In my last email, I introduced and gave a few writing tips for the leadership personal insight question for the University of California application. At the end of the email, I promised some examples of actual responses.
First, please note that for a good reason, I have chosen not to write these essays to the required UC word count. Why? There is the very real possibility that someone will copy the writing entirely and use it as an actual response. Or more likely, use this writing as a template. Neither case is desirable.
Recap of the essay prompt:
- Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
(Note: The following writing is completely my original writing based on composites of the hundreds of application essays I’ve read in the past decades.)
In tenth grade, I was president of the Latino Culture Club. There were about 20 members in the club, but most of them didn’t come very often. We met to discuss the unique aspects of our culture in the United States, and my job was to get more members and figure out ways to show our culture to others.
In the first week of the club, I was overwhelmed by what to do. It seemed like I had so much responsibility, but not much time. But I decided that the best way to get ahead and reach our goals was to use: teamwork.
As a team, we were not only stronger, but we had more ideas. Suddenly, people who kept to themselves spoke up. They seemed more excited about coming to meetings. And we also had many more suggestions about what to do. After this, one of the best suggestions came up, we should put on a talent show to show the different kinds of culture we had amongst ourselves. We decided to include singing, dancing, music, and traditional costumes that each performer could pick.
The talent show was a great success, and it could never have happened without harnessing the power of the team. It’s like a bundle of sticks—alone, each one is breakable. But together, they are unstoppable.
In ninth grade, I set a goal for myself: I wanted to increase the presence of the Latino Culture Club at my school—I wanted it to be one of the clubs people talked about and actually wanted to join because they enjoyed it, not because they felt like they were required to.
I initially joined the club because I wanted to share the beauty of Latino culture with others, and hopefully, even improve race relations at my school. We have a fairly balanced mix of races at my school, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that our opinions of each other are as fairly balanced. I believe that to some extent we all represent others who look like us and come from similar backgrounds, and if we can create favorable impressions of our cultures with others, we can help reduce the racial tension that plagues some areas of the US.
Running for president, I gave some short speeches and presentations, and my fellow club members seemed impressed. And then I launched my big plan: Pull off an event that the whole school would talk about.
We had dozens of suggestions, from a talent show to a “Cultural Awareness Day” to a flash mob-style performance in the cafeteria of a fusion of hiphop and Latino music. But in the end, we decided on a food festival with music; after all, if there’s anything that brings people together, it’s delicious food.
For several months, we planned and marketed. To create excitement for the event, we announced that we’d be giving out prizes for students who arrived early and for those who visited every table at the festival. I believe that any good leader is also in the trenches, so in addition to overseeing preparations, I was also planning for my table, which would showcase the Brazilian snack “kibe” (a Middle East-inspired mixture of beef and bulgar wheat that is fried and served with hot sauce). I decided to play “baile funk,” a style of dance music popular in clubs in Rio de Janeiro.
We encountered a number of obstacles and disagreements along the way, but nothing that logical discussion and decision-making couldn’t overcome. In the end, I couldn’t have been happier with the result—for the four hours of the event, I heard the laughter of the attendees amid the various types of music being played. While I cannot state with 100% certainty that our club succeeded in creating a positive image of Latino culture at our school, I can say without any hesitation that everybody who attended had a good time and left with tummy full of delicious food, all homemade and provided by us.
See the difference between the two examples? Although nearly the same events happen in both essays, the student in the second essay sounds much more impressive. Many students believe that they must encounter some completely unique hardship or invent the cure for some disease in order to "have something interesting to write about," but really, the events themselves are only half of the puzzle. As these essay examples have shown, the other half of an interesting essay lies in how well the essay is written. Good writing can make a conventionally boring event come alive, just as bad writing can make a dramatically gripping event seem dull.
The takeaway from all of this:
If you think you have a "boring" story, don't worry! You'll do fine as long as you are descriptive and really show your passion.
If you think you have a good story, that's great! But make sure you don't get complacent! A stellar writer with an everyday story easily outshines a mediocre writer with a "good" story.
Best of luck with your college admissions!
The essay is perhaps the most daunting part of college applications, alongside standardized tests. SATs and essays essentially act as bookends to the admissions process. While students will not be let in on their SAT or ACT scores alone, for many selective colleges these results function at least as a simple “sorting hat” that divides the possible admits from the merely hopeful. Similarly, while an outstanding personal essay will probably not overcome the weight of poor grades or lukewarm letters of recommendation, they help admission officers choose from among a surfeit of strong candidates.
They’re mattering a lot more. The percentage of all colleges, public and private, for which the essay is a significant factor in selectivity, has increased from 14% in 1993 to 25% in 2012, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling in its latest annual report. Inevitably, the more selective private institutions with their growing pools of high-performing applicants tend to review applications more holistically and, therefore, place the most emphasis on non-quantitative elements such as the personal statement.
Given the opaque but obviously significant role of personal essays in American applications, it is not surprising that a recent blog post that revealed essays written by students admitted to Columbia’s class of 2017 elicited the vitriolic response that it did. While some decried the release of these “sacred texts” and the public mockery of their young writers, others pointed to the banality, absorption and self-aggrandizement of the published examples.
Admission officers at highly selective institutions like Columbia are well aware of the skill, social breadth and intellectual depth they can reasonably expect from some of the world’s highest performing students. But they also remain deeply conscious that they are poring over the writings of high school children.
Meanwhile, a recent decision by the Common Application (the online application used by 400 universities) to radically overhaul the personal statement has once again highlighted the role of the essay in an American college application. Some counselors responded strongly to the new absence of an open-ended “topic of your choice,” while others sighed in relief on behalf of admission officers who will have fresh horizons of teenage angst to explore as questions change each year. Many others, including me, have pointed out that the new questions are effectively asking students to address the same essential ideas, and perhaps that is a good thing.
Inevitably, as admission officers slog through literally thousands of essays, they will continue to develop a personal catalog of the kind of essays that annoy, bore or simply leave the reader cold. In my own experience as a former Ivy League admission officer, the worst college essays tend to fall into definable categories within which they can be tagged by type. They leave the reader with questions about the creativity, good judgment and depth of the writer.
- The road less traveled is oddly crowded. The problem with countless essays about courageously traveling off the beaten path and boldly exploring new places is not that admission readers will doubt the students’ sincerity, but rather the fact that teenagers usually lack the perspective to know that notwithstanding their desire to be different, others have already arrived at the same places, explored the same worlds, and wrote essays about it.
- Poor but happy peasants. Summer trips and mission tours to exotic locales, both overseas and in the Deep South, have become grist for the college essays of both affluent Americans and their counterparts in countries like France and Singapore, where students still refer to their activities by blunt reference to “charity” work. However good their intentions, or those of the parents footing the big bills, these students’ essays often persuade readers that their experiences have been so sheltered that they return home with no deeper understanding of the impact of their unequal access to resources on those they went to serve.
- I have overcome. Many students apply to US colleges having struggled against and having overcome astonishing odds. Such inspirational accounts leave those who have lived happy, secure lives casting around, however, for a hook on which to hang their own stories of growth and change. Admission officers will not doubt the sting a teenager felt on being overlooked for the varsity captaincy or on scoring a poor grade, but they can and do expect bright 17-year-olds to take the relative measure of their suffering.
- Take me to your leader. Given their recruitment pitches, admission officers often have only themselves to blame when they are deluged by essays in which students treat leadership not as a process in which they participate and their hard work is reflected in the regard of their peers, but as a trophy to achieve and display on the mantle piece that is a college resume.
In contrast, admission officers will recall great essays in specific details. The teenager who sits on a Queens rooftop at night to ponder her city; the Boston boy who sees in the condition of his mother’s feet, her sacrifices on the factory floor on his behalf; the wannabe comic honing his skills in comedy clubs, usually with mixed success; the mathematician trying to describe the beauty he sees in Mandelbrot sets—these are essays I still remember because each offered a distinctive insight into the specific experience of an individual teenage life. But even the exceptional essays play a role only within a broader narrative that encompasses all the academic and social choices a student made throughout high school. They are the exclamation points to that story, not the centerpiece.
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