By: Susanna de Chenonceau, M.Ed.
In 20 years of reading college essays and giving students advice on this monumental teenage rite of passage, I do have some standout favorite essays of all time. These are essays that I would go back and read today. But why? What was it about these essays that made them so entertaining and engaging? As we move into college essay season, I’ll take a moment to reflect on these top picks from my twenty years in the trenches and give you some insights into what these teenage writers did right.
Walking in Tokyo
The writer of this essay just graduated from Seattle University. She writes about growing up as a white American in Tokyo, and this essay is in every sense a love story about the city. She writes of how in Tokyo she walked everywhere, and as she walked–to school, to the store, to meet friends, to go home–she noted the vibrant colors, sounds and people around her, and she thought, about everything. She lets you hear her thoughts, and you get to see Tokyo through the eyes of someone who adores its every street.
That’s what makes the essay cool–she puts her heart on paper and lets you share it. The essay also talks about the culture shock she experienced in moving back to America and how it took her two years to figure out that she was sad because she missed walking everywhere, everyday in Tokyo. This is an uplifting tribute to growing up and discovering who we are and how much the things we love can mean to us.
This student goes to Hamilton College, studies science, and wrote easily one of the most dry and wry college essays I have ever read. Perhaps he is British. The premise of this essay, which we have listed in its entirety on the Essays page of CollegeMapper, is that this science guy goes to the museum and is handed a worksheet on “How to Appreciate Fine Art”.
Thrilled to finally understand what his esoteric, poetry-loving cohorts revel in, he approaches the museum optimistically, armed with his step-by-step formula, and walks through tests like “make the faces the people in the paintings are making” and “consider which sounds would accompany this work of art.” He gives up when his trusty worksheet asks him how the red and blue light bulbs make him feel. I think what always worked for me about this essay if that you see this logical guy really, really wanting to understand poetry and art, and you see him really give it an open-minded try until he affirms that being a scientist is just fine with him. This essay is optimistic, adventurous and curious. It is also confident; the student is comfortable being who he is, but he is curious about new points of view. And it was hilarious, always a plus.
Reading in the Shower
Favorite. Essay. Ever. She talks about how she would read novels like Anna Karenina in the shower, beneath a clear plastic shower cap, because her Asian parents forbid her to read small books, and insisted that she read big books like SAT practice tests. The essay is evocative and powerful because you see this student’s determination to read. You see her disappointment when she finally gets a drivers license and goes to the library to get her own card only to learn that the limit is really 14 books, not the 7 she was always told by her parents. You hear her talk about Jane Eyre and Odysseus like siblings and uncles, the family that, as an only child, she always longed for. You see her grow up reading feverishly and fervently, but nowhere in the essay does she ever even hint at disrespect or disregard for her parents. It is a powerful look into the mind of an avid reader, set against the backdrop of a pretty difficult childhood. Touching, poignant, and uplifting. She went to Columbia University.
This American Life
This debater went to Dartmouth, and the essay he used to get there talked about years of long car rides with his dad, listening to This American Life on NPR. When he no longer rode with his dad, and when school activities claimed more of his time, he missed the show and started to download the podcasts to his iPod. He writes of how Ira Glass taught him to look at the small things everywhere and every day. He shares some of his favorite episodes and some of the things he learned. What I like about this is that it sounds profoundly simple, but the reader sees what matters to this kid. You hear him thinking about fun topics, sad topics, and touchy topics. You learn that he is a thinker, and because he talks about what he values, you also learn that he is a good person. A point worth mentioning is that this student was a minority with foreign-born parents and a very ethnic name, so writing about a topic so fundamentally American made it clear that America was his beloved home and that he would have no problems of cultural adjustments at the college since he grew up here.
Ben and Jerry’s
Hilarious. The kid gets his first real job at Ben and Jerry’s and is so excited he can’t sleep the night before. All goes well for this Scooper in Training, until a group of 13-year-old girls, celebrating the end of the school year, decide to start flirting with him while ordering their ice cream. The dialogue is classic. You can read the essay on the CollegeMapper site. While attempting to remain professional, he has to handle this awkward situation that was clearly covered nowhere in his thoroughly-read employee handbook. I don’t know what made me laugh more: their awkward attempts at flirting with a Senior, or his cherry red face as he tried to deflect their public attention. This essay shows the author in a tough spot, albeit a funny one, but the reader sees that he is not so proud that he can’t share an embarrassing moment (always endearing!) and that he is clearly able to keep his cool and think on his feet (always a plus). Everyone loves ice cream, so I’m already in a good mood when I read this (plus 1 for the kid) and who can’t relate to being excited about their first real job? A terrific success.
What all of these have in common is that you really learn about this person by hearing them reflect on one simple facet of their life. By the time you finish the essay, you think, “I’d like to meet that kid!” They sound like neat people, fun people, nice people. These essays are not earth-shattering, they are honest. They are not about superheroes but real people. Take a page from these authors’ books and write about what matters to you, and who you are. Let the reader get to know you a little, through a typical moment in your life. Sincerity is always successful. The only thing you need to be in a college essay is you.