College Admission Essay: Ten Great Essays to Inspire You (page 3)
If you need a spark plug to get your essay-writing engine going, browse through a few of these gems. None were written as college admission essays, but all display fine writing from a personal point of view — the goal of your admission essay.
Because they’re so good, these essays are anthologized in many collections. If you can’t find them in a general book of essays, check with the librarian in your school or public library for alternate publications.
In no particular order, here are ten great essays.
"Letter from Birmingham Jail" by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
One of the most eloquent essays of the modern civil rights movement, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written in 1963 during King’s incarceration for a non-violent protest. The essay is an answer to a plea from several white ministers in Birmingham, Alabama. The ministers asked the black community to call off protests against Birmingham’s segregated bus system, contending that the protests did more harm than good and that the black community should patiently seek justice through the courts. King explains clearly why patience, nearly a century after the end of the Civil War and emancipation of the slaves, is not the answer. As you read this essay, notice how King builds his argument, fact by fact, to an inescapable conclusion.
"Of Studies" by Francis Bacon
Okay, I admit that Francis Bacon is an old timer; he was born in 1561. And yes, he sounds old. But if you can pick your way through some strange spelling and punctuation, you’ll find a gem. Bacon’s technique is compression. He makes his points with a minimum of words; you almost feel as though you are reading a series of machine-gun bursts, each bearing a short but deep message. In fact, Bacon’s style is so concise that every sentence could be the topic of another essay. “Of Studies” discusses education — a topic close to the heart of all college applicants who are not completely fixated on keg parties.
"Mother Tongue" by Amy Tan
Novelist Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club) reflects upon the nature of language in this essay. Tan’s mother immigrated to the United States from China, and her English always reflected the grammar and usage of her first language, Chinese. Tan relates several incidents in which people respond differently to the same message delivered in her mother’s imperfect English and in Tan’s own college-educated speech. Tan’s weaving together of anecdotes and interpretation may serve as a model for your admission essay.
"The Search for Marvin Gardens"by John McPhee
This essay is one of my all-time favorites because of its strange but extremely effective structure. McPhee bases this piece on the fact that the properties in the original Monopoly game were named after places in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In the essay he constantly cuts between two separate stories — two players zooming through a series of Monopoly games and descriptions of the actual places that are bought or landed on during the games. The title comes from the one spot that McPhee can’t locate in Atlantic City. McPhee’s structure may stir your creativity; also notice the sparse but vivid details he chooses to create word pictures of each street.
"The Solace of Open Spaces" by Gretel Erhlich
Erhlich lives in Wyoming, a sparsely populated state. Her lyrical descriptions of the landscape are interspersed with short anecdotes about life in the “open spaces” of that state. Erhlich manages to show the reader how a physical setting can shape one’s personality and worldview. If you intend to write an admission essay focused on a place, check out this essay for a fine model.
"The Lives of a Cell" by Lewis Thomas
The scientifically-inclined may learn a lot from reading this essay by Lewis Thomas, a medical doctor and author. Thomas considers the basic unit of life, the cell, and wonders whether the cell serves as a model for the organization of human society, the universe, and other little things like that. Thomas builds his case by way of examples, which he labels “items.” The essay is a good model for students who want to write about highly technical subjects in a readable way.
"Eastern Middle School" by Thomas Friedman
Thomas Friedman, an award-winning columnist for my hometown paper, The New York Times, gained much respect after the September 11th attacks for his analysis of the United States’ relations with the Arab world. In this essay he describes an assembly at Eastern Middle School in Washington, D.C., in which children of many different racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds work together. Friedman uses the assembly description to respond to the perception, often stated by anti-American extremists, that American society has no values. Friedman concludes that our society values diversity and mutual respect and that those values are “hiding in plain sight.” As a New Yorker and an American, I was moved to tears by this essay. As an English teacher and a writer, I was impressed by his technique of describing an event and interpreting its meaning.
"The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" by Langston Hughes
One of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes is primarily known for his poetry. He also wrote essays, and this one, dating from the early 1920s, is terrific. Hughes focuses on the role and identity of an African American artist in an unjust, segregated society. He discusses the power of stereotypes and considers the obligations of an artist to counteract (or to ignore) those images. He concludes that an artist must be true to an interior, personal vision without worrying about how his work might be interpreted. The essay is a fine model for many reasons, but I’ll just point out one quality I admire and that you may want to adopt. Hughes knows who will object to his ideas and what the counter arguments will be. He acknowledges those points and provides a response. Great technique!
"On Lying in Bed" by G.K. Chesterton
How can you not love an essay that begins this way: “Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a coloured pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling.” Dynamite beginning, don’t you think? As you may have guessed from the spelling of “coloured,” Chesterton was British. Written in the early twentieth century, the essay points out that lying in bed is one of life’s pleasures. According to Chesterton, the simple things in life — such as lying in bed — should take precedence over other goals usually deemed more important. Agree with him or argue until your tongue dries up. Either way, Chesterton draws you into the subject with a great first sentence.
"On Keeping a Notebook" by Joan Didion
What do writers write in their notebooks? Author Joan Didion provides a ton of examples in her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook.” Then she goes on to interpret the significance of the items she jotted down. Her examples are not long-winded explanations but rather super-quick snapshots. Taken as a whole, they reveal the purpose of a writer’s notebook. To understand how to create a vivid scene in just a couple of lines, read this essay.
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