home. If it fits you and your personality, and you really feel like you can convey your best self with it, go for it. You can break my rules if it’s a good story, because story wins at the end of the day. Community service essays are hard to write. I’ve been reamed over the coals for knocking community services as something that makes you stand out in college admissions. It is really hard to pull that off without just sounding like “I love sharing and caring” and being insincere and boring. So, stay away from the community service essays unless you have a really good angle. Find your best story, tell the best story, fill it with life, fill it with you and energy, and hopefully it will be really great.
And there you have it. How did you do on this quiz? If you got 10 out of 10? Well, you’re ready to write a winning essay. If you got less than that, definitely check out what we have in terms of college essay coaching, because we’d love to make sure that you don’t make the wrong choices when you’re trying to figure out which is your best story to tell. I hope this was helpful, and make sure to check out more of our blogs and resources!