Need some college essay inspiration? Check out these examples and our takes on why they work. Remember, no essay is perfect, these examples included! However, they can show you the many ways a college essay can look and feel, whilst showcasing the recommendations from our guide to writing college essays.
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Example 1: Lifelong Learning
From Johns Hopkins University, Essays That Worked
The white yarn slipped off my aluminium crochet hook, adding a single crochet to rows and rows of existing stitches, that looked to be in the form of a blob. Staring at the image of the little unicorn amigurumi lit up on the screen of my laptop, and looking back at the UMO (unidentified messy object) number five, I was extremely perplexed.
This had seemed so easy. Round 1, construct a magic circle with 6 single crochets. Done. Round 2 was an increase round resulting in a total of 12 stitches. Also done. The remaining rounds were blurred into hours and minutes that should have resulted in a little white creature in the likeness of a unicorn, but sitting on my desk (much like the four days before today) was a pool of tangled white yarn. It was not until day seven that a creature with a lopsided head whose horn was the only identifier of the mythical being emerged.
Very much like learning how to crochet, my journey in forging my own path and finding a passion was confusing, messy and at times infuriating. Even in primary school, I had heard all the stories of individuals finding their own route in life. I had been told stories of those who found their passion at a young age and were exceptionally proficient at their craft, of those that abandoned their interests and pursued a lucrative career, even those who chose their dreams but regretted it afterwards. This weighed heavily on me, as I was determined to have a success story as many of my other family members had. The only problem was that I did not have a direction.
In the years following primary school, I stepped out of my comfort zone in a frenzy to find a passion. I joined the school orchestra where I played the violin, and a debate class to practice public speaking and become much more eloquent. At my ballet school, I branched out to contemporary and jazz dance. I stuffed myself with experience similar to an amigurumi engorged with batting. I found myself enjoying all of those activities but soon enough, I was swamped with extracurriculars. Just like the tangles of white yarn on my desk, I was pulled in all directions. I still felt lost. To make things worse, it seemed as if everyone else had found their path in life, and they had all become white unicorns while I was still doubting the stitch I just made.
It was not until high school that I realised that I could view this mission to find a passion from another perspective. While successfully completing a crochet project is an accomplishment itself, the motions of making slip knots, single or double crochets takes you on an adventure as well. The knots that I had encountered in my craft were evidence of my experiences and what shaped me as an individual. My exploration of various paths through detours may have sometimes resulted in roadblocks, but I continued to persevere and learn from my experiences, applying the skills that I have gained to future knots. The mini adventures that I went on were all crucial to me in the greater journey of life.
Through trial and error, the current adventure that I am on resonates the most with me, taking me down the path of service and environmental activism. However, I have learnt that no one path is static, and I can be on more than one path at a time. While I may only be halfway to the proportionate unicorn amigurumi that some others may have already achieved, I still have so much to learn and so much that I want to learn, and so my journey to grow continues.
What works: The writer hooks the reader by starting mid-scene. She makes a connection between her hobby (crocheting) and her larger experience searching for her passion; this interesting connection helps her avoid a cliched version of a story about burnout and overcommitment. The central metaphor — that finding her passions is like crocheting — develops over the course of the essay and eventually reaches the turning point: that the process is as rewarding and crucial as the destination, a conclusion that avoids feeling too hackneyed through the essays’ unique imagery. The writer manages to talk about a lot of her interests while linking them together under a thematic umbrella.
Example 2: Queen’s Gambit
From Johns Hopkins University, Essays That Worked
No, Dante. Stop, think, and look at the entire board.
I was thoroughly confused. I thought I had procured the complete solution to this elaborate chess puzzle. What am I missing? A knight fork, a bishop move? Am I in check? After a quick glance at the left side of the board, I slapped my hand on my head as I suddenly realized what my chess coach was telling me. My queen was sitting unused, positioned all the way on the other side of the board, and I had no idea. If I were to sacrifice my queen, the opposing rook would be forced to capture it, allowing me to finish the game in style with the illustrious “smothered mate.”
If you begin to look at the whole chessboard, then these puzzles will become a breeze for you.
Ever since that chess lesson, those words have stuck. Indeed, my chess skills improved swiftly as my rating flew over the 1000 Elo threshold in a matter of months. However, those words did not merely pertain to chess. Looking at the whole picture became a foundational skill that I have utilized throughout my life in school and other endeavors. I particularly remember making use of it on the soccer field.
Now, I’m no Arnold Schwarzenegger. Weighing in at a monstrous 125 pounds and standing 5 foot 8 inches, my opponents made it a habit to tackle me to the ground. Once again, I found myself face to face with the defender, and before I knew it, I crumbled to the ground, left isolated and dispossessed. Laying dazed on the pitch, my mind flashed back to the chessboard. It occurred to me that soccer, much like chess, relies on the proper position of the many pieces that combine to create a finished strategy. The “whole picture” of soccer is not just how fast or strong one is or how many tackles you put in; that is only one element of the puzzle. The intelligence and creativity needed in a playmaker is also an essential part of a well-rounded soccer team. I realized that my most significant advantage would always be my in-depth understanding of the game of soccer—where to pass the ball, when to make a run, if the ball should be in the air or driven. I picked myself off the ground, and when that same defender came barreling towards me again, I was zoned in, oblivious to the noise around me. I chipped the ball into the open space right behind him, knowing my teammate would run into the space without even looking. From then on, I continued to hone my skills through intense practice to become the best playmaker I could be, working in conjunction with my faster and stronger teammates to become a well-balanced, unified team.
Through chess and soccer, I have discovered that every piece in a puzzle has a purpose. This new perspective has enhanced my ability to stop, stand back, and analyze the whole picture in the many dimensions of my life. In my scientific studies, it was not enough to examine just one C. reinhardtii cell, but it was necessary to zoom out the microscope to capture all of the thousand cells to truly understand quorum sensing and its consequences. In my studies of music, it was not enough to listen to the melody of the finale of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, but one must realize that the true beauty of the composition lies in the whole orchestra handing off this simple melody to every instrument. All these facets—music, research, soccer, chess—are not only completed puzzles but also parts of a greater whole: my life. Every aspect of myself matters as much as the other. As high school comes to an end, the pieces on my board are set, and I only have success in mind.
What works: Like the writer of Example 1, the writer of this essay draws a lesson from one hobby and applies it on a larger scale. He hooks the reader with his coach’s comment and the stakes of the chess game. The essay conveys to the reader that the writer is a mature thinker, able to look at the full scope of things, in chess, soccer, and life. He incorporates some humor into the essay without it feeling forced and his particular voice definitely comes across. Cleverly, the writer uses the fact that he is not the fastest or strongest player on his soccer team to highlight his strengths, mainly his ability to work well with others and see the bigger picture.
Example 3: All That Matters
From Hamilton College, Essays That Worked
I’m 6. The sounds of hornpipe and laughter drift across the gymnasium-turned-cafeteria-turned-auditorium. Mum caught me dancing to some of her old Irish tapes — the Chieftains, Sinead O’Connor. She asked me if I wanted to do it for real. I said sure and went back to dancing. Now a freckled woman digs around in a cardboard box and pulls out a pair of dusty, worn black shoes. “Don’t worry,” she says, “you’ll learn eventually.” The shoes are too big; they sag at the toes. I approach the stage. Twenty-five pairs of eyes fix on me. In a room bustling with motion, everything stands still. It doesn’t matter that I feel like a clown in an ill-fitting costume. All that matters is the dancing.
I’m 9. I sit in the hallway of the Times Square Marriott watching girls in big wigs and sparkly dresses run around, squawking like glamorous, unhinged chickens. In my tartan skirt and simple bun, I feel like an ugly duckling. The bobby pins dutifully securing my bun in place make my scalp ache. My hands slide to my shoes. They’re too tight. Mum put them on her feet to “try and stretch them out a little.” I pass some over-enthusiastic dance moms who put the “mother” in “smother.” I reach the stage. A hundred pairs of eyes fix on me. In a hotel bustling with motion, everything stands still. It doesn’t matter that I’m out of place. All that matters is the dancing.
I’m 12. My brain won’t stop flipping through disastrous scenarios as I stand with my teammates in a hotel in Orlando, Florida. We’ve trained for months, sacrificed everything for this moment. I try to think of happy things: the pride on Dad’s face when he watches me dance, the freedom of flying across a stage on invisible wings. We recite our steps like a poem, the sequences like a song that carries us through an ocean of fiddles, pipes, and drums. My parents sacrificed a lot to send me here. I want to make them proud. I want to make myself proud. We approach the national stage. A thousand pairs of eyes fix on me. In a world bustling with motion, everything stands still. It doesn’t matter that I feel like a fraud. All that matters is the dancing.
I’m 15. An Irish accent lilts through the ballroom of the World Championships. It sounds like mashed potatoes and Sunday bests and the green hills of home that I know so well. We mutter a prayer. I’m not sure I believe in God, though I should. I look at my partner and wish we were more than friends. She smiles. I don’t think God believes in me. We ascend the stage. A million pairs of eyes fix on me. In a universe bustling with motion, everything stands still. It doesn’t matter that I’ll never be enough. All that matters is the dancing.
I’ll be 18. Murmuring voices will hover in the air of the gymnasium-turned-cafeteria-turned-auditorium. A little girl will approach me timidly, wearing a very old tartan skirt. I’ll reach out softly, adjusting her bun to soothe her aching scalp. Then, I’ll slide my hands toward her feet, toward a pair of small, dusty shoes. “You’ll learn,” I’ll say. They’ll sag at the toes, but I’ll reassure her: “Don’t worry. You’ll grow into them.” Then, she and I will look at my own beloved shoes. They’ll be worn, but I’ll tell her the creases are like a map, evidence of the places I’ve been, the heartbreaks I’ve suffered, the joy I’ve danced. My life is in these shoes. We’ll hear the music begin to play, the tide of fiddles, and pipes, and drums. I’ll take her hand and, with a deep breath, we’ll climb the stage. “Ahd mor.” It won’t matter that this is the end. All that has ever mattered is the dancing.
What works: This essay shows how you can take risks with the structure and style of your essay. In many ways, this essay goes against the advice that we give: it leaves certain conclusions implicit rather than stated, it tackles many complex issues, and its story does not necessarily have a clear arc or turning point. However, the essay is still effective: the writer focuses on how her relationship with Irish dancing has evolved and uses these scenes to show different sides of herself. She is clearly self-reflective and a deep thinker. A weaker writer might not have been able to pull off this essay, but this writer did by focusing on her developing self-image and keeping the reader engaged with vivid language throughout.
Example 4: Flipped Pages
From Hamilton College, Essays That Worked
75,000 flipped pages. 11,520 packed boxes. 6 school maps.
I began measuring my life in flipped pages, packed boxes, and school maps when I was 6. As my family and I flitted between states and coasts for my father’s job over the last decade, I shielded myself with fantasy novels. With my head propped on the baseboard near my nightlight and a book held up in front of me by aching arms, I would dance in whimsical forests, fight daring battles, and rule dangerous courts long after dark. In my fantastic universe, I could take turns being the queen, the knight, the hero, and even the villain. These books helped me express the happiness, anger, sadness, and queerness I could not have even begun to imagine alone.
The characters I discovered in novels as I toured libraries and Barnes & Noble stores in strip malls around the country taught me resilience and empowered me to nourish my strengths. Mare Barrow showed me the power of determined women, and I unapologetically strove for academic excellence and obtained a GPA of 4.4. Tane, from The Priory of the Orange Tree, inspired me to push the limits of my own body, so I’ve traversed approximately 1,544 miles in cross-country races and practices. Evelyn Hugo’s unapologetic character compelled me to want to embrace and feel free with my queerness rather than shelter it away in a shameful corner. Even further, this year I am adding a third dimension to my love of fantasy by interpreting Mrs. White in my school’s production of Shuddersome and The Monkey’s Paw with assistance from Anne of Green Gables, my first fictional idol, who massively influenced my personality and tendency for dramatics. But above all, Leigh Bardugu, my favorite author, gave me permission to even dare to write and to dream that I can.
What began as a safety net in my adolescence has grown to something more, a true passion for English and all that it can express. Language is power and I wish to wield it like a mighty sword. I want to be the puppetmaster, the speaker, and the leader in a world that is crafted in ink. I want to be a New York Times bestseller and to know that whatever I do is impactful and that it creates a difference, no matter how small. I want to walk down a crowded street and see “my book” spread open in a passing person’s hands, as they refuse to put it down, just like I did so many times in the hallways of my middle school. A writer, a college professor, a publishing lawyer: I want it all, the riots of failure, and the pride of success.
Without the assistance of literature, I wouldn’t be who I am today. If I hadn’t grown up fueled on library hauls I wouldn’t have discovered that I love English. I wouldn’t get shivers when I fret for a favorite character or celebrate their triumphs, be as ready to face obstacles, or be as adventurous as I am. Without the moves around the country and back, I wouldn’t have become so resilient and open to change, so adaptable to life, but most importantly I wouldn’t have become so in love with language. With every move I burrowed in books, and with every book I became me. Literature has made me in every way, and the only way I can repay it is to become the penman.
What works: The writer hooks the reader with numeric values: 75,000 flipped pages. 11,520 packed boxes. 6 school maps. Rather than losing the writer in descriptions of other people’s books, we actually learn more about her than the books she reads: she successfully uses the books as a way of revealing different sides of herself — ambition, determination, resilience. The turning point of the essay is a shift in perspective: rather than wanting to escape the difficulties of moving around a lot as she grew up, the writer appreciates how those experiences fostered her love of literature. She incorporates her larger goals and ambitions (not just what she wants to major in), showing a broader view of her life before her.
Example 5: Piece by Piece: Building My Reality
From Connecticut College, Essays That Worked
At this point in my life, I am used to the chuckles I receive upon telling my friends that I, in fact, love Legos. Growing up in a house of four children was a hectic environment to say the least; an escape from the chaos of siblings was much needed. As a kid, sitting down and concentrating on one task was never my intention, rather I was constantly energetic, chasing and being chased by my siblings.
Building Lego sets had always been a way to minimize any stressors that were going on at the time, or to simply relax and enjoy the challenge. My first Lego set was given to me at a very young age, my seventh birthday, and although excited, I was puzzled with what I was supposed to accomplish. I knew that Luke Skywalker was going to need a little more assistance than I could offer at that age, so after countless hours of struggling and persisting, I inevitably succumbed to the numerous offers of help. Each birthday and holiday moving forward, I requested Legos in order to perfect my ability, and each time I gained expertise. Finally, I encountered my own “Eureka!” moment, individually completing my first kit, a miniature replica of the Seattle Space Needle, solely on willpower and sheer excitement.
My worn, but comfortable bedroom floor had become my safe haven for letting my mind wander and to create sculptures I would have never thought of if it hadn’t been for my obsession with those miniscule, plastic blocks. I hadn’t usually been the most creative, artistic person; however, when I sat down in my room next to my collection and freed my mind, I suddenly become an artist of my own definition. Soon, as I got older, more unique ideas for pieces flooded my mind rather than following strict instructions. These ideas had resulted in the possibility of designing and constructing certain buildings and entities, of course without any real-world consequences. My bedroom floor eventually turned into a skyline resembling that of New York City, skyscrapers grazing the top of my bed and Rockefeller Center spanning from my desk to my closet. Arriving home late from school or a strenuous practice, I was relieved to lay down next to my meaningful, personalized city.
I rarely construct Lego structures nowadays; however, my obsession with those tiny bricks embedded a passion in me that will never cease to follow me. Arriving to a boarding school as a first-year student, I was extremely hesitant and nervous. Though I would soon be a part of a team, I sought an escape from my anxiety of being away from home and especially my bedroom. Though I hadn’t brought along any of my Legos, (I’m sure you can imagine why), I signed up for a new class which taught the basics of ceramics and sculpting figures. Ceramics was an entire new entity to me and I enjoyed every second of it. I had been constructing simple bowls and plates to ease myself into the new medium I was using. Soon, however, I became more confident and adventurous with my designs. After hours in the studio at school, I ultimately transferred my projects back to my personal studio, my bedroom, to join the company of my surrounding Lego projects. Not only providing me with entertainment, Legos left an everlasting mark on my capacity to experiment with new endeavors I would rarely attempt.
Legos hold a special place in my mind and my heart due to the effect they have had on my curiosity, creativity and overall optimism. I will continue to design my sculptures, my essays, and my future, which is certainly guided by my imagination. Having constructed those guided, age appropriate sets and eventually designing unique pieces, I developed a knack for sculpting and imagining brand new ideas I transfer into my everyday life.
What works: The topic of this essay is both ordinary and unusual: Legos. The writer uses what seems like a simple or childish interest as a way to reflect on larger qualities: curiosity, optimism, risk-taking. The turning point for this essay comes when the writer decides to take a ceramics class; the writer doesn’t just tell us that playing with Legos made him more curious and creative, he shows us a precise example of how his behavior changed. Rather than writing an essay about the difficulty of going to a boarding school (a more cliche topic), the writer weaves this difficulty into a quirkier essay about his love of Legos, and it makes for a much more interesting read.
Example 6: Number 48
From Connecticut College, Essays That Worked
“How many times did I wake up at 4:15 a.m. this summer?” I found myself once again asking this question as I climbed endless stone steps with bruised shins and dirt-filled fingernails. The answer: twenty-two times. I was in a rush to finish the 48th peak before school began in order to fulfill a goal I set in fifth grade after meeting a wild pack of Appalachian Trail through-hikers. I marveled at their determination. Climbing all 48 four thousand foot peaks within New Hampshire is an ambitious goal that takes some people a lifetime to finish. There I was, at 6:15 a.m., gasping for air and wondering who I should blame for the pain.
Maybe I had my parents to blame for my drive to be in the wilderness. They exposed me to the outdoors at a young age, sparking my passion for hiking and backpacking. Having lived in China for four and a half years and traveling the world, I always knew my childhood was unique. Unlike other expatriates, my family dismissed four-star resorts and instead chose to stumble through the alleyways of Hong Kong with an array of camping supplies. As a six-year-old, I was fortunate enough to find myself in Italy running from a wild herd of cattle in the Alps. During our summers in Oregon, instead of renting a car, we pedaled through the hilly streets on a three-person bike. These experiences, that made my family different, instilled in me a sense of adventure.
The 48 strenuous climbs and endless miles also brought beautiful vistas. If we were lucky, we got to end the day at a high mountain hut where we drank endless cups of rich hot chocolate. I would sit in the corner of the dining room engrossed in books about rare lichen. At Mizpah hut, I had the chance to talk with a female naturalist about some of the endangered alpine flora. I sat and stared in awe. I didn't know that someone could have a job doing field studies in the mountains. I’ve spent the last six years looking at the sides of the trails for the dwarf Cinquefoil she introduced to me. That’s when I knew I wanted to become a hands-on environmentalist so I could spend more time doing the things I love. Maybe I have the naturalist to blame for all the blisters and early mornings on the trail.
Mount Isolation was my last peak. One last push. Number 48. 13.6 miles. After the first grueling thirty minutes, the path opened up and I could see all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. This is the way it always goes. First, the struggle, and then the reward. Mt. Washington glowed like amber. The wind nipped at my fingertips and shook the crooked trees. My heavy breathing competed with the sounds of the white-throated sparrows. I had the entire mountain to myself. Overwhelmed by emotion, I began to cry bittersweet tears. No more waking up at 4:15 a.m. but then again, no more celebratory Cokes at the top. I was done. I decided to let go of the blame for all the early mornings. Instead, I would love to give my fifth grade-self a big “thank you”.
The struggles only augmented the joy I felt on the car ride home with music playing and my feet wiggling in the wind. I felt that I had graduated from my childhood. Hiking over the past seventeen years with my family has created endless memories, yet it's time for me to start a new chapter of my life. Maybe I’ll hike the Adirondack 46ers, explore sections of the Appalachian Trail, or guide others through the wilderness. But I know I will always continue to look around and search for rare specimens and marvel at the ordinary.
What works: The writer hooks the reader with a piece of dialogue and by setting the scene for the essay: climbing her 48th peak in New Hampshire. The recurring question of who is to “blame” for this grueling hike is a tongue-in-cheek refrain throughout the essay, and it helps propel its turning point (the writer’s gratitude to her younger self and the implication that she is at the top of this mountain because of her own determination). The writer weaves into the essay memorable stories providing a glimpse into her unique childhood, and we get a sense of her interests in adventuring and nature writing. The last line of the piece is unexpected, in a good way: we might expect a conclusion about her clear determination and discipline, but instead she focuses on a quieter lesson: to wonder at the wilderness around her.
MSt, Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies (University of Oxford)
Paige Elizabeth Allen has a Master’s degree in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor’s degree in English from Princeton University. Her research interests include monstrosity, the Gothic tradition, illness in literature and culture, and musical theatre. Her dissertation examined sentient haunted houses through the lenses of posthumanism and queer theory.