3 of the best college essays

by Jennifer Johnson,

  • Willamette student reading outside

Rock collecting, volunteer work, origami — college essays on each of these topics caught the attention of Willamette admission officers this year.  

Contrary to popular belief, the essay does not need to cover the most exciting or traumatic thing that happened in your life. Jack Percival, assistant director of admission, said what students say in the essay is far more important than the topic itself. 

“It’s better to produce a well-written essay that’s true to you than feel the need to say, go on a big adventure to write something interesting,” he said. “And while a lot of students feel they should write about some hardship they’ve experienced or obstacle they’ve overcome, it’s not always the right choice if it’s not authentic.” 

Here are three essays — in no particular order — that impressed the admission office.  

Essay No. 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.

The man is about to propose. It's going to be perfect.

He's figured it all out: the music, the lighting, the shiny golden ring, even the restaurant, Palais de l'Amour. He must make her say yes because he has everything planned perfectly. Suddenly, he has a sharp vision of their wedding day — she'll wear the dress sold in Clasco's Emporium down the street, beside Barney's Pet Shoppe. They will marry in Chesterfield's Town Hall, built in 1891, and the photographer will take pictures that will never be developed. But that's OK — that's what happens when you're a Lego.

I know what you're thinking: Legos are simple blocks you played with as a child. Maybe you built a dysfunctional car or a staircase into the air; these are strange topics for a 17 year-old-girl's college application. But this perspective shows only a partial view of Legos. Nothing reveals this more than the intricate Lego Creator TM city block in my attic. Each citizen of this 2-foot long town has a complex backstory — a family, a house, a personality. But the best part? With Legos, you are given creative license to change these things.

I discovered Legos at a late age by most accounts. I wasn't a young child when I began to construct the first portion of Chesterfield. I was twelve. But I consider this a lucky break for me- just when my friends were contemplating careers, getting serious about school work, and growing up, I found something that reawakened the child within me. As my friends lost their creativity, mine grew.

Every new book of instructions presented challenges that could not be solved by asking the teacher or copying off the internet. When the rule book was wrong, I had to improvise. When the design was faulty, I decided to change it. Sometimes I utilized my experience to reconstruct a defective window, door or even an entire floor plan.

Sometimes I added flourishes to buildings of my own accord or furniture where there was none. While in class, I learned to color inside the lines (or, rather, build inside the lines); at home, I was free to construct or change whatever my mind desired.

Take the man in the restaurant, about to propose. Strip away his shiny ring. Bring him outside the building, on his knees, arms outstretched. Now he is a beggar, holding out a plastic cup in hopes someone will donate to the cause. Or move him up several stories, above the restaurant, into the apartment. Here he creates masterpieces of artwork, which are sold all over town. One even hangs in the mayor's office. Through what some would call play, I learned innovation, creativity and just a little bit of rule breaking — because when I changed the job or position of the characters, I went against the rulebook that demanded they stay put.

There are other rulebooks in life that have challenged me to innovate in ways I never imagined. For two summers, I taught kids of all ages how to swim, according to a 200+ page manual. “What do I do with it?” I remember asking. “You read it,” my manager told me. “And then you memorize it.” She then informed me a new manual would be issued every year. I learned very quickly that the rulebook was incomplete, failing to cover challenging scenarios. When a child in my class was an adept swimmer, but a poor listener, the book demanded I pass him. I realized that following the manual was not only wrong, but could actually put a child in danger.

As I gained confidence in my teaching style and myself, I realized that no matter how many manuals life hands me, they cannot tell me everything. Sometimes, life requires you to build outside the box. What started with Legos blossomed into a different way to look at the world through a window tinted with creativity.

Why it worked:

The student is vulnerable (not everyone would admit they play with Legos as a teenager) and that honesty is appealing. The connection from the Lego manual to the swimming manual is brilliantly done, and we see that she thinks with complexity and creativity. 

The “hook” at the beginning of the essay — when you are surprised that these are Legos we're talking about — is a great device and perfectly executed. 

Essay No. 2

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Title: Buckle up Buttercup

I knew I was on my way to becoming a man when I found the self-confidence to bust out the utility belt. My belt is the only accessory I am guaranteed to wear on any given day. It is the perfect thing for the modern, busy American, yet I see so many of my fellow citizens not wearing these immensely practical articles. My friends call it a “fanny-pack” or a “satchel,” but those words do not do it justice.

Literally speaking, it is a leather belt with two pouches on either side that snap shut and can hold about three small things each. On the back there are two loops for carabiners that I hook my water bottle up to on one side, and keys and guitar picks on the other. Everyone should get one for their 18th birthday, it's the most useful thing to own, more practical than a driver's license, or socks. It keeps me prepared for everything the day can throw at me, which means it is usually occupied by earbuds, a small notebook, pencils and sharpeners, and a selection of solid perfumes that I can strategically apply when my deodorant fails me. Construction workers are not the only people entitled to the luxury of having everything they need just half an arm's length away.

Vegan hotdog stand workers deserve that ability, too. That is what I've done the past three years at the Oregon Country Fair. Every July, about 45,000 people from all walks of life converge outside of Eugene, Oregon to sell homemade crafts, frolic in assorted fields, and be at peace with the world. It was there that I met my utility belt. I had eyed them all over the fair for the last few years, and this was the year. I was going for it. I bought it with a fair amount of hesitancy, but I buckled it up anyway, and I have never been the same.

The belt gives me faith that I will be equipped to handle whatever may happen. I have something that separates me, that is not only different but reassures me in my adventures. Of course I am ready; I'm wearing a utility belt. It lets me wake up every morning prepared to say to the world, “I'm ready, are you?” That is a more valuable thing than I thought it would be, and there was a time when I would have written that notion off as a security blanket, or a meaningless token to attract attention.

However, this piece of leather with two pouches on each side that snap shut allows me the courage to admit my needs and desires to myself, and I want to wear my utility belt every day of my life. I expect this next chapter in my life to be a challenging one, full of the unexpected, but I do not think it is anything my utility belt and I can't handle.

Why it worked:

Great details are slipped in that give clues to this young man's life in the Pacific Northwest — mention of carabiners, guitar picks, country fair, etc.

This is a great example of humor, which can be the most difficult response to evoke in an essay. 

It’s clever and funny, but also touching at the end. He does a great job of tying up his clear answer to the prompt. The topic was also entirely unique. 

Essay No. 3

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Social Cap-ital (noun) — The network of social connections that exist between people and their shared values, which enable and encourage mutually advantageous social cooperation.

I grew up in Meeker, Colorado, a Rocky Mountain town of 2,500 people. Both of my parents' families were community cornerstones, holding high social capital. My dad's family ran the local grocery store and my mom’s family had a reputable cattle operation. My siblings, too, graduated from Meeker High School, meaning everyone expected me to become a three sport varsity athlete, get involved in church and charity work, and maintain a perfect GPA, as they did. Had the setting been different, none of it would have mattered, but from an early age it felt like I was expected to write the next chapter in a multi-generational legacy.

As media stereotypes would suggest, high school was the catalyst for fame in my small town. But the summer before my freshman year; my parents decided to move 1,200 miles northwest to Scio, Oregon. We packed our belongings, bringing everything with us except the reputation and tradition of the family name. As we left the city limits, I felt almost naked.

Starting a new life with a clean slate proved difficult. On the first day of school, it surprised me when my classmates didn't save a spot for me in front of the classroom and my teachers asked if I felt comfortable reading aloud. At home in Meeker, everyone knew I had always worked hard to be an exceptional student. On that day began the hardest test I'd ever faced — never before had I experienced the lows of loneliness and homesickness.

Like a sailor thrown overboard in choppy water, I plunged into high school with two clear choices. Trying to fit in by being someone I wasn't felt worse than drowning, and to be myself (an athlete, scholar, fun loving weirdo) was tough — but when I worked up the courage, it was like learning to save myself from the rough seas. I chose to swim.

Even today, midway through my senior year, it continues to be challenging to act authentically and craft the legacy that I desire. I've learned that my reputation at school can’t be formed with words — rather, it's defined by my actions. Whether those actions include being the most rambunctious fan at the football games, leading the school as the student body president, or studying to ace the semester finals, they all contribute to the formation of a reputation I'm proud of.

There's a photo of me from the day my family moved from Colorado. I'm sitting on the tailgate of our pickup truck, a floppy-haired kid smiling hard to conceal the uneasiness I felt. Next to that picture sits a proof for my senior portraits. I've grown 6 inches, filled out, but the most shocking difference is how comfortable I look sporting my favorite purple shirt, the smoothness of my brow, the void of tension and the gratitude fueled grin painted across my face.

My journey to the Northwest has served as the bridge from childhood, over the waters of adolescence, into adulthood. It has been more profound than any event in my lifetime. Here I find myself again, on the brink of another big move from high school to college. Last time I had no say in the matter, but the benefit of being thrown from my comfort zone was nothing but positive and formative. This time I'm not only excited, but ready I know who I am, I know what I want, and I can't wait to make it happen.

Why it worked:

A nice vulnerability in this young man's story. He's not afraid to say he was homesick.

Many details are slipped in to enhance our understanding of who he is — a student body president, strong student, football fan — without being braggadocios. The way he sums up the prompt at the end is incredibly well done; he answers the question by telling this very personal story. And his use of imagery, especially the two photos on his desk at the end, made his story stand out. 

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