Lesson Three – Sample Short Essays
Please select from the following short essay sets:
Note: The below essays appear as they were initially reviewed by admissions officers.
Georgetown, Saudi International Relations
For many years, I have been interested in studying international relations. My interest in pursuing this field stems from several factors which have affected me. First, I have been exposed to international affairs throughout my life. With my father and two of my brothers in the Saudi Foreign Service, I have grown up under the shadow of inter-national affairs. Second, I am fascinated by history, economics, and diplomacy. I believe, through the study of international relations, I can effectively satisfy my curiosity in these fields. A third factor which has affected my interest in international relations is patriotism. Through the Foreign Service, I would not only have the opportunity to serve my country, but also have the chance to help bridge gaps between my country and others. Finally, as a Saudi living abroad, I have been bridging cultures throughout my life. This experience has taught me to look for differences to compromise and similarities to synthesize in order to balance different cultures. In short, I believe that my experiences in life, combined with a rigorous academic education, will enable me to pursue a successful career in the Saudi Foreign Service.
Georgetown, Favorite Class
At St. Albans, especially in our later years, we are given the freedom to choose from a vast array of classes. Using this freedom, I have selected classes which have personal significance to me, regardless of difficulty or appearance on my transcript. However, from these classes, one holds an extraordinary amount of value to me. This course is A.P. Omnibus History, a combination of American and European history. There are several reasons for my great interest in this class. First, I am fascinated by the cyclical nature of the past. I see these recurring political, economic, and social trends as a means of looking forward into the future, while allowing us to avoid the mistakes of the past. Second, history teaches many lessons about the nature of human behavior, both past and present, providing insight into the actions, desires, and aspirations of those around me. Finally, it lays a solid foundation for several disciplines, including political science, economics, and international relations, three fields of great interest to me.
Georgetown, Visual Arts
Another major interest of mine, which I have not had the opportunity to express elsewhere on my application, is the visual arts. Throughout high school, I have used a variety of media to express myself. I began with black and white photography, focusing on the presence of lines and balance in nature. For my work in this medium, I received an award at the St. Albans School Art Show. From photography, I moved on to glass etching. Using a sandblaster to etch the glass, I again concentrated on lines and balance in my works. Moreover, by arranging several glass panes into a sculpture, I moved my study into three dimensions, winning another Art Show award. Currently, I am working on canvas, using oil and acrylic in a Mondrian style, which is based on lines and balance. Eventually, I hope to explore the effects of combining these and other media, creating my own style of artistic expression.
In the past four years of my life, no activity has affected me more than wrestling. Four years of varsity wrestling and the honor of being a team captain has instilled many qualities in me. First, through years of hard work and continuous dieting, wrestling has given me discipline. This discipline has spread to other parts of my personality, including my moral character, work ethic, and perserverence. Another quality wrestling has given me is leadership. As a team captain, I have learned to lead by example, both on and off the mat. Above all, though, wrestling has given me a love of life. Through this sport, I have experienced pain, sacrifice, adversity, and success. Exposure to these feelings-which are, in my opinion, the essence of being-has allowed me to truly appreciate life. I hope to continue wrestling at Georgetown.
What immediately strikes the reader about this set-before even reading it-is the balance between the essays. Each answer contains only one paragraph, each of approximately equal length. The solid structure of each essay and the focus of each reflects this outward balance. Each one focuses on a completely different area of its writer’s life, another striking detail. The first focuses on his career goals, the second on his interest in history, the third on his interest in the visual arts, and the fourth on wrestling. This is a perfect example of the jigsaw puzzle approach. When put together, you have a well-rounded individual with passion, depth, and involvement in many different areas.
Throughout my life, I have tried to be a well-balanced person. Growing up in the South, I had a hard time fighting the stereotypical image of a Chinese person. I was expected to be a math and science genius and nothing more. As it turned out, I defied my detractors by excelling in English and history along with math and science. And over the years, I have continued to maintain my academic standards.
Nevertheless, I have also made sure that I am more than an academic person. I am an active one as well. In middle school, the most popular game during lunch was a basketball game called Salt and Pepper (white vs. black). The first day of school, I stepped onto the basketball courts and was greeted by cries of consternation, “Who is he? Is he salt or pepper?” But after the game, I had made a name for myself. From then onward, I would be known as Spice, and the game we played became Salt, Pepper, and Spice.
When I moved to California, things were no different. I continued to play an active part both academically and socially. My involvement with Cross-country, Speech and Debate, Ultimate Frisbee and numerous clubs guaranteed that I would not be only known as an Honors student.
Like myself, Duke is much more than an academic institution; it is a living institution. I feel that I will be given the opportunity to excel both academically and socially. Duke is a university known for its rich history and strong academic program. And, at the same time, it is also known for its innovation and progressiveness. These are qualities which draw me to the college.
In addition, Duke and I have a lot in common. The two most important extracurricular activities I have are a major part of Duke University. Duke’s Speech team is known for its strong Extemp squad. I remember the time when my speech coach asked me what schools I was applying to. When I had listed my top five choices, he frowned at me and said, “Out of all those schools, I will only respect you if you either join us at Berkeley or go to Duke and extemp.” I hope I will be given the opportunity to contribute my part in the Duke Speech team.
Equally important, the Duke University has a well-known Ultimate Frisbee team. I look forward expectantly to becoming a part of the team. Strange as it seems, Ultimate Frisbee is one of my top criteria for choosing my future college. It delights me that Duke places such great emphasis on the two extracurricular activities that mean most to me.
My first year at Duke should be a great one. Majoring in economics at Duke should allow me to both pursue my major studies and allow me time for personal interests in Chinese and the Humanities. Moreover, in my spare time, I plan to join the Speech team and the Ultimate Frisbee team. Hopefully, with my previous experience, I will have an early start in both Speech and Ultimate. Yet, I will never forget why I’m in college in the first place. As long as I give organic chemistry a wide berth, I should be able to continue my level of academic excellence. Overall, my first year at Duke promises to be exciting, if a bit hectic.
I find Hermann Hesse’s book, Narcissus and Goldmund, intellectually exciting. After reading the book last year, I remember putting it down and sighing contentedly. I had, after a sleepless night, finally finished. What I reveled in was not the fact that I could sleep, but that I had come away with an inexplicable something. It was not an understanding which could be pinpointed and explained. Rather, it was a sense I felt in the depths of my soul. And yet, what delighted me more was that I knew that I had only begun to understand the book; that there remained countless messages which I could only sense but not grasp. Here, finally, I had a book which could be re-read. And every time I finished, I would come away with a new understanding of something I could not put into words.
Unlike the normal academic, I do not want to find the final answer for everything. Throughout my life, I have always felt a sense of loss after succeeding in a long search. For me, it is not the ends I seek, but the means themselves. I am perfectly content to never find the final answer as long as I will always be able to find a better one.
Duke, Chinese Culture/Economics
Born in Taiwan, I came to the United States when I was five. Armed with only two words (“hello” and “popcorn”), I braved the uncertainties of a complex, new environment. Twelve years later, my vocabulary is considerably larger and I have adapted well to my surroundings. At the same time, I have neither forgotten my native culture nor its language.
My ties with my native Chinese culture remain as strong as ever. I visit my relatives in Taiwan regularly almost every summer and have traveled throughout China. And to everyone’s continuing surprise, I have yet to forget how to speak Mandarin. Nevertheless, twelve years in America has made its impressions upon me as well. I am as “American” as anyone my age. The songs I listen to, the sports I play, and the way I speak are all a reflection of that. In short, I am a combination of both East and West.
Nevertheless, I sometimes wonder whether speaking Chinese at home and visits in the summer are enough to maintain my ties with my native culture. Often, when I see my parents reading old Chinese literature or poetry, I feel that I am only in touch with half of what I am. This sense of loss has led me to seek out my old roots. I turn to the East to rediscover what I have lost.
Yet, I cannot resign myself to merely studying my own culture and language. I want to be able to apply my knowledge as well. To me, pursuing a career in business is a very pragmatic solution to my future welfare. My father is a businessman in Taiwan and I have had numerous opportunities to watch him work. Through him, I have discovered my own interests in the business field. I find the way business operates in the East to be very exciting. At the same time, my father has soothed my sense of morality by showing me that it is possible to be an honest businessman in Asia.
Before I learned about Duke, I had made up my mind to study economics and to ultimately pursue a career in international business. I had come to see this path as the best combination for fulfilling both my aspirations towards knowledge and my pragmatic goals of a future livelihood. China, my planned area of focus, is an expanding market with a dearth of skilled business professionals. But I had misgivings because I wanted a school with a strong focus on the humanities as well.
Thus, I find Duke University exciting and perfect for me. It gives me a strong economics curriculum, but still allows me to pursue my interests in the humanities. With economics at Duke University, I will have access to a wide array of studies both within and beyond my chosen major. I will have an edge in the business world by virtue of Duke
After attending Duke (if I am accepted, of course), I will have a clear path before me. My studies at Duke should virtually guarantee me for any graduate business school. And, after my graduate studies, I will be able to realize my dreams. Perhaps, I will be able to serve as a bridge between East and West.
These three well-written essays create a strong set. The first and the last would have been impressive on their own. Reading them all together magnifies their impact considerably. This student does an especially good job of targeting the school. This student focuses his first essay on his extracurriculars and relates them to why Duke would be perfect for him. He focuses the third on his Chinese background and how it relates to his career goals and academic interests. Then he also relates these interests to why Duke matches him perfectly. His favorite book provided the focus of the second essay. What makes this second essay better than others like it is that the applicant manages to put himself into the question. He does not just talk about the book, he uses it to talk about himself and stress the inquisitive nature of his personality-always a plus.
Participating in my high school’s debate program has been my most meaningful activity these past four years. I have learned how to speak in front of a crowd without becoming nervous, how to think on my feet, and how to argue the merits of any side of an issue. Being on the debate team also allows me to educate myself on current topics of global importance such as the homeless problem, health care, and pollution.
Throughout the three years I have dedicated to the activity, (high school) has always maintained a successful squad and I am quite proud to know that I have earned many of the trophies and awards that have helped make the program so successful and (high school) well known on the debate circuit.
Because of the activity, I have learned that from education to communication, from argument to enlightenment, debate is necessary for two or more humans to transcend mere exchange of thought and achieve synergy instead. I now view success in debate as far more than a trophy; I now see it as evidence that I can successfully communicate my beliefs to others and have them logically accept them as their own, thus priming me for any future challenges involving human interaction.
Dartmouth, Honors and Awards
My most important honors since tenth grade have been winning the Brown University Book Award for my skills in English, being named as a National Merit Semifinalist (Finalist status pending), winning the Journalism Education Association National Write-off Award of Excellence in the Editorial division at a national conference, being selected as a Semifinalist in the NCTE Writing Contest for my work in prose, being named as an Illinois State Scholar for my academic achievement in high school and my high A.C.T. scores, being selected to the Spanish Honor Society for my consistent success with the language in the classroom, being selected as the Student of the Month in the Foreign Language/Social Sciences division two years in a row for my success in those classes, and in a culminating event, being featured in Who’s Who Among American High School Students for my overall scholastic success.
Dartmouth, Summer at Dartmouth
Most of my past summer was spent away from home. In that brief month in which I remained in (town name) I worked at (job) in order to earn the money I was going to spend on my trips. My first excursion was to the east coast where I visited several schools and took in the atmosphere of an area to which my midwestern self was somewhat unaccustomed. One school I was considering that I did not visit was Dartmouth. After all, I spent a month there later in the summer. As a participant of the Dartmouth Debate Institute I spent a lot of time in Feldberg, Dana, and Baker libraries; resided in the well-known Choates; attended sessions in Silsby; and dined in the Full-Fare section of Thayer. There was also time for recreational activities such as rope swinging, volleyball, frisbee, sleep (every little bit was cherished), and beautiful hikes up to Dana. I did manage to sit down and work in such a clean, open environment, however. The instructors made sure of that. The four-week institute honed my skills in speaking, researching, structuring arguments, and thinking. As a result, my partner and I were able to break into the elimination rounds at the institute-ending tournament which included the top debaters in the nation. Aside from the debate skills I learned, I found the institute very favorable because of the exchange of ideas taking place between the students and staff. What I learned from those exchanges enlightened me not only as a debater but also as a person.
Although I enjoy all of my subjects, I regard classes I have taken in the social sciences to be the most meaningful. Whereas some classes use formulas to describe natural occurrences, the social sciences show that not everything is explicable in such a clear-cut manner. The social sciences describe people; they describe the people who make up the formulas and how and why that was done. The social sciences also explain the past so as a society, people can avoid past catastrophes and build upon past successes. Not only do they describe how we act as we do, but why we act as we do.
I am not a student who always likes to follow someone else’s rules. While most subjects allow for free thought, the social sciences encourage innovative thinking. Those classes expect students to explain why something happened based on certain conditions. I didn’t learn that the Iron Curtain was an economic measure in any math class.
As a student my ultimate goal is to understand things. I feel the best way to understand is not by reciting another’s thought, but by formulating my own and debating it with people who disagree with me. I believe that exchange of thought is vital in every curriculum, but the social sciences do the most to promote that exchange. I highly doubt that anyone will be debating Einstein’s ideas in the near future-and be right.
This essayist dedicates the first essay to his involvement in debating. He manages to communicate quite a lot in a short amount of space (what he has learned, what he has achieved, and what debating means to him) without ever losing his focus. The second essay is an example of an answer to a list question (“List your honors and awards”). The third gets more personal by describing the summer he spent at Dartmouth. The strength of this essay is that he sells himself on his knowledge and familiarity of the school. The weakness of this essay is that he tries to do too much and loses his focus after the second paragraph. The conclusion does not seem to fit with the points he has made in the essay-the last line particularly seems to come from nowhere.
Harvard, Favorite Books
The novel Black Like Me was the most stimulating book I have recently read. I was taken aback by the cruelty the narrator experienced when he was black compared to the hospitality he found as a white man. Possessing the same occupation, clothing, wealth, speech, and identity did not matter when his skin was another color. Given that this was a non-fictional piece, my reaction was even stronger. The book made me favor equality of opportunity for all in every endeavor so others’ opinions of them are based on performance, not preconceptions.
Harvard, Favorite Teacher
I selected Mr. (name) because he taught me more than U.S. History; he taught me how to think independently. This wasn’t done only to prepare me for the free-response section of the A.P. test, either. I know he did it to make his students responsible citizens and responsible adults. From the outset, he wanted to make sure that we knew how we stood in our political philosophy: strict constructionists or loose constructionists. He wanted to make sure that we didn’t gravitate towards empty categories like liberal or conservative, but rather focused on issues separately whenever we needed to take a stand on them. Imagine my surprise when I, the son of two very conservative parents who constantly bombarded me with their rhetoric, discovered that I had strong liberal tendencies on some issues. Aside from political affiliations, Mr. (name) taught us how to make sense out of history by trying to understand the personal motives that went in to any chain of historical occurrences. In his class, I came to the realization that history isn’t only a series of names and dates printed in a textbook, but a more complex subject that requires deep thought and analysis for full comprehension. Because of Mr. (name), history is now my favorite subject. He has also been a motivating force outside of the classroom. He always had faith in my ability and constantly encouraged me to do my best. I believe he respected my abilities and wanted to see them developed further. In fact, had it not been for his faith in me, I would have never applied to Harvard, the school I plan to attend in the fall.
Harvard, Unnoticed Accomplishment
It’s not that I’m a weak guy, just that I had been somewhat self-conscious about my strength early on in my high school career. My gym class didn’t help too much, either. Thanks to a demeaning test of strength appropriately dubbed the “Grip Test,” once each quarter I was provided the opportunity to squeeze a gadget, get a score, and have my teacher announce it out loud, no matter how high or (as in my case) how low it was. No matter how hard I tried, the cruel and callous scale never registered above 40. Almost every other male in the class could boast of a high-40’s or mid-50’s score. I hated that test with a passion. Until recently. When this semester rolled around and I had the gripper placed in my palm, I was prepared for the same old same old. I had been improving slightly from quarter to quarter, but nothing impressive ever happened. I drew in a deep breath, squeezed, looked at the scale, and almost fainted. Sixty-six! In a way only a teenager can appreciate, for an accomplishment only a teenager would find meaningful, I thought I was in heaven. My success was even sweeter as I watched jocks pale in comparison when they took the test. Sure, to some people my academic accomplishments seem fairly impressive, and I would agree. Yet the grip test situation was much more personal and represented success in an area I normally don’t pay attention to. Plus I learned two things. One: I can pride myself on the smallest triviality. Two: I’m glad we don’t measure strength in our gym classes with the bench press.
Harvard, Leadership through Dedication
To me, leadership does not necessarily mean accumulating as many titles as possible in school activities; I feel one leads through his dedication, actions, and contributions. I have always tried to lead in almost everything I set out to do. I feel I have been successful at that. Superficially, I have earned such titles as president of the National Honor Society chapter at my school, Editor-in-Chief, columnist, Investigative Editor, and Editorial Editor of the school newspaper, senior varsity leader in debate, and a Class Representative for Student Council. However, those titles don’t begin to tell the story of my abilities as a leader. They don’t reveal how I volunteered to help out at a handicapped lock-in at an unfamiliar youth center when no one else wanted to, they don’t reveal how I always sought to be on time for work and to avoid boondoggling, they don’t reveal how I aided younger debaters with their argumentation so they can have the same success I was lucky enough to enjoy, they don’t reveal how I became a role model for the JETS squad by studying my material often, eventually becoming the most medaled member on the team, and they don’t reveal all the effort I put into learning my lines and acquiring a good stage presence for Images, my first stage production ever, so I wouldn’t single-handedly jeopardize the whole show with my lack of experience. All those actions stress the quality I feel is most important in a leader, dedication. With dedication comes hard work and the ability to seek out solutions when problems get in the way, whether they are with a news page layout or in a student’s diction. Because of this dedication, taking charge is second nature for me. People are always willing to follow one with a clear sense of direction.
Harvard, Close-knit family
I don’t view my important characteristics as different from those my family has imparted on me throughout the years. The pride, care, dedication, effort, and hard-working attitude that I view as critical to any success I may achieve have all descended upon me courtesy of my close-knit, Italian family.
Born the child of two immigrants who came here with nothing, only one possessing a college degree, the importance of a good work ethic was stressed by my parents from day one. Through their actions in their jobs and through the verbal lessons on life I began to get from the moment I could communicate, they set an example for me to follow, one of being proud of what I do, no matter what it was, and above all, to care about everything I do as if everything had a big impact. This meant that everything had to be done right and be done well. Undoubtedly, following their own advice carried my parents from their status as blue-collar immigrants who labored as a factory workers to white-collar citizens, one of whom owns his own business while the other works as a bank officer. Those ascensions from nothing only served as other examples for me to follow, examples that delineated the ability for a person to improve through effort.
Another quotation from my father propelled me from the time I started school to today: “No matter what you do, you have to be the best.” This set up the inner drive that motivates all my actions. It was what forced me to try hard in school although I didn’t know English well enough to always understand the teacher. It’s the reason why I have developed my skills. It accounts for my dedication to all activities, and to the hard work I put into all of them as I strive to lead both in class and out. Essentially, my parentage was the first quality that distinguished me as a leader.
Despite all the talk of being a leader, I have never lost sight of the importance of my family. I know I owe my family everything, and as a result, I’ll always be close with it.
I pursue a variety of activities for fun and relaxation. I enjoy reading books and magazines (my tastes range from Time to Gentlemen’s Quarterly) on a regular basis, imitating Beavis and Butt-head, and most of all, spending time with my friends. Although I am fan of playing pick-up games of basketball, football, and roller hockey, the phrase “doing nothing with my time” doesn’t bother me since I can have a good time just hanging around. I think people, not places, make for a good time.
Harvard, Social Concerns
My major social concerns all revolve around the future. In other words, I’m concerned about what prevents people from rising above their disadvantages. Specifically, I am most concerned with the handicapped, education, and crime.
I feel society’s response to handicaps is what really hampers the potential of the disabled. It is important for the disabled to get a better sense of worth and to be able to adapt to, and survive in, today’s world. Through National Honor Society (NHS), I have done just that. I have helped out at a lock-in that was designed to foster interaction among the children of the organization, as well as at Special Olympics, where the children participate in sports on a competitive basis so their talents and abilities can be recognized. Whenever the disabled can be successful at an activity, the barrier between them and the rest of society is drastically reduced.
Education is key to other problems such as gangs, drugs, and crime because it can prevent and eliminate them. I try to get students in our school to maximize their opportunities by using the educational resources available. By setting up a tutoring program through NHS, I have matched up needy students with other students who can assist them with their problems in classes. More directly, I help students out with English and show them how to use the Writing Center Lab, an indispensable resource for English students at any level. The more educated a person is, I believe, the more able he is to be successful in the future.
I have dealt with criminal problems in my school by discussing solutions to gangs and other crime in the Student Advisory Committee. We have drafted several proposals to help reduce those problems in our school.
Educating people about such social concerns is also very crucial because they won’t fix what they don’t think is broken. That is one objective of our newspaper, in which we have written various editorials and news stories to educate the student body on social topics. Through debate, I myself have become knowledgeable on such topics as the homeless, poverty, health care, and the environment. That way I can practice what I preach.
Harvard is notorious for its long list of essay questions, as you can see from the seven essays this applicant had to write. The first essay is a standard favorite book essay. His second, about his favorite teacher, goes into more depth and reveals more about the candidate, that he enjoys learning, admires independent thought, and plans to study history.
The third essay in this set stands out from the rest. Had the panel who were grading the compositions understood the context of this essay in light of the six others in the set, they probably would have given it more credit. Its strength lies in its funny, lighthearted approach-it shows a completely different aspect of the candidate’s personality. Without it, he would have appeared deadpan serious and probably a bit dull. However, showing the wittier side of himself strengthens the set considerably. It is a good example of allowing yourself to take a risk in one essay, as long as more serious approaches in the others balance it.