College Essay Examples: What Works, Why, and How - Do It Yourself College Rankings

College Essay Examples: What Works, Why, and How

(If you just want to see the list of college essay examples-keep scrolling to the table.) It’s easy for students to put off writing their essay for their college applications. After all, chances are that the most commonly requested essay, the personal statement, is something the student hasn’t had to do before. And it’s only natural that their first reaction leaves them feeling as if they couldn’t possibly provide an answer that wouldn’t sound contrived or pathetic. So they start looking for college essay examples to see what is expected and possibly for inspiration.

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College essay examples show that it can be done

It only makes sense and is obviously a smart thing to do. If you’ve seen how other people have done it, it offers reassurance that you can do it too. Furthermore, if you see college essay examples from people who were actually admitted to a college, that’s even better, right? These are successful essays, essays that actually worked!

There are actually plenty of examples of such essays and reading them can provide you with a sense of what constitutes a good essay. In some cases, the admission committee actually provides you with reasons why they considered the essay successful.

But they don’t show you how

Here’s the problem, it’s easy to spend a lot of time reading successful essays and not ever really figure out how to write your own. It’s certainly possible for students to find the spark to start their essays by reading successful college essays but probably not for the majority.

Girl looking at artwork representing students looking at college essay examplesThe situation is a lot like going to a museum and seeing famous paintings. You can see “What” is considered great art which you may or may not agree with. You can listen to museum docents explain “Why” the art is considered noteworthy and again, you may or may not agree with them. But does this mean you understand “How” to create a similar great piece of art?

Probably not.

I know we’re not talking about famous artwork here, students just want to be able to write a 550 word essay that will get them into the college of their choice. But I think the “How” is a critical factor that students need to keep in mind when looking at college essay samples.

Let me give you another example. I’ve recently taken up quilting and have started saving pictures of all of the amazing quilts I see online. But I’ve found just looking at quilts doesn’t tell me the best way to actually create it. Now I know some people can look at something like the quilt below and figure out that it’s based on a 9-patch block.

quilt representing students looking at college essay examples

And some can immediately jump to “How” to create it from strips but I wasn’t one of them. I’ve found having a pattern telling me “How” to do it to be extremely useful.

“How” is what you generally pay for

So as you start going through all of the college essay examples, I think it’s important to consider the “How” behind the essay. After all, these essays tend to be very personal by definition. Students aren’t going to be able to just somehow reproduce the essay with just changing the examples.

What they need to do is figure out “How” to create a similar essay.

hands exchanging money representing paying for help with college essaysThis doesn’t mean students can’t derive the critical elements and deduce the “How” for themselves. They’ll just need to do more than collect as many college essays that worked as possible.

Another thing to keep in mind is that just because someone got accepted by an extremely competitive college doesn’t mean that they know how to teach someone how to write a great essay. They might. But really, all we know for certain is that they were very good at expressing something personal that happen to make an impression on the admission committee at the time.

If you’re going to pay for help in crafting an essay, and it could be money well spent, make sure the person is ready to help you find your voice for the process.

“How” Tips aren’t a strategy

I’ve listed below resources for college essay samples as a starting point. For the most part, they show “What” are successful essays. A few also provide a brief explanation as to “Why” they are successful. I note when there is any useful information on “How” to create such an essay.

Unfortunately, most of the “Hows” are basic tips that any student who has contemplated writing a college essay has already heard before at least a half dozen times. I’m listing the tips here so I don’t have to repeat them later.

  • Show don’t Tell!
  • Multiple drafts!
  • Important to you
  • Don’t be funny if you aren’t
  • Don’t repeat any other part of your application
  • Proofread!
  • Don’t swallow a thesaurus!
  • Brainstorm
  • Organize
  • Know your prompt
  • Outline
  • Begin with a hook

When listing the resources, I’ll make note if a website offers something in terms of “How” that goes beyond this list.

College Essay Examples

College Essay Guy

If you only go to one resource, go to the College Essay Guy. Ethan Sawyer’s website is a treasure trove of college essay resources for students, counselors, teachers, and parents. Despite having a book you can buy as well as offering multiple courses on the topic, he provides plenty of free resources.

What: Twelve College Essay Examples That Worked
Why: Yes, in his Guide to Writing Personal Essay which includes 13 page PDF with worksheets and essay example of each of the 4 methods.
How: Yes, see above.

John Hopkins University

Of the essays posted by colleges, Johns Hopkins’ offers the most in the “Why” category. When reading what the committee liked about the essays, be sure to pay attention to the comments about what they thought the essay revealed about the student. One comment included “We not only get a good picture of his personality through his writing, but also what kind of student Curtis is—one who thinks across disciplines and has creative ambitions, and someone who wants to contribute to a community.” Yes, look for the attributes that made it personal and an essay that only the author could write.

What: Essays that Worked
Why: Yes
How: No


If you’re only going to visit two websites, ThoughtCo. is my second choice.  For each of the 7 Common App prompts, it provides at least one sample essay which includes a detailed analysis. The critique is broken-down by Title, Length, Topic, Weaknesses, and Overall Impression. Yeah, that detailed. They also provide a Tips and Strategies section for each prompt. I would say it goes beyond the normal tips I mentioned earlier but their usefulness will vary by student.

What: The 2020 Common Application Essay Prompts
Why: Yes
How: Yes

Tufts University

Tufts has posted 4 Common Application essays as well as some of their supplemental essays.

What: Common Application Personal Statement
Why:  No.
How: Just a general “5 Essay Writing Tips to Get You Through the Fall.”

Hamilton College

Offers essays from four different classes.

What: Essays that Worked
Why: No
How: No


Shmoop is definitely worth a visit. You’ll find a list of 20 applications grouped in categories such as No One Special, Minority, and Athlete. After each example college essay, there is a detailed explanation on why the essay works. While these aren’t actual “How” tips and strategies, I think they provide enough insight to be valuable to students trying to figure out how they’ll write their essays.

What: Examples of Awesome Personal Statements
Why: Yes
How: No

Shemmassian Academic Consulting

This has 8 essays from students admitted to the most competitive schools in the country. The page itself doesn’t offer any tips or analysis of the essays. However, if you take the time to give them your email you can download a 110 page guide to “How to Get into America’s Elite Colleges” that includes a detailed chapter on how to write the essays, a timeline and sample students’ essays. It may be geared for the elite schools, but the same principles apply to any college essay. Definitely worth downloading with the bonus of plenty of other valuable college admissions information.

What: Successful College Essay Examples From Top-25 Universities
Why: Yes
How: Yes

The Admissions Strategist

I was ready to blow off the post as another list of general tips although their bullet point approach to the common app questions makes for a nice contrast to CollegeVine’s.  But make sure you scroll down to “How to Use the Right Tone in Your Common App Essay” for a little more analysis of what doesn’t work and why. The website also includes Essay Guides to individual institutions such as Emory, Washington and Lee, Virginia Tech, and Boston College.

What: How to Write Powerful Common App Essays (2020-2021): A Complete Guide
Why: Yes
How: Yes


I’m suggesting C2education because of its College Essay Example #1 which shows an essay that works even though it is using a college cliché experts say to avoid-moving from a foreign country. The thing is, when something is cliché it’s because it’s true for some many and that makes it difficult to avoid. So I appreciate the example. The College Essay Guy’s formula is one way that you might be able to get a cliché to work for you.

What: Read These Top College Essay Examples
Why: Yes
How: No


Don’t look for in-depth help in how to write the general personal essay. CollegeVine’s strategy of brainstorm, organize, and write is just the basic advice most students receive from multiple sources. The real value in visiting the site is for the explanation of the prompts and examples of student responses. I do find the repeated use of “one of our consultants” tiring. Yes, they would really like to sell you their services. And if their analysis and examples resonate with you, maybe you will. But they should at least give you something to think about whether you agree with them or not. CollegeVine also has specific guides for selected colleges that can be useful in breaking down what the questions are asking.

What:  How to Write the Common Application Essays 2020-2021 (With Examples) Not full length
Why: Yes
How: No

Winning Ivy Prep

Yes, these are for a limited population (University of California) and are much shorter than the normal personal essay requirements. But if you’re looking for a quick example by category, this website is worth the visit. You can easily select the college essay example by essay number and type. Types include Basketball Coach, Talented Artist, and Caring for Disabled Patients.

What: 2020 Ultimate Guide: 20 UC Essay Examples
Why: No
How: No

Babson College

Only 4 samples but one includes a video option.

What: Babson Writing Supplement
Why: No
How: No

Connecticut College

14 example essays. If it helps, it shows the high school the author attended.

What: Essays that Worked
Why: No
How: No

St. John’s College

These are essays to consider for their unique prompt. And being a Great Book’s school, it shouldn’t surprise you that there is a word minimum instead of a maximum.

What: Great Essays from Past Years
Why: No
How: No

College Essay Examples: What Works, Why, and How