Writing the college application essay is a daunting task. One great way to get started is to read examples of successful essays. Reading sample college essays gives you great ideas and helps to illustrate what is expected from a good college essay. Check out these college essay examples for inspiration!

College Essay Example #1: A Tale of Two Cities

Prompt: Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

With moments to spare, I catch a glimpse of the boarding platform for my train. Like a captain frantically seeking port in a storm, I haul myself through the turbulent ocean of people, trying to avoid being stranded – or trampled – in the dustiest city in the world: Beijing, capital of both China and smog.

Luckily, I board my train with seconds to spare, and without being turned into a pancake – always a plus. The conductor welcomes me aboard. At last, it is time to return home to Shanghai.

It is the summer of 2012, and Shanghai isn’t to be home for much longer. In another week I will cross the globe to start a new life in a foreign land called Charlotte.

Which is home? The place I am leaving or the place I am going? Arrival or departure? Like a compass with a broken magnetic strip, I can’t decide my true North.

Unsettled, I turn to my ever-present book for comfort. Today it is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, already worn and slightly crumpled. They say the best books tell you what you already know, resonating with your own thoughts and emotions. As I read, it is as if the tempest of my thoughts is spelled out on paper. The overflowing sense of hyper-reality in Tim O’Brien’s words of warfare spills into my world. His words somehow become my words, his memories become my memories. Despite the high speed of the bullet train, my mind is perfectly still – trapped between the narrative of the book and the narrative of my own life.

I feel like I should feel disturbed, but I’m not. I read the last page and close the book, staring out the window at the shining fish ponds and peaceful rice paddies. I feel like a speck of dust outside the train, floating, content and happy to be between destinations.

I am at home between worlds. I speak both English and Chinese: Chinese is for math, science, and process, but I prefer English for art, emotion, and description. America owns my childhood, filled with pine trees, blockbuster movies, and Lake Tahoe snow; China holds my adolescence, accompanied by industrial smog, expeditious mobility, and fast-paced social scenes.

We are drawing into Shanghai Hong Qiao station. My reverie isn’t at an end, but I have the answer to my question. Home is neither arrival nor departure, neither America nor China. Home is the in-between, the cusp of transition – that is where I feel most content.

What works?

In our College Essay Clichés to Avoid post, we advised students against writing about moving to America from a foreign country. Too often, such essays are formulaic and uninspiring – after all, while it’s certainly a challenge to learn a new language and culture, millions of people do it every day, so it simply isn’t something that sets a student apart.

This essay is an example of how to tell the story of moving to America in a unique way. This student focused on a single question – where is home? – and showed the reader a lot about who he is as a person. Through this skillfully crafted essay, we learn that the student has led a very international life, the student has a way with words, the student loves literature, the student is bilingual, and the student is excited by change. The essay is a joy to read, sharing a detailed glimpse of the student’s personality without feeling like it’s trying to list positive personal qualities.

College Essay Example #2: “Most Original” Pumpkin

Prompt: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

I won “Most Original” pumpkin at a Halloween party years ago. I have the “Most Original” award. It’s a consolation prize. You can’t be the best, or the prettiest, so you have to be “original.” I’ve won the “Most Original” award a fair number of times. I was even named “Most Original” at a basketball awards banquet. What does that even mean? How can anybody be “Most Original” when she’s playing basketball?

Recognizing the “Most Original” award for the pity-prize that it was, I grew increasingly hostile toward the very word “original.” If you win this cursed award, everyone around you offers feigned sympathy or, even worse, insincere congratulations. Phrases like “oh, bummer” or well-intentioned but half-hearted “well, good for you” circle the recipient, creating a cyclone of regret from which the “winner” will never recover.

Okay, maybe I’m overreacting – but I cannot for the life of me understand that award. “Most Original” always let me down, and as a result, I hated to be original in any context. In my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, where normality was…well, the norm, I tried to be a typical student – absolutely, perfectly normal. I blended into crowds, the definition of typical. I became a person who refused to surprise people. Just another brick in the wall.

Dull.

And then I moved to Berkeley for six months. It’s an odd, vibrant place with odd, vibrant people. Originality is celebrated there – not in the half-hearted “good for you” way, but in the full-throated “GOOD FOR YOU!” way. One of the first of my fellow students to befriend me wore corset tops and tutus and carried a parasol with which she punctuated her every utterance. Her best friend was a boy with purple hair who once wore a shirt with built in LED lights for Christmas. They were the most popular people in school, in direct contrast to all that was socially acceptable in New Haven. Our peers recognized them as being unique, but instead of ostracizing them or pitying them, the students in Berkeley celebrated them.

In Berkeley, I learned the value of originality: Those who celebrate their individuality are not only unique but strong. It takes great strength to defy the definitions of others, and because of that strength, those who create their own paths discover a different world than those who travel the same worn road.

I returned to New Haven a changed person. My appearance was certainly different – red streaks in my hair and a newfound fondness for tutus certainly made me stand out. But the change went deeper than that: I had embraced the idea of being myself, no matter what others thought was cool or “normal.” Spending time in a place where “Most Original” was the highest compliment allowed me to explore myself without fear of being different or lesser, and I liked what I had found.

I’m still skeptical about the “Most Original” award. In the context of an award ceremony, it’s still just a meaningless consolation prize. But I don’t think of being “Most original” as an insult anymore – I wear it as a badge of honor, proof that I am myself and no one else.

A friend recently joked, “If there were a ‘Quirkiest’ award in the yearbook, you’d definitely win.” We were standing outside of a classroom, and I was wearing a pair of gold, glittery shorts that definitely caught the eye. “Quirkiest?” I said. “How about ‘Most Original.’”

What Works

This writer’s style clearly shows off her sense of humor. If one of the purposes of a college essay is to make yourself come to life off the page, then this essay hits the mark. Far from seeming unfinished or unedited, the somewhat stream-of-consciousness style establishes a humorous and self-deprecating tone that makes the reader instantly like the applicant. More than anything else, it is this writing style that elevates what could have been a fairly superficial statement of personal growth into a truly informative story that showcases the author’s personality.

College Essay Example #3: Baked with Love

Prompt: Describe a place or environment where you feel perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

The sweet smell of cinnamon resonated through the house. A wave of heat washed over my face as I opened the oven door to reveal my first batch of snickerdoodles. Small domes of sugary cookies shyly peeked from the edge of the door. I smiled as I thought about the joy these cookies would bring to my friends. They like to compare me to the witch in Hansel and Gretel, joking that I fatten children up and then forget to eat them. I don’t particularly love being in the same company as an evil witch, but any rancor I might feel at this comparison is overwhelmed by my enjoyment of their anticipation of my baked goods.

There is something about the warmth of a kitchen filled with the buttery smell of pastry that evokes a feeling of utter relaxation. I find joy in sharing this warm and homey experience by showering the people around me with sweets. The smile that ticks up the corners of someone’s mouth as they bite into my food gives me a sense of pride and accomplishment.

For as long as I can remember, baking has been an integral part of my life. Thanks to busy parents and hungry siblings, I was encouraged to cook from a relatively young age. Time spent in the kitchen naturally piqued my interest in baking, and that glimmer of interest blossomed into a heart-warming hobby that rejuvenates my stressful days, improves upon even the happiest moments, and brings joy to the people around me.

They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. It has been my experience that the way to ANYONE’S heart is through the stomach. To me, food is not simply about sustenance. The time that I spend in my kitchen, the effort and care that I pour into my confectionary creations, is a labor of love that brings me just as much satisfaction as it does my hungry friends and family.

What Works?

This essay doesn’t share many life-defining revelations; we learn, as a brief aside, that the author often cared for her younger siblings, but little beyond that. Yet despite its relative lack of major information, it reveals a lot about who the author is. We learn that the author knows how to turn a phrase, the author is a warm and caring person, the author has a sense of humor, and the author will bring us cookies if we admit her to our imaginary college. All in all, we see a student who is a skilled writer with a warm heart – positive traits, to be sure.

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