What's the Best College Essay You've Ever Read?

Here’s a question we get a lot: “So, what’s the absolute best essay you’ve ever read?”

The real answer is very long and it's never just one essay. We’ve read and helped write a ton of “best essays,” and that’s what we always say when people ask us that. Also, every person’s “best essay” looks different. The reason they ask us that question is because they want the secret to success. Unfortunately, we can’t give them that because the secret to success is a lot more than just the essay, but we will say that the essay is far and away the part of your application to pay the most attention to (you know, after you’ve aced your classes and tests) because it’s your chance to show your personality. The worst mistake that any top student can make is relying on their grades and scores to set them apart. They won’t. But, your essay will.

This year, the absolute best essay (or one of the best essays) we read was written by a kid who is insanely talented and could have written about a million things. They could have picked any one of their interests, which ranged from acting, songwriting, directing, and art to rock music concerts, sports, guitar, vintage comics, and video games. Family is central in their life as well. They are constantly running around the city in which they live and that’s exactly why we were thrilled to help create an essay that was all-encompassing of these interests and that focused on the importance of the day-to-day commitments and little interactions that occur that define their personality. The point of the essay is to show our absolute best, most interesting, and complex selves through a simple story. This essay did just that by taking on a “Day in the Life” format.

We had to ask ourselves—what makes this student most unique? Not which of their interests was the “best” or “most interesting,” but rather, what makes this student at their very essence unique. In this case, it was this student’s particular demeanor. This student is constantly on the go, a fast-talker, an intense thinker, and a deep feeler. They command your focus with his eyes. You can feel their intensity the minute you them. That’s why they have so many creative and physical outlets. These outlets give them the ability to constantly shapeshift and explore. So, instead of focusing on the evolution of just one of their interests, this essay explored each of their interests by organizing the essay into a format where each moment could shine.

To craft the essay, we went through the student's entire week. We asked them to detail every hour of every day. 

The essay began with wake-up time and breakfast, as every day does. It highlighted what was important about those two details: “I wake up at a reasonable time that is not too early but not too late and the day hasn’t escaped me: around 9. I roll out of bed to get breakfast. I love breakfast; I’m such a big breakfast fan.” Going on to say, “I’m not here to discriminate against your breakfast unless you’re the type of person who eats toaster strudel or those pancakes with ice cream and Nutella.” And then takes the reader through their bagel routine of choice. This sets the tone. It’s playful, it’s thoughtful, and it’s heavy on the details because of their sheer intelligence. Just like the student. By the end of the first paragraph, you are starting to understand how the student thinks. That's the goal. 

The essay goes on to detail every twist and turn on this day of choice (which happens to be a Wednesday). There’s a chunk of time dedicated to sports with friends and a chunk of time dedicated to a battle of searching for the best possible vintage comic at the store: “After we’re tired out we pack up and head to the bookstore. This search process of who can find the coolest relic inevitably turns enemies into friends and friends into enemies, temporarily of course.”

The essay also highlights alone-time and thus, how the student spends their free time. This is always something that you want college admissions readers to know and understand: that you spend your free time wisely. But you have to work it into your essay in a creative way. In this case, it was highlighted with an anecdote about an upcoming performance and the student’s ritual of pasting images to the script in order to better visualize the scene: a “working collage,” as it’s described, with some acknowledgment that it’s a thoughtful process with the sentence, “They have to be the exact image that I have in my mind, and it’s busy up there in my mind, so this takes some time to do.” This shows that the student is intentional and that their commitment to this particular endeavor is not light-hearted. They are, after all, applying to top conservatories.

It ends with dinner, the family’s after-dinner routine, and a meaningful interaction with the student’s sibling. This shows what a lot of essays try to demonstrate without coming at it head-on: that this student values their family. So often, students get so caught up with showing just how busy they are that they forget this very human element of family. Family is influential! It’s alright to go there, and in this case, it was a perfect note to end on, highlighting household traditions, incorporating dialogue, and laying it out for a reader in a visual way. Our favorite sentence from this essay is probably the following: “It’s Wednesday, and Wednesday is leftover night. There’s no compromise. 'Wednesday is leftover night' and 'we’re not changing it no matter how many times you ask.' Or so I’ve been told.” It incorporated outside characters (namely, the student’s mom) and brought the reader into the household to the point where you can almost hear them playfully arguing with one another.

The main take-home points from this essay are: 

Lean into your quirks.

Steer away from your desire to “blend in” and highlight your mainstream interests. What made this essay unique was highlighting the quirks of this students. For example, their insistence that the bagel that they eat every morning be well-toasted was highlighted with punctuation and emphasis: “My breakfast of choice on this perfect day well-toasted everything bagel with salmon cream cheese, tomato, and a little bit of red onion. Hold the capers.” As well, his intense interest in finding the exact perfect image to paste to his script was importantly highlighted with: “I need to find the perfect house to represent the setting today or honestly, the whole day was a waste.” These interests, routines, and patterns that might seem quirky, actually define us and make us each unique. Lean into those and highlight them.

Find beauty in the mundane.

Going along those lines, don’t overlook the very basic themes of your life. Instead, emphasize them. In order to lay this essay out we had to go through each and every day of the week in detail (truly, minute by minute at some points, from waking to bedtime) multiple times. It’s in those tiny crevices of life that we don’t think twice about where the meat of the story truly was. For example, the fact that Wednesday is leftover night in this student’s household. That’s a small tradition that probably many families experiences. It was highlighted so distinctly, with a bit of  a “tangent” about what type of food the student was “into” at the moment (in reality, this was a glimpse into the student’s mind at the time and evidenced the human element for admissions officers—perhaps it even made them hungry. We’ll take any reaction), that it became the title of the essay. “Leftover Night.” “It’s Wednesday so it’s leftover night. I’m jamming on Korean food right now, but it’s Wednesday, and Wednesday is leftover night. There’s no compromise.”

Think outside of the common “one-interest” theme. You are the central interest.

As mentioned above, this student had similar interests to many other students applying: acting, rock music, art, directing, comics, music (playing and writing), and the list goes on. Instead of honing in on one interest in particular,  we wanted to highlight the fact that they are constantly taking one hat off and putting another on. They are constantly in motion; that is what made this student unique. That’s what your essay should do: it should highlight what makes you unique. Think outside of the “focus on XYZ” topic and think about focusing on the best possible format, structure, and tone that best conveys who you are at your core. Also, the aforementioned interests are in the activities supplement of the common app. And you know we don't repeat information in the college application. 

This can seem overwhelming and we are sure that you have a lot to say and aren’t quite sure what the best format might be. If you need help, good news: that’s what we’re best at. Give us a call or send us an email. We’d be happy to help distill your sense of self into an essay format that suits you best and that will make schools perk up and pay attention.