A closer look at a winning college application essay

Ultimately, it's about you

We’ve already seen some winning college application essays, but why exactly did they work?

What did they do to snag the attention of the admissions readers?

Well, I’ve taken one of them — from Evan Summers, who applied successfully to Carleton College — and asked Carleton’s dean of admissions, Paul Thiboutot, to run through why it was a winner.

In a nutshell: Summers reveals an important side of himself — vividly, succinctly and with a bit of humor.

But there’s more.

First read the essay here.

Then read the remarks by Carleton’s Thiboutot, who spoke with me last week. (They’re edited notes. They’re not verbatim.)

Thiboutot:

He is clearly a baseball fan, and he uses it to explain why he sticks with a group and a cause. He can deal with disappointment. A lot of essays we read talk about the golden moment when the writers won – and this is just the opposite. How do you deal with failure and still remain optimistic? That’s what he’s conveying. It’s a show of passion and a show of his approach to living. If you talk about life and how you learn, this is a good attitude to have.

Remember: The essay can be universal, but is also personal. It can be self-reflective. This one has some humor in it. And you gain a sense of what he’s like personally. He can control the topic pretty well and can do it with a little drama.

True, you’re learning only one thing about him. But he’s showing us he can write. He’s engaging one aspect of life, and chances are he can apply that writing skill to other parts of life. This kid could be a sports writer, a historian, or any number of things.

Once you finish the essay, you have this image of you yourself at a sporting event — and the emotion of being there. It conjures up to the reader those kinds of moments, but it’s just the opposite (the feeling of defeat instead of victory). And he has captured it in one page. When you have a writer who can do it in one page, that’s pretty good.

When I read the last line, I had to go back and read the first line. They’re both about the broadcast. They tie in well. This kid put some thought into this.

I wondered whether the broadcast he described was real. But it doesn’t matter. There’s a command of the language he has. And the final two lines are just a wonderful little clincher.

That last line — what a wonderful way of looking at life.

Thiboutot was kind enough to pass on a few tips, starting with this:

The Main Thing: No matter what the topic is, the college essay is ultimately a story about yourself — nothing more.

And it needn’t be complicated.

What you choose to say in that story, how you choose to say it, what you convey need be no more complex than the quick statements you tell Mom and Dad: “Hey, guess what happened today?” (Or it could be much more involved.)

It’s not an academic exercise, nor is it a third-person explanation of something, like, “Let me tell you about the construction of a table.” It’s about you.

The challenge for someone at age 17 or 18 is, “Uh oh, what will I talk about?” Students think, “My life isn’t interesting enough.” But no, there probably is something to say. There probably may be too many things to choose from.

If the application tells you: Describe an experience or event in life that happened to you, do not:

  • Equate this essay to a travelogue
  • Equate it to a pathetic story
  • Make it an advertisement for your great achievement
  • Assume a voice or vocabulary that is not natural to you
  • Use two-bit words (as if you were using a thesaurus — see the point above)
  • Assume that this needs to win the Pulitzer Prize
  • Assume that some topic won’t be appropriate

Let’s look at that last one:

I don’t think it’s right to avoid topics, but I want to give caution: Any topic can be a topic. It’s all a matter of how you handle it. That particularly becomes central. If you have got something sad in your life – the loss of parent, a trauma, divorce – then how you control the topic and whether you show mature reflection on the topic will be critical. But don’t write something just to stand out.

For more help, check out Carleton’s tips for writing essays.