Free Resources for Students and Parents

We’re playing a game: no more bad college essays!

We want you to write an essay that will work for you when you apply to college. But to do that, you need to know what makes an effective college essay, and why.

We’re not going to tell you this; we’ll show you. With the free resources on this page, we’ll take you on a fun little adventure so you can discover what a college essay is for yourself.

College Essays 101

Before you write anything (even an English paper or a text to ask someone out on a date), you need to build a strong foundation. That means, you know three things: your audience, your intention, and your role. This is one of the secrets of the most effective writers and communicators.

This fun, self-directed version of our live 7 Secrets for a Great College Essay workshop is the starting point for writing your best college essay. It’ll take you about twenty minutes.

The best sample college essays anywhere*

We love these essays and think you will as well. More importantly, your students will see why these are such effective essays.

We suggest you read these after you’ve taken College Essays 101.

“So, how’s your day going?!”

“So, how’s your day going?!” I asked.
“Fine,” Sam muttered.

“Mine’s great too! I love that Charlie gives us chips with lunch. Do you like chips?” I chatted on, ignoring Sam’s increasingly short answers. As a ten-year-old, my positive attitude had earned me the nickname “Sunshine” at camp.

“Yes,” the fourteen-year-old said, his forehead creased in concentration, gazing at the chess board in front of him. I had him trapped between my queen and rook.

“My favorite is Doritos! Oh, and I think it’s checkmate.”

Sam scowled at me, annoyed at losing to the only girl in camp. I grinned cheerfully back at him. I had a knack for strategy; it came naturally to me. I was always ten moves ahead of my opponents, visualizing and improvising my steps to victory.

It was my first year at chess camp. I was surrounded by boys like Sam who were quiet and introverted. Many likely wondered what this blonde-haired ball of energy was doing there.

After beating my third opponent in a row, the chess counselor, Charlie, called over to me.

“Hey Sunshine, why don’t you come play with me?”

He smiled the way a shark stares at a juicy seal.

Flushed with my previous successes, I thrust my pawn out into the middle of the board. Two moves later Charlie called checkmate. It’s known as the Fool’s Mate, an apt name for the fastest way to checkmate an opponent. Speechless, I stared at the board before I set my jaw with resolve.

“Let’s play again,” I said. I wasn’t a quitter, not at ten years old and not now.

It took him ten moves to checkmate me the next time.

“Let’s play again,” I said.

Charlie’s secret weapon was the pawn. Often perceived to be the most expendable piece, he taught me that the pawn is multidimensional and can transform into any piece on the board.

I went to chess camp for six summers, and I never beat him.

During my first summer without chess camp, I found myself collecting trash with twenty people on a beach in Seattle. I lugged a trash bag the size of my body filled with detritus from the beach: used diapers, empty bottles of alcohol and an exorbitant number of plastic water bottles. The amount of plastic I found rivaled the pollution I have seen on my open water dives as a scuba diver.

Despite strategically reviewing weather forecasts in advance, we were caught in an unexpected storm. Rain lashed my body. Wind whipped through my hair. Thunder and lightning crackled above.

Many people stopped once the storm arrived. I didn’t. Once I start something, I finish it. Improvising, I grabbed an unused trash bag, poked my arms through it and used it as a raincoat.

Dressed like a trash can I plunged back into the storm.

In those moments on the beach, I felt like I was the center of the universe. I felt empowered: empowered to clean the beach, empowered to fight for conservation, empowered to become a marine biologist.

Empowered because I felt like a pawn, ready to be any piece I wanted.

I channel the adaptability of the pawn, pursuing the unconventional and overcoming challenges. I’m not like other girls. I like coding, watching football and playing poker. I was a six-year all-star on my boy’s baseball team. I am one of the only girls at my job. I’ve stared into the eyes of a shark.

I’m never going to be the girl who hides from the storm.


Give Lisa some structured feedback

Is this written for an admissions officer?
Has Jacob read this 100 times this year? Is it giving him the information she needs to decide on whether or to accept Lisa?

Is it a short story?
Is she sharing part of her life? You can write a short story in a lot of different ways. You can also ask yourself if it’s something other than a short story, like a school paper, a newspaper article, or a legal document.

Is it engaging?
Look from Jacob’s perspective: someone who reads thousands of these essays.

Is it authentic?
au·then·tic: representing one’s true nature or beliefs; true to oneself or to the person identified.
Does this read like a real person—a real teenager? Is it in her real voice?

Is it showing who Lisa is?
Do you get a sense of what it would be like to be around Lisa, maybe as a roommate, friend, or classmate? Or maybe, how she thinks, how she solves problems, or what she values? No essay can show everything, but a good one shows a lot

Is she telling her story, like she’s standing around a campfire?
Do you get a sense that she’s sharing her story with you, like a teenager?


Did you notice that Lisa uses a lot of dialog in her essay? That’s one of the fancy writer’s tricks you’ll learn in the Writer phase. It’s a simple way to bring your essay, and you, to life.

What else did you notice in this essay? What else got you curious?

"I would see kids panic at the sight of their own blood…"

I would see kids panic at the sight of their own blood, but never understood why it never bothered me. In Boy Scouts, it’s not uncommon to get scrapes and cuts. I loved learning new outdoor skills but liked first-aid the most.

I looked up to Bryce, my patrol leader. He was incredibly independent and could even pitch a tent in the dark.

When I became a patrol leader it was a sobering feeling. I always imagined myself working with Bryce, but the only reason I was leading was because he had left. Now, there was no one to guide me. Now, I teach new scouts how to camp.

I wanted to know more, for me and my patrol members. That is why I became an Emergency Medical Technician, volunteering to work in an ambulance.

Before EMT training, I had never learned about something that I chose or was genuinely interested in before. During EMT classes, I was able to sit through long lectures easily. Even though I had to study really hard like I did in school, the incentive was different. I didn’t learn to get a good grade. I learned all of these skills because something more important than my grade was at risk. If I didn’t learn what I was supposed to, I could hurt or kill a person.

During my second shift a call came in, an eleven month old with an amputated finger. I remember thinking, “I have no idea what do with a severed finger,” I was alone in the back of ambulance; I didn’t know where I should start.

I was freaking out but wasn’t showing it because it was my first call with someone bleeding. Whenever there’s a child there’s a mother involved, sometimes hysterical. When we arrived, I saw Peter, the crew chief, standing on the curb with the baby and the mother near by. As soon as we pulled up, the mom laid down in the stretcher with the baby on her lap and we took off.

The paper towel on the baby’s finger was covered in blood. My stomach sank. Real blood, a surprising amount for a baby. The finger wasn’t completely off though, only a deep cut on the tip of the pinky, maybe 80% of the way through. I rummaged through the med bag until I found gauze and started handing it off to Peter. Then I grabbed the clipboard and started writing down all the info on the call-sheet: name, date of birth, allergies, medicine, medical history. The baby stopped crying and the mother started to calm down. My hands were still a bit shaky but they couldn’t tell because of the bumps in the road. I couldn’t let the mom notice how nervous I was, that wouldn’t help anything. I just focused on handing gauze to my partner so he could help the patient. We got to the hospital, dropped the patient off at the pediatric ward, and gave the nurse the call-sheet I filled out. It was a relief.

In the past six months since I started on the First Aid Squad, I’ve probably been on more than 50 calls. Most of the time, the injuries are minor, but people panic to the point where they can’t take care of themselves, like a woman that got a little cut on the back of her hand but insisted on going to the hospital. When I think back to the severed finger, I realize that I’m not nearly as nervous as I was last summer. Each call has gradually taught me to keep a level head. In Boy Scouts, we trained to do first aid but never got any practical experience. I hope I never have to use my EMT training when I’m with my patrol, but if I do, I won’t need a bumpy road to disguise my nerves.


Give David some structured feedback

Is this written for an admissions officer?

Has Jacob read this 100 times this year? Is it giving him the information she needs to decide on whether or to accept David?

Is it a short story?
Is he sharing part of his life? You can write a short story in a lot of different ways. You can also ask yourself if it’s something other than a short story, like a school paper, a newspaper article, or a legal document.

Is it engaging?
Look from Jacob’s perspective: someone who reads thousands of these essays.

Is it authentic?
au·then·tic: representing one’s true nature or beliefs; true to oneself or to the person identified.
Does this read like a real person—a real teenager? Is it in his real voice?

Is it showing who David is?
Do you get a sense of what it would be like to be around David, maybe as a roommate, friend, or classmate? Or maybe, how he thinks, how he solves problems, or what he values? No essay can show everything, but a good one shows a lot.

Is he telling his story, like he’s standing around a campfire?
Do you get a sense that he’s sharing his story with you, like a teenager?


Did you notice how straightforward this essay is? It’s not fancy, just straightforward and no-nonsense. 

Just like David, who had a choice of colleges, including several of his reach schools. 

What else did you notice in this essay? What else got you curious? 

"I didn’t like Zach at first."

I didn’t like Zach at first. He broke my glasses in the fifth grade–slammed my head into a playhouse door. Little did I know, he would become one of my best friends.

Unlike most people, I’ve had the same best friends since elementary school; we would roam the playground and stay away from icky girls.

In high school, I moved on to new playgrounds. They weren’t necessarily equipped with a jungle gym. The Matthews Thriftway parking lot became our new home. Surprisingly, I’m okay with that.

We make sitting in a cramped car fun. The playful banter never seems to stop, and when you say something, you can almost guarantee that someone will try to poke fun at you.

“Let’s do something.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“Well then why’d you ask … ”
“Let’s go to a movie.”
“NO.”
“Okay well then you think of something to do.”
“I can’t … ”
“Let’s go to the carwash and roll the windows down.”
“Shut up, I’m serious.”

After 10th grade, I started to hang out with the wrong people. The girls thought they were the prettiest and the guys thought they were the toughest. They didn’t take school seriously, more focused on partying and fun than their futures. Their carefree attitudes and overall “coolness” intrigued me. Drifting away from my real friends, I found a place with these new kids.

I knew I didn’t fit in with them nor did I want to, but I didn’t do anything about it.

I wasn’t a bad kid but it didn’t matter. I didn’t spend time with these people in school, but I hung out with them on the weekends. I became no better than them in the eyes of others.

After being grounded for the third time in six months, it hit me. It just wasn’t worth it. I wanted my friends back. I wanted my parents’ trust back. I had lost the freedom teenagers long for, and for what?

Although I was nervous, rebuilding the relationships with my real friends wasn’t difficult. They knew I was regretful – I should never have left them. They seemed happy I was back, never holding it against me.

I didn’t think I knew as much about my friends as I do. Zach hides his feelings in an attempt to not seem weak. Jack is somewhat of a “hopeless romantic” even though it’s not obvious. Stuart needs to be complimented due to his own insecurities. I sometimes take the playful jokes to heart. These aren’t flaws, it simply makes my friends and me who we are, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve argued in that parking lot. I learned it’s not so much what I do with my free time, but who I spend it with.

We plan to spend the night in the parking lot before we all go our separate ways. Kind of like one last hurrah, but by no means is this the end.

 


Give Ryan some structured feedback

Is this written for an admissions officer?

Has Jacob read this 100 times this year? Is it giving her the information she needs to decide on whether or to accept Ryan?

Is it a short story?
Is he sharing part of his life? You can write a short story in a lot of different ways. You can also ask yourself if it’s something other than a short story, like a school paper, a newspaper article, or a legal document.

Is it engaging?
Look from Jacob’s perspective: someone who reads thousands of these essays.

Is it authentic?
au·then·tic: representing one’s true nature or beliefs; true to oneself or to the person identified.
Does this read like a real person—a real teenager? Is it in his real voice?

Is it showing who Ryan is?
Do you get a sense of what it would be like to be around Ryan, maybe as a roommate, friend, or classmate? Or maybe, how he thinks, how he solves problems, or what he values? No essay can show everything, but a good one shows a lot.

Is he telling his story, like he’s standing around a campfire?
Do you get a sense that he’s sharing his story with you, like a teenager?


Did you notice that this esssay is a bit shorter than the others? Most Common Application essays are 600–650 words, but sometimes a simple, shorter story can communicate a powerful message. This is one of our favorite all-time essays because it does that so well.

And it worked: Ryan was accepted to all of the schools he applied to as well as to a highly-selective business program. 

What else did you notice in this essay? What else got you curious? 

*No, we can’t prove it, but see for yourself!

How to read any college essay like a pro

Most people can’t tell a good college essay from a terrible one. This one-page guide makes it easy for anyone to understand why an essay works, or doesn’t. We go through the same series of questions with our personal mentoring students every time we meet with them.

This is a powerful tool for students, parents, counselors, and teachers and example of the kind of resources we include with EssayQuest.

If the form does not download on your phone, copy this link and paste it into your browser to download.

We have more to share!

Over the next few days, we'll send you College Essays 102, more sample essays, and activities to help you find stories you never knew you could write about.  

We want you to write your best college essay!

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