The following is a real college application essay written for the “topic of your choice” prompt on the 2012 Common App. I am using it with the writer’s permission.
Bowing down to the porcelain god, I emptied the contents of my stomach. Foaming at the mouth, I was ready to pass out. My body couldn’t stop shaking as I gasped for air, and the room started spinning.
Ten minutes prior, I had been eating dinner with my family at a Chinese restaurant, drinking chicken-feet soup. My mom had specifically asked the waitress if there were peanuts in it, because when I was two we found out that I am deathly allergic to them. When the waitress replied no, I went for it. Suddenly I started scratching my neck, feeling the hives that had started to form. I rushed to the restroom to throw up because my throat was itchy and I felt a weight on my chest. I was experiencing anaphylactic shock, which prevented me from taking anything but shallow breaths. I was fighting the one thing that is meant to protect me and keep me alive – my own body.
At five years old, I couldn’t comprehend what had happened. All I knew was that I felt sick, and I was waiting for my mom to give me something to make it better. I thought my parents were superheroes; surely they would be able to make well again. But I became scared when I heard the fear in their voices as they rushed me to the ER.
After that incident, I began to fear. I became scared of death, eating, and even my own body. As I grew older, I became paranoid about checking food labels and I avoided eating if I didn’t know what was in the food. I knew what could happen if I ate one wrong thing, and I wasn’t willing to risk it for a snack. Ultimately, that fear turned into resentment; I resented my body for making me an outsider.
In the years that followed, this experience and my regular visits to my allergy specialist inspired me to become an allergy specialist. Even though I was probably only ten at the time, I wanted to find a way to help kids like me. I wanted to find a solution so that nobody would have to feel the way I did; nobody deserved to feel that pain, fear, and resentment. As I learned more about the medical world, I became more fascinated with the body’s immune responses, specifically, how a body reacts to allergens. This past summer, I took a month-long course on human immunology at Stanford University. I learned about the different mechanisms and cells that our bodies use in order to fight off pathogens. My desire to major in biology in college has been stimulated by my fascination with the human body, its processes, and the desire to find a way to help people with allergies. I hope that one day I can find a way to stop allergic reactions or at least lessen the symptoms, so that children and adults don’t have to feel the same fear and bitterness that I felt.
acecattorney asked: About how many words (roughly) should each of the 3 supplemental writings be? I find the 500KB document limit a little bit vague and I'm not sure if I've written too much overall... Thanks so much for answering these questions!
We usually suggest that the “Why Chicago” and “Favorite Things” essays are between 250-300 words, or around 1-2 paragraphs. The extended supplement essay on one of our “Uncommon prompts” can be a bit longer; I suggest 1-2 pages single or double spaced (2 pages double spaced verging in to the “too long” side of things). These aren’t hard and fast rules, so a few more words is totally fine— but be nice to us, we read lots of essays each year and total information overload can be a bit overwhelming.
Can an essay take you to the top?
Guest post by Parke Muth
Your question gets asked in many forms and ways and I have answered it hundreds if not thousands of times. In your case, I am looking at the schools you have listed your question to go to and they are among the most selective in the world. I point this out because if these are your choice schools then how I will answer this question will be different than if I simply added words in general.
The Ivies, MIT, Stanford etc., on average, accept between 5%-10% of those who apply. In order to be one of the lucky few you have to have more than just a great essay. Essays don’t get looked at first in the evaluation process. Instead, the transcript and testing and your background and school and courses do. Without some compelling numbers and overall stellar performance, a great essay won’t get you that far.
On the other hand, having great numbers is just the start of getting in to these kinds of schools. Just about everyone that applies has strong numbers, and some are nearly perfect. Some really are perfect. And still some of those with perfect numbers don’t get in. Why? Numbers predict academic success but they don’t compel a reader to say yes. More often than not words and actions need to come in to play.
In some cases, the actions trump numbers. Great athletes whose numbers are ok often get in over those with much higher numbers. So too with those who have other special talents whether it be in a particular academic area or some other interest (fine arts, service or business are just a few examples).
Essays aren’t icing. You are not a cake. But they are not the determinative factor unless you already have passed through the portal of high numbers. There are a few exceptions to this but they mostly come from those who have some sort of amazing story. Those who have had to negotiate with terrorists to save their parents, those who had to step over crack addicts to get to school, those who survived a tsunami. I mention these real examples because if you hope to get in on the basis of the plot of your essay you’d better have something that only a tiny group of people in the world have been through. The stories of overcoming hardship tend to play better than doing some things that are impressive but may cost a whole lot of money and time that most others don’t have. A guy that had climbed 9 of the world’s 10 top mountains didn’t get into most of the top schools on your list even though he had pretty good numbers.
Let’s say you are your average run of the mill really smart person. Here’s where essays can make or break you. I often say it isn’t necessarily the dramatic that gets you in; instead, it’s the well-crafted essay that demonstrates you have not just the ability to communicate beautifully through the written word but that you can do so within the context of the world you live in. By this I mean that what you often know best and can write about with unforgettable detail is what is in front of you each day. Creating that world for others is both an art and a science. It can be learned but it usually takes time.
When I worked in selective admission, I would look for essays that had ‘a local habitation and a name’ (a phrase I have stolen from Shakespeare). I wanted to hear and see and touch and smell and feel the world you are in. Details that show, and, by end, tell too. If I felt I found a rare voice I would fight like hell to get that student in. But there are not many who can do this. I say this from personal and professional experience. I write quite a lot and most of it is ok or occasionally even better than ok, but only rarely do I hit a vein that does, in a small space, what I want it to—move the reader in some way.
Essays that are poorly written can doom a person who is virtually perfect in most other ways. It usually does not work the other way around. A great essay won’t overcome gaps in the numbers, or if it does, there is usually something else going on—some sort of special category for admission.
If you search my blog under “essay” and “selective admission” admission you will find many more comments on this topic. If you search under “essay test” you will find many examples of essays that were submitted to highly selective schools. And if you search under “McEssay” you will find links to an article I wrote on admission essays for US News.
About the Author:
Parke Muth served for twenty-eight years in the Office of Admission at the University of Virginia, has spoken far and wide on college essays, and blogs at www.onlyconnectparke.blogspot.com.
He was originally asked to answer this question on the website Quora.com.
The following is a real college application essay. I am using it with the writer’s permission.
From page 54 of the maroon notebook sitting on my mahogany desk:
“Then Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth and whoever finds me will kill me.” - Genesis 4:13
Here is a secret that no one in my family knows: I shot my brother when I was six. Luckily, it was a BB gun. But to this day, my older brother Jonathan does not know who shot him. And I have finally promised myself to confess this eleven year old secret to him after I write this essay.
The truth is, I was always jealous of my brother. Our grandparents, with whom we lived as children in Daegu, a rural city in South Korea, showered my brother with endless accolades: he was bright, athletic, and charismatic.
“Why can’t you be more like Jon?” my grandmother used to nag, pointing at me with a carrot stick. To me, Jon was just cocky. He would scoff at me when he would beat me in basketball, and when he brought home his painting of Bambi with the teacher’s sticker “Awesome!” on top, he would make several copies of it and showcase them on the refrigerator door. But I retreated to my desk where a pile of “Please draw this again and bring it to me tomorrow” papers lay, desperate for immediate treatment. Later, I even refused to attend the same elementary school and wouldn’t even eat meals with him.
Deep down I knew I had to get the chip off my shoulder. But I didn’t know how.
That is, until March 11th, 2001.
That day around six o’clock, juvenile combatants appeared in Kyung Mountain for their weekly battle, with cheeks smeared in mud and empty BB guns in their hands. The Korean War game was simple: to kill your opponent you had to shout “pow!” before he did. Once we situated ourselves, our captain blew the pinkie whistle and the war began. My friend Min-young and I hid behind a willow tree, eagerly awaiting our orders.
Beside us, our comrades were dying, each falling to the ground crying in “agony,” their hands clasping their “wounds.” Suddenly a wish for heroism surged within me: I grabbed Min-young’s arms and rushed towards the enemies’ headquarters, disobeying our orders to remain sentry duty. To tip the tide of the war, I had to kill their captain. We infiltrated the enemy lines, narrowly dodging each attack. We then cleared the pillars of asparagus ferns until the Captain’s lair came into view. I quickly pulled my clueless friend back into the bush.
Hearing us, the alarmed captain turned around: It was my brother.
He saw Min-young’s right arm sticking out from the bush and hurled a “grenade,” (a rock), bruising his arm.
“That’s not fair!” I roared in the loudest and most unrecognizable voice I could manage.
Startled, the Captain and his generals abandoned their post. Vengeance replaced my wish for heroism and I took off after the fleeing perpetrator. Streams of sweat ran down my face and I pursued him for several minutes until suddenly I was arrested by a small, yellow sign that read in Korean: DO NOT TRESPASS: Boar Traps Ahead. (Two summers ago, my five year old cousin, who insisted on joining the ranks, had wandered off-course during the battle; we found him at the bottom of a 20 ft deep pit with a deep gash in his forehead and shirt soaked in blood) “Hey, stop!” I shouted, heart pounding. “STOP!” My mind froze. My eyes just gazed at the fleeing object; what should I do?
I looked on as my shivering hand reached for the canister of BBs. The next second, I heard two shots followed by a cry. I opened my eyes just enough to see two village men carrying my brother away from the warning sign. I turned around, hurled my BB gun into the nearby Kyung Creek and ran home as fast as I could.
* * *
Days passed. My brother and I did not talk about the incident.
‘Maybe he knew it was me,’ I thought in fear as I tried to eavesdrop on his conversation with grandpa one day. When the door suddenly opened, I blurted, “Is anything wrong?”
“Nothing,” he said pushing past me, “Just a rough sleep.”
But in the next few weeks, something was happening inside me.
All the jealousy and anger I’d once felt had been replaced by a new feeling: guilt.
That night when my brother was gone I went to a local store and bought a piece of chocolate taffy, his favorite. I returned home and placed it on my brother’s bed with a note attached: “Love, Grandma.”
Several days later, I secretly went into his room and folded his unkempt pajamas.
Then, other things began to change. We began sharing clothes (something we had never done), started watching Pokémon episodes together, and then, on his ninth birthday, I did something with Jon that I hadn’t done in six years: I ate dinner with him. I even ate fishcakes, which he loved but I hated. And I didn’t complain.
Today, my brother is one of my closest friends. Every week I accompany him to Carlson Hospital where he receives treatment for his obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia. While in the waiting room, we play a noisy game of Zenga, comment on the Lakers’ performance or listen to the radio on the registrar’s desk.
Then, the door to the doctor’s office opens.
“Jonathan Lee, please come in.”
I tap his shoulder and whisper, “Rock it, bro.”
After he leaves, I take out my notebook and begin writing where I left off.
Beside me, the receptionist’s fingers hover over the radio in search of a new station, eventually settling on one. I hear LeAnn Rimes singing “Amazing Grace.” Her voice slowly rises over the noise of the bustling room.
“’Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear. And Grace, my fears relieved…”
Smiling, I open Jon’s Jansport backpack and neatly place this essay inside and a chocolate taffy with a note attached.
Twenty minutes have passed when the door abruptly opens.
“Guess what the doctor just said?” my brother cries, unable to hide his exhilaration.
I look up and I smile too.