In volume one, we introduced you to three students who wrote great college application essays that impressed schools enough to gain admission, and now we have even more to share. Your college essay can let you tell any story you want to, even when you have a prompt to follow. Use these examples to get your wheels turning and figure out what sort of impactful story you feel your application would be incomplete without.
“Why They Call it Fishing” by Derek Billey, Willamette University
Sweat seeps from beneath the brim of my cap and trickles down my forehead. My eyes, weary from the relentless reflection of the sunlight off the water, burn with the sting of sunscreen. I’ve been on the Deschutes River all day, but I’m still waiting. My fly bobs quickly through the current for the umpteenth time, screaming “gobble me up!” but nothing bites. Still, I wait. I pick up the rod to cast again, my arm like lead as it struggles to lift the line out of the water. With a grunt I fling it out to the middle of the river. I watch it travel downstream, willing a fish to ensnare its maw on that little hook. But I’m left standing thigh-deep in the freezing eddy, waiting.
When I was 12, I would have wondered: why do you subject yourself to this? Still fresh in my memory are the days when a sour mood would build just 10 minutes after nibbles, and the days when getting hung up on a rock would get me so frustrated I wanted to cry or quit altogether. At that point I never could have imagined that I’d be where I am now, content with my inability to attract fish.
During my adolescence most things came easily to me, from hitting a baseball to building LEGO airplanes from scratch. Then a fly rod was placed in my hand: seven and a half feet of flexible graphite, with 35 feet of fly line. I tried to get my line to create that graceful U-shape behind my head as I’d watched my dad do many, many times. “10 to two, 10 to two, 10 to two,” I’d say to myself, imagining my rod as the hand of a clock, per my dad’s instruction. But I was usually met with failure. One day I let my fly sink in the water for too long and got hung up first on one rock, then again on another. Another time I hustled excitedly through the trees towards the river, tripped on a root and sprawled onto the bank, shattering the silence as well as any chance of heeding my dad’s advice about stealth and quiet.
But I stuck with it. The prospect of hooking a big fish always lured me back for more.
It took repeated trips to rivers around the Pacific Northwest for me to grasp the fact that what my dad and I were doing was called “fishing” and not “catching.” I finally understood that throwing an imitation fly into a roiling river to entice one of the smartest creatures in the water to bite is not an activity designed for success. Yet, reminiscing on a trip up the Stehekin River, what I remembered most wasn’t the unwillingness of any fish to bite. It was the soft mountain breeze shooting the aroma of pine and red alder up my nostrils; the bright, wavering reflection of the evening sun off the river’s surface; and the fluid, effortless motions of my dad’s fly rod—a dance with the river. These things were what mattered most.
On the Deschutes, the wet line slides effortlessly through my right pointer and middle fingers as I pull it towards me in preparation for another cast. My arm, now a sagging stick of muscle, bone, and lactic acid, groans with the effort. I feel the line exit the current and fly back in a graceful curve behind my head—10 to two—and I flick my forearm forward to send the fly back out. The rod catches, and I yank some high brush behind me, nearly tearing my arm in half. My fly is caught on a bush. All I can do is chuckle, gently set down my rod, and search among the tangled salmonberry for that elusive artificial fly.
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“The Importance of Playing Dress Up” by Morganne Wheeler, St. Lawrence University
“Where the heck is it?” I asked aloud as I ripped through every drawer and closet. “Mom!” I screamed, as I pulled the rumpled, size 6-8 Cinderella dress from the overstuffed Hefty bag in the center of my floor. How could my mother callously have cast aside the dress that served as my cousin Bradley’s trademark costume for my annual family Christmas production?
I pounded down the stairs and found my mother innocently making dinner. I put on my most terrifying eight-year-old face and held up the crinkled Disney creation. “Just what do you think Brad is gonna wear this year?” My mother would learn the extreme sentimental value of this dress and how it would serve to remind us of Bradley and our innocence.
Kindred spirits, both left-handed and white-haired and born only weeks apart, Brad and I spent every preschool day together in mutual adoration. After all, he had what appeared to be two belly buttons and his scars were much more impressive than mine. Thankfully, I did not understand the correlation between those holes and scars and his having been deprived of oxygen at birth due to a badly malformed heart, a birth defect that would severely impair his ability to learn. Brad and I, sporting plastic sunglasses, spent our early years cruising the yard in my pink Barbie Beach Buggy, from which I had diligently scraped the Barbie sticker to make it look less like an embarrassing “girlie” car. We romped around the house, ripping heads off dolls, sneaking sugary items, and whipping ourselves off the swings in an effort to land on the paved driveway. It is the laughter I remember when I think of these days, not Brad’s disability.
My perception drastically altered when I entered fourth grade. “Hey, retard!” one boy shouted at recess as one of his henchmen chucked the ball at Brad’s head. I was not sure what a retard was, but the sound of it made me wince. I launched myself at the ringleader, swinging and crying. I chased them off, the buttons hanging from my now-muddy jumper. I was baffled, and the pain I felt had nothing to do with my bleeding knees. I looked at Bradley and he was smiling at me, not understanding what had just happened, and I was grateful, and forever changed.
As we grew older, our paths diverged. Brad took the path that so many look on with pity as “slow” and “unfortunate.” Initially, I felt guilty for growing up without him. As I write my essays for college and complain about the work involved in applications, I think about Brad, who gets pumped to take his permit test and fails every time, but will persevere. He will never fit the societal ideal of a “normal” person or a “successful” person and I abhor the elitist thinking that insists that my life must have more meaning than his. Watching him grow up has helped me to overcome what could have been my handicap. He is compassionate and determined in spite of thousands of setbacks. And when we all grumble about the burdens of life, I think of Brad and wonder, who is the happier person? He finds joy in things like putting aside money from his grocery store job to buy me a Christmas gift, or saving me all the red gummy bears. He does not lament how few friends he has, but is glad to be with the few who know and appreciate him. I do not feel lucky for being different than Brad. I feel lucky for knowing him. He has taught me that more intelligent does not equal better, and it certainly does not equal happier. What does mark the superior person is the nature of his heart and soul, and Brad’s are pure and joyful and suffused with love.
“Scene two, take one.” Bradley enters, surrounded by a chorus of characters consisting of my brother and cousins. He is wearing the tattered, size 6-8 Cinderella dress. “Kung Fu Fighting” comes on, and that’s his cue. He throws himself into my meticulously choreographed dance, and when the song ends, executes his grand finale, standing on one slightly bent leg. And in the silence between the end of the song and the applause, you can hear the dress ripping a little more.
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“The Music Teacher” by Sarah Montalbano, Cornell University
It’s easy to live without extensive knowledge of Disney movies until the moment comes when nothing else will do. The explanation for my shameful deficiency is simple: I was, and still am, an unabashed nerd. As a kid, instead of watching movies, I was smuggling interesting rocks out of the playground in my shoes. If I wasn’t playing with my toy microscope, I was reading voraciously, devouring library books in subjects from astronomy to botany to physics.
After reading about dentistry, I begged my mother, a veterinarian, to save some teeth from extractions so I could soak them in soft drinks for an experiment. I was aghast at the results of Sprite: the tooth was covered in a chalky film that wouldn’t scrape off. I figured my penchant for discovery would be a help more than a hindrance, but my curiosity isolated me from the world. Unbeknownst to me, Mulan was teaching girls to be self-advocating women—and I missed it!
Even as a child, I found solace in violin, and I began teaching two young girls this year. The first lesson I gave challenged me to cross the “nerd/normal” barrier between myself and a child’s mind; none of my childhood adventures could save me. I struggled in vain to teach her to hold a violin’s bow. I persisted until my voice went hoarse, and my fingers cramped. I even adjusted her bow hold myself; when I let go, she slipped back into a tightly clenched fist. The excitement in her eyes faded into frustration. My heart plummeted; I closed my eyes, and silently begged my foggy brain to remember something, anything, that would help me. No scientific formula nor mathematic equation would bridge this gap.
It felt like an eternity passed before I triumphantly recalled one of my favorite movies, Peter Pan, and I asked the girl if she remembered the villain. Her eyes widened, and she exclaimed, “Captain Hook!”
“Great! So now, this finger is going to ‘hook’ around the stick, and Peter Pan is going to balance on his tippy toes so he can keep an eye on Captain Hook, okay?” I said, adjusting her fingers once more and exuberantly praising her when they finally stayed. At the end of the lesson, she was grinning and asking her parents if I could stay longer. My heart beamed.
To avoid a similar fiasco next time, I went home and did what I knew how to do: study. I created a Quizlet deck titled “Disney Princesses, Villains, and Story Arcs,” and hurried to finish it. Every Sunday afternoon, I pack up my ratty National Science Bowl messenger bag with music books, stickers, decks of cards, and dice; I grab my violin, and rush out the door to teach. Their excited shouting is a far cry from our awkward first lesson, and despite my restricted role as “violin teacher,” I teach so much more.
When we get distracted, I’m able to teach them something important about life as well as music. It seems like we’ve discussed everything: why ice cubes crack as they are dropped into water, how sound is produced, and how colds are transmitted. Because of my candy-cane socks and jingle bells on my violin case, one girl is even convinced that I’m one of Santa’s elves, while the other confided her doubts in Santa’s existence.
My students have gradually shaped me into an empathetic, communicative, and dedicated teacher. I devote hours to testing games and researching new techniques, hoping they learn to enjoy music and use it to cope with life’s inevitable disappointments. Their ceaseless questioning inspires me toward greater curiosity. By learning how to cater my explanations toward their unique situations, I’ve improved my ability to communicate with empathy. But perhaps most invaluable is my new ability to debate the best Disney princess (there’s not much debate to be had—obviously Mulan).
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These essays emphasize the importance of telling a story that showcases who you are as a person. You are so much more than your academic accomplishments, and colleges want to see they are accepting passionate, reflective students who will positively impact their campuses. And there’s more where this came from—so keep reading!
Read more essays in Volume III, or check out Our Best Advice for Writing Your College Application Essays for more writing advice to get started on your own.