You Have a Story to Tell. Colleges Want to Hear It

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Scott Anderson, Contributor
Senior Director for Access and Education at The Common Application @commonapp

You Have a Story to Tell. Colleges Want to Hear It.

How did you spend your summer vacation? Maybe you took a class or went to a camp. Perhaps you did some community service. Or napped. (Admit it. You definitely napped.)

It’s also possible you worked–scooping ice cream, mowing lawns, busing tables, selling movie tickets, babysitting neighborhood children. If that sounds like your summer, you’re not alone–but your ranks are dwindling.

Since Memorial Day, at least two articles–one in Bloomberg, the other in Time–have explored the decline of the summer job among American teenagers. The Bloomberg article cited this statistic that would raise the eyebrows of any Gen Xer: “In July of last year, 43 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds were either working or looking for a job...In 1988 and 1989, the July labor force participation rate for teenagers nearly hit 70 percent.”

Both articles speculate on reasons for the drop in teen employment. One theory suggests that you and your peers are getting squeezed out by older workers remaining in the workplace for longer and immigrants seeking a foothold in the American workforce. Another hypothesis is that some of you are simply opting for something different–something that is tied to the calculus of college admissions.

The thinking goes like this: Extending the school year into the summer impresses through academic enrichment or acceleration. Community service at home and abroad conveys citizenship and cultural understanding. Athletic and extracurricular camps showcase ability and seriousness of intent. And together, these summertime pursuits create a compelling college application.

Is there merit in this pragmatic approach to summer? There certainly can be. To the extent that these activities reinforce who you are as a student and person, they help colleges understand you better. But that doesn’t mean that camps and academies and mission trips are preferable to a traditional summer job. Work teaches invaluable life lessons, and colleges understand this implicitly. And if you can articulate what you learned, all the better.

The point here is not that one type of summer experience–or even one type of extracurricular experience–is inherently better than another. It’s not. Everyone needs to choose the path that is right for them. But choice is a luxury that not all students have. For some of you, a summer job is a rite of passage. For others, it’s an economic necessity. And for this reason, it’s the responsibility of those of us who orchestrate the college application process to help you tell that part of your story. Put another way, it’s our job to help you see yourself in the application–because if you can’t see yourself in the application, it’s going to be harder for you to see yourself in college, especially if you will be the first person in your family to attend college.Wake up to the day's most important news.

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There’s a reason “paid work” is an option in the activities menu on the Common App. It’s because we know that juggling a part-time job can hold a significant place in your schedule or identity–or, for many of you, both. Working is inherently no more or less valuable than other activities you might report. But including it alongside more “traditional” activities like school clubs and athletics sends the message that work is just as valid and valued as any other pursuit. The same, incidentally, can be said for family responsibilities, another option within the activities menu; caring for siblings or older relatives while your parents are at work is an important obligation and time commitment that colleges want to know about.

The other section of the application that invites you to tell your story is, not surprisingly, the essay. Here again, it’s our responsibility to help you see yourself in the writing options available to you. To that end, we’ve revised the prompts for 2017-2018 in our continuing effort to make sure that they speak to the experiences and backgrounds of all students. If you want to write about a job you’ve had and its influence on you, you can. If you want to write about something else, you can do that too. We’re not just trying to help you write a personally meaningful essay. We’re trying to help you look at the prompts and realize, “Wow, these schools are genuinely interested in who I am as a person.”

Applying to college is a two-way street. We need to make sure we provide you with the opportunity and license to tell your story. You need to have the confidence that your story matters, because it does. Summer jobs and all.

The word limit on the essay will remain at 650.

The goal of these revisions is to help all applicants, regardless of background or access to counseling, see themselves and their stories within the prompts. They are designed to invite unencumbered discussions of character and community, identity, and aspiration. To this end, we will be creating new educational resources to help students both understand and approach the opportunities the essay presents for them.

2017-2018 Common Application Essay Prompts

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. [No change]

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? [Revised]

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]

4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. [No change]

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? [New]

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. [New]

The Art of Writing the College Essay

How to avoid the Big Mac syndrome

By Parke Muth

Fast food comes to mind when I read essays that are part of college applications. Almost all the applications I see contain “McEssays”-essays usually five paragraphs long that consist primarily of abstractions and unsupported generalizations. While technically accurate - they are organized and use correct grammar and proper spelling - they are basically the same, like Big Macs. I have nothing against Big Macs, but the ones I eat in Charlottesville are not going to differ from the ones I eat in Paris, Peoria, or Palm Springs. I am not going to rave about the quality of a particular Big Mac, and the same can be said about the generic essay.

If an essay starts, “I have been a member of the soccer team, and it has taught me leadership, perseverance, and hard work,” I can almost recite the rest of the essay without reading it. Each of the three middle paragraphs will give a bit of support to an abstraction, and the final paragraph will restate what has already been said. A McEssay isn’t wrong, but it’s not going to be a positive factor in an admission decision.

A student who uses vague abstractions poured into a preset form will end up being interpreted as a vague series of abstractions. A student who uses a cliché becomes a cliché to admissions officers. We are what we eat; we are also what we write.

A preset form leads to a generic essay, and so does a generic approach to what’s perceived as the right topic. Too many students begin the search for what to write about by asking, “What goes my college want to hear?” The thinking goes: If I can figure out what they are looking for, and if I can make myself look like that, then I’ll improve my chances.

Several years ago, the University of Virginia, where I work, asked students to describe an invention or creation from the past that was important to them. The No. 1 response - from at least a thousand people- was the Declaration of Independence. This fact might make some people think that our college bound students are wonderfully patriotic, but since the institution where I work was founded by Thomas Jefferson, I have a more realistic answer. Many students chose the declaration because they thought that my colleagues and I would want to hear about how much they admired Thomas Jefferson. Whether this was a noble sentiment or a cynical maneuver, it meant that the university received a thousand essays that sounded pretty much alike and had virtually no positive bearing on the admission decision. Virginia is not looking for students who all think the same way, believe the same thing, or write the same essay.

The bad. Too often, students who want to avoid writing in a generic form or about a generic topic choose exactly the wrong remedy. They think that bigger topics – or bigger words - are better. But it is almost impossible, in a standard-length essay of 500 words, to write well about a vast topic: death, religion, politics, whatever. I am not advocating longer essays (remember how many applications admissions officers have to read); I am advocating essays with a tight focus and specific use of detail. In the world of admissions it is not God but the applicant who exists in the details.

Unfortunately, instead of detail, students try to impress colleges with big words. In trying to make feeding the homeless sound intellectual in the excerpted bad essay (box, page 50), the student resorted to a thesaurus and sounds pretentious. The act of helping the poor is hidden behind a wall of fancy words. The student assumed that these words would intensify the reader’s experience, but they diminish it. Any hope of hearing the student’s voice is lost because of a misguided attempt to sound smart.

The good. A good essay is not good because of the topic, though that can help, but because of the student’s voice as a writer. A good writer can make almost any topic interesting. A poor writer can make even the most dramatic topic boring. A good essay always shows: a poor essay virtually always tells. By showing, a writer appeals to all of the senses, not just the visual. To show means to provide an assortment for the eyes, ears, and depending on the essay, the mouth, nose, or skin.

The student whose essay appears in the box as an example of the good has risked describing - showing in detail - the deterioration of her father as he is treated for cancer. I do not know of a single member of Virginia’s admissions staff who was not affected by this essay. The writer carefully noticed everything that was happening to her father. She opens with the sound of his coughing and then creates a scene that we can see clearly. Writing about death and sickness is one of the most difficult topics to tackle in a college essay. Almost impossible, as I said above. But here is an example of good writing that also conveys the writer’s courage to face a terrible situation head - on with intellect and power.

A writer who shows respects the intelligence of the reader; a writer who tells focuses on the ideas, or the perceived ideas, behind the details. The latter is often more concerned about demonstrating the ability to be abstract than the capacity to be precise. In a short, personal essay, however, precision is power.

The risky. Any student who has learned the basics of showing should think about taking a risk on the college essay. What kind of risk? Think about starting an essay with: “I sat in the back of the police car.” Or, as in the example of the risky: “The woman wanted breasts.” These topic sentences reach out from the page and grab our attention. They create a bit of controversy and an exception that the writer might be willing to take academic risks in the classroom. That does not mean a good essay necessarily follows, but it does mean that a reader can look forward to what will unfold.

Students wonder if they will be penalized if they take a risk in an application. They want to know if there is any risk in taking a risk. Of course there is. A risky essay might border on the offensive. In some cases, as in the excerpt, it is possible that a few readers might write off an applicant because of his or her questionable taste. But in my experience, the majority of admissions officers are open-minded. Erring on the side of the baroque might not be as bad as staying in the zone of the boring. Those who are willing to take the risk in their essay, to focus tightly on a topic, and to show readers a world through striking detail will certainly help their chances of admission.


The Bad

It was an overcast October day in East Houston, my hometown. My companions and I were on a trip to ameliorate the vile condition of indigents of our city at a soup kitchen. We arrived at approximately 11 o clock in the morning, at which time I was forever changed. Like many of my classmates, I had developed a disposition of benign neglect toward the impecunious; however, the unprepossessing visages I saw that day profoundly altered my attitude. Prior to that day I had taken things for granted, but their pensive countenances awakened my sense of appreciation.

The Good

The coughing came first, the hacking in the middle of the night. Then there were the multiple doctor visits, each one the same: the little white rooms with magazines where I tried not to stare at the bald, gaunt woman across from me. One of the white coats finally said something, steadily, fore casting an 80 percent chance of rain. The list of second opinions grew too long to count, looking for someone to say the right thing. Finally, there was relief in hearing the name of a kinder killer: lymphoma.

The Risky

The woman wanted breasts. She had fame waiting on her like a slave, money dripping from her fingertips, and men diving into her very being. Yet she wanted breasts because the world wanted her to have a bust. She looked at the big black-and-white glossy of herself arching on a silken carpet and knew that the world would be satisfied with her airbrush deception.

This woman is us. My family has been in existence for nearly 20 years now, and we are aging and losing our own breasts and tight face - the giddy happiness of a child’s unconditional love for his family, the young family’s need for each other. Yet we are constantly pressured by society’s family icons into compromising our change and age instead of accepting it.

Parke Muth is an assistant dean of admission at the University of Virginia.

College Essays
You Be the Judge

Read the following application essay. See if you can figure out this essay's strengths and weaknesses. Then keep reading to see our critique.

The Essay

My most important experience sought me out. It happened to me; I didn't cause it.

My preferred companions are books or music or pen and paper. I have only a small circle of close friends, few of whom get along together. They could easily be counted "misfits." To be plain, I found it quite easy to doubt my ability to have any sort of "close relationship."

After the closing festivities of Andover Summer School this past summer, on the night before we were scheduled to leave, a girl I had met during the program's course approached me. She came to my room and sat down on my bed and announced that she was debating with herself whether she wanted me to become her boyfriend. She wanted my reaction, my opinion.

I was startled, to say the least, and frightened. I instantly said, "No." I told her I on no account wanted this and that I would reject any gestures she made towards starting a relationship. I would ignore her entirely, if need be. I explained that I was a coward. I wanted nothing whatsoever to do with a relationship. I talked a lot and very fast.

To my surprise, she did not leave instantly. Instead, she hugged her knees and rocked back and forth on my bed. I watched her from across the room. She rocked, and I watched. Doubts crept up on me. Opportunity had knocked and the door was still locked. It might soon depart.

"I lied," I said. "I was afraid of what might happen if we became involved. But it's better to take the chance than to be afraid."

She told me she knew I had lied. I had made her realize, though, how much she actually wanted me to be her boyfriend. We decided to keep up a relationship after Andover.

Even then, I was not sure which had been the lie. Now I think that everything I said may have been true when I said it. But I'm still not sure.

I learned, that night, that I could be close to someone. I also realize, now, that it doesn't matter whether or not that person is a misfit; the only important thing is the feeling, the closeness, the connection. As long as there is something between two people — friendship, love, shared interests, whatever else — it is a sign that there can be some reconciliation with fear, some "fit" for misfits. And it shows that fear need not always win, that we can grow and change, and even have second chances.

I am still seeing her.

The Critique

Admission officials consider how you write your essay, not just what you write about. Try to critique your own essays in the same way this sample essay is critiqued below.

The Introduction

The introduction is brief and memorable. The reader is drawn into the rest of the essay.

The Body

The second paragraph shows that the essay has a clear focus: his anxiety about relationships. The next two paragraphs use a style that is simple and direct. They employ short sentences and simple words to tell a simple story.

We see that he is thoughtful by the way he narrates the next several paragraphs. The story of his conversation with a girl is a way for the writer to show us about himself — that he's conservative and shy but willing to take a risk.

The Conclusion

He concludes with a strong summary paragraph and end sentence. Like his introduction, his ending is simple yet memorable.


Boyfriends and girlfriends can be risky essay topics. However, this writer skillfully employs the story of the beginning of a relationship to illustrate a larger point — the power of love to overcome fear.

This essay enriches an application full of academic achievements, scores and grades. It's definitely not something found elsewhere in the application. It's short and to the point. It's interesting because it's believable.

Adapted from The College Application Essay by Sarah Myers McGinty.

College Essays
What does the Admissions Committee look for in a successful essay? It’s one of our most commonly asked questions.

Since the essay is an important part of the application process, the Admissions Committee has selected examples of essays that worked, written by members of the Johns Hopkins Class of 2017. These selections represent just a few examples of essays we found impressive and helpful during the past admissions cycle.

These “essays that worked” are distinct and unique to the individual writer; however, each of them assisted the admissions reader in learning more about the student beyond the transcripts and activity sheets. We hope these essays inspire you as you prepare to compose your own personal statements. The most important thing to remember is to be original and creative as you share your own story with us.

The Unathletic Department—Meghan

A blue seventh place athletic ribbon hangs from my mantel. Every day, as I walk into my living room, the award mockingly congratulates me as I smile. Ironically, the blue seventh place ribbon resembles the first place ribbon in color; so, if I just cover up the tip of the seven, I may convince myself that I championed the fourth heat. But, I never dare to wipe away the memory of my seventh place swim; I need that daily reminder of my imperfection. I need that seventh place.

Two years ago, I joined the no-cut swim team. That winter, my coach unexpectedly assigned me to swim the 500 freestyle. After stressing for hours about swimming 20 laps in a competition, I mounted the blocks, took my mark, and swam. Around lap 14, I looked around at the other lanes and did not see anyone. “I must be winning!” I thought to myself. However, as I finally completed my race and lifted my arms up in victory to the eager applause of the fans, I looked up at the score board. I had finished my race in last place. In fact, I left the pool two minutes after the second-to-last competitor, who now stood with her friends, wearing all her clothes.

The blue for the first loser went to me.

However, as I walked back to my team, carrying the seventh place blue, listening to the splash of the new event’s swimmers, I could not help but smile. I could smile because despite my loss, life continued; the next event began. I realized that I could accept this failure, because I should not take everything in life so seriously. Why should I not laugh at the image of myself, raising my arms up in victory only to have finished last? I certainly did not challenge the school record, but that did not mean I could not enjoy the swim.

So, the blue seventh place ribbon sits there, on my mantel, for the world to see. I feel no shame in that. In fact, my memorable 20 laps mean more to me than an award because over time, the blue of the seventh place ribbon fades, and I become more colorful by embracing my imperfections and gaining resilience-but not athleticism.

“The first thing that stands out about this essay is the catchy title, which effectively sets up an essay that is charmingly self-deprecating. The author goes on to use subtle humor throughout the essay to highlight one of her weaknesses but at the same time reveals how she turned what some might have considered a negative event into a positive learning experience. Not only is this essay well-written and enjoyable to read, but it reveals some important personal qualities about the author that we might not have learned about her through other components of her application. We get a glimpse of how she constructively deals with challenge and failure, which is sure to be a useful life skill she will need in the real world, starting with her four years in college.”

—Senior Assistant Director Janice Heitsenrether

The Musketeer in Me—Vikas

One fundamental rule of reincarnation is that you do not know your past life. Well, it seems as though I broke that rule. In fact, I am absolutely certain that my past reincarnation was none other than d’Artagnan, the fourth musketeer.

Knowing that is a gift. It makes the arduous process of describing the entirety of my personality in 500 words or less, possible. I can simply toss Alexandre Dumas’ biographical recount of my past life and say, “That’s me,” and those two words would mean everything. They make me that noble and heroic Gasconian that set out to Paris with nothing more than a yellow, hairless pony and a dream of grandeur.

Alas, times have changed. The Musketeers, dueling, and horses, they have all become relics of the past. A new era and new circumstances bring a different life. Now, I am a first generation, 17-year-old American living in Jersey. My yellow, hairless horse is an old, squeaky Toyota Camry: its modern equivalent. My stunning silver-gilded rapier and armour have been replaced by a BIC pen and legal pad.

However, all those changes are superficial. Inside, I still dream of the same grandeur. I dream, with every fiber of my body, that one day I will become a Newtonian giant holding a Nobel Prize. That one day I will support the innovation and ingenuity that fuels our evolving world. The only challenge is that there are millions of people that share the same dream as me, so what makes me different?

Well, even if the shell of who I am has changed, I am still d’Artagnan at heart. That means being young, foolish, and audacious all at the same time. With pride, I charge first and then think second, knowing that my intuition and passions will forge my path. With conviction, I duel my enemies under the slightest provocation (as long as you consider a pen a weapon). The result is that I’ve been beaten to the ground an ungodly number of times. But, from those moments, I learned the most. And, in those adventures, where I got bruised and battered, I had friends that brought to life “All for one and one for all.”

Yet, the greatest part of being d’Artagnan that I believe in myself to the point that I believe in something larger than myself. I believe in the people around me, my community, my country, and even the world. And I believe every day is going to be better than the one before it.

So, when times like these come, being d’Artagnan makes me strong. The following months are going to change everything. My town. My home. My friends. Everything is going to become college and that proposition is as equally frightening as it is exhilarating. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. Yet, with all those changes, being d’Artagnan is my constant. It is what is going to help me not only overcome the challenges brewing in the future, but also excel. And, if the past is any indication of the future, then the Nobel Prize already has my name written on it.

“This essay was clever, humorous, and gave insight into the writer’s personality. He effectively used a fictional character as a way to talk about himself; this overcomes a common mistake I see in essays where applicants don’t make a strong connection between themselves and the character they are writing about. From the essay, I was able to get a sense about how he handles challenges, his ambition, and how he is as a friend. These are all important aspects that we look for in an application. His voice was clear in his writing, gave me the sense that I knew him, and made the essay memorable.”

—Assistant Director Patrick Salmon


I was born in the wrong century.

A combination of an avant-garde homeschooling education and liberal parents produced an inquisitive child who dreamt of versatility. I want to be an Aristotle, a Newton, or, if nothing else, an engineer who can perform titrations and analyze works by Rand or Fitzgerald.

Growing up in Miami, Florida, a mecca for diversity, I’ve seen interests and talents splattered across the entire spectrum. Sports coaches who write computer code after practice, cross country runners who dabble in cancer research and community service management, these were the people who influenced my upbringing. From these inspirations, I’ve crafted an ideal for my future, one where I can play a few varied roles, yet play them well. But I am atypical too. A water skier who spends mornings in the Everglades with my camera, and flies remote airplanes on the weekends.

I know I’ll have to find the right focus, eventually. But first, I’ll figure out what I love. There will be dozens of internal debates over my interests. I’ll deliberate and dispute, unsure of whether I truly love what I’m doing, hesitant about whether this is what I want to be doing five years from now. But it doesn't matter; it’s part of the process. When I find what I want to study, I’ll know. If I were a wonder of the world, I’d be the Great Pyramid. Starting broad, before refining myself to a point, I think Maslow would’ve approved.

“What stood out to me about Daniel’s major essay was that, while he applied undecided, he still crafted a really well written essay about his interests. Daniel writes about how his upbringing and where he’s from has led him to be inquisitive and explore a range of interests. He does a great job of tying it all into using his academic experience at Hopkins to pinpoint what exactly it is that he wants to study in the future.” 
—Admissions Counselor Monique Hyppolite


Ten years ago, I was a spy.

Secret identities, awesome spy gadgets and undercover operations consumed my imagination. This was serious business and l took training seriously.

My brother was Public Enemy No.1. He’d come home and I’d use Mission Impossible stealth moves to follow him everywhere. I’d pick his bedroom door with a nail file and steal his allowance. I’d climb the tree outside his window and take reconnaissance photos.

The proudest moment of my young espionage career was Operation Secret Crate. One Saturday afternoon, Mom drove up with my brother and his friends, who were coming over to play Grand Theft Auto, make stupid jokes and eat junk food. My mission: eavesdrop.

My high-tech tool was a plastic moving crate, two and a half feet square, forgotten behind the living room couch. It had eye-holes big enough for an intrepid spy.

I was small and flexible, but fitting inside that crate was a stretch. Still, the mission was on. Quick jumping jacks and toe touches to loosen the limbs. Squat, knees to chest, crate over head...

Slam! The boys banged through the front door and swarmed onto the couch. Peering out I saw tennis shoes and hairy ankles. My heart thumped so loud I worried it would overpower their excited voices and the hum of the X-Box. The smell of Pizza Hut cheese sticks was in the air.

The moment of truth. Would they notice the girl crouched in the crate inches away?

One minute. Five minutes. Ten minutes. They didn’t notice! Fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes. Still safe. Thirty minutes. I realized the flaw in my plan. I might learn their secrets, but my body was so contorted and aching that soon I might never walk again.

Something had to be done. Something bold, drastic, unthinkable.


I shouted at the top of my lungs, flung the crate off me and jumped onto the couch. They all screamed. The cheese sticks went flying. The coke spilled. My brother, for once, had nothing to say.

Elana, girl of mystery, strikes, I said. Be warned.

I strutted out of the living room.

Since those first spy trainings, I’ve never stopped preparing for a future clandestine career. I’ve cracked codes in computer science and cracked jokes with a CIA operative. I’ve slogged through 10k of mud at the Camp Pendleton mud run and four years of Chinese in high school. I’ve flown planes with the Civil Air Patrol in Santa Monica and beat drums with Sudanese refugees in Tel-Aviv. I have launched a rocket, administered CPR, operated ham radios, set a broken arm and helped a rescue team look for a downed plane.

I could end up as a spy, a diplomat, a soldier, an astronaut, or a fighter for a lost cause. I could end up famous or completely unknown. I know two things for sure: I won’t be at a desk job, and I’ll be good to have around when there’s trouble.

“I like this essay because you really get to see the adventurous side of Elana, an intangible quality that cannot be seen in her transcript, test scores, or list of activities. By telling a story from her youth and connecting it to current activities and personal qualities, her sense of humor shines through and lets the reader know she is not afraid to take risks. After reading this essay, I saw her as someone who would make a difference on our campus, someone who wouldn’t hesitate to get involved and try something new. She seemed like a great fit for Hopkins.”

—Associate Director Shannon Miller

Its Name was Ozzie—Agni

Its name was Ozzie. Ozzie stood two feet tall, glistening, and scraping his feet against the ground with the bullish determination to work. We filled Ozzie up. He swooshed, growled, slurped, and gurgled. Just as Ozzie was about to reach the finish line, he collapsed in a panting mess.

I looked down.

That night I received a call from my research partner, M. “We need these readings,” he sighed.

“I know. But the bulb of the university’s Ostwald viscometer broke during our readings.”

“We have no choice,” M’s voice dropped after a few minutes, “let’s fudge the biodiesel readings.”

I knew this wasn’t M. We had overcome numerous obstacles during our research, yet this one was magnified by the time constraint upon us. The journal’s submission deadline was only a week away.

I paused.

Sensing my silence M said, “You find us a better idea then.” The line went dead.

M had helped us overcome obstacles during our research in the past. It was my turn to step up.

It is difficult to move an object from a dead stop: especially if that object is your brain. Finally, I got it. I called up our professor to tell him my idea. My suggestion was to assemble a team of four undergraduate students at the university, who would work on repairing the Ostwald viscometer (Ozzie) in between classes. In the meanwhile, we would work on synthesizing fuel samples for the tests.

The ensuing week could be classified as ‘Hell Week’, characterized by a search for disposed chicken and pork skins, 14 hour lab days, and holding beakers for hours with only energy drinks to fuel us.

We also had the mission of motivating the undergraduate students to work on repairing Ozzie. They could easily have lost their interest with their other priorities. We encouraged them by getting to know them on a personal level, taking them to late night dinners at KFC, and playing 2-on-2 basketball with them during tea break.

I was constantly aware of the risk I had put in the faith that they would stay focused, as repairing an Ostwald viscometer for two high school students was not getting them any university credits, but they connected to our mission in finding a sustainable fuel, and to us. Colonel Sanders’ recipe could’ve helped us too.

Slap! We high-fived once we finished synthesizing the samples. We hugged the undergraduates when they had finished repairing Ozzie’s bulb.

Placing this small event in a large spectrum, I learned the basic values that research is founded upon: building bridges, team work and valuing academic integrity above the pressure to submit papers. This experience showed me that there are always resources available to solve a problem as long as you are creative. Even against a deadline that makes you question your academic ethics, one must consider the impact correct results may have on the academic community.

In our case, fabricating the fuel’s readings would not only affect our search to find a viable solution to the production of a sustainable fuel in the future, but also it would be against the spirit of experimentation and failure in science. The end result of a choice we made now awaited us. Tension tingled my fingertips. It was time…

Its name was Ozzie. He slurped, burped, bubbled and crossed the finish line. There were our readings.

I looked up.

“The author does a good job of pulling the reader in from the very beginning by recounting a scenario that at first seems like it might have had a catastrophic outcome. As we read on, we learn that the author, along with his research partners, was able to tap into his resourcefulness and determination to overcome an obstacle. Along the way, the author reveals not only the logistical challenges his team encountered, but also the ethical dilemma they had to consider. A big part of the work we do as admissions counselors is to find a student who will excel academically at JHU and who will also be a good community member. This essay gives us real insight into how this student will confront academic challenges in college, as well as his potential to be an effective team member and leader.”

—Senior Assistant Director Janice Heitsenrether

College Application Essay Titles

Learn Why You Should Have a Title and What Makes a Title Work

By Allen Grove
College Admissions Expert

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I've seen a lot of college application essays, and I'm continually surprised by how many don't have titles. When I comment on this fact, applicants frequently ask why they need a title. After all, it's just an application essay, not a short story or novel.

First off, "just an application essay"?! I don't want to exaggerate too much, but those 600 words play a big role in the rest of your life. Is your essay about something? Do you want your reader to know what it's about? If so, your essay needs a title.

  • How to Get into College

Ask yourself which work you'd be more excited to read: "The Casque of Amontillado" or "Some Random Story by Edgar Allan Poe That's About Something that You'll Figure Out After You Read It." I can't speak for you, but I find the first option more appealing. If you don't provide a title, you don't give your reader any reason to be interested in beginning your essay other than a sense of duty. Make sure the college admissions folks are motivated to read your essay by curiosity, not by the necessity of their assigned drudge work.

The Purpose of a Title:

We've established that you need a title. But what makes a title effective? First off, think about the purpose of a title:

  1. A good title should grab your reader's attention.

  2. Related to #1, a title should make your reader want to read your essay.

  3. The title should provide a sense of what your essay is about.

When it comes to #3, realize that you don't need to be too detailed. Academic essays often have titles that look like this: "Julia Cameron's Photography: A Study of the Use of Long Shutter Speeds to Create Spiritual Effects." For an application essay, such a title would come across as over-written, pompous, and ridiculous: "Allen Grove's Trip to Costa Rica and How It Changed His Attitude Towards Biodiversity and Sustainability." After reading such a long and belabored title, I don't feel like I need to read the actual essay.

Sample Good Titles:

In general, there are no concrete rules for titles. Good titles can take a variety of forms:

  • A good title can be clever or play with words. See, for example, Porkopolis by Felicity or Buck Up by Jill. Porkopolis is a nonsense word, but it works well for an essay on becoming a vegetarian in a meat-centric world, and "Buck Up" employs both a literal and figurative meaning of the phrase. As you'll read below, however, don't try to be too clever. Such efforts can backfire.

  • A title can be provocative like Eating Eyeballs by Lora. If your essay focuses on a humorous, shocking or embarrassing moment in your life, it's often easy to write an attention-grabbing title. Titles such as "Puking on the President," "Romeo's Ripped Tights," and "The Wrong Goal" are sure to peek your reader's interest.

  • An essay title can be concise and straight-forward. Don't feel that you need great wit and alliteration in your title. Simple and direct language can be quite effective. Consider, for example, The Job I Should Have Quit by Drew and Wallflower by Eileen.

In all of these cases, the title has provided at least a partial sense of the essay's subject matter, and each has motivated the reader to continue reading. What the heck does "Porkopolis" mean? Why did you eat eyeballs? Why should you have quit your job?

Title Mistakes:

There are some common missteps that applicants make when it comes to titles. Be aware of these pitfalls:

  • Vague language. You'll be off to a remarkably bland start if your essay is titled "Three Things That Matter to Me" or "A Bad Experience." "Bad" (or "good" or "evil or "nice") is a painfully subjective and meaningless word, and the word "things" might have worked well in Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," but it rarely adds anything of value to your essay. Be precise, not vague.

  • Broad, overly general language. This is a continuation of the vague language problem. Some titles try to cover far too much. You don't want to call your essay "My Life Story" or "My Personal Growth" or "An Eventful Upbringing." Such titles suggest that you are going to attempt to narrate years of your life in a few hundred words. Any such effort is doomed to failure, and your reader will be doubting your essay before beginning the first paragraph.

  • Overblown vocabulary. The best essays use clear and accessible language. When a writer attempts to sound intelligent by adding unnecessary syllables to every word, the reading experience is often torturous. When an essay's title is "My Utilization of Erroneous Rationalizations During My Pupilage," the reader's immediate response is going to be pure dread. No one wants to read 600 words of that garbage.

  • Strained cleverness. Be careful if you're relying on wordplay in your title. Not all readers are fans of puns, and a title may sound ridiculous if the reader doesn't understand a supposedly clever allusion. Cleverness is a good thing, but test out your title on your acquaintances to make sure it works.

  • Clichés. If your title relies on a cliché, you're suggesting that the experience that you are narrating is unremarkable and commonplace. You don't want the first impression of your essay to be that you have nothing original to say. So if you find yourself writing "When the Cat Got My Tongue" or "Burning the Midnight Oil," stop yourself and reevaluate your title.

  • Misspellings. Finally, nothing is more embarrassing than a misspelled title. There, at the top of the page in bold letters, you've used the word "it's" instead of "its," or you wrote about "patients" instead of "patience." We all make these mistakes, but take extra care with your application essay. An error in the title is a sure way to eliminate any confidence your reader has in your writing ability.

A final word: Many writers -- both novices and experts -- have a difficult time coming up with a title that works well. Don't hesitate to write your essay first and then, once your ideas have truly taken shape, go back and craft the title. Also, don't hesitate to seek help with your title. A brainstorming session with friends can often generate far better titles than a solitary session of pounding your head on your keyboard.

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