4 Winning College Essay Examples from Top Schools

Applying to college? Check out college essays that worked.

When you apply to colleges, you will do plenty of writing. Aside from filling in information and completing a resume, you will have to write essays or short answers based on prompts universities give you. Looking at college essay examples can be a helpful way to prepare for this important part of the application.

Generally, your college entrance essays are meant to convey something about you that could not be known from other parts of your application. For example, your essays should do more than show you are a hard worker, because good grades and a busy resume already do this. Some essays for college will ask for something very specific. For example, the “Why Us” college essay tries to gage your knowledge and commitment to the institution. For the personal essay on the Common Application, expectations are less clear. This is a college essay about yourself, and you will submit one for all schools that require the Common Application. 

The Common App essay is supposed to give admissions officers a sense of your personality. This is a chance to make you stand out in a way that other parts of the application could not. That being said, the best college essays do more than just display the author’s quirks but create a picture of a dynamic person who offers something to a college community. 

This is no easy task, and you should see it as a challenge. You have a choice of prompts, but these do not do much to restrict you. These prompts also give room for a variety of approaches. For this reason, good college essay examples are especially helpful.

 

4 winning college application essay examples that can help you get admission

Here are some example college essays that worked. Pay attention to how students used one part of who they are (a memory, their background, a challenge) to paint a larger picture.

 

Example 1

From Tufts University’s Past Essays.

Here is an essay that focuses on an interest or project of the author’s:

 

My math teacher turns around to write an equation on the board and a sun pokes out from the collar of her shirt. A Starbucks barista hands me my drink with a hand adorned by a small music note. Where I work, a customer hands me her credit card wearing a permanent flower bracelet. Every day, I am on a scavenger hunt to find women with this kind of permanent art. I’m intrigued by the quotes, dates, symbols, and abstract shapes I see on people that I interact with daily. I’ve started to ask them questions, an informal interview, as an excuse to talk with these diverse women whose individuality continually inspires me. You can’t usually ask the sorts of questions I have been asking and have the sorts of conversations I have been having, so I’ve created this project to make these kinds of encounters a bit more possible and acceptable.

There is no school assignment, no teacher to give me a grade, and no deadline. I don’t have a concrete outcome in mind besides talking with a mix of interesting women with interesting tattoos. So far I’ve conducted fifteen interviews with a range of women from my hometown to Hawaii, teenagers to senior citizens, teachers to spiritual healers. The same set of questions has prompted interviews lasting less than twenty minutes and over two hours. I’m being told stories about deaths of a parent, struggles with cancer, coming out experiences, sexual assaults, and mental illnesses. All of these things that may be taboo in today’s society, these women are quite literally wearing on their sleeves. I’m eager to continue these interviews in college and use all of the material I’ve gathered to show the world the strength and creativity of these wonderful women I’ve encountered.

I want to explore the art and stories behind the permanent transformations of personal landscapes. I attempt this by asking questions about why they decided to get their tattoos, how they were received in the workplace, the reactions from family and friends, and the tattoo’s impact on their own femininity.

Through these simple questions, I happened upon much greater lessons regarding human interaction, diversity, and connectedness. In my first interview, a local businesswoman told me about her rocky relationship with her mother, her struggles with mental illness, and her friend in jail, within 45 minutes of meeting her and in the middle of a busy Starbucks. An artist educator I worked with told me that getting a tattoo “was like claiming a part of yourself and making it more visible and unavoidable.” A model/homeopath said that having a tattoo is like “giving people a little clue about you.” A psychologist shared how she wishes that she could turn her tattoos “on or off like a light switch to match different outfits and occasions.” I’ve realized that tattoos show the complex relationship between the personal and the public (and how funny that can be when a Matisse cutout is thought to be phallic, or how a social worker’s abstract doodle is interpreted as a tsunami of sticks, alien spaceship, and a billion other things by the children she works with).

I’ve learned so much about the art of storytelling and storytelling through art. I’ve strengthened relationships with people that had conventional roles in my life and created friendships with some unconventional characters. Most importantly, I’ve realized that with the willingness to explore a topic and the willingness to accept not knowing where it will go, an idea can become a substantive reality.

 

The author takes time to demonstrate their passion for the topic. In the second paragraph, they show that this is a project that is explored for its own sake. Very early on we get to know something unique about the author.

But the author does not stop there. The main reason why this essay is successful is because it makes the interest of the author interesting for the reader. The introduction is intriguing by using specific experiences that are still familiar to us. It sets up the topic well by situating the role it plays in our experience. The author then turns to their own interest in the topic and motivates it. By the end of the first paragraph, we see both what interests the author but also why someone would be interested in it.

This is one way of balancing showing and telling. Successful college essays do not just Telling is much easier than showing. Remember, this essay is meant to reveal yourself in ways awards and headings on a resume cannot. The topic that you choose should be something significant to you. It should reflect who you are or be something that was formative. Anyone can say “I am interested in X” or “X has been a massive influence.” What brings out you is that you can show that your interest is authentic.

Trying to make the topic interesting to the reader is one way of showing. Because the author is able to reflect on and communicate the significance of their passion, we know that it must be genuinely meaningful for the author. For example, the author tells by giving a sort of mission statement in the third paragraph that displays some of her values. But in the last two paragraphs, they relate their own motivations to broader ideas (“relationship between the personal and the public”) and values we more generally understand (“willingness to accept not knowing where it will go”). The author shows that they can see something larger in their own interests.

 

Example 2

From Hamilton University’s College Essays That Worked.

Here is an example of an essay about a transformative experience:

 

Throughout my childhood, I felt the need to be in control — a need which came to an abrupt halt in June of 2015. I laid down on the balcony of a hotel in the middle of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, staring down the long, straight street that led to the pier. My fresh shirt had long collapsed against my damp chest as the sun ascended into the sky. A crescendo of voices from the street market far below snapped me out of my daze and reminded me of how different this place was from my home. On this trip, the powerful combination of travel and soccer taught me that liberation actually doesn’t come from being in control, but rather comes from fully immersing myself in my surroundings and opening myself up to those around me.

Under the Puerto Rican sun, I stood up from the balcony, using my arm to raise myself off the sizzling tile. I strained my ears in an attempt to make out the rapid Spanish coming from the streets below. As my chest swelled with feelings of curiosity and excitement, I decided it was time to explore. I’d been taking Spanish for six years, mastering every tense and memorizing every irregular conjugation, but as I stepped onto the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, I was too nervous to string more than two Spanish words together. I dribbled my soccer ball between the street vendors and their stalls, each one yelling to convince me to buy something as I performed a body feint or a step over with the soccer ball, weaving myself away as if they were defenders blocking my path to the goal.

My previous need for control had come from growing up with strict parents, coaches, and expectations from my school and community. Learning in an environment without lenience for error or interpretation meant I fought for control wherever I could get it. This manifested itself in the form of overthinking every move and pass in soccer games, restricting the creativity of my play, and hurting the team. After years of fighting myself and others for control, I realized it was my struggle for control that was restricting me in the first place.

A man hurrying by bumped into my shoulder as I continued down the street, bringing my mind back to the present. Nobody there knew who I was or cared about my accomplishments. I seemed to be removed from the little town as I continued to wander. I felt naked as my safety blankets of being recognized or at the very least understood on a verbal level were stripped away, for the Puerto Ricans did not care about my achievements or past life. I was as much of a clean slate to them as they were to me.

Staring at my feet, the cobblestone turned to grass as I arrived at the protected land around one of Puerto Rico’s famous castles. I saw in front of me a group of Puerto Rican boys about my age, all wearing soccer jerseys and standing in a circle passing a small, flat soccer ball amongst them. Making eye contact with one of the boys, I chipped my ball over and joined them. We began to juggle; the ball never touched the ground, and not one person took more than a touch to redirect it to someone else. As my breaths and movements slowly yielded to the shared tempo of the group, I began to feel the sense of clarity and flow that I’d been struggling to achieve my entire childhood. I let go, feeling comfortable enough to surrender myself to the moment as an understanding among us transcended both cultural and language barriers.

I learned that when I open myself up to others, I am free to attain this rare state of creativity in which I can express myself without restraints or stipulations.

This essay is very explicit about the author’s faults. This works well because of the clarity of the structure of the essay: the first paragraph serves as something of an outline of the essay, beginning with the author’s inadequacy and ending with what they learn. This is only one of many ways of beginning a successful college essay. While other essays grab our attention by beginning ambiguously or with much specificity, this student points out a stark change that they have undergone. We are begged to ask how the student came to this conclusion.

Even though the essay focuses on a new and challenging experience, it is ultimately about the author. The author emphasizes the difficulty of living in an unfamiliar culture by contrasting it with their background and expectations. We get a sense of the author’s aspirations with learning Spanish. But these facts are only part of a story. 

Consider why telling a story would lead to a successful essay for college. The storytelling is not there only because it is intriguing, but it helps take us through the author’s thought-process. Again, here we see the difference between telling and showing. We are shown the experiences that led the author to change. Because of clear statements of insight (“I was as much of a clean slate to them as they were to me”) followed by an account of the moment of realization, it is hard to imagine that they do not believe what is said in the end.

Finally, there is no problem in admitting that you are still changing, especially in the conclusion of your essay. College should bring with it many unprecedented experiences. You should change over college and acknowledging it in your essay can help show how you will be a valuable addition to a college community.

 

Example 3

From John Hopkins University’s Essays That Worked

This excerpted sample shows the kind of creative liberties you can take on your personal essay:

 

-3 tablespoons butter

-2 eggs, whisked

-2 medium carrots

-1 small white onion

-1/2 cup frozen peas

-3 cloves garlic

-salt and pepper

-4 cups cooked and chilled rice

-3-4 green onions

-soy sauce (to taste)

-2 teaspoons oyster sauce (optional)

-1/2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

I bet you didn’t read those numbers.

I’ll let you in on a secret – I didn’t either.

The ingredients above were copied and pasted from the first Google search result for “fried rice recipe.” But, without any disrespect to the recipe’s owner, I can tell you it’s wrong.

The only true fried rice recipe is no recipe at all. There are no measurements, no exact instructions, no timer for how long something should sizzle in the pan. There are only smells and feelings and memories. I learned to cook fried rice on the rickety stool covered in Blues Clues stickers, surrounded by the scents of my nainai’s Minnie Mouse apron, my yéyé’s cashmere sweater, or my mama’s Pantene shampoo; in the comfort of our cozy condo and our sweltering Hángzhou apartment; by watching the eggs crack over delicate china bowls, tossed and stirred in woks using slanted wooden spatulas. We used however much leftover rice we had, however many eggs we found appropriate, and a combination of anything and everything or nothing sitting in the fridge.

[…]

 

Note that the essay’s playful and creative introduction comes with a point. This point is made clear by the end of the excerpt, which tells us what cooking is really about for the author. Also think about the place of description – the author brings out the sensuality of cooking to emphasize their point. See how you can tell the reader more with only one element. We learn about the author’s life and background while picking up the general point about cooking.

Overall, this excerpt is a good example of how you can use literary qualities like narration and description to enhance your answer to the prompt. Still, you should never go without explicitly stating what you are trying to communicate. You will see that the best college essays are like works of art. The authors weave together all sorts of things that form a portrait of themselves. Pictures often have an immediate impact on us, but there is always more to notice if we keep looking at them. In these essays, even if you give a clear idea of yourself, the details and stories you share are still there to speak. It is best if they work together to produce a coherent whole.

 

Example 4

From Harvard Club of United Kingdom’s Sample College Admissions Essays.

This essay leaves a strong impression of who the author is and what they value, even though it takes a different approach than some of the other essays we looked at. 

The prompt for this essay explicitly asks about the student’s background: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

You may note that essays with different prompts will often discuss the author’s background. Prompts about a life-changing moment could focus on a hobby and prompts asking about hobbies can have stories. The prompts for the personal essay are not meant to restrict you, and you should not worry if there is some overlap between how you would answer different prompts.

 

My upbringing in Northern Ireland, a small corner of the world, has affected who I am in many fundamental ways. For a start, I’ve learnt that it’s possible to catch pneumonia and get sunburnt in the course of one afternoon; so I always over pack. So too have I discovered that “I’ll pop the kettle on” is a sufficient emotional response when confronted with most situations. Northern Ireland has had, as most know, a troubled history –so troubled, we simply call it ‘The Troubles’. During this time, individually and collectively as a nation, we suffered. It was assumed that no lasting solution would ever be found and most gave up trying, with stalled talks becoming a perennial disappointment. Yet a renewed, focused and determined effort was made by the British, Irish and American Governments to bring about peace, which was finally achieved through the Good Friday Agreement. It was signed in 1997, a few months after my birth.

My generation is the first generation of peace –it’s all we’ve known, and thankfully ‘The Troubles’ for us is merely a scarring reminder of what came before. We have so much to thank the tireless efforts of diplomats for, for without their commitment the change witnessed in the 18 years subsequent would be unimaginable. Twenty years ago, who could have foreseen Martin McGuinness paying tribute to the late Ian Paisley as “a friend?” While there are still sizeable problems in our political system, the distance we’ve come shows the good that diplomacy, politics, compromise and a will to succeed can do –and it is this, more than anything else, which has shaped the path I want to follow at College and my career beyond. There are so many places in the world in a similarly bad or worse condition that are consigned to the ‘Can’t Help Box’ –a damning view of our pessimism about the capacity for change. I’ve grown up seeing the work it takes to heal places scarred by division and violence, but can personally attest that it’s worth it. With that in mind, as I came to realise what it took for where I live to achieve peace it taught me always to persevere –that if people tell you something is “unachievable” it is only so by the standards they set for themselves, so I always tried to work harder and aim higher than everyone else. I don’t want to be bound by what others determine to be “too difficult.”

So I’ve thrown myself in. I’ve worked with MLAs and MPs on education reform, got involved with organisations and campaigns like the UK Youth Parliament that encourage activism and social progress, even founding my own to try and engage other young people in issues affecting them. My determination to do all of this, and my optimism that change can be brought about, is fuelled by my background in Northern Ireland. Life here has also taught me to value of friendship and cooperation. For years, the metaphorical and physical walls placed between Protestants and Catholics hindered understanding, friendship, and community. It is only when we understand each other that we can begin to overcome our problems together. I was blessed to grow up with the influence of my Granny, who always pushed me to meet people from “the other side”, and I am proud to have been part of so many projects that promote the importance of tolerance, understanding and friendship across historic divisions.

It may seem foolish to be proud of a background in a place infamous for bomb scares and paramilitary violence, but I am. My experiences here have shown me what’s important in life: determination, resilience, optimism, passion and having “a bit of ‘craic” (a uniquely Northern Irish type of fun). I wouldn’t change my background for the world.

In case you were getting the sense that you are expected to write in florid prose for your college admissions essay, this essay manages to be successful without attempting to tell a story. From the first sentence on, this essay is very straightforward and upfront with what it wants to say. It almost addresses the prompt – how your background is important for your character – and answers it.

This is not to say that the essay is simple. The essay makes clear statements about what the author believes in, but all of these statements are accompanied by either a historical or personal example. That way, the author does not just state their worldview but demonstrates their belief in it. The essay feels more like a mission statement than the others, but it is not all talk. By bringing together their values with their life and heritage, the author shows us their commitments.

From this sample essay, we get a picture of a particular person, and we see how their background informs that picture – but this picture also shows us that this person looks beyond themselves. Again, the author is not only unique, but finds something larger in their uniqueness. We see them as a potential member of a college community.

 

Key Takeaways from College Essay Examples

You have seen a diversity of topics, approaches, and writing styles from these sample essays. Even though the prompts do not change drastically year after year, the possibilities are endless. A good college essay could be about an incredible hardship, but it can also be about a hobby. Done right, any topic can be better than another.

What is important is that the topic of choice is something that is meaningful to you. Authenticity is what matters. If you write about something that has had a large role in shaping you, something that you are passionate about, you will be able to produce something better. Take a lot of time to think about your topic. The more you care about the topic, the more you will have to say.

It is often a good idea to summarize or state clearly what you want your reader to learn about yourself from the essay. But a good college essay is more than the sum of its parts. You are showing along with telling. Giving details and quick anecdotes that inform your overarching idea can go a long way in this. 

For the main idea, keep in mind that there is no room to say something truly profound, and your officers do not expect that from you. Big takeaways make for a good essay because, in the context of the story or discussion, they form a coherent picture of who you are. Remember that this essay is a challenge – an essay can never sum you up. A single idea cannot do that, and a single event cannot do that. These parts must work together to convey an image that admissions officers can judge whether or not to be a member of their college community.

 

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