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Anecdote Essay Examples

Funny Anecdotes


Funny Anecdotes: The page contains a list funny, humorous, clever, or inspiring anecdotes. They are short stories used to improve speeches, remarks, essays, toasts and articles. They are great for speakers and writers to use in conclusions, introductions or to prove a point. These funny jokes could be used for speeches or writings about religion, Christianity, Judaism, sexuality, gender, war of the sexes, differences between men and women, Adam and Eve and more. If instead, you're interested in deep and thought stimulating anectodes, check Profound Anecdotes.

On secrets / on suspicion / on expectations / appearances can be misleading

During the Cold War, Soviet Union spy satellites were fixed on the Washington DC area. The Russian military analysts spent day-in, day-out analyzing the photos. One day, some of the Russian analysts noticed an intriguing trend while watching the Pentagon. The Pentagon is shaped like a five-sided donut, with a courtyard in the middle. In the center of that courtyard was a building that seemed of extreme importance. All day long, from early morning until late in the evening, military officers from all the services, of all ranks and specialties, would exit the Pentagon and hurry straight to the building at the center of the courtyard. The officers would approach the buildings, speak with someone inside, quickly hand them something and hurry away, carrying some sort of small items. Intelligence analysts examined the photos closely. What sort of highly-valuable information was being exchanged in this top secret nerve center at the very center of the Pentagon? It must be extremely important because service members of every rank flocked to it day after day. Believing it was a Top Secret vault of confidential information, the Soviet Union considered it a top priority to figure out what was being hidden there but they were never able to discover the secret. Today, we can finally reveal the actual purpose of this important facility at the center of the Pentagon. It was a hot dog stand.

On dealing with difficult people / on mistaken identities

Albert Einstein was frequently asked to speak at dinners, social events and other gatherings - a practice which he did not care much for. One evening, his chauffeur was driving him to another speaking event and Einstein complained that he was tired of the speaking engagements. His chauffeur happened to look very similar to Einstein and suggested that since he had heard Einstein making his speech so many times, he could deliver the speech instead and Einstein could relax. Thinking it was a great idea and eager to see if the chauffeur could pull off the lark, Einstein agreed. At the dinner, Einstein took the chauffeur’s hat and coat and the chauffeur entered first, shaking hands and greeting the hosts. At dinner, the chauffeur gave a nearly perfect rendition of the speech while Einstein sat in the back of the room. The chauffeur even managed to answer some basic questions that Einstein frequently received. Finally, a man with an arrogant and belittling manner asked a question, inserting his own ideas and opinions into the question so the audience would be impressed that he knew so much. The chauffeur waited until the pompous man has finished his speech and said, "The answer to that question is so simple, that I will allow my chauffeur who is sitting in the back, to answer it for me."

On philosophy / on academics / on identity

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was visiting a greenhouse one day and was brooding as he contemplated a plant. A botany student noticed his intense interest in the plant, his scholarly appearance and his studious manner and assumed he must be a specialist. The student approached him and breathlessly asked, "Who are you?" The philosopher turned and looked at the young man for moment before replying, "If you could only answer that question for me, I would be eternally grateful."

On contentment / on materialism / Buddhism jokes

In a Buddhist monastery at the very top of a mountain lived an old, beloved senior monk. It was the old monk’s birthday and all the junior monks wanted to give him something really special for his birthday. They sat together and brainstormed. “Our brother monk doesn’t eat rich foods. He eats only rice and vegetables. He drinks only the tea from the monastery’s garden. He wears only his robes. He reads only the sacred texts and he is already content with just these things. Whatever could we get him? He wants for nothing!”.

Finally the monk’s birthday arrived and the young monks sheepishly told him, “We wanted to get you something very special for your birthday but we just didn’t know what to get.” The old man smiled and said, “So what did you get me?” The monks hung their heads and said “Nothing.” The old monk’s eyes lit up and he joyfully replied, “Just what I’ve always wanted!”

On optimism / on misunderstandings

President Ronald Reagan's son told this story about his father. "(Ronald Reagan) was, as you know, a famously optimistic man. Sometimes such optimism leads you to see the world as you wish it were as opposed to how it really is. At a certain point in his presidency, dad decided he was going to revive the thumbs-up gesture. So he went all over the country, of course, giving everybody the thumbs up. Dory and I found ourselves in the Presidential Limousine one day returning from some big event. My mother was there and dad was of course, thumbs upping the crowd along the way, and suddenly, looming in the window on his side of the car was this snarling face. This fellow was reviving an entirely different hand gesture. And hoisted an entirely different digit in our direction. Dad saw this and without missing a beat turned to us and said, "You see? I think it's catching on."

On rude people / on witty comebacks

Winston Churchill was famous for his one liners, this one included. Winston Churchill was known for his occasional habit of drinking excessively. One night at a party, he shocked a rather prominent woman with his drunken outbursts. Insulted, she turned to him and said, "Mr Churchill, you are as drunk as a dog." "Madam," said the Prime Minister, "I may be very drunk, but you are very ugly. But tomorrow," he added, "I shall be sober."

On public speaking

When asked how he could be such an excellent public speaker, Winston Churchill told his secret to overcoming anxiety and not getting nervous about making speeches. “When I get up to speak, I always make a point of taking a good look around the audience. Then I say to myself, ‘What a lot of silly fools.’ And then I always feel better.”

On missing the point

One Saturday night, a man walked into a bar and ordered three pints of beer. Then he sat by himself at a table and drank all three. Afterwards he paid and left. The next Saturday he did the same and the Saturday after that. Finally the bartender told him, “You know, beer starts going flat after it’s poured. It would taste better if you ordered them one by one.” The man replied, “Oh I do it this way because of my brothers. We always used to sit and have a beer together every Saturday night. Now they’ve both moved away but we promised each other we’d all drink one for ourselves and one for each other so we can always remember each other.” The bartender thought it was a nice idea and over the years everyone got used to the man’s habit. One Saturday night, the man came in and ordered only two beers. The bartender paused. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” he said gravely. The man looked confused and then laughed. “Oh, no one died! It’s just that I’ve stopped drinking.”

On ineptitude / on staying focused on the goal / on efficiency

The government had a scrap yard of old, excess military equipment in a big empty area in the middle of some federal land. There was concern that someone might steal the equipment so they formed a committee to figure out a solution. They committee decide to hire a night watchman to keep an eye on it. But then they thought, "But how will the watchman know what to do?" So they hired someone to write the operating procedure on how he should do his job. But there was concern that the watchman might not follow the instructions properly, so the committee hired an advisor to evaluate how well the watchman did his job, and someone else to write reports to bring back to the committee. But the problem came up that there was no one to file the reports and do the administrative tasks. So the committee hired an administrative assistant to file the reports and a payroll clerk to do the payroll, and a senior clerk to check over the payroll plus a legal secretary to ensure that the office was run properly and an equal opportunity officer to be sure things were done properly and a safety officer and a planning chief and a training advisor and a senior supervisor to manage all the employees. The committee then received a memo stating their project had gone over-budget by $50,000! They had to cut costs so they decided to fire the most junior employee. They fired the night watchman.

On mistakes / on quality control /

At a monastery, several monks were pouring over ancient, early translations of Biblical texts and scriptures written by early church leaders and holy men. One of the monks became troubled when he came across a word that he thought had been translated incorrectly into newer versions of the texts. He went to the head monk to ask him about it. "I have found a mistake in the translations, Monsignor," the monk said. "Is it possible that there were other mistakes in the texts?" "No, no, of course not," the monsignor said. "This is just one case of a mistake. I'm sure everything else is right. Just continue studying the texts and you'll see what I say is true." But again the monk found a mistake! Worried, he decided to secretly study the tests by night to see if there were any other mistakes. After everyone was in bed, the young monk crept down to the library to read the texts. Far past midnight, the monsignor was startled to hear weeping in the library where the ancient texts were stored. Arising from his bed, he walked in to find the young monk in tears over one of the old scriptures. "My son, whatever is wrong!" he cried. The monk looked up and said, "I found another mistake! The word is celebrate, not celibate!"

On medical costs and procedures / on doctors / on dogs / on worrying

A man awoke to find his beloved dog in pain. She was moaning in pain. She refused to eat or drink. She rubbed her paws on her face and bellowed, then rolled onto her back. He was terrified! What was wrong with his dearest companion!? He loaded the dog into his car and drove to his veterinarian’s office as fast as he dared. He brought her into the vet’s office and set her gently on the table where she looked around glumly and moaned. “Hmm,” the doc examined her carefully. He offered the dog a squeaky toy, but she wasn’t interested. He offered the dog a big juicy steak, but she buried her face in her paws and wouldn’t eat. Finally he walked out of the room and came back with a cat. As soon as the cat saw the dog, it started to spit and hiss. The dog looked at the cat but didn’t sit up. Holding the clawing cat at arm’s length, he brought over and rubbed it on the dog’s back. The dog looked up at her owner in confusion. Finally the vet brought the hissing cat right down in front of the dog’s nose. The cat bopped the down on the nose, and the dog yelped but didn’t snap. Nodding to himself, the vet brought the cat out of the room. A moment later the vet was back with a pair of big tweezers. Looking inside the dog’s mouth, he pulled out a small sliver of wood that had jammed between the dog’s teeth. The dog wagged her tail and immediately snatched up the steak and ate it. The vet nodded then handed the man a bill for $3,060. The man took a look then gasped. “Doc, I’m so thankful you cured my dog, but why is the bill so high? It was just a sliver stuck between his teeth!” “I know it may seem high to you,” the vet responded but there is a very good explanation. First, it cost $50 for my exam. Then it $10 for the steak. And finally,” the vet said, “it cost $3000 for the cat-scan.”

On attitude / on optimism

President Ronald Reagan was known for his optimistic, joking demeanor but there were certainly times that attitude was tested. Only 69 days into his presidency, on March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was leaving a speaking engagement in Washington, D.C., when he was shot in the chest in an assassination attempt. The president was rushed to the hospital for surgery. As they wheeled the conservative president into the operating room, he looked up at his doctors and nurses and said, "Please tell me that you are all Republicans."

On revenge / on jealousy / on attitude / on optimists and pessimists / looking on the bright side

A woman went to the salon to get a haircut. She was bubbly with excitement and the hairdresser asked her what all the fuss was. “I'm going to Rome with my husband," the woman gushed. "It's a lifelong dream! I can't wait!" Visiting Italy was the hairdresser's lifelong dream and she resented this woman's excitement. "Rome?" she said. "Why would anyone want to visit Rome? It's dirty, overpriced and crowded. You'll have a terrible time. So, how are you getting there?" "We're flying Air jet. We got a good price." "Oh no, not Air jet!" the hairdresser said. "That's a terrible airline. Their planes are old, the food will make you sick and they always lose your luggage. Plus that airport is awful. The people are rude and the planes are always late. So where are you staying in Rome?" "We found a wonderful little hotel right near the Colosseum!" "Oh no, you're going to get ripped off you know," the hairdresser exclaimed, quite enjoying herself now. "The maids will steal your stuff as soon as you leave your room and all the hotels have bugs. And walking in that city will be terrible. It's so crowded and you'll be run over by those Italian drivers." The woman would not be deterred. "Well, we're going to go to the Vatican and maybe we'll be able to see the Pope." "Oh yea, right," the hairdresser laughed. "It will just be you and a million other people going to see the pope. You probably won't even get close enough to see him. Well, you'd just better hope this trip won't be as awful as I think it will." A month later, the woman came back for a trim and got the same hairdresser. The hairdresser asked about how the trip went. "Oh, it was so incredible," the woman said. "On the way over our plane was brand new and so comfortable. It was overbooked so they bumped us up to first class. And the plane left early, can you believe it! Our hotel was so nice, all marble and pillars everywhere you looked. It was four-star and they gave us a discount! And Rome is so beautiful. The Colosseum and the forum! And the squares and the cafes! We had wine and pasta overlooking fountains and cathedrals, and visited palaces and museums! It was wonderful," she said. The hairdresser was now feeling very uncomfortable and she tried to regain herself. "Well, fine so it sounds like it wasn't too bad, but I know you didn't see the pope." "Oh! That was the best part! While we were in the Vatican gardens the pope came out to enjoy some sun. He looked right at me and gestured for me to come and talk to him! I couldn't believe it. So I walked straight up to him and shook his hand!" "Oh really?" said the hairdresser. "And what did he say?" The woman looked the hairdresser in the eye and said, “He asked me, ‘Who screwed up your hair?’"

On men and women / funny gender jokes / on attention span / on comparing yourself

The Human body is a truly amazing thing. If you want to know how amazing, just listen to these statistics! It takes your food seven seconds to get from your mouth to your stomach. One human hair can support three kilos / six and a half pounds. The average man's privates are three times the length of his thumb. Human thighbones are stronger than concrete. A woman's heart beats faster than a man's. There are about one trillion bacteria on each of your feet. Women blink twice as often as men. The average person's skin weighs twice as much as the brain. Your body uses 300 muscles to balance itself when you are standing still. If saliva cannot dissolve something, you cannot taste it. Women's attention spans are longer than men's. In fact, the women are still listening right now. The men are still busy checking their thumbs.

On men and women / on golf jokes / on NSFW jokes

A man who had been stranded alone on a deserted island for 10 years looked up one day and couldn't believe when he saw a speck on the horizon. He said to himself, because who else would he say it to, "That can't be a ship." As the speck got closer, he became more disappointed, for it was smaller than a ship. It got closer and he saw it was smaller than a boat. It got even closer and he saw it was not even the size of a raft. He thought, "Rats, that's just my luck." All of a sudden the speck stood up and walked on to the beach. It was a gorgeous woman in a wet suit. She walked up to him and asked, "How long has it been since you had a beer?" "Ten years," the man said. She unzipped a pocket on her wet suit and took out a cold bottle of beer and a bottle opener. He opened it and took a deep gulp. "Oh, that hit the spot," the man said. Then she said, "How long has it been since you've had a good cigar?" "It's been ten years, and man does that sound good," the man said. Smiling, she unzipped another pocket on her wet suit and took out an expensive Cuban cigar and a lighter and gave it to him. He lit up and puffed on the cigar and grinning said, "That is the best cigar I've ever had." Now the women began unzipping the front of her wet suit. She winked at him and asked, "And how long is it since you played around?" Blinking back tears of joy the man gasped, "I'm the luckiest man alive! You brought golf clubs!"

On following directions / on conquering fears / on knowing what you’re signing up for / NSFW jokes

A tough, grizzled former Marine walked into a bar in the toughest part of town and ordered a whiskey straight. He saw a huge jar on the back counter stuffed with $20 bills. The bartender brought his drink, and the Marine pointed at the jar, which had to have had $10,000 in it. "Why do you have all that money in the jar back there?" he asked. The bartender looked the man over and thought to himself, another sucker! "Well," he said, "You pay $20 and if you can pass three tests, then you get to take that jar and all the money home." The Marine thinks, no matter what it is, I can take it! So he asks, "What do I have to do?" The bartender shakes his head. "You pay first." The Marine hands him a twenty dollar bill and the bartender takes a deep breath. "First, you have to drink an entire bottle of vodka in less than a minute and you can't cringe or take a breath. "Pah! That won't be hard," says the Marine, who has done his share of drinking in his days. "Next," says the bartender, "There's a German Shepard chained in back with a bad tooth. You have to pull that tooth out with your bare hands." The Marine chokes on his whiskey. "Third - There's a 90 year old woman upstairs who's never had sex and you'd have to go upstairs and take care of that." The Marine stares in disbelief. "C'mon now, that's not fair! You just took my $20. No one could do all that!" "It's up to you," the bartender says, "But that $20 is mine unless you do it." The Maine has a few more drinks, and starts thinking that it doesn't sound so tough. So finally he slams his glass down on the counter and says, "Give me that vodka!" He drinks the whole bottle down and doesn't grimace or spill a drop, finishing it up in 53 seconds! After a huge rattling blech, he staggers out the back door and the men inside cringe as they hear snarling and barking, followed by sounds of a fight, with yelps and yells, and suddenly - silence. They wait thinking the man must be dead. Finally the door smashes open, and the Marine staggers in, bloody and beaten back to the bar. His clothes are ripped and he's running with sweat. "Now!" he says. "Where's that old woman with the bad tooth?"

On men and women / on relationships / NSFW jokes

One day, back in Biblical times, God was getting impatient for Adam and Eve to begin populating the earth. He called Adam to him. "Adam," God said, "Go into the Garden of Eden, find Eve and give her a big hug." Adam set off in the Garden, but returned soon after and asked, "God, what is a hug?" God explain and Adam set off again to find Eve. The next day, God again called Adam. "Adam, go into the garden, find Eve and give her a hug and a kiss." So Adam agreed and set off into the garden, but again he returned and asked, "God, what is a kiss?" God explained and Adam thought that sounded okay so he went into the garden to find Eve. The next day, God called Adam and said, "Adam, I want you to go into the garden, find Eve and give her a hug and a kiss, then I want you to go forth and multiply." Adam agreed and went into the garden. Shortly he returned and he asked God, "God, what's a headache?"

More information: We hope this page was helpful and provided you with a funny, interesting or entertaining anecdote to use for speeches, roasts, essays, toasts or a writing project. If you liked these anecdote, you might also want to check Profound Anecdotes or visit our Main Page

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.

 

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