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Strong College Essay Examples

The personal statement might just be the hardest part of your college application. Mostly this is because it has the least guidance and is the most open-ended. One way to understand what colleges are looking for when they ask you to write an essay is to check out the essays of students who already got in—college essays that actually worked. After all, they must be among the most successful of this weird literary genre.

In this article, I’ll go through general guidelines for what makes great college essays great. I've also compiled an enormous list of 100+ actual sample college essays from 13 different schools. Finally, I’ll break down two of these published college essay examples and explain why and how they work. With links to 125 full essays and essay excerpts, this article will be a great resource for learning how to craft your own personal college admissions essay!

 

What Excellent College Essays Have in Common

Even though in many ways these sample college essays are very different from one other, they do share some traits you should try to emulate as you write your own essay.

 

Visible Signs of Planning

Building out from a narrow, concrete focus. You’ll see a similar structure in many of the essays. The author starts with a very detailed story of an event or description of a person or place. After this sense-heavy imagery, the essay expands out to make a broader point about the author, and connects this very memorable experience to the author’s present situation, state of mind, newfound understanding, or maturity level.

Knowing how to tell a story. Some of the experiences in these essays are one-of-a-kind. But most deal with the stuff of everyday life. What sets them apart is the way the author approaches the topic: analyzing it for drama and humor, for its moving qualities, for what it says about the author’s world, and for how it connects to the author’s emotional life.

 

Stellar Execution

A killer first sentence. You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again: you have to suck the reader in, and the best place to do that is the first sentence. Great first sentences are punchy. They are like cliffhangers, setting up an exciting scene or an unusual situation with an unclear conclusion, in order to make the reader want to know more. Don’t take my word for it—check out these 22 first sentences from Stanford applicants and tell me you don’t want to read the rest of those essays to find out what happens!

A lively, individual voice. Writing is for readers. In this case, your reader is an admissions officer who has read thousands of essays before yours and will read thousands after. Your goal? Don’t bore your reader. Use interesting descriptions, stay away from clichés, include your own offbeat observations—anything that makes this essay sounds like you and not like anyone else.

 

Enchanted Prince Stan decided to stay away from any frog-kissing princesses to retain his unique perspective on ruling as an amphibian.

 

Technical correctness. No spelling mistakes, no grammar weirdness, no syntax issues, no punctuation snafus—each of these sample college essays has been formatted and proofread perfectly. If this kind of exactness is not your strong suit, you’re in luck! All colleges advise applicants to have their essays looked over several times by parents, teachers, mentors, and anyone else who can spot a comma splice. Your essay must be your own work, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help polishing it.

 

Links to Full College Essay Examples

Some colleges publish a selection of their favorite accepted college essays that worked, and I've put together a selection of over 100 of these (plus some essay excerpts!).

 

Common App Essay Samples

Please note that some of these college essay examples may be responding to prompts that are no longer in use. The current Common App prompts are as follows:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

 

Carleton College

 

Connecticut College

 

Hamilton College

 

Johns Hopkins

These essays are answers to past prompts from either the Common Application or the Universal Application, both of which Johns Hopkins accepts.

 

Tufts University

 

Essay Examples Published by Other Websites

  • 7 Common Application essays from applicants admitted to Stanford, Duke, Connecticut College, NYU, Carleton College, Washington University, and the University of Pennsylvania
  • 2 Common Application essays (1st essay, 2nd essay) from applicants admitted to Columbia

 

Other Sample College Essays

Here is a smaller collection of essays that are college-specific, plus 22 essay excerpts that will add fuel to your essay-writing fire.

 

Smith College

Each year, Smith asks its applicants to answer a different prompt with a 200-word essay. Here are six of these short essays answering the 2014 prompt: "Tell us about the best gift you’ve ever given or received."

 

Tufts University

On top of the Common Application essays students submit, Tufts asks applicants to answer three short essay questions: two mandatory, and one chosen from six prompts.

 

University of Chicago

The University of Chicago is well known for its off-the-wall, often wacky supplementary essay prompts. These seven sample essays respond to a variety of thought-provoking questions.


 

Analyzing Great Common App Essays That Worked

I've picked two essays from the examples collected above to examine in more depth so that you can see exactly what makes a successful college essay work. Full credit for these essays goes to the original authors and the schools that published them.

 

Example #1: "Breaking Into Cars," by Stephen, Johns Hopkins Class of '19  (Common App Essay, 636 words long)

I had never broken into a car before.

We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.

Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.

“Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?”

“Why me?” I thought.

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window’s seal like I’d seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame. Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I’d been in this type of situation before. In fact, I’d been born into this type of situation.

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally. My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed. “The water’s on fire! Clear a hole!” he shouted, tossing me in the lake without warning. While I’m still unconvinced about that particular lesson’s practicality, my Dad’s overarching message is unequivocally true: much of life is unexpected, and you have to deal with the twists and turns.

Living in my family, days rarely unfolded as planned. A bit overlooked, a little pushed around, I learned to roll with reality, negotiate a quick deal, and give the improbable a try. I don’t sweat the small stuff, and I definitely don’t expect perfect fairness. So what if our dining room table only has six chairs for seven people? Someone learns the importance of punctuality every night.

But more than punctuality and a special affinity for musical chairs, my family life has taught me to thrive in situations over which I have no power. Growing up, I never controlled my older siblings, but I learned how to thwart their attempts to control me. I forged alliances, and realigned them as necessary. Sometimes, I was the poor, defenseless little brother; sometimes I was the omniscient elder. Different things to different people, as the situation demanded. I learned to adapt.

Back then, these techniques were merely reactions undertaken to ensure my survival. But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: “How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?”

The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.

Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It’s family. It’s society. And often, it’s chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.

 

What Makes This Essay Tick?

It's very helpful to take writing apart in order to see just how it accomplishes its objectives. Stephen's essay is very effective. Let's find out why!

 

An Opening Line That Draws You In

I had never broken into a car before.

In just eight words, we get: scene-setting (he is standing next to a car about to break in), the idea of crossing a boundary (he is maybe about to do an illegal thing for the first time), and a cliffhanger (we are thinking: is he going to get caught? Is he headed for a life of crime? Is he about to be scared straight?).

 

Great, Detailed Opening Story

We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.

Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.

“Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?”

“Why me?” I thought.

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window’s seal like I’d seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame.

It’s the details that really make this small experience come alive. Notice how whenever he can, Stephen uses a more specific, descriptive word in place of a more generic one. The volunteers aren’t going to get food or dinner; they’re going for “Texas BBQ.” The coat hanger comes from “a dumpster.” Stephen doesn’t just move the coat hanger—he “jiggles” it.

Details also help us visualize the emotions of the people in the scene. The person who hands Stephen the coat hanger isn’t just uncomfortable or nervous; he “takes a few steps back”—a description of movement that conveys feelings. Finally, the detail of actual speech makes the scene pop. Instead of writing that the other guy asked him to unlock the van, Stephen has the guy actually say his own words in a way that sounds like a teenager talking.

 

Coat hangers: not just for crows' nests anymore! (Götz/Wikimedia)

 

Turning a Specific Incident Into a Deeper Insight

Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I’d been in this type of situation before. In fact, I’d been born into this type of situation.

Stephen makes the locked car experience a meaningful illustration of how he has learned to be resourceful and ready for anything, and he also makes this turn from the specific to the broad through an elegant play on the two meanings of the word “click.”

 

Using Concrete Examples When Making Abstract Claims

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally.

“Unpredictability and chaos” are very abstract, not easily visualized concepts. They could also mean any number of things—violence, abandonment, poverty, mental instability. By instantly following up with highly finite and unambiguous illustrations like “family of seven” and “siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing,” Stephen grounds the abstraction in something that is easy to picture: a large, noisy family.

 

Using Small Bits of Humor and Casual Word Choice

My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.

Obviously, knowing how to clean burning oil is not high on the list of things every 9-year-old needs to know. To emphasize this, Stephen uses sarcasm by bringing up a situation that is clearly over-the-top: “in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.”

The humor also feels relaxed. Part of this is because he introduces it with the colloquial phrase “you know,” so it sounds like he is talking to us in person. This approach also diffuses the potential discomfort of the reader with his father’s strictness—since he is making jokes about it, clearly he is OK. Notice, though, that this doesn’t occur very much in the essay. This helps keep the tone meaningful and serious rather than flippant.

 

"Mr. President? There's been an oil spill!" "Then I want our best elementary school students on it, STAT."

 

An Ending That Stretches the Insight Into the Future

But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: “How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?”

The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.

Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It’s family. It’s society. And often, it’s chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.

The ending of the essay reveals that Stephen’s life has been one long preparation for the future. He has emerged from chaos and his dad’s approach to parenting as a person who can thrive in a world that he can’t control.

This connection of past experience to current maturity and self-knowledge is a key element in all successful personal essays. Colleges are very much looking for mature, self-aware applicants. These are the qualities of successful college students, who will be able to navigate the independence college classes require and the responsibility and quasi-adulthood of college life.

 

What Could This Essay Do Even Better?

Even the best essays aren't perfect, and even the world's greatest writers will tell you that writing is never "finished"—just "due." So what would we tweak in this essay if we could? 

Replace some of the clichéd language. Stephen uses handy phrases like "twists and turns" and "don’t sweat the small stuff" as a kind of shorthand for explaining his relationship to chaos and unpredictability. But using too many of these ready-made expressions runs the risk of clouding out your own voice and replacing it with something expected and boring. 

Use another example from recent life. Stephen's first example (breaking into the van in Laredo) is a great illustration of being resourceful in an unexpected situation. But his essay also emphasizes that he "learned to adapt" by being "different things to different people." It would be great to see how this plays out outside his family, either in the situation in Laredo or another context.

 

Example #2: By Bridget Collins, Tufts Class of '19 (Common App Essay, 608 words long)

I have always loved riding in cars. After a long day in first grade, I used to fall asleep to the engine purring in my mother's Honda Odyssey, even though it was only a 5-minute drive home. As I grew, and graduated into the shotgun seat, it became natural and enjoyable to look out the window. Seeing my world passing by through that smudged glass, I would daydream what I could do with it.

In elementary school, I already knew my career path: I was going to be Emperor of the World. While I sat in the car and watched the miles pass by, I developed the plan for my empire. I reasoned that, for the world to run smoothly, it would have to look presentable. I would assign people, aptly named Fixer-Uppers, to fix everything that needed fixing. That old man down the street with chipping paint on his house would have a fresh coat in no time. The boy who accidentally tossed his Frisbee onto the roof of the school would get it back. The big pothole on Elm Street that my mother managed to hit every single day on the way to school would be filled-in. It made perfect sense! All the people that didn't have a job could be Fixer-Uppers. I was like a ten-year-old FDR.

Seven years down the road, I still take a second glance at the sidewalk cracks and think of my Fixer-Uppers, but now I'm doing so from the driver's seat. As much as I would enjoy it, I now accept that I won't become Emperor of the World, and that the Fixer-Uppers will have to remain in my car ride imaginings. Or do they? I always pictured a Fixer-Upper as a smiling man in an orange T-Shirt. Maybe instead, a Fixer-Upper could be a tall girl with a deep love for Yankee Candles. Maybe it could be me.

Bridget the Fixer-Upper will be slightly different than the imaginary one who paints houses and fetches Frisbees. I was lucky enough to discover what I am passionate about when I was a freshman in high school. A self-admitted Phys. Ed. addict, I volunteered to help out with the Adapted PE class. On my first day, I learned that it was for developmentally-disabled students. To be honest, I was really nervous. I hadn't had too much interaction with special needs students before, and wasn't sure how to handle myself around them. Long story short, I got hooked. Three years have passed helping out in APE and eventually becoming a teacher in the Applied Behavior Analysis summer program. I love working with the students and watching them progress.

When senior year arrived, college meetings began, and my counselor asked me what I wanted to do for a career, I didn't say Emperor of the World. Instead, I told him I wanted to become a board-certified behavior analyst. A BCBA helps develop learning plans for students with autism and other disabilities. Basically, I would get to do what I love for the rest of my life. He laughed and told me that it was a nice change that a seventeen-year-old knew so specifically what she wanted to do. I smiled, thanked him, and left. But it occurred to me that, while my desired occupation was decided, my true goal in life was still to become a Fixer-Upper. So, maybe I'll be like Sue Storm and her alter-ego, the Invisible Woman. I'll do one thing during the day, then spend my off-hours helping people where I can. Instead of flying like Sue, though, I'll opt for a nice performance automobile. My childhood self would appreciate that.

 

What Makes This Essay Tick?

Bridget takes a somewhat different approach than Stephen, but her essay is just as detailed and engaging. Let's go through some of the strengths of her essay.

 

A Structure That’s Easy to Follow and Understand

The essay is arranged chronologically. Bridget starts each paragraph with a clear signpost of where we are in time:

  • Paragraph 1: “after a long day in first grade”
  • Paragraph 2: “in elementary school”
  • Paragraph 3: “seven years down the road”
  • Paragraph 4: “when I was a freshman in high school”
  • Paragraph 5: “when senior year arrived”

This keeps the reader oriented without being distracting or gimmicky.

 

One Clear Governing Metaphor

I would assign people, aptly named Fixer-Uppers, to fix everything that needed fixing. That old man down the street with chipping paint on his house would have a fresh coat in no time. The boy who accidentally tossed his Frisbee onto the roof of the school would get it back.

Seven years down the road, I still take a second glance at the sidewalk cracks and think of my Fixer-Uppers, but now I'm doing so from the driver's seat. As much as I would enjoy it, I now accept that I won't become Emperor of the World, and that the Fixer-Uppers will have to remain in my car ride imaginings. Or do they? I always pictured a Fixer-Upper as a smiling man in an orange T-Shirt. Maybe instead, a Fixer-Upper could be a tall girl with a deep love for Yankee Candles. Maybe it could be me.

I wanted to become a board-certified behavior analyst. A BCBA helps develop learning plans for students with autism and other disabilities. Basically, I would get to do what I love for the rest of my life. …But it occurred to me that, while my desired occupation was decided, my true goal in life was still to become a Fixer-Upper.

What makes this essay fun to read is that Bridget takes a child’s idea of a world made better through quasi-magical helpers and turns it into a metaphor for the author’s future aspirations. It helps that the metaphor is a very clear one: people who work with students with disabilities are making the world better one abstract fix at a time, just like imaginary Fixer-Uppers would make the world better one concrete physical fix at a time.

 

Every childhood Fixer-Upper ever. Ask your parents to explain the back row to you. (JD Hancock/Flickr)

 

An Engaging, Individual Voice

This essay uses many techniques that make Bridget sound genuine and make the reader feel like we already know her. 

Technique #1: humor. Notice Bridget's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks her younger self’s grand ambitions (this is different from the more sarcastic kind of humor used by Stephen in the first essay—you could never mistake one writer for the other).

In elementary school, I already knew my career path: I was going to be Emperor of the World.

I was like a ten-year-old FDR.

Technique #2: invented terminology. The second technique is the way Bridget coins her own terms, carrying them through the whole essay. It would be easy enough to simply describe the people she imagined in childhood as helpers or assistants, and to simply say that as a child she wanted to rule the world. Instead, she invents the capitalized (and thus official-sounding) titles “Fixer-Upper” and “Emperor of the World,” making these childish conceits at once charming and iconic. What's also key is that the titles feed into the central metaphor of the essay, which keeps them from sounding like strange quirks that don’t go anywhere.

Technique #3: playing with syntax. The third technique is to use sentences of varying length, syntax, and structure. Most of the essay's written in standard English and uses grammatically correct sentences. However, at key moments, Bridget emphasizes that the reader needs to sit up and pay attention by switching to short, colloquial, differently punctuated, and sometimes fragmented sentences.

The big pothole on Elm Street that my mother managed to hit every single day on the way to school would be filled-in. It made perfect sense! All the people that didn't have a job could be Fixer-Uppers.

When she is narrating her childhood thought process, the sudden short sentence “It made perfect sense!” (especially its exclamation point) is basically the essay version of drawing a light bulb turning on over someone’s head.

As much as I would enjoy it, I now accept that I won't become Emperor of the World, and that the Fixer-Uppers will have to remain in my car ride imaginings. Or do they?

Similarly, when the essay turns from her childhood imagination to her present-day aspirations, the turn is marked with “Or do they?”—a tiny and arresting half-sentence question.

Maybe instead, a Fixer-Upper could be a tall girl with a deep love for Yankee Candles. Maybe it could be me.

The first time when the comparison between magical fixer-upper’s and the future disability specialist is made is when Bridget turns her metaphor onto herself. The essay emphasizes the importance of the moment through repetition (two sentences structured similarly, both starting with the word “maybe”) and the use of a very short sentence: “Maybe it could be me.”

To be honest, I was really nervous. I hadn't had too much interaction with special needs students before, and wasn't sure how to handle myself around them. Long story short, I got hooked.

The last key moment that gets the small-sentence treatment is the emotional crux of the essay. As we watch Bridget go from nervously trying to help disabled students to falling in love with this specialty field, she undercuts the potential sappiness of the moment by relying on changed-up sentence length and slang: “Long story short, I got hooked.”

 


The best essays convey emotions just as clearly as this image.

 

What Could This Essay Do Even Better?

Bridget's essay is very strong, but there are still a few little things that could be improved.

Explain the car connection better. The essay begins and ends with Bridget's enjoying a car ride, but this doesn't seem to be related either to the Fixer-Upper idea or to her passion for working with special-needs students. It would be great to either connect this into the essay more, or to take it out altogether and create more space for something else.

Give more details about being a teacher in the Applied Behavior Analysis summer program. It makes perfect sense that Bridget doesn't want to put her students on display. It would take the focus off of her and possibly read as offensive or condescending. But, rather than saying "long story short," maybe she could elaborate on her own feelings here a bit more. What is it about this kind of teaching that she loves? What is she hoping to bring to the lives of her future clients?

 

3 Essential Tips for Writing Your Own Essay

How can you use this discussion to better your own college essay? Here are some suggestions for ways to use this resource effectively.

 

#1: Read Other Essays to Get Ideas for Your Own

As you go through the essays we've compiled for you above, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you explain to yourself (or someone else!) why the opening sentence works well?
  • Look for the essay's detailed personal anecdote. What senses is the author describing? Can you easily picture the scene in your mind's eye?
  • Find the place where this anecdote bridges into a larger insight about the author. How does the essay connect the two? How does the anecdote work as an example of the author's characteristic, trait, or skill?
  • Check out the essay's tone. If it's funny, can you find the places where the humor comes from? If it's sad and moving, can you find the imagery and description of feelings that make you moved? If it's serious, can you see how word choice adds to this tone?

Make a note whenever you find an essay or part of an essay that you think was particularly well-written, and think about what you like about it. Is it funny? Does it help you really get to know the writer? Does it show what makes the writer unique? Once you have your list, keep it next to you while writing your essay to remind yourself to try and use those same techniques in your own essay.

 

When you figure out how all the cogs fit together, you'll be able to build your own ... um ... whatever this is.

 

#2: Find Your "A-Ha!" Moment

All of these essays rely on connecting with the reader through a heartfelt, highly descriptive scene from the author's life. It can either be very dramatic (did you survive a plane crash?) or it can be completely mundane (did you finally beat your dad at Scrabble?). Either way, it should be personal and revealing about you, your personality, and the way you are now that you are entering the adult world.

 

#3: Start Early, Revise Often

Let me level with you: the best writing isn't writing at all. It's rewriting. And in order to have time to rewrite, you have to start way before the application deadline. My advice is to write your first draft at least two months before your applications are due.

Let it sit for a few days untouched. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and think critically about what you've written. What's extra? What's missing? What is in the wrong place? What doesn't make sense? Don't be afraid to take it apart and rearrange sections. Do this several times over, and your essay will be much better for it!

 

What’s Next?

Interested in learning more about college essays? Check out our detailed breakdown of exactly how personal statements work in an application, some suggestions on what to avoid when writing your essay, and our guide to writing about your extracurricular activities.

Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying.

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

 


Heqing “Amy” Zhang

Sheboygan, Wis.


On the day my first novel was rejected, I was baking pies.

Or rather, I was gathering the necessary stamina for our church’s annual pie sale. Ten hours of rolling crusts and peeling apples and kneading butter and sugar into the crumble topping, all the while drowning in the cinnamon air, surrounded by near-literal mountains of pies that we were forbidden to touch. (It was, I think, our pastor’s method of drilling the meaning of temptation into heads — he always preached about Eden the following Sunday.) I sat on my couch and counted the minutes until the agony of pie-making, (almost) forgetting the novel that was currently with the acquisitions board of one of the biggest publishing houses in the world.

To be fair, I hadn’t known that the acquisitions meeting would be held that day. I did know that two — two! — senior editors wanted to make all of my impossible dreams come true. I knew that the marketing and sales people had already looked over my manuscript — something that usually happened post-contract. I knew the meeting had been pushed back twice already by an unsympathetic hurricane that had left downtown Manhattan under several feet of water. I knew this was it. This had to be it. It was my turn.

I had slogged through the query trenches in search of an agent. I had collected enough rejection letters to wallpaper my room. I had found an agent who hadn’t run away when I finally told her that I was 15, who loved my story almost as much as I did, who submitted it and lured two — two! — senior editors to take a risk on it.

Hello, future? I’m ready for my happily ever after. Love, Amy.

Phone call from my agent. Sweaty palms and dizziness, a tap of a shaking finger to a smudged screen. Small talk and stalling. A sigh and, at last, the news, that the publisher had a similar novel on her list and vetoed the editors. That there was no heat in the flooded building and they had rejected everything and had gone home early. Stomach in throat, swallow. False laugh, assurances of next time. End call. Tears.

Hello, Amy? Sucks, doesn’t it? Love, the future.

It sucked so monumentally that I bought a pie and ate it in one sitting.

It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay. I fell asleep like that: okay, okay, okay, and I almost believed it. After all, the next day was the beginning of National Novel Writing Month. I had an outline and a story to tell: one of imaginary friends, Newton’s Laws of Motion, a car out of control, a crash into a tree.

Okay, okay, okay.

A ringing in the ungodly hours of morning. Phone call from a friend. Bleary eyes and words still spinning: okay, okay, okay. A mumbled what the heck? in place of a greeting, another hurricane in the answer. A classmate, a car out of control, a crash into a tree.

We used to have gym together, I didn’t know him too well, and I never would. Those were the facts — no opinions, no emotions I could translate into ink on a page, touch, understand. The words were gone. I sat at my computer with my fingers on the keys, shaking, sweating, smudging, but there was nothing to say.

Everyone went to the memorial service and everyone brought flowers, and in the silence, we cried. And there was anger, too, later — a bursting, a hush that imploded. I went home after the service and threw my laptop open and wrote about all that was unfair, and there was a lot to write about. The month passed, and I won NaNoWriMo. I revised the novel and sent it to my agent who began the submission process once again.

It sold in three days.

Hello, future? I’m not afraid. Love, Amy.


Alexander Wear

Severna Park, Md.

Life from Seven Feet Up

Walking down a busy street, I see the quick glances and turned heads. The murmurs and giggles trickle toward me. I try to ignore the buzz, interspersed with, “Oh my God!” and the occasional, “Damn!” Then, a complete stranger asks for a picture, so I stand with people foreign to me and politely smile and laugh. After the click of the camera, they go on their way. Sometimes I wish I weren’t so tall. Maybe then I could take a friend to a movie and just blend into the crowd.

Attention from strangers is nothing new to me. Questions about my height dominate almost every public interaction. My friends say my height is just a physical quality and not a personality trait. However, when I reflect on my life, I realize that my height has shaped my character in many ways and has helped to define the person I am.

I learned how to be comfortable in my own skin. If I had the introverted personality my older brother had in high school, I’d probably be overwhelmed by the constant public attention. Even as a young child, parents at the sidelines of my baseball games, as well as the umpire, would, in front of all my teammates, demand by birth certificate to prove my age. I grew acquainted early on with the fact that I am abnormally tall and stick out about the crowd. It’s just the way it is. Being self-conscious about it would be paralyzing.

I learned how to be kind. When I was younger, some parents in my neighborhood deemed me a bully because I was so much larger than children my age. I had to be extra welcoming and gentle simply to play with other children. Of course, now my coaches wish I weren’t quite so kind on the basketball court.

I learned humility. At 7 feet tall, everyone expects me to be an amazing basketball player. They come expecting to see Dirk Nowitzki, and instead they might see a performance more like Will Ferrell in Semi-Pro. I have learned to be humble and to work even harder than my peers to meet their (and my) expectations.

I developed a sense of lightheartedness. When people playfully make fun of my height, I laugh at myself too. On my first day of high school, a girl dropped her books in a busy hallway. I crouched down to her level and gathered some of her notebooks. As we both stood up, her eyes widened as I kept rising over her. Dumbfounded, she dropped her books again. Embarrassed, we both laughed and picked up the books a second time.

All of these lessons have defined me. People unfamiliar to me have always wanted to engage me in lengthy conversations, so I have had to become comfortable interacting with all kinds of people. Looking back, I realize that through years of such encounters, I have become a confident, articulate person. Being a 7-footer is both a blessing and a curse, but in the end, accepting who you are is the first step to happiness.


Tara Cicic

Brooklyn, N.Y.

I am here because my great-grandfather tied his shoelace. It was World War I, and he was a Montenegrin fighting in the American army in France. His fellow soldiers surged across the field, but he paused for the briefest of moments because his laces had come undone. Those ahead of him were blown to bits. Years later, as Montenegro was facing a civil war, the communists came to his home. His village was small, and he knew the men who knocked on his door. But this familiarity meant nothing, for when they saw him they thought of the word America, stamped across a land where the poor were stripped of their rights and where the fierce and volatile Balkan temper would not do.

As his neighbors ransacked his home, his wife had thrust his good pair of shoes at him.

“Take them,” she had urged. “Wear them.”

But he did not, for he knew that he could not run. I also cannot run, but I wear my new shoes with great ease and comfort. I wear the secret guilt, the belief in equality, the obsession with culture, and the worship of rational thinking and education that becomes the certain kind of American that I am. None of these things are costumes. I believe in and feel them all sincerely, but they are not who I am. They may be a part, but I can say with certainty that they are not all.

I was born in Belgrade and Serbian was my first language, but these things seem nearly inconsequential when compared to the number of years that I’ve spent in America and the fact that English is by far my superior tongue. We visit every two or three years or so. Everybody is there, my entire collection of cousins and aunts and grandparents neatly totted up in a scattering of villages and cities, arms open with the promise of a few sneaky sips of rakia and bites of kajmak. I love them, I truly do. I love the flat roof on my grandparents’ home, the familiar sounds of the cicadas, the cows that they had when I was 7, and even the goats that I have not met yet. But they are not me, those things. They are something else.

Take a few bounds away from my immediate family, and I do not know anyone’s names. Somebody is always falling ill, or drinking too much, or making trouble for themselves. We speak of them sometimes, or pity them, but we do not go to their weddings or funerals. And yet I feel worried, not for them, but for myself. The Serbs and Montenegrins are people of complicated histories, and as I watch the documentaries my father made during the civil war there, I am gripped with fear and fascination. Those strange people can be so hateful. They cry and beat their hearts at the thought of Serbian loss in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. This kind of nationalism makes me cringe. I do not want to be that way. But is there not something beautiful in that kind of passion and emotion? What does it say of me that I sometimes cannot help but romanticize something I know to be destructive and oppressive? This is why I worry.

They are not me, I tell myself, and I am right. But can they not be just a part? Can they not be a tiny sliver, or maybe even a sizeable chunk, comparable even to the American in me? Must I relegate them to nothing at all? For if those shoes, the ones my grandfather bent to tie in the middle of that blazing battlefield in France, are not mine, then why do I think of them so often?


Tommy Bowden

Porter Corners, N.Y.

My head was spinning, my hands were bleeding, and my lungs desperately needed more air. The air was filled with the shouts of men dying and steel clashing with steel. To my left were two young men, no more than 18 years old, at each other’s throats. To my right an old man lay dead, missing an arm. My men were pouring out of the breach in full retreat. Death surrounded me as I summoned every ounce of my courage and shouted out that desperate ultimatum to my dying brethren, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close the wall up with our English dead!”

Then reality came crashing down. “No, no you’re doing it all wrong.” I blinked, and instead of a bloody battlefield in front of me there was nothing more than a nearly empty auditorium. The sole occupant of the auditorium was a tall, bald, British man with a terrifyingly condescending demeanor. He was my Shakespeare coach. The most minuscule mistake never escaped his notice. “There’s no chance in hell I would ever fight for you,” he said. “Do it again.” I went offstage and tried to repaint the picture.

I emerged inflamed with the drive for victory. Every word I uttered was a strike against the French. Every heartfelt delivery of that carefully choreographed routine was ground gained at Harfluer. I fought passionately with that ancient text, but my coach cut me off again. “OK, better, maybe I would fight for you, but I wouldn’t die for you. C’mon pump me up, show me you care. Do it again.” I tried again. I put forth all my effort, but again he stopped me. I performed it countless times over, but with each rendition the quality exponentially worsened. Finally, he told me to stop. We had done all we could for today.

I stepped off stage and collapsed into a chair, angry and defeated. Reaching into my pocket, I found the small rectangular magnet that had been given to me by the head of the theatre department for “motivational purposes.” On the right side of the memento there was an ornate picture of The Bard in all his glory, and on the left there were six simple words: “To thine own self be true.” I knew why I was here. I was here to prove to myself that I could accomplish something momentous.

I was born with two speech impediments. I was a shy kid, with a crooked smile, who couldn’t pronounce any words correctly. Participating in theatre was the last thing anyone expected of me. Yet I wanted to sway crowds with my voice, make them cry, laugh and shout for joy. I was a terrified 10-year-old the first time I stepped on stage, and equally frightened moments before I finally performed at Lincoln Center. I walked slowly to my position full of fear, but when the spotlight hit my face, there was no trepidation, only a calmness and quiet determination. In that moment all the long hours of struggle fell into place. I had already accomplished what I had set out to do before my final performance. Just being there, having worked as hard as I had, made all the worry dissipate. It was just me and the light.

In that earlier moment of failure, I couldn’t see that light, or even imagine it. My brain was in a fog; I couldn’t think. As I sat there and the lights in the theatre clicked off one by one, the setting sun cast a beam of orange sunlight directly center stage. I pretended to watch myself perform in that light, pacing to and fro, shouting heroically to my men and charging headlong into battle, into victory. I looked back down at the memento. Then something clicked. Henry V never lost hope and neither would I. So I went once more to the stage.


Nathaniel Colburn

Aliso Viejo, Calif.

Keeping my head down and avoiding eye contact, I tried not to attract attention. Drunken shrieks and moans reverberated through the darkening light of the bus stop, while silhouettes and shadows danced about. My heart pounding, I hoped I would survive the next 40 minutes. I had never seen the homeless at the stop act so deranged. But I had never been there so late.

It was well past sundown. A man passed out on the next bench awoke only to shout and drink. One screamed racial slurs and curses at another while they both staggered around. Another lacked an arm and had the most baleful gaze I had ever seen. As much as I tried to empathize and feel compassion, I couldn’t stymie a feeling of terror and revulsion.

After a few long minutes, a shadow detached itself from the opposite benches, came over and sat down next to me. Squinting, I took in her kind, wrinkled face. Ah, thank god, a kindred soul enduring the same thing.

“Missed the bus?” she asked.

“Y-yeah,” I mumbled.

“You certainly chose the wrong time to do that. Where’re you headed?” Her voice was scratchy, like a smoker’s, but she spoke well.

“Home.”

“Ah, homes. When I was a bit older than you, my home was a car. Can you believe that my car, an old Toyota, got 50 miles to the gallon? I could drive from here to San Francisco in one sitting.”

No, I couldn’t. The more we talked, the more I enjoyed her company and forgot about the craziness around me. She grew up in San Francisco and loved to travel. She loved helping people and went to church. Before I could learn more, a homeless man staggered up to me and asked me for money. I was so uncomfortable I relented.

My friend turned to me and advised, “Don’t ever give a homeless person money. Give them food. The stereotype is true — they buy drugs and alcohol. Look around you.”

Stunned and feeling naïve, I promised to do so. We talked more until my stomach rumbled and I remarked that I hadn’t eaten since lunch. Just then a bus arrived — apparently hers. She procured two hardboiled eggs from her pocket and offered them to me. I politely declined, and she went to get her stuff. But wait, why was she carrying eggs in her pocket? When the woman emerged from the other side of the stop, she boarded the bus with a sleeping bag and backpack. She was homeless! She smiled down at me, the bus left, and I sat there in quiet shock.

I explored the stop anew. Drugs, alcohol, missing limbs were no longer terrifying. Now, I saw the symptoms of sickness, a sad lifestyle that did no harm except to those who lived it.

The homeless lady probably has no idea what an effect she had on me. Because of her, I swore to look through the top layers of every situation. Now that I have a car, I never go to the bus stop, but I know its lesson, at least, will continue to take me places. I hope my expanded empathy and open-mindedness will allow me to feel at home in any foreign situation and connect with all people. Next time I might even accept a hardboiled egg straight out of a stranger’s coat pocket.


Joe Pucci

New York, N.Y.

Tunnel Vision

Attempting to juke people like an NFL running back, I slithered my way through the tunnel to the A-Train on 42nd Street during rush hour. I often try to block out the hectic surroundings by isolating myself in music, but I can never seem to get out of the real life time-lapse. In photography, a time-lapse is a technique at which the frame rate is lower than that used to view the sequence, thus, when the sequence is played at normal speed, it gives the effect that time is moving faster, or lapsing. In a Manhattan subway tunnel, a real life time-lapse gives the illusion that thousands are moving around you in one single moment. Luckily, that afternoon, the frame rate was higher than the actual visual sequence.

The crowd shoved their way toward the platform as the screeching train echoed through the underpass. The doors opened and I pushed my way toward the already full train. After five seconds, I began to worry, fearing that the door would close and I would be stuck longer in the blistering, underground cave. The tall, brunette girl in front of me inched her way over the gap between the rusted train and the yellow platform, but one misstep turned my time-lapse upside down.

In slow motion, one vertebra at a time, she fell through the gap toward the tracks as the train doors closed. I slipped my hands out of my skinny jeans and reached under her arms as her head neared the platform. I hoisted her up and the sensor doors reopened as we entered the train. I threw my headphones around my shoulders, clumsily turned down my embarrassing music, and asked if she was okay. My pause had lasted for all of about two seconds. No one on the train noticed, not even her mom.

This isn’t a heroic tale or a love story, although I felt like it was at the moment. I felt like I had done something much bigger than me, and I also felt like this beautiful girl and I would naturally connect over what just happened. But this wasn’t the case. Instead, I checked on her, smiled, and around 10 seconds after my “lifesaving” moment, immediately isolated myself back into the music. I couldn’t bring out my inner-confidence. I simply stood there thinking of something to say, only to be left mute.

It’s easy to say what you want to do, but nearly impossible to bring yourself to do all those things. Life is about taking risks, not about conforming and hiding behind invisible walls. I tend not to struggle with personal adventure; I’ve jumped off 50-foot cliffs and rode the biggest roller coaster dozens of times; however, I do fear being judged and messing up when stepping toward the plate. Life’s too short to live with regret though. My life wasn’t dramatically transposed during this incident, but the things I didn’t do are a constant reminder to stomp on the shortlist of opportunities I’m given. For that girl, she was a vertebra away from not having another chance. When that moment comes for me, I don’t want to have any regrets. I look back at this brief moment with such rue because I feel that my time-lapse was flipped for a reason, yet I couldn’t grasp the opportunity.

The music was a place to buy myself more time, a place to quickly think about the next move. But the top-half of the sandglass was empty and the girl got off at the next stop, roughly 30 seconds later. My eyes were fixed on her as she left the train and headed for the stairs. The train began to move when she glanced through the window and mouthed the words, “Thank you.”


Irina Rojas

Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Windows

An eerie silence draped over New Orleans on a humid morning as the insects scampered back into their burrows. It was Saturday morning and I was still lying in bed, playing with the mood ring that my best friend, Anna, had given me as a good luck charm going into fourth grade. It was turquoise, meaning “tranquility.” However, as I focused on the footsteps downstairs, I could tell that both of my parents were in a rush and that Mama was nervous, which was rare. Something was different.

I ran down to grab breakfast, but the voice of the news reporter and the hurricane alert noise coming from the kitchen television distracted me. The words on the bottom of the screen read, “mandatory evacuation.” Papa told me to pack some toys for myself and for Rafa, my little brother. I figured we wouldn’t need much since there were so many activities in Houston, where we’d evacuated to before. This time, though, the highways were too congested to get there safely. Instead, we headed to Charity Hospital since Papa, a neuroradiologist, was on call. With our previous experiences of nothing but strong winds and lights-out for a day or two, my parents decided it would be best for the four of us to stay together.

We were assigned to a small room on the 14th floor with two tiny twin beds. That night, the rain pounded on the old windows, like an angry crowd getting more and more agitated. At 1 a.m., a fierce air pressure in the room created a sharp pain in my ears, awakening us, only a mere second before the windows imploded. Shards of glass flew around the room, forcing us to hide in a stuffy hallway storage closet. We huddled around the handheld radio’s static for the next five hours.

After the hurricane passed, I could tell Mama was distressed, yet she still managed to smile and say, “Te quiero mucho mi amor, todo va a estar bien.” The next morning, one of the doctors urged us to look out the window. I simply stood there, holding Papa’s sweaty hand, listening to the muddy waters from the Mississippi rushing in.

No one expected what would come next. In the basement, the emergency generators flooded, and the smell of rotting corpses from the morgue grew, getting stronger with the heat. In the lobby, people broke into the vending machines, stealing and selling the food. We didn’t have any clean water either, so showers soon became Purell sanitation wipes, and toilets became buckets to throw out the window. During the day, my parents were busy, so Rafa and I painted “SOS” on bed sheets and hung them outside. At night, we played cards, and I silently sat next to a nurse who thought about the dog she had left at home. No one knew if our homes or friends were okay, nor when we’d be rescued, but I didn’t cry. I was in survival mode.

A week later, we were rescued on swamp boats. That year, I attended four different schools. When it was over, I wept uncontrollably. Hurricane Katrina has challenged me. It has humbled and motivated me. I want to be a doctor, like the ones at Charity. I saw them work together, tirelessly, caring for anyone that they could, even dropping a joke here and there. I will never forget the man who gave me his secret stash of candy, or the night that we celebrated a birthday with a tuna sandwich as the cake, a Q-tip for the candle, and how they sliced it for everyone to share. We never gave up. I learned to appreciate everything and everyone around me. I became stronger.