College Essay Ideas that Worked

Three college essay ideas that worked

Learn from the example of these three stellar college essays

College Essay Ideas that Worked 

College Essay Examples to Guide Your Writing

Writing the essay can be daunting. By the time you reach senior year, when many application essays start their journey, there's a good chance you have little to no experience with the format of the personal essay. There are relatively few opportunities in high school English classes, where most writing practice takes place, to write essays that aren't analytically-oriented. 

For many, it can be helpful to read some examples of essays that worked. That in mind, we've put together a collection of winning college essays. They've been drawn from a number of sites and personal clients, and highlight what's good (and, in some cases, what could use more work) about the college essays. 

In every case, though, these essays illustrate the power of a compelling personal narrative - that is, of a story that's drawn from one's personal life and that focuses on an important detail, experience, or relationship. If nothing else, the three essays contained in this post are masterclasses in choosing your topic. (If you want to learn more about the importance of choosing your topic, check out our master post on the college essay or this blog post on common app topics.) 

First, however, a word on what makes a college essay great. 

What Makes a College Essay Great

Okay. So what makes an essay great? In a word, “strangeness.”

In a dictionary, the first entry for “strange” might be: unusual, extraordinary, or curious; odd; queer. A strange remark to make. Well, that’s not quite what we mean. Such a definition might suggest “strange” as a negative quality -- an unwelcome outlier. Rather, the definition we prefer is: outside of one's previous experience; hitherto unknown; unfamiliar. George Byron once observed that truth is always strange - stranger than fiction.

“Strangeness,” thus, is all about taking the reader on a trip through an unknown experience. You might ask, how can something about a subway ride to school or a pet goldfish be “strange” when the situation seems so ordinary? Because strangeness is all about the details. Let’s see what we mean with our first essay example. Read our annotations to get a sense of what this essay is doing well, and what they could work on more.

Essay: The Arroyo
Theme: Identity

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The first time I read this essay, my jaw dropped. The descriptive imagery partnered with the vulnerability of the narrative make for an extremely powerful one-two punch. It's hard to find fault with this essay. One of the key lessons to take from this, though, is that an incredibly resonant essay can come from a story that's light on explanation and heavy on tactile experience. 

Essay #2: Claire De Lune

Compared with the first essay, this one focuses more on the cerebral. It deals with themes of memory, shifting expectations, and self-acceptance. The essay highlights the discipline and drive of the writer to master one discreet piece of music.


What we love about this essay is its laser focus on a single piece of music, Clair de Lune, rather than on the entire process of learning to play the piano. This choice enables the writer to go deep into detail on the specific flourishes and embellishments of the one piece; in turn, he is able to share his passion and mastery of his instrument in the course of explaining a learning process. This essay highlights the writer's mastery of his craft, his passion for music, and his determination in a difficult learning process. Finally, it gives some valuable insight about the personal, mental growth of the writer on his quest to accept his own flaws. 

Essay #3: All You Have to Do is Look

This essay, similar to the first, focuses on one important figure in the writer's life. The main character, the mother, becomes a kind of reflecting pool for the narrator, who describes her own personal development vis-a-vis her mother. 

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Through the writer's exposition of her mother, we come to understand her (the writer's) values and developmental history. Because of how vulnerably the concrete details of the relationship are rendered, we gain a stake, as it were, in the narrator. If the best outcome of an admissions essay is that the writer becomes a three-dimensional person in the eyes of a committee, then this essay is an excellent example of that. 


These three essays are gleaming examples of a college essay. Each of them resulted in acceptances in the schools to which the writer's applied, and you can see why. Note how in each essay, the writer focuses on relatively normal experiences in his or her personal life. Especially powerful are those essays which take an important relationship as the basis of the narrative and show how that relationship affected their own development. 

Writing your own essay can be difficult, but it's possible to write one that is just as strong as any of these. For help brainstorming and writing, check out our master post on the college essay or our in-depth guide about the same. As always, don't hesitate to contact us at with any questions about anything mentioned here. 

Andrew Delman