Common Application Personal Statement
Looking for examples of past college essays that worked? These are some admissions essays that our officers thought were most successful (and some thoughts from the officers that liked them).
Daniel Bekai '20
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
People who have grown up with siblings might laugh at the idea that I consider being an only child an essential part of my identity. But just as a relationship with a brother or sister can be deeply formative, so can the absence of these relationships. For me, this absence has been a powerful stimulus to my imagination and my growth as a person.
When people discover I am an only child, they often react with some sympathy, as if growing up alone meant growing up lonely. It's certainly true that I spent a lot of time alone; even though I had close friends in elementary school, I hung out with them mostly on weekends. But I never felt lonely. As a young child, I loved to get lost in different projects of my own--whether it was building rudimentary circuits and illuminating LED lights with my “DeluxeElectronics Lab,” or improving my origami technique with my “Fold-a-Day” calendar. In these activities, I needed no conversation partner, no playmate, because the act of creation itself became my friend, challenging me to keep improving upon my skills. But I didn't always need wires and bulbs and paper to keep me interested; over time, I learned to find satisfaction in the simple act of daydreaming.
I treat such “daydreaming” very seriously. For me, daydreaming is a powerful tool for my creativity. Almost all of my ideas--whether they concern building a robot, writing a student council speech, or solving a problem--originate in my daydreams. One thing that perhaps sets me apart from the stereotypical “daydreamer” is that I have the ability to put my daydreams to use in real life. During my sophomore year of high school, I was watching two of my friends arm wrestle, and I began to daydream about arm wrestling. Arm wrestling is a peculiar sport, in that it's always one-on-one; there are no variations with more than two players. I began to wonder if there was a way to have two people arm wrestle against another two people. My daydream then underwent a critical metamorphosis, from the realm of ideas to the realm of execution. That summer, I built a model for a double arm wrestling machine on Google Sketchup, and then, with the help of a professional welder, turned the model into a reality. Later that year, I organized the first ever two-on-two arm wrestling tournament in my school's history (and probably the world's too). As an added bonus, all the money I raised from the double arm wrestling tournament was donated to the people of Nepal, who suffered an earthquake a few weeks prior to the tournament.
Growing up as an only child, learning to entertain myself with nothing but ideas, problems, and some rudimentary materials, has taught me the importance of listening to one's own thoughts. This is especially important nowadays, as we live in a world full of screens and sounds competing for our attention. As a result, it is all too easy to tune out the more subtle frequency of our imaginations, the inner frontier. Many people have what the writer Verlyn Klinkenborg called “a fear of the dark, cavernous place called the mind,” but there is nothing to fear there. In fact, there is much to learn. I am grateful, as an only child, to have had the chance to grow comfortable in that solitary space.
Joseph Poirier '21
When problems arise, I solve them using copper fittings.
I first discovered this versatile building material as a seven-year-old visiting my father's HVAC shop. While waiting for him to finish working one night, I wandered from the modestly finished space at the front of the building to the shop in back, which featured high ceilings and imposing stacks of shelves. I was fascinated by the dusty machines with tubes, knobs, and old cracked nozzles. When Dad found me shoulder-deep in the scrap copper bin--which I later referred to as "the world's coolest trash can"--he determined that it was time to teach me to solder. Thirty minutes later, armed with a bowl haircut, a pair of safety glasses, and a healthy dose of self-confidence, I was ready to take on the world.
From then on, my childhood was a patchwork of failures. I fell into a constant cycle of thinking, designing, building, and rethinking. Common Christmas wish list items included drafting supplies and architectural stencils. Each childhood interest led me back to the shop, where I figured out a way to build it from copper fittings. Learning to play trombone inspired me to design my own instrument. After a faulty mouthpiece and soldering mistakes ruined three prototypes, "The Plumbone," an instrument that could play three distinct notes, became my first successful creation. When a middle school acids and bases project called for building a paper maché volcano, I built a cannon instead. Though my first model failed to "erupt," my second sprayed its contents so far that it left a swath of dead grass in my lawn. While the grass grew back, I built a soapbox car entirely out of copper and steel strut channel only to find myself claiming last place in the annual "Soapbox Derby." Noting that the lightest cars accelerated quickest, I rebuilt my car, replacing steel with PVC pipe, and took second the next year. Having navigated around so many obstacles, I imagined that I could build anything so long as I had copper fittings.
As I matured, however, I began to drift away from my old standby. While attempting increasingly abstract projects, I grew frustrated by the limitations of copper fittings. It felt like the end of an era when I decided to build one last copper item, a small creature that I gifted to my dad.
Leaving the familiarity of copper behind felt like entering a new, entirely foreign world. Embracing the freedom and uncertainty of Python, I began coding my newest idea: a game called "Dive." While the concept proved exhaustingly ambitious, success seemed imminent as I stitched my project together, patch by patch. Yet when I looked through my computer one morning, I realized that "Dive" was gone, wiped inadvertently during a visit to the Apple store. I stared in disbelief at the blank computer screen, wondering if my vision was lost forever.
At this pivotal moment, I realized why copper fittings represent such an important part of my childhood. When my cannon refused to fire correctly, I learned something new about propulsion. When I soldered my instruments incorrectly, I refined my technique. Had I given up every time an idea failed, I would not have learned from my mistakes, and more importantly, I would not have found success. Even if I never solder again, the lessons I learned from copper fittings are the lessons that will guide me through life.
Losing "Dive" remains difficult to accept, yet excitement about the potential in a new game quickly overshadowed my disappointment. Years of faulty designs and unfortunate accidents have taught me to revise my methods, but not my goals, in the face of failure. With a confidence that only arises after realizing that success was just out of reach and finding the audacity to reach further, I set out to make "Dive 2.0," the best game you'll ever play.
Sophia Scherlis '21
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I sit in soil pulling crab grass and borage. I've been a farmer since sophomore year. The farm--managed by my school--is a one-acre plot more accurately described as a garden with chickens.
My task today is to pick cherry tomatoes, most of which have ripened. I grab a tray from the shed and walk across pathways to the vine. I created these pathways during junior year, shoveling large heaps of wood-chips into a wheelbarrow, then raking these chips onto the pathways between beds. Our two tomato vines stand three feet tall and extend horizontally at least six feet; they are heavy with small red and orange glistening spheres.
I fall into a rhythm, plucking and setting tomatoes in the container, eating several here and there. I recall when I was six, my Mom would send my twin brother and me to the backyard to weed dandelions. We would get distracted and play with our dog or climb the dogwood tree. I recall the awe I felt last week when I harvested a giant sunflower, discovering at least ten potatoes growing in its roots, or when I found a sweet potato the size of a football. I had planted the seed potato pieces last year. I think about jalapenos, how scratches on their skin indicate spiciness level. The satisfaction I felt the first time I ate a piece of food I grew at the farm, a raw green-bean. The pleasure I feel knowing friends and teachers also eat the food I grow; we donate the farm's produce to our school's dining hall and sell it at the weekly farmer's market in the parking lot.
After farm, I will work a shift at the Farmer's Market. I will sit, perhaps eating Thai iced-tea-flavored ice cream from another stand, ready to explain where the farm is located, who works it, what we do with unsold food, and, finally, whether the price for a head of lettuce is negotiable (it is). Sometimes, I remember farmers I met during an exchange trip to Yangshuo, China, who were selling pomelos and bamboo shoots. I think about how to me, the difference between one-versus-two dollars for pomelos seems miniscule, but for those farmers, it means a lot. They rely solely on farming to feed their families; I farm for the pleasure of learning what they do out of necessity.
As I carry my share of tomatoes to the shed - tomatoes I nurtured from seeds into sprouts into fruits – I contemplate how much farm has done for me. I can't sit down to a meal without imagining the plants on my plate as seeds and then sprouts, without wondering about the many hands that brought them to my table. Education, to me, means understanding the hidden processes that make up daily life. Playing with the farm chickens - Pablo, Claude, Vincent, Leonardo - and knowing how the coating around an egg works as a natural preservative makes me appreciate my omelet a tad more. Watching weeds that I pulled from various beds slowly decompose into fertilizer in the compost pile makes me consider the roles carbon and nitrogen cycles play in that process.
Although I initially joined farm because I wanted to try something new, I quickly found that the work offers a balance with the intellectual work of the rest of my day. The farm connects education with experience; teaching me to see the application of my classroom learning in a real setting. Being able to see the relevance of what I am studying piques my curiosity. I aspire to maintain this connection between education and experience throughout my life, and will always find ways to contribute to my community, locally or globally. I will look for soil to cultivate, using my learning to see and understand more of the world, whether it be the natural environment or the way people live.
Michael O'Donovan '21
The heavy front door opened, then shut. He was later today than usual. As I sat there, finishing up my second grade math homework, he greeted me with his trademark whimsical, yet tired, smile. His appearance: a faded, worn-out shirt and durable, dusty jeans; his hands, caked with the grime and dirt that come with his line of work; his hair, on the verge of being assaulted with grey, covered in dust. After washing his hands, his greatest tools for his trade, he sat down with his reheated dinner, prepared by his loving wife forty minutes earlier. Without a word, he began to eat, aching for food after a long day of work. My second grade self couldn't help but notice the juxtaposition in play: a man in old, well-worn clothes, with dusty hair and hands not completely cleaned, dining in a room meticulously and somewhat ornately furnished, the fruit of his labor. We both sat there in silence. I could not help but look at my father the car mechanic in awe, considering where I myself might end up when I am his age.
"Cessi, et sublato montes genitore petivi." I just have one final line in book two of Vergil's Aeneid, line 804. I gaze at the line for a moment before attacking it. I note how both "sublato" and "genitore" are ablative; they go together. I spot "cessi," the verb meaning "I yielded", and "petivi," which means "I sought". "Montes" in this scenario is in the accusative case, which means it is the direct object. I translate the line to, "I yielded, and lifting my father I sought the mountains." I sat back, pleased with myself for finishing the second book of the renowned epic poem. Just then, my own father opened the door. Over dinner that night, we had another rousing talk regarding my looming college process. This talk was different, however; this was the night when I finally inform my dad of my intention to major in my favorite school topic, the classics. Upon hearing this news, my father's countenance was obscure, untranslatable.
When my parents were growing up in Ireland, an apprenticeship was far more valuable than college education. My parents did not attend college because apprentices got jobs sooner than those who went to college. Through apprenticeship my father got his first job. I realize the vast differences between my father's work and what I want to make my life's work. His is a realistic one: a job that was needed back then and is needed even more so today. It is a grueling work, in which one must use their hands and bodies to complete. Mine is perhaps less realistic. The classics once thrived; it was required curriculum at many private schools. The industry has only gone downhill since then, with fewer and fewer students taking the risk to learn the subject. It demands a high level of thinking, with much less physical requirements. Ultimately, I am grateful for my opportunity. My dad worked hard his entire life so that his own children got the chance to attend college to study and become what they want to be, and not what they needed to be for monetary reasons. My father is my hero for working hard, succeeding, and allowing me such a chance.
Despite his early doubt, when he soon learned that I did have a plan, which was that I wanted to teach the classics, my dad was at ease. That was all he needed to know. In my father's words, he said that if I had a plan that I was serious about, he would always fully support me. I was overjoyed by the fact that I, much like the pious hero Aeneas, would be able to carry my father, my past, with me toward my unknown future, rather than leave him behind, forever stuck in my past, a memory.
Jillian Impastato '21
My math teacher turns around to write an equation on the board and a sun pokes out from the collar of her shirt. A Starbucks barista hands me my drink with a hand adorned by a small music note. Where I work, a customer hands me her credit card wearing a permanent flower bracelet. Every day, I am on a scavenger hunt to find women with this kind of permanent art. I'm intrigued by the quotes, dates, symbols, and abstract shapes I see on people that I interact with daily. I've started to ask them questions, an informal interview, as an excuse to talk with these diverse women whose individuality continually inspires me. You can't usually ask the sorts of questions I have been asking and have the sorts of conversations I have been having, so I've created this project to make these kinds of encounters a bit more possible and acceptable.
There is no school assignment, no teacher to give me a grade, and no deadline. I don't have a concrete outcome in mind besides talking with a mix of interesting women with interesting tattoos. So far I've conducted fifteen interviews with a range of women from my hometown to Hawaii, teenagers to senior citizens, teachers to spiritual healers. The same set of questions has prompted interviews lasting less than twenty minutes and over two hours. I'm being told stories about deaths of a parent, struggles with cancer, coming out experiences, sexual assaults, and mental illnesses. All of these things that may be taboo in today's society, these women are quite literally wearing on their sleeves. I'm eager to continue these interviews in college and use all of the material I've gathered to show the world the strength and creativity of these wonderful women I've encountered.
I want to explore the art and stories behind the permanent transformations of personal landscapes. I attempt this by asking questions about why they decided to get their tattoos, how they were received in the workplace, the reactions from family and friends, and the tattoo's impact on their own femininity.
Through these simple questions, I happened upon much greater lessons regarding human interaction, diversity, and connectedness. In my first interview, a local businesswoman told me about her rocky relationship with her mother, her struggles with mental illness, and her friend in jail, within 45 minutes of meeting her and in the middle of a busy Starbucks. An artist educator I worked with told me that getting a tattoo "was like claiming a part of yourself and making it more visible and unavoidable." A model/homeopath said that having a tattoo is like "giving people a little clue about you." A psychologist shared how she wishes that she could turn her tattoos "on or off like a light switch to match different outfits and occasions." I've realized that tattoos show the complex relationship between the personal and the public (and how funny that can be when a Matisse cutout is thought to be phallic, or how a social worker's abstract doodle is interpreted as a tsunami of sticks, alien spaceship, and a billion other things by the children she works with).
I've learned so much about the art of storytelling and storytelling through art. I've strengthened relationships with people that had conventional roles in my life and created friendships with some unconventional characters. Most importantly, I've realized that with the willingness to explore a topic and the willingness to accept not knowing where it will go, an idea can become a substantive reality.
The essay is perhaps the most daunting part of college applications, alongside standardized tests. SATs and essays essentially act as bookends to the admissions process. While students will not be let in on their SAT or ACT scores alone, for many selective colleges these results function at least as a simple “sorting hat” that divides the possible admits from the merely hopeful. Similarly, while an outstanding personal essay will probably not overcome the weight of poor grades or lukewarm letters of recommendation, they help admission officers choose from among a surfeit of strong candidates.
They’re mattering a lot more. The percentage of all colleges, public and private, for which the essay is a significant factor in selectivity, has increased from 14% in 1993 to 25% in 2012, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling in its latest annual report. Inevitably, the more selective private institutions with their growing pools of high-performing applicants tend to review applications more holistically and, therefore, place the most emphasis on non-quantitative elements such as the personal statement.
Given the opaque but obviously significant role of personal essays in American applications, it is not surprising that a recent blog post that revealed essays written by students admitted to Columbia’s class of 2017 elicited the vitriolic response that it did. While some decried the release of these “sacred texts” and the public mockery of their young writers, others pointed to the banality, absorption and self-aggrandizement of the published examples.
Admission officers at highly selective institutions like Columbia are well aware of the skill, social breadth and intellectual depth they can reasonably expect from some of the world’s highest performing students. But they also remain deeply conscious that they are poring over the writings of high school children.
Meanwhile, a recent decision by the Common Application (the online application used by 400 universities) to radically overhaul the personal statement has once again highlighted the role of the essay in an American college application. Some counselors responded strongly to the new absence of an open-ended “topic of your choice,” while others sighed in relief on behalf of admission officers who will have fresh horizons of teenage angst to explore as questions change each year. Many others, including me, have pointed out that the new questions are effectively asking students to address the same essential ideas, and perhaps that is a good thing.
Inevitably, as admission officers slog through literally thousands of essays, they will continue to develop a personal catalog of the kind of essays that annoy, bore or simply leave the reader cold. In my own experience as a former Ivy League admission officer, the worst college essays tend to fall into definable categories within which they can be tagged by type. They leave the reader with questions about the creativity, good judgment and depth of the writer.
- The road less traveled is oddly crowded. The problem with countless essays about courageously traveling off the beaten path and boldly exploring new places is not that admission readers will doubt the students’ sincerity, but rather the fact that teenagers usually lack the perspective to know that notwithstanding their desire to be different, others have already arrived at the same places, explored the same worlds, and wrote essays about it.
- Poor but happy peasants. Summer trips and mission tours to exotic locales, both overseas and in the Deep South, have become grist for the college essays of both affluent Americans and their counterparts in countries like France and Singapore, where students still refer to their activities by blunt reference to “charity” work. However good their intentions, or those of the parents footing the big bills, these students’ essays often persuade readers that their experiences have been so sheltered that they return home with no deeper understanding of the impact of their unequal access to resources on those they went to serve.
- I have overcome. Many students apply to US colleges having struggled against and having overcome astonishing odds. Such inspirational accounts leave those who have lived happy, secure lives casting around, however, for a hook on which to hang their own stories of growth and change. Admission officers will not doubt the sting a teenager felt on being overlooked for the varsity captaincy or on scoring a poor grade, but they can and do expect bright 17-year-olds to take the relative measure of their suffering.
- Take me to your leader. Given their recruitment pitches, admission officers often have only themselves to blame when they are deluged by essays in which students treat leadership not as a process in which they participate and their hard work is reflected in the regard of their peers, but as a trophy to achieve and display on the mantle piece that is a college resume.
In contrast, admission officers will recall great essays in specific details. The teenager who sits on a Queens rooftop at night to ponder her city; the Boston boy who sees in the condition of his mother’s feet, her sacrifices on the factory floor on his behalf; the wannabe comic honing his skills in comedy clubs, usually with mixed success; the mathematician trying to describe the beauty he sees in Mandelbrot sets—these are essays I still remember because each offered a distinctive insight into the specific experience of an individual teenage life. But even the exceptional essays play a role only within a broader narrative that encompasses all the academic and social choices a student made throughout high school. They are the exclamation points to that story, not the centerpiece.
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