Examples of college essays from top universities
One of the best ways to write a successful college essay for your college application is to learn from real college essay examples that have worked. I’ve compiled a few of my favorite essay examples here that cover a variety of college essay topics.
Some of the essay examples below are from students who decided to write about a challenge, while other examples can be helpful if you want to write more generally about yourself. And yes, some of these essays helped students get into the Ivy League (I won’t tell you which ones!), although they are great essays regardless of where (or if) the students got into their college of choice.
COMMON APP ESSAY PROMPTS
According to the 2022/2023 Common Application, the Common App Essay topics are as follows:
- Background essay: some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so significant that they believe their application would be incomplete without this topic. If this applies to you, please tell your story.
- challenge essay: The lessons we learn from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recall a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you and what did you learn from the experience?
- Essay on Beliefs: Think about a time when you challenged or questioned a belief or idea. What made you think about it? What was the result?
- Gratitude essay: think about something someone did for you that made you happy or grateful in a surprising way. How did this gratitude affect or motivate you?
- Achievement essay: explain an achievement, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Topic Essay: describe a topic, idea, or concept that so captivates you that you lose track of time. Why does it captivate you? Who or what do you turn to when you want to learn more about it?
- Create your essay: write an essay on a topic of your choice. This may be an essay you have already written, an essay responding to another prompt, or an essay you have designed.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD COLLEGE ESSAY?
These application essays show many sides of a person.
The key to many of these essays is that they describe a story or aspect of the student’s life in a way that is dynamic: they reflect many of his or her values, strengths, interests, volunteer activities, and life experiences.
Many of these essays also reveal a certain vulnerability. College admissions officers who read your application want to know how your values, qualities, and skills will show up in college – and how good your writing skills are.
Whether it’s a supplemental essay, a personal statement, a common app essay, or a diversity essay, the following essays can help you better understand what can result from following a college essay format or get tips on how to write a college essay to get accepted to your dream college.
THE “GRANDMA’S FUNERAL” EXAMPLE FOR A COLLEGE APPLICATION ESSAY
Written for the Common App college application essay “Tell us your story”. This essay could be used for prompts 1 and 7 for the Common App.
They covered the precious mahogany coffin with a brown mixture of rocks, decomposed organisms, and weeds. It was my turn to take the shovel, but I was too ashamed to dutifully send it away without saying goodbye properly. I refused to throw dirt at her. I refused to let go of my grandmother, to accept a death I hadn’t seen coming, to believe that an illness could not only interrupt a beloved life but destroy it.
When my parents finally opened up to me that my grandmother was battling liver cancer, I was twelve and angry – mostly at myself. They wanted to protect me – only six years old at the time – from the complex and grim concept of death. But when the end inevitably came, I tried to understand not what dying meant, but how I could abandon my sick grandmother to play with friends and watch TV. Hurt that my parents had betrayed me and angry at my forgetfulness, I resolved not to let such blindness reappear.
I devoted myself desperately to my education, for I saw in knowledge the key to freeing myself from the chains of ignorance. When I learned about cancer in school, I promised myself I would memorize all the facts and soak up every detail in textbooks and online medical journals. And as I began to think about my future, I realized that what I had learned in school would enable me to silence what my grandmother had silenced. However, I focused not on the learning itself, but on getting good grades and high test scores. I began to believe that academic perfection was the only way to redeem myself in her eyes-to make up for what I had failed to do as a granddaughter.
But a simple walk on a hiking trail behind my house opened my eyes to the truth. Over the years, everything – even honoring my grandmother – had become secondary to school and grades. As my shoes tapped humbly against the earth, the towering trees blackened by the forest fire of a few years ago, the faintly colored pebbles embedded in the sidewalk, and the fine white clouds hanging in the sky reminded me of my small but significant part in a greater whole that is humanity and this earth. Before I could get rid of my guilt, I had to expand my view of the world and my responsibility to my fellow human beings.
Volunteering at a cancer treatment center helped me find my way. When I see patients who are trapped in a particular moment not only in the hospital but also by their illness, I talk to them. Six hours a day, three times a week, Ivana is surrounded by IV stands, blank walls, and busy nurses who quietly but constantly remind her of her breast cancer. Her face is pale and tired, but kind – not unlike my grandmother’s. I need only smile and say hello to see her light up and life return to her face. At our first meeting, she talked about her two sons, her hometown, and her knitting group – not a word about her illness. Without even getting up, the three of us – Ivana, me, and my grandmother – had gone for a walk together.
Cancer, as powerful and invincible as it may seem, is only a fraction of a person’s life. It’s easy to forget that when the mind and body are so weak and vulnerable. As an oncologist, I want to remind her to take a walk every once in a while and remember that there is so much more to life than a disease. While I treat their cancer physically, I want to give patients emotional support and mental strength so they can escape the disruption and move on with their lives. Through my work, I can embrace creation without burying the memory of my grandmother.
AN EXAMPLE OF AN ESSAY ON “TRAVEL AND LANGUAGE”
Written for the Common App college application essay “Tell us your story”. This essay could also be used for prompts 1 and 7 for the Common App.
When I was very young, I was bitten by the travel bug. It started when my grandparents took me to France for the first time, and since then I have been to twenty-nine different countries. Each country has given me a unique learning experience.
At five, I marveled at the Eiffel Tower in the City of Lights. At eight, I stood in St. Mark’s Square to feed pigeons, then glided in sleek gondolas over Venetian waterways. At thirteen, I saw the ancient, megalithic structure of Stonehenge and walked along the Great Wall of China, amazed that the thousand-year-old stones were still in place.
Exploring cultures around the world sparked my interest in languages.
It started with French, where I learned how important pronunciation is. I remember once asking a shopkeeper in Paris where Rue des Pyramides was. But when I pronounced it PYR-a-miles instead of pyr-A-modes, with more emphasis on the A, she looked at me confused.
In eighth grade, I was fascinated by Spanish and recognized the similarities with English based on cognates. For example, baseball is called béisbol in Spanish, which looks different but sounds almost the same. This was incredible for me because it made it easier for me to speak and understand, and even today the equivalents help me when I forget how to say something in Spanish.
Then in high school, I developed an enthusiasm for Chinese. When I learned Chinese at my school, I marveled at how a single stroke was missing from a character, and the meaning was lost. I loved how long words were formed by combining simpler characters so that Huǒ (火), meaning fire, and Shān (山), meaning mountain, could be combined to form Huǒshān (火山), meaning volcano. I love spending hours practicing the characters, and I can feel the beauty and rhythm when I form them.
Interestingly, after studying foreign languages, my mother tongue fascinated me even more. Through my love of books and my fascination with developing a sesquipedalian lexicon (learning big words), I began to expand my English vocabulary. Studying definitions made me ask about the origins of words, and suddenly I wanted to know everything about etymology and the history of words. In my freshman year, I took a course in world history, and my love for history grew exponentially. To me, history is like a great novel, and it is especially fascinating because it is set in my world.
But the best dimension that language has brought to my life is interpersonal relationships. When I talk to people in their native language, I can converse with them on a much more intimate level. For example, I found a Bulgarian painter on the streets of Paris with whom I could use my few Bulgarian words, started a conversation in Spanish with an Indian woman who worked at the Argentine Embassy in Mumbai, and was surprised by a library employee when I asked her a question in her native Mandarin.
I want to study foreign languages and linguistics at university because I know I will need and develop them for the rest of my life. I will never stop traveling, so foreign language skills will only benefit me. I hope to use these skills as a foundation for my future work, whether in international business, foreign diplomacy, or as a translator.
I think my journey is best described by a Chinese proverb my teacher taught me: “I am like a chicken eating a mountain of rice.” Each grain of rice is another word for me to learn to quench my unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
Today, I am still gripped by the travel bug, and it seems that I am now also addicted to languages.