Lessons Learned from the Best College Essays of the Year

It's that time of year when the New York Times shares the most remarkable college essays from this year's graduating seniors. "Quilts, Cows, Money and Meaning: College Essays That Stood Out" was published last week only days after most high school seniors made their final decision about where they will attend college. The colleges where these featured students plan to enroll are a "Who's Who" of elite higher education.

I am never surprised by where the students from this annual article end up. I know firsthand that it takes a very special essay to get admitted to these institutions. In fact, if the main college essay isn't remarkable, a student simply won't get admitted to an elite college no matter how high their grades and test scores are.

The Topic

When students ask me how to write a remarkable college essay, I tell them the topic is just as important as how well written it is. The topic has the potential to reveal more about the student than anything else in their application. When I was an Ivy League admissions officer, I didn't always remember the student's name or which high school they attended. But I almost always remembered the topic of their main college essay. Good or bad, it framed how I viewed and evaluated the student. One of the essays in the article is written by a young woman who wrote about helping the elderly with their taxes. I immediately labeled her the "tax girl." There is no question I will remember that young woman for years to come. The topic of a student's essay has the potential to have a transformative effect in allowing a complete stranger, like an admissions officer, to connect with a student they have usually never met. 

Oftentimes, students pick a topic familiar to them or something they are outwardly proud of, albeit an accomplishment, overcoming an obvious obstacle, an activity or experience. But all of these "topics" will most likely show up in some form or another in the application already. I tell students to write about something not so obvious. Why? Because it gives a glimpse into their lives which few, if any, people see. And admissions officers want the thrill of uncovering something new and unexpected about the student. Remember that some admissions officers are reading thousands of essays a year. You want them to remember you for all the right reasons.

The Beauty of Imperfection

So much of a student's application is the epitome of perfection: grades, advanced classes, high test scores, and an extracurricular activities list to envy. The essay is less about perfection. It should be a glimpse into our own imperfections.

Another featured essay was by a young man who wrote about the adversity and strength of his family in the US and Kenya. It's possible his college counselor or a teacher might have known the depths of his family's story, but the student chose to reveal something far from perfect about his life.

Don't get me wrong, the essay shouldn't be overly sad or overly judgmental about the student's lot in life. No admissions officer wants to feel depressed after reading a student's essay just like few of us want to watch a movie that ends on a sad note. It's the student who is able to see the imperfection in their lives (or someone else's) and understand the underlying lessons that help them grow. The young man who appreciates his parents' choice in making the arduous journey to the US, is more than ready to take bold steps in his own future. While many students tell me they haven't experienced great hardship or adversity, I guarantee you that everyone has experienced or at least observed the beauty of imperfection. 

"You may be tempted to hide the imperfections in your life, but tackling them head on in your college essay gives your application depth." TWEET THIS 

Defying Expectations and Stereotypes

Imperfection can show up in unlikely places, and it's often cloaked in societal expectations. When the student is able to defy those expectations or even those stereotypes, magic ensues. The New York Times article featured essays with unexpected heroes and heroines, like the female cattle farmer or the Asian son with a stay-at-home father. These two young people defy gender stereotypes and even cultural ones. It's nearly impossible not to be impressed when a young person is willing to share this side of who they are.

The Simplicity in Our Daily Lives

One of the other essays featured was about a young woman who had to work as a cleaning lady with her grandmother to help support her family. While this is highly unusual for a youngster, the focus of the student's essay was more about the meaning of a quilt her grandmother made. This is a wonderful example of picking a topic about something far from expensive or monumental. It's more about the student appreciating the small things in her life which hold much deeper meaning to who she is and how she was raised.

I had a range of emotions as I read all five essays in the article. I found myself choked up in one breath and grinning ear-to-ear in the next. That's one of the only common traits of a remarkable essay. It moves the reader.

As high school juniors finish the school year, I encourage them to think deeply before picking their essay topic. I want them to pick something that they don't wear on their sleeve, literally or figuratively. I want them to uncover something about themselves this summer and be willing to share it.