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10 Great Common App Essay Examples From Accepted Students

28/05/202456 minute read
10 Great Common App Essay Examples From Accepted Students

When applying to college, few tasks seem as daunting and pivotal as crafting the Common App essay. This personal statement offers more than just a chance to showcase writing skills—it's a unique opportunity to share your story, illuminate your personality, and convince admissions committees that you belong on their campus. At Crimson Education, we understand the challenge and importance of this task. That's why we've compiled a selection of standout essays from past students who have successfully navigated the complexities of the Common App.

In this blog post, we'll dive into real student essays that correspond to this year's prompts. Each essay example is followed by a detailed analysis of what makes it effective, offering insight and inspiration for your writing process. These reviews have been meticulously crafted by our founder, Jamie Beaton, to provide you with expert guidance. Whether you're exploring your background, reflecting on a challenge you've overcome, or sharing a passion that consumes you, these essays serve as a guide to help you craft a narrative as compelling as your journey.

Join us as we explore how these applicants have turned personal anecdotes into acceptance letters and how you can do the same.

Please note: As of now, we do not have any example essays for the newly introduced Prompt 4. We are actively seeking standout essays that address this prompt and will update this blog post as soon as we have some great examples to share.

What Makes a Good Common App Essay Response?

A strong Common App essay should reflect the applicant's unique voice and personal experiences while adhering to the following criteria:

  1. Writing Quality: The essay should be extremely compelling in language and structure, lyrically written, playful, or artistic in its engagement with the material. It must be well-constructed with clear and coherent sentences.
  2. Personal Voice: The essay should be written so personally, with descriptions and storytelling so unique, that only the author could have written it.
  3. Level of Authenticity: Every sentence should be more than just plausible, but remarkably well-conceived and thoughtful. The student should demonstrate a sharp aptitude for connecting their experiences with broader insights or issues.
  4. Value System: The essay should demonstrate a profound understanding of their personal growth, consistent and abiding humility, and a strong understanding of the value of relationships rather than personal gain.
  5. Insight: The essay should demonstrate unusually deep insights into the described experience and clearly illustrate a profound takeaway.
  6. Bonus Points: Essays that successfully discuss a difficult topic or tackle an unusual or extraordinary idea in a compelling and impactful manner can earn bonus points.
Common App Essay Rubric
CRITERIA/SCORE1234
Writing qualityEssay reads at a noticeably low level, with poorly constructed and unclear sentences or vague generalizationsEssay communicates its main idea well enough, but does not do so in compelling or clear detail; it is linguistically boring or structurally repetitiveEssay is well-structured, detailed, specific, direct, on-topic, and reads well, but does not stand outEssay is extremely compelling in its language and structure, lyrically written, playful or artistic in how it engages with the material
Personal voiceEssay is written as a series of factoids or as a bland narrative, and lacks a personal voice entirelyEssay is mostly list-like narrative ("this happened, then that happened") with only hints of the author’s inner monologue and personalityEssay is about a person rather than a list of events/accomplishments, and a clear, if not stunning, impression of whom the author is emerges from the textEssay is written so personally, with descriptions and storytelling so unique, as to suggest that only the essay's author could have written it
Level of AuthenticityEssay makes numerous implausible, silly, or exaggerated claims, is full of clichés, or fails to catch pointless self-characterizations Essay doesn’t entirely rely on clichés or hyperbole to make its points, but it features enough of that sort of language to take away from the essay’s authenticity, or elements of it may be implausible Essay is authentic – there are no clichés to speak of, all sentiments and reflections appear genuine; a reader comes away thinking the author is sincereEvery sentence is more than just plausible, but remarkably well-conceived and thoughtful; student demonstrates sharp aptitude for appropriately connecting their experiences with broader insights or issues
Value SystemEssay makes the student seem like they know everything, they’re self-centered, and/or they have no room to growEssay suggests that student believes they are very kind, generous, compassionate, etc., but undermines such “goodness” with a lack of humilityEssay exhibits noticeable selflessness, humility, perspective, and/or character traits broadly; at the very least, the student seems to recognize how much they don’t know by the end Essay demonstrates a profound understanding of their personal growth, consistent and abiding humility, and a strong understanding of the value of relationships rather than personal gain
InsightEssay fails to illustrate insight into the experience discussed or takeaways from the experienceEssay details experiences common or uninteresting and insights, and takeaways are minimal or lacklusterEssay demonstrates clear, if not obvious, impressive takeaway from the experienceEssay demonstrates unusually deep insights into the described experience and clearly illustrates a profound takeaway
Bonus points+1 Essay successfully discusses a difficult topic (culture, politics, religion) tactfully and personally without using cliché+2 Essay details a significant relationship between the author and another person or group, such that profound aspects of the author’s character are revealed and the author comes across as a developed and self-aware individual+3 Essay successfully takes an extremely personal topic (e.g. from a student’s life) and communicates it without seeming disingenuous (i.e. does not beg for sympathy, overstate level of tragedy or victory; illustrates level-headed perspective)+4 Essay illustrates extraordinary level of personal growth, wrapped in a compelling and unusual narrative that clearly demonstrates admission to the applicant’s school of choice
TOTAL19

Prompt 1 Examples

“Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”

Mischling Meitschi: Embracing a Multicultural Identity

'Es isch es Meitschi!'

My mother always tells the story of her first sight of me. Through an epidural-induced fog, she sees a purple ball held by a doctor screaming, "Es isch es Meitschi!", which translates to "It's a girl!". However, my Caribbean- American mother, having only been in Switzerland for a couple of years and not understanding all of the Swiss-German dialect, heard, "Mischling" - Half-caste - until my Swiss father clarified the correct translation. Now both, "Meitschi" and "Mischling" are accurate, but any form of German screaming is usually terrifying, understandably.

As humans, we want to belong: To a piece of earth. To a group of people. To an idea. Every human being feels the need to belong to something. It is why we conform to social expectations and shun people who act outside the norm. When you stem from two different races, two different countries, two different ideas of who you're supposed to be, people tend to struggle with that dichotomy.

Thus, my life of being asked, "What are you?" begins.

The first time, I was fourteen years old and incredibly confused. Now, I can easily say that I see myself as both, whether it is black and white, American and Swiss, or whatever division I am placed in. I know that I do not act like I am a part of a hip hop music video, but that does not make me any less black. Similarly, I should not have to wear Lederhosen and yodel to prove I am Swiss. Yet, my predilection for multiple identities did not come without its challenges.

My struggle with my identity always came from other people. Up until I was about ten years old, I saw myself as a petite Caucasian girl with light brown hair and blue eyes (for the record, that looks absolutely nothing like me). Growing up in Switzerland, a very racially homogeneous country, white was all I saw. Not just the snowy Alpine mountainsides, but also the families that were skiing down them. For most of my childhood, I was unconsciously ignorant of my racial and cultural disposition, even though I was consistently the only person of color in a room. It quickly became a novelty at school that I was fluent in two languages. The first time I remember acknowledging my "complex" racial makeup was when we were visiting family in Barbados, and my dad was the only white person around. Seven-year-old me went up to him and patted his arm:

"It's okay, I understand."

Now, I have observed being mixed, and multicultural gives me a unique comprehension of different cultural mindsets. It has made it very easy for me to assimilate and understand people's points of view. I'm not inclined to assume a person's identity based upon heritage and ethnicity alone. Making friends and connecting with people is something I've never struggled with. Because people can't immediately tell my heritage, they don't have any preconceptions of me and free themselves to ponder, "Is she one of us?": all to the point when at age five, traveling in Morocco, I would join the kids on the street playing games even though we had no way of communicating. They just assumed I was one of them.

These experiences have made me more confident in myself. By never letting myself fall into a single group, I have gotten to know myself well. After hearing "What are you?" enough times, you naturally think about the answer a lot.

Being equally both as neither with respect to my identity comes with its prizes and pitfalls, but losing that identity means I would lose what made me a "Mischling Meitschi" in the first place. The interpersonal connections I have made outweigh the several-minute-long explanations of where I'm from and the temporary confusion when asked to tick boxes on my race. Being who I genuinely am requires multiple boxes.

Review

This is a strong personal statement for which I assigned two bonus points. These bonus points represent the student’s discussion of culture and identity in a sophisticated and unoffensive way, as well as the clever intro to the piece. I spoke about the intro to the side of the essay and how its complexities reflect the complexities of the student’s mixed identity. It’s a gripping start to the essay and makes us want to continue reading.

The student also tackles a culture issue in a way that is relatable to others of mixed background and readers on the outside. There is a familiarity of language and tone here that’s refreshing and welcoming. Small asides pull the reader further into the piece and make us invested.

Finally, the student takes abundant time setting the scene and their early life, and it’s well worth it. They provide the reader with adequate context for where they’re coming from, which allows us to be right alongside them on the journey. This is a great way to get your readers invested.

Essay Score
CRITERIASCORE
Writing quality4
Personal voice3
Level of Authenticity3
Value System3
Insight4
Bonus points2
TOTAL19

Unraveling Identities: A Journey of Self-Discovery

Opening my window shade, the sun’s rays begin to pierce through the cabin, and the earth below my seat begins to come into focus. With each passing minute, treetops canvassing the landscape and fluorescent road lines begin to peer through the blanketing clouds.  

As the scurry of gate preparations intensifies, chatter begins to penetrate the constant hum of the engines. With the cabin coming back to life, I stare at the wings as they cut through clouds and begin to wonder who everybody is.  

Since I was a child, I have been obsessed with finding the unique aspects of others’ backgrounds, never ceasing to ask questions and excitedly seek answers. I am always exploring beyond the surface of one’s story, because only in this way can the authentic aspect of identity be unlocked. But, in my quest to understand others, I often find myself revealing who I am.  

I am a Panamanian, American, Spaniard, and French boy from the rolling hills of New Hampshire. But, in the U.S., I am a Mexican; in Panama, a Gringo; in Spain, a mestizo; and in France, a Spaniard. No matter where I am, I am instantly forced into a categorical label, whether or not it is true. The prejudices that influence thought often prevent the unfettered interaction that allows for personal disclosure. On a plane, the narrow aisles and occasional turbulence serve as a refuge from thwarting preconceptions below.  

Continuing the deceleration, the plane emerges past the final layer of clouds. My eyes lock onto the beauty of the expansive city. 

A gentle voice to my side says, “Impressive, isn’t it?” 

Ending up seated in the depths of the plane’s final rows, separated from the rest of my family, I was between a talkative Dutch man to my right and a movie-connoisseur Italian to my left. Though the journey began in awkward silence, we quickly found conversation in the ongoing World Cup. The discussion jumped from player statistics, to free-spirited Dutch culture, to the advantages of Neapolitan pizza, eventually ending on the beauty of the coming landscape.  

But, they are more than just Dutch or Italian. Hein is a compassionate, bike-riding, lover of medium roast, last of seven siblings, inhabitant of Amsterdam. Antonio is a creative, plant-photographing, Techno-music enthusiast, mathematics-majoring native of Rome. A street-level interaction, a quick glance, would only reveal two white men, one blonde the other black-haired, and I, a dark-skinned boy sporting colorful sneakers.  

And I am also more than what my outward appearance displays. Growing up in a multicultural family has made coming to terms with my true identity a process of self-discovery. From my Panamanian heritage, I inherited a steadfast personality that finds value in sacrifice and hard work. My Spanish background teaches me to take life one day at a time, always stopping to enjoy the company of others. My French ancestry instills in me the importance of quality in whatever endeavor I undertake. So, when asked where I’m from, I share beyond the surface; I am an amalgamation of different cultures and ideas.  

Being of international roots, I am intrigued by people’s backgrounds beyond the outward portrayals, always seeking to unravel their true selves. Traveling, in its purest form, is my opportunity to discover the stories of my fellow passengers, and for them to do the same with me; it’s a chance to engage with others and explore different perspectives on life. Similarly, the cramped seats of a plane serve as are introspective lens in which I am the viewer and the subject. 

As the freshly-paved tarmac whittles the rubber from the plane’s tires, and the violent landing vibrations shake the luggage overhead, I see myself, a hockey-playing, Chipotle-loving, free-thinking idealist, among two hundred constantly-altering narratives. As the plane reaches the gate, I begin to say goodbye to my newfound friends, eagerly awaiting my next transcendent experience from the world at ground level.

Review

This is an extremely thoughtful and well-crafted essay. The author takes a more unconventional approach to the Common App essay, reflecting on his identity as a whole rather than describing one specific event or challenge they experienced. This type of essay is more difficult to get right, but, when done well like it is here, is one that stands out and lets the author’s insight and intellect shine. 

The author begins the essay with a beautifully written description of a plane ride. This is a common way to start a Common App essay, using an anecdote to hook the reader, but the author does it well, artfully describing what they are seeing while also maintaining an element of mystery. It’s not immediately obvious where the author is, which makes the reader want to find out. The author never explicitly says that they are on a plane in these opening paragraphs, but the imagery they’ve crafted makes it clear. This scene, though not the primary subject, will ground the essay and create a framework for the author to explore its main themes. This is also where the 2 bonus points come from, as the author takes something mundane, a plane ride, and crafts a surprisingly thoughtful and profound reflection. 

So, what are the essay’s main themes? In the third paragraph, the author explains their interest in “exploring beyond the surface of one’s story” to unlock “the authentic aspect of identity.” Investigating the nature of identity may seem like an overly intellectual topic for a Common App essay, but the author makes it personal by discussing their own experiences of being stereotyped based on appearance. This essay is about the author and his diverse, complex identity.  

The conversation the author describes serves as an example of the author’s thesis, that people are more than their appearances. Though the author initially defines the two men in simple terms, like others have judged him, he soon gets a more complete understanding of who these men are, listing detailed and specific characteristics. The author then does the same for the reader, giving them deeper insight into his own identity and upbringing. 

The author makes a smart decision in the final two paragraphs, shifting the focus from himself to his relationships with others. Instead of expressing a desire for others to understand him, which would seem self-centered, the author wants to gain a deeper understanding of other people and their perspectives, highlighting his empathy and desire to learn/grow. By expressing an interest in learning about other people in the future, the author subtly alludes to his future college experience, where he will meet a diverse variety of people.

Essay Score
CRITERIASCORE
Writing quality4
Personal voice4
Level of Authenticity4
Value System3
Insight4
Bonus points2
TOTAL21

Prompt 2 Examples

“The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”

Breaking Barriers: Finding Connection Through Water

As I threw open the pool's thick metal doors, the pungent aroma of chlorine swaddled me like a wet blanket around a shivering newborn. The scent was pervasive during my year-long stint on the swimming and diving team, when the fame I'd imagined for myself as a freshman remained just out of reach. As I stepped along the slimy pool deck, I brought my focus back to the reason I had revived my failed athletic career. 

[Name redacted] and I met through my school's Best Buddies Club, which connects students with and without developmental disabilities. The students' excitement as they jumped up to greet me every morning drew me into a community that made their own happiness in a world that often met them with judgment. But while  limited mobility and reliance on a communication device made conversation challenging, these were small setbacks compared to the fact that he seemed to want nothing to do with me. We made bracelets, holiday cards, paper mache flowers, and decorated cookies, but these encounters lasted mere minutes before he'd gesture for his aide to retrieve him.  

I had nearly given up on our friendship when a teacher suggested we participate in a scuba dive organized for our school's students with disabilities. At first, all I could imagine were the new ways in which would be able to ignore me in another location - the pool.  

Growing up less than a mile from Lake Michigan, I've always been attracted to the water. The first time I swam, pushing the soft water back and forth between my hands and feeling self-assurance I never experienced on land, I felt I'd touched freedom. I was liberated from being the only gay kid in a small elementary school, from constantly being made to fit into a mold when it came to my sexuality and beliefs. Everywhere I ventured, my peers insisted they knew aspects of me I hadn't explored myself. Their constant questioning of my identity - commenting on my favorite floral sweatshirt as I walked down the hallway and describing my love for classical music as "feminine" - occupied an enormous space in my brain at a time when I should have been finding answers for myself. Those brief moments of underwater clarity helped me retreat from all the boxes the world set out for me, washing away everyone's expectations like a tide smoothing out the sand when it crashes onto the beach. Every time I left the water, I felt a piece of my identity had solidified. 

So perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised by what experienced in his first swim. As his aide and I unstrapped him from the wheelchair where he spent the majority of his days, bits of food and old pieces of paper from past art projects fell to the ground. Terror filled eyes as the security of his chair was stripped away, but the warm embrace of the water flowing around his limbs immediately calmed him as we gently lowered him into the pool. For a brief moment, his eyes locked onto mine and we shared our excitement.  

Though it was fleeting, our glance taught me an invaluable lesson. Until that point, I hadn't tried to connect with  on anything but a superficial level. Our art projects were motivated by sincerity, but they offered no channel for and I to share something we mutually loved. Letting his fingers glide along the water's surface, I helped him float for the next thirty minutes in an uninterrupted state of bliss that can only be experienced by someone who has been confined for so long - a feeling I was able to understand. By sharing something that helped me come to terms with my identity, I was able to connect with him on a deeper level, one where we both felt free.

Review

This is a good example of a personal, well-written essay. The author takes a fine topic, working with a disabled student, and makes it even more meaningful by connecting it to their own personal experiences. Not only does the essay show the author’s selflessness, but it also gives the reader insight into their identity and past struggles.

One of the strongest aspects of this essay is the author’s use of language. Whether describing the pool, the sensation of swimming, or the student’s descent into the water, the reader can fully understand the author’s experiences.  Each paragraph has specific details or examples, like the different Best Buddies Club activities or ways the author was bullied, that make the essay personal and unique to the author. The author shows the reader what they have experienced, rather than telling them.

The author has structured their essay well, beginning with a scene that sets up the essay’s purpose--to explain what inspired his return to swimming. This opening paragraph also establishes the author’s experience with swimming, which is crucial to understanding the rest of the essay.  Then, the author begins the essay’s narrative, introducing the Best Buddies Club and the essay’s conflict--his inability to connect with the student. 

What really makes this essay, and gives it the 3 bonus points, is the fourth paragraph, in which the author discusses his own relationship with swimming. Though the author starts by describing how swimming made them feel, they seamlessly transition to explaining swimming’s importance and reflecting on the challenges they faced growing up queer. By doing this, the author both makes the essay more personal, revealing how this experience is more than just sharing a hobby with the student, and gives the reader a much more intimate understanding of who they are and have overcome, without interrupting the narrative flow. The author does not overstate or exaggerate the challenges they went through, but describes it in a straightforward and honest way.

The author closes the essay by reflecting on what they have gained from this experience. By looking to his own experiences, the author was able to connect and empathize with the student, and help them break free of the constraints of their disability. What could have improved this already strong essay would have been a deeper and more introspective analysis of what the author learned from this experience. Rather than just focusing on how they helped the student, which could appear a bit self-centered, the author could have described how this experience has helped them grow or become a better person. This would have been the perfect opportunity to return to the opening paragraph, and discuss his return to swimming.

Essay Score
CRITERIASCORE
Writing quality4
Personal voice4
Level of Authenticity4
Value System3
Insight3
Bonus points3
TOTAL21

Building Lessons: The Journey of Assembling My IKEA Shelf

Sam Gosling said in Snoop that your room is a reflection of the inside of your mind. Every chaotic piece of paper cluttering your living space represents an idea created inside that lump of grey matter. However, sometimes each of those neurons pile up and need to be organised. And so, as I walked past my Yamaha upright with sporadic piles of music and the dusty mounds of 1900s CDs, I realised: "I really need a shelf."

Just like any other creative with a penchant for mispronouncing Swedish, I went to IKEA and found a beautiful, white, open-backed cabinet that resonated with my desire for sophisticated simplicity.

The trouble started when the box arrived home. Late at night, I started hacking it open with a knife and scratched the unblemished white surface of my cabinet. A well-worn truism reverberated between my ears: Precision was key. "Lesson learned," I thought. "But no one cares about a single scratch." I tried to rationalise my mistake; my decision grated against my perfectionism, but at least the scratch reminded me to approach even menial tasks with care.

Then I embarked on the task, spurred by the tantalising satisfaction of building it without instructions (I have a tendency to add unnecessary challenges to see just how far I can push myself). Ten minutes later, I was in the hall balancing the cabinet between the wall and my knee. The shelves were in, and now all I needed was the top, a humble piece of flat timber. And the struts that hold it together. And the plethora of screws littered around me; surely they were spares.

Just as I slotted the crowning piece onto my slightly lopsided shelf, the "Leaning Tower of Pisa" finally collapsed. The screws I had put in bent. I guess I would be needing those spares. The little wooden bits meant to keep the shelf stable snapped, and the middle panel had a hole ripped through its centre, as if Australia's very own Wolverine had ripped his claws up the side of my shelf.

At first, I felt anger at my ineptitude, then despair and denial. Every stage of grief towards the magnificent project I thought I had completed flashed through my brain. My frustration had peaked. The collapsed shelves had defeated me, but the niggling voice at the back of my mind, which guides all my movements, said: "Hey, you could have done this better. You have to try again." The next day, after a meditative break, I was back, more determined and clear minded than ever.

I embarked once again on the construction, without the instructions, but with the shelf lying horizontally on the floor. My determination to challenge myself had not yet swayed. By the end of the hour, I had a working shelf, that didn't look like the diagram but was able to support books. I needed to try again. I started again with the instructions and built a working, sturdy shelf that looked as though it could be printed in the IKEA catalogue- so long as they photoshop out the extra scratches.

"Well, what's the moral? She used the instructions." Yes, I did use the instructions. Yes, I did have to remake the shelf three times. But every single mistake in those three attempts was a lesson I can use in the future. In every moment, I gained a greater understanding of the way parts fit together. Every time I looked at the instructions I realised I didn't need to carve my own path single-handedly; instead there was a lot of merit from building the work of those before me and taking their ideas to grow even more. And, at the very worst, at the end of it all, at least the chaotic pieces of paper were no longer on the floor.

Review

This piece is quite unique. You see a lot of essays about profound trips to foreign countries or significant confessions in relationships, and the reason you see those topics a lot is because they make for great personal statements. What this student did here, though, was go against the grain and write about a seemingly boring topic with wit, sophistication, self- and reader-awareness, and humor. The use of monologue in this piece, and the seemingly profound introduction, both function beautifully here. The former adds to the colloquial nature of the essay, and the latter gives the rest of the piece room to subvert the expectation of where an essay with that introduction would likely go. This essay keeps you on your toes with its unexpected charm.

One of the best qualities of this essay is how content dictates form. By this, I mean that the step-by-step process of building a desk is also reflected in the step-by-step emotional journey we take with the student as they decide to purchase, assemble, fail, assemble again, fail again, and finally read the directions. You could almost imagine this scene playing out in a sitcom (I clearly imagined Zooey Deschanel in New Girl) with the self-aware backtalk and subtle self-deprecation. 

To be clear, if you have a profound story you want to tell of a life-changing experience that you wish to share, you should absolutely do that. You should write about what interests you and the story you want to tell! However, if you find yourself struck more by the style of this piece, don’t feel like you need to be bound to typical sophistication and significance. Have fun writing about an IKEA shelf!

Essay Score
CRITERIASCORE
Writing quality4
Personal voice4
Level of Authenticity4
Value System3
Insight4
Bonus points2
TOTAL21

What I wrote about for my Common App Essay

Prompt 3 Examples

“Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”

The Value of Uncertainty: A Journey from Atheism to Inquiry

My parents are what you might call aggressive atheists. They’re not aggressive people, but when it comes to atheism, they’re no-holds-barred, pull-no-punches crusaders. No child of theirs was going to believe in a man in the sky- I was positioned towards disbelief from a very young age.

This made it difficult for me to understand why I was sent to a school that featured weekly Religious Education lessons. My parents joke now that they simply wanted longer conversations to ensue when they asked me how my day was, but I suspect there was more to it. Their decision to give me a choice — or, at least, to show me the options — is something I’ve only recently begun to fully appreciate.

At the time, though, it felt like a serious hassle. During these sessions, my classmates and I huddled cross- legged on the floor as our chaplain tried to make the concept of the Holy Trinity seem fun and relatable rather than intimidating. None of it made sense to me, yet I remember occasionally thinking that the story was so peculiar, so specific, that perhaps it may actually have been true.

Most Tuesdays, though, I would come home and complain to my parents about the absurdity of the lesson. One afternoon, I opened the front door to find my grandfather, Morfar, sitting at the dining-room table, eating and chatting with my parents. Slinging my bag into my room, I raced to join them. Morfar, a retired headmaster, was always ready to outwit me with tangles of logic puzzles and math problems, the sparkle in his eyes growing brighter as I grew more frustrated.

I began to babble enthusiastically, eager to show off my superior understanding of Christianity’s flaws. But as I prattled on, Morfar’s usual interjections were not there; instead, he simply gazed at me. After about a minute, he furrowed his eyebrows, and my heart skipped a beat. My words abruptly dried up into silence. It had never occurred to me that my grandfather, a man for whom I had the utmost respect, might be religious.

Morfar, adjusting his glasses, broke the silence. He asked me to fetch my new cricket ball. I obeyed without question, mortified, terrified, and excited.

I returned to the table and put the ball into his hand. He looked at it for a moment and said, “Jasper, what would happen to the ball if I took it home right now?”

I paused, scanning for tricks. “I guess there’d be an extra ball at your house…” He leaned forward. “But now the ball isn’t where it’s supposed to be! Why is that?” “Because you took it…” I said, unsure of myself.

He darted another question at me. “Jasper, why is the Earth where it is, so perfectly placed to allow us to live? A reason, a cause and effect for its position, the way there is for everything else?”

The mystery of it intrigues and beguiles me to this day. It reminds me never to be too sure of myself and never to underestimate the value of uncertainty in forcing inquiry and serious thought. Since that day, I had many more debates with Morfar and my parents about religion, sometimes broaching topics as far-reaching as artificial intelligence and the nature of consciousness itself. Christianity has acted as a springboard for me to launch myself into new ways of critical thinking and new avenues of philosophy - something I value equally as highly as the peace and security it brings to others. While I cannot share my grandfather’s confidence, the freedom to converse and wonder together — the ability to question — brought us closer and became part of my foundation as an inquisitive, open, and often skeptical person.

I understand now what people see in religion and God: a plan, a reason, an answer. I haven’t found mine yet, but I treasure the search.

Review

This essay is packed with playful adjectives, active verbs, and flourishes of personality that make it come alive. At its core is a pretty serious investigation of religious beliefs, but the writer’s active style really portrays levity, openness, and curiosity--precisely the qualities that the speaker’s parents hoped to instill in them by encouraging open religious dialogue.

Despite describing their parents and grandfather as strong personalities, the writer is not entirely beholden to either’s set of beliefs. This impressive combination of openness and self-resolve emerges naturally from both the speaker’s chosen anecdotes and also from their voice itself. Both qualities are certainly things that admissions officers look for in successful applicants!

Essay Score
CRITERIASCORE
Writing quality5
Personal voice4
Level of Authenticity5
Value System5
Insight4
Bonus points0
TOTAL23

Challenging Tradition: Paving the Way for Gender Equality in an All-Boys School

Oh, are you sure this is what you want to do? There are plenty of other great project ideas you could work on."

As I left my design teacher's office having presented a concept for a female-only cycling race, I was both disappointed and confused. I envisioned an opportunity to bring classmates together from my all-boys school to commemorate the steps society had taken to increase gender equality by creating a race in a traditionally male-dominatedsport. As I approached the deadline for submitting the project proposal for my Year 11 design portfolio, I was left without assurance but even more determination to press forward.

The next day, I returned, determined to convince my teacher. Yet again, I was met with his pursed lips and furled forehead. Although I couldn't understand his hesitancy, with deadlines approaching I decided to stick with my original idea and start working away at it.

Just a few days later during a lunch break, I found myself holding back, as my friends tossed around objectifying comments about a girl they had seen earlier that day on the street. Looking back at that moment, I realized how immune I had become to the sexism that permeated my school .

If even I was not willing to stand against it, I realized that, in the eyes of my teacher, my idea of celebrating women had no place at my school. What did female empowerment and success have to do within an al/­ boys school?

As I began to realize that my idea didn't "represent" the school or its values of taking boys and turning them into strong men, my teacher"s rejection began to take shape in my mind. The idea that female success and spirit could be celebrated amongst and by a school populated entirely by boys didn't have a place in "a school that understands boys" - our motto. This simply wasn't part of the culture we had been taught to uphold.

So ingrained in the schools tradition that to challenge this identity with something as small as a portfolio project was to stand against a belief that the school had forever embraced. I realized, my school had become so caught up in respecting a history of male-dominated teaching, an exclusively-male learning environment, for ultimately a male-dominated society, that we had put aside our ability to achieve a world of equal opportunity for all.

Nevertheles,sI loved my school and didn't want its inability to grapple with change impede its future success. Recalling my portfolio idea, I realized I had an opportunity to create the change I sought; a culture, embracing every person, regardless of gender.

I met with fellow school leaders and in making them aware of the lunch break topic I had witnessed, I asked them all to think about what if that objectified girl was their sister or a loved one. The boys fell quiet and it was then, collectively we decided that a change had to occur.

Together, we mobilized to develop a legacy project for the school. We pursued active change to create an atmosphere of cohesion and collective respect for all men and women.

Speeches, guest speakers and group discussions were held to ensure that every boy not only understood the message we were trying to elucidate, but also realized the nature of the culture we had come to accept. And progressively, we saw change. Sexist comments became more scarce and boys began to realize the derogatory nature of their prior speech.

Change is uncomfortable; change is slow - and the mental shift I catalyzed may not be embraced for generations to come. But it is ever more my hope that after having started the change, future leaders and teachers will choose to embrace it.

Review

This essay is so impressive because of the author’s willingness to examine and critique their own assumptions and behaviors. Admissions readers love to learn about students that are willing to question and push their understanding of what is right--this author really communicates that adaptability by taking us through their journey of promoting female empowerment within an all-male context.

At first, the speaker seems to want to draw our attention to their persistence--their idea for an all-female cycling race is questioned, but the speaker has a ‘determination to press forward’. It quickly becomes clear, though, that this determination is not the quality that the speaker is highlighting in this essay--instead it is their adaptability and their willingness to revise their beliefs and assumptions. By the all-italics question at the end of the fifth paragraph, we are starting to see the author’s impressive level of self-inquiry.

By shelving their idea for a race and instead promoting gender-equitable actions that are more needed in their community, the author shows the maturity, self-awareness, and willingness to change that admissions readers love to see.

Essay Score
CRITERIASCORE
Writing quality5
Personal voice4
Level of Authenticity4
Value System4
Insight4
Bonus points0
TOTAL211

Prompt 5 Examples

“Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”

Empowering Through Code: My Journey in Teaching and Growth

It's December 2018. I have a calculus midterm in a week, but as I walk into the library, I am not here to study. I descend to the familiar small, dimly-lit room in the basement. I rearrange tables, set up the projector, and distribute laptops. I anxiously rummage through my notes as I wait for the girls to trickle into the room. The first girl enters, clinging to her mom. Then other girls arrive, likewise, hiding behind their mothers, as I try to encourage mingling amongst the group. I attempt to conceal my anxiousness with a facade of hyper-enthusiasm. I move towards the podium, and while I have often taken my place in front of it, today I stand behind it, muster my brightest smile and begin to teach my first computer science class.

Coding is the metaphysical barrier between the outside world and virtual world. On my own, coding allows me to be in my "bubble." Using the same loops and conditionals I teach about, I am able to transcend one world and enter another. Yet when I give myself the task of presenting these same coding principles to the young girls before me, my bubble collapses, and I exit my comfort zone. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to teach coding classes to as many girls as I can reach to instill in them the confidence that coding can generate within oneself, and the subsequent empowerment that can draw more young women into technology.

My desire to host coding classes has been brewing for years. It is a perfect medley of my quest for opportunities to serve my community and my passion for computer science. My emphasis on specifically teaching girls stems from a recognition of the lack of girls participating in tech-related endeavors. In High School, I have taken computer science classes with three or fewer girls, and in robotics, I have entered competitions flooded with all-boys teams while struggling to find all-girls teams other than my own. As my team advances from our hometown competitions to regional competitions, to World Championships with 40,000 attendees, I am perplexed as girls in robotics are only speckled through the sea of boys competing. This lack of representation fuels my fire to host more workshops and have an impact upon younger girls so they will see themselves participating within future teams.

At times, I have felt the need to prove my worth to others, as if being a girl implies inferiority. Through robotics, I have not only learned how to approach real-world problems with innovative engineering solutions, but also to be an advocate for myself and others. For me, I refuse to be complicit in perpetuating the gender stereotype that I have endured. I know that not every girl will want to join robotics, or even continue to learn computer science, and that's okay. At the very least, I want to emphasize that despite any barrier, coding is something they can do; if my all-girls team can compete our way to World Championships, they can accomplish whatever they choose to pursue.

It's June 2019. I have become familiar with the basements of many libraries across Long Island, and today is my latest stop. I descend to a modestly sized room with fluorescent lighting. I iterate through my routine: introduce the coding concept of that day's lesson, run through the curriculum I have meticulously prepared down to each minute, field any questions, provide guidance, and talk to each girl. At the end of the class, when a mother and her daughter excitedly approach me to say that they have registered for robotics, the hyper-enthusiasm I consistently exude is no longer a facade. My message has reached at least one girl, encouraging me to reach the rest. With dozens of girls taught thus far, and more workshop planning underway, I am confident that my efforts have only just begun.

Review

This essay, about the author’s coding education program, is an insightful look into the author’s interests and values. Not only does the essay show how the author has grown as a result of teaching coding, but it demonstrates the author’s passion for empowering young girls in technology, a timely social issue. The author strikes the rare balance of highlighting and celebrating her accomplishments without seeming self-centered or disingenuous.

The author effectively structures the essay, beginning with their description of her first coding class. While working to grab the reader’s attention, the first paragraph also creates a useful framework to show her personal growth--the final paragraph uses the same structure, allowing the reader to easily draw comparisons and see how much their program and teaching abilities have grown. This structural symmetry makes the essay cohesive and balanced.

While the first and last paragraphs work to illustrate the author’s growth, the middle paragraphs provide the reader with insight into the author’s motivations and values. In these paragraphs, the author is able to reflect on her own experiences with coding, first describing why she enjoys coding and how she decided to begin teaching. She describes her own past experiences in robotics and the lack of girls’ participation in competitions, to show the reader where her passion for women’s representation in technology comes from. The author could have strengthened their insight here by providing a more detailed description of her experiences in robotics, and how she was stereotyped or marginalized.

The fourth paragraph is arguably the essay’s strongest, as the author’s personal voice is clear and compelling. She explains how being a minority in robotics has made her feel inferior at times, and as though she needs to prove herself. Though she has learned to advocate for herself, she does not want other girls to feel as she did. The author decides to take action and address the problem by providing girls the opportunity to learn to code. Unlike other essays that point to a vague sense of wanting to help others, this author is driven by a clear, personal mission to empower girls in her service work.

The final thing to note is the essay’s conclusion. While the author has realized their goal of teaching and inspiring girls to pursue robotics, they are not satisfied or feel their work is complete. This is an example of their strong value system, as the author wants to continue to help as many girls as possible.

Essay Score
CRITERIASCORE
Writing quality4
Personal voice4
Level of Authenticity4
Value System4
Insight3
Bonus points0
TOTAL19

Mastering Time: Lessons from an Apple Tree and My Uncle's Legacy

Last summer, on a rare sunny day in Dunedin, New Zealand, I sat underneath the apple tree in my garden and pondered time. As I looked around, my eyes followed the dandelions drifting back and forth, up and down, while the distracting buzz of bees flying provided a low cacophony of sound in the background. At this moment, everything seemed so tangible, so graspable to me. Space all around me had character – each floating dandelion just a fingertip away.

I wondered if there was a way to touch the fourth dimension I’d learnt from my physics class – a dimension that permeates our very existence. What if we could change time like we do space? What if we could reverse or expand time, as if it were the blossoming sunflowers unfolding a few feet from where I was sitting? Jordan could be hitting his Game 6 shot in Salt Lake City at that very moment, or I could be watching Liu hurdle past the competition in the bright lights of Athens.

I could even have endless admissions officers read this essay, after I’d taken all the time in the world to make it a masterpiece worthy of Shakespeare. With time on my hands, the world would be my oyster.

Then, I heard my mother’s voice calling and the smell of freshly cooked rice wafted through the garden, breaking my pleasant fantasy. Time, at that moment felt so constricting, as its passage returned to the rhythmic progression of meals. How ironic that while I was thinking about times’ wonders, this afternoon was time I will never get back.

Time, in all its unlimited wonders, is used up as we continue our journey through life. In the space of a week, my future time radically shifted. My mother received news that my uncle, who I had looked up to all my life both literally and metaphorically, was gone.

I had expected my life to change exponentially. But time kept ticking along the same way it always had, nudging me through the familiar sounds of a basketball clanking off the rim each day, sore forearms from volleyballs thumped, and the daily routine of homework and exams. Yet, throughout all of this, my uncle’s optimistic outlook on life - holding close the people who cared and things that mattered, letting go of unprecedented worry or unnecessary negativity, remained vividly embedded in me. His smile while talking to me, even as his business prospects were looking bleak, will stay with me forever.

Time, in all its infinite glory, is a finite arbitrary construct, compartmentalised by society into quantifiable sections. Unequivocally appreciating the “compartments” that I have left, just as my uncle did with his life, is my way of claiming back time with him. Looking back, hyper focusing on a moment meant I often missed the true splendour of the bigger picture.

Events such as re-biking the New Zealand Rail Trail senior year after being scarred, both figuratively and literally, from crashing severely in middle school, made me realise how much I truly missed, simply by taking a glass half empty view. Living in a quaint southern Kiwi city also meant things were often uneventful. Before when the weather would pass through four seasons in a day I’d often find it annoying, going from bright blue skies, to pouring hail, to briefly vivid rainbows, to gusts of wind through the night. By focusing on the positive, I began to appreciate what a wacky and peculiar sight this was – nowhere else would I get to live these moments. Constantly reconsidering and reframing previously ignored or unpleasant experiences is part of the legacy my uncle left me.

As Shakespeare wrote, “let every man be master of his time.” With time, I know that each and every day is something of wonder, something of appreciation, something meaningful and over which my approach can irrevocably shape my perceptions.

Review

This essay is an excellent example of how being specific and detailed – showing and not telling – can be especially effective.

The writer of this piece has very good instincts. Not only does he show his thought process, but he uses specific details in order to both balance the writing and translate his perceptions into accessible but original descriptions.

An author chooses to show and not tell to both evoke emotion and relay to the reader an experience that is important to the narrative.

An example of using this method is in the second to last paragraph, in which the narrator describes his specific observations:

“Before when the weather would pass through four seasons in a day I’d often find it annoying, going from bright blue skies, to pouring hail, to briefly vivid rainbows, to gusts of wind through the night. By focusing on the positive, I began to appreciate what a wacky and peculiar sight this was – nowhere else would I get to live these moments.”

Instead of simply telling the reader that he began to appreciate things in a way he had not before, he shows us through the details – using all five senses – so that we are guided through the prose and feel what the writer is asking us to. If he simply told us that he began to experience his surroundings differently than he had before, we would not be able to see the experience through his eyes, and we wouldn’t know the weight that the moment carried, or understand how he – specifically – processed these new ideas.

Essay Score
CRITERIASCORE
Writing quality4
Personal voice4
Level of Authenticity4
Value System4
Insight4
Bonus points0
TOTAL20

Prompt 6 Examples

“Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?”

The Journey of the Rubik's Cube: Embracing the Process of Problem-Solving

The moment I laid eyes on the cube, it was as if nothing else mattered. I remember my uncle explaining something about top row corners, but I was already turning the Rubik's cube in my hands around, wondering how its variegated faces could be aligned to create uniform color blocks. Every night for the next week, I would just spin the cube around, hoping that a solution would pop into my head. I started by attempting to align three cubes of one color - but the more I twisted the faces around, the more the colors seemed to scramble. I even tried randomly flicking the rows and columns back and forth, hoping to stumble upon a pattern, but nothing came to mind.

I begged my classmates to solve the cube hoping to memorize their tactics, and spent my breaks watching other people solve cubes online, transfixed by the many versions of this puzzle I found. This was to no avail, as the cube remained unsolved. But it wasn't until I realized that I needed to figure out a strategy that worked for me and focus on one face at a time, rather than everything all at once, that I began to make some progress on the cube. By the end of the month, I was able to align 7 out of 9 cubes on one face. I had taught myself a new technique, and while it had not led to a complete success, it was a breakthrough all the same.

It's been nine years since the day I was gifted the Rubik's cube, and I still have not been able to solve it. I suspect I never will. But I always come back to this problem not because of a relentless desire to solve or prove anything, but because I love the process of problem-solving. There is something special about being in a situation where I am not expected to immediately find a solution, and have time to examine a task from different angles and attempt to complete it in a multitude of ways. It is not the need to reach the final solution that drives me, but rather the knowledge that every bit of progress I make gives me a better understanding of the puzzle and contributes to my learning. When I approach daunting tasks, I ground myself by breaking down the problem and trying different approaches. Getting stuck is not a failure - rather, it is an opportunity to retrace my steps and figure out what went wrong.

Success is not defined by how many problems I am able to solve, or how good I am at things, but rather how resilient I am and how willing I am to learn. There is a sense of contentment that accompanies the wonder I feel whenever I open up the educational digital program I have been working on for the past year. There is wonder in my uncertainty about how things are going to turn out, the fact that I don't know if I will achieve the ideal result this time - if today will finally be the day I crack the code. I have tried many programming languages and platforms to recreate the designs and prototypes I have created, although I have not yet been successful in my attempts. But before when I would have shied away from the uncertainty of my success, I now embrace it.

I still find myself fiddling with my Rubik's cube during my free time because there is something to be said by finding those silver linings, those invaluable lessons in my relentless attempts to figure it out. Every so often I find delight in a breakthrough I've made, a technique I've finally learned or a piece that slotted in exactly where it needed to be. These small victories are meaningless in the larger scope of the world, but to me, they mean everything.

Review

This is a fantastic example of an essay that draws importance and sincerity out of a commonplace experience. Many kids play with Rubik’s Cubes--the author is also not a world-record-breaking cube solver. But they use the Cube to do some serious self-analysis--in examining why they are attached to the puzzle, what they like about it, and how they went about approaching solutions, the author shows how they exhibit persistence, adaptability, and rigor in pursuing their interests.

The sentence, “Success is not defined by how many problems I am able to solve, or how good I am at things, but rather how resilient I am and how willing I am to learn” represents the essay’s most significant observation. In equating success with resiliency instead of achievement, the speaker shows great maturity. In college, students are challenged--they will also see students around them achieving in a variety of ways. Pursuing and embodying resiliency instead of chasing achievement at all costs makes for a healthy student experience full of learning!

Essay Score
CRITERIASCORE
Writing quality4
Personal voice4
Level of Authenticity5
Value System5
Insight4
Bonus points0
TOTAL22

More Examples?

To see even more examples, download our free ebook, the US Personal Essay Master Guide, which features 50 examples of Common App essays of students admitted into top universities! Additionally, check out our database of successful Common App Applications to read essays for each individual school!

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